BA Art History and History

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
The Italian Renaissance

Course unit fact file
Unit code ITAL21012
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


This unit will examine the explosion of cultural activity and creativity which laid the foundations of modern Western culture in the fields of politics, painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, and the sciences. Known as the Italian Renaissance, this period of intense discovery and innovation was driven by a potent coming together of urban expansion, capital accumulation and increasing cultural sophistication. This unit will look at the social and political conditions which gave rise to this phenomenon: the patrons who commissioned works from writers and artists; the artists and writers who produced them; and the audiences that consumed them. Ranging across multiple media and multiple modes of production, from the invention of printing to the founding of the disciplines of history and archaeology, attention will be paid to the assertion that the Italian Renaissance witnessed the emergence of the modern world both at the level of the nation state and the individual. In addition to the consideration of such canonical figures as Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci, we will examine the interrelation between high culture and the social life of the everyday to understand the context for the circulation and regulation of cultural production. The Italian Renaissance stood at the centre of new forms of exploration, from the voyages of Amerigo Vespucci and Chistopher Columbus to the pioneering work in anatomy and the dissection of the human body by Leonardo. In the history of education, the Renaissance saw the emergence of the curriculum of the studia humanitatis, the study of the humanities that laid the foundation of the discipline throughout the universities of the West. In showing how multiple disciplines and modes of reading have presented, and re-presented, this rich period of artistic achievement, attention will be paid to the manner in which the characterisation of the Italian Renaissance has been challenged and revised throughout the centuries to de-centre the caricature of an elite male Eurocentric cultural movement. This unit will seek to provide a vital historical context to current debates concerning narrative, history and censorship in the wake of postcolonialism and discussions concerning the decolonisation of curricula. The course will also engage with the outstanding collections of the John Rylands Library and the Whitworth Art Gallery which contain many artefacts produced in Italy during the Renaissance period. These collections tell their own story about the importance of the Italian Renaissance to the merchant princes of the Industrial Revolution in the cities of North.


This course aims to provide students with:

  • an awareness of the importance of the Italian Renaissance as a period when Italy led the world in painting, building, science and literature
  • an insight into the global influence of Italian Renaissance writers and artists such as Machiavelli, Castiglione, Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci in the fields of politics, civility, painting, sculpture and science.
  • a detailed knowledge of the Italian roots of Western Culture as evidenced in the Renaissance rediscovery of the classical tradition
  • an awareness of the cultural diversity and multiculturalism of the Italian Renaissance and the legacy of  ‘Renaissance woman’
  • an awareness of the contribution of the new learning and the arts to the building and embellishment of the great urban centres of Rome, Venice, and Florence, and the many other regional centres of the Italian peninsula from Palermo to Milan.


 On successful completion of this course, students will be able to:

  • undertake analysis of primary and secondary sources, and critically engage with them, including employing theory to read these texts
  • discuss the interrelation between politics, power and representation
  • show a sophisticated understanding of the genres of advice books to princes and courtesy handbooks


Topics to be covered may include:

Jacob Burckhardt and the Renaissance Discovery of the Self

Recovering the Classics and the Renaissance Invention of Archaeology

Renaissance Cartography: Mapping the World

Renaissance Polities: Urbanism, Bureaucracy and the Birth of the Modern State

From Artisans to Artists: The Renaissance Workshop from Giotto to Raphael

Social Relations in Renaissance Culture: How to Win Friends and Influence People

Patronage and the Popes: Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel  

The Renaissance Discovery of the Body: Dissection, Leonardo da Vinci and Science

The Invention of Printing: Renaissance Knowledge Transfer  

The Politics of Palace Building: Architecture as Display

Other Voices: The Place of Women in Renaissance Culture

Renaissance Minorities and Marginal Groups

The Renaissance of Desire: Obscenity and Censorship

Machiavelli’s The Prince and the Politics of Dissimulation

The Renaissance Courtier and Seduction: Castiglione and the Art of Conversation 

Knowledge and understanding

  • analyse selected written and visual texts in detail
  • understand selected Italian writings and secure a key grasp of the major political events in Renaissance Italy
  • demonstrate a critical awareness of selected methodological and theoretical approaches to the socio-political world of Renaissance Italy.

Intellectual skills

On successful completion of this course unit, students will be able to:

  • demonstrate an ability to carry out independent research;
  • demonstrate an ability to deal with abstract ideas;
  • demonstrate an ability to engage with different type of text in a variety of media
  • demonstrate a critical awareness of the relationship between politics, ethics and the performativity of power

Practical skills

On successful completion of this course unit, students will be able to:

  • demonstrate the ability to communicate ideas and sustain an argument, using relevant critical material, in discussion, essays and seminars;
  • demonstrate an ability to present complex ideas in a clear form, including writing for a general audience;
  • demonstrate a familiarity with the centrality of the printing press to the circulation of ideas in the sixteenth century;
  • demonstrate an ability to work in a team.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

On successful completion of this course unit, students will be able to:

  • work independently and in a team, and to co-produce resources.
  • think and argue critically and coherently, both orally and in writing.
  • manage time and work to deadlines.
  • design learning activities for peers.

Employability skills

Analytical skills
Demonstrate powers of analysis in dealing with a variety of media.
Group/team working
Manage a project independently and work in a team;
Project management
Initiate and carry out projects;
Problem solving
Manage time and meet deadlines;
Demonstrate skills in working with special collections and heritage material
Written communication
Demonstrate good presentation, writing, and language skills;
Deal with personal responsibility and autonomous planning;

Assessment methods


Assessment task  Formative or SummativeWeighting within unit (if summative)
Literature review on patron-client relations and social networking Summative40%
Group presentations Formative 
EssaySummative 60% 

Resit Assessment:

1 essay to be submitted for the start of the summer resit period 

Feedback methods

Written feedback on summative written work, to be provided within 15 working days

Feedback will be given on a literature review draft

Global feedback on written work will be given in class and may also be posted on Blackboard, as necessary.

Oral feedback on the unassessed student-led presentations

Additional one-to-one feedback is available during consultation hours or by appointment.

Recommended reading

  • Alison Brown, The Renaissance (London: 2000)
  • Peter Burke, The Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society in Italy (Cambridge: 1986)
  • Stephen Campbell and Michael Cole, A New History of Italian Renaissance Art (London: 2017)
  • John Stephens, The Italian Renaissance (London: 1990)
  • John Hale, Machiavelli and Renaissance Italy (Harmondsworth, 1961)
  • Virginia Cox, The Italian Renaissance (London: 2016)
  • Cristine Klapisch-Zuber, Women, Family, and Ritual in Renaissance Italy (Chicago: 1985)
  • F. William Kent and Patricia Simons, Patronage, Art and Society in Renaissance Italy (Oxford: 1987)
  • Paul Otto Kristeller, Renaissance Thought and the Arts (Princeton: 1990)
  • Alison Cole, Italian Renaissance Courts: Art, Pleasure and Power (London: 2016)
  • Evelyn Welch, Art in Renaissance Italy 1350-1500 (Oxford: 2000)
  • Pamela Benson, The Invention of the Renaissance Woman (Pennsylv

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 11
Project supervision 4
Seminars 22
Supervised time in studio/wksp 4
Independent study hours
Independent study 159

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Stephen Milner Unit coordinator

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