Frontispiece: Giovanni Battista Moroni, The Tailor (Il Tagliapanni), c.1565–70.


It may be useful to start this book by making clear what it is not. The term ‘Renaissance’ is used in academic and everyday discourse in two senses. First, it is used to denote a cultural movement or tradition, centring on the recuperation of classical literature, art, and thought. Secondly, it is sometimes used to denote a period of time (in the case of Italy, generally from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century; in northern Europe generally later). This book takes ‘Renaissance’ in the first sense of the term. No attempt is made here to summarize the social, economic, religious or political history of Italy from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century in any systematic way, although mention is made of salient developments that impacted on cultural production. Works that attempt this kind of general overview are listed in the Further Reading section.

Although this book takes as its remit to narrate and analyse a cultural movement rooted in engagement with classical antiquity, it is not a history of Renaissance ‘humanism’ in the narrow sense in which that term is often used. A Short History of the Italian Renaissance does not merely survey the activities of those men and (very few) women who engaged with Latin and Greek literature, history, and thought, reading classical works in their original languages. It also gives space to material culture, including art, inspired by antiquity in respect of its subject-matter or form; and, where textual culture is concerned, it encompasses the vernacular reception of classical ideas and literary works. Nor does this book limit itself to describing the contributions of great scholars and thinkers and artists who forged the ‘headline’ culture of this period. Instead, it looks beyond the headlines, to the mass of men and women who participated in the cultural movement of the Renaissance in a quieter, secondary way. Petrarch, Boccaccio, Alberti, Castiglione, Machiavelli have a place here, as do Masaccio, Leonardo, Raphael, and Titian, but there is also space for mapmakers, mining engineers, lace designers, anatomists, tailors, chefs, courtesans, and celebrity meat carvers, along with a street poet who claims he made his first acquaintance with Ovid through a greasy page used to wrap food. The later phases of the cultural movement of the Renaissance coincided with a revolution in information technology, as printing and visual reproduction techniques such as woodcuts and engraving disseminated high culture as never before. Renaissance humanism touched a far wider segment of the population than earlier intellectual movements such as medieval scholasticism had done; yet its story is often told in a manner that stops at the study door.

Chapter 1 of the book (‘What? Where? When? Whose?’) sketches out the main parameters of the Renaissance as it is understood in this book, defining the movement, establishing its chronology, calling attention to the fundamental fact of Italy’s political disunity and regional diversity in this period, and underlining the breadth and social diversity of the ‘stakeholders’ in the movement. A key argument in this chapter is that traditional periodizations that locate the end of the Renaissance in the first half of the sixteenth century fail to capture the movement’s full arc.

Chapter 2 (‘The Renaissance and the Ancient’) traces the history of Renaissance Italy’s long and passionate love affair with the textual and material remnants of classical antiquity, tracing classical influences in literary and intellectual history, art history, and material culture. A major focus of the chapter is the way in which a society deeply invested in Christianity responded to the philosophical challenges posed by its interactions with pagan antiquity.

Chapter 3 (‘The Renaissance and the Modern’) looks at responses to the material innovations that reshaped the world at the time when the Renaissance was gathering pace as a cultural movement, notably the introduction of printing into Europe and the geographical ‘discoveries’ of the period, especially that of the New World. In addition, the chapter examines the sense of novelty and progress that was such a marked feature of the later Renaissance, through case studies of the histories of geography and cartography; of anatomy; and of art-historical writing.

Chapter 4 (‘Identity and the Self’) re-examines the famous contention of the great nineteenth-century cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt that the Italian Renaissance saw the birth of a new and modern form of selfhood, which Burckhardt captured with the formula of ‘individualism’. While acknowledging the findings of more recent scholarship, which has emphasized the massive weight that collective, group identities continued to have in the period, the chapter argues that Burckhardt’s formula still has value in capturing aspects of the Italian Renaissance culture of identity. Considerable energies were invested in the period in crafting attractive and distinctive social selves, and practices of self-fashioning attained a high degree of sophistication in this period; yet this was not universal, nor did Renaissance individualism map on to modern individualism in any easy way.

