The Renaissance is one of the most fascinating and innovative periods in history, and also one of the most hotly debated. There is much contention as to whether or not it can really be considered, as the term Renaissance suggests, a ‘rebirth’ of society, following the Middle Ages, especially with its deep roots and harking back to Greco-Roman classicism, two empires that were recognised as having ‘fallen’ almost a thousand years previously. Additionally, there is also debate as to whether or not it was a series of independent discoveries and philosophies made over several centuries (the Renaissance is commonly agreed to have been between c. 14th-17th centuries A.D) as opposed to a centralised movement. Regardless of one’s position on the matter, the Renaissance gave birth to some of the most innovative works of art, literature, architecture, inventions and discoveries in science and medicine that the world has seen since.
Originating in Florence, Italy, the Renaissance spread over the majority of Europe in the following centuries. It was grounded in the philosophy of humanism, which largely sought to hark back to the values of classical Greece and Rome, aiming to create a people group that were educated and literate, capable of utilising the studies of the humanities (e.g. philosophy, history, poetry, rhetoric, etc.) for the betterment of their broader society, rather than it being an elusive mark of status. It was the idea of humanism that largely birthed the popular idea of the ‘Renaissance man’- one that was well versed in everything from literature to art, Greek and Roman myths, science, history, theology, engineering and even stonemasonry, as opposed to focusing all their attention upon their designated trade. This Renaissance ideal is epitomised in many of the icons of the era, à la Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Da Vinci, for example, whilst likely best known as a painter, also considered himself a philosopher, engineer, sculptor, engineer, architect and more, whilst Michelangelo was also an architect and poet in addition to being a renowned sculptor and painter, with a keen interest in anatomy. There was a central ideology of this ‘whole’ education informing every aspect of their lives and working practice as opposed to a more isolated focus.
The Renaissance period is perhaps most commonly renowned for its art, after all, it is responsible for masterpieces such as the ‘Mona Lisa’, Michelangelo’s ‘David’, ‘The Last Supper’, Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ and many more. There was a huge elevation in the status of the artist during this period, largely due to patronage from wealthy clients such as the Medici and Borgia families. The influence of humanism is evident in much of the art, with artist’s knowledge of mathematics, anatomy, architecture, etc. vastly developing art in a way that had not previously been widespread. Additionally, the ideals and newfound fascination with classicism’s interest in accurate anatomy and fascination with the physical form partnered with the religious influence and monetary support of the Church paved the way for many masterpieces on a scale never before seen in history, obvious in works such as Michelangelo’s ‘David’, ‘Pieta’ and Sistine Chapel Ceiling. The grandeur of religion was fully fledged and the asceticism previously demonstrated in Christianity largely fell from favour, at least in regards to art and architecture.
Whilst the period may be most commonly renowned for its contributions to art and architecture, it also gave birth to some incredibly revolutionary inventions: the printing press, the mechanical clock, the telescope, the microscope, eyeglasses, the barometer, italics, the violin, the anemometer, the list goes on. In short, the Renaissance undoubtedly shaped our cultural view of the modern world as we know it, be it Galileo’s radical advances in astronomy or Gutenberg’s printing press.
The Renaissance period is one of the most influential times in history, arguably being a catalyst for the world as we know it today. Its effect is visible in almost every field and subject, with the explorations of art, science, literature and more largely forming the foundation for contemporary culture in the West. Whilst it may be more explicitly studied in art or history, knowledge of the Renaissance period will undoubtedly benefit any students understanding of their subject.
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