The term Renaissance, adopted from the French equivalent of the Italian word rinascita, meaning literally "rebirth," describes the radical and comprehensive changes that took place in European culture during the 15th and 16th centuries, bringing about the demise of the Middle Ages and embodying for the first time the values of the modern world.
The consciousness of cultural rebirth was itself a characteristic of the Renaissance. Italian scholars and critics of this period proclaimed that their age had progressed beyond the barbarism of the past and had found its inspiration, and its closest parallel, in the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome.
The term Renaissance, describing the period of European history from the early 14th to the late 16th century, is derived from the French word for rebirth, and originally referred to the revival of the values and artistic styles of classical antiquity during that period, especially in Italy.
To Giovanni BOCCACCIO in the 14th century, the concept applied to contemporary Italian efforts to imitate the poetic style of the ancient Romans. In 1550 the art historian Giorgio VASARI used the word rinascita (rebirth) to describe the return to the ancient Roman manner of painting by Giotto di Bondone about the beginning of the 14th century.
It was only later that the word Renaissance acquired a broader meaning. Voltaire in the 18th century classified the Renaissance in Italy as one of the great ages of human cultural achievement. In the 19th century, Jules MICHELET and Jakob BURCKHARDT popularized the idea of the Renaissance as a distinct historical period heralding the modern age, characterized by the rise of the individual, scientific inquiry and geographical exploration, and the growth of secular values. In the 20th century the term was broadened to include other revivals of classical culture, such as the Carolingian Renaissance of the 9th century or the Renaissance of the 12th Century. Emphasis on medieval renaissances tended to undermine a belief in the unique and distinctive qualities of the Italian Renaissance, and some historians of science, technology and economy even denied the validity of the term. Today the concept of the Renaissance is firmly secured as a cultural and intellectual movement; most scholars would agree that there is a distinctive Renaissance style in music, literature and the arts.
The new age began in Padua and other urban communes of northern Italy in the 14th century, where lawyers and notaries imitated ancient Latin style and studied Roman archaeology. The key figure in this study of the classical heritage was PETRARCH, who spent most of his life attempting to understand ancient culture and captured the enthusiasm of popes, princes, and emperors who wanted to learn more of Italy's past. Petrarch's success stirred countless others to follow literary careers hoping for positions in government and high society. In the next generations, students of Latin rhetoric and the classics, later known as humanists, became chancellors of Venice and Florence, secretaries at the papal court, and tutors and orators in the despotic courts of northern Italy. Renaissance HUMANISM became the major intellectual movement of the period, and its achievements became permanent.
By the 15th century intensive study of the Greek as well as Latin classics, ancient art and archaeology, and classical history, had given Renaissance scholars a more sophisticated view of antiquity. The ancient past was now viewed as past, to be admired and imitated, but not to be revived.
In many ways, the period of the Renaissance saw a decline from the prosperity of the High Middle Ages. The Black Death (bubonic and pneumonic plague), which devastated Europe in the mid-14th century, reduced its population by as much as one-third, creating chaotic economic conditions. Labor became scarce, industries contracted, and the economy stagnated, but agriculture was put on a sounder basis as unneeded marginal land went out of cultivation. Probably the actual per capita wealth of the survivors of the Black Death rose in the second half of the 14th century. In general, the 15th century saw a modest recovery with the construction of palaces for the urban elites, a boom in the decorative arts, and renewed long-distance trade headed by Venice in the Mediterranean and the HANSEATIC LEAGUE in the north of Europe.
The culture of Renaissance Italy was distinguished by many highly competitive and advanced urban areas. Unlike England and France, Italy possessed no dominating capital city, but developed a number of centers for regional states: Milan for Lombardy, Rome for the Papal States, Florence and Siena for Tuscany, and Venice for northeastern Italy. Smaller centers of Renaissance culture developed around the brilliant court life at Ferrara, Mantua, and Urbino. The chief patrons of Renaissance art and literature were the merchant classes of Florence and Venice, which created in the Renaissance palace their own distinctive home and workplace, fitted for both business and rearing and nurture of the next generation of urban rulers. The later Renaissance was marked by a growth of bureaucracy, an increase in state authority in the areas of justice and taxation, and the creation of larger regional states. During the interval of relative peace from the mid-15th century until the French invasions of 1494, Italy experienced a great flowering of culture, especially in Florence and Tuscany under the MEDICI. The brilliant period of artistic achievement continued into the 16th century--the age of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, and Michelangelo--but as Italy began to fall under foreign domination, the focus gradually shifted to other parts of Europe.
During the 15th century, students from many European nations had come to Italy to study the classics, philosophy, and the remains of antiquity, eventually spreading the Renaissance north of the Alps. Italian literature and art, even Italian clothing and furniture designs were imitated in France, Spain, England, the Netherlands, and Germany, but as Renaissance values came to the north, they were transformed. Northern humanists such as Desiderius ERASMUS of the Netherlands and John Colet (c. 1467-1519) of England planted the first seeds of the Reformation when they applied critical methods developed in Italy to the study of the New Testament.
No single philosophy or ideology dominated the intellectual life of the Renaissance. Early humanists had stressed a flexible approach to the problems of society and the active life in service of one's fellow human beings. In the second half of the 15th century, Renaissance thinkers such as Marsilio FICINO at the Platonic Academy in Florence turned to more metaphysical speculation. Though favored by the humanists, Plato did not replace Aristotle as the dominant philosopher in the universities. Rather there was an effort at philosophical syncretism, to combine apparently conflicting philosophies, and find common ground for agreement about the truth as did Giovanni PICO DELLA MIRANDOLA in his Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486). Renaissance science consisted mainly of the study of medicine, physics, and mathematics, depending on ancient masters, such as Galen, Aristotle, and Euclid. Experimental science in anatomy and alchemy led to discoveries both within and outside university settings.
Under the veneer of magnificent works of art and the refined court life described in BALDASSAIC CASTIGLIONE's Book of the Courtier, the Renaissance had a darker side. Warfare was common, and death by pestilence and violence was frequent. Interest in the occult, magic, and astrology was widespread, and the officially sanctioned persecution for witchcraft began during the Renaissance period. Many intellectuals felt a profound pessimism about the evils and corruptions of society as seen in the often savage humanist critiques of Giovanni Francesco Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) and Desiderius Erasmus. Sir Thomas MORE, in his Utopia, prescribed the radical solution of a classless, communal society, bereft of Christianity and guided by the dictates of natural reason. The greatest Renaissance thinker, Nicolo MACHIAVELLI, in his Prince and Discourses, constructed a realistic science of human nature aiming at the reform of Italian society and the creation of a secure civil life. Machiavelli's republican principles informed by a pragmatic view of power politics and the necessity of violent change were the most original contribution of the Renaissance to the modern world.
The Renaissance lived on in established canons of taste and literature and in a distinctive Renaissance style in art, music, and architecture, the last often revived. It also provided the model of many-sided achievement of the creative genius, the "universal man," exemplified by Leonardo da Vinci or Leon Battista ALBERTI. Finally, the Renaissance spawned the great creative vernacular literature of the late 16th century: the earthy fantasies of RABELAIS, the worldly essays of MONTAIGNE, the probing analysis of the human condition in the plays of William SHAKESPEARE.