he Renaissance was possibly the most important period of development that has ever occurred in European history. Known primarily for its impact on the art world, the Renaissance emerged as a movement that influenced literature, philosophy, music, science, and even technology. With the impacts of the Renaissance still felt in society today, it unquestionably remains one of the most spoken-about and celebrated movements in both the artistic and general community.
Table of Contents
- 1 An Introduction to the Renaissance
- 2 Interesting Facts About the Renaissance
- 2.1 The Renaissance Began in the 14th Century
- 2.2 The Renaissance Period Transformed Society from Darkness to Light
- 2.3 Humanism Was the Main Philosophy
- 2.4 The Medici Family Were Major Patrons of the Movement
- 2.5 The Height of the Renaissance Was Called the “High Renaissance”
- 2.6 Paintings, Drawings, and Sculptures Were the Main Art Forms That Emerged
- 2.7 Leonardo da Vinci Was Viewed as the Ultimate “Renaissance Man”
- 2.8 The Renaissance Lasted for Four Centuries
- 2.9 The Term “Renaissance” Was French
- 2.10 The Renaissance Is Regarded as the Most Important Art Movement to Occur
- 2.11 Art, Architecture, and Science That Developed
- 2.12 The Renaissance Geniuses Included Art History’s Most Famous Artists
- 2.13 The Most Famous Paintings Are Still Viewed Today
- 2.14 Some Have Stated that the Renaissance Did Not Even Happen
- 2.15 Linear Perspective Was the Most Important Invention of the Movement
- 2.16 The Church Financed Great Renaissance Artworks
- 2.17 A Great Rivalry Existed Between Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci
- 2.18 The Renaissance Was Not Always as Wonderful as History Suggests
- 3 Frequently Asked Questions
An Introduction to the Renaissance
Most strongly associated with the Italian city of Florence specifically, the Renaissance describes the period of time between the 14th and 17th centuries. Thought of as the bridge that connected the Middle Ages with Modern history, the Renaissance initially began as a cultural movement during the Late Medieval period in Italy. However, it quickly dispersed all over Europe. Due to this, most other European countries experienced their own version of the Renaissance in terms of their styles and ideas.
Seen primarily as a painting, sculptural, and decorative arts period, the Renaissance emerged as a distinctive style within art alongside other important cultural developments which were occurring in those days.
As the movement affected political and economic spheres in addition to culture and art, those who upheld the concepts of the Renaissance were thought to do so with much passion. The Renaissance used the art of Classical antiquity as its base and slowly began to build upon the ideologies of that style as the movement advanced.
As there is so much information out there on the Renaissance, it is still easy to become confused and wonder: what was the Renaissance? Essentially, it can be described as a noble style of art that rapidly developed under the growing contemporary scientific and cultural knowledge that existed.
Thus, the Renaissance is recognized for initiating the change into the modern-day civilization that we know today, with many of history’s greatest thinkers, authors, philosophers, scientists, and artists coming from this era.
Interesting Facts About the Renaissance
When looking at the overall Renaissance history, the movement proved to be a very interesting one in addition to its being so celebrated. Below, we will be taking a look at some of the more fascinating and amusing Renaissance facts from the most noteworthy artistic period in time.
The Renaissance Began in the 14th Century
Emerging around 1350 A.D., the Renaissance period began roughly 720 years ago when people in Europe began taking a renewed interest in the ancient Roman and Greek civilizations and cultures. The Renaissance movement looked to restore the ideas, art styles, and learning of these two cultures and aptly viewed the period to be a restoration of these concepts.
Thus, the movement was given the name “the Renaissance”, which is the French word for “rebirth”.
Lasting for over 250 years, scholars were encouraged by wealthy families in Italy to focus their studies on ancient Greek and Roman cultures specifically. As the affluent class were so overwhelmed and amazed by the ideals of these old cultures, they began to finance the creation of magnificent palaces that were filled with paintings, sculptures, and literature that upheld these values. The city of Florence proved to be one of the most important regions during the Italian Renaissance, as most celebrated artworks originated from this region.
The Renaissance period quickly spread to other parts of the world, most notably to other countries in Europe.
After the King of France, Charles VIII, stormed Italy and saw the truly breathtaking artworks that had been created, he invited several Italian artists to France to spread their ideas and to produce equally beautiful works for the country.
Other countries like Poland and Hungary also welcomed the Renaissance style after Italian scholars and artists went to live there.
As the Renaissance expanded across different countries, the movement went on to alter some aspects of religion and art through the values it brought over. Certain countries that the Renaissance wave proved to have an influential impact on included Germany, Spain, Portugal, England, Scandinavia, and Central Europe.
