The Renaissance had a profound influence on the course of the development of modern American society, culture, and, since it is a natural extension of both, artistic expression. The Renaissance influence in America brought about a new focus on humanism and as a result, a subsequent turning away from the dominant ideals put forth by the church. Although religion was still of the greatest influence throughout the period of the Renaissance, the dawning recognition of human potential and scientific inquiry shaped the course of Western history and does still influence contemporary American culture today. Principles of realism, particularly as they appeared in terms of art and literature have remained vital in all aspects of American society and figures such as Boccaccio, da Vinci, Machiavelli, and others live on and influence the way we view our world today.
Before the Renaissance, writers generally tended to focus on issues of a religious nature. Countless texts instructed readers about how to live a pious life and discussed Christian heroes. The Renaissance brought about influence to new writers who sought to break with this tradition and present a more realistic version of life. Several authors from the Renaissance period had a significant effect on contemporary American society, especially in terms of either literary style and meaning as well as political thought. By introducing a new realism, they allowed the common person to enjoy tales and this tradition has continued in today’s society.
One such figure, Giovanni Boccaccio, author of “The Decameron” among other important works, made contributions to what we now understand as realism in terms of literary characterization and setting. Boccaccio deviated from the Renaissance norms of creating lofty characters who dealt with larger than life issues and instead sought to create characters who were witty, down to earth, and appealing to the average person. His masterpiece, The Decameron is a collection of 100 tales that center around a group of guests gathered at a house during the Black Plague. They all relate stories to one another to pass the time and each of the stories deals with issues the Renaissance reader would be familiar with. Boccaccio founded this new way of writing about settings and characters and this form of realism is recognizable in today’s world of both literary and commercial fiction.
In addition to these notes on The Decameron historically, such a style can also be found in films and television that seek to place “real” characters at the heart of the story instead of offering examples of perfect piety, godliness, or perfection. Another author who turned away from presenting readers with lofty pre-Renaissance characters and situations was Niccolo di Bernardo dei Machiavelli. The most important and influential Renaissance work by Machiavelli “The Prince“, and the central idea behind this book was to put forth a realistic and grounded political philosophy. In this text he discusses the way a leader must appear to this public; as being an almost holy and reverent figure, but one who could commit an evil act if necessary. The term Machiavellian has remained present in contemporary American culture and describes someone who is willing to commit an evil act for personal gain. Even though this term is not completely accurate in terms of The Prince, the word has remained and so have some of the ideas about how a leader should behave.
In terms of contributions to contemporary American society, few other Renaissance figures are as prominent as Leonardo da Vinci. Not only was he a revolutionary artist and thinker, but he pioneered several advances which we take for granted today. As an artist, da Vinci sought to represent realism in several forms, most notably that of the human figure. Instead of always painting the lofty and grandiose religious figures (which he still did some of) he often sought to show the true human spirit. A painting such as Mona Lisa is still a recurring image in popular culture but there is a deeper significance to its longevity in contemporary society. Da Vinci was one the first painters to showcase a realist tendency in his painting. This tradition in art has lived on and can still be found throughout the art (and even literary) world. In addition to his paintings that drew off of scientific observation, da Vinci also pioneered some of the first studies of human anatomy as well as a number of other scientific developments. In sum, his work has influenced contemporary American culture and thought because it shows the power of empiricism in all endeavors—even those that are essentially creative. Da Vinci showed that art and science can be combined and one need only look to new technologies, such as realistic video games that feature highly realistic characters that are affected by physics within a simulated world.
In contemporary American society, science remains at the forefront of all of our lives, both in terms of how our culture and our society functions. We take for granted that science is a process based on careful experimentation and observation before a conclusion is reached. The writer and philosopher Francis Bacon had a profound impact on contemporary American thought and his ideas would be called back as soon as the Enlightenment period in American history. He is recognized as one of the leaders of the scientific revolution and pioneered the idea of performing experiments to land at a conclusion or hypothesis. One of Bacon’s statements, “knowledge is power” is still a popular saying today and it has become the basis for much of our society, especially in age of information and technology. Bacon is also an important figure to contemporary American society because he set forth a clear division between philosophy and religion. Before Bacon, the two were considered inseparable, but by using his powers of deductive reasoning and observation, Bacon showed how they were two different things altogether. This concept has certainly carried over to American society and can even be found in our constitution to some degree. We have always made the division between church and state important and this idea in part goes back to the time of Francis Bacon. In other words, the thoughts of a Renaissance philosopher and writer have gone on to influence large political structures and doctrines.
With their emphasis on Renaissance humanism and a new, more balanced approach to handling religion, Renaissance artists and writers have shaped the course of Western and American history and thought. Men such as da Vinci taught us about the value of combining science and art and writers such as Francis Bacon taught us how knowledge and modes of inquiry are essential to our being. Without these and other key Renaissance figures, one can only imagine what kind of a world we might live in. It even be reasonable to assume it would be a theocracy in which all art was of a religious nature and all thinkers limited to a narrow scope of subjects. Instead, we have the freedom to think, experiment, and observe as well as to read and consider art as a reflection of reality, not necessarily anything else.
Other essays and articles in the Main Archives related to this topic include : The Influence of the Enlightenment on The Formation of the United States Puritan Influences on Modern American Culture and Thought Violence, Fear, and Glory in The Prince by Machiavelli A Comparison The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales Common Themes in Romanticism, The Enlightenment, and the Renaissance