The Renaissance: The 'Rebirth' of science & culture

Michelangelo's David Masterpiece.
Michelangelo's David masterpiece. (Image credit: piola666/Getty Images)

The Renaissance, which means "rebirth" in French, typically refers to a period in European history from  A.D. 1400 to A.D. 1600. Many historians, however, assert that it started earlier or ended later, depending on the country. It bridged the periods of the Middle Ages and modern history, and, depending on the country, overlaps with the Early Modern, Elizabethan and Restoration periods. The Renaissance is most closely associated with Italy, where it began in the 14th century, though countries such as Germany, England and France went through many of the same cultural changes and phenomena. 

However, while the Renaissance brought about some positive changes for Europe, the geographical exploration that flourished during this time led to devastation for the people of the Western Hemisphere as European conquest and colonization brought plagues and slavery to the Indigenous people living there. In Africa, it also brought about the birth of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that saw Black people shipped from Africa to the Western Hemisphere to work as slaves on European colonies. 

"Renaissance" comes from the French word for "rebirth." According to the City University of New York at Brooklyn, intense interest in and learning about classical antiquity was "reborn" after the Middle Ages, in which classical philosophy was largely ignored or forgotten. Renaissance thinkers considered the Middle Ages to have been a period of cultural decline. They sought to revitalize their culture through re-emphasizing classical texts and philosophies. They expanded and interpreted them, creating their own style of art, philosophy and scientific inquiry. Some major developments of the Renaissance include astronomy, humanist philosophy, the printing press, vernacular language in writing, painting and sculpture technique, world exploration and, in the late Renaissance, Shakespeare's works.

What is the Renaissance?

Many historians, including U.K.-based historian and writer Robert Wilde, prefer to think of the Renaissance as primarily an intellectual and cultural movement rather than a historical period. Interpreting the Renaissance as a time period, though convenient for historians, "masks the long roots of the Renaissance," Wilde told Live Science.

During this time, interest in classical antiquity and philosophy grew, with some Renaissance thinkers using it as a way to revitalize their culture. They expanded and interpreted these Classical ideas, creating their own style of art, philosophy and scientific inquiry. Some major developments of the Renaissance include developments in astronomy, humanist philosophy, the printing press, vernacular language in writing, painting and sculpture technique, world exploration and, in the late Renaissance, Shakespeare's works.

The term Renaissance was not commonly used to refer to the period until the 19th century, when Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt popularized it in his classic, "The Civilization of Renaissance Italy (opens in new tab)" (Dover Publications, 2016). 

Historical development

In this painting by Jules Laure, Charlemagne is surrounded by his principal officers as he welcomes Alcuin who shows him manuscripts.

In this painting by Jules Laure, Charlemagne is surrounded by his principal officers as he welcomes Alcuin who shows him manuscripts. (Image credit: Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)
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Contrary to popular belief, classical texts and knowledge never completely vanished from Europe during the Middle Ages. Charles Homer Haskins wrote in "The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (opens in new tab)" (Harvard University Press, 1927) that there were three main periods that saw resurgences in the art and philosophy of antiquity: the Carolingian Renaissance, which occurred during the reign of Charlemagne, the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (eighth and ninth centuries), the Ottonian Renaissance, which developed during the reigns of emperors Otto I, Otto II and Otto III (10th century) and the 12th century Renaissance. 

The 12th century Renaissance was especially influential on the later Renaissance, said Wilde. Europeans at the time studied on a larger scale Classical Latin texts and Greek science and philosophy; they also established early versions of universities. 

The Crusades played a role in ushering in the Renaissance, Philip Van Ness Myers wrote in "Medieval and Modern History" (Ginn & Company, 1902). While crusading, Europeans encountered advanced Middle Eastern civilizations, which had made strides in many cultural fields. Islamic countries kept many classical Greek and Roman texts that had been lost in Europe, and they were reintroduced through returning crusaders.

The fall of the Byzantine Empire at the hands of the Ottomans also played a role. "When the Ottomans sacked Constantinople in 1453, many scholars fled to Europe, bringing classical texts with them," Susan Abernethy, a Colorado-based historian and writer, told Live Science. "Conflict in Spain between the Moors and Christians also caused many academics to escape to other areas, particularly the Italian city-states of Florence, Padua and others. This created an atmosphere for a revival in learning."

