The Italian Renaissance was a very difficult time period in European history. The
arts were flourishing, while the city-states in Italy fought bloody battles with each other
and within themselves. Bribery and murder were not uncommon tools for men to use
when they wanted power. Meanwhile those same rulers patronized the arts a great deal
and they would commission the best artistic minds of the time to build, design and paint
their palaces and churches and later on their own portraits and everyday paraphernalia.
In the beginning of Renaissance the artists, as well as the princes, were mostly
interested in religious themes, mostly from the New Testament. They all believed that if
God let them prosper, then they should give thanks in some form. Therefore, the artists
were commissioned to paint the churches, monasteries or nunneries where God was
worshipped. People who could afford it, loved to pray out of expensive books or give
expensive gifts to worship God. Also, many rich courts tried to emulate the papal court.
The Popes in Rome set an example to all the other rulers by having such a vast collection
of artwork that it was doubtful that anyone would ever be able to compete with them.
However the paintings in churches and nunneries had another purpose besides the
one described above. The Pope and the ruler of any particular area needed to have
obedient subjects. Religion was one way to keep people that obedient. The stained glass
windows and the frescoes in the churches and cathedrals often told stories from the Bible
or depicted hell and heaven and what people should or should not do. Since most people
were illiterate, they depended on the priest to interpret the Bible for them. The
illustrations around only supported that interpretation of the Bible which was beneficial
to the rich and ruling classes. Even when some people preached poverty and abstinence
from anything secular, the religious artworks were considered part of religion itself.
As time went on, the illustrations took on yet another purpose. Each city-state
starting using art to depict and immortalize their victories and their rulers. People now
commissioned artists to paint their portraits, design their tabletops, candleholders, fans or
walls in their studies. A lot of themes varied from religion and if someone were to
commission a religious theme, often the faces of the buyers were to appear in that work
of art. Many people wanted to see something else around them and the elaborate pictures
told stories of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses or people's favorite pastime.
By the 16th century the profession of the artist was becoming fashionable. In the
15th century it was still unheard of the artists' mingling with the powerful and the rich.
There were very few masters, who were considered brilliant, so there was practically no
competition between them. One person could paint the same monastery or church for
years, adding just a little personal variation to the story and the style of the painting. It
was becoming fashionable for an artist to not only do his work at a royal court but also be
associated with that court. Many city-states claimed ownership of the brilliant minds that
worked there. Also, individualism was becoming an important aspect of people's lives.
Any individual who exhibited some sort of talent could easily find a sponsor among rich
neighbors . Mantegna was a shepherd in Padua until someone discovered him and he
became a court painter at Mantua. Monetary rewards were also very important to artists.
Rivalry between the artists challenged them to go to new and better levels and the more
money they received the harder they tried. Many artists, such as Bruneleleschi, Uccello or
Piero della Franesca started experimenting with perspective. After that many lesser
known artists started emulating them and the paintings now had a new and different
dimension to them.
Also, there were other innovations in art. Nudity was more acceptable in sculpture
and Donatello's David and then Michelangelo's David made a new and bolder statement.
They looked up to Greeks and Romans for inspiration and technique. In painting, artists
also experimented with nature and landscape. Before Renaissance, landscape was only
used as a background and not as a subject for a painting itself. Now it was being used by
Titian, Giorgione and Tintoretto to create mood, atmosphere and to stir people to
emotions because of its beauty.
However, one should not be deceived by the achievements of artists during
Renaissance. It was a very violent time in Italian history and blood was shed as easily as
money was given for the patronage of arts. "The way to power was strewn with corpses;
men murdered their wives, wives poisoned their husbands, brother slaughtered brother,
family raged against family, city sacked city" (Plumb, 21). This quote is a perfect
explanation of what was going on in Renaissance Italy. Anyone with power had to
always watch their backs because the traitor would always be the least expected person.
Politics was a dangerous game and anyone who played gambled with his life, however
the spoils of the game were enough to attract many.
The city-states of Italy gained their independence by switching their allegiance
from Pope's side to the Emperor's. The Pope was not only a religious leader but a secular
one as well. The Church owned more property then the Emperor and also had right to
collect taxes and the tithe. The Emperor on the other hand fought with the Church for the
right to appoint bishops. Both sides based their motives on religion but the true reasons
were very clear - money and power. If the Church were to appoint the bishop then the
taxes and the tithe goes to the church treasury and the people on that land owe their
allegiance to the Church. If the Emperor were to appoint the bishop, then it would
probably be someone whom the Emperor trusts and not all the money would go to the
Church's treasury. And since the Pope was rivaling the Emperor in secular power the
appointment of bishops took on that struggle.
The people in city-states in Italy were divided into two parties, Guelphs for the
Pope and Ghibellines for the Emperor. This rivalry continued long after the Emperor, for
whom this party was formed, was gone. Amidst this rivalry Florence, Milan, Naples and
Venice emerged as the strongest and most powerful city-states. They were not powerful
enough to overthrow each other but they constantly engaged into internal wars. This
struggle lasted for over fifty years and then Charles V added Italy to the Hapsburg
Regardless of war, the towns were growing. They were of different size and
power but all of them were undergoing a political change trying to establish democracy
out of feudalism. However, they failed and went from democracy to oligarchy. The
members of craft guilds had acquired power and taken over the institution of the
government. They had no written or constitutional authority to rule the city but they
represented the oligarchy that was capable of ruling the city. They solved all the
problems by force and moved on to secure the financial well-being of the city. There was
never any unity in the Italian communities. The gentry had been at odds with merchant
and artisans of the city even before the formation of the Guelph and Chibellino parties.
And although the merchants were the domineering power in the city, they often needed
the help of nobility in financial or diplomatic matters.
Another problem in the Renaissance Italy was the plague. People died by
thousands. By the end of the epidemic the population was reduced to almost half of its
previous size. The resulting poverty, brought on by the decline of trade was a fertile
ground for tyranny to spring upon.
The exile of Popes to Avignon had given princes a chance to reestablish their
power and the Great Schism only encouraged warfare. While the Popes were fighting
amongst themselves, they had little time to oversee the behavior of the Christian world
and especially the Papal States. When the Popes came back to Rome, it led to nothing
else but a power struggle between the tyrants in Perugia, who already established
themselves and the Popes, who had to reestablish themselves.
The wars were becoming more complicated and the states started hiring
mercenaries or condottieri. At first, they were foreigners such as Sir John Hawkwood and
the White Company. Later on, the tyrants of the smaller states started hiring out their men
and very often, themselves. However, these troops were very unreliable. Since they were
out for hire, they would help anyone who paid more than the previous owner. Because of
this, the soldiers' camps were filled with spies not only from the enemy's side but also
from their own. But the hired troops did something very important - they saved lives. No
captain wished to waste his men, so the level of bloodshed dropped and the diplomatic
talks became more frequent.
All this violence made the people more susceptible to religion. After every
slaughter, people would repent and pray and try to be the model of Christianity. People
such as Savonarola and Fra Bernardino, who denounced all the earthly possessions, found
a fertile ground in cities wrecked by war and plague. While such moments of religious
fervor were fleeting, they were very frequent, which shows that bloody slaughter and the
plague were a common occurrence. People who killed today would go to church and
renounce all the worldly possessions tomorrow only to repeat this cycle of sin and
All of the above shows that Italian Renaissance was a period of time in European
history when two different elements of life coexisted at the same time. It is very difficult
to understand what moved people to kill for power and then spend money with ease on
gifts to Church through art.