Chapter 13 Section 1
A new age had dawned in Western Europe, given expression by remarkable artists and thinkers. Europeans called this age the Renaissance, meaning “rebirth.” It began in the 1300s and reached its peak around 1500. The Renaissance marked the transition from medieval times to the early modern world.
What Was the Renaissance?
The Renaissance was a time of creativity and great change in many areas—political, social, economic, and cultural. It marked a slow shift from an agricultural to an urban society, in which trade assumed greater importance than in the past. It was also a time when creative thinking and new technology let people comprehend and describe their world more accurately.
A New Worldview Evolves
During the Renaissance, creative minds set out to transform their own age. Their era, they felt, was a time of rebirth after what they saw as the disorder and disunity of the medieval world.
Renaissance thinkers had a reawakened interest in the classical learning of Greece and Rome, which medieval scholars had preserved. They continued to use Latin as the language of the Church as well as for scholarship. Yet they produced new attitudes toward culture and learning. Medieval scholars had focused more on religious beliefs and spirituality. In contrast, Renaissance thinkers explored the richness and variety of human experience in the here and now. At the same time, society placed a new emphasis on individual achievement. Indeed, the Renaissance ideal was a person with talents in many fields.
A Spirit of Adventure
The Renaissance supported a spirit of adventure and a wide-ranging curiosity that led people to explore new worlds or to reexamine old ones. Navigators who sailed across the ocean, scientists who looked at the universe in new ways, and writers and artists who experimented with new forms and techniques all shared that spirit. In part, that spirit of adventure came from a new view of man himself. As Italian thinker Pico della Mirandola asserted in 1486: “To [man] it is granted to have whatever he chooses, to be whatever he wills.”
At the heart of the Italian Renaissance was an intellectual movement known as humanism. Humanists studied the classical culture of Greece and Rome, but used that study to increase their understanding of their own times. Though most humanists were pious Christians, they focused on worldly subjects rather than on the religious issues that had occupied medieval thinkers. Humanists believed that education should stimulate the individual’s creative powers. They emphasized the humanities—subjects such as grammar, rhetoric (the study of using language effectively), poetry, and history—that had been taught in ancient Greek and Roman schools.
The Renaissance began in Italy. Over the next hundred years it spread to the rest of Europe, eventually transforming the entire Western world. Italy was the birthplace of the Renaissance for several reasons.
Italy’s History and Geography
Renaissance thinkers had a new interest in ancient Rome. Since Italy had been the center of the Roman empire, it was a logical place for this reawakening to emerge. Architectural remains, statues, and coins were all available for people to study. Rome was also the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, an important patron of the arts. As the center of Catholicism, Rome also served as an inspiration for religious themes used by artists and writers.
Italy’s location encouraged trade with well-developed markets on the eastern Mediterranean and in northern Africa, as well as in northern Europe. Ships carrying a great variety of goods docked at Italy’s many ports. Extensive banking, manufacturing, and merchant networks developed to support trade. While trade declined throughout most of Europe during the Middle Ages, it remained strong in Italy. Trade provided the wealth that fueled Italy’s Renaissance. Trade routes also carried new ideas, important in shaping the Renaissance.
Leonardo da Vinci
Artist Leonardo da Vinci (duh vin chee) (1452–1519) had an endless curiosity that fed a genius for invention. He made sketches of nature and of models in his studio, and dissected corpses to learn how bones and muscles work. As a result, Leonardo’s paintings grip people with their realism. The Mona Lisa is a portrait of a woman whose mysterious smile has baffled viewers for centuries. The Last Supper, showing Jesus and his apostles on the night before the crucifixion, is both a moving religious painting and a masterpiece of perspective. Because Leonardo experimented with a new type of paint, much of The Last Supper decayed over the years. However, it has recently been restored.
Leonardo thought of himself as an artist. Yet his talents and accomplishments ranged over many areas, including botany, anatomy, optics, music, architecture, and engineering. He made sketches for flying machines and undersea boats centuries before the first airplane or submarine was actually built. Though most of his paintings are lost today, his many notebooks survive as a testament to his genius and creativity.
Artist Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564), like Leonardo, had many talents—he was a sculptor, engineer, painter, architect, and poet. Michelangelo has been called a “melancholy genius” because his work reflects his many life-long spiritual and artistic struggles. In his twenties, he created masterpieces such as David and the Pietà marble. The Pietà which captures the sorrow of the Biblical Mary as she cradles her dead son Jesus on her knees. Michelangelo’s heroic statue of David, the Biblical shepherd who killed the giant Goliath, recalls the harmony and grace of ancient Greek tradition.
One of Michelangelo’s greatest projects was painting a series of huge murals to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. The enormous task, which took four years to complete and left the artist partially crippled, depicted the biblical history of the world from the Creation to the Flood. Michelangelo was also a talented architect. His most famous design was for the dome of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. It served as a model for many later structures, including the United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
The Printing Revolution
An astounding invention aided the spread of the Renaissance. In about 1455, Johann Gutenberg (goot un burg) of Mainz, Germany, printed the first complete edition of the Bible using a printing press with movable type. A printing revolution had begun that would transform Europe. Before the printing press, there were only a few thousand books in all of Europe. These books had been slowly copied out by hand. By 1500, according to some estimates, 15 to 20 million volumes had been produced on printing presses.
The printing revolution brought immense changes. Printed books were cheaper and easier to produce than hand-copied works. With books more readily available, more people learned to read. Readers gained access to a broad range of knowledge, from medicine and law to mining. As printing presses were established in Italy and other parts of Europe, printed books exposed educated Europeans to new ideas and new places.
Shakespeare Writes for All Time
The towering figure of Renaissance literature was the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare. Between 1590 and 1613, he wrote 37 plays that are still performed around the world. Fellow playwright and poet Ben Jonson correctly predicted at the time that Shakespeare “. . . was not of an age, but for all time.”
Shakespeare’s genius was in expressing universal themes in everyday, realistic settings. His work explores Renaissance ideals such as the complexity of the individual and the importance of the classics. At the same time, his characters speak in language that common people can understand and appreciate. Shakespeare’s love of words also vastly enriched the English language. More than 1,700 words appeared for the first time in his works.