In This Chapter
• Why the Renaissance is called the Renaissance
• Italy in the fifteenth century
• The art of the Renaissance
• Effects of the printing press
• The Northern Renaissance
The word Renaissance literally means “rebirth.” Many people know this but, unfortunately, many people also believe that somebody during the Renaissance declared, “This must be the rebirth of blah blah blah.” In truth, the historical era known as the Renaissance wasn’t referred to as such until centuries later.
Historians have the distinct advantage of hindsight when examining an historical era such as the Renaissance. Looking back on a particular era or on particular events, historians can look for patterns and trends that weren’t quite so apparent when they were occurring. The Renaissance is a perfect example. To be fair, though, there is an inherent danger in trying to compartmentalize a period of history. Many critics of the term Renaissance argue that some if not much of the rebirth attributed to fifteenth century scholarship actually began during the Middle Ages.
Define Your Terms
The Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, who published The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy in 1860, generally gets both the credit and the criticism for the modern use of the term Renaissance as it applies to the era of European history.
In terms of chronology, the Renaissance occurred after the Middle Ages and, more specifically, after landmark events such as the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War. However, to say that all things were different in the Renaissance than in the Middle Ages would be a grave mistake. In fact, the Renaissance is most distinguishable from the Middle Ages only in intellectual and cultural terms, particularly in terms of art and architecture. No vertical line intersects a horizontal timeline and separates one historical era from another. Historical eras often bleed into one another. Such is certainly the case with the Renaissance.
So why do historians refer to the period following the Middle Ages as a time of rebirth? There are two primary reasons. First, following the death and destruction that plagued Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the next few centuries seem in retrospect as a time in which civilization was reborn, was given a second chance at life. That is not to say the Renaissance was a time of peace and stability across Europe. Italy, for example, struggled with widespread political instability and intrigue before and during the Renaissance. Relatively speaking, though, life after plague and war seemed pretty okay.
Secondly, historians remember the Renaissance as a time when classical texts and classical ideas were resurrected. As scholars throughout Europe, not just in Italy, began to realize their common heritage, an ancestry traced back to ancient Greece and Rome, the desire to collect and study classical Greek and Roman texts grew. These texts served a number of purposes. In education, these texts became the focal points of instructional curriculum. Many students and religious scholars learned both Greek and Latin by studying the original classical texts. This was a departure from medieval scholarship, which often studied commentaries on the classical texts and not the texts themselves.
Studying the original texts, Renaissance scholars brought back classical Greek and Roman ideals. Some of the greatest Renaissance artists traveled to Rome to measure and sketch great Roman ruins, statues, and other relics of antiquity. As a result, much classical art, in a sense, was reborn as well. To be fair, though, interest in the classics dates back to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, considered the Middle Ages.