The Renaissance, which means “rebirth” and denotes the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern world, ran from the 14th to the early 17th centuries and included a resurgent revival of art, classical philosophy, literature, learning, wisdom, and values after a long period of cultural decline and stagnation referred to as the “Dark Ages.”
The term Dark Ages typically identifies a time in medieval history remembered for its pandemics (the Black Death), bloody wars and conflicts, ignorance and superstition, and famine.
The Renaissance first sparked in Italy where Italian scholars made attempts to revive Greek and Roman classical literature, and to revisit and reproduce their own ancient culture. A revival such as this was made possible given that Italian city states were wealthy (largely due to new trading expansion into Asia and other parts of Europe) and thus able spend money on the arts, allowing for creativity and innovation to flourish at the time, and to eventually spread to other European nations over the following few centuries.
The Renaissance was also a period, particularly in the 14th century, in which humanism flourished, also occurring in Italy. It challenged the restrictions imposed by religious orthodoxy, favoured criticism, and promoted the idea that man was the center of his own universe who could freely engage in intellectual thought and inquiry. For those humanists who were religious believers, new avenues were explored for approaching religion, and many of their works were devoted to Christianity in particular.
The Renaissance included many famous thinkers, scholars, and artists. The famous writer and poet William Shakespeare, the translator William Tyndale (who translated Bible into English), John Milton, and William Byrd are a few of them who went on to produce many works still read and enjoyed today. Arguably the likes of art was the major intellectual emphasis of the period, although the Renaissance touched on numerous domains. Oil painting was introduced in the Netherlands, while fanciful domes, such as the one on the Florence Cathedral, were constructed using new techniques learned in architecture and engineering. As such, there was a discernible relationship between art, architecture, and science. The artist Leonardo da Vinci, for instance, incorporated scientific principles into his work as shown in his anatomical work. Filippo Brunellesch used mathematics in his designs and created buildings with expansive domes. Galileo Galilei is remembered for his astronomical work while Nicolaus Copernicus argued that the sun was the center of the galaxy rather than the Earth. Further, several key innovations made life easier following the discoveries of printing, paper, compasses, and gunpowder. The likes of printing and paper allowed for a easier means of sharing ideas which helped in broadening the reach of Renaissance concepts.
The period also marked a time of discovery, often referred to as the Age of Discovery, when Europeans (such as Christopher Columbus) voyaged beyond Europe and across the oceans in hope to learn more about the world, discover valuable materials, and expand their territories. Several important discoveries followed, including the exploration of new continents and new shipping routes to the Americas, India, and the Far East. We remember several famous explorers from this time such as Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and Vespucci.
But despite the revival and flourishing of the intellectual and artistic landscape, the Renaissance was by no means a perfect time in human history. It had its own failings of corruption, inequality, wars, plagues, and instabilities.
Ultimately these factors along with economic decline resulted in the movement’s decline and the subsequent rise of the Enlightenment, or Age of Enlightenment.