What were the social factors that led to the Renaissance in Italy?
What caused the Renaissance? There are numerous social factors that encouraged and promoted the Renaissance in Italy from 1350 to 1500. The Italian Renaissance was one of the world’s greatest period in culture and the arts. It produced writers such as Machiavelli and artists such as Leonardo da Vinci. The political, economic and social transformation of Italy encouraged people to adopt a new world view, that fundamentally transformed Italy. Specific aspects in Italian society promoted the new values such as individualism. These social factors included ‘new rulers’, social mobility, trade and a society that was not bound by traditional values. Above all the increasing secularism of the times allowed people in Renaissance to conceive of a new way of living and even a new world.
The Renaissance was an effort to imitate the lost world of ancient Greece and Rome. The Italian, artists, writers, and thinkers who all participated in the Renaissance, sought to create works that were the equal of the ancients, whom they regarded as the pinnacle of civilization. The Renaissance, unlike the Middle Ages, stressed the individual, reason, beauty, and secular values. This outlook became known as Humanism and has had a profound impact on European society. The Renaissance not only produced great works of art but also resulted in dramatic change in the views of Europeans and a decisive move away from the world of the Middle Ages. The origins of the Renaissance were in Italy and they were a result of the unique society and its recent history.
In the aftermath of the Black Death, the economy of Italy benefited greatly from trade and thus some areas became industrialized such as Florence. In this city, there was a large class of weavers who wove cloth for home consumption and export. The wealth of Italy increased because of trade but it also changed people’s outlook, who gradually adopted a more rational approach to the world. Italian society had evolved very differently from the rest of Europe. Northern Italy in particular, was much more urbanized than the rest of Europe. Many of the largest cities in Europe were located in Northern Europe such as Florence and Milan. Urban societies are widely believed to be more dynamic than agrarian societies. In towns and cities' people come together and converse and debate. Urban societies are also more open to new ideas as immigrants and traders settled in them. The plazas and taverns of Florence and other cities were often filled with people, many of them outsiders discussing new ideas and exchanging copies of manuscripts. This was a milieu that was beneficial to creative and intellectual endeavors.
Because of the increasing urbanization of Italian society and the impact of the Black Death, the feudal economic system collapsed. Feudalism was a political-social and economic system that gave political and military power to the landed elite and which tied the majority of the population to this elite. Feudalism was a system that demanded obedience, deference and ordained that people should accept their position in society, without question. It endorsed a view of the world that it advanced the belief that the world governed by unchanging and fixed by the laws of God. Feudalism was never strong in Italy, even in the High Middle Ages, and after the 1350s it all but collapsed. The collapse of feudalism led to the release of social forces that led to the Renaissance. People were freer than ever before and they were prepared to question and doubt and develop new ideas about society and to create new means of expression and styles of art to represent them. The society of Italy in the period from 1350 to 1500 energized people and encouraged them to experiment with the arts, thought and modes of life.
The New Elite
The great artists and the thinkers of the Renaissance needed the patronage of wealthy patrons and rulers. The unique political situation in Italy meant that the ruling class was distinct from the rest of Europe. Unlike elsewhere, they were not many hereditary rulers, many of the rulers were often self-made men. The ‘new rulers’ in Renaissance Italy usually acquired power through war, such as the Sforza’s in Milan or by manipulating the existing political system as the case of the De Medici in Florence. They were to play a crucial role in the development of the Renaissance and the values that inspired it. Since they often ruled by political conquest, they legitimated rule their rule through lavish patronage of artists and composers. Renaissance artists such as Donatello benefitted this system and allowed artists to consistently work. A Swiss Cultural historian in the nineteenth century argued that these new rulers saw the ‘state as a work of art.’
These new rulers also could not rely on traditional power structures to support the rule of their governments. This meant that they often adapted and changed the system of governments in the city-states to maintain and perpetuate their rule. This meant that they sought other models of government and as a result, they came under the influence of the classical world. The new leaders employed learned men to help them in their government and for their bureaucracy. They regularly employed humanists and in this way humanism influenced the development of the state. The Humanists often used their classical learning to provide solutions to current problems. This did much to promote classical learning in this period, which was something that could have practical value and not something merely academic. Through them, the ideas and the works of the classical world, that privileged reason and the individual became very influential and this did much to encourage a new world view among the educated and the literate.
Perhaps the greatest difference between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was the latter’s renewed interest in the individual. There were several reasons for this. Firstly, there was the example of the New Rulers, they had secured political control and often absolute power through their own initiative and depending only on their talent and will. They were living proof that a person could use innate talents and their gifts could raise themselves from a lowly station and by sheer will power change their destiny. The individual was seen as something positive and that people could change their ordained status in society, in contrast to medieval thinking. The example of the New Rulers was one that was particularly influential at a time of increased social mobility. Because of the collapse of the feudal system in the aftermath of the Black Death, social mobility became more common. People born poor could rise and improve their lot, many humble traders became wealthy merchants.
