What were the important themes of the Renaissance?

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One of the most important themes of the Renaissance was man's greater control of the world around him. Once the fruits of antiquity became available for the first time in centuries, whole new intellectual vistas suddenly opened up to Western man. Armed with the knowledge of the ancients, Renaissance man...

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One of the most important themes of the Renaissance was man's greater control of the world around him. Once the fruits of antiquity became available for the first time in centuries, whole new intellectual vistas suddenly opened up to Western man. Armed with the knowledge of the ancients, Renaissance man felt able to explore the world around him as never before, learning more about the universe in which he was very much at the center.

Inevitably, this gave man greater control of his surroundings. The natural world was no longer quite so beguiling as it had once seemed, full of strangeness and mystery. Whereas once the natural world was considered sacred, increasingly it became an object of exploration and study, something to be exploited for man's gain. It is no accident that the Age of Discovery took place during the Renaissance, when explorers such as Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus traversed the globe in search of new lands to explore.

Imbued with the values of humanism, Renaissance man felt his power. No longer was he a humble, God-fearing wretch, but a powerful creature, the most powerful of all. And he used that power to explore all corners of the world in search of new territories to conquer and to push back the frontiers of knowledge.

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This is an interesting question. First, I would note the Renaissance is a somewhat larger time-frame than we might actually think it was. There's the Italian Renaissance (which is what usually comes to mind for most people), but there's also the Northern Renaissance which followed it, and we can also think in terms of a English Renaissance or a Spanish Renaissance. Furthermore, consider also that the Northern Renaissance was deeply intertwined with the Protestant Reformation, a theme which would have differentiated it from the earlier Italian Renaissance.

In any case, previous contributors has already given you a good start to this question. I would like to add a few points worth considering, however. For one thing, on Renaissance artwork: one of the key qualities that should not be overlooked was the importance of patronage. Art served a political purpose, with the wealthy and powerful employing artists as a means of increasing their own prestige and reputation. This applies also to religious art as well. The Papacy was probably the largest patron in Europe, and it's not by accident that much of the Renaissance's most famous artwork was created for the Church: see, for example, Michelangelo's paintings on the Sistine Chapel or the Raphael Rooms, both located in the Papal Palace.

In addition, I think it's worth being aware just how much of the Renaissance took place in a deeply turbulent time period, more than we might imagine. I would note that much of the late Italian Renaissance took place against the backdrop of the Italian Wars (1494-1559). Later, I would add that the Northern Renaissance would correspond with the Protestant Reformation, which itself created social and political turmoil across all of Europe.

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A major theme of the Renaissance was the emphasis on the classical literature of Greek and Rome. The word "renaissance" means rebirth, and the term was used to refer particularly to the rebirth or rediscovery of ancient writers. For the first time in centuries, for instance, Greek and Roman myths once again became the subjects of painting and sculpture. An example would be Botticelli's Birth of Venus. Ovid and other classical writers started to become sources for literature as well. Just prior to the Renaissance, European art had been overwhelmingly dominated by depictions of biblical stories and themes.

Another central theme of the Renaissance was the focus on the goodness and worth of human beings. Pico della Mirandola, for example, wrote a work called Oration on the Dignity of Man, which cited such classical philosophers as Plato and Aristotle, insisted on the importance of acquiring knowledge, and celebrated the centrality and potential of humanity. This represented a shift away from the medieval conception of humans as miserable and unworthy sinners.

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The Renaissance has a number of themes that are found in the art and literary contributions of the time period. There was a strict move away from the emphasis of Christianity that existed during the Medieval period. The theme of secularism took hold in Europe. Secularism is the emphasis of worldly things rather than the sacred. Art and literature became more realistic and temporal. It was created for entertainment value rather than a religious end.

Another theme of the Renaissance was humanism. Through humanism, the Greek and Roman classics were re-evaluated to gain a better understanding of the human condition. The field of philosophy was reinvigorated as a search for truth motivated new fields of study. Humanism was not necessarily a rejection of Christianity, as it is viewed today. It was simply a different way of examining it.

A third theme of the Renaissance period is individualism. Individualism was an attempt to elevate the individual to a status never achieved before. Philosophers were interested in studying the potential greatness of man. Emphasis was also placed on developing ideas as to how mankind should act and behave. Artists and sculptors started to take a greater interest in anatomy and the human body in their works of art.

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