5 Steps to a 5: AP European History 2024 - Bartolini-Salimbeni B., Petersen W., Arata K. 2023

STEP 4 Review the Knowledge You Need to Score High
11 The Challenge of the Renaissance


Summary: The Renaissance refers to the revival of commerce, the renewal of interest in the classical world, and the growing belief in the potential of human achievement that occurred on the Italian peninsula between 1350 and 1550. This chapter describes the society, values, and artistic achievements of the Italian Renaissance and their spread to northern Europe.


Key Terms:

Image Guilds Exclusive organizations that monopolized the skilled trades in Europe from the medieval period until broken by the development of cottage industries in the eighteenth century.

Image Humanism In the Renaissance, both a belief in the value of human achievement and an educational program based on classical Greek and Roman languages and values.

Image Studia humanitas The educational program of the Renaissance, founded on knowledge of the classical Latin and Greek languages and literatures.

Image Oration on the Dignity of Man One of the best articulations (1486) of the belief in the dignity and potential of humans that characterized Renaissance humanism, authored by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.

Image The Prince The book by Niccolò Machiavelli (1513), which marks the shift from a “civic ideal” to a “princely ideal” in Renaissance humanism. The princely ideal is focused on the qualities and strategies necessary for attaining and holding social and political power.

Image Neoplatonism In the Renaissance and Early Modern period, a philosophy based on that of Plato, which contended that reality was located in a changeless world of forms and which, accordingly, spurred the study of mathematics. It also refers to the attempt to reconcile pagan and Christian ideals, and the artistic idea that contemplation of beauty led to contemplation of the divine.

Image Florentine Academy An informal gathering of humanists devoted to the revival of the teachings of Plato, founded in 1462 under the leadership of Marsilio Ficino and the patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici. One of the leading lights of the Florentine Academy, besides Marilio Ficino, was Pico della Mirandola.

Image Frescos Paintings done either on wet or dry plaster; an important medium of art during the Renaissance.

Image Michelangelo’s David Sculpted by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1504), this sculpture of the biblical hero is characteristic of the last and most heroic phase of Renaissance art. Sculpted from a single piece of marble, it is larger than real life and offers a vision of the human body and spirit that is more dramatic than real life, an effect that Michelangelo produced by making the head and hands deliberately too large for the torso.

Image Treaty of Lodi/Peace of Lodi The treaty (1454—1455) that established a mutual defensive pact among Venice, Milan, Florence, Naples, and the Papal States. It lapsed after the French invasion of 1494.

Image Colloquies Dialogues written (beginning in 1519) by the most important and influential of the northern humanists, Desiderius Erasmus, for the purpose of teaching his students both the Latin language and how to live a good life.

Image Lay piety A tradition in the smaller, independent German provinces, flourishing in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, whereby organized groups promoted pious behavior and learning outside the bureaucracy of the church.

Image Patronage The support of artists and artisans, frequently by both aristocrats and the newly emergent middle class merchant; also, the awarding of noble titles and government appointments as a means of gaining political support.

Key Individuals:

Image Machiavelli

Image The Medici Family

Image Castiglione

Image Palladio

Image Leonardo da Vinci

Image El Greco

Image Rubens

Image Erasmus

Image Bruegel

Image Shakespeare



The word Renaissance means “rebirth.” Historically, it refers to a time in Western civilization (1350—1550) that was characterized by the revival of three things: commerce, interest in the classical world, and the belief in the potential of human achievement. For reasons that are geographic, economic, and social, the Renaissance began in Italy, where expanded trade with the East flowed into Europe via the Mediterranean Sea and, therefore, through the Italian city-states. With the invention of the printing press, both ideas and commerce spread north from Italy and led to the Northern Renaissance, characterized by a more religious (as opposed to a secular, or humanist) slant and credited with directly influencing the Protestant Reformation. The Renaissance flowered for approximately 200 years, and, as a result of increased military, economic, and cultural interactions with the rest of Europe, made its way north.

Italian Society of the Renaissance

The society of the Italian peninsula between 1350 and 1550 was unique in Western civilization. The most outstanding characteristic of Italian society was the degree to which it was urban. By 1500, seven of the ten largest cities in Europe were in Italy. Whereas most of Western Europe was characterized by large kingdoms with powerful monarchs and increasingly centralized bureaucracies, the Italian peninsula was made up of numerous independent city-states, such as Milan, Florence, Venice, and Genoa. These city-states were, by virtue of their location, flourishing centers of commerce in control of reviving networks of trade with Eastern empires.

Social status within these city-states was determined primarily by occupation, rather than by birth or the ownership of land, as was common in the rest of Europe during this period. The trades were controlled by government-protected monopolies called guilds. Members of the manufacturing guilds, such as clothiers and metalworkers, sat at the top of the social hierarchy. The next most prestigious were the professional groups that included bankers, administrators, and merchants. They were followed by skilled laborers, such as the stone masons.

