The Renaissance

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John Martin

For a hundred years after the appearance of Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, first published in 1860, scholars and their public alike imagined the Renaissance as the first chapter in the history of the modern. According to this view, it was in Italy in the age of Petrarch, the Medici, and Machiavelli that the shift from the medieval to our own world took place. The Italian, Burckhardt noted, "was the first-born among the sons of modern Europe." Historians who embraced this view stressed the importance of the period for the emergence of political, ethical, and cultural ideals that were central to the identities of nineteenth- and twentieth-century elites in Europe and the United States. The Renaissance from this perspective was the cradle of individualism and republicanism, of humanism and realism, of secularism and capitalism; it became a period of study in its own right, reaching from about 1300 to 1530 in Italy, and from about 1500 to 1650 in northern Europe.

Scholars no longer find the origins of the modern in the Renaissance, but they have by no means given up on the idea of a "Renaissance" as an important dimension of not only Italian but European society as a whole. In particular, they locate the Renaissance in a cluster of interrelated practices in which many painters, sculptors, architects, humanists, poets, and publishers, as well as courtiers and other political and economic elites—often with an eye to antiquity as a model for their cultural pursuits—creatively and self-consciously engaged. On a broader level, they associate it with shifts in political organization, family and collective life, the practice of religion, and new notions of the self and community; and they have raised important questions about the relation of nonelite groups (women, artisans, peasants, and the poor) to this larger movement. As a result, the "Renaissance" is less likely to be portrayed as a period in and of itself than as an important aspect of late medieval and early modern social, intellectual, and cultural history. Just as the Earth was no longer seen as the center of the cosmos in the teachings of the sixteenth-century Polish canon and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, so the Renaissance—once the central organizing element in the history of Europe—has now been demoted to planetary status.

But no one disputes either the splendor of this satellite or that its own force—like that of other heavenly bodies—inevitably, and certainly by the sixteenth century, exercised some influence over the world it orbited. To be sure, the overwhelming mass of Europeans—the 90 percent that made up the peasantry—was virtually untouched by the Renaissance, but both the humanist's study and the artist's workshop were closely connected to the larger political and cultural life of the city and the court. Moreover, the history of Renaissance humanism and art followed a relatively clear trajectory. First emerging in Florence and Tuscany in the fourteenth century, this new cultural style, which involved not only the arts and literature but also ethical and political thought, spread rapidly throughout Italy in the fifteenth century, and then throughout Europe as a whole in the sixteenth century. In such cities as Florence, Venice, and Rome, these initiatives were pursued by large groups of humanists, artists, and poets. And later, in courts from Urbino and Milan in Italy to those of Francis I in France, Elizabeth I in England, and even Matthias Corvinus in Hungary, a similar pattern emerged. The extraordinary creativity of the period—represented by such emblematic figures as Petrarch, Niccolò Machiavelli, Albrecht Dürer, Desiderius Erasmus, Thomas More, Michelangelo, Michel de Montaigne, William Shakespeare, and Rembrandt—was never a matter of individual achievement alone. It was also a social fact, one closely related not only to the history of the city and the court but also to the whole of European society in the late medieval and early modern periods.


The social forces that underlay the Renaissance stemmed from a series of transformations that began as early as the eleventh century, when Europe witnessed the revival of commerce and urban life. From the fall of Rome and the barbarian invasions down through the tenth century, European society had ceased by and large to be centered on the city, while commerce had been reduced to relative insignificance. Around the year 1000 this trend reversed. By the twelfth century the increasingly dynamic growth of the population led to the emergence of significant clusters of towns and cities, especially in northern Italy and the Low Countries. The same phase of medieval history was characterized by a robust growth in intellectual and cultural life. The twelfth century saw new initiatives in learning in monastic and cathedral schools; by the thirteenth century universities too had become centers of learning and scholarship. Much of the attention of medieval humanists and scholastics focused on classical writers, especially Cicero and Aristotle. Intellectual historians have correctly stressed the medieval antecedents (the ars dictaminis, for example, and other forms of "protohumanism") to many of the cultural interests of Renaissance elites.

