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The Renaissance, also known as "Rinascimento" (in Italian), was an influential cultural movement that brought about a period of scientific revolution and artistic transformation at the dawn of modern history in Europe. It marks the transitional period between the end of the Middle Ages and the start of the Modern Age. The Renaissance is usually considered to have begun in the fourteenth century in Italy and the sixteenth century in northern Europe. Much of the foundations of liberal humanism were laid during the foundation. For some, this usurps God's rightful place as the author of values and as the director of history. But positively, the contemporary universal outlook, respect for the dignity of all people on which democracy is based, thirst for knowledge and for ways of bettering the human lot, all derive from the Renaissance and from the Enlightenment that followed.


The term Rebirth (Rinascenza), to indicate the flourishing of artistic and scientific activities starting in Italy in the thirteenth century, was first used by Italian historian Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) in the Vite, published in 1550. The term Renaissance is the French translation, used by French historian Jules Michelet (1798–1874), and expanded upon by Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818–1897). Rebirth is used in two ways. First, it means rediscovery of ancient classical texts and learning and their applications in the arts and sciences. Second, it means that the results of these intellectual activities created a revitalization of European culture in general. Thus it is possible to speak of the Renaissance in two different but meaningful ways: a rebirth of classical knowledge through the rediscovery of ancient texts, and also a rebirth of European culture in general.

Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, an example of the blend of art and science during the Renaissance.

Multiple Renaissances

During the last quarter of the twentieth century many scholars took the view that the Renaissance was perhaps only one of many such movements. This is in large part due to the work of historians like Charles H. Haskins (1870–1937), who made a convincing case for a "Renaissance of the twelfth century," as well as by historians arguing for a "Carolingian Renaissance." Both of these concepts are now widely accepted by the scholarly community at large; as a result, the present trend among historians is to discuss each so-called renaissance in more particular terms, e.g., the Italian Renaissance, the English Renaissance, etc. This terminology is particularly useful because it eliminates the need for fitting "The Renaissance" into a chronology that previously held that it was preceded by the Middle Ages and followed by the Reformation, which many believe to be inaccurate. The entire period is now often replaced by the term "Early Modern."

Other periods of cultural rebirth have also been termed a "renaissance"; such as the Harlem Renaissance or the San Francisco Renaissance. The other renaissances are not considered further in this article, which will concentrate on the Renaissance as the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age.

Critical views

Since the term was first created in the nineteenth century, historians have various interpretations on the Renaissance.

The predominant view is that the Renaissance of the fifteenth century in Italy, spreading through the rest of Europe, represented a reconnection of the west with classical antiquity, the absorption of knowledge—particularly mathematics—from Arabic, the return of experimentalism, the focus on the importance of living well in the present (e.g. humanism), an explosion of the dissemination of knowledge brought on by printing and the creation of new techniques in art, poetry, and architecture, which led to a radical change in the style and substance of the arts and letters. This period, in this view, represents Europe emerging from a long period as a backwater, and the rise of commerce and exploration. The Italian Renaissance is often labeled as the beginning of the "modern" epoch.

Marxist historians view the Renaissance as a pseudo-revolution with the changes in art, literature, and philosophy affecting only a tiny minority of the very wealthy and powerful while life for the great mass of the European population was unchanged from the Middle Ages. They thus deny that it is an event of much importance.

Today most historians view the Renaissance as largely an intellectual and ideological change, rather than a substantive one. Moreover, many historians now point out that most of the negative social factors popularly associated with the "medieval" period—poverty, ignorance, warfare, religious and political persecution, and so forth—seem to have actually worsened during this age of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), the Wars of Religion, the corrupt Borgia Popes, and the intensified witch-hunts of the sixteenth century. Many of the common people who lived during the "Renaissance" are known to have been concerned by the developments of the era rather than viewing it as the "golden age" imagined by certain nineteenth-century authors. Perhaps the most important factor of the Renaissance is that those involved in the cultural movements in question—the artists, writers, and their patrons—believed they were living in a new era that was a clean break from the Middle Ages, even if much of the rest of the population seems to have viewed the period as an intensification of social maladies.