The Black Death helped set the stage for the Renaissance, wrote Robert S. Gottfried (opens in new tab) in "The Black Death" (Simon and Schuster, 2010). Deaths of many prominent officials caused social and political upheaval in Florence, where the Renaissance is considered to have begun. The Medici family moved to Florence in the wake of the plague and over the centuries produced business and political leaders as well as four popes. 

The Medici's, and many others, took advantage of opportunities for greater social mobility. Becoming patrons of artists was a popular way for such newly powerful families to demonstrate their wealth. Some historians also argue that the Black Death caused people to question the church's emphasis on the afterlife and focus more on the present moment, which is an element of the Renaissance's humanist philosophy. 

Many historians consider Florence to be the Renaissance's birthplace, though others widen that designation to all of Italy. From Italy, Renaissance thought, values and artistic technique spread throughout Europe, according to Van Ness Myers. Military invasions in Italy helped spread ideas, while the end of the Hundred Years War between France and England allowed people to focus on things besides conflict. 

The term "Renaissance Man," which is used today to describe someone who is talented in multiple fields, is derived from the Italian word "Uomo Universale," which means "universal man" and is often used to describe individuals like Leonardo da Vinci who thrived in multiple fields like art and science. 

Characteristics of the Renaissance

This illustration depicts Johannes Gutenberg in his workshop, showing his first proof sheet. (Image credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)
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The development and growth of the printing press was perhaps the most important technical achievement of the Renaissance. Johannes Gutenberg developed it in 1440, although the technology was used in China centuries earlier. It allowed Bibles, secular books, printed music and more to be made in larger quantities and reach more people. "The demand for perfect reproductions of texts and the renewed focus on studying them helped trigger one of the biggest discoveries in the whole of human history: printing with movable type. For me, this is the easiest and single greatest development of the Renaissance and allowed modern culture to develop," said Wilde. 

Intellectual movement

Wilde said one of the most significant changes that occurred during the Renaissance was the "evolution of Renaissance humanism as a method of thinking. … This new outlook underpinned so much of the world then and now."

Renaissance humanism, Wilde said, involved "attempts by man to master nature rather than develop religious piety." Renaissance humanism looked to classical Greek and Roman texts to change contemporary thought, allowing for a new mindset after the Middle Ages. Renaissance readers understood these classical texts as focusing on human decisions, actions and creations, rather than unquestioningly following the rules set forth by the Catholic Church as "God's plan." 

Though many Renaissance humanists remained religious, they believed God gave humans opportunities, and it was humanity's duty to do the best and most moral beings. Renaissance humanism was an "ethical theory and practice that emphasized reason, scientific inquiry and human fulfillment in the natural world," said Abernethy. 

Renaissance art

Here, part of the artwork of Michelangelo that adorns the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican in Italy. (Image credit: Fotopress/Getty Images)
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Renaissance art was heavily influenced by classical art, wrote Virginia Cox in "A Short History of the Italian Renaissance (opens in new tab)" (I.B. Tauris, 2015). Artists turned to Greek and Roman sculpture, painting and decorative arts for both inspiration and the fact that the techniques meshed with Renaissance humanist philosophy. Both classical and Renaissance art focused on human beauty and nature. People, even when in religious works, were depicted living life and showing emotion. Perspective, as well as light and shadow techniques improved; and paintings looked more three-dimensional and realistic.

Patrons made it possible for successful Renaissance artists to work and develop new techniques. The Catholic Church commissioned most artwork during the Middle Ages, and while it continued to do so during the Renaissance, wealthy individuals also became important patrons, according to Cox. The most famous patrons were the Medici family in Florence, who supported the arts for much of the 15th and 16th centuries. The Medici family supported artists such as Michelangelo, Botticelli, da Vinci and Raphael. 

Florence was the initial epicenter of Renaissance art, but by the end of the 15th century, Rome had overtaken it. Pope Leo X (a Medici) ambitiously filled the city with religious buildings and art. This period, from the 1490s to the 1520s, is known as the High Renaissance. 

Renaissance music

As with art, musical innovations in the Renaissance were partly made possible because patronage expanded beyond the Catholic Church. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (opens in new tab), new technologies resulted in the invention of several new instruments, including the harpsichord and violin family. The printing press meant that sheet music could be more widely disseminated.

