The Renaissance in Europe

Italy | Leisure Class | Great People | Humanism | Condottieri
Northern Movement | Conclusion

The Renaissance began in the early 1300s. It was a flowering of culture beginning in Italy, from where it spread throughout Europe. Like every other historical development it arose from certain conditions including the advances in architecture and writing made during the high middle ages. Sir Isaac Newton once wrote in a letter that we see farther because we stand on the shoulders of giants1. This was very much the case in the Renaissance where much of the works created were derivative of the Classical Period.

The Italian Renaissance

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The InDepthInfo History of Modern Europe was designed as a homeschool history textbook. It covers an exciting time in modern Europe between the Renaissance and the End of World War I. It has report suggestions, chapter quizzes, and a final examination. Perfect for high school level study.

The dark ages had seen the destruction in Europe of much of the science and writings of the Classical Period. This was due largely to barbarian invasion and the rise of feudal states which put their main emphasis on local subsistence. Much thought was given to raiding and defense against raids, and little to peaceful trade. Indeed, it was free trade that sparked the Renaissance. The new learning that began to flower during this period began in Italy for a reason. The Italian peninsula juts out into the Mediterranean. With so much coast-line and valuable ports trade was facilitated. Much of the trade was with the Middle East, a conduit for spices from the orient. But more importantly, the eastern world, in its libraries, still housed much of the classical information that had been lost in Europe. Culture was imported from this source. This is how the Renaissance got its name, which means "rebirth". It was a return to a culture which had existed before the "dark ages". Of course, it was not a complete throw-back to ancient times. Rather the classical works were assimilated, immitated, and used as a basis for advancement. To translate the Greek texts that were brought in from the East, Greek scholars were also imported, including Manuel Chrysoloras who played a significant role in bringing classical world to the attention of the Italians.

The greatest trade state of the period was Venice, rivalled by Genoa. Venice had an advantage over many other ports. Paradoxically, because it was built on a swamp, it was easily defensible by land, and its powerful navy could defend it by sea. Though not impregnable, Venice was able to concentrate on trading with the world rather than fighting with it. Once trade began, it had an ancillary benefit. It required accountants. In the current century accounting is seldom associated with culture. However, the need for learned people to keep track of money and inventories made education necessary. It began with mathematics and bookkeeping, but once the benefits of education were made known it began to spread to other areas.

The Theory of the Leisure Class

There is some historical conjecture, The Theory of the Leisure Class, that it was people who had extra time on their hands who ramped up the pursuit of knowledge. It is true that excess wealth, from trade, had built up in Italy. It is also true that trade and advances in agriculture had moved the society beyond the subsistence level common in the middle ages. In this sense the theory has merit. However, having extra time alone could hardly have created the Renaissance. Time was merely a tool in the hands of busy people. In fact, in feudal society, second sons - without other occupation - were often employed in destruction and plunder of neighboring regions rather than in any sort of academic activity.

The Great Artists and Writers of the Renaissance

Wealth from trade created many affluent, powerful, and still famous Italian families. The Medici of Florence and the Visconti of Milan among them. They invested this wealth in art, science, architecture, and philosophy. The Popes in Rome also acquired considerable funds. The result was the flowering of culture which the great families flaunted and shared, as much from pride as from beneficence. The paintings and sculptures brought culture and added wealth to the cities of Italy. Names such as Michelangelo and Botticelli still ring down the centuries. Great authors included Petrarch and Boccaccio.

Drawing of Machiavelli based on a print

Of the thinkers of this period the man who seems to have had the most lasting impact is Machiavelli. This is a man who even had a word coined from his name (Machiavellian). There is much contention surrounding his reputation and what he meant by writing The Prince2. What he wrote was a manual on how governments should be run. The book advocates nearly any expediency in the interest of the state. This attitude brought condemnation on the book and the author. Yet the book was among the first to address issues of RealPolitik that would finally come to full fruition in the person of Otto von Bismark some few centuries later.

Leonardo Davinci was another considerable figure of the age. He was the quintessential Renaissance Man (a person who excels at all the areas of art and learning). Besides producing still emblematic works of art such as The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, he wrote copious notes (over 5000 pages) that hypothesized the previously unthinkable, including airplanes, submarines, parachutes, and machine guns. He also explored geology, and anatomy. All these influenced his art. His work prefigured advances that would not take place for centuries to come.


The Middle Ages and even the Renaissance were a time of deep faith. The theme of most art was religious. Many books were on religious subjects. Nevertheless, the Renaissance began a move toward secularism, or rather a more balanced experience of culture and life. This movement was often called Humanism, because it put human beings as the creator of knowledge, rather than sole reliance on religious documents. The move away from insular subsistence living and the rise of places of learning such as universities created more technical and longer lasting human knowledge, allowing for the progress of both technology and culture.

The Condottieri

The progress made during the Renaissance is all the more remarkable because through much of this period, the region was beset by wandering bands of soldiers called condottieri. These were mercenaries, both foreign and domestic, who came to Italy looking for opportunities to acquire wealth by strength of arms. This could be by out-right stealing, or they might be hired by a local city state. Often they took over the state for themselves. Yet there were advantages to having condottieri about. Hired by the state, they left the population of that state free to pursue more constructive occupations. Also, in small numbers, they were less likely to conspire with local discontents to overthrow a government.

The Northern Renaissance

The Renaissance spread from Italy throughout Europe. The invention of the printing press allowed the rapid and relatively inexpensive dissemination of knowledge outside of Italy. Instead of scribes having to recopy every word in a book by hand, it could be type-set, and hundreds (or even thousands) of copies produced in relatively short time. The first viable printing press was thought to have been put in place by Johannes Gutenberg in 1456.

Humanism was also a factor in the Northern Renaissance. Leading components of this movement were men such as Thomas a Kempis, and Desiderius Erasmus who worked to reconcile Christian faith with classical learning. Painters included the van Eycks who were the first to work in oils, and Bruegel whose themes included religion, landscape and vivid portraiture. Vernacular literature (in the native tongue) flowered especially in France with such writers as Rabelais and Montaine. In England the Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, delved into common human themes, with interesting insights into human nature.

The great English playwrights, Johnson, Marlowe, and Shakespeare are all classified as Renaissance writers.


Spain, too, participated in the Renaissance. Her leading writer was Cervantes, a one time soldier who had been captured by the Turks and even made a galley-slave for a short period. His Don Quixote, a satire on Medieval chivalry, is considered one of the greatest works of literature of all time. In painting, Spain had El Greco who produced a style that was bold, new, and evocative.

The Renaissance would prove to be a springboard for a wave of future advancements in Europe, especially the scientific revolution. It is interesting to note that the Renaissance in Italy was spawned by trade. It would be the shift in emphasis in European trade that would move Italy from its prominent position as the leader in learning to a relative backwater. It was the Portuguese that would begin this process with their explorations around Africa, beginning the Age of Exploration.


  1. U.K. Phrase Finder
  2. Short Bio of Machiavelli

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The Renaissance

Age of Exploration

The Reformation

The Scientific Revolution

Thirty Years War

The Development of the English Constitution under the Stuart Kings

French Absolutism and Louis XIV

Peter I and the Modernization of Russia

Rise of Prussia and Austria

The Enlightenment

The French Revolution

The Age of Napoleon

Concert of Europe


Industrial Revolution

Liberalism, Socialism, and Marxism

The Unification of Italy and The Unification of Germany

The Age of Imperialism

Causes of the First World War

World War I: the Great War

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