The Renaissance began in Italy in the mid-1300s and later spread north to the rest of Europe. It reached its height in the 1500s. The Renaissance emerged in Italy for several reasons.
The Renaissance was marked by a reawakened interest in the culture of ancient Rome. Since Italy was the center of ancient Roman civilization, it was only natural for this reawakening to begin there. Architectural remains, antique statues, coins, and inscriptions were all daily reminders of the glory of ancient Rome.
Italy differed from the rest of Europe in another important way. Italy's cities had thrived during the Middle Ages. In the north, city-states like Florence, Milan, Venice, and Genoa grew into prosperous centers of trade and manufacturing. Rome and Naples also contributed to the Renaissance cultural revival.
At trading ports along Italy's coastlines, ships brought goods, people, and ideas from the Muslim world, which had preserved much learning from ancient Greece and Rome. Many texts—and much knowledge—that had been lost in Europe were recovered through these trading contacts.
A class of wealthy and powerful merchants emerged in Italy's city-states, and they promoted the cultural rebirth. These merchants exerted both political and economic leadership, and their attitudes and interests helped to shape Renaissance Italy. They stressed individual achievement and spent lavishly to support the arts.
Florence, perhaps more than any other city, came to symbolize the Italian Renaissance. Like ancient Athens, it produced a dazzling number of gifted poets, artists, architects, scholars, and scientists in a short space of time.
In the 1400s, the Medici (MED dee chee) family of Florence organized a banking business. Their business prospered, and the family expanded into manufacturing, mining, and other ventures. Money translated into cultural and political power. Cosimo de' Medici gained control of the Florentine government in 1434, and the family continued as uncrowned rulers of the city for many years.
The best known Medici was Cosimo's grandson, Lorenzo, known as “the Magnificent.” Lorenzo represented the Renaissance ideal. A clever politician, he held Florence together through difficult times. He was also a generous patron, or financial supporter, of the arts. At Lorenzo's invitation, poets and philosophers frequently visited the Medici palace. Artists learned their craft by sketching ancient Roman statues displayed in the Medici gardens.
The states and kingdoms of Italy lay at the center of Europe's sea trade. Why were so many banking centers located in Italy?