What is the Renaissance?

16 May 2011
Léonard de Vinci (1452-1519) Proportions du corps humain Schéma tiré du De Architectura de Vitruve, notes manuscrites de Léonard de Vinci, vers 1492 encre noire Italie, Venise, Galleria dell’Accademia © Archives Alinari, Florence, Dist. RMN / Fratelli Alinari

The Renaissance was both a period in history and an artistic movement. It developed gradually in Italy during the 14th and 15th centuries and then spread across Europe. It came to an end towards the end of the 16th century with the Mannerist style. This period marked the end of the Middle Ages and the start of modern times.

Going back to Antiquity

European societies underwent huge changes in the 15th century, and so did art. In the 14th century, Italian artists began to revive the heritage of Greek and Roman Antiquity. This is why this period is called the “Renaissance”, a word which comes from the Italian Rinascita, which was first used in the 14th century. The artistic output of the Middle Ages was extremely rich, but the Renaissance triggered a great change in the way the world was represented. This began with the Italian artist Giotto (around 1266-1337). He was to have a profound influence on 15th century painters. People rediscovered the art of the ancient Greeks and Romans. They became interested in Roman ruins, excavating sites and collecting objects of Antiquity. Greek and Roman literature had already been studied in the monasteries and by the medieval elite which preserved texts in the form of precious manuscripts. But from the 15th century on, the spread of this knowledge to a far wider public in Europe was made possible by the invention of the printing press. People could again read the ancient literature which dealt with human and intellectual values.


A humanist trend began to develop. While God was at the heart of medieval thought, the Renaissance made man the centre of its concerns. People asked questions about the world around them. Humanists were thinkers, writers and scholars. They learned languages so that they could accurately translate the ancient texts. They were passionate about Antiquity and wanted to change the position of man in society. In Holland the thinker Erasmus (c. 1467-1536) recommended education and reading texts to develop a critical mind. Humanists believed in God but criticized the Church’s influence on thought and the clergy’s abuse of power. They believed that man was free and responsible. The German monk Luther (1483-1546) was against indulgences (pardons given to the faithful by the church in exchange for money). He thought that only faith could ensure salvation. He wanted to reform religion and create the Protestant Church which did not recognize the authority of the Pope.

Grand modèle de l’antiquité : Le Panthéon Van Heemskerck Maerten (1498-1574) Vue du Panthéon, Rome encre brune, plume (dessin). H. : 13cm ; L. : 20cm Allemagne, Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett (SMPK) ©BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN / Jörg P. Anders

Hans Holbein le Jeune (1497-1543) Érasme écrivant huile sur bois. H. : 42 cm ; L. : 32 cm. Paris, musée du Louvre © Photo RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

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