The Renaissance marked the end of medieval Europe and the beginning of a time of learning, questioning and development. Although the medieval mindset was still present, it was starting to give way to a completely new Europe. The Renaissance, a European phenomenon by all standards, that affected most of the continent, was born and focused in, to a large extent, in Italy. From its epicentre in Italy, the Renaissance spread to all corners of Europe. Florence in particular was the home for many of the greatest thinkers and artists of the time, if not of all time.
In the thirteenth century urban growth in Italy was on the increase once more, and the once rural and sparsely populated peninsula became dotted with great cities. These cities in turn grew into centres of trade and banking. The trade they conducted was mostly directed towards the east, the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world, but there was also a lot of coming and going to and from Western Europe. During this time Italy was as disunited as ever, far from a united nation. The larger cities then became city-states, autonomous regions that were formed from great cities and the surrounding area. These regions or city-states were governed from the main city within the region. The governing city of the region usually gave its name to the whole city-state. These city-states included The Papal States, Florence, Venice, the Duchy of Milan and the Kingdom of Naples. In these centres of wealth and commerce, a new social class was born among the merchants and bankers, along side the nobility and peasants. The wealth in these city-states changed owners as the nobility lent money from bankers and used it to unproductive ends, and were then unable to pay back their loans. Because of this they were obliged to hand over some of their property to the bankers as payment. As wealth changed hands, the wealthy middle class, a very commercially orientated one, was born from these merchants and bankers. They invested their wealth to generate more income and so they quickly became the wealthiest class and, ultimately, ruled the city-states.
One of these wealthy merchant families was the Medici family of Florence. Florence was at the very heart of the Renaissance, largely thanks to the funding and opportunities the Medici family provided for young talents. Much of the wealth in Florence was acquired through its booming textile industry. Florence imported raw wool from Spain and England, the dyes from the east and the work force was from around northern Italy. The Medici family took pride in their city-state and wanted it to be the most beautiful and awe-inspiring urban centre in all of Italy. They also sought to legitimize their rule of Florence, which they had gained in secret from the republic. They hired numerous patrons and gave them tasks to design and build palaces, sculpt statues, paint murals, and more. Around a hundred palaces were built in Florence in the 15th century alone. The artists and architects, painters and sculptors, were all rewarded handsomely for their work, but only the best individuals would suffice. These individuals included geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Brunelleschi. The Renaissance was going on all over Italy, of course, but the wealth and the will to use it on art and learning displayed by the Medici family made Florence the centre of gravity in the Italian Renaissance. The opportunities presented to artists, architects, poets, philosophers and sculptors by the Medici family attracted learning and skill from outside of Florence as well.
One of Da Vinci's most famous works, The Last Supper
The Renaissance was really only for the wealthier classes of society to take part in, and in Italy there was a large, wealthy class of merchants that took part in the Renaissance and encouraged it. The Medici family also paid a hefty pay-check to those who created great works of art, learning and architecture, and this must have acted as a major motivating force as well, as probably for the first time in history, artists were able to make a very comfortable living with their art. Both the artistic and the philosophical side of the Renaissance were influenced by Classical Greek and Roman thinkers, architects, artists and the Classical Greek way of thinking in general. Especially architecture and philosophy were influenced, and this was aided by the influx of Classical Greek and Roman literature from Constantinople, triggered by the fall of Constantinople in the hands of the Muslim Turks. Constantinople, perhaps the greatest city in the christened world was a store of Classical Greek and Roman literature and many who escaped the Turkish occupation brought with them many of the documents that had been kept in Constantinople. The fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire also meant that a rivalling trade centre was "out of order" for a while, which further increased the flow of trade and wealth through the Italian city-states. The Popes in Rome also funded many works of art in the Vatican. They summoned artist from other parts in Italy to create art to the glory of God (and themselves).
Italy had all that was needed for a phenomenon such as the Renaissance: wealthy urban centres (which were also large centres of trade) in which the flow of ideas was great and the sources of ideas were diverse, a wealthy merchant class accumulating more wealth, rulers willing to spend on such things as art, thinking and learning in general and give opportunities to young talents. The revival of the same spirit that reigned in Athens during its Golden Age, was also an important factor. Many of the Italian artists and thinkers thought of them selves as the ones who would continue from where the Greeks and Romans left off. The Renaissance has its roots deep in the soil of Northern Italy, and Florence was its seed.