Chapter 5 (‘Renaissance Man’) examines three distinctive Renaissance social and cultural types: the merchant, the courtier, and the artist. The latter term is understood in the broadest possible sense, to encompass not only painters, sculptors, and architects, but performance artists and skilled artisans of all kinds. The chapter looks at self-descriptive writings produced by each of these professional groups, with a special focus, where performance artists are concerned, on the vast and articulated professional sector of the ‘table arts’ associated with the courts: cooks, stewards, virtuoso carvers. The chapter makes the case that the much-studied rise of painting and sculpture from a lowly craft status to a much more elevated status as ‘liberal arts’ across the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was one instance of a much broader phenomenon.

Chapter 6 (‘Renaissance Woman’) traces two important, related developments in this period which profoundly affected women’s cultural standing. The first is the emergence of the figure of the secular female creative artist or virtuosa, understood in a broad sense, to encompass writers, musicians, painters, actresses, composers, engravers. The second is the development of new ways of thinking about sex and gender, framed to counter traditional arguments for women’s inferiority to men. Like many of the cultural innovations discussed in this book, the emergence of thevirtuosa and the new attitudes to women were initially elite phenomena, but they migrated down to lower reaches of urban society in the course of the sixteenth century. The traditional periodization of the Renaissance, focused on the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and the tendency of twentieth-century studies of the Renaissance to focus disproportionately on Florence—a highly conservative society in gender terms—have led to a vast underestimation of the degree to which women may be considered stakeholders in the movement alongside men.

A few technical points, in conclusion. To enhance this book’s utility for more specialized readers, I have cited the original text for most quotations from primary sources, especially in those sections of Chapters 5 and 6 which incorporate previously unpublished primary research. Where secondary literature is concerned, I have given preference to works in English where possible; and I have indicated English translations of primary sources where available. All translations in the body of the text are mine, unless otherwise stated in the notes.


In addition to events in Italy, this timeline incorporates select material from elsewhere for comparison and calibration.


Giotto begins work on Arena Chapel frescoes in Padua, continuing to 1306

c. 1308

Dante begins work on Divine Comedy, continuing to his death in 1321


Papacy under Clement V (Raymond Bertrand de Got) transfers from Rome to Avignon

c. 1314

Albertino Mussato, Ecerinis, the first humanist tragedy


Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca) begins work on his love poetry, continuing to his death in 1374


Beginning of Hundred Years’ War between England and France


Petrarch crowned poet laureate in Rome, with the support of Robert of Anjou, king of Naples


Petrarch discovers Cicero’s letters to Atticus in the cathedral library of Verona and launches post-classical tradition of the private, or ‘familiar’ letter


Black Death arrives in Europe, lasting until 1353 and killing at least a third of the continent’s population


Giovanni Boccaccio completes Decameron, which opens with a description of the plague in Florence


Boccaccio, Famous Women (De claris mulieribus), the first humanist treatise on women


Catherine of Siena sent by Florence as ambassador to Pope Gregory XI (Pierre Roger de Beaufort) in Avignon during ‘War of the Eight Saints’ between Florence and papacy


Gregory XI returns papacy from Avignon to Rome


Start of ‘Great Schism’ in the Church, with two and eventually three competing claimants to papacy; revolt of the wool-workers (ciompi) in Florence


Peasants’ revolt in England

c. 1387

Geoffrey Chaucer begins work on Canterbury Tales


Manuel Chrysoloras invited to teach in Florence by Coluccio Salutati, marking the beginning of humanistic Greek studies


Lorenzo Ghiberti wins competition to design the Florentine Baptistery doors


Accession of Henry V in England


Opening of Church Council of Constance


Council of Constance posthumously declares English reformer John Wycliffe a heretic and orders execution of Bohemian reformer Jan Hus; Leonardo Bruni starts writing his ground-breaking History of Florence, continuing to 1442


