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From the end of the 1300s to the first half of the 1500s, a wave of cultural renewal began to spread across Europe. The center of this transformation is the city of Florence.

Florence: The awakening of Culture and Art

The term Renaissance means a real awakening of art and culture, fueled by the rediscovery of the splendor of the classical age. In Rome, sculptures and ancient buildings begin to be brought to light and collected, while the texts of Greek philosophers arrive in Florence from the East, where they are studied and copied, providing new inspiration to the artists and thinkers of the time. Dominated by a ruling class of wealthy bankers and merchants, the Tuscan city is one of the most prosperous and influential in Europe and presents the perfect conditions to welcome the beginning of this new historical course. Here, in fact, the most prominent families, corporations and the Church are willing to invest large sums of money for the development of the city. It is precisely within this context that the main actors of this renewed cultural impulse move: first of all we find the Medici family who slowly manages to put together a circle of writers, philosophers and artists so well nourished as to be worth in Florence the nickname of Novella Athens.

The Medici family: between politics and patronage

Cosimo de’ Medici, known as the Elder, was strongly attracted by ancient relics, a passion he would later pass on to his nephew Lorenzo, and he understood that the cultural development of his city would benefit his family’s fame and influence. Among his protégés we find names of the caliber of Filippo Lippi, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Andrea del Castagno. With Lorenzo, later known as the Magnificent, this cultural program reaches its apex. In his circle there are important thinkers such as Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, but also artists known today all over the world such as Sandro Botticelli and even a very young Michelangelo. Meanwhile, the Medici family establishes a de facto lordship in Florence, governing city politics from behind the scenes and also managing to influence foreign politics.

The Renaissance in Art

In the artistic field, the first phase of this renewal takes place between 1300 and 1400 and is generally known as the Early Renaissance. Its main supporters are Filippo Brunelleschi, Masaccio and Donatello, respectively in architecture, painting and sculpture. With their works they manage to break away from the late Gothic style, recovering the ancient aesthetic canons and at the same time innovating studies on perspective, artistic anatomy and civil engineering. During the 1400s, the new approaches of these three fathers of the Renaissance begin to spread among the artists of Florence, such as Sandro Botticelli and Piero del Pollaiolo, and culminate in the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.

Leonardo, a boy of boundless curiosity, with his studies in the most diverse subjects, perfectly embodies the ideal of the Renaissance intellectual. Michelangelo’s sculptures seem to come to life and even for contemporaries they no longer have anything to envy to the ancient ones. Raffaello, the youngest of the three, through studies made with Maestro Perugino, and mindful of the innovations of his two predecessors, creates works in which finally, the human and divine order seem to coincide. These three artists, who lived between 1400 and 1500, represent the culmination of what is now called the Second Renaissance and which paves the way for the next artistic movement: Mannerism.

Renaissance culture

Of fundamental importance is the characteristic of this historical period of conceiving the figure of the intellectual as public and social. During the Middle Ages the most educated people and thinkers were mainly churchmen, linked to the Christian culture of late antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages. With the Renaissance, writers, philosophers, and thinkers of all stripes began to flock to the secular world: prominent artists became celebrities, politicians like Lorenzo the Magnificent wrote poems, and intellectuals like Pico della Mirandola were basically secular. What unites them and distinguishes them from their predecessors is the passion for pagan art and culture, just think of the strong Neoplatonic matrix that distinguishes the entire circle formed around the Medici.

The freedom of artists and intellectuals from ecclesiastical constraints was made possible by the protection of the new European sovereigns, including not a few Popes, and the economic and social well-being that was slowly beginning to spread throughout society in recent years. The Renaissance artist and intellectual feels fundamentally superior to his medieval predecessors, too tied to religious dogmatism, and promotes a fundamental concept: the virtuous man endowed with reason is at the center of the universe, he is the measure of all things, he is the architect of his own destiny and therefore free from divine providence.

Photo: Spring, 1477–1482, Sandro Botticelli

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