Because the city-states of Italy developed as commercial centers, wealth was not based on the control of land as it was in the rest of Europe during this period. Instead, wealth was in the form of capital, and power was the ability to lend it. Accordingly, the traditional landed aristocracy of the Italian peninsula was not as politically powerful as their other European counterparts. Rather, powerful merchant families dominated socially and politically. Their status as the holders of capital also made the commercial elites of Italy powerful throughout Europe, as the monarchs of the more traditional kingdoms had to come to them when seeking loans to finance their wars of territorial expansion.

The city-states of Renaissance Italy were set up according to a variety of models. Some, like Naples, were ruled by hereditary monarchs; others were ruled by powerful families, such as the Medicis of Florence; still others, specifically Venice, were led by the doge, the elected civil, ecclesiastical, and military head of the Venetian Republic.

Renaissance Values

Before the Renaissance, the values of European civilization reflected the beliefs of Christianity and the social relations of traditional feudal hierarchy. During the Renaissance, these traditional values were transformed to reflect both the ambition and pride of the commercial class that dominated Renaissance Italian society. In contrast to traditional European noblemen, who competed for prestige on the battlefield or in jousting and fencing tournaments, successful Renaissance men competed via displays of civic duty, which included patronage of philosophy and the arts.

At the center of the Renaissance system of values was humanism. Renaissance humanism combined an admiration for classical Greek and Roman literature with a newfound confidence in what modern men could achieve. Accordingly, Renaissance humanism was characterized by the studia humanitas, an educational program founded on knowledge of the classical Latin and Greek languages and scholarship. Once the languages had been mastered, the Renaissance humanist could read deeply in the classical works of the ancient Greek and Roman authors, absorbing what the philosophers of the last great Western civilizations had to teach them about how to succeed in life and how to live a good life.

To the Renaissance humanist, the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers were guides, but guides whose achievements could be equaled and eventually improved upon. The ultimate goal of the Renaissance humanist program was the truly well-rounded citizen, one who excelled in grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, politics, and moral philosophy. These scholarly achievements were valued in their own right, as a testament to the dignity and ability of man, but also for the way in which they contributed to the glory of the city-state.

Prime examples of early Renaissance humanists were Petrarch, who celebrated the glory of ancient Rome in his Letters to the Ancient Dead, and Boccaccio, who compiled an encyclopedia of Greek and Roman mythology. The best articulation of the belief in the dignity and potential of man that characterized Renaissance humanism was Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486). In the Oration, della Mirandola argued that God endowed man with the ability to shape his own being and that man has the obligation to become all that he can be.

By the late Renaissance, humanism lost some of its ideal character, where scholarly achievements were valued for their own sake, and took on a more cynical quality that promoted only individual success. This shift is sometimes characterized as a shift from a “civic ideal” to a “princely ideal,” as texts like Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (1513—1518) and Machiavelli’s The Prince (1513) focused on the qualities and strategies necessary for attaining and holding social and political power.

Artistic Achievement of the Renaissance

The unique structure of Renaissance society and the corresponding system of Renaissance values combined to give birth to one of the most amazing bursts of artistic creativity in the history of Western civilization. The wealthy and powerful elites of Renaissance society patronized the arts for the fame and prestige that it brought them. The competitive spirit of the elites both within and among the Italian city-states meant that artists and craftsmen were in almost constant demand.

For example, Lorenzo de’ Medici, who led the ruling family of Florence from 1469 until his death in 1492, commissioned work by almost all of the great Renaissance artists. As an art patron, he was rivaled by Pope Julius II, whose patronage of the arts during his papacy (1503—1513), including the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica, transformed Rome into one of Europe’s most beautiful cities.

The artists themselves usually hailed not from the elite class but from the class of guild craftsmen. Young men with skill were identified and apprenticed to guild shops run by master craftsmen. Accordingly, there was no separation between the “artistic” and “commercial” sides of the Renaissance art world. All works were commissioned, and the artist was expected to give the patron what he ordered. The Renaissance artist demonstrated his creativity within the bounds of explicit contracts that specified all details of the work.

Another aspect of the guild culture that contributed to the brilliant innovations of the Renaissance period was the fact that the various media—such as sculpture, painting, and architecture—were not viewed as separate disciplines; instead, the Renaissance apprentice was expected to master the techniques of each of these art forms. As a result, mature Renaissance artists were able to work with a variety of materials and to apply ideas and techniques learned in one medium to projects in another.

