The Renaissance and Its Roots Outside Europe

The Renaissance is defined by most people as the birth of the modern European society and its limits are drawn only along Christian Europe. Most studies that had dealt with Renaissance celebrated European society for its achievements in revival of classical cultures and establishing the new period that is called Renaissance and that led modern Europe. All they had thought about the Renaissance is shaped without the inspirations of others. However, recent studies suggest that Renaissance can only be understood through powerful influences that had come from outside Europe. This paper aims to show that the Renaissance owes much to the influences of others. Although Renaissance is a historical period which occurred in the borders of Europe, it can be said that without Eastern world and the other cultures, it would be hard to talk about the Renaissance.

Renaissance is a controversial historical period which is commonly considered as the birth of modern European society and individualism. [i] Since it is controversial, the historical limits of it cannot be drawn easily. However, most accepted approach considers 1330-40’s, the period when the first humanist Petrarch had lived, as the beginning of the Renaissance which continued until 17th century.[ii] This period was developed by people and it cultivated the same people that broke their chains and their boundaries which was no larger than Christian Europe and was established by their medieval ancestors.

Humanists thought about him, while artists painted him, sculptors under the influence of antique models displayed his perfect form, and dramatists and poets gave voice to the inner conflicts and newly awakened ambitions that made him distinct from his medieval ancestors.[iii]

One of the most distinctive features of this period is the enhancement of European society in all areas including science, art, and trade. The scholars and the artists of this period thought that they could establish improvement only via looking back. Peter Burke argues that, “As for Humanists, the way that is going forward is going back and imitating writers and scholars who had developed in a culture that Humanists thought it had been more superior than theirs.’’[iv] Those cultures were Greek and Roman cultures; the former had flourished in Greece and cultivated some of the most influential philosophers such as Plato and Aristoteles and the latter one had thrived in Italian peninsula. However, Roman Empire expanded much larger and put their dominance in Mediterranean and Near East periphery, France, and Britain. They cultivated some individuals that affected early Humanists deeply such as Cicero. Prominent thinkers of this period criticized what dominated Europe through Middle Ages, for instance, Aristotelian philosophy and dogmatic views of Christian Church and distinguished artists of Renaissance resisted against Gothic style and sought simplicity and purity.[v] Contrary to French-origin Gothic style, Renaissance found its first sparks in Italy. City-states in Italy that was more secular than the rest of Europe and some of its inhabitants that set up themselves as a new social group, banker and merchant elites, stimulated the Renaissance.[vi] When Hundred Years of Wars had ended in Europe, the continent found himself in a new era which witnessed thriving trade between Northern and Southern parts of the continent. Also, after the Crusaders Italian city states put their dominance on Mediterranean and the trade with East which introduced to Western people some of the exotic and luxury goods of that age. These trade relations enriched Italian city-states and merchant families of them who held the patronage of the Renaissance art.

The first person who mentioned about a revival of ancient cultures was Giorgio Vasari. As an architect and a very popular painter of his time who served to popes and Medici family, Vasari published his Lives of the Great Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, which is became “the bible of Renaissance art”[vii] and used the term la rinascita (the rebirth).[viii] However, the notion of Renaissance was not confined to a rebirth. Scholars of later periods broadened the scope of the term. As each generation gave to it its assumptions and tendencies, two scholars overshadowed others; Jules Michelet and Jacob Burckhardt. A French nationalist Jules Michelet was the first person to use the word Renaissance. Until he wrote his History of France and in 1855 published seventh volume of the History, La Renaissance, the Renaissance had been not used to define a significant historical period. According to him, Renaissance was fracture with the Middle Ages in European history and that “created a modern understanding of humanity and its place in the world.’’[ix] However, his Renaissance occurred not in Italy but in France and in 16th century. Jules Michelet fiercely dedicated to French Revolution and his assumption clearly reflected his understanding and his prejudice. [x] Another important scholar, Swiss-historian Jacob Burckhardt constructed what nearly all of us think about Renaissance. Karl Brundi argues,” Our conception of the Renaissance is Jacob Burckhardt’s creation.’’[xi] However, like Michelet, Burckhardt’s work The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy reflects “both his own personality and the tendencies and prejudices of at least a part of his generation.”[xii] Jerry Brotton argues, “Michelet invented the idea of the Renaissance but the Swiss academic Jacob Burckhardt defined it as an Italian 15th century phenomenon.”[xiii] What is not surprising about the opinions of these scholars is that they lived in a period which was also Europe was destructively trying to establish its supremacy and dominance across the world[xiv] and one of the problems about their opinions and their definitions about Renaissance is that they only celebrated the triumphs and supremacy of  the European world.

