The Renaissance began as a secular scholarly project to rediscover the knowledge, art, and literature of the classical world, unfiltered by the clerical lens that had constrained intellectual enquiry during the Middle Ages. It became known as studia humanitatis, or the study of the ‘humanities’, as opposed to the classical medieval emphasis on the study of divinity: hence the label ‘humanism’. The crucible for this movement was northern Italy, politically tempestuous and economically vibrant, with a concentration of independently minded universities. The commercial empire of Venice conferred access to the learning of the Islamic world, and in the region’s libraries, archives and monasteries, vast troves of classical literature awaited, ready to be brought into the light. An important feature of central and northern Italy in the Middle Ages was the development of urban communes, which broke away from control by local bishops and counts. The rise in trade, and the growing wealth of these cities, led to a decline in feudalism and a rise in wealthy families and a mercantile class, who took almost complete control of the government of the city-states. It was in this atmosphere that innovative thought and new ideas about statecraft flourished.
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