The artists, scholars, and writers of the time were imbued by this new emphasis on the individual and it was represented in the works. The new focus on the individual is evident in the work of artists as diverse as Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci. The status of the artist increased immeasurably at this time. The new value placed on the individual and their abilities meant that the role and place of the artist in society was changed. No longer are they seen as craftsmen who were often members of guilds, now they came to be regarded as talented and extraordinary individuals with a significant role in society. The modern conception of the artist owes much to the Renaissance view of the artists. The new status of the artists allowed them greater freedom of expression which allowed them to create so many timeless masterpieces.
Spectacle and Display
Italy during the Renaissance was a society that was obsessed with display and spectacle. Life in the towns and cities of the time were structured around an apparently endless round of civic and religious ceremonies and festivals. The courts of the rulers were also renowned for lavish spectacles. 
The New Elites such as the De Medici used spectacles and display to assert themselves in society and to demonstrate their wealth. Wealthy members of the urban elite and the aristocracy were always keen to demonstrate their status. This need to publicize and affirm one’s status led to the patronage of great artists and writers to provide displays and exhibit the wealth and power of the elite. This need for others recognition was vital in the Renaissance and it led to the lavish patronage of the period. This led to a great deal of competition to patronize the best artists and writers. For example, the Sforza paid De Vinci a huge sum to work for them in Milan. The need for display and ostentation benefitted humanists, artists, and writers as it allowed them to receive more commissions and it also encouraged them to be more creative and daring to produce works that would get the attention for their patrons.
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Perhaps the great impact of the Papacy on Italy and beyond was on religious belief. The increasing secular outlook and policies of the Pope were viewed with disgust and outrage by many religious people, especially outside Italy. Many people in Christendom were worried that if the Pope was corrupt, was the church also corrupt and what did this mean for their salvation.  The Church at this period needed reform, all over Europe. Successive Popes did not attempt to reform the clergy as they were too preoccupied with their interests in Italy and especially in the Papal States. The lives of the Popes scandalized many and led to many becoming disenchanted with the Catholic Church. Prior to the Counter-Reformation religious observance was lax and the Inquisition which was found to enforce Church doctrine, fell into abeyance.
The increasing secularism of the Italian elite and also of the emerging class of traders and bureaucrats was to prove decisive in the Renaissance. No longer was the world seen just as a vale of tears but it was a place where men and women could find meaning and even beauty. During the Renaissance, people were quite willing to celebrate this life and not just wait for happiness in the next life. People came to see something special and unique in the human experience. In Renaissance society, the body was not seen as a source of sin but under the influence of secular ideas, it came to be something to be celebrated and not scorned. Evidence of this is seen everywhere in the works of the great artists such as Botticelli and Michelangelo, that celebrate the human form. This increasingly, secular outlook and the optimism about the human condition led to what Jacob Burckhardt has called the ‘discovery of man and the world.’ Influenced by classical ideas, many in the Renaissance became more aware of the potential of humans and began to investigate the world. A new worldview emerged in Renaissance Italy, which affirmed the dignity of men and women and their capabilities.
The Renaissance changed the history of Italy, Europe, and the world. It first emerged in Italy and this was no coincidence. Italian society in the period from 1350-1500 was one that was ideally suited for the development of a new culture and view of the world. The growing wealth and urbanization of Northern Italy meant that a new culture developed to replace the old medieval order and its values. The society was one that privileged the individual and believed that life could be meaningful. The new elite in this society, that appreciated display, and ostentation, encouraged them patronage of great artists. It was also a factor in the experimentation carried out by writers and artists who sought to impress their patrons. Perhaps the key social factor in the development of the Renaissance in Italy was the growing secularism of society, no longer were men and women confined to a theological interpretation of the world and life but sought to find an alternative way of living in their new society. In the new environment, many sought guidance for the new society emerging in the great works of the classical past and in their desire to emulate the past, they managed to create a new culture. One that in many ways laid the foundations for the modern world.
- Burke, Peter. The Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society in Italy Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1999, p. 6.
- Burkhardt, Jacob (1990) The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.(Hammondsworth, Penguin Classics, 1990) p. 78
- Ruggiero, Guido. The Renaissance in Italy: A Social and Cultural History of the Rinascimento (Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. 648
- Lopez, Robert Sabatino, The Three Ages of the Italian Renaissance Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1970, p. 89
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- Burckhardt, 1990, p. 78
- Burkhardt, 134
- Burckhardt, 1990, p. 156
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- Burckhardt, 1990, p. 156
- Burke, p 214
- Celenza, Christopher and Kenneth Gouvens, Editors. Humanism and Creativity in the Renaissance (Longmans, Leiden 2006),pp. 295–326
- Celenza, p. 296
- Duffy, Eamon. Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes. Yale University Press, 1997), p. 211
- Duffy, p. 334
- Duffy, p. 335
- Burkhardt, p. 115
Updated January 28, 2019