By the middle decades of the 19th century, two historiansJules Michelet of France and Jakob Burckhardt of Switzerlandhad combined various perspectives in their interpretation of the Renaissance. Michelet saw the Renaissance as the momentous debut of

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Warren Winter                                                                           9/21/05

AP European History

Both the idea of historical rebirth and the use of the term renaissance to describe the process were distinctive products of the Renaissance itself. In the biography La Vita dé Più Eccellenti Architetti, Pittori, ed Scultori Italiani (popularly known as Lives of the Artists), Georgio Vasari used the term rinascità, meaning “rebirth,” to describe the era in which he lived. In the 17th century the phrase "medium aevum" became current. The Dutch historian Georg Horn was the first to use it in a broad historical sense, and the German humanist Cellarius was the first to use the threefold division of history (Ancient, Medieval, Modern) as a principal of organization. Jacob Burckhardt predicted the historiographical dilemma of the Renaissance when he wrote: “To each eye, perhaps, the outlines of a great civilization present a different picture.…The same studies which have served for this work might easily, in other hands, not only receive a wholly different treatment and application, but lead to essentially different conclusions” (1). In believing that their achievements owed nothing to the assumed backwardness of the Middle Ages and instead linking themselves to the glories of the Greek and Roman world, Vasari and other artists and intellectuals denied the cultural and intellectual legacy of the medieval world. Renaissance artistic culture may have wrapped itself in the mantle of antiquity, but the efflorescence of the arts which made this possible rested on less romantic and longer-term developments: the expansion of trade and industry; the concentration of power and wealth in nation- and city-states; the rising status of skilled craftsmen; and the triumph of courtly culture, where conspicuous display was the preferred form of competition. Many of the achievements of the era, therefore, may better be understood as the culmination of later medieval trends rather than as entirely new departures.

By the middle decades of the 19th century, two historians—Jules Michelet of France and Jakob Burckhardt of Switzerland—had combined various perspectives in their interpretation of the Renaissance. Michelet saw the Renaissance as the momentous debut of a new phase in human history. He believed that it made possible all the great achievements of modern man, including the discovery of the Americas, the new science, and modern literature and art. Michelet’s view of the Renaissance as the beginning of the modern era was refined in Jakob Burckhardt's Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien. He attached particular importance to the Renaissance state and saw in it the origins of modern political attitudes and behavior. In Burckhardt's view, Renaissance leaders conceived of the state as a work of art, one that they created deliberately by identifying and then applying the best means to reach their desired goals. Another characteristic of the Renaissance that Burckhardt considered modern was an interest in human personality and behavior.  Burckhardt saw all these traits as indications of a deeper quality: a fundamental individualism that was a central feature of the Italian Renaissance.

Those who have challenged Burckhardt’s theories have generally argued that the Renaissance was not as unique or different as previous scholars claimed. In particular, scholars who studied the Middle Ages became convinced that the centuries before the Renaissance, far from being a period of unrelieved barbarism, had developed a high order of civilization. They insist that most elements of the Renaissance had their roots in the past, and that it is misleading to speak of the "rebirth" of culture in the Renaissance or to emphasize its significance in the formation of the modern world. These alternate interpretations have suggested that the Renaissance was a waning of the Middle Ages rather than the dawning of a new era, and that medieval scholars also knew and valued classical writings.

Scholars have largely abandoned the notion of an abrupt break between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and have modified older ideas about the nature of the era. It is now clear, for example, that people of the Renaissance did not abandon Christianity and that vigorous religious impulses were a major feature of the Renaissance. R.R. Palmer specifically notes, “Outside Italy people were much less conscious of any sudden break with the Middle Ages. Developments north of the Alps, and in Spain, were more an outgrowth of what had gone before” (68). Scholars recognize that many aspects of the Renaissance were not modern; they also acknowledge that what may be true of one movement, region, or decade, may not be true of another. This becomes evident in the split between the northern and southern Renaissance movements.

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The Renaissance was nonetheless western civilization’s nexus to modernity, with particular gains in literature, art, philosophy, and political and historical thought. The notion of individualism was born during the Renaissance, as people sought personal credit for their achievements, as opposed to the medieval ideal of all glory going to God. These intellectual and artistic developments first took place in the vibrant world of the Italian city-states; eventually the invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century allowed these cultural trends to spread to other parts of Europe, which resulted in the creation of the Northern Renaissance movement. The Italian ...

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