Literally rebirth in French. Started in 14th Century Italy (where it is called rinascimento), spread all over Europe and lasted till about 17th Century.

The name refers to the rebirth of interest in classical culture of pre-Christian era, a culture that was completely surpressed during the Middle Ages.

It was for the first time in centuries that European intelligentsia considered alternatives to the strictness and harshness of Christianity in arts and philosophy, leading to the dictum Carpe Diem (seize the day), increased study of science, new type of architecture, independent thought, which eventually completed the transition to the modern era.

This actually covers the Renaissance to the Rococo, so I've broken this one down a little further, into:

Italian Art

Late Gothic Art

Northern Art

Spanish and Italian Baroque

The Baroque in Flanders and Holland

The Baroque in France and England

Back to art

The Renaissance is an era in Western, or European history, that began around 1400 in Italy and moved north to England over the course of 200 years. It was an Era characterized by a new flowering of inquiry in all areas of human culture, the establishment of national states, and the emergence of luxurious courts. Examples of the latter two are the Duchy of Burgundy, England, the Holy Roman Empire, plus the many Italian states - the foremost of which were the Medici in Florence.

The Era derives its name from the French word for re-birth. The Italian, Giorgio Vasari, established the term Rinascita (re-birth)in a publication in 1550. The first use of the French word Renaissance occurred in the French Encyclopedie in 1751-72.

The Italians perceived a resurrection of the classic spirit after a thousand years of barbarism that occurred in the third, fourth and fifth centuries with the invasions of the Huns, Goths, and Visigoths. But now

"The sunshine of the Italian spirit would break through the northern mists;
men and women would escape from the prison of medieval fear;
they would worship beauty in all its forms, and
fill the air with the joy of resurrection.
Italy would be young again."
Durant, pp. 67

First and foremost it took money. Lots of "filthy lucre" to be able to improve one's mind, create art, and to study the classic works of ancient Greece and Rome. These profits came from skillful managers, underpaid laborers, and hazardous journeys for trade to the Far East. In short, the classic investment of buy low, sell high. Those who took the correct calculated risks reaped profit and thus obtain discretionary income.

A list of the characteristics of the period:

  1. Breakdown of Feudalism
    As feudal society broke down they looked back to the ancient world for ways to improve life in the 15th and 16th centuries. Northern Italy was surrounded by classic Roman culture in the architecture, sculpture, and language. It had never fully implemented feudalism, but had subjected its nobles to its cities and the merchant class.

    An example of the yearning for the classic world is this excerpt from Baldassare Castiglione's The Courtier written in 1528:

    "I would have him more then passably learned in letters, at least in
    those studies in which we call the humanities. Let him be conversant
    not only with the Latin language, but with Greek as well, because of
    the abundance and variety of things that are so divinely written therein."

  2. Development of Town Life, Mercantilism, and Luxurious National Courts
    Seaports took on a new vitality and commerce. Venice and other towns in Northern Italy were more urban and industrial than most other regions of Europe. It was also the route of choice for trade between transalpine Europe and the East.

    Examples of the new luxury were in the courts of Phillip II, Francis I, Philip the Handsome, and Louis Duke of Savoy, plus the villa of the Medici.

  3. Harmonious Complete Structures
    The new emphasis was on balance and proportion. New developments in perspective, rounded arches and domes, and the natural human form in art. Examples are Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

  4. Flowering of Secular Art
    The artist was given a high position and allowed to look elsewhere than God and spiritual matters for inspiration. Man became the measure of all things as indicated in these two excerpts:

    "I have set you in the center of the world, so that from there you may more easily survey whatever is in the world. We have made you neither heavenly nor earthly, neither mortal nor immortal, so that, more freely and more honorably the molder and maker of yourself, you may fashion yourself in whatever form you shall prefer... O supreme generosity of God the Father! O highest and marvelous felicity of man! To him it is granted to have whatever he chooses, to be whatever he wills."
    Pico della Mirandola's The Dignity of Man, 1486, (God speaking to Adam)

    "A prince should also show himself a lover of excellence by giving preferment to gifted men and honoring those who excel in some art. Besides he should encourage his citizens... in trade and agriculture and every other occupation of man. A citizen should not hesitate to increase his property for fear it will be taken away from him or to open a new business for fear of taxes. On the contrary the prince should offer rewards to those who undertake to do these things and to anybody who thinks of improving in any way his city or his dominion. Besides this, at suitable times of the year he should engage the attention of the people with festivals and shows. And because every city is divided into guilds or wards, he should take account of these bodies, meet with them sometimes, and give in person an example of humanity and generosity."
    Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince, 1513.

  5. Challenge of Accepted Beliefs
    These challenges came about in three areas:
    1. The Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther and others.
    2. The new exploration and discovery as medieval Europe re-establishes contact with the rest of the world through Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci. Money rears its head again. These guys were looking for another route to the Far East and its riches.
    3. The new science as exhibited by Galileo Galilei, Andreas Vesalius, Nicolaus Copernicus and others.


  • Durant, Will, The Story of Civilization, Part V. The Renaissance, Simon and Schuster, New Your, 1953
  • Laudon, Robert, Handbook for the History of Western Music: Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1977.

  • Re*nais`sance" (F. re-n?`s?ns"; E. r?-n?s"sans), n. [F., fr. rena&icir;tre to be born again. Cf. Renascence.]

    A new birth, or revival.

    Specifically: (a)

    The transitional movement in Europe, marked by the revival of classical learning and art in Italy in the 15th century, and the similar revival following in other countries

    . (b)

    The style of art which prevailed at this epoch.

    The Renaissance was rather the last stage of the Middle Ages, emerging from ecclesiastical and feudal despotism, developing what was original in mediaeval ideas by the light of classic arts and letters. J. A. Symonds (Encyc. Brit. ).


    © Webster 1913.

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