What is the Renaissance period?

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What is the Renaissance period?
Queen Elizabeth I ruled England during the Renaissance period. (Image by George Gower via Wikimedia Commons)

The Renaissance period was a time of great cultural and social change in the British Isles and across the rest of Europe. The term “renaissance” derives from the French meaning “re-birth” and is used to describe this era because many of the changes that happened were inspired by a revival of interest in art, literature, philosophy and architecture of the classical periods of ancient Rome and Greece. The Renaissance also signifies a moving away from the conformist society of medieval Europe allowing new ideas and innovations that gradually diminished the power of the Catholic Church.

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The Renaissance began in northern Italy in the late Middle Ages, predominantly in the city of Florence. The movement then spread throughout Europe. In broad terms, the Renaissance period can be said to span the 14th to the 17th century.


The poets and writers of the Renaissance looked to the ancient texts of Greece and Rome for inspiration. Before the Renaissance, literature was mostly concerned with religious and metaphysical subjects. The Renaissance saw writers deal with human characteristics and behaviour. Poetry and drama were the dominant forms of literature; for example, John Milton wrote his epic poem “Paradise Lost” at the end of the English Renaissance.


Art of the Middle Ages placed an emphasis on symbolism. With the Renaissance came a shift to the life-like in art with the use of perspective. An increased awareness and knowledge of the human anatomy form advances in science and medicine led to realistic depictions of the human form. Perhaps the most famous artist and innovator of this period is Leonardo da Vinci, an artist, sculptor, engineer, scientist and inventor.


The Renaissance was a time of huge innovation and invention in the areas of anatomy, astronomy and physics. It was during the Renaissance, in the early 16th century, that Nicolaus Copernicus developed a new model of the cosmos, with the sun at the centre. Developments in engineering saw the invention of clocks and telescopes. The Italian Galileo Galilei was a Renaissance astronomer, physicist and philosopher.


Prior to the Renaissance, the Catholic Church had ben influential on people’s beliefs and thoughts about human being and the universe. The Renaissance saw a new philosophy, known as humanism, which emphasised the importance of reason. Humanism, unlike Catholicism, did not believe that humans were naturally sinful. The spread of humanism meant that the spiritual focus of the church was slowly replaced by an emphasis on the physical characteristics of humans. The field we now call humanities -- subjects such as history, literature, the arts and social sciences -- derives from humanism. Humanism also led to another, later period in the cultural history of Europe, the Enlightenment.

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