Renaissance music was characterized by its humanist traits. Composers read classical treatises on music and aimed to create music that would touch listeners emotionally. They began to incorporate lyrics more dramatically into compositions and considered music and poetry to be closely related, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Renaissance literature & theatre

This engraving from 1876 shows Hamlet, Horation, the grave-digger and the Skull of Yorick. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is thought of as an educated Renaissance man.

(Image credit: traveler1116/Getty Images)

Renaissance literature, too, was characterized by humanist themes and a return to classical ideals of tragedy and comedy, according to the Brooklyn College English Department (opens in new tab). Shakespeare's works, especially "Hamlet," are good examples of this. Themes like human agency, life's non-religious meanings and the true nature of man are embraced, and Hamlet is an educated Renaissance man. 

The printing press allowed for popular plays to be published and re-dperformed around Europe and the world. A play's popularity often determined whether publishers chose to print the script, wrote Janet Clarke, an emeritus professor of Renaissance Literature at the University of Hull, U.K., in her book "Shakespeare's Stage Traffic" (Cambridge University Press, 2014). "Publishers invested in plays that were popular as theatre traffic as much as they invested in the authors" wrote Hull. 

Renaissance society & economics

The most prevalent societal change during the Renaissance was the fall of feudalism and the rise of a capitalist market economy, said Abernethy. Increased trade and the labor shortage caused by the Black Death gave rise to something of a middle class. Workers could demand wages and good living conditions, and so serfdom ended. 

"Rulers began to realize they could maintain their power without the church. There were no more knights in service to the king and peasants in service to the lord of the manor," said Abernethy. Having money became more important than your allegiances. 

This shift frustrated popes. The "Peace of Westphalia," a series of treaties signed in 1648, made it harder for the pope to interfere in European politics. Pope Innocent X responded that it was "null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, and devoid of meaning for all time."

Renaissance religion

Due to a number of factors — including the Black Death, the rise in trade, the development of a middle class and the papacy's temporary move from Rome to Avignon (1309 to 1377) — the Catholic Church's influence was waning as the 15th century began. The re-emergence of classical texts and the rise in Renaissance humanism changed society's approach to religion and the authority of the papacy, said Abernethy. "[Humanism] created an atmosphere that gave rise to different movements and sects … Martin Luther stressed reform of the Catholic Church, wanting to eliminate practices such as nepotism and the selling of indulgences," Abernethy said. 

"Perhaps most important, the invention of the printing press allowed for the dissemination of the Bible in languages other than Latin," Abernethy continued. "Ordinary people were now able to read and learn the lessons of Scripture, leading to the Evangelical movement." These early Evangelicals emphasized the importance of the scriptures rather than the institutional power of the church and believed that salvation was personal conversion rather than being determined by indulgences or building works of art or architecture. 

The fracturing of Christians in western Europe into different groups led to conflicts, sometimes called the "wars of religion," that lasted for centuries in Europe. These conflicts sometimes led groups of people to leave Europe in hopes of avoiding persecution. One of these groups would become known as the Pilgrims when they came to Plymouth in 1620. 

Renaissance geography

This world map shows Ferdinand Magellan's circumnavigation of the world (dashed line). (Image credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
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Thirsty to learn more about the world and eager to improve trade routes, explorers sailed off to chart new lands. Columbus "discovered" the New World in 1492, and Ferdinand Magellan became the first person to successfully circumnavigate the globe in the early 1500s. 

For the people of the Western Hemisphere, the European exploration and colonization that occurred was disastrous. With little or no immunity to the diseases Europeans brought over, the Indigenous population was ravaged by plagues, with death rates in some areas estimated as high as 90%. The Spanish conquered the Aztec and Inca Empires, forcing the native survivors to work as slaves. 

European powers also explored more of Africa, starting to conquer and colonize parts of the continent. As their strength in Africa grew, Europeans began to take people from Africa to work as slaves — in some cases sending them to work on colonies in the Caribbean and South America — this trans-Atlantic slave trade eventually expanding to what is now the United States.

