The Renaissance (1350–1550) for AP European History
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Summary: Between 1350 and 1550, Europe experienced a rebirth (renaissance) of commerce, interest in the classical cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, and confidence in human potential.
- The Renaissance began on the Italian peninsula because of its location as the gateway to Eastern trade.
- The outstanding feature of Renaissance Italian society was the degree to which it was urban.
- Renaissance values were based on the revival of humanism—that is, an interest in an education program based on the languages and values of Classical Greek and Roman cultures.
- In the fifteenth century, Renaissance values spread northward to the rest of Europe.
The word Renaissance means "rebirth." Historically, it refers to a time in Western civilization (1350–1550) that was characterized by the revival of three things: commerce, interest in the Classical world, and belief in the potential of human achievement. For reasons that are both geographical and social, the Renaissance began in Italy where renewed trade with the East flowed into Europe via the Mediterranean Sea and, therefore, through the Italian peninsula. The Italian Renaissance flowered for approximately a century until, as a result of invasions from France and Great Britain, it flowed north into the rest of Western Europe.
Renaissance Italian Society
The society of the Italian peninsula between 1350 and 1550 was unique in Western civilization. The most outstanding characteristic of Italian society was the degree to which it was urban. By 1500, seven of the ten largest cities in Europe were in Italy. Whereas most of Western Europe was characterized by large kingdoms with powerful monarchs and increasingly centralized bureaucracies, the Italian peninsula was made up of numerous independent city-states, such as Milan, Florence, Padua, and Genoa. These city-states were, by virtue of their location, flourishing centers of commerce in control of reviving networks of trade with Eastern empires.
Social status within these city-states was determined primarily by occupation, rather than by birth or the ownership of land, as was common in the rest of Europe during this period. The trades were controlled by government-protected monopolies called guilds. Members of the manufacturing guilds, such as clothiers and metalworkers, sat at the top of the social hierarchy. The next prestigious were the professional groups that included bankers, administrators, and merchants. They were followed by skilled labor, such as the stone masons.
Because the city-states of Italy developed as commercial centers, wealth was not based on the control of land as it was in the rest of Europe during this period. Instead, wealth was in the form of capital, and power was the ability to lend it. Accordingly, the traditional landed aristocracy of the Italian peninsula was not as politically powerful as their other European counterparts. Rather, powerful merchant families dominated socially and politically. Their status as the holders of capital also made the commercial elites of Italy powerful throughout Europe as the monarchs of the more traditional kingdoms had to come to them when seeking loans to finance their wars of territorial expansion.
The city-states of Renaissance Italy were set up along a variety of models. Some, like Naples, were ruled by hereditary monarchs; others were ruled by powerful families, such as the Medicis of Florence; still others, like Venice, were controlled by a military strongman known as a doge.