Located on the Rhine River in Switzerland, the city of Basel was a center of publishing and humanist* scholarship during the Renaissance. Basel had been part of the Holy Roman Empire* during the Middle Ages. However, in 1501 it declared itself a "free city" and joined the Swiss Confederation, a group of cantons, or states, that had banded together for defense. With a population of about 10,000, Basel was one of the largest cities in the confederation.
The famous scholar Desiderius Erasmus made his home in Basel in the 1520s. Thanks largely to his influence, the city became a major center of humanist scholarship. Erasmus had come to the city to work with his friend the publisher Johann Froben, who printed many of Erasmus's works. He and other humanists played an important role in Basel's publishing industry. They served as editors and proofreaders on books of history and literature in Latin, Greek, and German. Basel also dominated the field of religious publishing in northern Europe. It produced high-quality Bibles and works of biblical scholarship.
Most of the city's printers belonged to the powerful Safran guild*, an organization that included such workers as papermakers, booksellers, mapmakers, and even goldsmiths and jewelers. The publishing industry helped support a great variety of artists, who provided illustrations for books. Many of Basel's artists specialized in religious images for religious services or personal prayers. Hans Holbein the Younger, who lived in the city, was known for his paintings, engravings, and illustrations.
Turmoil broke out in Basel during the Protestant Reformation*. On February 9, 1529, a Protestant mob attacked the Roman Catholic cathedral and many other churches in the city. Their four-hour rampage destroyed most of the city's religious art from the Middle Ages. After the attack, members of the town council who supported Catholicism fled the city. Those that remained behind voted to support the Reformation. Most Catholics left Basel, and the city became a center of Protestantism in northern Europe. As a result, its production of religious images ceased. The city lost its prominence in the arts and did not recover it until the 1800s.
- * humanist
referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living
- * Holy Roman Empire
political body in central Europe composed of several states; existed until 1806
- * guild
association of craft and trade owners and workers that set standards for and represented the interests of its members
- * Protestant Reformation
religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches