A period in Medieval Europe commonly referred to as the Dark Ages ended roughly in the 14th century. During this period, the people of Europe were uneducated and in poor health. The church’s power had reached its peak at the turn of the millennium, keeping a tight grip on the daily lives of the people. As time went on, people began to take an interest in the humanities and looking back at history to improve upon themselves. This new time of prosperity and learning is known as the “Renaissance,” or rebirth.
The Renaissance formally started in 1350 and lasted two centuries. One of the driving movements in the Renaissance was the emergence of humanism. A scholar by the name of Petrarch began reading texts from the classical writers of Greece and Rome. He was amazed by the elegance of the ancient thinkers and urged his peers to go to their local monasteries to read the archives. Humanism itself diverged from the church’s dogma and advocated the virtue of Man and his accomplishments. In response to this awakening call, many universities were built throughout central Europe. Unlike the religious seminaries set up by the church, these universities educated the common folk in literature, rhetoric, mathematics, philosophy, and other subjects.
Another component that led to this rebirth was the rise of Italian city-states. Surrounded by seas on either side, Italy was the ideal place for sects to acquire wealth. Even though all of the city-states were separated, they all brought in large amounts of wealth from trade. In Florence, where banking was invented, merchant families such as the Medicis were able to amass great riches. Venice was also a great trade center due to its location geographically. Also, because these cities were built on the ruins of the great Roman Empire, they were able to easily study and learn from them.
Learning became just as important as going to mass during these times. Most of the people were illiterate, however. Luckily, in the middle of the 1400’s, Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press. As you might have guessed, it was a huge success. This new innovation allowed manuscripts and books to be printed and distributed at a much higher rate than before. Prior to the press, books were handwritten. By now humanism was widespread, which meant that the printing press would be able to mass produce these books. Writers at the time also started writing in the everyday language. Seminal authors including Dante, Chaucer, Miguel de Cervantes, and William Shakespeare were major successes; their works are still revered today.
Art and architecture were improved by the new engineers and artists of the Renaissance, too. Taking influence from the Greeks and Romans, many magnificent edifices were constructed around Italy. The romanesque and gothic styles were implemented in both secular and religious projects. Temples of august magnitude were built to resemble the Parthenon, complete with pillars and marble. Due to the growing wealth of the Italian city-states, artists and architects were funded generously to create new works. An example of architecture was the glorious duomo of the Florence cathedral designed by Filippo Brunelleschi. One of the most recognizable features of the Renaissance was a burgeoning in art. Paintings were made to represent more temporal themes, yet many of the great works were still religious. Notable artists included Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael, Donatello, and Botticelli. Famous works include The Madonnas, David, The Academy, The Last Judgement. The term “Renaissance man” refers to someone with a wide range of skills. Leonardo Da Vinci is one said person. Da Vinci was a luminary artist, engineer, and scientist. His journals are filled with inventions ranging from helicopters to weapons for warfare. Leonardo studied anatomy from stolen corpses, which allowed him to create the Vitruvian Man. Anyone can point out his world-famous Mona Lisa.
The Renaissance was only a fraction of history going from 1350 to approximately 1550. While much of the rebirth was a waking call to the people of Europe that brought art, literature, and philosophy, there were also many events that would change the course of the world. Concurrent with the Renaissance were the religious schisms known as the Reformation and follow-up Counter-Reformation and the Age of Exploration, which saw the expansion of European cities into the New World.
For further reading: Atlas of World History by Kate Santon (2005)
Medieval and Early Modern Times by Jackson Spielvogel