My Musings

The Renaissance: A Short History Book Review

The Renaissance: A Short History Book Review

Johnson, Paul. The Renaissance: A Short History. USA: Modern Library, 2002.

If you are interested in the dynamics of cultural rebirth, read Paul Johnson’s short history of The Renaissance, a period from the 14th to the 17th century A.D. that moved Western culture toward a greater love of knowledge, beauty and faith. It started in Italy and branched out into Europe from there, fostering a flowering of architecture, sculpture, painting, science and literature not seen since the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Below are a few principles I gleaned that stood behind this cultural rebirth, as illustrated in more detail in Johnson’s book.

Principles and Characteristics of Cultural Rebirth:


1. Challenging circumstances can have creative consequences. A scarcity of labor during the Middle Ages (as slavery diminished and the Black Plague took its toll) incentivized technological innovation to create more ways to use machines, horses and other means to get work done.

2. Work and commerce can create more work and commerce. Infrastructure improvements and increased trade during the Middle Ages brought new wealth which opened up more avenues of cultural expression and progress.

3. Creative literary expression provided early impetus for cultural renewal. Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321) used the vernacular brilliantly to bring higher culture to the people.

4. Looking back to history (antiquity) propelled the Medieval culture forward. Petrarch (1304 – 1374), sometimes called the father of the Renaissance, loved to hunt down old manuscripts and anything he could use to promote the study of ancient history and literature. He traveled far and wide to bring light to what he saw as an age of darkness. Throughout the Renaissance, a growing respect for the ancients was surpassed only by a passion in many to surpass them.

5. Pursuing truth and exposing fraud opens doors to aesthetic and cultural advancement. Around 800 AD, a document known as The Donation of Constantine was fabricated to channel more power to the papacy. It claimed that Constantine transferred authority over Rome and much of the Western Empire to the pope. Lorenzo Valla (c. 1407 – 1457), a textual critic and scholar, proved it was a forgery. The power of lies to keep a culture sick and the power of truth to heal it both cannot be over-estimated. After Valla, it became harder for religious rackets to thrive. The legitimacy of relics was questioned. Medieval credulity was increasingly challenged with Renaissance scrutiny. The work of scholars like Valla earned them hostility from the powerful, but the Renaissance may never have reached its heights without them.

6. The love of knowledge led to the rise of beauty. The Renaissance revealed that hard study promotes creative freedom which in turn releases beauty. Raising the learning curve for artists especially in math and science raises the quality of art. Sculptors like Ghiberti and Brunelleschi saw themselves as artists and scientists. Leonardo spoke of studying the science of art and the art of science.

7. Competition fosters creativity. As wealth grew, competition for art contracts rose and so did a passion for aesthetic excellence. More people had the resources to pursue inspiration and gratification through literature and the arts.

8. Art is at its best when on a mission beyond itself. It’s mission during the Renaissance was to enhance piety, pursue beauty, glorify God, inspire excellence and teach truth.

9. Spiritual values lie at the root of cultural rebirth that lasts. From Dante’s Divine Comedy, to Ghiberti’s baptistery doors, to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, to Leonardo’s Last Supper, to the building of St. Peter’s Basilica, Christian inspiration animated the Renaissance. Human flaws abounded and subject matter diversified, but nevertheless, most of what was reborn during the Renaissance came from the womb of Christianity.

10. Disempowering the elites can positively impact a culture. The Reformation, beginning in 1517, challenged power structures and brought changes not just in the church but to the culture, fostering new artistic aims and styles. The taste of common people began to matter more. Protestant painters were less likely to portray Bible characters in opulent modern dress. Historical accuracy in art became a priority.

Greatness should be celebrated. But it does not rise to the surface in individuals or in a culture without many of the principles listed above falling into place. Human culture does not flourish in a test tube or in theory. Greatness has both roots and fruits. It must be lived out to be truly great.

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The views expressed on this blog are personal and belong to Joel Solliday unless otherwise stated. They are not, intended to characterize the views of the Lewiston Church of Christ or other organizations to which I may refer.


About the Author:

Joel graduated from Pepperdine University with a B.A., completing two majors: Art and Religion. He went on to earn the Master of Divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. The views expressed on this blog are personal and belong to Joel Solliday unless otherwise stated. They are not, intended to characterize the views of the Lewiston Church of Christ or other organizations to which I may refer.