Raphael was famous for depicting illustrious figures of the Classical past with the features of his Renaissance contemporaries. The School of Athens (above) is perhaps the most extended study in this.
Raphael was famous for depicting illustrious figures of the Classical past with the features of his Renaissance contemporaries. The School of Athens (above) is perhaps the most extended study in this.

The word Renaissance (French for 'rebirth', or Rinascimento in Italian), was first used to define the historical age in Italy — and in Europe in general - that followed the Middle Ages and preceded the Reformation, spanning roughly the 14th through the 16th century. The principal features were the revival of learning based on classical sources, the rise of courtly and papal patronage, the development of perspective in painting, and the advancements of science. The word Renaissance is now often used to describe other historical and cultural moments (e.g. the Carolingian Renaissance, the Byzantine Renaissances). (See the disambiguation page).



Renaissance Self-awareness

By the fifteenth century, writers, artists and architects in Italy were well aware of the transformations that were taking place and were using phrases like modi antichi (in the antique manner) or alle romana et alla antica (in the manner of the Romans and the ancients) to describe their work. As to the term “rebirth,” it seems that Albrecht Dürer in 1523 was the first to use such a term when he used Wiedererwachung (German: rebirth) to describe Italian art. The term "la rinascita" first appeared, however, in its broad sense in Giorgio Vasari's Vite de' più eccellenti architetti, pittori, et scultori Italiani (The Lives of the Artists, 1550-68). [1] Vasari divides the age into phases: the first phase contains Cimabue, Giotto and Arnolfo di Cambio; the second phase contains Masaccio, Brunelleschi and Donatello; the third centers on Leonardo da Vinci, culminating with Michelangelo. It was not just the growing awareness of classical antiquity that drove this development, according to Vasari, but also the growing desire to study and imitate nature.[2]


The Renaissance as a Historical Age

The period did not become recognized as a historical age, however, until the early nineteenth century during which time the word renaissance in French came to be used to describe it. The Renaissance was first defined by French historian Jules Michelet (1798-1874), in his Histoire de France (History of France, 1855). For Michelet, the Renaissance was less a development in art and culture as in science. For him, it spanned the period from Columbus to Copernicus to Galileo, in other words from the end of the fifteenth century to the middle of the seventeenth century.[3] The Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897) in his Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 1860) (English translation, by SGC Middlemore, in 2 vols., London, 1878), by contrast, followed Vasari, defining the Renaissance as the period between the Italian painters Giotto and Michelangelo. His book was widely read and influential in the development of the modern interpretation of the Italian Renaissance.[4] In architecture, the folio of measured drawings Édifices de Rome moderne; ou, Recueil des palais, maisons, églises, couvents et autres monuments, (The Buildings of Modern Rome) first published in 1840, by Paul Letarouilly (1795-1855) also played an important part in the revival of interest in this period.


The European Renaissances of the 15th and 16th centuries

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

In the twentieth century, scholars began to break the Renaissance into regional and national movements.


Other Renaissances

The term Renaissance has also been used to define time periods outside of the 15th and 16th centuries. Charles H. Haskins (1870–1937), for example, made a convincing case for a Renaissance of the 12th century.[5] Other historians have argued for a Carolingian Renaissance in the eighth and ninth centuries, and still later for an Ottonian Renaissance in the tenth century.[6] Other periods of cultural rebirth have also been termed "renaissances", such as the Bengal Renaissance or the Harlem Renaissance. These are not considered in this article, which will concentrate on the European Renaissance linking the Middle Ages to the Modern Age.


Italian Renaissance Introduction

The Italian Renaissance has several characteristics: a re-connection with classical antiquity, the rise of Renaissance humanism, the emergence of Italian courtly power, the development of perspective, the radical change in the style and substance of the arts and architecture, and the rise of the power of the papacy, among others. Because of the nature of these changes, the Italian Renaissance has sometimes been seen as the beginning of the Modern Age, and has thus also been sometimes labeled the Early Modern.