Johan Huizinga (1872–1945) acknowledged the existence of the Renaissance but questioned whether it was a positive change. He argued that the Renaissance was a period of decline from the high Middle Ages, which destroyed much of what was important. The Latin language, for instance, had evolved greatly from the classical period and was still used in the church and by others as a living language. However, the Renaissance obsession with classical purity saw Latin revert to its classical form and its natural evolution halted. Robert S. Lopez has contended that it was a period of deep economic recession. George Sarton (1884–1956), known as the Father of the History of Science and Lynn Thorndike (1882–1965), the eminent American historian who taught at Columbia (1924–1950), have both criticized how the Renaissance affected science, arguing that progress was slowed.

Start of the Renaissance

The Santa Maria del Fiore Church of Florence, Italy. Florence was the capital of the Renaissance

The Renaissance has no set starting point or place. It happened gradually at different places at different times and there are no defined dates or places for when the Middle Ages ended. The starting place of the Renaissance is almost universally ascribed to central Italy, especially the city of Florence. One early Renaissance figure is the poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), the first writer to embody the spirit of the Renaissance.

Petrarch (1304–1374) is another early Renaissance figure. As part of the humanist movement he concluded that the height of human accomplishment had been reached in the Roman Empire and the ages since have been a period of social rot which he labeled the Dark Ages. Petrarch saw history as social, artistic, and literary advancement, and not as a series of set religious events. Rebirth meant the rediscovery of ancient Roman and Greek Latin heritage through ancient manuscripts and the humanist method of learning. These new ideas from the past (called the "new learning" at the time) triggered the coming advancements in art, science, and other areas.

Another possible starting point is the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. It was a turning point in warfare as cannon and gunpowder became central elements. In addition, Byzantine-Greek scholars fled west to Rome bringing renewed energy and interest in the Greek and Roman heritage, and it perhaps represented the end of the old religious order in Europe.

Italian Renaissance

Michelangelo's David, considered by many his greatest work, in Florence, Italy.

The Italian Renaissance was intertwined with the intellectual movement known as Renaissance humanism and with the fiercely independent and combative urban societies of the city-states of central and northern Italy in the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries. Italy was the birthplace of the Renaissance for several reasons.

The first two or three decades of the fifteenth century saw the emergence of a rare cultural efflorescence, particularly in Florence. This “Florentine enlightenment” was a major achievement (see Holmes, 1992). It was a classical, classicizing culture that sought to live up to the republican ideals of Athens and Rome. Sculptors used Roman models and classical themes. This society had a new relationship with its classical past. It felt it owned it and revived it. Florentines felt akin to first century B.C.E. republican Rome. Giovann Rucellai (1475–1525) wrote that he belonged to a great age; Leonardo Bruni's Panegyric to the City of Florence expresses similar sentiments. There was a genuine appreciation of the plastic arts—pagan idols and statuary—with nudity and expressions of human dignity.

A similar parallel movement was also occurring in the arts in the early fifteenth century in Florence—an avant-garde, classicizing movement. Many of the same people were involved; there was a close community of people involved in both movements. Laurentius Valla (1406–1457) said that, as they revived Latin, so was Roman architecture revived; for example, Rucellai's Palazzo built by Leone Battista Alberti (1404–1472) the all-round Renaissance man—a poet, linguist, architect, philosopher, and musician. Of Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446) (also a sculptor), he felt that he was the greatest architect since Roman times.

Sculpture was also revived, in many cases before the other arts. There was a very obvious naturalism about contemporary sculpture, and highly true to life figures were being sculpted. Often biblically-themed sculpture and paintings included recognizable Florentines.

