The Renaissance was a time of great intellectual growth and rebirth -- in fact, the word Renaissance literally means "rebirth" in French. This new era of enlightenment for Europeans began in Florence towards the end of the 14th century, following the Middle Ages, and after the Black Death wiped out nearly half of Europe's population. During the Renaissance, a revolution in philosophy, science and mathematics dramatically changed arts and culture in Europe.

Rise of Humanism

During the Middle Ages, individuals were expected to devote their lives to the church above all else. In stark contrast, Renaissance humanists broke free from medieval tradition to put focus on personal interests instead of religious demands. Humanists emphasized the importance of worldly pleasures and studied classic texts from philosophers like Plato and Aristotle for inspiration. With humanism came an increased interest in travel and the pursuit of knowledge. Renaissance writers, artists, scientists and other thinkers were greatly influenced by humanist beliefs -- Francesco Petrarch, Giovanni Boccaccio, Sir Thomas More and Francis Bacon are a few of the humanist pioneers who influenced Renaissance art and literature.

Spreading of Knowledge

Around 1450, German citizen Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, and with it came an increasingly informed society. Prior to the Renaissance, texts were tediously hand written, and education was reserved to wealthy citizens who could afford such luxury. The printing press revolutionized communication -- suddenly, the middle classes were able to educate themselves. Scientists were able to easily share work, leading to faster and more accurate discoveries. Thanks to the printing press, new ideas spread quickly throughout Europe and allowed for widespread educational reform.

Realism in Art

The Renaissance is best known throughout popular culture for its contribution to the arts. Instead of focusing on traditional depictions of religious figures and iconography, artists like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Titian painted studies of the human body in detail. Influenced by the humanists, Renaissance painters drew inspiration from ancient Greece and Rome. Thanks to newly improved knowledge of anatomy, Renaissance painters studied to create perfect proportions, detail and emotions. Nudes grew in popularity, and to advance their realist perspective, Renaissance painters experimented heavily with texture and depth.

Reliance on Observation

With the Renaissance came an increasing divide between science and religion as a new era of discovery swept through Europe. Scientists began to focus on practical observation instead of religious teachings and viewed their work with renewed skepticism. Sir Francis Bacon and his contemporaries championed the scientific method, urging the examination of theories using hard evidence. Dissections became popular during this time, and scientists began to better understand the basics of human anatomy. Based on his observations with the telescope Galileo Galilei, sometimes called “the father of modern science," spoke out against the Catholic Church's belief in an each-centered universe.