The Renaissance was a period of “rebirth” in arts, science and culture, and is typically thought to have originated in Italy.
The Renaissance, which means “rebirth” in French, typically refers to a period in European history from A.D. 1400 to A.D. 1600. Many historians, however, assert that it started earlier or ended later, depending on the country. It bridged the periods of the Middle Ages and modern history, and, depending on the country, overlaps with the Early Modern, Elizabethan and Restoration periods. The Renaissance is most closely associated with Italy, where it began in the 14th century, though countries such as Germany, England and France went through many of the same cultural changes and phenomena.
However, while the Renaissance brought about some positive changes for Europe, the geographical exploration that flourished during this time led to devastation for the people of the Western Hemisphere as European conquest and colonization brought plagues and slavery to the Indigenous people living there. In Africa, it also brought about the birth of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that saw Black people shipped from Africa to the Western Hemisphere to work as slaves on European colonies.
“Renaissance” comes from the French word for “rebirth.” According to the City University of New York at Brooklyn, intense interest in and learning about classical antiquity was “reborn” after the Middle Ages, in which classical philosophy was largely ignored or forgotten. Renaissance thinkers considered the Middle Ages to have been a period of cultural decline. They sought to revitalize their culture through re-emphasizing classical texts and philosophies. They expanded and interpreted them, creating their own style of art, philosophy and scientific inquiry. Some major developments of the Renaissance include astronomy, humanist philosophy, the printing press, vernacular language in writing, painting and sculpture technique, world exploration and, in the late Renaissance, Shakespeare’s works.
Many historians, including U.K.-based historian and writer Robert Wilde, prefer to think of the Renaissance as primarily an intellectual and cultural movement rather than a historical period. Interpreting the Renaissance as a time period, though convenient for historians, “masks the long roots of the Renaissance,” Wilde told Live Science.
During this time, interest in classical antiquity and philosophy grew, with some Renaissance thinkers using it as a way to revitalize their culture. They expanded and interpreted these Classical ideas, creating their own style of art, philosophy and scientific inquiry. Some major developments of the Renaissance include developments in astronomy, humanist philosophy, the printing press, vernacular language in writing, painting and sculpture technique, world exploration and, in the late Renaissance, Shakespeare’s works.
The term Renaissance was not commonly used to refer to the period until the 19th century, when Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt popularized it in his classic, “The Civilization of Renaissance Italy” (Dover Publications, 2016).
Contrary to popular belief, classical texts and knowledge never completely vanished from Europe during the Middle Ages. Charles Homer Haskins wrote in “The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century” (Harvard University Press, 1927) that there were three main periods that saw resurgences in the art and philosophy of antiquity: the Carolingian Renaissance, which occurred during the reign of Charlemagne, the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (eighth and ninth centuries), the Ottonian Renaissance, which developed during the reigns of emperors Otto I, Otto II and Otto III (10th century) and the 12th century Renaissance.
The 12th century Renaissance was especially influential on the later Renaissance, said Wilde. Europeans at the time studied on a larger scale Classical Latin texts and Greek science and philosophy; they also established early versions of universities.
The Crusades played a role in ushering in the Renaissance, Philip Van Ness Myers wrote in “Medieval and Modern History” (Ginn & Company, 1902). While crusading, Europeans encountered advanced Middle Eastern civilizations, which had made strides in many cultural fields. Islamic countries kept many classical Greek and Roman texts that had been lost in Europe, and they were reintroduced through returning crusaders.
The fall of the Byzantine Empire at the hands of the Ottomans also played a role. “When the Ottomans sacked Constantinople in 1453, many scholars fled to Europe, bringing classical texts with them,” Susan Abernethy, a Colorado-based historian and writer, told. “Conflict in Spain between the Moors and Christians also caused many academics to escape to other areas, particularly the Italian city-states of Florence, Padua and others. This created an atmosphere for a revival in learning.”
The Black Death helped set the stage for the Renaissance, wrote Robert S. Gottfried in “The Black Death” (Simon and Schuster, 2010). Deaths of many prominent officials caused social and political upheaval in Florence, where the Renaissance is considered to have begun. The Medici family moved to Florence in the wake of the plague and over the centuries produced business and political leaders as well as four popes.