The Renaissance: Era of Science, Art & Culture

The term Renaissance is a French word which literary means ‘Rebirth.’ The period of the Renaissance marked the revival of European art and literature. It was a cultural movement which started in Italy in the 14th century which later got spread across Europe. It marked the gradual shift from Medievalism to Humanism. Humanism was a philosophy that focussed on interests and needs of human beings. In the middle ages, also known as ‘Dark Ages‘, people thought that life is full of hardships & there was ignorance, wars, famine in the world. When European people studied classical models of Ancient Greek & Rome, they came across the joys of life. They realised that life could be made comfortable with science, technology, art, music, and culture. The focus shifted from strict religion to the beauty of the natural world and human beings. The rational approach of human beings led to inventions of new technologies, the discovery of new continents, and the emergence of astronomy, along with flourishing art, literature & philosophy.

The 13th and 14th century experienced ‘ProtoRenaissance‘ inspired by Franciscan Radicalism. St. Francis rejected the rigid philosophy of prevailing Catholic Theology and embraced spirituality of nature.[1] This inspired Italian poets, artists and writers to see the happiness of human life and take pleasure in the world around them. The Renaissance started in Florence, Italy with a bloom of classical culture. The wealthy citizens (or members of Medici family) backed the Renaissance by funding and supporting the artists by commissioning pieces of paintings, statues and architecture. The movement expanded throughout Italy, then got spread to France, and then finally to northern & western Europe.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo.

Art

Art in the Medieval ages was mostly religious and based around the religious view of the world. But in the Renaissance, the focus was on the natural beauty of the world and human beings. The Renaissance artists incorporated Roman & Greek mythology subjects and individual portraits, in religious themes. Art pieces during this time did not represent subjects in Idealist way, but rather in Realist and Humanist way.

Holy Trinity by Masaccio created around 1428.

During the period of ‘Proto-Renaissance,’ values & culture of classical Romans was reawakened by writers such as Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio. The most famous artist of the Proto-Renaissance was the Florentine painter Giotto. He made human portraits in a Realist way. His frescoes decorated the walls of Cathedrals of Rome, Florence, Naples and other places. The competition to design bronze doors for the Baptistery was won by Sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti, which marked the period of Early Renaissance Art (1401-1490s).[2] Other masters of early Renaissance sculpture were: Architect Filippo Brunelleschi and the young Donatello. Tommaso Masaccio became an influential Florentine painter known for natural yet intellectual nature of his art. His major work was frescoes of the Trinity in the Church of Santa Maria Novella.

Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli depicting the goddess of love & beauty arriving on land.

Religion still being a great part of people’s life, fused with artistic imagination led to the idea of painting mythological scenes. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus was the first such painting.[3] This revival of classical culture led to numerous commissions of the artworks by civil government, courts, rich merchants (Medici Family). Rome became the prime centre of Renaissance art by the end of the 15th Century. Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael Sanzio, were masters of the High Renaissance Art (1490s-1527). The term ‘Renaissance Man’ was used for exceptional people of this time who were masters of creativity, inventions, travel and engineering.

The Last Supper by Da Vinci depicts the final meal of Jesus with his apostles before the crucifixion.

The School of Athens by Raphael is a symbol of marriage of science, art & philosophy.

The ‘Ultimate Renaissance Man’ Leonardo Da Vinci was a man with exceptional intellect and wide range of talents and interests. His study of Human Anatomy and extraordinary ability to portray light –shadow effect, allowed him to paint figures that looked real. His famous works are the ‘Mona Lisa’ and the frescoThe Last Supper.’ Michelangelo Buonarroti was a sculptor, painter, poet, and architect, who gave legendary artworks to the world. He made brilliant sculptures like the Pietà in St. Peter’s Cathedral and the David in his native Florence. Though he considered sculpting as his forte his painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel displaying different sides of God is an iconic work. Youngest of the three, Raphael, is known for his paintings like ‘The School of Athens’ which displayed serenity and harmony.

The sculpture David by Michelangelo is a symbol of courage & strength.

Science & Technology

Scientists in the medieval ages believed that Earth was static and the centre of the Universe. According to the matter was visible through permutation and combination of the four key elements – earth, air, fire, and water. They also believed that motion was circular in heaven and naturally downward or irregular on Earth. Another assumption was that Europe, Asia, and Africa were the only landmasses of the Earth.[4] Greeks believed that any creation is created post reasoning and around perfect laws. Renaissance scientists started making rational observations by experimenting and experiencing. This brought divergence between science and religion for the first time.

