The European Renaissance lasted roughly from the 14th to 16th century and began in the Italian city-states. The concept of humanism, mainly that “man is the measure of all things” began to replace the influence of the Church. The arts flourished during this period and classical Greek styles melded with modern concepts of architecture, painting, music, literature and other expressions. Artists, writers, philosophers, scientists and engineers flocked to Italy's cities, and their patronage by some of the country's wealthiest families created the art and architecture celebrated to this day.

Florence: The Renaissance City

Florence is often referred to as the premier Renaissance city. Having established itself as an international banking and commercial center, Florence was the third largest city in Europe during the Renaissance and its currency, the florin, was considered the gold standard currency in Europe. The famously wealthy Medici family ruled Florence during the Renaissance, and in addition to founding the Platonic Academy, they showered the city's artists with generous patronages. Some signature Florentine Renaissance works were Michelangelo's sculpture “David,” Brunellesci's dome on top of Santa Maria del Fiore's Cathedral, and Botticelli's paintings “Primavera” and “The Birth of Venus.”

Venice's Formidable Naval Power

Having been a powerful naval and commercial port for centuries, Venice's naval power reached its peak during the Renaissance with 3,000 warships, 300 merchant ships and a ship-building arsenal that employed 16,000 men. Venice was controlled by a doge, or duke, who patronized public works and arts. Venice's paintings were particularly celebrated for their vibrant colors, not surprising since its position as a trading port brought in exotic pigments from the East. Venice's most celebrated painters were Bellini, Giorgione and Titian, and the architect Andrea Palladio graced the city with classically inspired structures including La Rotonda and a series of palaces for Venice's wealthy families.

Rome: The Papal State

Unlike Venice and Florence, Rome was not a commercial or banking center. Its wealth came from the droves of pilgrims who flocked to it from all over Europe. The papal seat was restored to Rome during the Renaissance, and a series of more than 20 popes ruled Rome during the Renaissance and lavished the city with works of art and architecture inspired by the classical Roman Empire. Some of the most significant Roman Renaissance works were St. Peter's Basilica, the Palazzo Farnese and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, each created by one of the most celebrated Renaissance artists: Michelangelo. The luxurious spending of papal money and the selling of indulgences led to calls for reformation, led by Martin Luther, and eventually Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome, halting the power of the popes and driving many of its celebrated artists away.

Ferrara: The Beginnings of Modern Urban Planning

The city of Ferrara, situated on the Po Delta, was ruled by the Este family who commissioned works by famous painters such as Jacopo Bellini who painted the famous “Feast of the Gods.'' Niccolo II d'Este is credited with revolutionizing city planning with his ideas of extending the city longitudinally and creating linking street patterns. His concepts became the basis for modern city planning. Ferrara was home to celebrated poets Ariosto and Tasso, and hosted scientists such as Copernicus at its university.

A Return to the Classics in Naples

The city-state of Naples in southern Italy was ruled by the Spanish Aragon family. Alfonso of Aragon patronized many classically-inspired public works, including a classical Roman archway that served as the entrance to his palace with a carved depiction of himself in Roman dress.

Leonardo da Vinci in Milan

Milan, a rich commercial center in Northern Italy was ruled by the Sforza family who commissioned Leonardo da Vinci, the quintessential Renaissance man, as the city's engineer. Among other contributions to the city, da Vinci is credited with inventing an ingenious lock system for the city's rivers that is still in use today.

Urbino's Military and Renaissance Ruler

The town of Urbino, situated in the hills of the Marche region of Italy, was ruled by Federigo da Montefeltro, a formidable military expert who commissioned classically inspired paintings and the Renaissance style Palazzo Ducal. He also had one of the most impressive personal libraries in all of Italy.

Mantua: Host to Renaissance Greats

Mantua in the northern Italy was ruled by the Gonzaga family. Ludovico Gonzaga was responsible for launching the town into the center of Renaissance activity. He employed some of the most celebrated Renaissance artists of the day, including architect Alberti and painter Mantegna, to create classically inspired works for the city.