Arts and Science

Humanism and Science and the Renaissance

Humanism and its study of the classical writing of the past had an indirect impact on science during the Renaissance. We know that Nicholaus Copernicus was influenced by studying the writing of antiquity. The study of Plato’s works contributed to a new concept that mathematics could answer many questions about the universe.

The humanisms acceptance of curiosity and experimentation were important for the future of science. The humanist attempted to be objective and used experience and experiments to observe their world. This was in stark difference to the past when abstract ideas were simply accepted as truths. The experimentation and the objective, impartial questioning and acceptance of the results had more influence on the world of science than any other achievement.

Scientific advance during the Renaissance crossed into many fields. Andreas Vesalius of Belgium began dissecting cadavers and made many discoveries about the human anatomy. The discovery that there were some mathematic relationships in the world of nature created even more questions. In art, they studied how to depict objects in the same way they appear to the eye (perspective). Leonardo da Vinci combined art and science in his studies of nature and structures. Both art and science can be seen in his designs for the different types of machines and devices he conceived. Some significant inventions during the Renaissance were the printing press, the compass and gunpowder.

Most of the scientific advances during the Renaissance were made by scholastic thinkers and not humanists. The humanists, and their inherent dislike for ordered, logical thought may actually have slowed the advance of science. Humanists believed that scholastic thinkers were not addressing the real needs of humanity.

Scholastic thinking was used to break the long held belief that the entire physical universe was centered on humankind. For example, gravity was believed to be the desire for all objects to be at the center of the earth. Acceleration could be explained by an object’s eagerness as it moved closer to its “natural” home. The works of Aristotle and Christian theologians were responsible for these long held views. These beliefs in the past relied on the supernatural and could not be explained by objectivity or experimentation. The scholastic thinkers were responsible for breakthrough thinking regarding the nature of the universe. The idea that the universe could be studied and approached objectively was a radical new concept.

Scholars traveled to the University of Padua in Italy and it became the scientific center of Europe. Nearly every great scientist of the time was in some way associated with Padua and its university. Padua was the home of Copernicus during the 16th century and Galileo and William Harvey in the 17th century. The scientific attitude in Padua relied on experimentation and objectivity and that attitude provided the basis for further advances in science in other parts of Europe.

The Arts and the Renaissance

The Renaissance is best known for its achievements in art, literature and music. The Renaissance artists broke from medieval traditions in painting, sculpture and architecture. Until that time, most art was used for the decoration of churches, then, during the Renaissance, the artists became more independent and highly regarded. The artists began signing their works, something rarely done during the Middle Ages.

The use of mathematics and geometry to achieve perspective and proportions became common. Surviving classical Roman sculptures provided inspirations for the new Renaissance artists.

Towns began to use some of the wealth they had created to support writers and artists. The atmosphere in society in general was shifting and became more accepting of artistic innovation and experimentation. As more people moved to the cities, their interest in the arts increased. Wealthy people and members of the royal court wanted more refinement in the arts and more variety in the content and form. Innovations from artists were encouraged, in addition to encouraging artists to continue placing value in the classical art and writing of antiquity. Using what they learned from the classics and incorporating new and innovative methods in the art and writing about the current events is the predecessor for today’s modern creative expression in art.

Literature in the Renaissance

The humanists and their reverence for the classics in Greek and Rome, had the effect of stifling the growth in creative literature. Their extreme reverence had the effect of encouraging the close imitation and copying of classical authors. However, as exploration continued, the interest in the world increased as did the natural curiosity about everyday life. Some artists were achieving a degree of fame and the writers wanted the same. Writers felt the need to be recognized and this encouraged them to try new and innovative things.

Renaissance attitudes and philosophy had a complex influence on the evolution of literature. The humanist reverence for the classics of ancient Greece and Rome tended to stifle spontaneous literary creation and to encourage unimaginative imitation of classical authors. However, the restless curiosity of the Renaissance, the interest in the world, and the exposure to urban influences created a demand for a vernacular, or native, literature that expressed the new excitement and variety of contemporary life. Secular writing had always played some role in medieval life, but under the influence of the classics it acquired a new sophistication and polish. Moreover, Renaissance individuality, with its concern for personal fame, encouraged writers to try daring experiments in order to win praise from the critics and support from influential patrons.

One of the most famous of the Renaissance writers was Dante Alighieri who wrote during the 13th century. Even though he maintained a deeply religious philosophy, his epic poem “la divina commedia” (The Devine Comedy) reflected his interest in all aspects of human life. His vivid language and imagery allowed other writers, like Giovanni Boccaccio, to step forward. Boccaccio wrote “Decamerone” (The Decameron) as a collection of realistic prose tales. They were famous for their witty observations about life and their vivid descriptions. Both Dante and Boccaccio were instrumental in establishing that the Italian language could be used effectively. Until that time, the general consensus was that only Latin had the capabilities for such writing. These new writings, in native languages opened the markets for their stories to a much larger audience.

During the 16th century you can begin to see the Italian Renaissance literature in other parts of Europe. In Spain, Miguel de Cervantes Sasvedra wrote Don Quixote and in France, Pierre de Ronsard used classical teachings and applied them to French verse. Benvenuto Cellini wrote an autobiography detailing his wild escapades. Michel Eyquem de Montaigne broke new ground by writing essays that objectively explored his innermost thoughts and feelings about the world around him. Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, along with other dramatists wrote plays during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Painting and the Renaissance

During the Renaissance, painters began to depict the natural world, which was a dramatic difference from paintings during the Middle Ages that were mostly religious works. Renaissance artists improved nearly every aspect of painting, from anatomy, light and shadow to perspective. Then they used these new found techniques to venture into landscapes, portraits and scenes from daily life as well as scenes from history. Of course religious paintings were still popular.

During the Middle Ages most artwork was of a religious nature and depicted religious themes, this was because the Catholic Church had been almost the sole patron of the arts at the time. Times changed, and by the 1400’s the demand for subjects of a non religious nature increased. Portraits became popular.

The painting of the natural world was taken to new levels by artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. They mastered the earlier techniques and then took the art to new levels with their depictions of the material world and their representations of the ideal qualities hidden within the outward appearance.

Sculpture and the Renaissance

Sculptures, along with paintings, were almost all relegated to religious themes during the Middle Ages. Although progress had been made during the Middle Ages and late medieval sculpture (known as Gothic) was more realistic than its predecessors, it still lacked the sophistication and detail of Renaissance sculptures. During the early 15th century artists showed an ever increasing mastery of both materials and techniques and coupled those with showing more expressiveness in the sculptures. Lorenzo Ghiberti incorporated levels of perspective and the effects of light and shade that until then had only been possible in paintings. His works of the relief panel of the east door on the baptistery of the cathedral of Florence is famous for this.

Ghiberti used sculpture as ornamental relief in religious themes but his contemporary, Donatello, was the first to sculpt figures that were natural in form and that could be viewed from all sides. Improving techniques and increasing mastery of the materials continued and reached its peak in the early 16th century with the works of Michelangelo.

Lasting Influence of the Renaissance

As the Renaissance spread, the belief that they (the Europeans) were creating an entirely new world and culture spread too. Long standing beliefs were tested and the acceptance of challenging long held beliefs became acceptable. The scholastic thinking and the humanistic thinking both led to great advances and prepared the world for the thinkers and scientists of the 17th century. The development of modern science was born from the Renaissance idea that humankind rules nature. The concepts of human freedom and republicanism were adopted during the Renaissance and English constitutional theory, as we know it today, is the result. The form of government in the United States may well be from political thought born during the Renaissance.

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