Introduction to the Renaissance
By Robert Wilde, About.com
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Summary of the Renaissance
The Renaissance was a cultural and scholarly movement which
stressed the rediscovery and application of texts and thought from classical
antiquity, occurring in
What was the Renaissance?
There remains debate about what exactly constituted the
Renaissance. Essentially, it was a cultural and intellectual movement,
intimately tied to society and politics, of the late fourteenth to early
seventeenth centuries, although it is commonly restricted to just the fifteenth
and sixteenth centuries. It is considered to have originated in
At its core, the Renaissance was a movement dedicated to the
rediscovery and use of classical learning, that is to say knowledge and
attitudes from the Ancient Greek and Roman eras. Renaissance literally means
‘rebirth’, and Renaissance thinkers believed the period between themselves and
the fall of
The Renaissance Age
“Renaissance” can also refer to the period, c. 1400 – c. 1600. “High Renaissance” generally refers to c. 1480 – c. 1520. The era was dynamic, with European explorers “finding” new continents, the transformation of trading methods and patterns, the decline of feudalism, scientific developments such as the Copernican system of the cosmos and the rise of gunpowder. Many of these changes were triggered, in part, by the Renaissance, such as classical mathematics stimulating new financial trading mechanisms, or new techniques from the east boosting ocean navigation. The printing press was also developed, allowing Renaissance texts to be disseminated widely.
Why was this Renaissance Different?
Classical culture had never totally vanished from
Origins: The Society and Politics behind the Renaissance
Across the fourteenth century, and perhaps before, the old
social and political structures of the medieval period broke down, allowing new
concepts to rise. A new elite emerged, with new models of thought and ideas to
justify themselves; what they found in classical antiquity was something to use
both as a prop and a tool for their aggrandisement. Exiting elites matched them
to keep pace, as did the Catholic Church.
At the very top of Italian society, the rulers of the key
The importance of piety, as demonstrated through commissioning works of tribute, was also strong, and Christianity proved a heavy influence for thinkers trying to square Christian thought with that of “pagan” classical writers.
The Spread of the Renaissance
From its origins in
The End of the Renaissance
Some historians argue that the Renaissance ended in the 1520s, some the 1620s. The Renaissance didn’t just stop, but its core ideas gradually converted into other forms, and new paradigms arose, particularly during the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century.
The Interpretation of the Renaissance
The term ‘renaissance’ actually dates from the nineteenth century, and has been heavily debated ever since, with some historians questioning whether it’s even a useful word anymore. Early historians described a clear intellectual break with the medieval era, but in recent decades scholarship has turned to recognise growing continuity from the centuries before, suggesting that the changes Europe experienced were more an evolution than a revolution. The era was also far from a golden age for everyone; at the start it was very much a minority movement of humanists, elites and artists, although it disseminated wider with printing. Women, in particular, saw a marked reduction in their educational opportunities during the Renaissance.
Aspects of the Renaissance: Art
There were Renaissance movements in architecture, literature, poetry, drama, music, metals, textiles and furniture, but the Renaissance is perhaps best known for its art. Creative endeavour became viewed as a form of knowledge and achievement, not simply a way of decoration. Art was now to be based on observation of the real world, applying mathematics and optics to achieve more advanced effects like perspective. Paintings, sculpture and other art forms flourished as new talents took up the creation of masterpieces, and enjoying art became seen as the mark of a cultured individual.
Aspects of the Renaissance: Renaissance Humanism
Perhaps the earliest expression of the Renaissance was in Humanism, an intellectual approach which developed among those being taught a new form of curriculum: the studia humanitatis, which challenged the previously dominant Scholastic thinking. Humanists were concerned with the features of human nature and attempts by man to master nature rather than develop religious piety.
Humanist thinkers implicitly and explicitly challenged the old Christian mindset, allowing and advancing the new intellectual model behind the Renaissance. However, tensions between humanism and the Catholic Church developed over the period, and humanist learning partly caused the Reformation. Humanism was also deeply pragmatic, giving those involved the educational basis for work in the burgeoning European bureaucracies. It is important to note that the term ‘humanist’ was a later label, just like “renaissance”.
Aspects of the
Renaissance: Politics and
The Renaissance used to be regarded as pushing forward a new desire for liberty and republicanism - rediscovered in works about the Roman republic - even though many of the Italian city states were taken over by individual rulers. This view has come under close scrutiny by historians and partly rejected, but it did cause some Renaissance thinkers to agitate for greater religious and political freedoms over later years. More widely accepted is the return to thinking about the state as a body with needs and requirements, taking politics away from the application of Christian morals and into a more pragmatic, some might say devious, world, as typified by the work of Machiavelli.
Aspects of the Renaissance: Books and Learning
Part of the changes brought by the Renaissance, or perhaps
one of the causes, was the change in attitude to pre-Christian books. Petrarch,
who had a self-proclaimed “lust” to seek out forgotten books amongst the
monasteries and libraries of
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