Great Schism resolved at Council of Constance; Poggio Bracciolini discovers complete text of Quintilian’s Education of the Orator and Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things


Beginning of Hussite Wars in Bohemia


Brunelleschi begins work on the dome of Florence cathedral, continuing to 1436


Gerardo Landriani discovers complete text of Cicero’s dialogue On the Orator


Vittorino da Feltre establishes prototypical humanist school in Mantua


Masaccio and Masolino da Panicale begin work on the Brancacci Chapel frescoes in Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, continuing to 1427–8


Return from exile of Cosimo de’ Medici marks beginning of de facto Medici rule in Florence

c. 1435

Leon Battista Alberti writes On Painting, the first humanist art treatise


Delegation sent from Byzantium to papal Council of Ferrara (Council of Florence after 1439), in a failed attempt to negotiate conciliation of Eastern and Western churches


Lorenzo Valla writes On the False Donation of Constantine in Naples, proving the main document underpinning the papacy’s claim to temporal sovereignty to be a fake


Alfonso V of Aragon crowned Alfonso I of Naples, confirming Aragonese rule there after a long power struggle with the Angevin dynasty


Alberti begins writing On Architecture, continuing to 1457


Election of the first humanist pope, Nicholas V, who begins to plan the architectural reconstruction of Rome; Leonello d’Este, duke of Ferrara, plans first princely decorated studiolo in the palace of Belfiore, completedc. 1463


Sforza dynasty established in Milan


Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, resulting in an exodus of Byzantine scholars to Italy


Johannes Gutenberg completes printing of the Bible in Mainz, the first major work to be printed in Europe using moveable type


First books printed in Italy, at the monastery of Subiaco, near Rome (Cicero’s On the Orator and Lactantius’s Works)


Byzantine-Italian Cardinal Basilios Bessarion donates his remarkable library to the senate of Venice, forming nucleus of the Biblioteca Marciana


Marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, uniting the principal powers of Spain; Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici (‘Lorenzo the Magnificent’) assumes de facto control in Florence after the death of his father


First female-authored books printed in Italy (works by Saints Catherine of Siena and Catherine of Bologna); first dated Hebrew book published in Italy (a commentary on the Torah, published in Reggio Calabria); Angelo Poliziano begins his epic Stanzas for the Joust (Stanze per la giostra), abandoned in 1478 after the murder of its protagonist Giuliano de’ Medici in the Pazzi conspiracy; Vatican Library founded by Sixtus IV (Francesco della Rovere)


First Greek book published in Italy (a grammar text by Constantine Lascaris)


Pazzi conspiracy in Florence; murder of Giuliano de’ Medici and attempt on the life of Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence cathedral; Inquisition introduced in Spain


Ottoman siege of Otranto in Puglia; threat of Ottoman invasion of the south of Italy, cut short by death of Sultan Mehmet II in 1481


Publication of the first two books of Matteo Maria Boiardo’s romance, Orlando innamorato (Orlando in Love), generally considered the greatest vernacular poem of the fifteenth century, together with Poliziano’sStanzas


Marsilio Ficino’s Latin translation of Plato’s dialogues printed in Florence


Accession of the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII, in England


First secular work by a female author printed in Italy (an oration by Cassandra Fedele)


Columbus’s first voyage to New World; fall of last Muslim stronghold in Spain, in Granada; expulsion of Jews from Spain; death of Lorenzo de’ Medici; accession of Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia)


Charles VIII of France invades Italy, marking beginning of Wars of Italy; Medici family exiled from Florence and republic restored


Naples falls briefly into French hands; French expelled by a league formed by Alexander VI; Leonardo da Vinci begins painting Last Supper in Milan; Aldo Manuzio begins publication of complete works of Aristotle in Greek in Venice


Vasco da Gama embarks on what is to prove the first sea voyage from Europe to India, via Cape of Good Hope