The Renaissance Man invented by Michelet and Burckhardt was white, male, cultured, and convinced of his cultural superiority.[xv]

According to Wallace K. Ferguson, even Vasari thought that, ‘’the destruction of art and letters had been the work of the barbarians, their restoration had been achieved by the Italian masters.’’[xvi] The approach that congratulate European culture in terms of fostering the Renaissance and exclude other continued until nowadays. Except for an incident about Sultan Suleyman and Sigismund, Alison Brown does not refer to any Eastern inspiration in her book, The Renaissance.[xvii] Furthermore, even though he accepts the role of the trade in developing the Renaissance, Wallace K. Ferguson does not mention about other’s role in his book. [xviii]

However, the Renaissance cannot be understood without investigating the role of others, especially Eastern world. Later studies and visual evidences proved that other cultures, above all Muslim world had contributed much to the Renaissance. This fact is clearly explained by Gerald MacLean:

Had it not been for the importation of eastern goods and skills, many of the achievements most commonly associated with the European Renaissance would have not occurred; had it not been for continuing cultural rivalry among Christian and Muslim princes and aristocrats to display their wealth and magnificence in ways that others would understand and perhaps even emulate or envy, many of the artistic achievements of the period might not have taken the forms they did. [xix]

According to him also,” (…) the Renaissance involved far more of the world than the confines of Christian Europe and its Hellenistic past.”[xx] Moreover, Lisa Jardine’s Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance puts Europe and Muslim trade at the core of the Renaissance and considers Istanbul as a Renaissance city. [xxi] In his book, Jerry Brotton suggests:

The flow of spices, silks, carpets, porcelain, majolica, porphyry, glassware, lacquen, dyes, and pigments from the Eastern bazaars of Muslim Spain, Mameluke Egypt, Ottoman Turkey, Persia, and the Silk Road between China and Europe provided the inspiration and materials for the art and architecture of Bellini, van Eyck, Dürer, and Alberti.[xxii]

Peter Burke also saw the relations of the Byzantine Empire and the Arabs between Christian Europe as one of the impulses of the revival of Classical tradition by the West.[xxiii]

Some of the masterpieces of the Renaissance art prove what these historians suggest. Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) is quintessential Renaissance painting consisting nearly of the themes that represent the Renaissance world. (illus.1) It is “detailed, precise reproduction of the world of two Renaissance men”[xxiv] and “when we look at the paintings like ‘The Ambassadors’, we are seeing the emergence of modern identity and individuality.”[xxv] The other feature of this painting is that it reveals Eastern inspiration upon European Renaissance. Firstly, knowing why Dinteville and Selve, subjects of the painting, were in London in 1533 helps to understand the role of the rug of the painting that is on the upper shelf with Ottoman design and manufacture. Dinteville and Selve were in London as French ambassadors to establish a new political alliance between English King Henry, French King Francis and the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman against the emperor of Habsburg Empire, Charles V. The rug on the upper shelf suggests that, “the Ottomans and their territories to the east were also part of the cultural, commercial, and political landscape of the Renaissance.”[xxvi] Moreover, many of the objects in painting have an Eastern origin. For instance, most of the instruments on the upper shelf were invented by Arab and Jewish astronomers. The instruments also helped European navigators in their long-distance voyages. Furthermore, from what the subjects wear, that is, the silk and the velvet to the textiles that decorates the room have an Eastern origin.[xxvii]

Figure 1 Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak. National Gallery, London.

