What Was The Renaissance, And Where Did It Begin?

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The term Renaissance, which means "rebirth," refers to a revival of classical Greek and Roman art, literature, philosophy in Europe. The Renaissance began in Italy around A.D. 1350 and spread throughout Europe until about 1600. Like ancient Greek and Roman artists and thinkers, Renaissance artists and thinkers were optimistic about what humans might achieve in this life, rather than in the afterlife. During the Middle Ages (A.D. c. 450–c. 1500), scholars had argued that the meaning of life on Earth could be found only in relation to an afterlife (the Christian concept of heaven, or life after death). Medieval art was used mainly to illustrate stories from the Bible, and the artists usually remained anonymous. Renaissance scholars studied the humanities, that is language, literature, art, history, rhetoric, and philosophy, developing new ways of thinking critically about the world. The term "Renaissance man" came to mean someone whose talents spanned several fields of learning.

Social and political developments during the Middle Ages led to the Renaissance. Among them were the Crusades, military campaigns undertaken between 1096 and 1291 by Christians to conquer the Holy Lands (present-day Palestine) from the Muslims (followers of the Islamic religion). During the Crusades, Europeans were exposed to other cultures. They also discovered copies of documents that had been destroyed during the fifth century, when various tribes conquered Rome. Another factor was the rise of commerce and banking in the independent empires of northern Italy, including Florence, Rome, Venice, and Milan. Wealthy businessmen had the means to hire artists and musicians to create buildings, sculptures, paintings, and performances that would attest to their wealth and importance. In particular, members of the Medici family, who lived in Florence, commissioned many important Renaissance artists.

Further Information: Corrick, James A. The Renaissance. San Diego: Lucent, 1997; Halsall, Paul, ed. Internet Medieval Sourcebook. [Online] Available http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html, October 20, 2000; Netzley, Patricia D. Life during the Renaissance. San Diego: Lucent, 1998; Walker, Paul R. The Italian Renaissance. New York: Facts On File, 1995.