Yet a marked cultural shift did occur in the late Middle Ages. In the early fourteenth century, for example, the Tuscan painter Giotto (1266?–1337) invested the human figure with a sense of solidity and three-dimensionality that would become a much-emulated element of Renaissance art. And in the mid-fourteenth century, the Italian humanist Petrarch (1304–1374) demonstrated a new sense of historical distance and a new awareness of personality in the ancient authors (especially Cicero and Saint Augustine) whom he studied. By the early and mid-fifteenth century, these and comparable artistic and intellectual practices had become increasingly fashionable, especially among the urban elite of Italy. From the vantage point of social history, these shifts are of particular interest because they developed not in continuity with the expansionary phase of medieval society that had begun in the eleventh century but rather in the midst of a period of crisis. The fourteenth century began with famine and an evident slowing if not stagnation of demographic growth. In all likelihood, by 1300 if not earlier, Europe was in the grip of a Malthusian dilemma as the continent's population, which was growing in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, began to outstrip resources. The exploitation of the peasantry within the feudal structures of the medieval economy also contributed to the malnourishment and general weakness of the great mass of Europeans. Then in 1347–1348 Europeans confronted an unprecedented catastrophe, the Black Death—the first strike of bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis).

The immediate effect of the Black Death was a precipitous drop in population. From 1348 to 1400, during which time there were several outbreaks of bubonic plague, Europe as a whole (east and west) witnessed a loss of between 22 and 28 million individuals out of a total population of some 73 to 74 million. In short, in a fifty-year period as many as one in three Europeans fell victim to the plague. In Florence the death rate was particularly high; in 1348 alone its population dropped from approximately 120,000 to some 40,000 souls, and losses were even greater in other parts of Tuscany. Italy as a whole probably lost one half its population in the latter half of the fourteenth century. Death became a dominant theme in the art of the period; new religious movements such as that of the flagellants, which placed particular emphasis upon repentance and the physical mortification of the body, attracted large popular followings; and there were outbreaks of hostility toward the poor and the Jews. At the same time, the plague appears to have influenced the direction of intellectual life. New universities—some, in response to the epidemics, with a special emphasis on the study of medicine—were established, certain traditional fields were deemphasized, and new ones, notably rhetoric, came to the fore, at least in Italy. In fact, the plagues may even have played a direct role in intensifying the growing sense that classical Latin was a language that required conscious imitation. Before the Black Death medieval academic Latin was organic, practical, and instilled in students at a very young age—in short, it was a living vernacular. The depletion of the ranks of university and Latin teachers and the disruption of the schools during the ravages of plague changed the equation. Suddenly Latin was a "foreign" language that needed to be mastered through the close study and imitation of ancient texts—a new linguistic attitude that would prove fundamental to the development of the Renaissance.

The social and economic consequences were equally decisive. In the short term, trade and industry were disrupted, family life was strained, and civility was frayed. But over the longer term, especially over the next few generations as recurrent visitations of the plague continued to restrict the population's recovery, the fortunes of the survivors varied. Although the situation differed from one part of Europe to another, the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries in general witnessed a fall in rents for traditional landlords (the nobility), new opportunities for merchants and financiers, a rise in wages for urban laborers, the erosion of servile bonds in the countryside, and in general new agricultural regimes that at times benefited and at other times led to the further exploitation of the peasantry. Cities especially needed new men in the crafts and the professions; this period was, as a result, one of relatively high social mobility. Once the economy began to stabilize under these new terms, the standard of living (at least in the cities) increased—one of the preconditions for the demand for luxury goods and commodities that fostered the material culture of Renaissance Europe.

The emergence of Renaissance culture, however, was far more than a matter of new levels of consumption. To be sure, the postplague prosperity of the urban patriciates and their desire to fashion themselves as deserving elites through the conspicuous display of culture were important factors. But so too were the anxieties inherent in a social structure in which the traditional hierarchies were never fixed and in which the family, especially in the aftermath of the Black Death, underwent profound modifications and adjustments. Urban life itself, given the density of the population, the squalor of the poor, the violent tenor of the night, the constant threat of plague, and of course, the need to maintain peace among so many disparate groups, made politics a major concern. Indeed, each of these facets of urban life inevitably played some role in connecting the artistic and cultural life of the period to the actual issues, problems, and anxieties that men and women confronted in late medieval Italy.

When humanists looked to the ancient world, their interests were rarely purely antiquarian or philological. To the contrary, they found in the writings of such figures as Aristotle and Livy important reflections on the constitutional histories of Greece and Rome—reflections made relevant by the deep analogies between the concerns of citizens in the ancient city-states and those of contemporary Italians, whether they were about political life, civic values, or moral questions. It was in this context that fifteenth-century writers in the Italian cities crafted a "civic humanism," a program that stressed the importance of political and social engagement in the life of the Renaissance city.

