Renaissance: Influence and Interpretations

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Renaissance: Influence and Interpretations

Writing in the 1430s, Matteo Palmieri of Florence celebrated "this new age, so full of hope and promise" with a greater collection of "nobly-gifted souls" than the world had seen in a thousand years. Like others of his day, Palmieri believed he was living in a special time, a period of tremendous intellectual and artistic creativity inspired by the ancient world. That era came to be known as the Renaissance, and ever since Palmieri's day historians have discussed its causes, characteristics, and importance.


For centuries, scholars have seen the Renaissance as a distinct period of history. However, most have used more than just dates to identify the time. They have also examined intellectual movements, political changes, technological advances, and other factors in an attempt to understand Renaissance society.

Defining the Era. The cultural changes that launched the Renaissance began to take shape around 1350. At about that time, new developments in learning, the arts, politics, and society emerged in Italy. Many Italian intellectuals became interested in humanism* with its focus on ancient Greek and Roman culture. By the late 1400s these developments had spread to the rest of Europe, aided by the invention of printing. In northern Europe, other factors, such as new religious ideas, influenced Renaissance thought.

No single date marks the end of the Renaissance. Nevertheless, historians generally agree that, by the mid-1600s, the artistic and intellectual trends of the period had run their course and new ideas were emerging. Events such as the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) had changed the political map of Europe. By then, humanists had revived the learning of ancient Greece and Rome and made it part of the curriculum at European schools and universities. A few developments after the mid-1600s, such as the later works of the English poet John Milton (who died in 1674) are also often included in the Renaissance.

The Renaissance View of the Era. The notion of an age focused on reviving the best features of ancient culture began with the Italian poet Petrarch in the mid-1300s. Scholars of the 1400s and 1500s, especially Italians, further developed Petrarch's ideas about the Renaissance and his belief that it was a unique period of history.

Petrarch changed the European view of history. Earlier, scholars had considered the birth of Christ to be a major turning point, marking the end of the dark pagan* times and the beginning of the Christian age. But Petrarch viewed the writing and scholarship of the Middle Ages as inferior to the learning and languages of the classical* world. He divided history in a new way, with its turning point in the a.d. 300s, when the Roman Empire adopted Christianity. For Petrarch, this marked the end of the classical era and the beginning of a less civilized time. He began calling the two eras "ancient" and "modern," and he clearly valued the ancient more highly.

By the time of his death in 1374, Petrarch had acquired followers who shared his vision. They contributed to the burst of classical scholarship—especially the recovery and publication of many texts from ancient Greece and Rome—that fueled the humanist movement.

The humanist historian Flavio Biondo (1392–1463) promoted the idea of dividing history into three distinct periods: antiquity*, marked by great learning; a middle period of about one thousand years; and an era of cultural rebirth beginning about 1400. Other humanists developed the view that the Middle Ages had been a time of darkness and ignorance. "It is but in our own day," wrote Palmieri, "that men dare to boast that they see the dawn of better things." Writers like Palmieri and Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) claimed that the rebirth of culture began in literature with Petrarch, in art with the painter Giotto, and in Latin with Leonardo Bruni, a humanist scholar who worked to restore what he considered the classical purity of the language. This view of the origins of the Renaissance became widespread in Italy during the 1400s and 1500s.

Other Europeans agreed that a new age had dawned after the long medieval* period. French humanists acknowledged that the Renaissance had begun in Italy, but also credited French figures, such as king Francis I (ruled 1515–1547), for their efforts in encouraging a cultural rebirth. Some northern European thinkers, including the philosopher Desiderius Erasmus (ca. 1466–1536), saw the Renaissance in religious terms, as a return to the pure and authentic beliefs of early Christianity as well as to classical culture.

Beginning in the 1500s, the Protestant Reformation* influenced the way some people thought about the Renaissance. Protestant historians of the time accepted the concept of ancient and medieval periods giving way to a rebirth. However, they emphasized some of the problems of the Middle Ages, blaming the papacy* for its cultural backwardness and its religious errors and abuses. They also saw their own age as the time in which true religion was restored. Although Italian writers paid little attention to religious matters when describing the Renaissance, Protestant historians often viewed the period in terms of both a revival of scholarship and religious reform.


Scholars have been studying the Renaissance since it ended. They have compared the Renaissance with the periods before and after it; noted the forms it took in various parts of Europe; examined the relationship between the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation; and traced the influence of the Renaissance on later culture. For centuries, most historians shared the view of the period as a rebirth after the darkness of the Middle Ages. More recently, scholars have expanded and sometimes challenged that interpretation.

The 1700s and 1800s. Intellectuals of the 1700s inherited from the humanists the division of history into three eras. They tended to emphasize the contrast between the Middle Ages and the modern era. In Essay on the Manners and Spirit of Nations (1756), the French writer Voltaire argued that during the Middle Ages the church had joined forces with certain governments to suppress individual freedom and reason. During the 1300s, 1400s, and 1500s, Italians and then the French had begun to shake off the chains of religion and take rational steps forward. Following Voltaire's lead, French art historian Jean-Baptiste Seroux d'Agincourt (1730–1814) identified the Renaissance with the art of the period between the Middle Ages and the 1700s.

