What was the Renaissance?

The Renaissance is one of those terms that is commonly known but its meaning is not necessarily as ubiquitous. The word Renaissance comes from renaissance, which itself comes from the verb renaître, meaning to be “reborn”. Thus, Renaissance refers to a cultural rebirth. There have been many renaissances throughout history, from the artistic, literary, and musical powerhouse of the Harlem Renaissance of the early twentieth century, and the Carolingian Renaissance that saw the revival of ancient learning in the court of Charlemagne in Aachen, modern Germany, to the renaissance that my adopted city, Kansas City, is experiencing today.

]The Renaissance that I’m talking about was the originator of the term, the period between the late fourteenth century to the late sixteenth century in Western Europe. It was a time when the pre-Christian knowledge and writings of ancient Greece and Rome, long considered lost began to be reintroduced into Western and Central European society. These works came both from the Eastern Mediterranean, with the influx of Greek scholars into Italy, especially to Florence, after the fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire in 1453, and from old monastic libraries, long locked away and forgotten.

During the Renaissance, scholars rediscovered and began to study and write about such classical authors as Lucretius, who proposed the existence of the atom in his work On the Nature of Thingsin the first century BCE. The Renaissance also saw the adaptation of the works of the Ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, whose models have been used ever since.

While the Renaissance started in Italy and is most famous for the exploits of the Italian artists, writers, and musicians of the period, it spread northward across the Alps into the rest of Europe, changing the cultural landscape of France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, the modern Netherlands and Belgium, Dernmark, Sweden, Norway, Poland, Czechia, Hungary, as well as England, Scotland, and Ireland.

Some of the greatest Renaissance artists whose work is still admired today include Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leonardo, Bruni, Holbein, and Drürer. The Renaissance also saw the creation of a number of great works of literature, from Machiavelli’s The Prince, to Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, and Rabelais’sGargantua and Pantagruel.

The period saw great progress in Europe in the sciences as well, with the first modern works of natural history such as Gesner’s Gart der Gesundheit and Vesalius’s On the Fabric of the Human Body, an astoundingly accurate book on human anatomy. At the same time Tycho Brahe and Nicolas Copernicus making great advances in astronomy, determining the place of Earth in the Solar System and, in the case of Copernicus, coming to the conclusion through a though experiment that the Solar System was heliocentric, thus that everything revolved about the Sun, rather than geocentric as had previously been thought.

The Renaissance also saw the beginning of the European explorations to the far ends of the planet, with men like Columbus becoming the first European since Leif Eriksson to set foot in the Americas, and Magellan the commander of a fleet that became the first to circumnavigate the globe. On a less sunny side, the Renaissance coincided with the beginning of the European colonial conquests of the Americas, Africa, and parts of south and southeast Asia.

This is the period in history that I’ve chosen to study, I find the social changes during the Renaissance to be particularly fascinating. Today we can learn a great deal from the Renaissance as we undergo a similar period of change, in some ways turning away from the ideals and values first put in place by these “new thinkers” and through this “rebirth” of classical Greek and Roman culture over five hundred years ago now.


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