Execution of politically influential fundamentalist preacher Girolamo Savonarola in Florence; Cesare Borgia, son of Alexander VI, renounces cardinalate to become leader of his father’s troops


Louis XII of France occupies Milan, ousting Lodovico Sforza; Cesare Borgia begins his campaigns in the Romagna, capturing Imola and Forlì


Louis XII and Ferdinand II of Aragon agree in the Treaty of Granada to split Naples and southern Italy between them, after forcing out the king of Naples, Federico IV d’Aragona


Aldo Manuzio launches first small-format (octavo) series of literary classics with an edition of Virgil; Michelangelo begins work on David, the first free-standing colossal nude sculpture of the Renaissance (completed 1504)


Death of Pope Alexander VI; election of Julius II (Giuliano della Rovere); first publication of Amerigo Vespucci’s The New World, a Latin translation of a letter describing his voyage to Venezuela and Brazil


Louis XII relinquishes Naples to Spanish rule in Treaty of Lyon; Jacopo Sannazaro’s Arcadia published in Naples, the first Renaissance pastoral romance


Julius II initiates rebuilding of St Peter’s in Rome, continuing to 1615


Formation of the papal-led League of Cambrai against Venice; Michelangelo starts work on Sistine Chapel ceiling for Julius II, continuing to 1512; Lodovico Ariosto writes La Cassaria [The Play of the Strongbox], initiating the Renaissance tradition of vernacular comedies based on classical models


Venetian defeat at Battle of Agnadello results in complete (though temporary) loss of Venice’s mainland empire; Raphael begins work on the Stanza della Segnatura for Julius II, continuing to 1512; accession of Henry VIII of England


First edition of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly


Death of Julius II; accession of Leo X (Giovanni de’ Medici); return of Medici to Florence; Niccolò Machiavelli writes The Prince; first comedy involving a cross-dressed female character performed at Urbino (Bernardo Dovizi da Bibbiena, La Calandra)


Baldassare Castiglione completes first version of Book of the Courtier (published in a revised version, 1528); accession of François I as king of France


First publication of Ariosto’s romance Orlando furioso (revised 1521 and 1532); publication of Thomas More’s Utopia and Pietro Pomponazzi’s On the Immortality of the Soul; accession of Charles I, of the Hapsburg dynasty, to throne of Spain


Martin Luther posts 95 theses in Wittenberg, initiating Protestant Reformation


Accession of Charles I of Spain as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V; Ferdinand Magellan embarks on voyage of circumnavigation of the globe, completed by a handful of survivors in 1522


Titian starts work on Bacchus and Ariadne, the first of his great mythological paintings for the studiolo of Alfonso I d’Este in Ferrara


Hernán Cortes completes overthrow of the Aztec Empire in Mexico, following the death of Moctezuma II in 1520


First publication of Machiavelli’s The Mandrake Root, the most famous Italian Renaissance comedy (written c. 1518)


French defeat at Battle of Pavia; François I taken prisoner by the Spanish; foundation of Accademia degli Intronati in Siena, the first formal literary academy; publication of Pietro Bembo’s Prose della volgar lingua (Dialogues on the Vernacular), establishing the Tuscan of Petrarch and Boccaccio as the basis for literary Italian


Sannazaro’s De partu Virginis (On the Virgin Birth) published, the most important Latin religious epic of the period


Sack of Rome by German mercenaries; Medici family exiled from Florence; last Florentine republic, continuing to 1530


Siege of Vienna by the Turks under Suleiman I ‘the Magnificent’, marking the furthest reach of Turkish aggression in central Europe


Coronation of Charles V by Pope Clement VII in Bologna; Girolamo Fracastoro publishes the Latin epic Syphilis, coining the modern term for an illness that first appeared in Europe in the 1490s


First volume of François Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel published


Act of Supremacy in England seals Henry VIII’s break with Rome


Michelangelo begins work on Last Judgment in the Vatican (to 1541); Tuscan architect Jacopo Sansovino begins his transformation of St Mark’s Square in Venice


