The Renaissance

The Renaissance, meaning rebirth, was a fervent period of European cultural, artistic, political and economic growth following the Middle Ages.

The Renaissance is when we, as a species, emerged from the Dark Ages into a more enlightened modern era. It represents a dramatic flowering of culture and civilization – and its effects continue to resonate today.

Most commonly described as taking place from the 15th – 17th century, the Renaissance was an awakening in the sense of artists, poets, mathematicians, scientists and philosophers rediscovering the wisdom and ideals of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Some of the greatest thinkers, authors, statesmen, scientists and artists in human history thrived during this era, while global exploration opened up new lands and cultures to European commerce. The Renaissance is credited with bridging the gap between the Middle Ages and modern-day civilization.

From Darkness to Light

During the Middle Ages, a period that took place between the fall of ancient Rome in 476 AD and the beginning of the 15th century, Europeans made few advances in science and art. This era is often branded as a time of war, ignorance, famine and pandemics that culminated in the Black Death (1347 – 1351).

The Black Death, which killed 30% – 60% of Europe’s population, left so many people dead that huge gaps in society opened up. These gaps were filled by a new new social mobility that had a desire to look forwards, beyond the ravages of the Black Death, to the rediscovery of classical knowledge and culture from the past.

The Renaissance began in the Italian city of Florence. With the patronage of the ruling Medici family, there was a sudden influx of Greek scholars after the fall of Roman Constantinople (now Istanbul)  which led to a rise in wealth and shifting social classes.

In 1450, the invention of the Gutenberg printing press allowed for improved communication throughout Europe and for ideas to circulate more quickly. Greek and Roman texts were printed and distributed to the masses.

From Italy, the Renaissance spread across Europe like wildfire – perhaps most notably to England, where Henry VIII  (1491 – 1547) was an enthusiastic proponent of its new cultural ideas. During the reign of his daughter, Elizabeth I  (1533 – 1603) the world heard the voice of Shakespeare, probably the greatest poet and dramatist ever born.

While it profoundly affected architecture, music, philosophy, politics, religion and science, the Renaissance is perhaps best known for its literature and art. Although it looked to the classical world for inspiration, the Renaissance was nevertheless at its heart fiercely forward-thinking.

The idea was not to return to the time of the classical civilisations but to take their desire for knowledge and beauty as a model for the advancement of mankind itself.

The Renaissance also brought about a revolution in exploration and science. Explorers such as Christopher Columbus and Marco Polo opened up new lands, cultures and ideas to the east and west. When Ferdinand Magellan lead an expedition to sail around the world in 1519, followed by the English sailor Sir Francis Drake some 60 years later, the seeds of globalization had been planted.

All the old ideas about how the world worked and mankind’s place in it were swept away in an ocean of new thinking and knowledge.

Likewise, the astronomical experiments of men such as Copernicus and Galileo suggested, and then proved, that the Earth revolved around the Sun (and not the other way around, as had always been believed).

A Pandora’s box had been opened.


A new way of thinking called Humanism emerged, inspired by the classical philosophers such as Socrates. This centred around the attempts by man to shape and control nature – rather than simply view us, and nature itself, as merely part of God’s creation. Religion was questioned in a way that it never had before.

The Renaissance laid the foundations for the modern world. Much of the period’s advances in science and mathematics are the basis for the present-day understanding of our universe. Elsewhere in the art and literature of the period we find some of mankind’s greatest aesthetic achievements.

Many of the period’s great figures, artists, scientists and explorers, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Copernicus, Ferdinand Magellan and Shakespeare remain household names half a millennium after their deaths, bearing testament to the extraordinary power and influence of the Renaissance – perhaps the greatest flowering of human knowledge ever.

Under this new way of thinking, knowledge was seen as one of the primary raisons d’être for life itself – and there followed a passion to seek out forgotten books among the monasteries and libraries of Europe. With every “lost” classic rediscovered, the influence of the written word grew.

In philosophical terms, the Renaissance represents a movement away from Christianity and medieval Scholasticism and towards Humanism, where the individual was in the spotlight.

As the Renaissance ended, a new sense of critical inquiry arose, based on reason. This also looked back to the classical world but also set in motion the beginnings of modern philosophy in the Baroque period.

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