Sunday, April 03, 2022

The Renaissance: Cultural Developments

The Renaissance was nothing less than a cultural revolution that shifted the focus from religious art centered on the doctrines of the Catholic Church to one that celebrated humanistic achievement, including that guided by monarchs and successful entrepreneurs, and revived the Classical tradition of the ancient Greeks and Romans, including their art, architecture, literature, and philosophy. The works from the Renaissance continue to be cornerstones of cultural achievement for all of humanity. 

The Big Question: 

What made Renaissance cultural developments different from those of the Middle Ages?

Consider:  What is really behind Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa? 

The Renaissance emerged in Italy in a spectacular way with the construction of the Florence cathedral which was designed by Brunelleschi (1377-1444). The elements that represented a break from the Middle Ages included architectural elements from Classical Greek and Roman architecture. 

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, painted between 1503 – 1506, is such a cornerstone of artistic experience that we often lose sight of what makes it really special.  Da Vinci broke new ground in many ways.  For example, is a highly unusual half-length portrait, and instead of being in a closed room, she is framed by fragmentary columns that create a framed window that opens to a fantastical landscape that leads the eye through winding pathways that suggest the Infinite. Yet, instead of letting the energy of the painting evanesce into a type of neoplatonic euphoria, Da Vinci creates a grounding equilibrium which places a very tangible, realistic human being on the edge of a gorgeous, fantastical landscape. Her famous smile and her direct gaze into the viewer’s eye, which pull the viewer’s eye back into the center of the frame, ground the composition, and yet maintain the tension between the earthly and the concrete, and the amazing landscape in the background, which would have struck the Renaissance viewer as a pathway to the divine, straight from Dante’s
La Commedia Divina. The landscape is sublime, and it proposes a bold question to the viewer: “Where do you live? In this world of soft, rounded flesh, smooth satin and velvet?” The chiaroscuro and sfumato techniques makes possibilities viable. They also suggest that she is, as in The Madonna of the Rocks, in the amazing, ineffable space of Nature that forces you to realize that there is a Divine, and that you can straddle the two worlds – the earthly, and the divine.  

The Mona Lisa does in a single canvas what it took Dante three Cantos with its 14,233 lines in terza rima to accomplish. It encapsulates the journey of the soul from the darkness of the Pit (the inferno), through the sufferings of Purgatory, and finally to round after round on a mountain taking one to Paradise. The Mona Lisa’s smile is one of knowledge and experience: she is in her world of silks and velvets, and she is also in the transcendental world, not of the mystic, but of the Humanist, who states that perfection is at least envisionable here in the material world, and the artist can open the eyes and the hearts of the viewers so that they can see for themselves the Paradise they can strive for and potentially achieve during their own lifetimes.  

Read: Art of the Renaissance 

Overview: The Renaissance was a time of a major change in the way that art was depicted, and it opened the way for new subjects of art as well. As artists turned to the Greek and Roman examples of antiquity, they also developed ways to depict depth, perspective, and distance. In addition to confining themselves to religious subjects, they were able to paint and create sculptures based on Greek and Roman mythology, Christian doctrine, and everyday life. Realism was embraced, and the composition, the still life, was a way to celebrate accomplishment and the achievement of a comfortable living. 

Linear perspective:  One point perspective: Method for projecting illusion of space on medium. no single artist should be credited except perhaps Bruneleschi. All artists came upon together with scientific exploration of time. Orthogonals converge at a single vanishing point on horizon. 

Orthogonal line:  Imaginary diagonal lines that point and converge at the vanishing point and contribute to Linear Perspective. 

Vanishing point: Traditionally at eye level, the point at which all points recede and intersect, causing the illusion of 3-dimensional form. Part of Linear Perspective.  

Botticelli: The Birth of Venus (1484 – 1486): Now housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” is important for a number of reasons. First, it demonstrates the Renaissance artists’ desire to include stories from Classical mythology. Second, it depicts the female figure in a realistic manner, as opposed to the Medieval painters, and echoes Greek and Roman sculpture. Third, it is a secular counterpart to the nativity scenes so prevalent in a world dominated by religious art. Finally, the techniques of perspective and vanishing points are on display in the background.  

Andreas Vesalius, a 16th century anatomist born in Brussels in 1514, is known for his extremely detailed line drawings of human anatomy. He mastered the technique of creating three-dimensional drawings, and his drawings of the human body feature extremely realistic and detailed depictions of muscles, bones, and cartilage. He was not averse to dissecting cadavers, which must have been pretty revolting in a time before formaldehyde. His methodology was deliberate and he approached the tasks as a scientist, and he recorded his findings in his books. His drawings were very important for future generations who used them to gain an understanding of the body, and to continue to investigate its functions. 

Hans Holbein the Younger (The Diplomats): The Northern Renaissance style was in direct contrast with the Southern Renaissance style of Da Vinci and others. He prided himself on his draftsman type precision and the extreme realism, especially of textures of fabrics, plants, jewelry, skin, and hair. For example, the ermine in the cape of  Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII introduced a tension between surface and depth, and animated the tactile detail that makes his portraiture so unique. Very productive in the last 10 years of his life, Holbein died in London during an outbreak of plague in 1543.  