Renaissance science

This 1708 depiction of the Copernican heliocentric solar system shows the orbit of the moon around the Earth, and the orbits of the Earth and planets round the sun, including Jupiter and its moons, all surrounded by the 12 signs of the zodiac. (Image credit: Oxford Science Archive/Print Collector/Getty Images)
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As scholars studied classical texts, they "resurrected the ancient Greek belief that creation was constructed around perfect laws and reasoning," Abernethy said. "There was an escalation in the study of astronomy, anatomy and medicine, geography, alchemy, mathematics and architecture as the ancients studied them."

One of the major scientific discoveries of the Renaissance came from Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. In the 1530s, he published his theory of a heliocentric solar system. This places the sun, not the Earth, at the center of the solar system. It was a major breakthrough in the history of science, though the Catholic Church banned the printing of Copernicus' book.

Empiricism began to take hold of scientific thought. "Scientists were guided by experience and experiment and began to investigate the natural world through observation," said Abernethy. "This was the first indication of a divergence between science and religion. … They were being recognized as two separate fields, creating conflict between the scientists and the church, and causing scientists to be persecuted," continued Abernethy. "Scientists found their work was suppressed or they were demonized as charlatans and accused of dabbling in witchcraft, and sometimes being imprisoned."  

Galileo Galilei was a major Renaissance scientist persecuted for his scientific experiments. Galileo improved the telescope, discovered new celestial bodies and found support for a heliocentric solar system. He conducted motion experiments on pendulums and falling objects that paved the way for Isaac Newton's discoveries about gravity. The Catholic Church forced him to spend the last nine years of his life under house arrest. 

Renaissance festival

While the term "Renaissance festival" typically refers to modern-day festivals that celebrate the art and culture of the Renaissance, there were festivals that took place during the Renaissance itself. 

For instance, Henri II, who was king of France between 1547 and 1559, held festivals periodically throughout his reign that included stages of performers and lengthy parades. The festivals included the arrivals of the king into the city or town where the festival was being held, wrote Richard Cooper, an emeritus professor of French at the University of Oxford, in a paper published in the book "Court Festivals of the European Renaissance" (Taylor & Francis, 2017). Henri II sometimes held these festivals to make an important event such as the coronation of his queen or a military victory, wrote Cooper. 

How the Renaissance changed the world

"The Renaissance was a time of transition from the ancient world to the modern and provided the foundation for the birth of the Age of Enlightenment," said Abernethy. The developments in science, art, philosophy and trade, as well as technological advancements like the printing press, left lasting impressions on society and set the stage for many elements of our modern culture. 

However, while the Renaissance had some positive impact for Europe, it had devastating impacts for people of the Western Hemisphere, as plagues decimated Indigenous populations and the survivors often found themselves enslaved and under the rule of European colonizers. This system of conquest, colonization and slavery also repeated itself in Africa as European power grew. Today, the ramifications of European colonization and slavery are still felt and hotly debated around the world. 

Additional resources

—Learn more about the geniuses of the Renaissance, from da Vinci and Galileo to Descartes and Chaucer on this History Channel page (opens in new tab), with links to biographies of each.

—In this book by author (opens in new tab) Catherine Fet, kids will learn about the Renaissance and its characters through tales of adventure. 

—In this four-part BBC TV series (opens in new tab) called "Renaissance Unchained," Waldemar Januszczak gives you a peek inside the more exciting aspects of the time, from an episode on the gods and myths to one on a period of war, confusion and … "darkness."

Bibliography

"The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy Paperback" by Jacob Burckhardt, Dover Publications, September 16, 2010. https://www.amazon.com/dp/0486475972 (opens in new tab) 

"The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century" by Charles Homer Haskins, Harvard University Press, 1927. https://www.amazon.com/dp/0674760751 (opens in new tab)

"The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe" by Robert S. Gottfried, Free Press, March 1, 1985. https://www.amazon.com/Black-Death-Natural-Disaster-Medieval/dp/0029123704 (opens in new tab)

"A Short History of the Italian Renaissance" by Virginia Cox, I.B. Tauris, 2015. https://www.amazon.com/History-Italian-Renaissance-I-B-Tauris-Histories/dp/1784530778 (opens in new tab)

"Music in the Renaissance" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/renm/hd_renm.htm

Introduction to the Renaissance by the Brooklyn College English Department. http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/ren.html

Philip Van Ness Myers wrote in "Medieval and Modern History" (Ginn & Company, 1902). https://www.amazon.com/Mediaeval-Modern-History-Philip-Middle/dp/B001R6ARQI 

Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.