Three scholars shaped the view of the Renaissance as a unique period of history. French historian Jules Michelet, in The Renaissance (1855), was the first to conceive of the Renaissance as a distinct period in European civilization, with a unique spirit that expressed itself in every aspect of life. That spirit, he wrote, was "the discovery of the world and the discovery of man." Michelet focused on the revival of classical antiquity, scientific discoveries, and geographic exploration.

Four years later, German historian Georg Voigt published a detailed study of Italian humanism. He saw a sharp break between medieval culture and the Renaissance, which he considered the beginning of modern culture. Voigt credited Petrarch with launching the Italian Renaissance and discovering "the new world of humanism." In Voigt's view, one of the key features of the Renaissance was individualism—an awareness of and emphasis on the individual. He identified Petrarch as displaying this characteristic because the poet expressed his personal interests rather than following an established philosophical system.

Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt was the most influential Renaissance scholar of the 1800s. In The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), Burckhardt summed up the views of the historians of his day and influenced other scholars for a century. His book covers six aspects of Italian Renaissance civilization: politics, individualism, the revival of antiquity, science, society, and religion.

In the section on politics, Burckhardt describes the origins of the Italian city-states. In discussing individualism, he argues that medieval people were aware of themselves only as members of families and other groups, but Renaissance people saw themselves as independent individuals. The third section of his book covers the revival of antiquity, which guided Renaissance humanists as they developed their interests and talents. The fourth section deals with Renaissance advances in scientific and geographic discovery. Next, in a discussion of society, Burckhardt claims that Renaissance cities developed a social structure in which status depended on culture and wealth, not birth. In the last section, on religion, the author suggests that excessive individualism led to a breakdown in morals and a loss of respect for religion in Italy. Individualism also contributed to the country's decline in the 1500s. However, by that time the Italian Renaissance had succeeded in bringing Europe into the modern world.

Burckhardt's views on the Italian Renaissance were widely accepted, but scholars differed in their interpretations of the Renaissance in northern Europe. Most agreed that it was a break from the Middle Ages and that humanism was a key element. They disagreed, however, on the role of the Protestant Reformation. As a result, the northern Renaissance was never as clearly defined as the Italian Renaissance. In addition, some historians tended to think that the modern world originated in northern Europe in the 1500s, not in Italy in the 1400s.

From the 1900s Onward. From Petrarch through the 1800s, the Renaissance was seen as a revolt against the Middle Ages. The 1900s brought a reaction from scholars who specialized in medieval studies. Some accepted the existence of the Renaissance but placed its beginning back in earlier times. Others claimed that the Renaissance brought nothing new, that it was just a continuation—or even a decline—of medieval culture. The most influential attack on the Renaissance by a medievalist came from Charles Homer Haskins. In The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (1927) he argued that the modern world had really begun in the 1100s and that the Italian Renaissance was a minor historical episode.

Renaissance scholarship increased dramatically after the end of World War II in 1945. Most scholars accepted the idea of the Renaissance but did not attempt sweeping studies of it. Instead, they focused on distinct aspects or phases of the Renaissance.

The major contribution of historians after the 1940s was identifying humanism as the unifying force of the Renaissance. In The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance (1955), Hans Baron distinguished between the early humanism of Petrarch and his followers, who advised withdrawal from active life in favor of study, and the later humanism of Leonardo Bruni and other Florentines, who believed that scholars should be involved in public affairs. Paul Oskar Kristeller (1905–1999), perhaps the most important Renaissance scholar of the 1900s, concentrated on humanism. He defined humanistic studies as the study of grammar, rhetoric*, poetry, history, and moral philosophy based on the standard ancient authors in Latin and sometimes Greek. Many other scholars accept this definition.

Another strand of Renaissance study has consisted of art criticism and art history. During the 1800s, John Ruskin and Walter Pater and other critics wrote extensively about the works of artists such as Michelangelo, Giorgione, and Leonardo da Vinci. The leading authority on Italian Renaissance painting for much of the 1900s, Bernard Berenson, viewed the Renaissance as a golden age. His influential studies focused on the qualities of works of art, rather than on the social and intellectual climates that produced them.

Since the mid-1900s scholars have examined the Renaissance from multiple angles, such as its religious expressions and political organization. Specialists called social historians have increasingly turned away from politics and famous individuals to study the entire range of human activities and social groups. Sifting through mountains of historical data, social historians have provided detailed information about such aspects of life as courtship, marriage, poverty, crime, and the roles and rights of women.

Most scholars today still regard the Renaissance as different from the Middle Ages and as the beginning of the modern era. Some, however, deny that the Renaissance was a unique period, or they dismiss it as concerned only with the culture and experiences of elites*. Further research and interpretation will no doubt continue to influence thinking about the Renaissance.


In the traditional view, the Renaissance affected every area of human activity and knowledge, from art to zoology. It transformed Europe and, eventually, the rest of the world. In addition, it left a legacy that still shapes many aspects of modern life.