Social historians have made it plain, however, that the ideals of the civic humanists were aimed above all at the urban elite. Like other aspects of medieval society, the Renaissance city was a profoundly hierarchical place. To a large degree the social structure of these urban environments had evolved out of earlier social systems. In twelfth-century Italy merchant-artisans had wrested power away from local aristocrats (often bishops) and established communal governments that represented their interests. Although many cities—among them Milan, Mantua, and Ferrara—eventually fell under the control of a single individual or family, in both Florence and Venice—as well as in Lucca, Siena, and Genoa—these new commercial elites established their dominance. In Venice the patriciate was almost exclusively based on commercial wealth, whereas in such inland cities as Florence, the patricians included both great feudal families that had begun to invest in urban industries and wealthy merchant families that bought up land in the Florentine contado, the agricultural hinterland subject to the city's jurisdiction. In Renaissance republics these groups tended to hold political power. Beneath them in prestige were lesser merchants and skilled artisans (goldsmiths, tailors, silk weavers, masons). Many craftsmen and most workers led humbler lives, though even those who only managed to scrape by in poorly paying trades, either as carders or spinners or stevedores and day laborers, enjoyed a stability that set them off sharply from the very poor—the itinerant beggars and vagabonds who thronged the cities during a famine, and also a large underclass of servants and slaves, prostitutes, common outlaws, and con men. Finally, beyond the city were the peasants whose lives were increasingly linked to those living in urban centers through markets and economic exploitation. By the early fifteenth century in the Tuscan countryside, we know that approximately one quarter of the peasants had come to labor as sharecroppers (mezzadri) for landlords, often urban landlords. And it was from their labor that much of the wealth of the Renaissance city derived. The economic underpinnings of the social hierarchies of the period were brutal. In early-fifteenth-century Florence and the vast territories subject to it, there were some 60,000 families, nearly two-thirds of whom labored in the countryside. The richest 100 of these 60,000 households, moreover, controlled one-fifth of the wealth, and more than half of the riches in the region were in the hands of an elite 3,000 families, a mere one-half of 1 percent of the entire population. The hierarchy, therefore, was not merely a cultural construction: it was rooted in an economic system that kept most of the population poor and in debt. As Christiane Klapisch-Zuber observes in her Women, Family, and Ritual, "the glory of the Renaissance was built on the heightened exploitation of indigent sharecroppers and provincials short of capital" (1985, p. 13).

What is certain is that it was largely from the urban elites as well as from the nobility that the humanists who staffed the chanceries and the growing bureaucracies of the Renaissance governments were recruited. This is hardly surprising, as the educational program the humanists fostered placed a special emphasis on the liberal arts both at school and in the university, with particular emphasis on the study of Latin and rhetoric, a discipline closely related to the need in republics for leaders trained in public speaking and the art of persuasion. By contrast, painters, sculptors, and architects generally came from slightly more humble though still relatively privileged origins. Their fathers tended to be artisans or shopkeepers, often with a close association to the arts. And indeed throughout much of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, artists themselves were viewed primarily as craftsmen who carried out their work according to the stipulations of their patrons. Urban environments such as Venice and Florence and, later on, Paris, London, and Amsterdam, with their relatively high concentration of highly skilled artisans, were especially suited to the development of the painting, sculpture, and architecture that was characteristic of the Renaissance.

Generalizations about the family are difficult for both late medieval and early modern history. What is clear is that the late medieval and early modern family did not follow a simple trajectory of progressive nuclearization, with a large, extended family or household giving way to a smaller conjugal unit. Rather, families varied enormously in structure both within and between regions. In Tuscany at the beginning of the fifteenth century, fewer than one in five households were extended in the technical sense of containing more than one conjugal family, though significantly more than one in five Florentines lived in such extended households at one point or another during their life cycles. In England, by contrast, the nuclear family appears to have been even more the norm, though there, too, many families, especially those at the extremes of the wealth spectrum, tended to be larger, with several couples (brothers and their wives) living under one roof. Among the wealthy the European family was also marked by a strong sense of lineage. The families of artisans and the working poor were more often nuclear, with less likelihood of integration into a larger kin network. Marriages in these strata of society were aimed primarily at economic survival, and women in such households often assisted their husbands in their trade.

