St. Peter's Basilica (Basilica Sancti Petri), Vatican, a great example of Renaissance architecture; photo credit Bryan Grasser
The term "Renaissance" was coined by French nineteenth-century historians who, when reviewing the marvelous literary, artistic and philosophic achievements of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, especially in Italy, viewed the era literally as a rebirth of civilization. The idea of a renewed appreciation of the classical civilizations of the past was an important break from the Christian church which had always looked with disdain, to put it mildly, upon the pagan past of Ancient Greece and Rome.
The Renaissance was a rather amorphous cultural, artistic, literary movement that began in northern Italy in the fifteenth century--some scholars claim an earlier date. It was a "rebirth" of learning and a return to the literature and humanistic studies of the ancient world. It was not a single movement, but a series of currents in the arts and the academy.
From its origins in the Italian city-states of Florence, Milan, Venice, etc, the movement spread throughout Europe.
When scholars approach the study of the Renaissance, humanism is the most common term that is usually applied to the intellectual movement associated with the era. Humanism was inspired by the Ancient Greek focus on the beauty of the human body. (The Church had long taught that the human body was the source of evil.)
Humanists searched the literature of ancient Greece and Rome for answers about beauty, the meaning of life and the value of the individual. This was a daring undertaking because that literature had been produced by pagans, who were not in good favor with the Christian church. The novelty was that the humanists could not find the answers they sought in the centuries of Christian literature, so they went back to the pre-Christian centuries. This profoundly altered Western attitudes.
Originally humanism meant nothing more than an interest in classical Greek and Latin civilization, but in time it became more of an approach to, an understanding of, life. It was a reaction against the scholasticism of the middle ages and a reaction against the church. Humanists were secular thinkers and artists, and generally not part of the church
Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), "man can do all things if he but wills them." That's much different than the church's teaching of "God can do all things."
Humanists might also point to the quote by Protagoras (a Greek sophist, 420? BCE-490? BCE), "Man is the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are, of the things that are not, that they are not."
"A humanist is one who has a love of things human, one whose regard is centered on the world about him and the best that man has done" (Edward Kennard Rand)
Some important Renaissance individuals:
Three important Renaissance artists (There were many others.)--you can search the web for images of their creations. Art is probably the area that is most associated with the Renaissance. You should look for a focus on man and nature, individualism, creativity.
Finally, when we look at the broad sweep of history, the Renaissance is usually considered the time of transition between the classical world and Middle Ages and the Modern World. This is largely because of the secularism and humanism of the intellectual and artistic developments of the Renaissance.
Some recommended online lectures and websites:
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