Whereas medieval art had been characterized by religious subject matter, the Renaissance style took from its Greek and Roman forebears the human being and the human form as its subject. The transition can be seen in the series of frescos painted by Giotto in the fourteenth century. Although he still focused on religious subject matter (i.e., the life of St. Francis), Giotto depicted the human characters in realistic detail and with a concern for their psychological reaction to the events of St. Francis’s life. The Renaissance artist’s concern for the human form in all its complexity is illustrated by two great sculptures, each nominally depicting the biblical character of David:

• One is Donatello’s version (completed in 1432), which was the first life-size, free-standing, bronze nude sculpture since antiquity. The sculpture depicts David as a young Florentine gentleman. Goliath was understood to be the Papacy.

• The second version was sculpted by Michelangelo Buonarroti (completed in 1504) and is characteristic of the last and most idealistic phase of Renaissance art. Sculpted from a single piece of marble, Michelangelo’s David is larger than life and offers a vision of the human body and spirit that is more dramatic than real life, an effect that Michelangelo produced by making the head and hands deliberately too large for the torso. Upon its completion, the rulers of Florence originally placed Michelangelo’s David at the entrance to the city hall as a symbol of Florentine strength.

Not to be overlooked during this century was the introduction of the printing press, which allowed more rapid dissemination of ideas. Also, the use of the vernacular language gave access to documents, fiction, and religious texts and began to reach a growing audience.

The Renaissance and Scientific Advancements

Using a scientific method, or proceeding through the stages of hypothesis, observation, experimentation, and replication, individuals like Copernicus and Galileo challenged the accepted wisdom of the day by developing the heliocentric (“sun-centered”) vision of the universe. Physicians followed a similar form of inquiry and used anatomical studies as well to put to rest the idea that human health was governed by the four humors. Such advances often contradicted Church teachings and led to punishment (including excommunication) of early scientists.

The Spread of the Renaissance

In the late fifteenth century and throughout the sixteenth century, the Renaissance spread to France, Germany, England, and Spain. The catalyst for this spread was the breakup of the equilibrium that characterized the politics of the Italian peninsula. An internal balance of power had been established by the Treaty of Lodi (1454—1455), which brought Milan, Naples, Florence, Venice, and the Papal States into a mutual defense alliance. The balance of power was shattered in 1494, when Naples, supported by both Florence and the pope, prepared to attack Milan. The Milanese despot, Ludovico il Moro, appealed to the French king, Charles VIII of France, for help. Ludovico invited the king to lead French troops into Italy and to revive his old dynastic claims to Naples, which the French had ruled from 1266 to 1435. French troops invaded the Italian peninsula in 1494 and forced Florence, Naples, and the Papal States to make major concessions. In response, the pope and the Venetians persuaded the Holy Roman Emperor, King Ferdinand of Aragon, to bring troops to Italy to help resist French aggression. From the late 1490s through most of the sixteenth century, Italy became a battleground in a war for supremacy between European monarchs.

Once the isolation of the Italian peninsula was shattered, the ideals and values of the Renaissance spread from Italy through a variety of agents:

• Artisans, teachers, theatrical troupes, and musicians migrating out of Italy

• Students who came to study in Italy and then returned home

• European merchants whose interests now penetrated the peninsula

• Various lay groups seeking to spread their message of piety

• The use of the vernacular, as opposed to Latin, for religious, economic, and socio-cultural writings

However, the major cause of the spread of Renaissance ideals and values was the printing press. Invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the German city of Mainz in about 1445 in response to increased demand for books from an increasingly literate public, the moveable-type printing press allowed for faster, cheaper, mass-produced books to be created and distributed throughout Europe. By 1500, between fifteen and twenty million books were in circulation. Among the ideas that spread with the books were the thoughts and philosophies of the Renaissance humanists, which were both adopted and transformed in northern Europe.

The most important and influential of the northern humanists was Desiderius Erasmus, sometimes referred to as “the prince of the humanists.” Spreading the Renaissance belief in the value of education, Erasmus made his living as an educator. He taught his students both the Latin language and lessons on how to live a good life from Latin dialogues that he wrote himself. Published under the title of Colloquies, Erasmus’s dialogues also displayed the humanist’s faith in both the power of learning and the ability of man by satirizing the old scholastic notions that the truth about God and nature could be discerned only by priests. Erasmus argued instead that, by mastering ancient languages, any man could teach himself to read both the Bible and the works of an array of ancient philosophers, thereby learning the truth about God and nature for himself.

In France, England, and Spain, the existence of strong monarchies meant that the Renaissance was centered in the royal courts. In the smaller, independent German provinces, the characteristics of the Renaissance were absorbed into a tradition of lay piety, where organized groups, such as the Brethren of Common Life, promoted pious behavior and learning outside the bureaucracy of the church. In that context, German scholars, such as Martin Luther, who were educated in a context that combined the humanistic and lay piety traditions, would be prominent in the creation of the Reformation.

