The Renaissance – meaning ‘rebirth’ in French – marked a period of cultural, artistic, political and economic revival following the Middle Ages.
Beginning in the 14th century and extending to the 17th century, the Renaissance promoted the rediscovery of classical philosophy, literature and art after a long period of cultural decline and stagnation.
The Renaissance began as a cultural movement in Italy in the Late Medieval period and later spread to the rest of Europe. Here are 10 key figures from the period.
1. Lorenzo de’ Medici
Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-1492) was a member of the Medici family, one of the wealthiest European families in history and the de facto rulers of Florence.
During the Renaissance, artists were completely reliant on patrons. Although he rarely commissioned work himself, Lorenzo de’ Medici helped connect artists with other patrons.
Artists who enjoyed Lorenzo’s patronage included Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo Buonarroti.
Along with being a statesman and major patron of the arts, he also encouraged the development of Renaissance humanism through his inner circle of scholars and philosophers.
2. Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the very ideal of the Renaissance man – a supremely gifted painter, scientist, inventor and polymath.
Da Vinci has been widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest minds, with extraordinary talents that included painting, mathematics, architecture, engineering, botany, sculpture, and human biology.
As an artist, he painted ‘The Last Supper’, ‘The Vitruvian Man’ and the ‘Mona Lisa’, arguably the world’s most famous painting.
As an inventor, he designed workable precursors of a diving suit, a robot, and a tank – centuries before they became a reality.
As a scientist, he designed the first self-propelled machine in history and described the processes governing friction.
Michelangelo (1475–1564) was a sculptor, painter, architect, poet and engineer whose endeavours embodied the spirit of the Renaissance.
His greatest works include St Peter’s Basilica – the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture – his frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and the statue of David.
Michelangelo’s artistic legacy is one that lives on as one of the three titans of the Florentine renaissance, alongside da Vinci and Raphael. His works have since exerted an unparalleled influence on the development of art.
4. Nicolaus Copernicus
Nicholaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was a mathematician, astronomer, physician, economist, diplomat and classics scholar.
His most important teaching – that the earth revolved around the sun – placed him in direct opposition to the established teachings of the church.
His heliocentric view of the solar system and universe was the most prominent scientific achievement of the Renaissance age. Without him, much of Galileo’s work would not have been possible.
Copernicus’ publication in 1543 of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (‘On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres’) led to the Copernican Revolution, seen as the starting point of modern astronomy and the Scientific Revolution.
Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), commonly known as Petrarch, was one of the earliest humanists during the early Italian Renaissance and has been called the ‘father of humanism’.
A devout Catholic, Petrarch believed that God had given humans their intellectual and creative potential to be used to their fullest.
He argued that classical writings offered moral guidance to reform humanity – a key principle of Renaissance humanism.
Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s letters in 1345 is often credited with initiating the 14th century Renaissance.
In the 16th century, Italian scholar Pietro Bembo created the model for the modern Italian language based on Petrarch’s works.
Up until the late 19th century, Raphael (1483-1520) was considered to be the greatest artist who ever lived – more so than even da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Known for his mastery of depicting human emotions and clarity of form, Raphael produced works that were the cornerstones of Renaissance art.
His best known work is The School of Athens in the Stanza della segnatura (‘Room of the Signatura’) – also known as the Raphael Rooms – in the Vatican palace.
Painted between 1509 and 1511, the Raphael Rooms depicted the harmony and wisdom which Renaissance humanists perceived between Christian teaching and Greek philosophy.
7. Galileo Galilei
Galileo (1564–1642) was perhaps the most influential Renaissance scientist who paved the scientific revolution that later flourished in northern Europe.
Often called the ‘father of observational astronomy’, Galilei pioneered the telescope and advocated the heliocentric model of our solar system.
He made key discoveries in both pure fundamental science as well as practical applied science, and in doing so revolutionised our understanding of the world.
8. Michel de Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) was one of the most influential humanists of the French Renaissance. His 1850 Essais (‘Essays’) established the essay as a literary genre.
First published in 1580, the book balances personal storytelling and intellectual knowledge in Montaigne’s signature essay format. His work inspired writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, René Descartes, and Francis Bacon.
Montaigne’s profound writings covered a remarkably modern and diverse range topics including human action, child education and motivation.
9. Niccolo Machiavelli
Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) was a Florentine political philosopher and statesman, whose work Il Principe (‘The Prince’) has earned him an image as an immoral cynic.
In his best-known book, Machiavelli outlined traits that would bolster power and influence in an effective leader. A new prince had to be shrewd, brutal, calculating and – when necessary – utterly immoral.
In other words, “the ends justify the means.”
Machiavelli has often been called the father of modern political philosophy and political science. His ideas had a profound impact on political leaders throughout Europe, aided by the new technology of the printing press.
His writings were said to have influenced Henry VIII in his turn towards Protestantism, and is notable in political theorists including John Milton, Francis Bacon, Rousseau, Hume, Adam Smith and Descartes.
10. William Shakespeare
While the Italian Renaissance was dominated by the visual arts, the Renaissance in England took place mainly in literature and music. Shakespeare (1564-1616) was a key figure of the English Renaissance.
While he was working in the theatre, the Renaissance was peaking in England. Shakespeare was one of the first playwrights to introduce the new openness and humanism of the movement to the theatre.
One of the most influential writers in the English language, Shakespeare wrote some of the finest and most famous works ever written.