The Renaissance Period Transformed Society from Darkness to Light
Over the course of the Middle Ages in Europe, which occurred between the collapse of ancient Rome in 476 A.D. and the start of the 14th century, not much advancement happened in science and art. Due to this lack of progress, this period in time was literally dubbed “the Dark Ages”, which spoke to the gloomy atmosphere that had settled over Europe.
As this era was marked as a time of war, other issues such as ignorance, famine, and the Black Death pandemic added to the period’s dreary title.
Miniature by Pierart dou Tielt illustrating the people of Tournai burying victims of the Black Death, c. 1353; Pierart dou Tielt (fl. 1340-1360), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
As the Dark Ages proved to be a dismal time in history, many have wondered: how did the Renaissance start amongst these treacherous conditions? Accurately described as a move that genuinely went “from darkness to light”, the Renaissance reintroduced elements of ancient cultures that were able to help start the transition into the classical and modern period.
In addition to being seen as one of the most significant periods in world history, the Renaissance is also regarded as one of the first influential turning points that occurred.
However, some historians have argued that the Middle Ages were not nearly as grim as what they were made out to be, as it was suggested that most of the period was very exaggerated. Despite this difference in opinion, many have agreed that relatively limited attention was paid towards ancient Greek and Roman philosophies and learning in those days, no matter the true circumstances that surrounded the Dark Ages. This was because society had much greater problems to focus on, with the aspects of art and science not seeming as important yet.
Military and religious life in the Middle Ages and at the period of the Renaissance (1870), Fig 42: “After the Battle of Hastings (14th October 1066), the relatives of the vanquished came to carry away their dead.”; Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons
Humanism Was the Main Philosophy
The spirit of the Renaissance was initially expressed by a cultural and philosophical movement called humanism, which developed during the 14th century. Quickly gaining momentum, humanism referred to a method of education and mode of inquiry that began in Northern Italy before spreading to the rest of Europe. Humanism encompassed all teachers and students who belonged to the humanities school of thought that included grammar, rhetoric, poetry, philosophy, and history.
Humanism centered around its emphasis on an individual’s social potential and agency. This way of thinking viewed human beings as a worthwhile foundation for significant moral and philosophical investigation.
Diagram of Humanist Cosmography, 1585; Gerard de Jode, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
As academics felt that humanism should allow people to speak their minds independently, this encouraged others to break away from religious conformity. Humanism emphasized the idea that man was central in his own universe, meaning that all human accomplishments in art, literature, and science should be embraced wholeheartedly.
As humanism challenged Europeans to question their own role within society, the role of the Roman Catholic church was also questioned.
Instead of depending on the will of God, humanists encouraged people to act according to their own capabilities in a variety of areas. With the Renaissance developing, many more people had learned how to read, write, and therefore interpret ideas. This gave individuals a chance to have their own voice heard, as it led to them closely examining and critiquing religion as they knew it.
Six Tuscan Poets (1659) by Giorgio Vasari, featuring Humanists (from left to right) Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, Petrarch, Cino da Pistoia, Guittone d’Arezzo, and Guido Cavalcanti; Giorgio Vasari, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Something that helped in the development of humanism was the creation of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg around 1450. The introduction of a mobile printing press went on to transform communication and publication in Europe, as it allowed ideas to be spread at a rapid rate.
As a result, texts like the Bible were easily generated and distributed amongst society, which marked the first time that most individuals read the Bible themselves.
The Medici Family Were Major Patrons of the Movement
One of the richest and most important families to come from Florence during the Renaissance period was the Medici family. Rising to power as the movement began, they were ardent supporters of the Renaissance and funded the majority of the art and architecture that prospered under their rule. Through the Medici’s commission of The Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes in 1475, they helped introduce oil painting to Italy, which went on to become the norm in subsequent Renaissance paintings that were produced.
The Portinari Altarpiece (c. 1475) by Hugo van der Goes, commissioned by the Medici family; Hugo van der Goes, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
As the Medici family governed Florence for over 60 years, their involvement within the Renaissance was truly remarkable. Famously backing the artistic style, they encouraged many outstanding Italian writers, politicians, artists, and other creatives to participate in a movement they branded as an “intellectual and artistic revolution”, the likes of which they did not experience during the Dark Ages.
The Height of the Renaissance Was Called the “High Renaissance”
The term “High Renaissance” was used to denote the period that was considered to be the height of the entire Renaissance movement, as it produced the most notable artworks during this time. Some of the most iconic artists to come from the whole Renaissance period were said to have emerged from the High Renaissance era specifically.
