Modern times originated in Italy in the 14th century during the period known as the Renaissance. A rich development of Western civilization marking the transition from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance refers to a rebirth, or rediscovery, by scholars (humanists) of Greco-Roman culture. The period prior to the Renaissance, the High Middle Ages, was marked by relative political stability, economic expansion, wide contact with other cultures, and a flourishing urban civilization. However, the High Middle Ages served only to establish the foundations for change and to develop the background for the new view of the world. The Italian Renaissance was a distinct period in time, noted for ushering in the modern civilization, characterized by the alteration of the political, economic, and social status.
Renaissance civilization revamped the political scene from the Middle Ages into the modern age. The despotism created during the Renaissance bestowed incomparable unity and power upon Europe through the individual (Burckhardt, 509). Leaders such as Viconti displayed tremendous strength and vitality. During the 14th century, people no longer received and respected the Emperors as feudal lords, but as possible leaders and supporters of power already in existence (Burckhardt, 507). The reverence of the heads of government aroused feelings of patriotism in the hearts of the people. For the first time a modern political spirit of Europe can be detected (Burckhardt, 507). Political support or nationalism is still evident in today s society and can be attributed to the Renaissance.
The Renaissance also harbored secular ideas of the state. The Renaissance marked the transition from the ecclesiastical to secular outlook. The people began to search for answers and a growing emphasis on reason, rather than faith, became apparent. Historian Marsilius of Padua proclaimed that according to the writings of Aristotle the Roman bishop called pope, or any other priest or bishop, or spiritual minister, collectively or individually, as such, has and ought to have no coercive jurisdiction over the property or person of any priest or bishop, or deacon, or group of them, an still less over any secular ruler or government, community, group, or individual (535). Therefore, the ecclesiastical should not lawfully exercise any political power. Furthermore, Niccolo Machiavelli went to extremes by stating that Christian virtues and politics would result in an unstable form of government. In concurrence with Machiavellian politics, Isaiah Berlin suggests that to choose to lead a Christian life is to condemn oneself to political impotence…if one wishes to build a glorious community like those of Athens or Rome at their best, then one must abandon Christian education and substitute one better suited to the purpose (542). Nevertheless, secular ideas of the state were fostered during the Renaissance and have become one of the most critical components to a successful, modern nation.
Renaissance civilization also marked the birth of capitalism, the economic machine upon which the United States runs today. During the Renaissance, the economy went from feudal based to capitalist based. The revival of trade, urban life, and money economy had a dynamic influence in the midst of the agrarian feudal society of the high Middle Ages (Ferguson, 554). As Wallace K. Ferguson says, …the historians whose special interest was religion, philosophy, literature, science, or art have all to frequently striven to explain the developments in these fields without correlating them with the changes in the economic, social, and political structure of society (554). Ferguson went on to explain that medieval civilization, founded as it was upon the basis of land tenure and agriculture, could not continue indefinitely to absorb an expanding urban society and money economy without losing its essential character, without gradually changing into something recognizably different (554). The growth of a money economy brought changes in the whole character of urban economic and social organizations, still evident in modern times.
Into this agrarian feudal society the revival of commerce and industry, accompanied by the growth of towns and money economy, introduced a new and alien element (Ferguson, 554). This element was capitalism. The effect of the new economy was to stimulate the existing medieval civilization, freeing it from the economic, social, and cultural restrictions, making possible the rapid development of the economy.
The rise of capitalism in the Renaissance had measurable effects on the rest of the society. For instance, the fall of feudalism gave way to the rise of city-states or centralized territorial states. In addition, the universal authority of the church was shaken by the growing power of the national states, while its internal organization was transformed by the evolution of a monetary fiscal system (Ferguson, 554). Meanwhile, within the cities the growth of capital was bringing significant changes in the whole character of urban economic and social organizations. Considering all the changes inspired by capitalism, the result was an essential change in the character of European civilization. This new and extraordinary economic system known as capitalism would develop during the time of the Renaissance and would become the economic clockwork of modern America.
Another distinct characteristic of the Renaissance present in today s society is a strong emphasis on individuality. During the Middle Ages the common man was marked by faith, illusion, and childish prepossession (Burckhardt, 508). Men viewed themselves only as a member of some general category – race, people, party, family, or cooperation (Burckhardt, 508). In earlier times, the development of free personality could not be detected in Northern Europe; however, with the onset of the Renaissance, man became a spiritual individual (Burckhardt, 508). Toward the close of the 13th century Italy was overwhelmed with individuality, a recurring theme of today s society. The time period was characterized by a movement in which human values and capabilities were the central focus known as humanism. Individual spirit was beginning to appear in Europe, and in today s society this is a very important, if not, necessary idea.
It was the upbringing of humanism – this unfolding of the treasures of human nature in art and literature (Burckhardt, 508) which encompassed individuality. The contribution of Italian humanism to literature and scholarship made an impact which has remained in all regions of European civilization until the twentieth century (Palmer, 59). W.K. Ferguson comments that at the time of the Renaissance there was the appearance of a growing class of urban laymen had the leisure and means to secure a liberal education and to take an active part in every form of intellectual and aesthetic culture (555). To learn and appreciate culture showed the new concept that life was worthwhile to its own sake and not used for sheer preparation there after. People wished and were forced to know all the inward resources of their own nature, passing or permanent; and their enjoyment of life was enhanced and concentrated by the desire to obtain the greatest satisfaction from a possibly very brief period of influence (Burckhardt, 508). In accordance with Burckhardt, individualism inspired many people to achieve all that they could in their lifetimes – a very modern belief today where the sky is the limit.
Italy, in the 14th century, was characterized by a distinct period in time known as the Renaissance. The Renaissance was not merely an extension of the Middle Ages, but rather the transitional period in which the increasing lay culture of the cities, the political centralization of the territorial states, and the dominance of the money economy replaced the feudal and ecclesiastical civilization of the modern world (Conlon). The rediscovery of the classical Greco-Roman culture provided the world with great treasures. The people, inspired by the need for reform, abandoned the Middle Ages and entered into a time of great intellectual, social, political, religious, and economic reform. The humanistic development of individualism, the dramatic change in political ideas and construction, and the introduction of capitalism remained powerful concepts in modern society that originated in the Renaissance. Without question, the Renaissance civilization was the foundation of modern times.