From the 14th through the 17th centuries, Europe underwent vehement changes in culture, art, politics and economics. This period of intellectual evolution based on philosophical and scientific roots is known as the Renaissance.
The changes that took place during the Renaissance period led to the Italian Renaissance during the 15th and 16th century and the scientific developments in the 17th century.
Renaissance means ‘rebirth’ in old French, because this period in history was characterized by the renewal of various ancient texts in Latin and Greek.
Various famous arts were created during this period and a number of great thinkers, statesmen, and scientists prospered during this time.
The Renaissance began in Florence, Italy before spreading to the other parts of Europe.
The Renaissance Period is said to be responsible for bridging the Middle Ages and the Modern Civilization.
It was accompanied by the Age of Discovery when several lands beyond the European continent were discovered by explorers.
Leon Batista Alberti, an Italian poet, artist and philosopher said that ‘a man can do all the things he wills’. This idea forms the basis of Humanism, the Renaissance philosophy.
Leonardo da Vinci is considered a Renaissance man because of his extensive exploration in various subjects such as art, science, music, writing, painting and invention.
How did the Renaissance Begin?
Before the Renaissance, Europe was in the Middle Ages after the decline of the Roman Empire. It was characterized by the Great Famine of 1315 to 1317 which caused crop failures and economic collapse.
In 1347, the situation grew worse with the Black Death which killed between 75 to 200 million people in Eurasia, North Africa, and Europe. In Europe, it killed about one-third of the population, close to 35 million people, especially in the crowded towns.
The pandemic also caused people to abandon various lands which in turn resulted in an economic downturn and various social uprisings.
However, the discovery of other continents and the subsequent trade with them brought with it economic stability in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries when the European trade had substantially increased with Asia.
The mining efforts in Tyrol bore fruit and Genoa along with Venice benefited from the precious articles brought home by the Muslims during the Crusades.
Though there is confusion on when did the Renaissance begin, experts mark the writings of Dante Alighieri and Petrarch and the paintings of Giotto di Bondone between 1265 to 1374 as characteristic components of this period.
Economy and art were functioning in tandem during this time. Artists needed patrons to arrange money in order for their talent to prosper. The competition between great artists for artistic commissions sparked the Renaissance.
In 1401, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi competed to build the bronze gates for the Baptistery of the Florence Cathedral. In this competition, Ghiberti won.
A drastic change in the preference for literary works can also be observed at the beginning of the Renaissance.
The studies into Greek and Latin ancient texts depicting literature, oratory, and history intensified and replaced the focus on Greek and Arabic works pertaining to natural science, philosophy, and mathematics which were common in the High Middle Ages.
Petrarch, Coluccio Salutati, Niccolò de Niccoli and Poggio Bracciolini searched the libraries of Europe for works of Seneca, Livy, Cicero and Lucretius.
In the early 15th century much of the ancient works available in Europe were recovered and this is considered the biggest achievement of the Renaissance scholars.
Humanism and the Medici Family
Humanism began to rise as a popular philosophy even though Renaissance Humanism was a method of learning more than a philosophy.
It was different from the scholastic mode of Medieval Europe because it focused on studying the ancient works in their original form and then appraising them via reason and empirical evidence as opposed to focusing on resolving the conflicts among the authors.
Five subjects were integral to the Humanism of the Renaissance, namely, poetry, grammar, history, moral philosophy, and rhetoric. The central idea of Humanism is based on the genius of human beings.
It encouraged the idea that man is the center of his own universe and as such his successes in arts, culture, science, education, and literature should be celebrated and embraced.
The invention of the movable printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450, completely changed how communication and publication functioned in Europe.
It gave a boost to the writings of humanist thinkers such as Petrarch and Giovanni Boccacio and made them available to not just the elite but also the common people. Their works encouraged the renewal of traditional Greek and Roman culture and values.
The Humanists were of the opinion that a human being can develop his understanding of human behavior by studying ancient literature and history. These studies throughout one’s life enable a man to transcend to the afterlife with a perfect body and mind.
Humanism sought to create a universal man or ‘uomo universale’ who was not only excellent intellectually and physically but also capable of honorable actions in any situation.
For the purpose of education, large libraries were built to house various ancient texts and humanist writings. The distinctive feature of the Renaissance Libraries was its openness to the public.
The libraries served as perfect places for the free exchange of ideas and soon they held reverential status in society. Reading and studying were believed to be beneficial for the mind and soul.
The reason for Renaissance to prosper in Florence can be linked to the Medici Family even though various renaissance achievements had come to the fore long before the family came to power.
The House of Medici was a political dynasty that began to gain prominence during the beginning of the 15th century. The Medici bank funded by the family became the largest bank in Europe during that time.
Apart from ruling Florence for 60 years and producing four popes for the Catholic Church, the Medicis were also the most famous backers of the Renaissance movement.
The Medici family was the wealthiest family of Europe and one of the first users of the general ledger accounting system which tracked the credits and debits at the same time.
They contributed to the invention of the piano as well as the opera and helped finance the building site of St. Peter’s Basilica and of Santa Maria del Fiore.
