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The Renaissance

Updated on February 16, 2012

Renaissance, or Revival of Learning, was a great movement in literature, art, architecture, science and human behavior that began in Italy in the 14th century, reached its peak in the 15th century and spread to the rest of Europe. It marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern Europe.

During the Middle Ages the works of many Latin and Greek writers were unknown, until the early Renaissance scholars began to study and copy manuscripts which had been neglected for centuries.

All educated people could read Latin, but Greek was little known; however, Greek scholars came to Italy in the 15th century and others fled there, bringing manuscripts with them, when the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453. But the Renaissance was much more than the rediscovery of classical literature and architecture.

It represented an upsurge of creative energy, of new ideas and new freedoms of thought in contrast to the fixed teachings of the Church and medieval philosophers. Men became interested in the world about them, in human nature (some writers are known as 'humanists'), in science, art and religion.

The Renaissance spirit of enquiry and criticism was one of the underlying causes of the Reformation.

Italian cities such as Florence, Milan, Padua and Venice were rich, and city life was freer and more civilized than in countries which were still mainly rural. Moreover, Italy had remained in closer touch with Greek and Roman ideas than the rest of Europe, and the Renaissance was aided by several popes who were more interested in worldly than spiritual matters. For these reasons, the New Learning first flowered in Italy; scholars translated classical works, libraries and universities were founded, Petrarch and Boccaccio in the 14th century wrote their poetry, marvelous churches and buildings were erected, and from the late 15th century artists like Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael Titian and many others painted their immortal pictures.

There were also gifted men like Brunelleschi the architect, and Donatello, the sculptor. Often an artist would excel in several branches of art and knowledge; Leonardo, the great all-rounder, excelled as a painter, philosopher, athlete, inventor, engineer and naturalist.

The Renaissance spread northwards. Holland and England produced the Humanists, Erasmus, Linacre, Colet and More; in France there was the poet Ronsard and the writers Rabelais and Montaigne, while in Spain Cervantes wrote Don Quixote (1605-1615). The outstanding Renaissance artists of Flanders and Germany were the Van Eycks, the Breughels, Durer and Holbein - who took his skill to England, where Henry VIII saw himself as a prince of many talents and where Renaissance literature flowered in the poems of Sidney and Spenser and, above all, in the plays of Shakespeare . It was not until the 17th century that Inigo Jones brought classical architecture to England.

Every branch of science was developed, biology, chemistry, physics and astronomy - in which Copernicus, Keppler and Galileo put forward new ideas - while medicine made progress that included Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood.

The urge to ac quire knowledge and wealth caused men to set out on voyages of exploration, principally from Spain and Portugal and, later, from England and France. Thus the Renaissance widened man's horizons in every direction, producing ideas and achievements which profoundly affected his political , religious and cultural life.


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