These great artists included Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, who were known as the holy trinity of Renaissance painters.
Three of the most well-known and celebrated paintings and sculptures in history were produced by these three artists during the High Renaissance, namely: Statue of David (1501 – 1504) by Michelangelo, Mona Lisa (1503) by da Vinci, and The School of Athens (1509 – 1511) by Raphael. Known to be a time of exceptional artistic production, the High Renaissance lasted for about 35 years between the early 1490s to 1527.
The School of Athens (1509-1511) by Raphael, fresco at the Raphael Rooms, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City; Raphael, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Paintings, Drawings, and Sculptures Were the Main Art Forms That Emerged
When looking at the kind of art that was created, Renaissance artists typically chose to draw, paint, and sculpt extraordinarily realistic and three-dimensional figures. This was because artists often studied the human body in considerable detail and were able to accurately reflect their knowledge in their artworks.
It was a well-known fact that da Vinci and Michelangelo used to frequently dissect cadaver bodies before creating their remarkable artworks.
This was done so that they were able to learn how to better sculpt and draw human bodies and muscles precisely. However, it was illegal at the time for anyone who was not a physician to dissect bodies, which begs the question as to how they were allowed to do so. Despite this morally gray area, these two artists proved to be the only ones who could sculpt and draw people so beautifully.
An anatomical study by Leonardo da Vinci, from Historical memoirs on the life, studies, and works of Leonardo da Vinci, 1804; Carlo Amoretti, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Leonardo da Vinci Was Viewed as the Ultimate “Renaissance Man”
Possibly the most important artist and polymath to come from the Renaissance period was Leonardo da Vinci. While he is mainly known for producing the Mona Lisa (1503), which is widely regarded as the most famous oil painting of all time, da Vinci was dubbed as the quintessential “Renaissance man” during his lifetime.
Supposed self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1512; Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The title of “Renaissance man” was given to da Vinci as he was said to display an avid curiosity in all areas of advancement within the Renaissance. His wide range of interests included painting, sculpture, drawing, architecture, human anatomy, engineering, and science. While his reputation as a painter and draftsman was only based on certain notable works like the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper (1498), and Vitruvian Man (c. 1490), he also created many important inventions that went on to revolutionize history.
Some of the most celebrated inventions by da Vinci that forever changed history included: the parachute, the diving suit, the armored tank, the flying machine, the machine gun, and the robotic knight.
The Renaissance Lasted for Four Centuries
By the end of the 15th century, several wars had aggravated the Italian peninsula, with many invaders competing for territory. These included Spanish, French, and German intruders who all battled for the Italian district, which led to much turmoil and volatility within the region. Trade routes had also changed after Columbus’ discovery of the Americas, which led to an interval of economic downturn that severely restricted the finances that wealthy sponsors had available to spend on the arts.
By 1527, Rome was attacked by the Spanish army under the reign of King Philip II, who went on to later rule the country. Italy remained threatened by other countries, such as Germany and France, and because of this, the Renaissance began to quickly lose momentum.
The High Renaissance period also came to an end by 1527 after more than 35 years of popularity, which marked the true conclusion of the Renaissance as a unified historical period.
The different periods of the Italian Renaissance, 1906; Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons
As a result of the Reformation that had emerged in Germany, which disputed the values of the Catholic church, these churches faced a real problem in Italy. In response to this predicament, the Catholic church initiated the Counter-Reformation which worked to censor artists and writers following the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic church set up Inquisition and arrested every individual who dared challenge their doctrines.
Guilty people included Italian academics, artists, and scientists. Many Renaissance thinkers were afraid of being too outspoken, which ended up suppressing their creativity. However, their fear was valid, as their contestation was suddenly seen as an act punishable by death under the Catholic church. This led to the majority of artists discontinuing their Renaissance ideas and artworks.
By the 17th century, the movement had completely died out and had been replaced by the Age of Enlightenment.
The Term “Renaissance” Was French
When looking at the interesting Renaissance history, it is clear to see that the movement encompassed a resurgence of the ideas and values of classic antiquity. In all essence, the Renaissance era signaled the end of the Middle Ages and went ahead in introducing a completely different way of thinking and doing things.
However, when wondering the question, “what does Renaissance mean?”, it can simply be understood by looking at its name. Taken from the French language, the word “renaissance” directly translates to “rebirth”, which was only seen in the English language around the 1850s.
Definitions from Oxford Languages
A rebirth is exactly what happened in terms of the restoration that occurred of ancient Greek and Roman scholarship and values. Those credited with launching the Renaissance movement were trying to accurately recreate classical models from these two cultures.
