The Renaissance, which means “rebirth” and refers to the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern world, ran from the 14th to early 17th centuries CE. This period witnessed a resurgence in 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. It was after this period that the Renaissance first took off in Italy. 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 because of the wealth of Italian city-states due to trading expansion into Asia and other parts of Europe. This wealth allowed Italians to spend money on the arts. It allowed for creativity and innovation to flourish at the time and to eventually spread to other European nations over the following centuries.
The Renaissance was also a period in which humanism flourished. This challenged the restrictions imposed by religious orthodoxy, favored criticism, and promoted the idea that man is the center of his 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 who went on to produce many works still read and enjoyed today. Art was arguably the major intellectual emphasis of the period, although the Renaissance touched on many 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 Brunelleschi 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. Several key innovations made life easier following the discoveries of printing, paper, compasses, and gunpowder. The likes of printing and paper allowed for an 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 voyaged beyond Europe and across the oceans in the 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 failings of corruption, inequality, wars, plagues, and instabilities. These factors along with economic decline resulted in the movement’s reduction and the subsequent rise of the Age of Enlightenment.