Renaissance is the period of European history that saw a renewed interest in the arts. The Renaissance began in 14th-century Italy and spread to the rest of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. In this period, the fragmented feudal society of the Middle Ages, with its agricultural economy and church-dominated intellectual and cultural life, was transformed into a society increasingly dominated by central political institutions, with an urban, commercial economy and lay patronage of education, the arts, and music. The term renaissance, meaning literally rebirth.
Modern scholars have exploded the myth that the Middle Ages were dark and dormant. The thousand years preceding the Renaissance were filled with achievements. Because of the scriptoria (writing rooms) of medieval monasteries, Latin writers, such as Virgil, Ovid, Cicero, and Seneca, were preserved. The legal system of modern continental Europe had its origin in the development of civil and canon law in the 12th and 13th centuries. Renaissance thinkers continued the medieval tradition of grammatical and rhetorical studies.
In theology, the medieval traditions of Scholasticism, Thomism, Scotism, and Ockhamism were continued in the Renaissance. Medieval Platonism and Aristotelianism were crucial to Renaissance philosophical thought. The advances of mathematical disciplines, including astronomy, were indebted to medieval precedents. The schools of Salerno, Italy, and Montpellier, France, were noted centers of medical studies in the middle Ages. The Italian Renaissance was above all an urban phenomenon, a product of cities that flourished in central and northern Italy, such as Florence, Ferrara, Milan, and Venice.
It was the wealth of these cities that financed Renaissance cultural achievements. The cities themselves, however, were not creations of the Renaissance, but of the period of great economic expansion and population growth during the 12th and 13th centuries. Medieval Italian merchants developed commercial and financial techniques, such as bookkeeping and bills of exchange. The creation of the public debt, a concept unknown in ancient times, allowed these cities to finance their territorial expansion through military conquest. Their merchants controlled commerce and finance across Europe.
This fluid mercantile society contrasted sharply with the rural, tradition-bound society of medieval Europe; it was less hierarchical and more concerned with secular objectives. The recovery and study of the classics entailed the creation of new disciplinesclassical philology and archaeology, numismatics, and epigraphyand critically affected the development of older ones. In art, the decisive break with medieval tradition occurred in Florence about 1420 with the invention of linear perspective, which made it possible to represent three-dimensional space on a flat surface.
The works of the architect Filippo Brunelleschi and the painter Masaccio are dazzling examples of the uses of this technique. Donatello, who is considered the founder of modern sculpture, created the bronze David, the first life-size nude since antiquity. From the mid-15th century on, classical form was rejoined with classical subject matter, and mythological motifs derived from literary sources adorned palaces, walls, furniture, and plates. The ancient practice of striking medals to commemorate eminent figures such as the Florentine statesman Cosimo de’ Medici was reintroduced by Pisanello.
Portraits of notable figures, emphasizing individual characteristics, were painted by Piero Della Francesca, Andrea Mantegna, and Sandro Botticelli. The Renaissance ideals of harmony and proportion culminated in the works of Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo in the 16th century. In medicine and anatomy, progress was made, especially after the first translation of many ancient works of Hippocrates and Galen in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Some of the most advanced Greek treatises on mathematics were translated in the 16th century, and advances made beyond the ancients included the solution of cubic equations and the innovative astronomy of Nicolaus Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, and Johannes Kepler. By the end of the 16th century, Galileo had taken the crucial step of applying mathematical models to the subject matter of physics. Geography was transformed by new empirical knowledge derived from explorations beyond Europe and from the first translations of the ancient works of Ptolemy and Strabo.
In the field of technology, the invention of printing in the 15th century began to revolutionize the dissemination of knowledge. Printing increased the quantity of books, helped eliminate errors, furnished scholars identical texts with which to work, and turned intellectual endeavor into a collaborative rather than a solitary activity. The use of gunpowder transformed warfare between 1450 and 1550. Artillery proved devastatingly effective against the stonewalls of castles and towns.
The medieval army, led by cavalry and supported by bowmen, was gradually replaced by one made up of foot soldiers carrying portable firearms and masses of troops with pikes; such armies were the first standing armies of Europe. Renaissance churchmen, particularly in the higher echelons, patterned their behavior after the mores and ethics of lay society. The activities of popes, cardinals, and bishops were scarcely distinguishable from those of secular merchants and political figures. At the same time, Christianity remained a vital and essential element of Renaissance culture.
Preachers, such as San Bernardino of Siena, and theologians and prelates, such as Sant’Antonino of Florence, attracted large audiences and were revered. Moreover, many humanists were concerned with theological questions and applied the new philological and historical scholarship to the study and interpretation of the early church fathers. The humanist approach to theology and scripture may be traced from the Italian scholar and poet Petrarch to the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus; it made a powerful impact on Roman Catholics and Protestants.