Despite this being the only acceptable term that has ever been used for the movement, some scholars have stated that the word “Renaissance” was too vague to encapsulate all that occurred.
Additionally, the term “Renaissance years” was also believed to not be knowledgeable and enlightened enough to adequately capture all that was discovered and developed during the movement. Those with opposing views of the movement have said that the Renaissance was more correctly a part of a “Longue Durée” of European history.
The Renaissance Is Regarded as the Most Important Art Movement to Occur
The Renaissance proved to be a period of revolutionary explorations in a variety of disciplines. Certain discoveries afforded the movement much popularity, with artists and other creatives going on to produce truly incredible works that are still spoken about today. When asking yourself, “why is the Renaissance important?”, the answer to this question is fairly simple.
This movement proved to be one of the most significant periods ever because of the great strides that were made in art and science at the time.
The spread of the Renaissance also happened relatively quickly, which demonstrated the movement’s importance. Expanding to other Italian cities at first, like Venice, Milan, Rome, Bologna, and Ferrara, the Renaissance soon influenced neighboring countries across Northern Europe by the time the 15th century appeared. Although other countries would have encountered the Renaissance later than Italy, the impacts and advancements that happened in these countries were still groundbreaking.
Art, Architecture, and Science That Developed
One of the main reasons that the Renaissance developed out of Italy and not any other European country was because Italy was extremely wealthy at the time. After the Black Death, where many individuals died, a big gap was left in society.
This allowed survivors with relatively more wealth and ability to begin climbing the social ladder, which in turn made these individuals more willing to spend their money on things like art and music.
As the Renaissance had wealthy backers to finance individuals in the creation of art, literature, music, and scientific inventions, the movement grew rapidly. Science, in particular, took giant strides in terms of its advancement, as the Renaissance era embraced chemistry and biology in place of Aristotle’s natural philosophy.
The aspects of art, architecture, and science were very closely connected during the Renaissance, as it was a rare time in history where all of these different fields of study were able to join together quite easily. Leonardo da Vinci exists as the perfect example of all of these genres coming together.
He was known to boldly incorporate various scientific principles, such as his study of anatomy, into his artworks so that he could paint and draw with absolute precision.
The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (c. 1503) by Leonardo da Vinci; Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Standard subject matters seen in Renaissance art were religious images of the Virgin Mary and ecclesiastical rituals. Artists were usually commissioned to depict these spiritual scenes in churches and cathedrals. An important development to occur in art was the technique of drawing accurately from human life.
Made popular by Giotto di Bondone, who broke away from the Byzantine style to introduce a new technique of presenting human bodies in frescoes, he is viewed as the first great artist who contributed to Renaissance history.
The Renaissance Geniuses Included Art History’s Most Famous Artists
As a period of rapid development, the Renaissance was home to some of the most renowned and revolutionary artists, writers, scientists, and intellectuals. Amongst others, the most notable examples of Renaissance artists were Donatello (1386 – 1466), Sandro Botticelli (1445 – 1510), Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519), Michelangelo (1475 – 1564), and Raphael (1483 – 1520).
Other Renaissance prodigies included philosopher Dante (1265 – 1321), author Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 1400), playwright William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616), astronomer Galileo (1564 – 1642), philosopher René Descartes (1596 – 1650), and poet John Milton (1608 – 1674).
Five Famous Men of the Florentine Renaissance (c. 1450) by Paolo Uccello, featuring (from left to right) Giotto, Paolo Uccello, Donatello, Antonio Manetti, and Filippo Brunelleschi; Paolo Uccello, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Most Famous Paintings Are Still Viewed Today
A handful of the most famous artists who ever lived came from the Renaissance period, as well as their still-revered artworks. These include Mona Lisa (1503) and The Last Supper (1495 – 1498) by Leonardo da Vinci, Statue of David (1501 – 1504) and The Creation of Adam (c. 1512) by Michelangelo, as well as The Birth of Venus (1485 – 1486) by Sandro Botticelli.
Some Have Stated that the Renaissance Did Not Even Happen
While the majority have viewed the Renaissance to be an extraordinary and impressive time in European history, some scholars have claimed that the period was actually not that different from the Middle Ages. If we look at the dates, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance overlapped much more than traditional accounts would have you believe, as a lot of middle ground existed between the two eras.
While the precise timing and general impact of the Renaissance are sometimes contested, there is little argument about the impact of the events of the period. Ultimately, the Renaissance led to developments that altered the way people comprehended and deciphered the world around them.
Some controversy still exists on whether the entire Renaissance period really existed or not.
