In previous class readings, discussions and projects, the Middle Ages was reviewed as a time of struggle and subjugation of individual freedoms, including intellectual pursuits, religious beliefs, human rights and ownership through servitude, and warfare over properties, territories and the dogma of the Vatican. The Renaissance has been viewed as a reawakening of theology, education, social philosophies, inventions that made global changes and historical legacies, scientific discoveries and validation or repudiation of theories, expeditionary zeal, colonization at the price of decimation to other cultures, and tremendous creative expression in the fields of music, sculpture, painting and building.
It was indeed marked by a flourishing cultural identity, but it was the unashamed pursuit of valuable possessions, including great religious and secular art, and material and commercial spirit of the 15th and 16th centuries that set the tone. A single-syllable word transformed monarchies and fueled expeditionary rivalry and decades of land and sea confrontations: "Gold." Commerce and international trade provided the enormous fortunes that funded artistic production, and luxury goods, including great works of art, became important as means of displaying newly acquired wealth and status. It was an urge to own, a ceaseless quest for new horizons and exotic treasures, to publicly succeed, that fueled the cultural output of the Renaissance, and that taste for conspicuous displays of opulence characterizes the Western experience of the arts and culture to this day.
The typical "Renaissance man'' was motivated by conspicuous consumption as much as by humanist principles. The leading members of Renaissance society sought to live in ornate palaces filled with fine paintings, sculpture, marble and rare stone, porcelain, Venetian glass, silk from China, broadcloth from London, rich velvet, and fine tapestries and carvings--hardly the spiritual symbols of a deeply religious era. Yet Renaissance religious art reflected a true spirituality: Most Renaissance artists believed that only the very best was good enough to honor their sacred subjects.
The Renaissance uniquely combined the sacred with the profane: Literature and art that blithely mixed a celebration of valuable commodities with sacred themes. During the Renaissance, city-states like Venice and Genoa grew fat channeling the riches and spices of the Orient into Europe. Trading, capital investment, banking, and credit all accelerated the creation of a new wealthy class. Ostentation reflected the authority of powerful princes of the states and the Church, and the achievements of great merchants. Some innovations improved the lot of the common man and inspired more humble consumption. In particular, the invention of the printing press made formerly handwritten rare copies of Greek and Roman classics available to learned commoners.
The rapidly growing market for printed books - a new commodity seized upon with equal enthusiasm by investors and consumers - disseminated the "new learning" via publishing houses and printing presses across Europe, stimulating the evolution of the European intellectual tradition as much by accident as by design.
Therefore, the question is open for discussion, research, and rebuttal: should the Renaissance be viewed as a time period of discovery, creativity and reawakening of mankind (and womankind)'s higher mental facilities, or should it be characterized as an age of greed, opportunity, scandal, and pretentiousness?