Franceso Petrarca, or Petrarch, who discovered the Renaissance.


We have not paid much attention to Italy since Charlemagne became Roman Emperor there, and for good reason. Italian history is very confusing, because unlike all the other sections of Europe, Italy refused to organize itself into a single nation-state dominated by a single ethnic group of barbarians. The middle part of the peninsula was ruled directly by the popes in some sort of loose partnership with the Holy Roman Emperors—either as their vassals or, under strong popes, as their masters. The other parts of Italy tended to wall themselves up in cities constantly at war with each other, each city controlling just as much territory as it could steal from its neighbors on a good day.

If that pattern sounds familiar, it is because we noticed the same pattern in ancient Greece before Philip of Macedon. And, just as we saw in Greece, decades and centuries of constant bickering, warfare, betrayal, and misery led to a flourishing of art and culture.

We call this flourishing the Renaissance, because even though it happened in Italy, the French somehow hijacked the name. It means “Rebirth,” because its participants thought they were rediscovering the art and culture of the classical age. Actually, they were discovering their own fantasies of what the classical age might have been if a bunch of late-medieval Italians had been in charge of it.

In Italian, the Renaissance is called the Renasciamento. For some time in the late nineteenth century, certain historians desperately tried to get English speakers to say “Renascence,” but they failed miserably, because “Renascence” sounds ugly and does not look like an English word, even if it is one. Apparently it was too much to ask scholars to accept that people could just say “Rebirth” and be done with it. Anyone can say “Rebirth,” after all. No, it is better to have a French term, so that scholars can show off their French pronunciation, and those of us who know some French can laugh at how badly they botch it.

The poet Petrarch is widely credited with beginning the Renaissance by rediscovering Cicero’s letters. If you have a box of old letters somewhere, remember what trouble you might cause to future generations if you don’t burn them now. Petrarch looked at Cicero’s letters and found that they were really quite well written. In fact, he could think of only one other writer who was as good as Cicero, and that was himself. “Everything between Cicero and me was garbage,” said Petrarch. “After a long dark age of nothing worth reading except the Song of Roland and Thomas Aquinas and Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied and the Arthurian romances and Anselm and the Cid and Bede’s History and Abelard and suchlike rot, the greatness of the classical age has been reborn in me.”

Historians have plenty of theories to explain why the Renaissance happened when it did. Where there are many theories, there is no knowledge. Nevertheless, let us take a brief glance at some of the proposed causes of the Renaissance, and we may find some common thread.

Among the causes proposed for the Renaissance, then, are the Crusades in the Holy Land, the sacking of Constantinople, the incessant wars between the Italian cities, the corruption and venality of the popes, and the Black Death.

We might suggest, looking at that list, that the best way to provoke a renaissance in your culture is with a program of incessant misery and egregious wickedness. Dr. Boli therefore expects another glorious renaissance any moment now, and he is already planning some new frescoes for the south parlor.

As we mentioned before, Italy, where the Rebirth was born, refused to organize itself into one convenient nation-state, so the history of the place is a confusing tangle of different histories of different Italian cities. Most of the Italian cities were governed as “republics”—“public things,” just like ancient Rome. As in ancient Rome, what the word meant was that, instead of vesting power in a single absolute monarch, the Italian cities placed it in the hands of two perennially warring factions who sacrificed the public interest to their own petty and meaningless squabbles. Since there is no modern analogue, it requires a vigorous mental effort to imagine the complete political gridlock that usually paralyzed these republics.

That gridlock, along with the wars that punctuated it, was one source of productive misery. The Black Death was another. It cut through Europe like an out-of-control lawn mower, leaving a third of the population dead—and the other two-thirds quite suddenly about 50% wealthier than they had been.

Economically the Black Death turned out to be a very good idea. The survivors put that unexpected wealth into circulation by buying themselves luxuries they couldn’t afford before. There’s nothing like a pandemic to kick your renaissance into high gear.

In an age when it was not yet possible to turn out millions of identical luxury goods in a Malaysian factory, the only way to show your neighbors you were better than they were was to patronize individual artists, who would create original works to decorate the front parlor, or to hire poets to sing your praises in immortal verses. Thus began a sort of artistic arms race that certainly gave the Renaissance a good hard shove to get it going.

And then there were the pope problems to add to the general level of Renaissance-producing misery.

After peaking in the high Middle Ages, the power of the popes entered a precipitous decline. After a marathon conclave, Clement V, a French pope, was finally elected in 1309. You may imagine the consternation in the Roman establishment when Clement refused to leave France. Instead, he stayed in Avignon, where he spent his days dancing on the bridge. Meanwhile Rome, stripped of its largest employer, turned into a dreadful slum.

