History of the World in Objects and Art

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History of the World in Objects and Art Timeline

The Renaissance was a cultural movement, which began in the thriving city-states of Italy. The prospering social elite started spending their acquired wealth on artistic pursuits. This prosperity, combined with a burgeoning interest in learning, spread throughout Western Europe, giving rise to scientific inquiry, maritime voyages to new lands, and revolutionizing the visual arts and architecture.
The Renaissance—literally meaning "rebirth"—emerged through a series of gradual, and sometimes subtle, changes, which began around the 1300s. It pulled Europe out of the Middle Ages and into the start of a cultural revolution, gathering momentum by the 17th century.

This rebirth began in Italy, where artists and scholars began to find inspiration in the works and aesthetics of ancient Roman and Greek ruins. This was aided by the arrival of Greek scholars fleeing Constantinople, which fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Meanwhile, the growth of trading centers in Italy—which, at the time, did not exist as a country but was composed of small kingdoms and city-states, such as Florence, Venice, and Genoa—encouraged urbanization.

Soon, translations of ancient texts were circulating through communities of scholars in these growing urban centers and beyond. Inquiring minds were reading Plato's philosophical ideas from the 4th century все or pondering Ptolemy's calculations from the 2nd century ce. This led to the emergence of humanism, a drive to develop human virtues through arts such as philosophy, rhetoric, and poetry. It was a distinct step away from the Christian worldview that had dominated the medieval age. This cultural revival spilled over into many facets of life, from the production of art to the development of new styles of architecture. Technological and scientific changes also abounded, including key advances in maritime navigation, which enlarged the world and worldview of Europeans.


Before Genoese sailor Christopher Columbus encountered the Americas in 1492—all the while believing he had found a sea route to Japan— Europeans' knowledge of the world was confined to the Mediterranean basin, reaching northward to the North Sea and Baltic, and southward to Muslim North Africa and the Middle East. A few traders and travelers had made the journey to the Far East, including the Venetian Marco Polo, whose 13th-century account of his time in Asia was eagerly re-read throughout Western Europe some 200 years later. However, little was known about the world west of the Mediterranean until Columbus's voyage. Exploration then began in earnest, and ships set out to find their own passages to these new worlds. John Cabot (also known as Giovanni Caboto) found a northern sea route to Canada in 1497, while Portuguese Vasco da Gama reached India by sea in 1498. These men and thousands of other sailors brought back knowledge of the Americas, southern Africa, and India, and this too fed the imagination of Europeans.


The intellectual and cultural passions of the Renaissance particularly manifested themselves in art. The wealth brought by expanding trade meant that merchants and nobles, like the Medici family, could fund the work of talented individuals. Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti flourished under this system and made a deep and lasting impact on Western art.

The armillary sphere was a device used by early astronomers to represent the circles of the heavens—the rings are known as armillaries, from the Latin armilla, meaning ring or bracelet. They represent celestial bands—such as the horizon, equator, and zodiac— and circles of latitude and longitude on Earth. The angles between the different rings were used to measure the location of various heavenly bodies, enabling astronomers to further their understanding of the movements of celestial objects. These devices varied in design but were mostly used during the Renaissance to illustrate the difference between two astronomical models of the Solar System: the geocentric model and the heliocentric model. The geocentric theory, developed by Greek polymath Ptolemy in the second century ce, argued that the planets and Sun moved around Earth, while the heliocentric theory, revived by Renaissance astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus in the 16th century, contended that Earth actually moves around a central Sun. Earlier Earth-centered versions of the spheres predate Copernicus, going as far back as the ancient Greeks. They were also popular with Islamic astronomers, and the use of similar apparatus has also been traced to China.


During the 18th century, the sphere shown here was primarily used as a teaching aid, but it could also be used as a type of sundial, called an equatorial sundial, to measure the longitude of the Sun. Armillary spheres were often found in the homes of the wealthy
Sistine masterpiece
This chapel in the Vatican Palace was built in the 1470s for Pope Sixtus IV, but was decorated in stages. In 1508, Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the ceiling. His frescos depict scenes from the Old Testament, including the much-reproduced The Creation of Adam.
"And the Lord God Called unto Adam,  and Said unto Him, 
Where Art Thou?"

Michelangelo recreates man

The ideal of Classical beauty: Nudes figures from the ceiling fresco in the Sistine Chape

Michelangelo was born in Florence in 1475. As a boy of thirteen he was apprenticed to the workshop of the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449—1494). There his talent was discovered and furthered by Lorenzo de' Medici, a great lover and patron of the arts. As a young man Michelangelo was allowed to live in the Medici palace as a guest, where he could study the ancient statues in the garden and was instructed by the ruler, Lorenzo, himself. However, by the time he reached the age of eighteen, that was not enough for Michelangelo Buonarroti. How was a sculptor to represent a human body in motion without knowing how the muscles functioned under the skin? He wished to study anatomy, but he needed corpses to do so. He knew he would not be admitted into a charnel house, as it went against his contemporaries' sense of propriety and moral principles. The popular American novelist Irving Stone — whose book about Michelangelo, The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961), was a bestseller — allowed chance to drop a key into his hero's hands: the key to the hospital of Santo Spirito. Eagerly, yet terrified of being caught, he set to work at night. By the flickering light of a candle, he carefully dissected corpses to study the way muscles were formed and how they worked, how the spinal column was arranged and where the organs were located. Without empirical observation and active study, no matter how he may have gone about it, Michelangelo would never have become the model that he has been for subsequent generations of artists. Nor would he have been revered in his own lifetime as a sculptor, a painter, a writer of profoundly moving sonnets and a thinker in the Platonic mould. To him the idea, the conception of a work of art — and this was especially true of sculpture — was latent in the material, waiting to be recognised by the artist and wrested from it in the creative process.

