The Italian Renaissance: A Classical Rebirth

Close up of the hanging tapestry of the parable of the prodigal son, probably from Tournai, beginning XVIth century, showing a picnic. Hospices de Beaune, France / Photo by Jebulon, Wikimedia Commons

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Public Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


Art, literature, and architecture are forms of expression. These forms of expression often communicate what is happening during certain periods in time. Have you ever heard the word Renaissance? The word Renaissance means“rebirth” and comes from both the French and Latin languages. This word Renaissance describes a cultural movement that began in what is now Italy and then spread throughout most of Europe. This was no ordinary change, but rather a revolutionary movement that led to the creation of art, the likes of which the world had never seen before.

The Renaissance movement was inspired by a renewed interest in ancient Greek and Roman culture and learning. New ideas were born and old ideas were reborn. The Renaissance was a particular period of change,in literature, art, philosophy, science, education, and architecture. To understand why the Renaissance was such an extraordinary movement, it helps to recall what was happening in Europe before the Renaissance.

What Came before the Renaissance?

More than 2,000 years ago, ancient Greece gave us tremendous works of art and architecture. Ancient Greek sculptures emphasized balance,proportion, and the “perfect” human form. Ancient Greeks built strong buildings supported by mighty pillars and columns. They gave us the ideas of great philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle. They gave us lasting works of literature, including Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. From ancient Greece we have inherited important ideas about government, including the idea of democracy—rule by the people. Even the word democracy comes from the Greeks. The Greek word demos means “people.”

Later, the ancient Romans built upon the ideas and achievements of the Greeks. Like the Greeks, Romans prized sculpture with mythological themes.The Romans also built great structures, such as the Colosseum, and perfected the use of the arch and dome. They left us powerful literature such as the Aeneid by Virgil. The mighty Roman armies conquered lands and established a vast empire.

Eventually, different warring tribes invaded the Roman Empire, weakening Rome’s power. These warring tribes sought land. The resulting instability greatly diminished the influence of ancient Rome. Slowly but surely new cultural groups, no longer bound by ties to Rome, began to define themselves. The great Roman Empire declined and was eventually divided in half.

Moving On

Across western Europe, during the time that is considered to be the start of the Middle Ages, kingdoms and nations began to take shape.Trade, economy, laws, and systems of government were established. Cities and towns grew. Architectural styles and designs, among other forms of expression, became unique to the people of a particular land.

While the cultural achievements of the Greeks and Romans were admired,new, home-grown ideas began to thrive. Knowledge of the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans was left in the hands of the few educated elite and in religious houses called monasteries. Some men and women devoted their lives to the Church. Men called monks lived in monastries. Women called nuns lived in convents. The monks made beautiful copies of writings from ancient Greece and Rome. If you wanted to make another copy of a book, you had to do it by hand. There were no printing presses and, of course, no copy machines or scanners. And so, quietly and in some ways secretly, the monks helped keep classical learning alive.

Passing the Torch

Chartres Cathedral, France

Monarchs and the Christian Church established laws and a sense of order. The Church was a powerful influence throughout western Europe during the Middle Ages. With its rituals and teachings, the Church was a very important part of the daily lives of medieval people. Everyone from rich noblemen to poor peasants gave money, materials, and sometimes their labor to help build the magnificent churches of the Middle Ages.

During the Middle Ages, impressive castles were constructed across the European landscape. Kings battled each other for land, and nations were born. People thought a lot about the path to heaven. Art was created to honor God, or to communicate stories from the Bible, which was important because few people were able to read during this time. To express religious devotion,medieval artists created stylized religious figures and moved away from the natural human form common in ancient Greek and Roman art.

But as you know, history does not stand still. Things change and new ideas emerge. And so along came the Renaissance movement. But how, and why, the Renaissance movement emerged is the question.

Petrarch and Humanism


During the 1300s, there was a great Italian poet named Petrarch. He admired the classical values and teachings of ancient Greece and Rome. He filled his library with as many ancient books as he could find. He invited others to read and study these books as well.

Over the years, more and more people had the opportunity to learn about the literature, art, and government of ancient Greece and Rome. These people who admired ancient Greece and Rome were called humanists. Their intellectual and cultural interest in the art, literature, and government of ancient Greece and Rome was known as humanism.

Under the influence of the humanists, many artists,philosophers, and scientists studied the works produced by the ancient Romans and Greeks. A study of the past prompted many to examine the present, and an increased interest in certain subjects led to a greater understanding of the world at large. For example, some scientists such as Copernicus and Galileo looked to the heavens and the stars. They made astonishing discoveries. Others looked to nature and the physical earth.And so the Renaissance movement was born.