The Italian Renaissance has no set starting point or place; the ideas that it came to embody developed over time and in different places. One of the first centers was Florence, but by the middle of the fifteenth century, Rome, Urbino, Milan, and Mantua had also become centers. In literature, Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) and Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374) are often considered to be the first writers to embody the humanist spirit of the Renaissance. In architecture, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377 - 1446) is considered to be the first Renaissance architect, whereas in painting, it is the treatise (1436) by Leon Battista Alberti (1404 –1472) that describes the theory of perspective that is usually given as the mark of the new age. In economic terms, it is the rise of the Medici through the efforts of Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici (1360-1429). He made the Medici bank into the leading financial institution of Europe. The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 was a turning point in warfare as cannon and gunpowder became central. In addition, Byzantine-Greek (i.e. Eastern Roman) scholars fled west to Rome, bringing with them classical Roman and Greek texts as well as their knowledge of the classical civilizations, much of which had been lost in Western Europe for centuries. Notable among them was Manuel Chrysoloras (c. 1355 –1415), who arrived in Italy in 1397 and is often credited with re-introducing Greek literature to Western Europe. Besides spurring this migration, the fall of the last remnants of the Roman Empire represented the end of the old religious order in Europe.

Throughout the 15th century, artists studied the natural world in order to perfect their understanding of such subjects as anatomy and perspective. Among the many great artists of this period were Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca. There was a related advancement of Gothic Art centered in Germany and the Netherlands, known as the Northern Renaissance. The Early Renaissance was succeeded by the mature High Renaissance around the year 1500.


Critical views

Many historians now view the Italian Renaissance as more of an intellectual and ideological change than a substantive one. Marxist historians, for example, hold the view that the changes in art, literature, and philosophy affected only a tiny minority of the very wealthy and powerful, leaving the lives of the great mass of the European population unchanged.

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 in this era which saw the rise of Machiavelli, the Wars of Religion, the corrupt Borgia Popes, and the intensified witch-hunts of the 16th century. Many people who lived during the Renaissance did not view it as the "golden age" imagined by certain 19th century authors, but were concerned by these social maladies. Significantly, though, the artists, writers, and patrons involved in the cultural movements in question believed they were living in a new era that was a clean break from the Middle Ages.

Johan Huizinga (1872–1945) acknowledged the existence of the Renaissance but questioned whether it was a positive change. In his book The Waning of the Middle Ages, he argued that the Renaissance was a period of decline from the High Middle Ages, destroying much that was important. The Latin language, for instance, had evolved greatly from the classical period and was still a living language used in the church and elsewhere. The Renaissance obsession with classical purity halted its natural evolution and saw Latin revert to its classical form. Robert S. Lopez has contended that it was a period of deep economic recession. Meanwhile George Sarton and Lynn Thorndike have both argued that scientific progress was slowed.

Historians have begun to consider the word Renaissance as unnecessarily loaded, implying an unambiguously positive rebirth from the supposedly more primitive "Dark Ages" (Middle Ages). Many historians now prefer to use the term "Early Modern" for this period, a more neutral term that highlights the period as a transitional one that led to the modern world.

The development of the Italian Renaissance was intertwined with the intellectual movement known as Renaissance humanism and with the history of the fiercely independent and combative urban societies of the city-states of central and northern Italy in the 13th to 16th centuries. Florence, Italy can be considered the birthplace of the Renaissance for several reasons.

The first two or three decades of the 15th century saw the emergence of a rare cultural efflorescence, particularly in Florence. This 'Florentine Enlightenment' (Holmes) was a major achievement. It was a classical, classicizing culture which 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 1st century BC republican Rome. Rucellai 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. Painting took huge leaps forward from the works of Giotto through Fra Angelico, Masaccio, Masolino, Piero della Francesca, and many others.

A political map of the Italian Peninsula  circa 1494.
A political map of the Italian Peninsula circa 1494.

A similar, parallel movement was also occurring in the arts in the early 15th century in Florence—an avant-garde, classicising movement involving many of the same close community of people. Valla said that, as Latin was revived, so was Latin architecture — for example, the Palazzo Rucellai built by Leone Battista Alberti. Valla felt that Brunelleschi was the greatest architect since Roman times.