This intense classicism was applied to literature and the arts. In most city-republics there was a small clique with a camaraderie and rivalry produced by a very small elite. Leone Battista Alberti felt that he had played a major part, as had such men as Brunelleschi and Tommaso Masaccio (1401–1428). Even he admitted he had no explanation of why it happened.

There are several possible explanations for its occurrence in Florence:

1. The Medici did it—the portrait and solo sculpture emerged, especially under Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449–1492). This is the conventional response:
Renaissance Florence = The Medici = The genius of artisans = The Renaissance
Unfortunately, this fails to fit chronologically. The years 1410 and 1420 can be said to be the start of the Renaissance, but the Medici came to power later. They were certainly great patrons but much later. If anything, the Medici jumped on an already existing bandwagon. The Medici were bankers and politicians who more or less ruled Florence from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century. Pope Leo X and Pope Clement VII were Medici.

2. The great man theory argument. Donatello, Filippo Brunellesch, and Michelangelo were just geniuses.
This is a circular argument with little explanatory power. Surely it would be better, more human and accessible, to understand the circumstances that helped these geniuses to come to fruition.
3. A similar argument is the rise of individualism theory attributable to Jakob Burckhardt (1818–1897). This argues for a change from collective neutrality towards the lonely genius.
However, the Kents, F.W. Kent and Dale Kent (1978, 2004), have argued that this was and remained a society of neighborhood, kin, and family. Florentines were very constrained and tied into the system; it was still a very traditional society.
4. Frederick Antal (1947) has argued that the triumph of Masaccio, et al., was the triumph of the middle class over the older, more old-fashioned feudal classes, so that the middle class wanted painters to do more bourgeois paintings.
This does not make sense. Palla Strozzi commissioned old fashioned paintings whereas Cosimo de' Medici went for new styles in art.
5. Hans Baron's argument is based on the new Florentine view of human nature, a greater value placed on human life and on the power of man, thus leading to civic humanism, which he says was born very quickly in the early fifteenth century. In 1401 and 1402, he says Giangaleazzo Visconti was narrowly defeated by republican Florence, which reasserted the importance of republican values. Florence experienced a dramatic crisis of independence that led to civic values and humanism (see Baron, 1966).
Against this we can say that Baron is comparing unlike things. In a technical sense, Baron has to prove that all civic humanist work came after 1402, whereas many such works date from the 1380s. This was an ideological battle between a princely state and a republican city-state, even though they varied little in their general philosophy. Any such monocausal argument is very likely to be wrong.

Dale Kent says there is plenty of evidence of preconditions for the Renaissance in Florence.

In 1300, Florence had a civic culture, with people like the notary and diplomat, Brunetto Latini (1210–1294) who had a sense of classical values, though different from the values of the fifteenth century. He introduced oratory and the systematic study of political science into Florentine life. Giovanni Villani (1280–1348), the historian and politician, also had a sense of the city as “daughter and creature of Rome.” He pioneered interest in the role that economics plays as a mover behind historical events. He wrote both about the economics of states and of individuals.

Petrarch in the mid-fourteenth century hated civic life but bridged the gap between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as he began to collect antiquities.

The 1380s saw several classicizing groups, including monks and citizens. There was a gradual build-up rather than a big bang. Apart from the elites there was already an audience for the Renaissance. Florence was a very literate audience, already self-conscious and aware of its city and place in the political landscape.

The crucial people in the fourteenth and fifteenth century were

  • Manuel Chrysoloras (1350–1415), who increased interest in the grammar of ancient architecture (1395); and
  • Niccolò de’ Niccoli (1363–1437), a major influence on the perception of the classics.

Their teachings reached the upper classes between 1410 and 1420 and this is when the new consciousness emerged. Brucker (1983) noticed this new consciousness in council debates around 1410; there are increased classical references.

Florence experienced not just one but many crises; Milan, Lucca, the Ciompi. The sense of crisis was over by 1415 and there was a new confidence, a triumphant experience of being a republic.