A decorative drawing representing the Renaissance; Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons
Some critics have pointed out that most of Europe’s population did not undergo any big changes in their lifestyles or experience any intellectual and cultural upheaval during the Renaissance. This suggested that the period could not have been that important, as nothing made that big of an impact on their lives.
The majority of society continued to live their ordinary lives on farms, as the refined art and learning from the cities did not reach them.
If we choose to take the side of the cynics, answering the question “when did the Renaissance end?” becomes much easier as it possibly never existed in the first place. As many unfavorable social factors were associated with the Medieval period, such as war, poverty, and religious persecutions, most of society was more concerned about those pressing issues than that of the Renaissance.
Linear Perspective Was the Most Important Invention of the Movement
One of the most significant progressions in Renaissance art was the introduction of linear perspective. Developed around 1415 by Florentine architect and engineer Filippo Brunelleschi, linear perspective made use of mathematical principles to realistically depict space and depth in art. Brunelleschi accompanied sculptor Donatello on a trip to Rome to study ancient Roman ruins, which was something that no one had tried to do in such detail until then.
Linear perspective eventually led to realism, which was the core feature seen within all Renaissance artworks.
The Church Financed Great Renaissance Artworks
Since the church regularly gave out huge commissions for artwork, Rome almost went bankrupt! As the church proved to be one of the biggest financial supporters of most of the artworks made throughout the Renaissance, they went on to tax Christians throughout Europe.
This was done so that they could raise funds for the large commissions. These payments directly financed some iconic masterpieces that people travel from all over the world to see today, such as Michelangelo’s ceiling paintings at the Sistine Chapel.
A Great Rivalry Existed Between Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci
Two of the Renaissance’s greatest artists, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, were in fact great rivals throughout their careers. Despite being highly respected and admired in their own right, they were fiercely competitive with one another and heavily criticized each other’s work.
This feud between them began in the early 16th century when both da Vinci and Michelangelo were employed to paint immense battle scenes on the same wall of the Council Hall in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.
At the time of the commission in 1503, da Vinci was in his early 50s and was already greatly revered all over Europe. However, as Michelangelo was considered to be a prodigy, he was commissioned to paint the same wall just a year later, at the tender age of 29.
This commission came after Michelangelo’s iconic statue David was revealed and despite da Vinci’s own fame and talent, he suddenly found a rival in the art world. Michelangelo was also known to have made fun of da Vinci once for his failure to complete a sculpture of a horse.
The Renaissance Was Not Always as Wonderful as History Suggests
The Renaissance was not always the “Golden Era” of advancement and progress that historians have made it out to be. The majority of people who were alive during the Renaissance did not even view it to be something exceptional. At the time, the period still endured very crucial issues such as religious wars, political corruption, inequality, and even witch-hunts, which took focus over the developments that were happening in the arts and sciences.
Surviving for over three centuries, there is no denying just how significant the Renaissance period was in terms of its revolutionary developments and advancements in both world and art history. Many of the most prolific artists and artworks to ever be made come from the Renaissance, whose impact upon the art world is still discussed today. If you have enjoyed reading up about these Renaissance facts, we encourage you to take a look at our other Renaissance art pieces as well.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is the Most Valuable Painting From the Renaissance?
Many people will agree that the most valuable painting to come from the Renaissance period is Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, which he painted in 1503. Mona Lisa is actually thought to be the most important painting ever made, with over 10 million people traveling to view the artwork in the Louvre Museum in Paris each year.
What Is the Most Valuable Sculpture From the Renaissance?
The greatest sculptor to come from the Renaissance period was made by Michelangelo Buonarroti, the greatest sculptor to ever live. It makes sense that one of his artworks is viewed as the most valuable sculpture from the movement. David, which was carved between 1501 and 1504, is without question the most famous sculpture in existence. Located at the Galleria dell ’Accademia in Florence, Rome, David attracts more than eight million visitors a year.
Isabella studied at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English Literature & Language and Psychology. Throughout her undergraduate years, she took Art History as an additional subject and absolutely loved it. Building on from her art history knowledge that began in high school, art has always been a particular area of fascination for her. From learning about artworks previously unknown to her, or sharpening her existing understanding of specific works, the ability to continue learning within this interesting sphere excites her greatly.
Her focal points of interest in art history encompass profiling specific artists and art movements, as it is these areas where she is able to really dig deep into the rich narrative of the art world. Additionally, she particularly enjoys exploring the different artistic styles of the 20th century, as well as the important impact that female artists have had on the development of art history.
Learn more about the Art in Context Team.