Sculpture was also revived, in many cases before the other arts. There was a very obvious classicism about contemporary sculpture, and highly true-to-life figures were being sculpted. Often biblically-themed sculpture and paintings included recognizable Florentines. Mention should be made of the competition to sculpt bas-relief bronze panels for the baptistery in Florence. The winner of the competition was Lorenzo Ghiberti, whose naturalistic and elegantly expressive work won over Brunelleschi's entry. Brunelleschi went on to give up sculpture and become one of the world's most significant architects, designing the Duomo of Florence.

The nascent philosophy of nominalism also played a part, and can be demonstrated by the attention to detail in the observation of nature evident in many paintings of the time.

Classicism was applied both to literature and to the arts. Alberti felt that he had played a major part, as had Brunelleschi and Masaccio. The list of artists who contributed to the flowering of Italian art during this period is long and varied, and must also include Gentile de Fabriano, Fra Angelico, Lorenzo da Monaco, Fra Filippo Lippi, Masolino, and Giovanni di Paolo.



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There are several possible explanations for the emergence of the Renaissance in Florence:

The Crusades
In the thirteenth century, math and the sciences flourished in the Arabic Islamic countries, compared with the West, where science was repressed by the Church. Some of this knowledge made its way into Europe through Spain or was brought to Europe through the crusaders.
The decline and fall of the Byzantine Empire
The decline of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire after 1204 - and its eventual fall - lead to an exodus of Greco-Roman scholars to the West. These scholars brought with them texts and knowledge of the classical Greek and Roman civilizations which had been lost for centuries in the West.
The Medici family
One of the oldest explanations is that patronage of the Medici allowed for the advancement of artwork, especially under Lorenzo, which in turn led to the Renaissance. However, the start of the Renaissance can be dated around 1410 to 1420, prior to the Medici's rise to power.
The Great Man argument
This theory argues that the existence of individual geniuses — Donatello, Brunelleschi, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo — sparked the Renaissance. This is often cited as a circular argument which fails to explain the circumstances which differentiated these particular geniuses from those before or after.
The rise of individualism theory
This is a similar argument that argues for a change from collective neutrality towards the lonely genius.
The Black Plague theory
In the 14th Century, it is estimated that up to one-third or more of the population of Europe died of the plague. The plague was indiscriminate; it affected kings and serfs, priests and peasants, the pious and the sinful. Neither fervent Christian beliefs, the payment of indulgences, confession, or anything else, provided protection from it. In this theory, this caused the Christian world view to shift, leading people to live for the moment rather than in preparation for the afterlife. This, together with the distribution of the Bible and written knowledge (books were previously kept by individuals) via the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg (1450s) and the consequent wide dissemination of humanistic philosophies from the Greco-Roman era - Aristotle in particular, but also Plato (and so Socrates), Epicurus, Cicero, Seneca and others - created the intellectual climate which both fostered the emergence of Humanism, the interest in man and the here and now.

Fourteenth century Italy

In 1300, Florence had a civic culture, with people like Latini who had a sense of classical values, though different from the values of the fifteenth century. Villani also had a sense of the city as daughter and creature of Rome.

The 1380s saw a gradual increase in the influence of several classicising groups, including monks and citizens. 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

Their teachings reached the upper classes between 1410 and 1420 and it is argued that this is when the new consciousness emerged. Brucker 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 the years 1413-1423 there was an economic boom. The upper class had the financial means to support scholarship. Gombrich says there was a sense of ratifying yourself to the ancient world, leading to a snobbishness and an 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.


The Renaissance Spreads

The Arnolfini Portrait, by Jan van Eyck, painted 1434
The Arnolfini Portrait, by Jan van Eyck, painted 1434
Town hall in Poznań
Town hall in Poznań

The Renaissance spread north out of Italy, being adapted and modified as it moved. It arrived in France, imported by King Charles VIII after his invasion of Italy. Francis I imported Italian art and artists, including Leonardo Da Vinci, and at great expense built ornate palaces. Writers such as François Rabelais, Pierre de Ronsard, Joachim du Bellay and Michel de Montaigne, painters such as Jean Clouet and musicians such as Jean Mouton also borrowed from the spirit of the Italian Renaissance.

