As unique and innovative as any time period may be, and the Renaissance is most certainly among those periods, it does not come as a complete break from the past. In the study of Western History, this period was long portrayed as an emergence from the Dark Ages, just a the sun bursts light upon us upon emerging from a dark cloud so too historians portrayed this period as one in which the light of reason emerged from the dark clouds of superstition. Bridging the vast gulf of time, if not of distance, the artists, thinkers and innovators ushered in the beginning of the modern world.
Of course this is not really true. The Dark Ages were not as dark as once perceived. Certainly after the widespread use of indoor plumbing in the Roman Empire, forgetting such innovations and returning to outhouses for many centuries lends quite a lot of credence to such characterizations! But really it is quite possible to see the threads of the Renaissance in earlier times, just as one it takes a lot of investigation to know what’s going on inside the egg before the chicken emerges, if we dig sufficiently we find such precursors.
Perhaps the most apparent is that even though the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century and was gone after 1200 years of existence (by comparison the U.S. is only 236 years old, counting it’s origin date as the conclusion of the War for Independence in 1783) there nevertheless persisted a cultural memory of the kind of organization, governance and learning that existed during the life of the empire. Such a historical memory kept some degree of fertile ground despite the intervening millennium of invasion and degradation. It really is not a coincidence that the Renaissance emerged from the very location where Rome held sway. The archeological evidence alone was in plain sight everywhere for one to see and the built environment that constituted urban life was never completely eradicated.
Further the Catholic Church continued to hold considerable influence and sway not only over the peninsula but throughout Europe and the British Isles. Though practically all of the physical existence of the Church that one sees today in Italy dates to the Renaissance, the continuity provided by the Church from Empire to Renaissance was critical. Despite views portraying the priests as superstitious and anti-science, it is quite easy to find evidence that informs us that it was the Church that preserved quite a bit of knowledge from the Roman Empire. Sometimes this was inadvertent as Catholic scholars reused vellum scrolls and simply didn’t get around to scraping off the old writing. The Arab world did more than it’s fair share of preservation too . . .
And there was trade. The Roman Empire had facilitated trade on a massive scale. The Via Appia Antica (the old Appian road) is perhaps the best example of this: built to run perfectly straight for more than 300 miles in order to facilitate troop movement, it inevitably facilitated trade as well. And so it went in the Roman Empire: troop movements and trade operated together. Venice, Pisa, Genoa, Amalfi all continued to operate as significant trading ports throughout the Middle Ages. The Catholic Church also played a role: as Christianity spread throughout Europe it returned pilgrims to Rome or on their way to the Holy Land. Italy remained at the center of a web of trade between Europe, the Middle East and even the Far East.
Governments, which were really feudal kingdoms throughout Europe, did not often stand in power for long stretches of centuries. The reins of power shifted like the winds, and attempts to maintain power required expenditures of wealth for armed soldiers, especially knights, were expensive to equip and maintain. War was costly. Merchants found new opportunity as financiers. It is not a coincidence that the main banking street in London remains Lombard Street, named “after the Italian moneylenders who settled there in the thirteenth century.” (Plumb 2001)
Thus the Italian city-states of Florence, Venice, Milan and to a lesser extent Rome, were home to an increasing number of wealthy merchants. They were the ones to devise and perpetrate the concept of l’uomo universale, the complete man. Baldassare Castiglione’s book on courtly etiquette illustrates this and encapsulates the basic concepts for gentlemanly behavior and appearance from that day to this. These wealthy merchants desired to live a courtly life. They wished to demonstrate their wealth, their power and above all their good taste as illustration of there adherence to Castiglione’s prescription for sophistication. Thus men of wealth, made rich by trade and finance, catalyzed the Renaissance in their demand for painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, education.
The consequence of such motivations is found everywhere in Italy, still today, and indeed around the world. We still find educated people (no longer just men, of course), who possess knowledge and understanding of art, literature and philosophy to be ‘cultured’. The prescriptions laid down by Castiglione, followed by the wealthy men and women of this period, the demand for and appreciation of literature, art, architecture and learning were only possible because of the wealth generated by trade and finance through networks established during a period lasting more than a millennia.