Among rich and poor, however, the family played a decisive role in shaping the lives of individuals, regulating the births, marriages, and economic activities of its members. Humanist treatises from the period paint a portrait of a profoundly paternalistic institution, and many of the laws worked to keep the family under the control of a patriarch or at least the male lineage. While the wives of many artisans and workers continued to serve important economic functions in their households, the position of upper-class women deteriorated in the Renaissance city as a bourgeois family structure imposed new limitations on women's social and economic activities. At the same time, women often did find ways to protect themselves and their daughters, whom they often sheltered from unhappy marriages or from the convent. Again historians have revealed significant gaps between humanist ideals and social realities. The fifteenth-century Venetian humanist Francesco Barbaro insisted that mothers nurse their own children, but women repeatedly chose to put their infants out to wet nurses, often in the countryside. Finally, about children in this age we know extremely little. To be sure, some sermons and treatises placed a new value on childhood, but infanticide and abandonment remained relatively common practices among the most destitute members of society.

In addition to the family, the lives of many late medieval and early modern men (and some women) were shaped to a large degree by guilds, which, like the city itself, had emerged in the eleventh and twelfth centuries as associations of merchants and craftsmen designed to protect their economic and social interests. In the late Middle Ages the guild had come to play a major role in urban politics as well. In Florence guild membership (especially the more affluent merchant guilds) enfranchised citizens to participate in the city's government. In German and Dutch cities too the guild was often the basis of political power. But even in towns and cities in which guildsmen were excluded from political participation, they often provided a basic framework for social activity and gave their members a stake in the community, setting them off quite clearly from an underclass of day laborers and unskilled workers who had no such organization to protect their interests. The guild was the institution in which apprentices and journeymen were trained, often eventually becoming master craftsmen themselves. Membership in the guilds was widespread. In fourteenth-century Florence, probably 11,000 to 12,000 men (about 10 percent of the population) belonged to guilds; in sixteenth-century Venice, approximately 30,000 (or nearly 20 percent of the population) were members. Not all work was organized by guild. In Florence most of the workers in the textile industry, which employed as many as one in three adult men in the city, were sottoposti, unincorporated laborers who did piecework as carders and combers for local clothiers and drapers. It was these workers who participated in the famous revolt of the ciompi (the poorest workers) in 1378. They managed to gain some economic and political concessions (including membership in a guild of their own) from the Florentine government, but these concessions lasted for only a few weeks. At roughly the same time similar uprisings took place in Siena and Perugia.

The Renaissance city was characterized as well by a broad range of associations that extended beyond work and family and involved rich as well as poorer residents. The most salient of these were confraternities, brotherhoods that brought together men (and sometimes women) from similar trades, social backgrounds, or neighborhoods, often around the devotion to a particular saint. Social ties were also forged through godparenting and other less formal forms of friendship. The structure of neighborhoods, too, often functioned to make urban life villagelike, bringing rich and poor face-to-face in the street and the marketplace. We can thus imagine the Renaissance city as a web of social networks in which the social hierarchy based on wealth and status was intersected by a complex of institutions—the family, the neighborhood or parish, the guild, and the confraternity—that both expressed and diffused social tensions in the city. Social tensions were also mitigated by the highly ritualized aspects of the late medieval and early modern city. Cities celebrated their social order and harmony through processions and allowed the lower orders to "let off steam" during such annual festivals as carnival.

Much of the art of the period was also closely related to this complex web of solidarities of Renaissance society. Patrician families, ecclesiastical institutions, guilds, and confraternities were the primary patrons of artistic works. The recurrence of bubonic plague in 1363 appears in particular to have prompted many Italians to attend more deliberately to their salvations and to the preservation of their identities as well as those of their families. They commissioned chapels, funeral monuments, and paintings to ensure the memory of themselves and their families. Such behavior was not limited to the wealthy—even relatively modest artisans and laborers participated in this quest for fame. Thus Renaissance ideas about fame percolated through more than the upper echelons of society, though how far they reached and the ways in which they blended with other aspects of the culture at the time are unclear. What is clear is that large numbers of city dwellers in this period occupied a paradoxical relation to Renaissance ideas. Alongside their interests in antiquity and art, they manifested a continuing fascination with magic and the occult as well as a deep core of piety that expressed itself in a rich array of social and religious beliefs and practices.