A drawing of the heliocentric system that was proposed by Copernicus in which the sun, not Earth, is at the center of the solar system

In particular, breathtakingly beautiful art was produced. Renaissance artists developed techniques that allowed them to paint the human form in a much more realistic way. Humanists promoted the power and unique talents of the individual, both in terms of intellect and ability, but also in terms of the human form itself. An Italian architect, Leon Battista Alberti, summed up what you might call a Renaissance motto: “Men can do anything with themselves, if they will.” William Shakespeare, the English playwright wrote, “What a piece of work is a man!” The great minds of the Renaissance expanded the themes of their work beyond the Biblical to include those of history, science, and literature. As a result, the people of the Renaissance made their mark upon the earth.

The Middle Class

Hans Holbein the Younger’s Portrait of the Merchant Georg Gisze, 1532 CE

Typically, most people lived and died in the towns and rural areas where they were born. As had been the case for centuries,people belonged to groups, or classes, and social mobility was limited.

However, during the late Middle Ages into the Renaissance period, as the Italians became wealthier and cities grew, there were more and more merchants and craftsmen. There were so many, in fact, that there was an expansion of the middle class, the class between those who worked the land and the nobility. As a result, the wealthy middle class grew in power and status. Bankers and merchants proved you didn’t have to be born a nobleman to be rich and powerful. You could work hard and make money and rise in society. And with money comes political influence. The rise of the middle class was not restricted to Italy. The financial and political rise of this social group was evident throughout Europe. Without a doubt, the middle class assumed even greater influence during the Renaissance.

Patrons: Dollars for Scholars

Giorgio Vasari’s Portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici, 1533–1544 CE

So what do merchants and money have to do with the Renaissance?These wealthy merchants could read and write, although most people could not. As a result, some merchants or businessmen became interested in literature and art. Of course, most of them were so busy running their businesses that they didn’t have time to write books or paint, but they had enough money to help others write, study, and create works of art.

Some of the merchants became patrons of the writers and artists. For example, a rich banker might ask an artist to paint portraits of his wife and children. The banker would pay for the portraits. In addition, he might provide the artist with food, clothing, and a house while he worked. With the support of such rich patrons, many artists were able to explore their ideas and develop their skills. They no longer had to worry about how they were going to eat or where they were going to sleep. Later, you will read more about the Medici family, one of the most influential banking families and art patrons of all time.

And what did the patrons get out of all this? What was their reward for paying artists to create paintings,statues, books, and buildings? The patrons became famous. The works of art they commissioned signaled their power, prestige,and importance. They were admired and celebrated for the works they paid to have created. The artists and writers also made their mark in history.Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest writer of all, had royal and noble patrons.But it is his name that we remember today.

The world was indeed changing. Exquisite works of art were created by people so extraordinary that it would be wonderful to have a time machine to take us back in history to meet them. But as we do not, we will just have to turn the pages of this book to learn about them instead!

The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages had its fair share of troubling times, but it was also a time of great achievement in art and learning. Let’s examine some key achievements.

Western Europe

Alcázar de Segovia, Spain

Universities were founded in cities such as Bologna, Oxford, Paris,and Cambridge. Hundreds of castles, such as Alcázarde Segovia in Spain and Dover Castle in England,were constructed in western Europe. The building of great cathedrals which took hundreds of years to complete was also undertaken during this age.

Byzantine Civilization

Hagia Sophia in Turkey was once a cathedral. It became a mosque when Constantinople, now Istanbul, was conquered by the Ottómen Turks.

When invading tribes destroyed and took over much of the Western Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantine civilization, remained strong. The great city of Constantinople was the center of Byzantine civilization.Constantinople’s central location made the city an important link between Europe and Asia. From about 300 to 1453 CE, Byzantine civilization was one of the most advanced in the world.

Islamic Civilization

The Alhambra in Spain is a magnificent castle and fortress built by the Muslims.

During the Middle Ages, many Muslim scholars made significant progress in math, science, and astronomy. Some scholars translated works by ancient Greek philosophers and scientists into Arabic, which helped preserve classical writings. A great thinker and writer named Ibn Sina wrote influential works of philosophy, poetry, and astronomy. He also made important medical discoveries about how to treat diseases.

A large part of Spain was conquered and settled by Muslims.Learning thrived in many Islamic cities. Cities such as Palencia, Valladolid, Salamanca, and Alcalá had libraries, schools, and universities. In the 900s, scholars from Africa, Asia, and Europe traveled to Córdoba to be part of a city rich in learning and the arts.

Beginning in the late 1000s, Christian forces started to drive the Muslims out of Spain. By the time of the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella—the king and queen who helped finance Columbus’s voyage in 1492 CE—the Muslims had been driven out. They left behind, however, writings about science and philosophy that would contribute to the reawakening of learning in Italy during the Renaissance.

Originally published by the Core Knowledge Foundation under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.