Review Questions


Multiple Choice

Questions 1 through 3 refer to the following passage:

[Considering the origin of ] grace, I find one universal rule concerning it, which seems to me worth more in this matter than any other in all things human that are done or said: and that is to avoid affectation to the uttermost and as it were a very sharp and dangerous rock; and, to use possibly a new word, to practice in everything a certain nonchalance [sprezzatura] that shall conceal design and show that what is done and said is done without effort and almost without thought. From this I believe grace is in large measure derived, because everyone knows the difficulty of those things that are rare and done well, and therefore facility in them excites the highest admiration.

[And] I wish to discuss another matter, which I deem of great importance and therefore think our Courtier ought by no means to omit: and this is to know how to draw and to have acquaintance with the very art of painting. . . . And truly he who does not esteem this art, seems to me very unreasonable; . . . [For] the ancients greatly prized both the art and the artists, which thus attained the summit of highest excellence; very sure proof of which may be found in the antique marble and bronze statues that yet are seen. . . .

Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, 1508—1513

1. In what way is the passage indicative of the “princely ideal” of the late Renaissance?

A. It promotes individual achievement.

B. It is by the author of The Prince.

C. It describes the manner in which a prince should behave.

D. It focuses on the value of personal achievement for individual success rather than the civic good.

2. How does the passage illustrate the transformation of traditional values into Renaissance values?

A. It stresses the pursuit of excellence.

B. It extols the virtue of skill in the visual arts rather than the martial arts.

C. It stresses the changing social status of the artist.

D. It values grace.

3. In what way does the passage illustrate the values of Renaissance humanism?

A. It instructs the individual to pay attention to personal appearance.

B. It argues that reason should be the measure of all things.

C. It looks to the ancients for guidance in matters of taste and accomplishment.

D. It encourages all men to aspire to be Courtiers.

Chapter Question (Comparison)


4. Briefly explain and illustrate the difference between the “civic ideal” in Renaissance humanism and the “princely ideal” that supplanted it.

Answers and Explanations

1. D is correct because the “princely ideal” of the late Renaissance focused on the value of achievements, such as grace and nonchalance (sprezzatura) in promoting individual success, rather than the civic good. A is incorrect because it is too general; all Renaissance ideals promoted individual achievement. B is incorrect because Machiavelli is the author of The Prince, not Castiglione. C is incorrect because The Courtier offers advice to all would-be gentlemen, not just princes.

2. B is correct because, during the Renaissance, skill in the visual arts was more highly valued than skill in the martial arts. A and D are incorrect because individual achievement and grace were valued in both traditional and Renaissance culture. C is incorrect because the passage makes no reference to the social status of artists.

3. C is correct because Renaissance humanism looked backward to the accomplishments of ancient Greece and Rome for guidance and inspiration. A is incorrect because attention to personal appearance was not unique to Renaissance humanism. B is incorrect because neither Renaissance humanism nor the passage argued that reason should be the measure of all things. D is incorrect because neither Renaissance humanism nor the passage encouraged all men to be Courtiers.

4. Suggested answer:

Thesis: The “civic ideal” in Renaissance humanism valued individual achievement in scholarship and the arts for its own sake, as a fulfillment of God’s gift and as a part of good citizenship. The “princely ideal” that supplanted it was less idealistic, valuing individual achievement in scholarship and the arts as a tool for individual success.

Paragraph Outline:

I. Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486) as an example of the belief in the dignity and potential of man that characterized Renaissance humanism.

II. Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (1513—1518) and Machiavelli’s The Prince (1513) as examples of individual achievement and refinement for the purpose of attaining and holding social status and political power.

Rapid Review


The revival of commerce, interest in the classical world, and belief in the potential of human achievement that occurred on the Italian peninsula between 1350 and 1550 is known as the Renaissance. Within the independent, urban city-states of Renaissance Italian society, the successful merchant class sought a well-rounded life of achievement and civic virtue, which led them to give their patronage to scholars and artists. Accordingly, both scholarship and artistic achievement reached new heights, and new philosophies like humanism and Neoplatonism were fashioned. In 1494, mounting jealousy and mistrust between the Italian city-states caused the leaders of Milan to invite intervention by the powerful French monarchy, thereby breaking a delicate balance of power and causing the Italian peninsula to become a battleground in a war for supremacy among European monarchies. The destruction of the independence of the Italian city-states caused the spread and transformation of Renaissance ideals and values. A northern European humanism, less secular than its Italian counterpart, developed and served as the foundation of the Reformation.

Further Resources

Machiavelli, La Mandragola (The Mandrake Root). This play is the source of the line “the end justifies the means.”

Irving Stone, The Agony and the Ecstasy, which is also a film—Michelangelo

A Season of Giants, a made-for-television movie about the life of Michelangelo

Michelangelo and Petrarch, various poems

Boccaccio, Decameron (excerpts)—fourteenth-century Italian Renaissance

Erasmus, In Praise of Folly—Renaissance Humanism

Various films appeared to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci.