For the 2022 A to Z challenge, I wrote 26 posts all about the Renaissance. You’ll find juicy gossip about the popes, artwork by Van Eyck and Raphael, the origins of the tarot, and the story behind Da Vinci’s horse. You can scroll through the posts individual by clicking the NEXT button at the very bottom, or you can enter April 2022 in the Search box on the right sidebar.
Welcome to the Renaissance. It’s an Age of …
Renaissance, as I’m sure you remember, means “rebirth.” Ironically this term was created by a French historian centuries after the reborn age was long redead. You can thank Jules Michelet for making the era so hard for historians to spell.
What Was the Renaissance?
The Renaissance was a historical period when culture bloomed like algae on a lake. With the right conditions in place, the growth of population and wealth combined with receding constraints allowed ideas to flourish and accelerate. It exploded out of Italy primarily at first but the changes in art, science, fashion, commerce, and knowledge spread across large swaths of Europe. Soon, you couldn’t turn around without bumping into yet another statue or domed ceiling or argument about which subject in the quadrivium was most important.
Why Was the Renaissance?
This was a time of pause from trauma–slightly less plague and famine and war than there had been. The large-scale wars between France and England had died a down a little, the Catholic church had reduced its schisms among simultaneous popes, the Moors were being pushed out, but conveniently left all these classic Greek texts in their libraries. The Mongols were ebbing and the Ottomans only slowly advancing. Parts of Europe, especially near the coasts where trading–where exchanges of goods and ideas–was lively, people were imagining things differently.
There were battles–constantly. The Brits continuously crossed the Channel to try to take bits of territory from France; hence, Henry VIII still had his own suit of armor, which grew in size as he expanded. The Italian city-states fought each other. Constantinople was taken back by the Turks in 1453. Then, there was that Armada thing. This wasn’t a time of perfect peace, but wars and pandemics were comparatively short-lived.
When Was the Renaissance?
The Renaissance began on September 12, 1436 when… Of course not! Since this is a period that was defined centuries later, no one during the Renaissance thought of it as such. It’s not as if there was a complete severance from the Middle Ages; it’s only really visible in contrast and after the fact.
Some might date the age starting at the end of the 1300s, while others firmly affix it to England’s Henry VIII crowning in 1509. Here’s the Mona Lisa kicking off the Renaissance in 1517, and there it’s when Cosimo de Medici inherits his family’s bank in 1429. It’s not precise, and it’s only visible in retrospect.
Where Was the Renaissance?
This amazing flowering of buildings, paintings, import/exports, and philosophy was international but not worldwide. It’s important to remember that Florence was not the world. The Renaissance was a broad cultural shift, but even if we consider it spanning from Italy, through the Netherlands and up into England, that’s not everywhere. Islamic culture had gone through its own flowering centuries earlier. India and China had their own advances, on their own timescales. Parts of Africa and the Americas were advancing on their own timelines, and things might have worked out differently without other people having gunpowder. This is an Age of trade and exchange, but even that was geographically centered across Europe, and not all of Europe at that.
Did it end with Galileo’s trial in the 1600s or when the pilgrims, those Puritanical prigs, landed in Plymouth? Certainly by the time of Isaac Newton and the English Civil War in the 1650s, Italy’s candle had burned out. Philosophy became more involved and cerebral. Renaissance humanists were trying to define the genius of man. Later thinkers like Hume and Kant debated whether it’s possible for anyone to know anything. Art went from altarpieces and murals of satyrs chasing nymphs to dark Dutch masterpieces and French ladies in swings.
But until then, the Renaissance was about what it was to be human and what people might do with fewer constraints.