In the 1490s, a Dominican friar named Girolamo Savonarola arrived in Florence, Italy, condemning the city's arts and culture. A holdover from the older Medieval worldview, Savonarola understood the radical changes befalling European society. A new philosophy called humanism had come into vogue and, with it, the Renaissance was born. Aided by the development of Johannes Gutenberg's printing press, humanist writers were able to influence audiences everywhere with a philosophy that stressed education and personal experience over religious dogma. In time, the Renaissance would transform nearly every aspect of European culture.
Studia Humanitatis: The Evolution of Renaissance Education
By the end of the Middle Ages, education had become almost exclusively religious in nature, with many scholars claiming that faith was superior to reason. Now, new humanist ideals led educators to develop a curriculum they called the "studia humanitatis" (study of humanities). The studia humanitatis emphasized grammar, literature, history and rhetoric, subjects most believed to enhance individual growth and reasoning. In the 1480s, Dutch scholar Rudolf Agricola brought the new curriculum from Italy and introduced it into Northern Europe, extending its continental reach.
Artistic Beauty: A New Perspective
As with learning, art in the Middle Ages had also been tightly constrained. Works generally focused on religious themes and were lacking in visual dimension. But the Renaissance discovery of linear perspective enabled artists to portray distance and proportion more realistically. At the same time, humanist ideals prompted a new celebration of the human form, most famously expressed in Michelangelo's sculpture of David. Artists also began depicting secular and classical themes, with prominent examples including Boticelli's "Birth of Venus" and Raphael's "The School of Athens."
A New Note in Renaissance Music
The Renaissance also saw new developments in musical composition and performance. Medieval sacred music had been limited to the Gregorian chant, a single melody performed in Latin without instrumental accompaniment. But the Renaissance brought the introduction of polyphony, music consisting of several melodies at once. The leading masters of polyphony included Guillaume Dufay and Josquin des Prez, who used it to develop a new choral form known as the motet. Outside the cathedral, musical performance was enhanced by the invention of new instruments, most notably the viola da gamba and the harpsichord.
The Growth of Literature
The printing press created an almost insatiable demand for new reading materials. This demand induced writers across Europe to produce literary works of every conceivable kind. In keeping with the times, they wrote in their native languages, such as French or Italian, instead of medieval Latin. Literature now became more widely accessible across Europe. Suddenly, readers could enjoy such revolutionary works as Dante's "Divine Comedy" and Cervantes' "Don Quixote." The Renaissance also saw the flowering of English literature, most notably in the person of William Shakespeare.
Science and Technology
The Renaissance brought about a new interest in the workings of the natural world. Scientific inquiry could be dangerous, though, as Galileo learned when he disproved the Church's age-old geocentric teachings. Even so, the new spirit of curiosity persisted. Along with designing numerous theoretical machines, Leonardo Da Vinci made strides in the study of human anatomy. Geographical knowledge and map-making improved as well, enabling Columbus to make his monumental voyage in 1492. But the most significant achievement was still the printing press. It put new ideas into broad circulation and made the Renaissance a lasting reality.
- The Catholic Encyclopedia: Girolamo Savonarola
- Renaissance and Reformation: Almanac; Peggy Saari et al
- JRank Science Encyclopedia: Humanism - Renaissance - Development Of The Studia Humanitatis
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Art of Renaissance Europe: A Resource for Educators
- The History Channel: Italian Renaissance
- The Catholic Encyclopedia: Christopher Columbus
- The Catholic Encyclopedia: Gregorian Chant
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images