Avignon became a sort of Rome-away-from-Rome for the popes, and the King of France thus had an enormous influence on the doings of the successor of Peter. For nearly seventy years, the popes refused to go back to Rome, until finally St. Catherine of Siena threatened to smack Gregory XI upside the head if he didn’t get back where he belonged.

“Well,” you might have thought, “problem solved.” And so it might have been, except that Gregory died not very long after relocating, and the cardinals decided, with a little help from a Roman street mob, to elect a virtuous, intelligent, and incorruptible man to replace him, the popular and well-respected Bartolomeo Prignano. He took the name Urban VI and promptly went absolutely bonkers with power. He actually had the effrontery to say that the cardinals should not accept bribes for doing ecclesiastical business, and he made the appalling suggestion that they should not surround themselves with worldly riches. A large faction in the College of Cardinals came to the conclusion that Urban must be that Antichrist they had heard so much about. They declared him deposed and—with some strong persuasion by the king of France—elected another pope, who went back to Avignon.

So, for quite some time, there were two popes in the West—one, as usual, in Rome, and the other at Avignon, where the King of France could keep an eye on him. Naturally, the King of France refused to recognize the pope in Rome, insisting that his pet pope in Avignon was the only genuine article. Which pope you chose, therefore, depended largely on how you felt about the King of France. There were colorful and picturesque wars over the issue, featuring memorable massacres of civilians and all the things you want from a good war.

In such circumstances, the one thing you can usually count on is that the promoters of war will make themselves rich, one way or another, and rich people need luxuries to distinguish them from worthless poor people. Thus the Great Western Schism and its attendant unpleasantness also gave the Renaissance a bit of a kick. Even the decay Rome had suffered all those years the popes stayed in Avignon gave the Roman popes every incentive to spend money on luxuries. What was the good of being pope if your Eternal City was a wreck?

By the time the papacy settled down, and there was only one of the critters again, the Renaissance was in full swing. It was discovered that being pope was a very good part-time job for a gentleman of means who wished to be a gentleman of considerably more means, and the best families of Italy—the Borgias, the Medicis, the Capones, and so on—vied for the position. As popes, they patronized the arts to such an extent that they had to undertake massive building programs just to find more wall space for frescoes.

Frescoes were quite the thing in the Renaissance. Nothing said “disposable income” like a series of frescoes in the front hall. And the artists of the Renaissance, who believed (quite erroneously) that they were reviving the lost glories of classical art, made several interesting discoveries that changed the history of Western painting forever.

Foremost among them was the discovery of perspective. Perspective involves all sorts of geometrical knowledge, but the basic thing about perspective is that things that are near are big, whereas things that are far away are small. This was quite a departure from medieval art, in which things that were important were big. Using their knowledge of perspective, the artists of the Renaissance would paint perfectly rendered illusions of colonnades and doorways leading out to fantastic landscapes, and then watch snickering as their aristocratic patrons ran right into the wall like Wile E. Coyote.

Sculpture also flourished. Again, the new sculptors took classical models, which encouraged them to carve their subjects in natural poses and situations, such as standing around naked in public places—quite a departure from the stiff and clothed figures of medieval sculpture.

Architecture abandoned centuries of development to turn back to classical forms. The architects of the Renaissance hung their heads, averted their eyes, and blushed crimson with shame whenever they passed a Gothic cathedral like the monstrous pile at Chartres, or that hideous York Minster. When books began to be printed (about which we shall have quite a bit to say in the next chapter), one of the first really big bestsellers was Vitruvius, the ancient Roman arbiter of correct taste in architecture. Vitruvius gave you a mathematical formula for determining whether a building was worth looking at, and plainly those horrible Gothic things—called “Gothic” because they were obviously the products of ignorant barbarism—had all the wrong proportions, because Vitruvius said so.

One of the remarkable things about the Renaissance was that the men of the period (we use the term “men” because the men themselves would not have admitted women to the club) did not yet have our current knowledge of specialization. They were simply ignorant of the fact that, to be a good architect, one has to give up the idea of being a poet or a scientist. Having no such knowledge, they often allowed themselves to be extravagantly talented in many different fields, which was an appalling waste of energy.

No one wasted more energy than Leonardo da Vinci, who has become the pop-culture symbol of the Renaissance Man. Leonardo could do just about anything well. His paintings are counted among the great masterpieces of the world’s art. He was an architect of no little skill and taste. He could play “I’ve Been Floating Down the Old Green River” on the banjo faster than anyone else. He wrote a series of bestselling thrillers under the name “Dick Francis.” He was reputed to be the most devious badminton player in Europe.

