This generation carries a sense that the world was on the brink of something new. It saw the ingredients put in place that led to the transformation we have seen in the following years.
First, printing. Images had been mass-produced for some time, either as woodcuts (carving out the negative of an image on a block of wood, dipping it in ink and stamping it on a page) or more detailed copper engraving (impressing an image on a sheet of copper, immersing that in ink and wiping away the ink that does not settle in the indentations. Then that is stamped on to a page). But not words.
In the previous generation a goldsmith in Mainz, Johannes Gutenberg, had developed the idea of movable type for printing books. In this one, the idea took off. By the end of this generation, in 1480, printing presses had been set up in over 100 cities from Oxford to Palermo, from the Atlantic coast of Portugal through to eastern Europe. A generation later, over 20 million books had been published.
The books that were published were stories, handbooks and textbooks, and religious texts.
The bible had already been translated into local languages in handwritten form. This generation saw the first printed German-language bible. One can only marvel at the transformation this must have caused. Now any thinking person had an incentive to learn to read. One can speculate that some of those thinking people began to question whether the priests were relaying the whole story.
The first printed book in English was the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (Recall of the stories of Troy), a courtly romance translated from French.
Here is an illustration from that book, showing another innovation that was developed during this generation: the concept of perspective in art. A picture could trick the eye into thinking that an image made in two dimensions on a flat piece of paper also contained the third dimension of depth.
Here is a Florentine painting from the beginning of this period, the Flagellation of Christ by Piero della Francesca. You can see the concept of the vanishing point, which is suggested by the gridline of tiles on the floor and the joists on the ceiling. The identity of the three men in the foreground is not known. But something is missing. The painting doesn’t have the realism of Da Vinci’s Last Supper from the following generation. It is as if the different components of the painting are suspended in space.
Here is another painting from Florence, towards the end of this generation. The Hunt in the Forest by Paolo Uccello also explores the possibilities of the vanishing point, in this case somewhere through the trees.
The context for this change was the administrative unit of the city-state. Nation-states did not really exist. The first nation-states were England and France, which established themselves in the following generations. But in this time France was more a geographical entity than a political one, as was Germany, Italy or Spain, much as the names Africa, Asia, Europe or America are geographical descriptions for our generation. The cities in some parts of Europe were independent political entities, such as Florence, Genoa, Venice or Milan, and in others (Valencia in Aragon, Mainz in the Habsburg Empire) they acknowledged a distant overlord but pretty well ran their own affairs. The city-states were responsible for their own management: removing rubbish, managing the markets, manning the walls and gates. They protected local workers, giving them preference of employment over outsiders. This led to distinct styles of art and architecture in different cities.
Valencia was a boom town. Barcelona further to the north had expelled foreign bankers, who then brought their skills and resources to Valencia. Ships from Genoa, Florence and Milan now bypassed Barcelona and set up trading bases in Valencia. The muslim population of the hinterland supplied dried fruits, sugar and rice to traders from further away too. The English had a taste for blancmange and sourced their rice and sugar there. The Valencian port authorities were powerful enough to impose rules on incoming ships. Every ship had to have a cat, to keep down the rats. If the cat died before the captain was able to obtain another one, he was not responsible for any damage to cargo caused by the rats.
The arts flourished there too. Tirant Lo Blanch was written in the Valencian language in this period. It is a satire around another of the phenomena of the time: the expansion of the muslim Ottoman Empire. Christian Constantinople had fallen to the Ottomans in the previous generation and the ottomans were making their presence felt in the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean. Tirant Lo Blanch is a fictional Breton knight who aids the Byzantines and defeats the Ottomans. An alternative history, in other words. In its satirising of knightly ideals it is seen as a precursor to Don Quixote, written over a century later.
Here is an illustration from a later Castilian translation of the book.
But Florence was the pearl among city-states. The fall of Constantinople had an unintended consequence in the flow of ancient Greek texts from the byzantine world into western Europe. In Florence, Marsilio Ficino began a translation of the works of Plato as well as the Corpus Hermeticum. Cosimo de Medici, the de facto ruler of Florence, refounded Plato’s Academy and set Ficino as its head. Scholars were then faced with a dilemma: how to reconcile Christian thought with the writings they were rediscovering from the ancient world?
This painting by Ghirlandaio shows Ficino on the left, in conversation with some of his fellow scholars.
It feels to me that this generation set in place the ingredients for the world we inhabit now.