Scientists, Artists and Merchants in Renaissance Europe


The men and women of the Middle Ages and Renaissance designed, bargained and explored the world around them with the same enthusiasm and sophistication as today. The questions and the ideas that moved them continue to drive art, commerce and science. This cluster introduces students to the roots of these disciplines, exploring lives of far removed people while providing essential background for the study of the modern world.

Ranging across the formative periods of Western culture from late ancient to early modern eras, and examining historical, medical, scientific, legal, business, cultural and art historical materials, we will engage in an interdisciplinary exploration that looks at women’s and men’s lived experience. We will want to find out how the building blocks of societies were quarried from everyday roles that people played. Thus we will look at how managers, artists, doctors, craftspeople, tradespeople, merchants, architects, warriors, governors, intellectuals, rulers – and husbands and wives, children and neighbors – functioned within the legal and economic boundaries of their society, responded to artistic endeavors and physical challenges, and accepted or were mystified by scientific advances. Approaching our study in this way makes marginal roles and groups as interesting as central ones, for they helped to define each other.

Our modern world builds upon the past, literally and metaphorically, as it makes the technological and social advances that push us into the future. In much the same way, the men and women of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance shaped their present – whether real or ideal – by endlessly reinterpreting, revising, recombining, and innovating upon traditions, ideologies, values, and social structures that they had inherited from their forebears, or that they had acquired through contact with other cultures.

The weekly IDC meetings will serve as a base for program students to interact socially, to create intellectual touchstones relevant to all three courses, and to learn about the medieval and early modern periods from different resources. A variety of field trips in connection with the weekly dinners will allow us to visit museums, to enjoy the richness of special library collections and architectural sites, to learn how to dance, joust, and eat as Medieval and Renaissance people did, and to participate in dramatic or musical performances. We will also spend a long weekend in Washington to retrace what this city offers in the Medieval and Renaissance period and to better appreciate how the past is made to contribute to our culture.


Seminar: MEDREN 190FS.01/ITALIAN 130FS — Venice in the Renaissance: Commercial Base, Cultural Center, Artistic Hub (ALP, CZ, CCI)

Valeria Finucci, Professor of Italian Studies and Theater Studies

From Marco Polo, who travelled all the way to China, to the Zen brothers, who explored parts of the New World a century before Columbus in their quest for rewarding commercial routes, Venetians have passed into history as business men and brave adventurers. This course aims to uncover how Venice constructed a self-glorifying myth as the “in” trading and luxury place of the early modern times by fostering trade, encouraging art, embracing technological innovations, educating its citizens, and governing justly. Noblemen and merchants from all over Europe and the Near East flocked to Venice to admire its natural beauty and its citizens’ flamboyant habits, to bask in its culture, to check its reputation of openness (also in regard to gender relations), and to visit artists’ shops. In short, Venice had created the myth of a city born on barren land and isolated by water, but unified for five centuries by a trusting populace, benevolent institutions, commercial self-assurance, and skillful diplomacy. To recreate these various facets of Venetian life in the early modern period we will concentrate on official transcripts, contemporary accounts, corporation notes, trial documents, travel literature, plays (such as Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice), novellas, letters, and films.

Seminar: MEDREN 227FS / Art History 255FS/ Italian 386FS — Art in Renaissance Italy (ALP, CZ, CCI)

Sara Galletti, Associate Professor of Art, Art History and Visual Studies

The course provides a panorama of Italian Renaissance art including theory, painting, print, sculpture, and architecture. The objective of the course is to insure knowledge of Renaissance artistic production, related historiography, contemporary debate and scholarship as well as to develop students’ analytical and research skills. The course’s materials are organized thematically around notions of artistic training and workshop practice, techniques, centers of production, art markets and consumption, antiquarianism and art collections, patronage, identity, gender, artistic rivalry, spread of knowledge and models, relationship with the spectator, social structures, sacred and secular spaces and objects, among others, which will be considered in relation to specific case studies.

Seminar: MEDREN 190FS.03/ HISTORY 190FS — Scientists, Magicians and Engineers in the Renaissance (CZ, CCI, EI, W)

Thomas Robisheaux, Fred W. Shaffer Professor of History

This course explores the making of modern science and medicine at the time of the “Scientific Revolution.” It begins with an examination of the concept of “revolutions” in science and medicine, the historical significance of Renaissance approaches to nature and technology, and whether “revolution” adequately describes the changes of this period. We then look for answers to this question through close study of the works of four Renaissance natural philosophers. Our first section examines the fascinating Leonardo da Vinci, his work as a brilliant engineer, designer, and artist. We then turn our attention to a Renaissance physician, Paracelsus, known as the “founder of modern pharmaceutical medicine.” Through his first hand observation of nature, Paracelsus developed extraordinary approaches to medicine, including the incorporation of chemicals into medical therapies, distilling medicines from plants, and tapping the magical influences of the stars. We then turn to Galileo, his support for the New Copernican world-system and his trial. Was his trial the great conflict between the Church and Science that we have come to think? Finally, we are introduced to Maria Sibylla Meriam, artist and naturalist, and her study of the mysteries of metamorphosis in nature. How was she able to overcome the limitations society set for women to become a pioneer in the study of entomology and ecology? Readings include Renaissance notebooks, correspondence, excerpts from published treaties, trial records, drawings and paintings. Students will conduct team-based research projects using early printed books from Duke’s Rubenstein Library.

Faculty Director

Valeria Finucci
Valeria Finucci
  • Professor of Italian Studies and Theater Studies
219E Languages Building
Campus Box: 
(919) 660-3119, (919) 660-3100