Copernican Model of Heliocentric Solar System.

Astronomer and mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus gave the theory of a ‘Heliocentric Solar System.’ He stated that the Sun is the centre of the solar system and not the Earth. His book was banned and condemned by the Catholic Church. Another scientist Galileo Galilei discovered celestial bodies which further supported the theory of ‘Heliocentric Solar System.’ He improved the telescope and conducted motion experiments with pendulums and falling objects. These observations later helped Newton to discover Gravity. These rational theories and observations created conflict between scientists and the church. The consequences were that many scientists were imprisoned and persecuted.

The map used by Christopher Columbus on his First voyage.

Travellers and sailors voyaged to new places. In 1492, Columbus discovered the New World. Ferdinand Magellan was the first man to set sails to circumnavigate the globe.[5] German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg developed the printing press around 1440. It could produce 3,600 pages per workday and sparked the Printing Revolution throughout Europe. In primitive time, measurement of time was done through sundials and water clocks. Filippo Brunelleschi in Italy developed mechanical clocks in 1410 through which time of the day could be measured in twenty-four hours & its fractions.[6] Hans Janssen and Zacharias invented the microscope around 1590. Leonardo Da Vinci developed the idea of the parachute in 1483[7] and also of submarines. Thomas Savery developed the first Steam Engine which was a water pump powered by steam in 1689.

Printing Press developed by Johannes Gutenberg.

Literature & Music

Literature inspired by classical models gave rise to ideals of tragedy and comedy. Texts like ‘Hamlet’ by Shakespeare aim to shift the focus from religious contexts to the true nature of man.[8] There were many musical innovations and invention of new musical instruments. Music was developed keeping in mind the Humanist traits, which would touch listeners. Lyrics were being incorporated in musical compositions. Music and poetry were related closely.

Musicians during the period of the Renaissance, ca 1600.

The End of Renaissance

There were many reasons why the Enlightening age of Renaissance ended. There was political instability in Italy due to battling of French, Spanish, and German invaders to conquer the territories of Italy.[9] Thus, changes in trade routes led to a decline in the economy and wealthy people could not commission works of Renaissance artists. There was Counter-Reformation in response to Protestant Movement by the Catholics. Any expression of Humanism and creativity may lead to Death Punishment, so Renaissance artists feared to be bold. By the early 17th Century, the Renaissance movement came to an end.


[1] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Renaissance art,” Mar 05, 2020, available at https://www.britannica.com/art/Renaissance-art (last visited on June 14, 2020)

[2] Editors, “Renaissance Art,” October 15, 2010, available at https://www.history.com/topics/renaissance/renaissance-art (last visited on June 14, 2020)

[3] Editor, “Art in the Renaissance,” available at https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-worldhistory/chapter/art-in-the-renaissance/ (last visited on June 14, 2020)

[4] Donald Weinstein, “Renaissance science and technology,” Jul 19, 2019, available at https://www.britannica.com/topic/history-of-Europe/Renaissance-science-and-technology (last visited on June 14, 2020)

[5] Jessie Szalay, “Ferdinand Magellan: Facts & Biography,” January 23, 2014, available at https://www.livescience.com/42788-ferdinand-magellan.html (last visited on June 14, 2020)

[6] Editor, “Renaissance Inventions,” available at http://www.inventionware.com/renaissance-inventions/#:~:text=Steam%20engine&text=Elementary%20steam%20engines%20were%20developed,engine%20of%20the%20modern%20form.&text=Another%20scientist%20James%20Watt%20modified,by%20attaching%20a%20separate%20condenser. (last visited on June 14, 2020)

[7] Sarah Sopher, “Technology During the Renaissance,” October 17, 2012, available at https://prezi.com/mgdathjhvq9u/technology-during-the-renaissance/ (last visited on June 14, 2020)

[8] Jessie Szalay, “The Renaissance: The ‘Rebirth’ of Science & Culture,” June 29, 2016, available at https://www.livescience.com/55230-renaissance.html (last visited on June 14, 2020)

[9] Editors, “Renaissance,” April 4, 2018, available at https://www.history.com/topics/renaissance/renaissance#section_8 (last visited on June 14, 2020).

Mansi Mathpal from Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, New Delhi

“Uncertainity in certain things is the fascinating space scoping for magic”

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