Between 1413 and 1423 there was an economic boom. The upper class had the financial means to support scholarship. Art historian, Ernst Gombrich (1909–2001), says there was a sense of ratifying yourself to the ancient world, leading to a snobbish and elite view of education, and a tendency for the rich wanting to proclaim their ascendancy over the poor and over other cities.

The early Renaissance was an act of collaboration. Artisans and artists were enmeshed in the networks of their city. Committees were usually responsible for buildings. There were collaborations between patricians and artisans without which the Renaissance could not have occurred. Thus it makes sense to adopt a civic theory of the Renaissance rather than a great man theory.

Those who believe that God directs human history towards God's ultimate goal of a unified, harmonized world will see God's hand behind the Renaissance.

Northern Renaissance

The Renaissance spread north out of Italy being adapted and modified as it moved. It first arrived in France, imported by King Francis I of France after his invasion of Italy. Francis imported Italian art and artists, including Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) and at great expense he built ornate palaces. Writers such as Rabelais also borrowed from the spirit of the Italian Renaissance.

From France the spirit of the age spread to the Low Countries (Holland, Belgium) and Germany, and finally to England, Scandinavia, and central Europe by the late sixteenth century. In these areas the Renaissance became closely linked to the turmoil of the Protestant Reformation and the art and writing of the German Renaissance frequently reflected this dispute.

While Renaissance ideas were moving north from Italy, there was a simultaneous spread southward of innovation, particularly in music. The music of the fifteenth-century Burgundian School defined the beginning of the Renaissance in that art; and the polyphony of the Dutch School Netherlanders, as it moved with the musicians themselves into Italy, formed the core of what was the first true international style in music since the standardization of Gregorian Chant in the ninth century. The culmination of the Netherlands School was in the music of the Italian composer, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525–1594). At the end of the sixteenth century, Italy again became a center of musical innovation, with the development of the polychoral style of the Venetian School, which spread northward into Germany around 1600.

In England, the Elizabethan era marked the beginning of the English Renaissance. It saw writers such as William Shakespeare (1564–1616), Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) , John Milton (1608–1674), and Edmund Spenser (1552–1599), as well as great artists, architects, and composers such as Inigo Jones (1573–1652), Thomas Tallis (1505–1585), John Taverner (1490–1545), and William Byrd (1539–1623).

In these northern nations the Renaissance would be built upon and supplanted by the thinkers of the Enlightenment in the seventeenth century.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Antal, Frederick. Florentine Painting and Its Social Background. London: Kegan Paul, 1947
  • Baron, Hans. Crises of the Early Italian Renaissance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966. ISBN 0691051143
  • Brucker, Gene. Renaissance Florence. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983. ISBN 0520046951
  • Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, translated by S. G. C. Middlemore. New York: Penguin, 1990. ISBN 014044534X (
  • Ergang, Robert. The Renaissance. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1967. ISBN 0442023197
  • Ferguson, Wallace K. Europe in Transition, 1300–1500. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962. ISBN 0049400088
  • Haskins, Charles Homer. The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972. ISBN 0674760751
  • Holmes, George. Florentine Enlightenment: 1400–1450. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. ISBN 019820292X
  • Huizinga, Johan. The Waning of the Middle Ages. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1990. ISBN 0140137025
  • Jensen, De Lamar. Renaissance Europe: Age of Recovery and Reconciliation. Boston: D.C. Heath, 1992. ISBN 0669200077
  • Kent, Dale. The Rise of the Medici: Faction in Florence, 1426–1434. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978. ISBN 0198225202
  • Kent, F.W. Lorenzo de' Medici and the Art of Magnificence. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2004. ISBN 0801878683
  • Lopez, Robert S. “Hard Times and Investment in Culture.” The Renaissance: A Symposium (1953): 19–32.
  • Thorndike, Lynn. “Renaissance or Prenaissance?” Journal of the History of Ideas 4 (1943): 65–74.

Further reading


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