THE Italians called this coming of age la Rinascita, Rebirth, because to them it seemed a triumphant resurrection of the classic spirit after a barbarous interruption of a thousand years.* The classic world, the Italians felt, had died in the German and Hun invasions of the third, fourth, and fifth centuries; the heavy hand of the Goth had crushed the fading but still fair flower of Roman art and life; “Gothic” art had repeated the invasion with an architecture precariously unstable and decoratively bizarre, and a sculpture coarse, crude, and gloomy with dour prophets and emaciated saints. Now, by the grace of time, those bearded Goths and those “long-beard” Lombards had been absorbed into the dominant Italian blood; by the grace of Vitruvius and the instructive ruins of the Roman Forum the classic column and architrave would again build shrines and palaces of sober dignity; by the grace of Petrarch and a hundred Italian scholars the rediscovered classics would restore the literature of Italy to the pure idiom and precision of Cicero’s prose, and the mellow music of Virgil’s verse. The sunshine of the Italian spirit would break through the northern mists; men and women would escape from the prison of medieval fear; they would worship beauty in all its forms, and fill the air with the joy of resurrection. Italy would be young again.
The men who spoke so were too near the event to see the “Rebirth” in historical perspective, or in the confusing diversity of its constituents. But it took more than a revival of antiquity to make the Renaissance. And first of all it took money—smelly bourgeois money: the profits of skillful managers and underpaid labor; of hazardous voyages to the East, and laborious crossings of the Alps, to buy goods cheap and sell them dear; of careful calculations, investments, and loans; of interest and dividends accumulated until enough surplus could be spared from the pleasures of the flesh, from the purchase of senates, signories, and mistresses, to pay a Michelangelo or a Titian to transmute wealth into beauty, and perfume a fortune with the breath of art. Money is the root of all civilization. The funds of merchants, bankers, and the Church paid for the manuscripts that revived antiquity. Nor was it those manuscripts which freed the mind and senses of the Renaissance; it was the secularism that came from the rise of the middle classes; it was the growth of the universities, of knowledge and philosophy, the realistic sharpening of minds by the study of law, the broadening of minds by wider acquaintance with the world. Doubting the dogmas of the Church, no longer frightened by the fear of hell, and seeing the clergy as epicurean as the laity, the educated Italian shook himself loose from intellectual and ethical restraints; his liberated senses took unabashed delight in all embodiments of beauty in woman, man, and art; and his new freedom made him creative for an amazing century (1434–1534) before it destroyed him with moral chaos, disintegrative individualism, and national slavery. The interlude between two disciplines was the Renaissance.
Why was northern Italy the first to experience this spring awakening? There the old Roman world had never been quite destroyed; the towns had kept their ancient structure and memories, and now renewed their Roman law. Classic art survived in Rome, Verona, Mantua, Padua; Agrippa’s Pantheon still functioned as a place of worship, though it was fourteen hundred years old; and in the Forum one could almost hear Cicero and Caesar debating the fate of Catiline. The Latin language was still a living tongue, of which Italian was merely a melodious variant. Pagan deities, myths, and rites lingered in popular memory, or under Christian forms. Italy stood athwart the Mediterranean, commanding that basin of classic civilization and trade. Northern Italy was more urban and industrial than any other region of Europe except Flanders. It had never suffered a full feudalism, but had subjected its nobles to its cities and its merchant class. It was the avenue of trade between the rest of Italy and transalpine Europe, and between Western Europe and the Levant; its commerce and industry made it the richest region in Christendom. Its adventurous traders were everywhere, from the fairs of France to the farthest ports of the Black Sea. Accustomed to dealing with Greeks, Arabs, Jews, Egyptians, Persians, Hindus, and Chinese, they lost the edge of their dogmas, and brought into the literate classes of Italy that same indifference to creeds which in nineteenth-century Europe came from widening contacts with alien faiths. Mercantile wisdom, however, conspired with national traditions, temperament, and pride to keep Italy Catholic even while she became pagan. Papal fees trickled to Rome along a thousand rivulets from a score of Christian lands, and the wealth of the Curia overflowed throughout Italy. The Church rewarded Italian loyalty with a generous lenience to the sins of the flesh, and a genial tolerance (before the Council of Trent, 1545) of heretical philosophers who refrained from undermining the piety of the people. So Italy advanced, in wealth and art and thought, a century ahead of the rest of Europe; and it was only in the sixteenth century, when the Renaissance faded in Italy, that it blossomed in France, Germany, Holland, England, and Spain. The Renaissance was not a period in time but a mode of life and thought moving from Italy through Europe with the course of commerce, war, and ideas.
It made its first home in Florence for much the same reasons that gave it birth in northern Italy. Through the organization of her industry, the extension of her commerce, and the operations of her financiers, Fiorenza—the City of Flowers—was in the fourteenth century the richest town in the peninsula, excepting Venice. But while the Venetians in that age gave their energies almost entirely to the pursuit of pleasure and wealth, the Florentines, possibly through the stimulus of a turbulent semidemocracy, developed a keenness of mind and wit, and a skill in every art, that made their city by common consent the cultural capital of Italy. The quarrels of the factions raised the temperature of life and thought, and rival families contended in the patronage of art as well as in the pursuit of power. The final—not the first—stimulus was given when Cosimo de’ Medici offered the resources of his own and other fortunes and palaces to house and entertain the delegates to the Council of Florence (1439). The Greek prelates and scholars who came to that assembly to discuss the reunion of Eastern and Western Christianity had a far better knowledge of Greek literature than any Florentine could then possess; some of them lectured in Florence, and the elite of the city crowded to hear them. When Constantinople fell to the Turks many Greeks left it to make their home in the city where they had found such hospitality fourteen years before. Several of them brought manuscripts of ancient texts; some of them lectured on the Greek language or on Greek poetry and philosophy. So, by the concourse of many streams of influence, the Renaissance took form in Florence, and made it the Athens of Italy.