How was society during the Renaissance
The Renaissance - a New Era?
A small minority
We owe the Swiss cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt to our thanks to the Swiss cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt that when we hear the term Renaissance we think of important churches, magnificent pictures and sculptural masterpieces. The renaissance is largely his invention.
In his work "The Culture of the Renaissance in Italy" from 1860, Burckhardt describes the Renaissance as a coherent epoch that suddenly ushered in the emergence of Europe into modernity. This shapes our image of the Renaissance to this day.
There was definitely an epochal departure, combined with a new reflection on people, a cultural movement that was only resumed in this form in the Enlightenment.
And there has been evidence of opulent celebrations, wonderful tournaments and conversations about antiquity. Also men who studied the ancient sources in learned circles, who reread the writings of the Greeks and Romans and thought through their philosophies.
These Renaissance bearers were not numerous, but they did exist. And Florence wrote an epoch in every respect, invented double-entry bookkeeping, introduced patronage, the creation and collecting of art, and even named an entire continent with Amerigo Vespucci.
But it was only the elites who lived, taught and created in this way. Most of the people back then had no part in the highlights of the Renaissance.
Historians look behind the scenes
Most of the people were very poor and lived in adverse conditions. People were constantly threatened by hunger, disease, violence and climate fluctuations.
The so-called Little Ice Age - a dramatic deterioration in the climate that destroyed entire harvests over the years, the associated major agricultural crises and the great plague of 1347/48 caused a dramatic population decline.
The plague came among people like a cold - and it ended fatally. Whole families fell apart, areas of land became orphaned, black death spared no one.
It is estimated that between 20 and 25 million people died in Europe. That corresponds to a third of the population at that time. These extreme conditions created the starting potential for the development of the Renaissance.
The existential confrontation of humans with the hostile conditions of that time leads to an epoch-making rethink. The Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio, next to Dante and Petrarca the most important author of the 14th century, vividly describes this new mindset in his work "Decamerone".
Seven young girls and three young men flee the plague that raged in Florence in the summer of 1348. In the face of the deadly threat, young people tell each other stories that deal with the precious existence on earth, such a fragile existence that can end so quickly and abruptly.
Two possibilities emerge: Enjoy life to the fullest and grasp it in all its sensuality or the conscious decision towards a mystical orientation, a reflection on God, but also on values that go beyond the earthly and outlast people.
In addition to religion, people develop a feeling for aesthetics, an inner need for beauty - captured in art.
Significant capital accumulation
At that time, the plague had the devastating effect of a neutron bomb. People die, property, capital and goods survive. The unexpected accumulation of capital in the hands of a few now leads to a great willingness to invest.
Suddenly there is money that can be spent. But what for? Patrons appear, founders stand out. Money should be invested sensibly, to support the socially disadvantaged, as a penance, to wash off one's own offenses, for the greater glory of God.
The indulgence trade is gaining momentum, but so is the promotion of art and culture. Back then, art was closely linked to religious expressions and people's beliefs. Those who can afford it finance art that should also be useful in the afterlife, such as donating a beautiful altar or a side chapel.
Starting factors of the renaissance
Both, according to the historian Bernd Roeck from the University of Zurich, the intellectual and existential crisis of people, coupled with that accumulation of capital, are the decisive starting factors of the renaissance. A market arises for art.
The super-rich, the very great of that time, primarily rulers and high clergy, commission works of art. Art is celebrated for its own sake, to capture artistic expression and the creative moment.
But art was also of great political importance back then. Art should be seen, it was put on display. Art became a status symbol for the founder and patron, who publicly marketed his power and influence in this way.
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