5 Key Ideas of the Renaissance | History Hit

5 Key Ideas of the Renaissance

Lily Johnson

30 Apr 2021
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Image Credit: Public domain

The Renaissance was one of Europe’s most significant historical periods, and is often characterised by the magnificent outpouring of art, literature, and scientific developments witnessed between the 15th and 17th centuries.

During this time new ideas spread across the continent, focused on the possibilities of mankind, the achievements of the individual, and the teachings of the ancient world – pushing Europe out of the ‘Dark Ages’ and towards a more enlightened and modern society.

Here are 5 key ideas fostered during the Renaissance:

Classicism

The Renaissance – meaning rebirth – found its roots in a growing reverence for the classical world that was emerging amongst scholars in the 15th century. Many believed that the societies of ancient Rome and Greece demonstrated qualities highly important to the success of civilisation, and that their emulation would reinvigorate Europe’s stunted progress during the ‘Dark Ages’.

A scramble for lost ancient texts thus began, with humanists methodically searching the monastic libraries of Europe, where many lay disregarded on dusty shelves.

It was not until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 that many of these texts resurfaced however, when Byzantine scholars were forced to flee to northern Italian cities like Florence, bringing them with them a host of new material. These texts laid the foundation of the Renaissance in Italy and indeed Europe as a whole, influencing everything from artwork to political tracts.

As such, the ancient world is reflected in many of the Renaissance’s most famous works – from Raphael’s School of Athens to Shakespeare‘s Coriolanus, ancient figures feature as characters to emulate or learn from.

St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City, constructed between 1506-1626 in the Renaissance style. Its columns, dome, and arches all evoke the architectural design of ancient Rome.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Classicism also translated heavily into Renaissance architecture, with symmetry, proportion, and geometry viewed as beautiful and valuable attributes to have in the public sphere. The columns, domes, and niches of ancient Rome reappeared in Italy’s cities and soon spread throughout Europe, replacing the more complex and irregular designs of medieval buildings.

Humanism

Often intertwined with and informed by the classical world was the study of humanism. Humanism placed man at the centre of his own universe, and awarded great emphasis and interest in the study of humans and their activities throughout history. Thus, it threaded itself throughout many aspects of Renaissance life where humanists teachings could be widespread.

This became far easier in 1450 when the Gutenberg printing press was invented and a more rapid spread of information and ideas was now available. Texts by Italian humanists such as Petrarch and Boccaccio were printed and distributed, encouraging a return to ancient cultures and values, and it became easier than ever to be informed on new ways of thinking.

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In spreading these ideas, humanists sought to create a society in which every citizen was able to speak, read, and write eloquently, contribute to their civic societies and encourage virtue in one another – as they believed the societies of the classical world had.

On the humanist agenda was also the sometimes-tricky subject of religion. Though most humanists were religious, many sought to ‘purify and renew Christianity’, seeking a return to the simplicity of the New Testament and a move away from the complicated doctrines of medieval worship.

Erasmus, often termed the ‘Prince of Humanism’, was influential in preparing new Greek and Latin versions of the New Testament in the 16th century that had wide-reaching implications for the future of Catholic worship, particularly with the Protestant Reformation looming on the horizon.

Individualism

One of the period’s most pertinent and long-lasting ideas was that the individual was capable of great things, and should aspire to be well-rounded and skilful in many disciplines.

This gave rise to the concept of the polymath or the ‘Renaissance man’, someone who was skilled in a variety of pursuits from art and sculpture to engineering and mathematics. Leonardo da Vinci for example, was both an extraordinary artist and a skilled inventor, while Michelangelo excelled in both sculpture and architecture.

With this new focus on individualism, artists in particular enjoyed a new-found sense of freedom and creativity. Often they had wealthy secular patrons who afforded them a degree of control over their work, and were as such not consigned to painting only religious or monarchical subjects. They painted self-portraits, signed their work, and strove to refine their skills, with artists like da Vinci conducting lengthy studies on the human form and its individual attributes.

Superficial anatomy of the shoulder and neck by Leonardo da Vinci, c.1510.

Image Credit: Royal Collection / Public domain

With personal success also came personal wealth and the ability to choose one’s lifestyle. A rise in the merchant class and available markets meant a wider range of goods were available, with exploration bringing a vast array of new commodities to Europe such as sugar, coffee, and spices to delight the tastebuds. Individual tastes were allowed to blossom, accompanied by a growing appreciation of the secular world.

Secularism

Alongside Renaissance ideas of the individual came a rise in secularism and worldliness. More value was placed on life on earth and making it as special and comfortable as possible, rather than just passing it in sufferance on the journey to heaven. Many Renaissance figures believed cities and public spaces in particular should be beautiful to uplift their citizens and encourage them to behave in civilised and gracious manners.

Religious paintings became more lifelike and relatable, encouraging active rather than merely contemplative virtue in their audiences. Images of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus were no longer stiff and unapproachable, and goodness could and should be achieved by anyone, not just those inside the walls of the monastery.

Sistine Madonna by Raphael, c.1513-14. Here the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus reflect a relatable quality – they look like a real mother and infant child, rather than a pair of heavenly beings.

Image Credit: Public domain

This philosophical mission was largely instigated by powerful patrons of the arts such as the Medici family, who aspired to build their cities as glorious centres of truth, virtue, and progress as the ancient societies had done, and commissioned art that too encouraged these attributes.

Scepticism

Another key idea of the Renaissance was scepticism, with Renaissance thinkers encouraged to ask questions, ponder, consider, and experiment. Where previously an unwavering faith in God’s plan was encouraged by the medieval Church, the Renaissance promoted the idea that the world was full of mysteries waiting to be discovered through human achievement.

Developments in science rapidly followed after a period of stagnation during the Middle Ages, with new and world-altering discoveries in astronomy, mathematics, anatomy, geography, and engineering exploding during the period. Mathematician Luca Pacioli developed the basis of modern-day accounting, while Andreas Vesalius reached important conclusions regarding the human skeleton.

Portrait of Luca Pacioli by Leonardo da Vinci, 1495. Pacioli was an Italian mathematician and early contributor to the field of accounting.

Image Credit: Public domain

Astronomy in particular made huge leaps during the Renaissance. Copernicus first hypothesised that the Earth moved around the sun, not the other way around as had been previously assumed, while Galileo invented the first telescope revealing that the moon was in fact cratered and did not give off its own light, but instead reflected it.

Alongside the telescope came eyeglasses and microscopes, while the first mechanical clocks and cannons signalled a move away from the feudal medieval world of ‘church time’ and knights in armour.

Scepticism and the rise in new scientific discoveries was not welcomed by all however. When Galileo publicly agreed with Copernicus’ hypothesis on the earth’s movement, he was put him under house arrest by the Catholic Church!

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Similarly, when Martin Luther’s denial of the Catholic Church’s authority and virtue became influential in the Protestant movement, they launched a brutal and bloody Counter-Reformation in attempts to stamp out what they considered heresy. Even Erasmus who had remained a moderate Catholic all his life risked being accused of heresy for his questioning of the Church, and soon many forms of Renaissance thinking became akin with religious dissent.

With a whole new sphere of ideas rippling throughout Europe, the stage was set for brand new social and religious challenges. Blind subservience to the Catholic Church was no more, new realms of the globe had begun to be colonised, new technologies had been harnessed on an increasingly wide scale. The making of the modern world had begun.

Lily Johnson

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