Reflect: That was impressive! What impresses you most?

1. Da Vinci’s The Mona Lisa

2. Petrarch’s work and his sonnets

3. Drama in the Renaissance

4. Humanistic philosophies expressed in Renaissance literature

5. Rise of realistic anatomy in art and science

6. Linear perspective in art

7. Orthogonals in art

8. The importance of diaries and letters from explorers to the Americas during the Renaissance

Expand: Let’s look at Renaissance literature.  The literature of the Renaissance was widely produced, which reflected expanded literacy in the vernacular, rather than only in Latin. It was also more available to people due to the printing press. Some of the most important accomplishments are listed below. 


Petrarchan Sonnets: iambic pentameter, 14 stanzas, with the rhyme scheme ABBAABBA CDECDE. The rhyme scheme suggests two bodies of knowledge or perception, and often they are in opposition with each other, and reflect a paradox or an ironic observation. 

Shakespearean sonnets:  iambic pentameter, 14 stanzas, with the rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, which suggests three separate comments, statements, or observations, with a couplet at the end, which allows a summative commentary. 

Garcilaso de la Vega:  Important because he brought Renaissance verse forms to Spain (and also New Spain)

Sir Philip Sidney: Important for his analysis of the rhetorical functions of poetry in “A Defense of Poesy,” which discusses how poetry brings one from the dungeon of the body to the exalted divine, and whose neoplatonic idea of transcendence shines brightly in his work, Astrophil and Stella (The Star-Lover and the Star). 


Lazarillo de Tormes:  Perhaps the first novel in the Spanish language, Lazarillo de Tormes was written by an anonymous author, and followed the adventures of a street-smart trickster character who survived by his wits. 

Rabelais:  Gargantua and Pantagruel was a satirical novel that included a giant and a corrupt priest, who were used as vehicles to mock the Church (mainly the Jesuits) and corrupt, inefficient government. Rabelais spent a lot of time in jail. 


Lope de Vega: One of the most important figures of the Spanish “Siglo de Oro” whose poems, essays, and plays were foundations of literature for centuries to come  

Calderon de la Barca: Extremely philosophical writer whose ideas made their way into his creative work, especially in his plays, where La Vida Es Sueño is a classic blend of drama, pathos, and philosophical inquiry. An English counterpart would be Shakespeare’s The Tempest. 

Christopher Marlowe: A gifted poet, playwright, and translator, Christopher Marlowe’s most important plays were Doctor Faustus, Edward II, and Tamburlaine, all of which explore the evil compacts one might enter into in the pursuit of riches, power, knowledge, or simply untrammeled lust. In addition to posing great moral questions (and entertaining the audience with glimpses of evil and licentiousness), Marlowe takes the audience into a vicarious journey of vice, hunger, blood-lust, greed, and desire. 

Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s tragedies, comedies, and history plays broke new ground in the Renaissance for their use of blank verse and iambic pentameter. The history plays were historically flawed, and contained a great deal of bias; it was better to look at all his plays figuratively rather than literally; for example, Richard III was not the evil, twisted miscreant Shakespeare made him to be in Richard III. But, he quickly became a favorite anti-hero for all who saw him. 

Explore:  Letters and Diaries – the Convergence of History and Fancy

Many explorers kept diaries, mainly with the idea of documenting their locations, their encounters, and potential for treasure and natural resources (namely, gold). They also wanted to prepare reports for their backers, such as Queen Isabella, Queen Elizabeth, or Carlos V, justifying backing for future voyages, or asking to be named governor of a territory. The diaries and letters were widely distributed in published form, and served as imaginative fodder for any number of novels, plays, poems, and even maps. 

Letters and diaries:

Hernan Cortes:  Cortes arrived with a malnourished, dirty, ragtag army who prevailed due to a combination of technology (firearms, horses) and fortuitous prophecies. Cortes wrote letters describing life in the Valley of Mexico, which were devoured by the King as well as the populace in general. They described the customs, costumes, food, architecture, religious practices, and beliefs of the Aztecs. Some were extremely graphic, which motivated the Church to send their priests.  Carlos V funded more expeditions after the boats returned with gold and silver.  There are a number of unanswered questions, though. For example, who tended the boats anchored off the coast near Veracruz?  How did they keep them maintained?  How was it possible to keep from being attacked? It seems very challenging for the Spanish party to keep their boats intact and even repaired as they spent almost a year in trekking across Mexico to the Valley of Mexico. 

Bartolome de las Casas:  Bartolome de las Casas was the first Spanish writer to argue against absolute brutality toward the indigenous peoples they encountered. Most other Spanish explorers were so horrified by the human sacrifice that they witnessed that they were eager to reduce their civilizations to ashes. He coined the term, “noble savage” which suggested that the Aztec and other civilizations that were encountered were “savage” and yet in their lower status, they were innocent. Bartolome de las Casas perpetuated cultural chauvinism, and helped convince the Jesuits and other priests from Spain that they were justified in coercing and sometimes forcibly converting the indigenous to Catholicism. 