Education and History. Renaissance humanists created a school curriculum based on classical languages and literature. This system dominated European education for centuries. Students seeking to enter universities had to know Greek and Latin, and the classics were a key part of their studies. The English and French carried this humanist curriculum to North America, where, until the early 1900s, certain universities required students to know classical Latin.

Before the Renaissance, some people had thought of history as shaped by divine forces. By contrast, the humanists viewed history as a fully human activity. They also began to distinguish different ways of writing about history: as an art, like literature; as a way of teaching a moral or political lesson; or as a scientific quest for truth. The notion of history writing as a technical discipline based on facts began with the Renaissance historians.

Art and Science. The art and architecture of the Renaissance had a lasting influence on later centuries. Masterpieces by Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, and other Renaissance masters became standards of greatness. In addition, later artists continued trends begun during the Renaissance. For example, the method Filippo Brunelleschi invented for showing perspective* is still taught and used today. The Renaissance also revived the classical idea of portraits as realistic images of individuals, a move toward modern portraiture.

Renaissance architects drew on classical models and, in turn, were imitated by later designers. Andrea Palladio's writings and villas* have influenced many structures built over the years. Examples in the United States include the White House and Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson.

Science advanced when Renaissance humanists discovered and spread ancient works on mathematics, medicine, and other topics. Certain important scientific ideas took root during the Renaissance, including the value of precise measurement, the notion that the universe is mathematically harmonious, and the belief that technological progress is possible. These ideas laid the foundation for modern science. In addition, medicine was revolutionized in the Renaissance by two new practices: an emphasis on the study of anatomy and teaching medical students through direct observation of patients. Both of these elements remain important to medical training today.

Popular Imagination and Culture. The general public draws ideas and images of the Renaissance from school, museums, books, television, and movies. Major Renaissance figures, such as Michelangelo and William Shakespeare, are familiar to people all over the world, and the term "Renaissance" has entered the common vocabulary.

Because the Renaissance produced individuals with a wide range interests who excelled in a number of different areas, someone who is accomplished and successful in several fields is often called a "Renaissance man" or "Renaissance woman." Writers have referred to the outpouring of literary and artistic activity among African Americans of the 1920s as the Harlem Renaissance. In the 1970s, the city of Detroit, Michigan, rebuilt a downtown area to bring new life to a declining urban core. The area was named the Renaissance Center to convey images of rebirth and cultural achievement.

Shakespeare has had more influence in the popular imagination than any other Renaissance figure. Schools and universities teach his plays, which are performed more often than any other English plays. Phrases from his works, such as "To be or not to be," have become part of everyday language. Many of Shakespeare's plays have been filmed and or made into operas.

Other operas have drawn on Renaissance figures and settings. Gaetano Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia (1833) offers a sensational and dramatic treatment of the life of a member of the powerful Borgia clan. Giuseppe Verdi's Don Carlos (1867) alters the facts of history to create an exciting story set in Spain during the reign of Philip II. Benvenuto Cellini (1838), by Hector Berlioz, dramatizes the life of the great sculptor, while Richard Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger (The Mastersinger of Nuremberg, 1868) is based on the story of a German singers' guild* of the 1500s.

Historical fiction and films have also contributed to the popular image of the Renaissance. In novels such as The Life of Cesare Borgia (1912) and Columbus (1942), Rafael Sabatini depicts various larger-than-life characters who peopled the 1400s and 1500s. The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961), a novel by Irving Stone about Michelangelo, portrays the artist as a heroic genius struggling against society to create great works. It was later filmed. These and other works have shaped a dramatic and colorful vision of the Renaissance that is popular, although not entirely accurate. This view is summed up in the 1949 film The Third Man, when a character played by Orson Welles says, "In Italy for thirty years, under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance."

(See alsoArt; Classical Antiquity; Europe, Idea of; History, Writing of; Humanism; Ideas, Spread of; Individualism; Literature; Science. )

* humanism

Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* pagan

referring to ancient religions that worshiped many gods, or, more generally, to any non-Christian religion

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* antiquity

era of the ancient Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Rome, ending around a.d. 400

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

* Protestant Reformation

religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches

* papacy

office and authority of the pope

* rhetoric

art of speaking or writing effectively

* elite

privileged group; upper class

* perspective

artistic technique for creating the illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat surface

* villa

luxurious country home and the land surrounding it

Renaissance Tales Retold

Renaissance playwright William Shakespeare borrowed plots from a variety of sources for his plays. In turn, many modern moviemakers have borrowed his plots. The science-fiction classic Forbidden Planet (1956) follows the story of Shakespeare's play, The Tempest. Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa based Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985) on King Lear and Macbeth. Shakespeare's comedy The Taming of the Shrew inspired the musical Kiss Me Kate, filmed in 1953. Eight years later, the movie version of the musical West Side Story recreated Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in New York City of the 1950s.

* guild

association of craft and trade owners and workers that set standards for and represented the interests of its members

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Renaissance: Influence and Interpretations

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