In the second half of the 15th century, Italians brought the new style to Poland and Hungary. After the marriage in 1476 of Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, to Beatrix of Naples, Buda became the first important artistic centre of the Renaissance north of the Alps. The most important humanists living in Matthias' court were Antonio Bonfini and Janus Pannonius. In 1526 the Ottoman conquest of Hungary put an abrupt end to the short-lived Hungarian Renaissance.

An early Italian humanist who came to Poland in the mid-15th century was Filip Callimachus. Many Italian artists came to Poland with Bona Sforza of Milano, when she married King Zygmunt I of Poland in 1518. The Polish Renaissance is the most Italian-like branch of the Renaissance outside of Italy. This was supported by (at least temporarily) strengthened monarchies in both areas, and supported by newly-established universities.

From France the spirit of the age spread to the Low Countries and Germany, and finally by the late 16th century to England, Scandinavia, and remaining parts of Central Europe (having already earlier reached Hungary and Poland). In these areas humanism became closely linked to the turmoil of the Protestant Reformation, and the art and writing of the German Renaissance frequently reflected this dispute.

In England, the Elizabethan era marked the beginning of the English Renaissance. It saw writers such as William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, John Milton, and Edmund Spenser, as well as great artists, architects (such as Inigo Jones) and composers such as Thomas Tallis, John Taverner, and William Byrd.

Palace of Facets (1487-91), a piece of Cinquecento in the heart of Moscow. Solomonic columns around the windows were added in 1684.
Palace of Facets (1487-91), a piece of Cinquecento in the heart of Moscow. Solomonic columns around the windows were added in 1684.

Early Renaissance arrived in the Iberian peninsula through the Mediterranean possessions of the Aragonese Crown and the city of Valencia. Early Iberian Renaissance writers include Ausiàs March, Joanot Martorell, Fernando de Rojas, Juan del Encina, Garcilaso de la Vega, Gil Vicente and Bernardim Ribeiro. Late Renaissance in Spain saw writers such as Miguel de Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Luis de Góngora and Tirso de Molina, artists such as El Greco and composers such as Tomás Luis de Victoria. In Portugal writers such as Sá de Miranda and Luís de Camões and artists such as Nuno Gonçalves appeared.

While Renaissance ideas were moving north from Italy, there was a simultaneous spread southward of innovation, particularly in music. The music of the 15th century Burgundian School defined the beginning of the Renaissance in that art; and the polyphony of the 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 9th century. The culmination of the Netherlandish school was in the music of the Italian composer, Palestrina. At the end of the 16th 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.

The paintings of the Italian Renaissance differed from those of the northern Renaissance in some ways. The Italian Renaissance did not only focus on religious figures but they also produced portraits of well-known figures of the day, and they also put religious figures in Greek or Roman backgrounds. During the Italian Renaissance, artists learned the rules of perspective which shows how far the object is by its size and made the paintings look three-dimensional. The artists also used shading to make objects look round and real. The Italian Renaissance artists studied human anatomy and drew from the models so it would be possible for them to sketch the human body more accurately than before. At first, northern Renaissance artists still focused on religious drawings, e.g. Albrecht Dürer who portrayed the religious upheaval of his age. Later on, Pieter Bruegel’s works influenced later artists to paint scenes of daily life rather than religious or classical themes. It was also during the northern Renaissance that Flemish brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck perfected the oil painting technique, which enabled artists to produce strong colors and a hard surface that could survive for centuries.


See also

"The School of Athens" by Raphael



Northern Europe



  1. Erwin Panofsky, Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art, (New York: Harper and Row, 1960)
  2. Philip Sohm, Style in the Art Theory of Early Modern Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)
  3. Jules Michelet. History of France, translated by G. H. Smith. (New York: D. Appleton, 1847).
  4. Peter Gay, Style in History. (New York: Basic Books 1974).
  5. Charles Homer Haskins. The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927).
  6. Jean Hubert. L’empire carolingien (English: The Carolingian Renaissance, Translated by James Emmons (New York: G. Braziller, 1970).



Further reading


External links

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