FROM the fourteenth to the end of the seventeenth century, towns were growing in many countries of Europe. A distinct ‘urban culture’ also developed. Townspeople began to think of themselves as more ‘civilised’ than rural people. Towns – particularly Florence, Venice and Rome – became centres of art and learning. Artists and writers were patronised by the rich and the aristocratic. The invention of printing at the same time made books and prints available to many people, including those living in distant towns or countries. A sense of history also developed in Europe, and people contrasted their ‘modern’ world with the ‘ancient’ one of the Greeks and Romans. Religion came to be seen as something which each individual should choose for himself. The church’s earthcentric belief was overturned by scientists who began to understand the solar system, and new geographical knowledge overturned the Europe-centric view that the Mediterranean Sea was the centre of the world.
There is a vast amount of material on European history from the fourteenth century – documents, printed books, paintings, sculptures, buildings, textiles. Much of this has been carefully preserved in archives, art galleries and museums in Europe and America. From the nineteenth century, historians used the term ‘Renaissance’ (literally, rebirth) to describe the cultural changes of this period. The historian who emphasised these most was a Swiss scholar – Jacob Burckhardt (1818–97) of the University of Basle in Switzerland. He was a student of the German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886). Ranke had taught him that the primary concern of the historian was to write about states and politics using papers and files of government departments. Burckhardt was dissatisfied with these very limited goals that his master had set out for him. To him politics was not the be-all and endall in history writing. History was as much concerned with culture as with politics. In 1860, he wrote a book called The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, in which he called his readers’ attention to literature, architecture and painting to tell the story of how a new ‘humanist’ culture had flowered in Italian towns from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century. This culture, he wrote, was characterised by a new belief – that man, as an individual, was capable of making his own decisions and developing his skills. He was ‘modern’, in contrast to ‘medieval’ man whose thinking had been controlled by the church.