Michelangelo's Creation of Adam is surely one of the most sublime portrayals of man ever achieved. On 10 May 1508 Michelangelo began to work on this fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Initially he had misgivings about accepting the commission because he viewed himself primarily as a sculptor. He suffered agonies while painting the Sistine ceiling, as his contemporary, Giorgio Vasari, sympathetically relates: "From keeping his head bent back for months on end to paint the vaulted ceiling, he ruined his eyes so that he was no longer able to read even a letter and could not look at any object without holding it up above his head." But that was not all. Michelangelo, then thirty-five years old, had to placate his sixty-seven-year-old patron, Pope Julius II, who "was of an impatient, choleric temperament and could not wait until the work was finished". By 31 October 1512, Julius II was finally able to marvel at the completed fresco, with its over 300 figures.

Creation of Adam
Fresco, 280 x 570 cm
Cappella Sistina, Vatican
The Pieta is the name given to a depiction of the Virgin Mary holding the body of a dead Christ following his crucifixion. Mary is sometimes flanked by angels or biblical figures, such as St. John or Mary Magdalene. The Pieta became a common theme in Renaissance art, appearing in sculptures and paintings throughout Europe, having first shown up in a German work sometime around the 13th century. The scene it represents, known as a lamentation, is not explicitly described in the Bible but rather comes from medieval texts that discussed Mary's empathy and her ability to act as an intermediary between humans and God—the Italian word pieta means "pity."


One of the most famous depictions of the Pieta scene, and the first Italian version, is a sculpture by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Born in 1475, the Florentine artist was one of the original embodiments of a Renaissance man, his talents stretching not only to sculpture but also to painting, architecture, and even poetry.

He established his reputation early on in his careeer, and became a dominant figure in his own lifetime. He was only 24 years old when he finished the Pieta, which was commissioned by a French cardinal, Jean Bilheres de Lagraulas, originally for his funeral monument. He specified that it should be "the most beautiful work in marble that exists today in Rome." The sculpture was later moved to St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City, where it remains today.
The sculpture made an immediate impact, since it is not only a deeply expressive work but also embodied the idealistic human form that artists of this period were striving for. It also exhibited Michelangelo's technical
expertise—multifigured sculptures were rare, and exceptional skill was needed to carve one.


Mary and Christ represented in this form continued to be the subject of paintings and sculptures in Italy, France, and elsewhere in Europe. Despite the overall declining use of religious themes in art by the 18th century, the Pieta continued to inspire artists into the 1800s.

Mother and Christ

The Pieta is a symbolic devotional representation designed to inspire prayers and contemplation. Although it appeared often in art of this period, Michelangelo's version stood apart. His ability to carve two subjects from one block of marble displayed his technical mastery and helped cement his reputation.

The Discovery of America
Theodore de Bry
(Netherlandish, 1528-1598)
Columbus Landing in the New Woridon 12 October 1492

Expanding Horizons

Christopher Columbus on his way to the New World

Christopher Columbus, conjectural image 

At daybreak the ships weighed anchor in the Spanish harbour of Palos de Frontera. Thus began on 5 August 1492 an adventure that was to change the world. The Italian commander of the three ships — the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria — with their crew of eighty-eight men was Christopher Columbus, who would go down in history as the discoverer of America. Columbus, was born in Genoa in 1451, and he had long cherished the plan of finding a western passage to India. Since Greco-Roman antiquity, the talk of a western route to the East had never entirely ceased. Until Columbus, no one had dared set out to explore the possibility because the long voyage acrossthe open sea presented not just a problem of navigation, but a psychological barrier as well. For centuries, vivid imaginations had pictured the ocean teeming with giant squids and other sea monsters. With the dawn of Humanism, however, such superstitious notions were jettisoned. Soon, with the development of new astronomical navigation instruments, the bearings of a ship could be taken accurately, even out of sight of land, and crossing the Atlantic no longer seemed so daunting; indeed, it looked like a practicable venture. Since the Ottomans had expanded their hegemony into the eastern Mediterranean, the traditional trade routes to India were blocked. Consequently, the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella gave Columbus the money he needed and permission to start. In the agreement they concluded with him, the Spanish Kings conceded to Columbus the right to be Viceroy of all islands and territories he should discover and ten percent of any profit he might make. Both parties to the agreement were hoping for a rich haul of gold and silver.

Columbus set out with a document in his pocket which designated the purpose of his voyage as "service to God and the dissemination of the true religion", even though four of his crew were men who had been convicted of committing violent crimes but had been pardoned by Ferdinand and Isabella. It took Columbus and his three ships over sixty days before they sighted land. On 12 October 1492 they landed on the island of Guanahani, now one of the Bahama Islands. Columbus, ofcourse, thought he was in India. In fact he was the discoverer of the New World. Falling on his knees and weeping, he kissed the earth, calling the place he had discovered San Salvador — Holy Redeemer. Then he raised the Spanish flag, had a crucifix erected and took possession of the land for Spain. The "Indios", as he dubbed the natives, struck him as being friendly and gentle. They seemed to have no idea of what weapons were. "I also think that they could be converted to Christianity without any difficulty", he noted in his log book. After discovering Cuba on 27 October 1492 and Haiti on 6 December, he departed for Spain with crates of gold which he had found. When the Spanish rulers saw what he had brought back with him, they started to plan future voyages; these explorations profoundly changed the course of history in the Americas, devastating ancient societies and giving rise to new ones.

Theodore de Bry
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