The term Renaissance literally means 'rebirth' or 'revival'. But it refers to the significant changes that took place in Europe during the transition period between the medieval and modern. There was a revival of literature and art on the intellectual side. The spirit of enquiry led to scientific inventions. Politically, this period witnessed the end of feudalism and the emergence of nation-states. The spirit of individualism and humanism began to dominate in the social sphere. The religious transformation was symbolized by the Reformation. All these changes in Europe were collectively referred to as Renaissance.
The Roman Empire declined by the end of the 5th century A.D. It had resulted in the neglect of classical literature and arts. But these treasures of culture were preserved in the Eastern Roman Empire with its capital at Constantinople. The Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453. As a result, the Byzantine-Greek scholars
fled from Constantinople to Rome. They brought with them the Greek and Roman heritage. With this revival of classical learning in Italy, a spirit of enquiry developed. This spirit of enquiry stimulated the progress of science, art, architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, geography and religion.
Italy is considered the birth place of the Renaissance for several reasons. Some of them were:
Italy was the seat of ancient civilization and the Latin language.
The rich city states in Italy like Florence and Venice patronized art and literature. For example, the Medici family of Florence had patronized many scholars.
The publication of the Divine Comedy by the greatest Italian poet Dante (1265-1321) triggered the Renaissance movement in the city of Florence. It was written in the Italian language. Thereafter, the Renaissance spread to other parts of Europe and reached its peak in the sixteenth century.
The most important contribution of the Renaissance was the revival and learning of ancient Greek and Latin literature. The pioneer in this effort was Petrarch (1304-1374) with his profound knowledge in these languages, he collected and compiled many ancient manuscripts containing the works of Plato and Aristotle. His disciple Boccaccio had also encouraged the classical learning. Many Greek scholars who came from Constantinople spread the ancient Greek literature in Florence. The most notable among them was Manuel Chrysolores.
Another scholar, Bracciolini traced the works of Tacitus, Livy and Sophocles. In the 15th century Pope Nicholas V founded the Vatican Library and the ancient manuscripts were preserved in that library.
They were studied and analysed by scholars. The contribution of Erasmus (1463-1536) in correcting and editing the Latin works was also notable. He edited the New Testament in the Greek language.
The invention of printing press by John Gutenberg (1398- 1468) in Germany had influenced the Renaissance literature. The first book published by him was The Bible. William Caxton set up printing press in England.
Shortly, many printing presses came up throughout Europe and it provided a stimulus to the Renaissance movement. The availability of books at cheaper rates made the masses to improve their awareness.
Apart from the revival of classical literature, many works in classical languages as well as in the native languages came up during this period. We have already referred to Dante's Divine Comedy written in the Italian language.
Similarly, Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales in English. Boccaccio was the author of the Deccameron, a collection of fables.
Machiavelli, who lived in Florence, wrote his eight- volume History of Florence. His most famous work was The Prince, a book on political science.
While Italy was the home of the most famous literary figures of the Renaissance, a Renaissance literature typical of that period can also be found in France, England, Germany, and Spain.
In England, Sir Thomas Moore wrote his famous book Utopia in Latin. However, the Elizabethan era marked the beginning of the English Renaissance. It saw dramatists like William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Charles Webster; poets like Edmund Spenser, Sydney and Ben Johnson. Hakluyt wrote excellent travel accounts during this period.
Montaigne (1533-1592), the French essayist, was the most typical writer of the Renaissance literature. His works reflect an intense interest in himself and in things connected with the life of man. His essays on education were regarded as important for centuries. A forerunner of Voltaire in his method of writing and thinking, Montaigne revolted against the authority and the tyranny of the past and earned the title 'the first modern man'.
In Germany, Martin Luther translated the Bible in the German language. Sebastian Brant wrote The Ship of Fools. In Spain, Cervantes authored the famous Don Quixote.
