The Renaissance - A European or Global Phenomenon?

“There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, that to institute a new order of things” Niccolò Machiavelli - The Prince

What is the Renaissance?

Attempting a simple definition of the Renaissance is problematic at best, given the wide use of the term and its interpretation over several hundred years. The term ‘renaissance’, (derived from the French for ’re-birth’) is believed to have been first printed by Italian artist Giorgio Vasari in his work ‘The Lives of Artists’ to describe the cultural resurgence associated with a renewed interest in the classical eras of ancient Rome and Greece during the 14th to 17th centuries (Vasari). This new fashion for learning focused on classical studies originated in Italy but had leapt across Europe by the first half of the 16th century (Fernandez-Armesto, pg 478). Classical works and ideologies permeated most scholarly and intellectual pursuits, such as science, mathematics, astronomy and physics as well as heavily influencing literature, poetry, philosophy, music and the decorative arts (Da Vinci).

Several factors created the environment which allowed the Renaissance to flourish. The breakdown of the medieval feudal society subsequent to the Black Plague caused population, economic and political crises which saw many societies struggling to reconcile the epidemic with the contemporary belief that the disease was an act of God (Courie, pgs 257-267). The period also saw an influx of classical scholarly works into Western Europe when the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks. Additionally, works from the continual study of ancient classical texts that had quietly prospered in major cultural centres, such as Cordoba Spain under the Islamic Umayyad Empire from (750CE - 1492CE) began to filter more into Western Europe (Rietbergen, pg111). But perhaps the most important contributing factor was the invention of the Gutenberg printing press which enabled dissemination of information on an unprecedented scale creating an accessibility to knowledge hitherto unknown (Saari). Literacy rates increased rapidly allowing information to spread as literature became more affordable and accessible which hastened the spread of the Renaissance movement northwards into France, England, the Netherlands and Scandinavia.

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