Pirated edition of Vittoria Colonna’s poems published, the first secular verse collection by a woman to appear in print; Pietro Aretino publishes first volume of Letters, the first vernacular letter-collection in print


Jesuit order approved by Pope Paul III (Alessandro Farnese)


Andreas Vesalius publishes On the Fabric of the Human Body, the most important Renaissance anatomical work; Veronica Gambara admitted to Bolognese Accademia dei Sonnacchiosi, the first woman to be admitted to a literary academy


Opening of Council of Trent to debate reform of Roman Catholic Church (continuing to 1563); first recorded commedia dell’arte company formed; Benvenuto Cellini casts the bronze statue Perseus and Medusa for Cosimo I de’ Medici, duke of Florence


First monographic publication of Vittoria Colonna’s Spiritual verse, the founding work of the tradition of Petrarchist religious verse


First recorded instance of actresses appearing on stage, in an Italian troupe performing Bibbiena’s La Calandra in Lyon


First European missionary visit to Japan led by Basque Jesuit Francis Xavier


First edition of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists published (revised edition 1568); Giovanni Battista Ramusio begins publishing Navigations and Voyages, continuing to 1559


First three parts of Matteo Bandello’s Novellas published: along with Sannazaro’s Arcadia, the most influential vernacular narrative work of the period and the source for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet


Accession of Philip II of Spain


Accession of Elizabeth I of England; posthumous publication of the works of Giovanni della Casa, author of an influential verse-collection and the conduct text Galateo


Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis marks definitive end of Wars of Italy; Pope Paul IV issues first papal Index of Prohibited Books


First, partial publication of Luigi Tansillo’s Le lagrime di San Pietro (The Tears of St Peter) (complete edition 1585), launching vogue for vernacular religious narrative in the style of Ariosto


Posthumous publication of Francesco Guicciardini’s influential History of Italy, centred on the period of the Wars of Italy


Beginning of French Wars of Religion, continuing to 1598


Foundation of Accademia delle Arti del Disegno in Florence, the first artistic academy in Italy


Jacopo Tintoretto begins painting the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, continuing to 1588


Maddalena Casulana, First Book of Madrigals, the first printed volume of music composed by a woman


Publication of Andrea Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture, the most influential Renaissance architectural treatise


Fall of Cyprus to the Turks, followed by Christian naval victory at Battle of Lepanto


St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France


First performance of Torquato Tasso’s Aminta, the most famous pastoral drama of the Renaissance (first published 1581)


Torquato Tasso completes his great epic of the crusades, Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered) (first published 1581)


First edition of Michel de Montaigne’s Essays published; Alfonso II d’Este forms the concerto delle donne in Ferrara


Jesuit Matteo Ricci’s first mission to China


Tipografia Medicea Orientale founded under the patronage of Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici to publish religious and scientific texts in Arabic translation, and to search out manuscripts in Arabic and Persian


Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza inaugurated: the first purpose-built permanent theatre in Italy, built to a design by Palladio


Defeat of Spanish Armada; publication of Isabella Andreini’s Mirtilla, and Maddalena Campiglia’s Flori, the first two secular plays by women to appear in print


Galileo Galilei appointed to his first academic post, at University of Pisa

c. 1590

William Shakespeare begins career as playwright


Jacopo Peri’s Dafne, often considered the first opera, performed in Florence; Edict of Nantes ends French Wars of Religion; Ferrara devolves to papal rule after the death of Duke Alfonso II d’Este


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s first major commissions in Rome


Philosopher Giordano Bruno executed for heresy in Rome


Giovanni Battista Marino’s verse published, marking beginning of literary Baroque movement


Foundation of Accademia dei Lincei (Academy of the Lynx-Eyed) in Rome, the most important scientific academy of early modern Italy


First part of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quijote published


Claudio Monteverdi’s first opera, Orfeo, performed in Mantua; initial foundation of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!