The Renaissance was not an exclusively urban affair. Throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, several courts—especially in Italy—had also served as the locus for the new cultural pursuits. As centers of political, ecclesiastical, and economic power, the courts were ideally suited to attract some of the outstanding figures of the age; toward the end of the fifteenth and throughout the sixteenth century, the court became increasingly central to Renaissance culture. Throughout the fifteenth century, though in theory Florence remained a republic, the Medici in fact controlled most of the political appointments and policies of the republic before finally establishing themselves as the archdukes of Tuscany in the 1530s. Over the same period the papal court in Rome came to dominate not only much of Italian but also much of European culture. Even Venice, which remained a republic, witnessed a decided aristocratization of culture as its urban elites turned away from commerce, invested increasingly in rural properties, and constructed elaborate villas, a fashion that led to many commissions for the influential architect Andrea Palladio (1508–1580). The early Renaissance may have been a largely urban affair, but the aristocracy had never ceased to play a central role in the shaping of culture. Indeed, by the sixteenth century European nobles, empowered by the rising value of land (in a process that social historians refer to as "refeudalization"), were the major patrons of what is called Renaissance culture.

It was in this period that the Renaissance became an increasingly European movement. Probably the most decisive factor in this Europeanization was the shift of political power away from Italy to the new monarchies of Spain, France, and England. The political elites in these kingdoms were keen on importing Italian culture to their cities and courts; indeed we can see the sixteenth century as a period of translation of Italian art and ideas to northern Europe. Cosmopolitan by their very nature, courts attracted leading figures from the aristocracy and the cultural elite throughout Europe. Popes and princes competed for the most accomplished artists and humanists. The virtuoso painter and engineer Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was active not only in his native Florence, where he was a member of the painter's guild, but also at the Sforza court in Milan, the French court of Francis I, and, though fleetingly, the court of the Medici pope Julius II in Rome. Other factors also contributed to the Europeanization of the Renaissance. By 1500 the printing press, which had been invented in Mainz by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1450s, had led to a diffusion of classical and humanist works on an unprecedented scale. In the early sixteenth century, the Dutch humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus worked for the printer Aldus Manutius in Venice, for Johann Froben's press in Basel, and for Josse Bade in Paris. Thus the print shop, like the court, served to Europeanize humanist culture.

Social change also underlay this development. From the middle of the fifteenth to the early seventeenth century, with plague now a less frequent occurrence, most of Europe participated in a sustained demographic and economic recovery, a period that historians refer to as the "long sixteenth century." The social consequences of this growth were dramatic. Though the precise chronology varied from one part of Europe to another, land and grain became dear, and the overwhelming majority of peasants saw their living standard erode while their landlords reaped the harvest of higher and higher rents. Also conspicuous was the growth of cities in this period. London, which had some 50,000 to 60,000 inhabitants at the start of the sixteenth century, had doubled in size by mid-century and reached as many as 200,000 in 1600. Other major cities—Paris, Antwerp, and Amsterdam—saw comparable gains, with the result that in the sixteenth century northern Europe underwent a process of urbanization that was in some ways comparable to the earlier phase of urbanization that had taken place in Italy. And as in late medieval Italy, the growth of the city and the development of the new urban elites were closely tied to structural transformations in the rural areas, as more and more land was given to pasturage and as textile production was increasingly put out to peasant households often desperate to increase their incomes.

This process (which historians have variously called the putting-out system, Verlagssystem, cottage industry, and protoindustrialization) stemmed from the efforts of drapers and clothiers, who in their efforts to find cheap labor deliberately transferred even weaving to the countryside, bringing peasants and their families more fully into the "industrial economy" and further enriching the entrepreneurs who invested in this industry. The social consequences of such a system were widely felt in Europe, especially in highly urbanized areas. The system produced new social tensions but also created new opportunities. The encroachment of industry on the countryside as well as the increased demand for wool and the decision, especially by English landlords, to enclose their arable lands and turn them over to pasturage led to dislocations in traditional agrarian life, creating a new rural poor and contributing to the quickened pace of immigration to the cities, which quickly filled with impoverished migrants.

The cities were hardly able to absorb them. Both rising prices and the flood of workers on the market made it increasingly difficult for them to work their way up the guild hierarchies and establish shops and families of their own. Women who came in from the countryside often eked out an existence as domestic servants. Not surprisingly, this very process was the source of much of the prosperity of London as well as such Dutch cities as Amsterdam and Leiden, whose elites based their wealth on both rising incomes from landed investments and from the new patterns of exploitation in early modern industry. To a large degree, it was these wealthy burghers who, alongside the aristocracy, became the patrons and consumers of art, luxury goods, and humanist education.