The other masterpiece about this issue is Gentile and Giovanni Bellini’s St. Mark Preaching in Alexandria (1504-7). (illus. 2) The founder of the Christian church in Alexandria and patron saint of Venice, St. Mark was depicted as standing in a pulpit and preaching to a group of Oriental women. Behind St. Mark, a group of Venetian noblemen stand. In front of the St. Mark, oriental figures including Egyptian Mamelukes, North African Moors, Ottomans, Ethiopians, and Persians are drawn. When the action takes place bottom of the painting, the background is covered by landscape of Alexandria. What firstly catches eyes is a domed Byzantine-type basilica that is mixture of the Church of San Marco in Venice and Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.[xxviii] Also, houses with Egyptian tiles, grilles, and Islamic carpets strengthens Oriental environment. The minarets, columns, and pillars complete the painting. Indeed, the painting is a reflection of “intermingling of communities and cultures in a scene that evokes both the Western church and the Eastern marketplace.”[xxix] In addition, Jerry Brotton says,

The palette of painter like the Bellinis was also expanded by the edition of pigments like lapis lazuli, vermilion, and cinnabar, all of which were imported from the east via Venice, and provided Renaissance paintings with their characteristic brilliant blues and reds.[xxx]

Figure 2 Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, St. Mark Preaching in Alexandria (1504-7), oil on canvas. Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

As painters from Venice, Gentile and Giovanni Bellini remind Venice’s role as a commercial intermediary between the Eastern world and Europe and how it shaped the Renaissance. Since, “Cultural achievements of Renaissance rely on trade and finance.”[xxxi], Venice affected Renaissance Europe profoundly, because it was affected from Eastern world strikingly.

Their impact (Eastern world) upon the culture and consumption of communities from Venice to London was gradual but profound. Every sphere of life was affected, from eating to painting. As the domestic economy changed with this influx of exotic goods, so did art and culture.[xxxii]

Alexandria, Damascus, and Aleppo were the cities where Venetian merchants went continuously for their commercial activities and ‘’they regarded these cities so familiar that few Venetian visitors felt the need to describe them.’’[xxxiii] The bazaars, mosques, and palaces of these cities also shaped the architecture of Venice itself. For instance, the Rialto Market took its inspiration from Syrian Aleppo as well as Doge’s Palace and the Palazzo Ducale.[xxxiv] Julian Raby claims,

It was there that European traders and pilgrims embarked on their voyages East, and there that the spices and merchandise of the Orient were unloaded for the markets of Western Europe. Such trafficking produced both financial and cultural gains for the Serenissima (the Republic of Venice), whose arts responded to the splendors of the two eastern empires of Byzantium and the Muslim world.[xxxv]

Even the ships of Venetians who accommodated growing demand of exotic and luxury goods of Western world based on Arabic designs. Three-masted caravel was developed by the end of the 15th century based on Arabic vessels. It could receive 400 barrels[xxxvi] of commodities and was faster than the cog.[xxxvii]

The trade was more further for Renaissance and Europe. Since commercial activity and trade thrived, the old way of doing business became insufficient. As well as exotic goods, via their commercial activities in Eastern Bazaars European merchants also transplanted to Europe the Arabic and Islamic way of doing business. In 13th century, Leonardo Pisan, known as Fibonacci, introduced Hindu-Arabic numerals into European commerce and pioneered to modern capitalism. He explained the nature of Hindu-Arabic numerals from 0 to 9 and applications involving addition, subtraction, and multiplication. The new developments in mathematics led to new changes in finance and triggered more complex structures such as banks: in 1397, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici established the Medici Bank in Florence. [xxxviii]

One overlooked aspect of the Renaissance is the relationship of it with Africa. In addition to gold and slave trade between Europe and Africa, especially Portuguese merchants created a new style of art: Afro-Portuguese ivories. (illus. 3) Along with their voyages to the western coast of Africa, the Portuguese encountered with African artists who carved beautiful objects, mostly salt cellars that were owned by diverse people in Europe from ordinary people to the Medici family.[xxxix]

Bini_Portuguese salt cellar
Figure 3 Anonymous, 15th-century Bini-Portuguese salt cellar


To sum up, the Renaissance was a historical period that occurred in Europe between 14th and 17th centuries and that made what Modern European society depends on. However, although some historians celebrate merely the achievements of European society, recent studies clearly suggest that European Renaissance owes much of its achievements to the cultures outside Europe, especially Eastern world. Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) and Gentile and Giovanni Bellini’s St. Mark Preaching in Alexandria (1504-7) are concrete examples of this inspiration. Moreover, focusing on details also says much thing about the Renaissance and its relations with Africa, as can be seen in Afro-Portuguese ivories.


