New Secular Hunger for Discovering TextsThe courts and monasteries of Europe had long been repositories of old manuscripts and texts, but a change in how scholars viewed them stimulated the massive reappraisal of classical works in the Renaissance. Fourteenth century writer Petrarch typified this – he may even have triggered it – by writing about his own lust for discovering texts which had previously been ignored and were just gathering dust. Now secular readers developed a taste, even a hunger, for seeking out, reading and spreading old works, chief of all classical writings, on a more widespread level than centuries previous. New libraries developed to facilitate access to old books.
Reintroduction of Classical WorksWhile there were classical texts in western Europe at the start of the Renaissance, many had been lost and existed only in the east, in both Christian Constantinople and Muslim states. During the Renaissance many key texts were reintroduced into Europe, whether by merchants taking advantage of the new hunger for old texts, or by scholars who had been invited over to teach. For instance, in 1396 a Chair for teaching Greek was created in Florence. The chosen teacher, Chrysoloras, brought with him a copy of Ptolemy’s Geography from the east. In addition, a huge number of Greek texts and scholars arrived in Europe with the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
The Printing PressA hunger for forgotten texts may have developed in Europe, but it was the new printing press that allowed these works to be mass produced, feeding a much wider audience than the old hand written methods could ever have hoped to reach. This in turn allowed the Renaissance to develop more fully. In addition, the press removed scribal errors, allowing humanists and scholars to know they were comparing the nuances of the same text, and not someone’s mistake. This allowed for the further evolution of textual criticism which underpinned Renaissance thinking.
The Political Situation: The Need for Display and AdministrationThe Renaissance changes in the style of art, as well as the outlook of artists, needed wealthy patrons to support it, and Renaissance Italy was especially fertile ground. Political changes in the ruling class of Italy shortly before this period had led to the rulers of most of the major city states being “new men” without much of a political history. They attempted to legitimise themselves with conspicuous display, with ostentation, including all forms of art and creativity.
This meant that artists keen to use their new found Renaissance ideas were ably supported and able to produce masterpieces. As the Renaissance spread, the Church and other European rulers would use their wealth to adopt the new styles to keep pace. The demand from new (and old) elites wasn’t just artistic, they also relied upon ideas developed from the Renaissance for their political models. Machiavelli’s infamous guide to rulers – The Prince – is a work of Renaissance political theory.
In addition, the newly developing bureaucracies of Italy, and the rest of Europe, caused a demand for Humanists, because their education was both theoretical and, crucially, practical, equipping them to run the new governments and monarchies, funding their development.
New Wealth and the Black DeathIn the middle of the fourteenth century the Black Death swept across Europe, killing perhaps a third of the population. While devastating, some of the survivors found themselves better off financially and socially, with the same wealth spread among fewer people, and better potential for climbing the social ladder. This was especially true in Italy, where social mobility was much greater. While some areas saw struggles between the more competitively positioned workers and their bosses, this ‘new’ wealth was often was spent on display items to reinforce prestige, much like the rulers above them. This also allowed people to patronise Renaissance artists.
In addition, the merchant classes of a region like Italy also saw a great increase in their wealth from their role in trade, from the same trade routes which spread the Black Death so quickly. This trade income was further developed, some might say revolutionized, by Renaissance developments in commerce, giving the merchants further wealth to patronise with.