The Italian Renaissance period roughly 1350 – 1550 describes certain trends in thought, literature and the arts that later spread to Northern Europe in the sixteen century. It is a movement that does not refer to any political, economic or religious period. According to the Italian writers who lived in that time, 1000 years of unrelieved darkness had intervened between the Roman era and their own time and during the “dark ages” the muses of art and literature fled Europe, fled from the onslaught of barbarism and ignorance (Coffin and Stacey).
Petrarch, an Italian scholar, poet and a deeply committed Catholic is considered to be the "Father of Renaissance Humanism". Petrarch’s deep interest in all literature that provided insight to the human spirit was an admirer of St. Augustine. An excerpt from Augustine’s Confessions - “And men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains, the mighty waves of the sea, the broad tides of rivers, the compass of the ocean, and the circuits of the stars, yet pass over the mystery of themselves without a thought”.
The word Renaissance literally means “rebirth.” Rebirth of a literary culture that was essentially dead. Understanding its recovery is the key to understanding the differences between scholars of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Medieval scholars knew many Roman authors such as Virgil, Ovid and Cicero, yet during that time none of the great Greek literary masterpieces and none of the major works of Plato were known and only a handful of medieval western Europeans read the Greek language.
Renaissance scholars rediscovered author such as Livy, Tacitus and Lucretius, learned Greek and mastered the entire Greek literary heritage known today. The Renaissance thinkers used that knowledge in new ways such as architecture and art. They were not pagans, but more worldly and materialistic. A combination of wealthy patrons for support; weakness of the church and a severely limited papacy allowed the Renaissance to emerge untrammeled by ecclesiastical opposition (Coffin and Stacey).
Humanism or Humanities can closely sum up the intellectual ideals of that period. It is a study of logic, metaphysics, language, literature, rhetoric, history and ethics. Unfortunately, most humanists were self-conscious elitists and insisting on the precise and ancient standards of Latin grammar, syntax and word choice of Cicero and Virgil, ultimately bred disuse, they succeeded in turning Latin into a fossilized language that ceased to evolve (Coffin and Stacey). The period eventually declined for a number of reasons - the French invasion, waning of Italian prosperity and increasing control of the Roman Catholic Church to exercise control over thought and art as part of its campaign to combat worldliness and the spread of Protestantism.
From the Renaissance period the modern world was born - Gutenberg perfected printing, Columbus discovered the Americas, Copernicus found that the earth revolved around the sun, Martin Luther founded a new religion, da Vinci and Michelangelo created a new form of art and Shakespeare was writing his famous plays. Aware of mathematics and science, they also held their belief in werewolves. A century that brought the invention of surgery, the watch and bank checks also saw the rise of witch hunts, wars of religion, destruction of civilization in America and the first black slaves. It marked the passing from an exclusively religious orientation to a more secular one and from an age of unquestioning faith and mysticism to belief in reason and scientific inquiry (novaonline.edu).
Renaissance architecture emphasized geometrical proportions such as St. Peter’s Basilica. The discovery of the laws of linear perspective gave the sense of three dimensions in art; as was the use of light and shade to show depth. The careful study of the anatomy and proportions of the human body were introduced and sculptures evolved away from columns and doorways to free standing pieces like Donatello’s statue of David. During this time we were also introduced to painting in oils. Musical instruments like the violin and harpsichord were introduced and the end of the sixteenth century announced the arrival of opera (Coffin and Stacey). Turning from God to man, made science and the arts important and it was from this period famous personalities like Leonardo da Vinci emerged. A painter, architect, inventor, scientist, poet, musician, and teacher he was our ultimate Renaissance man.
A Renaissance man or woman describes a multi-talented individual who does many things very well. It also means the “rebirth” of a period of thought, literature and the arts lost for almost a thousand years, a period known as the Dark Ages. It was a period of time that was ushered in by the fall of the Western Roman Empire and lasted until the “rebirth” known as the Renaissance.
Coffin & Stacey. Western Civilization. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009