El Inca Garcilaso: An Incan nobleman who was highly educated, and whose diaries serve as important documents about the life, civilization, and beliefs of the Incas. He wrote about Pizarro and also documented the terrible outbreaks of disease that wiped out the vulnerable population. 

Discuss:  Similarity and Differences

What are some of the points of similarity between the diaries and journals from explorers, and the works of art and literature inspired by them? (Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Montaigne’s “On Cannibals,” and Amerigo Vespucci’s Maps of the New World, are a few). 

Check your knowledge Quiz (5 questions):

1.  Petrarchan sonnet

a. abba cddc effe gg 

b. abab dcdc efef gg 

c. abbaabba cdecde (correct)

d. abababab cdecde

2.  Vanishing point

a. the point at which receding parallel lines viewed in perspective appear to converge (correct)

b. the point at which parallel lines viewed in perspective appear to split

c. a series of parallel lines that recede into distance

d. a series of intersecting lines that come together in the middle of the canvas and create a black hole effect

3.  Linear perspective

a. the use of a perspective that avoids the use of lines.

b. a type of perspective used by artists in which the relative size, shape, and position of objects are determined by parallel lines placed in the horizon. (correct)

c. the use of a perspective incorporates right angles mixed with 30-degree angles.

d. a type of perspective used by artists in which the relative size, shape, and position of objects are determined by drawn or imagined lines converging at a point on the horizon.

4.  Noble savage

a. the early depictions of monarchies immediately after the collapse of the Roman Empire

b. a kind of weaving that was used for tapestries that depicted the Garden of Eden

c. a representative of primitive humankind first described in Latin America, symbolizing the innate goodness of humanity when free from the corrupting influence of civilization. (correct)

d. the ideal behavior of a Jesuit priest who came to the Americas, and who wanted to be effective in converting indigenous peoples to Christianity

5.  Humanism

a.  cultural movement that perpetuated the medieval desire for developing a definitive cosmology that placed God at the center of the universe

b. a cultural movement that emphasized human frailty, and developed technology to assist in overcoming physical challenges

c. cultural movement that turned away from medieval scholasticism and revived interest in ancient Greek and Roman thought. (correct)

d. a philosophy developed by the Marquis de Sade


Petrarchan sonnet: a sonnet form popularized by Petrarch, consisting of an octave with the rhyme scheme abbaabba and of a sestet with one of several rhyme schemes, as cdecde or cdcdcd

Elizabethan sonnet: a type of sonnet much used by Shakespeare, written in iambic pentameter and consisting of three quatrains and a final couplet with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg.

Vanishing point: the point at which receding parallel lines viewed in perspective appear to converge

Linear perspective: a type of perspective used by artists in which the relative size, shape, and position of objects are determined by drawn or imagined lines converging at a point on the horizon.

Orthogonal line: A related term, orthogonal projection, describes a method for drawing three-dimensional objects with linear perspective. It refers to perspective lines, drawn diagonally along parallel lines that meet at a so-called "vanishing point." Such perspective lines are orthogonal, or perpendicular to one another.

Noble savage:  A noble savage is a literary stock character who embodies the concept of the indigene, outsider, wild human, an "other" who has not been "corrupted" by civilization, and therefore symbolizes humanity's innate goodness.

Picaresque: relating to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero.

Sfumato: the technique of allowing tones and colors to shade gradually into one another, producing softened outlines or hazy forms

Chiaroscuro: an effect of contrasted light and shadow created by light falling unevenly or from a particular direction on something.

Key Takeaways

Upon successful completion of this course, the student should be able to 

1.  Define humanism

2.  Identify important works of art and literature from the Renaissance

3.  Explain the reasons for the importance of Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”

4.  Describe the structure of Petrarchan and Elizabethan sonnets

5.  Discuss innovations in art technique during the Renaissance

Lesson Toolbox

Resources (links) 

Renaissance Links

Encyclopedia Britannica:  Renaissance art and architecture.  

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Renaissance. Renaissance Art:

Art Institute of Chicago: Arms, Armor, Medieval, and Renaissance 

Virtual Uffizi Gallery / Florence. 

Art Museums: Where to see Renaissance Art. 

Renaissance Inventions: 

More, Thomas. Utopia. 

Machiavelli, Niccolo.  The Prince. 

Grotius.  The Rights of War and Peace.  

Cortes, Hernan. Letters to Emperor Carlos V.  

Lope de Vega. Comedias: El remedio en la desdicha; El major alcalde, el rey.

Calderon de la Barca.  La Vida Es Sueño. 

Garcilaso de la Vega. The works of Garcilaso de la Vega. 

Montaigne, Michel.  Essays. 

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. 

Petrarch. Sonnets. Triumphs and other Poems. 

Sir Philip Sidney. Astrophel and Stella. 

Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D. 

Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D. 

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