Art in the Middle Ages was dominated by the Christian religion and Church. During the Renaissance importance was given to the love of nature and human body. Although the spirit of humanism prevailed, the subject matter of the most of the Renaissance art was Christian. Renaissance painting bloomed most profusely in Italy. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Raphael (1483-1520) were the dominant figures among the Renaissance painters.
Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most versatile men of his time, was an artist, poet, musician, and engineer. Hence, he is known as the 'Renaissance Man'. Born in Florence, he visited several countries. He was patronized by the Duke of Milan. His famous paintings were the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper.
Michelangelo was both a painter and sculptor. He lived in Florence and patronized by the Medici family. Later, he went to Rome. The magnificent frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican represent his most brilliant achievement in painting. This work contains 145 pictures with 394 figures, some of which are as much as ten feet high. His painting, The Last MICHELANGELO Judgementis considered the best in the world.
Raphael achieved a rare blending of devotional feeling with a sense of beauty. Although Raphael died at the age of thirty-seven, he produced a great number of paintings, of which the most familiar is the Madonna.
The Venetian School is an excellent example of the secularization of the Renaissance art. Artistic expression in Venice was worldly and materialistic. Titian (1477-1576) and Tintoretto (1518-1592) were the greatest painters of Venice.
The art of sculpture had also witnessed progress during the Renaissance period. It was more original and beautiful. The pioneer of the Renaissance sculpture was Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455). The magnificent doors at the Baptistery of Florence were his master piece. LORENZO GHIBERTI Michael Angelo appreciated the beauty of these doors as worthy to the gates of the Paradise. Donatello (1386-1466) produced the statue of St. George in Florence and that of St. Mark at Venice. Michelangelo besides being a painter was a celebrated sculptor. He produced some of his best sculptures for the Medici family in Florence. He was also the creator of the statue of David in Florence. Brunelleschi and Robbia were the other famous sculptors of this period. One of the most familiar examples of the Renaissance architecture is St. Peter's Church of Rome.
The spirit of modem science was born with the Renaissance. Science in the Middle Ages struggled against superstitions. The Renaissance brought about a critical observation of natural phenomena. This spirit of learning took root in science.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is considered the father of modern science.
He denounced the deductive method and advocated the inductive method in scientific research. Descartes (1596-1650) brought out convincingly the necessity of questioning everything. Descartes contributed the idea of doubt, and doubt was the forerunner of a COPERNICUS new age in science.
Copernicus (1473-1543) heliocentric established the theory. According to this theory the heavenly bodies do not revolve about the earth as believed during that period but around the sun. Kepler (1571- GALILEO 1630) formulated mathematical laws to support the conclusions of Copernicus. He also stated that the planets revolve around the sun in elliptical orbits.
Galileo (1564-1642) through the invention of the telescope brought new evidence to support the Copernican theory.
Newton (1642-1727) concluded that the movements of all celestial bodies were controlled by gravitation. With the new astronomical knowledge that was available, the old Julian calendar was reformed in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII.
The humanistic spirit of the Renaissance had also awakened increased interest in the study of medicine and anatomy. Vesalius (1514-1564), a Netherlander wrote a treatise on human anatomy. William Harvey (1578-1657) discovered the blood circulation, a prime contribution to medical science. In this period, chemistry became something more than alchemy. Paracelsus (1493-1541) showed that reactions in the human body involve chemical changes. He had employed chemicals for medicinal purposes. Cordus (1515-1544) made ether from sulphuric acid and alcohol. Helmont (1577-1644) discovered the carbon dioxide.
The Renaissance remained the symbol of the beginning of the modern age. The spirit of enquiry and the consequent scientific inventions produced important changes in the life of humanity. The invention of the Mariner's Compass and other astronomical faiths led to the Geographical discoveries. The impact of these discoveries was profound in the political and economic life of the people. The reasoning spirit had resulted in the Reformation and changed the outlook of the people towards religion.