Renaissance: French for “rebirth,” a term referring to a transformation of Western culture that followed the Medieval Period, the so-called Dark Ages of European history. A transitional period, bridging the Middle Ages and the beginnings of the modern world, the Renaissance began in fourteenth-century Italy and spread throughout Europe during the fifteenth century. Most scholars agree that the Renaissance ended during the seventeenth century; in England, the ensuing Neoclassical Period is often said to have begun in 1660, with the Restoration of the monarchy.
The changes associated with the Renaissance were both sweeping and revolutionary, transcending national boundaries within Europe as well as altering the way in which life was lived and understood at least as profoundly as life has been altered in modern times by the development of nuclear physics and the invention of the computer. The most important of these changes was a paradigm shift from a predominantly theocentric, Christian perspective to an increasingly secular, anthropocentric one, as humankind rather than God became the center of human interest. Other significant changes included: a cosmological revolution during which the Ptolemaic theory of an earth- centered universe, a theory dating from the second century A.D., was abandoned in favor of the Copernican understanding that the earth revolves around the sun; a dramatic schism within Western Christendom that led to the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism; the discovery of the so-called New World; the emergence of nationalism and international commerce as we now know them; the rise of an imperialism that would culminate with Europe dominating the globe in the nineteenth century; and German printer Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, whose movable type greatly facilitated book production and thus made possible an unprecedented explosion of communication, knowledge, and scholarship.
Beginning with the Italian poet Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304—74), classical scholars (later referred to as humanists) revitalized interest in the pagan authors and texts of ancient Greece and Rome. By 1500, the works of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle had been translated; within decades, Aristotle’s ideas about biology, like Plato’s philosophies of politics and love, were published in book form. Plato’s writings about love in the Symposium (c. 360 B.C.), together with the Platonic love philosophies developed by subsequent Neoplatonist philosophers such as Plotinus (third century A.D.), gave rise to a Renaissance Neoplatonism that colored a variety of works, including Baldassare Castiglione’s Il cortegiano (The Courtier) (1528), an early and extremely influential courtesy book. Courtesy books — published first in Italy, then in France, and finally in England — set forth rules governing cultivated behavior in royal and noble courts as well as the relationships between aristocratic men and women. They also extolled the accomplished, well-rounded gentleman, counseling aspiring courtiers to cultivate a wide range of artistic, athletic, conversational, intellectual, and romantic capabilities.
The focus on the developing individual evident in courtesy books was also characteristic of Renaissance art and religious discourse. For instance, in art there was more variation among the Madonnas depicted in Renaissance paintings than among their medieval counterparts. In his book Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (1980), new historicist Stephen Greenblatt proposed a provocative corollary to the view that Renaissance art tended to represent individuals, not types, suggesting that during the Renaissance the human individual came to be seen as a work of art. In religion, the Reformation — which was instigated by German monk Martin Luther in 1517 as an effort to reform the Roman Catholic Church and ended in schism — also elevated the individual. Central to the Reformation was the idea that although ecclesiastical intermediaries may provide comfort and guidance, they are neither necessary nor sufficient for an individual’s salvation. Protestant reformers insisted that believers were their own priests, capable of a direct personal relationship with God; consequently, they were empowered to confess their own sins, read scripture on their own, and interpret God’s word in light of their own experiences.
As exemplified by the Reformation’s challenge to the authority of the Church in Rome, the spirit of questioning was as characteristic of the Renaissance as was the focus on the individual. The tendency to question received “truth” also lay behind the Copernican revolution in astronomy and, more broadly, led to a growing skepticism regarding supernatural and occult explanations for everyday occurrences and behaviors. Increasingly, scientists and nonscientists alike argued that all of known reality could be explained in accordance with natural laws, some of which were not yet known or understood but all of which were potentially knowable and provable.
As a result of this new attitude and outlook — and following famous early experiments by scientists such as Nicolaus Cusanus, a fifteenth-century German cardinal generally credited with proving that air has weight by showing that plants derive some of their own weight from the atmosphere — the Renaissance became an age of scientific testing. The printing press, which had itself developed through scientific advances, in turn advanced science by enabling the publication of experimental results. Over time, scientific discourse entered the language of literature; in his epic Paradise Lost (1667), the Puritan poet John Milton acknowledged recent scientific discoveries and theories even as he questioned the ultimate wisdom of the scientific ambition to know and understand everything.
Other artists of the Renaissance welcomed scientific advances and, more important, the spirit of scientific discovery, which was seen as akin to the artistic spirit of the age. Indeed, the Renaissance was a period in which the arts and sciences developed in tandem, reinforcing one another. (By contrast, since the rise of romanticism in the late eighteenth century, the arts have tended to critique scientific and technological approaches to life.) Particularly important in establishing this link was Italian artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci, who introduced the idea that visual representations should reflect correct geometric perspective. Significantly, Leonardo’s emphasis on accurate perspective inspired more careful study of living and nonliving things, which in turn led to new levels of geometric sophistication that laid the groundwork for technological illustration and design as we now know them. Meanwhile, perspective in the visual arts allowed for the development of realistic representation, which remained a generally accepted convention of artistic representation until the rise of modernism in the twentieth century.
As the example of Leonardo suggests, the Renaissance — with its emphasis on the individual and discovery — produced a number of individual geniuses, “Renaissance men” who had a profound impact not only on the arts and sciences but also on how humanity conceived of itself, its capabilities, and its place in the universe. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473—1543), whose treatise De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) (1543) revolutionized astronomy, was also a cleric, doctor, mathematician, and diplomat. Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475—1564), perhaps the best-known painter of the Renaissance, was also an architect, engineer, poet, and sculptor whose impact on sculpture is now generally recognized as being even greater than his influence on painting. Raphael (1483—1520), a student of Michelangelo’s, not only produced what many art critics have described as the world’s greatest painting (the Sistine Madonna) but also served as chief architect of Saint Peter’s Church in Rome. Galileo Galilei (1564—1642), imprisoned by the Church for supporting the Copernican view that the earth revolves around the sun, was a painter, writer, musician, and scientist who is now considered the founder of modern experimental science due to his work in astronomy and physics. His ideas paved the way for German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571—1630), who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and Sir Isaac Newton (1642—1727), the English mathematician and philosopher best known for describing gravitational laws. French thinker René Descartes (1596—1650), perhaps most famous for the statement Cogito, ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), also invented analytic geometry and subsequently had as great an impact on mathematics as he did on philosophy. The English physician William Harvey (1578—1657), who explained the workings of the heart and the circulation of human blood, is credited with having profoundly altered the course of Western medicine, much as William Shakespeare (1564—1616) — actor, director, playwright, and poet — is generally acknowledged to have had an unparalleled influence on Western literature ever since the seventeenth century.
In addition to Castiglione, Milton, and Shakespeare, notable Renaissance writers and their works include: Desiderius Erasmus (In Praise of Folly ), Ludovico Ariosto (Orlando furioso [c. 1513]), Sir Thomas More (Utopia ), Niccolò Machiavelli (The Prince ), François Rabelais (Pantagruel ), Marguerite de Navarre (Heptaméron [written c. 1548; published 1558]), Louise Labé (Works , which includes twenty-four love sonnets and the prose allegory “Debate of Love and Folly”), Michel de Montaigne (Essais ), Edmund Spenser (The Faerie Queene [1590—96]), and Miguel de Cervantes (Don Quixote [1605, 1615]).