The most famous artists that the Medici family supported during the renaissance are Brunelleschi, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Macchiavelli, and Galileo among many others.
With the backing of the Medici family, the Renaissance movement had spread rapidly to other Italian cities like Venice, Milan, Bologna, Ferrara, and Rome. Slowly it spread beyond Italy to France and then to western and northern Europe.
The Renaissance movement decidedly brought Europe out of the Dark Ages and into a time of abundance and development.
Key Figures and their Works
The distinctive feature of the renaissance art was its progress in highly realistic linear perspective. The first person to treat a painting as a window into space was Giotto di Bondone between 1267-1337.
Leon Batista Alberti and Filippo Brunelleschi further demonstrated this perspective in their works of architecture and writing and it soon became an artistic technique.
Many other techniques came into use due to the study of light and shadow. The study of human anatomy also peaked and achieved success as in the case of Leonardo da Vinci.
The goal of these new techniques was to portray natural beauty and expose the definitions of aesthetics popularly held.
Some of the famous works belong to Leonardo da Vinci between 1452 and 1519. He created the famous paintings of ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘The Last Supper’.
The drawing of the Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci became a cultural icon. He was a polymath possessing revolutionary knowledge of architecture, science, and invention apart from being one of the greatest painters in history.
Desiderius Erasmus translated the New Testament into Greek and helped spread the Humanist movement into Northern Europe. He was a Dutch scholar and philosopher and is referred to as the Prince of the Humanists.
Rene Descartes was born in France and grew up to become a philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. He is known as one of the most important figures of the Dutch Golden Age. He is one of the founders of modern philosophy and the author of the statement, ‘I think, therefore I am’.
Other important figures of this time are Galileo, Nicolaus Copernicus both Italian astronomers, and others in England like Thomas Hobbes and Geoffery Chaucer who were both writers.
The author of Divine Comedy, Dante also lived during this period and became a well-known political thinker, philosopher, and poet. Donatello, William Shakespeare, John Milton, and Titian are other famous artists that flourished during this time.
Art, Architecture, and Science
During the Renaissance Period, art, architecture, and science had mixed together to give a more real and precise perspective on the world.
This was best demonstrated in the work of Leonardo da Vinci when he used the science of anatomy to draw the human body to great precision.
Similarly, architecture by Fillipo Brunelleschi demonstrates the use of mathematics to achieve accurate engineering and designing of large buildings with massive domes. Notable work that demonstrates this precision is the Florence Cathedral.
Both Galileo and Copernicus advocated that the universe was heliocentric based on new scientific discoveries. Copernicus was the first to propose that the Sun is the center of the solar system, not the Earth. Their arguments were met by fury as these views were against the church.
The goal of Renaissance art was to express nature as it truly is. The arrival of canvas and oil paints technically enhanced the development of painting in both Italy and the Netherlands.
Architects of this period included pilasters, columns, and entablatures as part of their design either as supportive structures or decorative elements.
Some symbols of the medieval period were also expressed through the buildings and various works were dedicated to the church.
Leonardo da Vinci is known as the ‘Father of Modern Science’ because he conceived the principles of the research method. He conducted experiments in water flow and medical dissection. He also set up a systematic study of movement and aerodynamics.
Other notable achievements of Leonardo da Vinci in the field of science are the machines he designed to cut marble and raise monoliths. He also made discoveries in botany, geology, acoustics, and mechanics.
Scientific inquiry prospered due to the environment created during the Renaissance. Previously held truths were challenged after the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus.
The classical worldview was replaced with a search for new answers which boosted scientific advancements.
Religion and the Decline of the Renaissance
Humanism was born in the lap of Christianity and as such was not totally opposed to the Church. Various works of the renaissance were dedicated to the church and also commissioned by it.
The church was viewed as corrupt because of several accusations leveled against it, particularly against Pope Alexander VI. He was accused of simony and nepotism.
Martin Luther and Erasmus advocated reformations to the church based on the humanist criticisms of the New Testament.
In 1517, Martin Luther published Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences which challenged the Pope’s authority and criticized the perceived errors, abuses, and corruption of the church.
The Protestant Reformation was a revolutionary movement that caused a separation in the Catholic Church. It was led by Martin Luther, a German monk, who questioned the actions of the papal authority and challenged the Catholic interpretation of the Bible.
Renaissance and Humanism affected the relationship of the people with the church in Western Europe and brought about the Reformation. They played a great role in several religious conflicts and debates.
The Catholic Church started the Counter-Reformation and put strict controls on artists and writers to contain the spread of the Protestant Reformation. This prevented the artists from freely exchanging ideas and diminished creativity.
The Roman Inquisition established by the Council of Trent in 1545, made humanism and any other idea or philosophy that goes against the church a crime punishable by death.
Though the Renaissance flourished and spread to large parts of Europe, the discovery of new lands like the Americas greatly hampered the trade routes that brought profits to Italy. Neighboring countries invaded Italian territories and plagued the Italian peninsula with several wars.
The Renaissance movement had fizzled out by the 17th century and Europe was ushered into the Age of Enlightenment.