The European Renaissance was a time of massive economic and cultural growth following the stagnation of the Middle Ages. Beginning in Italy in the 14th century, the movement spread to all parts of the continent during the next 300 years. The outstanding cultural and artistic heritage of the Renaissance can still be seen today in many of the great cities of the period, including Florence and Venice in Italy, Bruges in Belgium and Toledo in Spain.

It All Began in Florence

Florence is the city where the Renaissance began, and where it reached its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries under the patronage of the powerful Medici family. Some of the greatest names in Renaissance art are associated with the city, including Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli and Michelangelo. The poet Dante, the political theorist Machiavelli and the scientist Galileo also lived and worked in Florence. Buildings like the Pitti Palace, Uffizi Gallery and Florence Cathedral are among the masterpieces of Renaissance architecture.

The Legacy of Venice

To present-day tourists, Venice is renowned for its picturesque canals and its lack of motorized vehicles. These features have held back the encroachment of the modern world and helped to preserve the Renaissance character of the city. During its heyday between the 13th and 16th centuries, Venice was one of the most powerful city-states in Europe, controlling the all-important trade routes between East and West. The vast wealth generated by this trade left a legacy that can still be seen today, in the magnificent Renaissance palaces and churches of Venice.

Artists in Bruges

In Northern Europe, the Renaissance first took hold in the Flemish-speaking area of modern-day Belgium. Bruges was one of the great cities of the period and where the heritage of the Renaissance is most easily visible today. Michelangelo's sculpture of the Madonna and Child is on display in the city, as it has been since it was purchased by a wealthy Flemish merchant during Michelangelo's own lifetime. Bruges also produced artists of its own, however. Probably the best known of these is the 15th century painter Jan van Eyck, whose works can be seen in the city's museums.

Toledo's Imperial Ties

When the King of Spain moved his capital to Madrid in the 16th century, the old capital of Toledo became a forgotten backwater -- a virtual time capsule of the Renaissance period. At its height, however, the city was more than just the capital of Spain. The Spanish king was also the Holy Roman Emperor, and for a time Toledo was the imperial capital. The greatest painter of the Spanish Renaissance, El Greco, lived and worked in the city for almost 40 years. Among the many works by him that remain in Toledo is his masterpiece, the gigantic "Burial of the Count of Orgaz."