‘Renaissance’ is an Italian word, meaning ‘rebirth’ or ‘revival’. Over the last centuries this word has come to acquire new meanings and connotations. Renaissance, as we understand today, refers to a period in European history associated with major social and cultural developments between the 14th and 17th centuries. Believed to have played a major role in bridging the gap between the Middle Ages and modern-day civilisation, Renaissance was the beginning of a transition from darkness to light. Interestingly, prior to the 19th century, these major socio-cultural developments in Europe were not codified as Renaissance.

Many historians assert that the Renaissance period began earlier or ended later, depending on the country. While the exact timing and overall impact of Renaissance is disputed, there’s little contention over the fact that the events of this period ultimately led to advances that changed the way people understood and interpreted the world around them. The main idea was that ‘human is the centre of the universe and his achievements in education, classical arts, literature and science must be embraced’.

Events at the end of the Middle Ages, in the beginning of the 12th century (High Middle Ages), set in motion a series of events that set the stage for Renaissance. The increasing failure of the Holy Roman Empire and innumerable deaths during the “Dark Ages”, caused by wars, pandemics and famines led to social and political upheaval in Florence, a rich Italian city where Renaissance is believed to have begun. This prompted people to question the Roman Catholic Church’s emphasis on afterlife and ultimately shifted their focus on the present moment, an element of Renaissance’s philosophy.

One of the most significant changes that occurred during the Renaissance was the evolution of ‘Humanism’ as a method of thinking. ‘Renaissance Humanism’, conceived as ‘a new philosophy of life’ or a glorification of human nature in secular terms, eludes a precise definition. It is considered as “attempts by man to master nature rather than develop religious piety”. The purpose of Humanism was to create a universal man who would be capable of functioning honourably in, virtually, any situation, when his intellectual and physical excellence were to be combined.

It was in Renaissance Italy and subsequently in certain parts of 16th century Europe that a new view of man, as a ‘creative individual possessing the power to shape his destiny without depending on God’, became a major inspiration for social thinking and political action. Humanists even contended- “the genius of man…. the unique and extraordinary ability of the human mind”. This new thinking began to be manifested in art, architecture, politics, science and literature and shaped the intellectual landscape throughout the Early Modern period. Political philosophers like Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas More led the revival of the ideas of Greek and Roman thinkers and applied them, in critique of the contemporary governments.

One of the most important features of the Renaissance is the beginning of a loosening control of religion over human life. As more and more people learnt how to read and write, they began to interpret ideas and criticize orthodox practices. This also encouraged Europeans to question the role of Roman Catholic Church. The invention of the Gutenberg printing press in the 1450s allowed ideas to spread more quickly throughout Europe and people began to reproduce texts, including the Bible. In the 16th century, Martin Luther led the Protestant Reformation- a revolutionary movement leading to a split in the Roman Catholic Church. As a result, Protestantism came into being. In this sense, it may be said that Renaissance created conditions for a secular ideology and the new focus on Humanism also provided an impetus to these secular beginnings.

Although Renaissance saw revolutions in many intellectual pursuits, it is perhaps best known for its artistic developments and contributions of artists like Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, who inspired the term ‘Renaissance Man’. In paintings, an attempt was made to represent everything as it was. In the 14th and 15th century, painters increasingly attempted to reproduce reality, casting off preconceived ideas about what was morally or religiously acceptable. In sculpture too, people were individualised with recognisable faces. While the art of preceding centuries was a component of architectural background, in the changed context, sculpted images presented man according to his newly-won vision of himself as an independent and free personality. Michelangelo’s painting of ‘The Creation of Adam’ was a celebration, in an artistic sense, of the newly discovered greatness of man. Women, for a long time, had been stereotyped due to the limits imposed upon their role by society. But during the Renaissance, they seemed to regain some stature as an individual person. Paintings like ‘Madonna and her child’ by the Italian painter Raphael were composed in a way that aroused a devotional reaction among the viewers.

Other ground breaking intellectuals of this period include Galileo Galilei, William Shakespeare, Raphael and Nicolaus Copernicus. In politics, Renaissance contributed to the development of customs and conventions of diplomacy and in science, an increased reliance on observation and inductive reasoning. Scientific discoveries led to major shifts in thinking. For instance, the fact that the Sun, and not the earth, is the centre of the solar system, was not only discovered but also discerned by people during this period. While the fields of science and art fused together seamlessly, many Europeans took to the sea to learn more about the world around them. This period, specifically known as the ‘Age of Discovery’, led to several new explorations. Shipping routes to America, India and Far East, areas that weren’t mapped before, were also discovered.

From Italy, Renaissance thought, value and artistic technique spread throughout Europe. While military invasions in Italy prompted the spread of ideas, the end of the ‘Hundred Years War’ between France and England (1337-1453) allowed people to shift their focus from conflict to other arenas. Trade and travel, military conquests and diplomatic contacts linked the new culture of Italian towns with the world beyond. This new culture was admired and imitated all over Europe, although, only by the better off and educated. Very few of the new ideas and thoughts filtered down to the ordinary people who could not read or write.

Politically, this period witnessed the end of feudalism and emergence of nation-states. These developments brought about an important shift in the centres of political power from the clerics and feudal nobles to wealthy urban merchants. This, along with the emergence of new ideologies and new technologies cumulatively, transformed the socio-cultural and political landscape of Europe. The greatest thinkers, authors, statesmen and artists who thrived during this era believed that global exploration opened up new lands and cultures to Europeans.

The downfall of Renaissance is considered to be a result of an amalgamation of various factors. A movement known as the Counter-Reformation took place and a Catholic resurgence was initiated in response to Protestant Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church censored artists and writers. As a result, many Renaissance thinkers feared being too bold, ultimately stifling their creativity. Also, a change in trade routes led to a period of economic decline and limited the amount of money wealthy contributors could spend on art. By the early 17th century, Renaissance died out, giving way to the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason.

 

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