In northern Europe in this period, as had been the case earlier in Italy, much of the writing by humanists sought to respond to the new social problems of the early modern city. In the early sixteenth century, the Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives, addressing the problem of the widespread growth of poverty in Bruges, published his treatise On the Subvention of the Poor (1526). At roughly the same time in the Burgundian city of Lyon, poor relief was shaped by a practical humanism that sought to apprentice boys to masters and to dower girls for marriages in ways that would save them from lives of poverty. In England, Thomas More's Utopia (1516) was, at least in part, a response to the harsh realities of his day.

The early modern Renaissance differed from the late medieval Renaissance in other respects as well. For one thing, as printing presses spread throughout Europe, the book was a far more important factor in the sixteenth century than it had been earlier, and, along with rising literacy rates, it brought the ideas of humanists and other writers—ancient and modern—into contact with an ever wider readership. The culture of reading (the ubiquity of the bookshop and bookstall, the circulation of books among friends and fellow workers, and so on) meant that in the sixteenth century the diffusion of ideas spread farther, perhaps at times into the countryside. The urban world of craftsman was highly literate, and even illiterate artisans must have often heard their fellow workers read from books and discuss them in the shop or over the loom. The book was not merely a cultural item but was itself an instrument of sociability, creating new solidarities and unexpected friendships. This new intensity of the printed word was made more significant by the religious struggles of the Reformation, and an increasingly literate population was a major force in shaping the writings of humanists and reformers. Vernacular languages became a popular means of communication, though Latin remained important. Intellectuals competed with one another to shape the ideas of their public.

In addition, the period witnessed a veritable explosion in texts aimed at improving the reader's manners. From Castiglione's Book of the Courtier (1518) to Erasmus's Manners for Children (1530) and Thomas Elyot's The Boke Named the Governour (1531), writers laid down new rules of etiquette and comportment. Their most responsive readers were courtiers, but urban elites too began to internalize the new manners as well. This enterprise was viewed as a crucial one in the increasingly crowded urban spaces of the early modern city, for despite their pockets of prosperity, these urban spaces also overflowed with the poor and seemed to threaten the social order itself. Manners and discipline were therefore part of a perceived social need. Outside the court the new etiquette was not only a language about power, it was also a language about the social order, about urbanitas (urbanity) and a new civility. Accordingly, it seems reasonable to see the first part of the early modern period as one in which the ideas of the Renaissance, thanks to such factors as growing literacy, the Reformation, and the revolution in manners, began to have some influence on popular groups, at least in the city. The result of these cultural shifts was that the satellite of the Renaissance exercised a stronger gravitational force on the early modern world than it did on late medieval society.


The social history of the Renaissance should be seen as consisting of two phases, defined primarily by the demographic fortunes of the European population rather than by the more traditional designations of the Italian and the northern Renaissance. The first phase was the so-called crisis of the fourteenth century, which lasted from about 1300 to about 1450. This phase appears to have prompted social transformations that intensified, especially in the already highly urbanized environment of northern Italy, cultural practices that would become characteristic of the Renaissance as a movement: a growing interest in antiquity as a cultural model and a new emphasis on artistic consumption or the display of wealth by an urban as well as a courtly elite. The second phase is the long sixteenth century, which lasted from about 1450 to about 1620, and contributed, at least in part, to the consolidation of the new cultural interests and their rapid diffusion throughout the cities and courts of western Europe as a whole. Social history therefore connects the Renaissance to the history of both the late medieval and the early modern periods. At the same time social historians have made it plain that the early Renaissance, which derived in important ways from developments in medieval culture, was primarily urban and Italian, while the later Renaissance, which had become a Europe-wide phenomenon increasingly centered on the court, can be fruitfully examined in relation to longer-term developments in early modern culture (most especially the Reformation and the scientific revolution), even down to the time of the French Revolution.

Despite the centrifugal forces inherent in such a distinction, cultural historians can make a strong case for the unity of the Renaissance as an object of study. It remains true that the new attitudes toward language, education, and the past that developed with particular intensity in Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries came to exercise an almost hypnotic influence on the elites of Europe as a whole in the sixteenth century. Thus, particularly from the vantage point of cultural history, with its emphasis on representations and practices, the Renaissance continues to bridge the late medieval and the early modern periods. In the end, its fascination lies at least in part in its inability to be reduced to (or explained by) social factors alone.

