Humanity Bloomed During the Renaissance

Birth of Venus
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The Renaissance, a movement that stressed the ideas of the classical world, ended the medieval era and heralded the start of the modern age in Europe. Between the 14th and 17th centuries, art and science flourished as empires expanded and cultures mixed as never before. Although historians still debate some causes of the Renaissance, they agree on a few basic points.

A Hunger for Discovery

The courts and monasteries of Europe had long been repositories of old manuscripts and texts, but a change in how scholars viewed them stimulated a massive reappraisal of classical works in the Renaissance. Fourteenth-century writer Petrarch typified this, writing about his own lust for discovering texts that had previously been ignored. As literacy spread and a middle class began to emerge, seeking out, reading, and spreading classical texts became commonplace. New libraries developed to facilitate access to old books. Ideas once forgotten were now reawakened, and their authors with them.

Reintroduction of Classical Works

During the Dark Ages, many of the classical texts of Europe were lost or destroyed. Those that survived were hidden in the churches and monasteries of the Byzantine Empire or in the capitals of the Middle East. During the Renaissance, many of these texts were slowly reintroduced into Europe by merchants and scholars. For instance, in 1396 an official academic post for teaching Greek was created in Florence. The man hired, Chrysoloras, brought with him a copy of Ptolemy’s "Geography" from the East. In addition, a huge number of Greek texts and scholars arrived in Europe with the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

The Printing Press

The invention of the printing press in 1440 was the game-changer. Finally, books could be mass produced for far less money and time than the old handwritten methods. Ideas could be spread through libraries, booksellers, and schools in a way that wasn't possible before. The printed page was more legible than the elaborate script of books written longhand. As time progressed, printing became its own viable industry, creating new jobs and innovations. The spread of books also encouraged the study of literature itself, allowing new ideas to spread and grow as many cities and nations began to establish universities and other schools.

Humanism Emerges

Renaissance humanism was a new manner of thinking and approaching the world, based on a new form of curriculum for those learning. It has been called the earliest expression of the Renaissance and is described as both a product and a cause of the movement. Humanist thinkers challenged the mindset of the previously dominant school of scholarly thought, Scholasticism, as well as the Catholic Church, allowing the new thinking to develop.

Art and Politics

As the arts grew, artists needed wealthy patrons to support them, and Renaissance Italy was especially fertile ground. Political changes in the ruling class of Italy shortly before this period had led to the rulers of most of the major city-states being “new men” without much of a political history. They attempted to legitimize themselves with conspicuous investment in and public flaunting of art and architecture.

As the Renaissance spread, the church and other European rulers used their wealth to adopt the new styles to keep pace. The demand from the elites wasn’t just artistic; they also relied upon ideas developed for their political models. "The Prince," Machiavelli’s guide for rulers, is a work of Renaissance political theory.

In addition, the developing bureaucracies of Italy and the rest of Europe generated new demand for highly educated humanists to fill the ranks of governments and bureaucracies. A new political and economic class began to emerge. 

Death and Life

In the middle of the 14th century, the Black Death swept across Europe, killing perhaps a third of the population. While devastating, the survivors found themselves better off financially and socially, with the same wealth spread among fewer people. This was especially true in Italy, where social mobility was much greater.

This new wealth was often was spent lavishly on arts, culture, and artisanal goods, much like the rulers above them had done before them. In addition, the merchant classes of regional powers like Italy saw a great increase in their wealth from their role in trade. This new mercantile class spawned an entirely new financial industry to manage their wealth, generating additional economic and social growth.

War and Peace

Periods of both peace and war have been credited with allowing the Renaissance to spread and become a European phenomenon. The end of the Hundred Years War between England and France in 1453 allowed Renaissance ideas to penetrate these nations as resources once consumed by war instead were funneled into the arts and sciences. By contrast, the Great Italian Wars of the early 16th century allowed Renaissance ideas to spread to France as its armies invaded Italy repeatedly over a 50-year period.