Brotton, Jerry. The Renaissance Bazaar. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

—. The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Brown, Alison. The Renaissance. Pearson Education Limited, 1999.

Burke, Peter. Avrupa’da Rönesans: Merkezler ve Çeperler. Translated by Uygar Abacı. İstanbul: Literatür, 2003.

Ferguson, Wallace K. The Renaissance. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.

—. The Renaissance in Historical Thought: Five Centuries of Interpretation. Massachusetts: The Riverside Press, 1948.

Jarnide, Lisa, and Jerry Brotton. Global Interests: Renaissance Art between East and West. London: Reaktion Books, 2000.

MacLean, Gerald. Introduction: Re-Orienting the Renaissance. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2005.

Raby, Julian. Venice, Dürer and The Oriental Mode. Edited by Ernst J. Grube and David Revere McFadden. Islamic Art Publications: Italy, 1982.


[i] Jerry Brotton, introduction to The Renaissance Bazaar (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), vii.

[ii] Peter Burke, Avrupa’da Rönesans: Merkezler ve Çeperler (trans. Uygar Abacı, İstanbul: Literatür, 2003),21.

[iii] Gerald MacLean, Introduction: Re-Orienting the Renaissance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005),2.

[iv] Peter Burke, Avrupa’da Rönesans: Merkezler ve Çeperler, trans. Uygar Abacı (İstanbul: Literatür, 2003),30.

[v] Ibid., 35.

[vi] Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 33.

[vii] Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance Bazaar (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 124.

[viii]Wallace K. Ferguson, The Renaissance in Historical Thought: Five Centuries of Interpretation (Massachusetts: The Riverside Press, 1948), 60.

[ix] Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 10.

[x] Ibid., 9.

[xi] Wallace K. Ferguson, The Renaissance in Historical Thought: Five Centuries of Interpretation (Massachusetts: The Riverside Press, 1948), 179.

[xii] Ibid., 180.

[xiii] Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 11.

[xiv] Ibid., 19.

[xv] Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance Bazaar (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 33.

[xvi] Wallace K. Ferguson, The Renaissance in Historical Thought: Five Centuries of Interpretation (Massachusetts: The Riverside Press, 1948), 60.

[xvii] Alison Brown, The Renaissance (-: Pearson Education Limited, 1999), 81.

[xviii] Wallace K. Ferguson, The Renaissance (-: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964), 19-25.

[xix] Gerald MacLean, Introduction: Re-Orienting the Renaissance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 1.

[xx] Ibid., 3.

[xxi] Ibid., 5.

[xxii] Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance Bazaar (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 1.

[xxiii] Peter Burke, Avrupa’da Rönesans: Merkezler ve Çeperler, trans. Uygar Abacı (İstanbul: Literatür,2003), 23.

[xxiv] Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance Bazaar (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 6.

[xxv] Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 1.

[xxvi] Ibid., 6-7.

[xxvii] Ibid., 6-7.

[xxviii] Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance Bazaar (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 36.

[xxix] Ibid., 21.

[xxx] Ibid., 23.

[xxxi] Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance Bazaar (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 11.

[xxxii] Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 23.

[xxxiii] Gerald MacLean, Introduction: Re-Orienting the Renaissance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 30.

[xxxiv] Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance Bazaar (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 40.

[xxxv] Julian Raby, Venice, Dürer, and the Oriental Mode, ed. Ernst J. Grube and David Revere McFadden (-: Islamic Art Publications, 1982), 17.

[xxxvi] 1 barrel equals 900 liters.

[xxxvii] Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 25.

[xxxviii] Ibid., 25-6.

[xxxix] Ibid., 59-60


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