The Renaissance period (1400 to 1700) covered art, literature, philosophy and government. Renaissance culture spread outwards from Florence, to other Italian cities and then, over the following centuries, to the rest of Europe.
It is widely understood that it was a unique combination of several different influences that led to the Renaissance, with the social and political conditions of the era, combined with great wealth and the large number of talented artists and artisans in Florence; influencing cultural development on an exceptional scale.
Europe in the 15th Century depended on Italy for much of its commerce. Italy itself was made up of city-states in which power was shared by leading families. By 1400 its leading city-state, Florence, had established stable self-government and great wealth through textile trading and banking, leading to a shared feeling of optimism and power. Responsible for the wealth of Florence, the ruling class of merchants, manufacturers and bankers were proud, competitive, academically curious and culturally astute.
This wealth made patronage of the arts and the growth of Renaissance culture possible. In turn patronage was a way of demonstrating one’s wealth and power. Wealthy families constantly tried to outdo each other with the extravagance of their commissions, with self-advertisement a key feature of Renaissance patronage. This is epitomised by Masaccio (1401-1428), in ‘The Holy Trinity’ fresco (1425) in the Santa Maria Novella church in Florence. In it, the patrons, Lorenzo Lenzi and his wife, kneel in front of St John the Baptist, Mary, Christ and God.
Rivalry pushed patrons and artisans to outclass each other, with revolutionary achievements such as the Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence (Il Duomo) being created by this intense competition. The ground-breaking double-skinned, self-supporting, octagonal dome created by architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) following Roman building methods, gave him the edge over Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) and won him the commission in 1418.
Perhaps the most renowned patrons were the Medici who dominated the city for much of the 15th Century. The Palazzo Medici and the church of San Lorenzo are two of the Medici family’s famous legacies together with Benozzo Gozzoli’s (c.1421-1499) fresco in the Magi chapel in the Palazzo Medici, illustrating the Adoration of the Magi (1459). In it, Lorenzo de Medici (in power 1469 to 1492) is shown as one of the kings, with his father, Piero, and his grandfather, Cosimo, obvious in his retinue - the power of the Medici had become equal with the power of the Florentine state itself.
The wealth of the Medici family also paid for Brunelleschi's Il Duomo, and Donatello's (1386-1466) statue David (c.1420s) - notable artistic achievements and commemorations of the power of the family that had commissioned them.
In Medieval times, the belief was that the rewards awaiting in heaven prevailed over anything in life and...