But his notebooks are what fascinate us today. He filled them with ideas for practical inventions that were centuries ahead of their time—a submarine, a machine gun, a flying machine, a warp drive, a spork, and countless other ideas that never went anywhere, because he was not such a fool as to publish them. There was, after all, an Inquisition to take into account.

But it is tempting to wonder what the world would be like if Leonardo’s ideas had been put into practice. Dr. Boli, having looked into the notebooks of Leonardo, has concluded that his flying machine would have tumbled out of the sky the first time it was launched from a high place, and the test pilot would doubtless have been impaled on his own spork. So the world would probably have been pretty much the same, except perhaps with more of a healthy aversion to flying machines.

After a while, the Renaissance penetrated to the darkest corners of Europe, even reaching England by the time of the later Tudors. But the Renaissance could not last. If it had lasted, we should still be in the Renaissance today, which would be a great inconvenience to historians, who need their history to be divided into named periods. So, after a few hundred years, the Renaissance gave way to the Baroque period, which historians define as “pretty much like the Renaissance, but with more fiddly curlicues.”

Meanwhile, we have turned a blind eye in this chapter to the most interesting thing that was going on during the Renaissance, simply because it would be asking too much of us to discuss the big upheaval in the Christian Church at the same time. We shall therefore go back and cover about the same historical period in the next chapter, but this time with our eyes focused on the Protestant Reformation, its antecedents, and its effects. One does not wish to spoil that chapter for one’s readers, but it is probably not saying too much if we hint that more massacres will be involved.

The chapters previously published:

Chapter 1.


Chapter 2.


Chapter 3.


Chapter 4.


Chapter 5.


Chapter 6.


Chapter 7.


Chapter 8.


Chapter 9.


Chapter 10.


Chapter 11.


Chapter 12.


Chapter 13.


Chapter 14.


Chapter 15.


Chapter 16.


Chapter 17.


Chapter 18.


Chapter 19.




  1. Always wonderful to see another chapter in this series!

    But you mentioned several theories as to the cause of the Renaissance, but then only expanded on a couple of them.

    The Crusades are seen by many as a proximate cause of the Renaissance, not only because the Crusades petered out into futile piracy in the Mideast (while cresting to the triumphant Reconquista in Spain and the Drang Noch Osten in the Baltic) at around the same time the Renaissance was ramping up in Italy, but because all those returning Crusaders, Pilgrims, and more importantly, the Italian businessmen who got rich off of running their logistics as the FedEx of the late middle ages, brought back stories of the high culture and high luxury of the Muslim mideast. Muslim and Jewish religious scholars in the Mideast and Islamic Spain had taken theological nitpicking to a level of sophistication which blew the minds of Western Christians used to the dry musings of monks, and had managed to hold on to even more copies of rare Greek and Roman manuscripts than the monks and abbots of the Western monasteries. In addition to rare books and the ideas within them, the returning Crusaders and suppliers had brought with them luxury goods from the East, such as silks and sugar and spices, in sufficient quantities for them to become a fad among not just royalty, but the lesser nobility and the wealthy urban merchants as well.

    Rare books became just another luxury, and a status symbol. You weren’t quite a proper snob unless you knew the contents of your bookshelves of Latin poets and Greek philosophers as well as you knew the contents of your cellar full of French and Italian wines, and your wardrobe full of Anatolian silks and fine Indian cottons.

    Into this heady atmosphere of rare books as status symbols and luxury goods came a flood of refugees from the 1453 fall of Constantinople to the Turks. And they brought with them the greatest treasure trove of rare books for sale in the history of mankind. This again made rare books a fad accessible to everyone with a decent amount of disposable income, greatly expanding the market. To feed this market, book hunters began pawing through the dusty libraries of monasteries all across Europe, re-discovering yet more treasure troves of long-forgotten classical works. This kept the cycle going long enough that soon, pretty much anyone who was anyone in Italy owned at least a small library of classical works, and in that sort of environment, at least some of those notables actually READ their collections rather than simply sorting them by color and size of binding and using them as items of interior decor.

  2. Joseph Moore says:

    I’m not sure late medieval Italians were in charge of Italy. Their imaginations, however, knew no bounds.

    On a thinly-related tangent: There should be a game show: Name Your Barbarian Overlords. It would be like Jeopardy, sort of, where the host would describe a person, and the contestants would have to name the barbarians that had controlled that part of Europe at the time:

    “You’re a peasant near the west coast of France in 900 A.D. Are your barbarian overlords:

    a. Danes?
    b. Franks?
    c. Visigoths?
    d. All of the above?”

    We’d need a panel of tweed-jacketed historians to make the call, disagreements to be settled with fisticuffs.

    Heck, I’d watch.

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