See alsoProtoindustrialization; The Population of Europe: Early Modern Demographic Patterns; Health and Disease; The City: The Early Modern Period (volume 2);Artists; Artisans (volume 3);Festivals; The Reformation of Popular Culture; Schools and Schooling; Printing and Publishing; Reading (volume 5); and 001 00025.


The Social History of the Renaissance in Italy

Baxandall, Michael. Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style. New York, 1972. Subtle analysis of the commercial and visual content of Renaissance painting.

Brucker, Gene A. The Civic World of Early Renaissance Florence. Princeton, N.J., 1977. Influential and insightful investigation into the social tensions that shaped Florentine civic culture.

Burke, Peter. Culture and Society in Renaissance Italy, 1420–1540. London and New York, 1972. Examines the multiple social forces that underlay the emergence of the creative elites of the period.

Cohn, Samuel Kline. Death and Property in Siena, 1205–1800: Strategies for the Afterlife. Baltimore, 1988. Explores interplay of inheritance strategies, culture, and demography.

Goldthwaite, Richard A. The Building of Renaissance Florence: An Economic and Social History. Baltimore, 1980. Magisterial socioeconomic study that deftly links labor to the history of art and architecture.

Grendler, Paul F. Schooling in Renaissance Italy: Literacy and Learning, 1300–1600. Baltimore, 1989. Erudite, thorough analysis of schools and who attended; focuses also on curricular issues and changes.

Herlihy, David, and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber. Tuscans and Their Families: A Study of the Florentine Catasto of 1427. New Haven, Conn., 1985. Translation of Toscans et leurs familles: Une étude du catasto florentin de 1427. The single most important demographic study of a late medieval population.

Kelly, Joan. "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" In Becoming Visible: Women in European History. Edited by Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz. Boston, 1977, pages 137–164. Reprinted in her Women, History, and Theory: TheEssays of Joan Kelly. Chicago, 1984. Pages 19–50. Challenged scholars to rethink the position of women in Renaissance society.

Martin, Alfred von. Sociology of the Renaissance. London and New York, 1944. Classic statement of the Renaissance as an expression of the bourgeoisie.

Martines, Lauro. The Social World of the Florentine Humanists, 1390–1460. Princeton, N.J., 1963. An early successful effort to place Renaissance humanists in their social context.

Rosand, David. Painting in Cinquecento Venice: Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto. New Haven, Conn., 1982. Among the best works on the social context of Renaissance art.

Ruggiero, Guido. The Boundaries of Eros: Sex Crime and Sexuality in Renaissance Venice. New York, 1985. Pathbreaking work; points to the existence of both an illicit and licit sexual culture in late medieval Venice.

Trexler, Richard C. Public Life in Renaissance Florence. New York, 1980. Turgid but brilliant rethinking of Florentine society. A total anthropology of the city.

Wackernagel, Martin. The World of the Florentine Renaissance Artist: Projects and Patrons, Workshop and Art Market. Translated by Alison Luchs. Princeton, N.J., 1981. Comprehensive analysis of the social milieu of Renaissance artists.

General Studies of the Social and Cultural History of Europe during the Renaissance

Braudel, Fernand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. 2 vols. Translated by Siân Reynolds. New York, 1972–1973. Examines relations among the environment, structures, social trends, and events in the sixteenth-century Mediterranean.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. Society and Culture in Early Modern France. Stanford, Calif., 1975. Pivotal work in early modern studies; opened new avenues of research on the connections between social and cultural history.

Hale, John Rigby. The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance. London and New York, 1994. A magisterial work; opens important perspectives on the field.

King, Margaret L. Women of the Renaissance. Chicago, 1991. Superb synthesis of 1980s scholarship.

Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel. The Peasants of Languedoc. Translated with an introduction by John Day. Urbana, Ill., 1974. Translation of Paysans de Languedoc. Annaliste and largely Malthusian treatment of early modern France as a function of demographic cycles.

Sacks, David Harris. The Widening Gate: Bristol and the Atlantic Economy, 1450–1700. Berkeley, Calif., 1991. A local history of capitalism; brilliant on the interplay of society, economics, politics, and culture.

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The Renaissance

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