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  Renaissance (‘rebirth’, French translation of Italian rinascimento) was an artistic and intellectual movement in Europe during the 14th to 16th centuries. Its name comes from the idea, put forward originally by the 14th-century poets Petrarch and Dante, that it was time for the glories of the ancient classical culture to be reborn, that Europe could emerge from the slumber of the Middle Ages and remake itself in the image of (what seemed to them) the two noblest civilizations which had ever been. Three events crucial to the Renaissance, all in the early to mid-15th century, were to the development of printing, the fall of Constantinople to the Christians (which sent a flurry of scholars and a flood of classical manuscripts west, in some cases for the first time), and the Reformation in the Christian church.

In general terms, this last event is perhaps the most emblematic. The Middle Ages in Europe (taking their cue, perhaps, from the Roman Empire which preceded them) had been a time of monolithic prescriptivism in ideas, law, politics, religion and social life. The old (distantly Platonic) notion that there was, in every field of thought or endeavour, a single ideal had been corrupted into a dogmatism of power, and heterodoxy of any kind, from religious dissent to herbalism, from the writing of plays to the use of sixths and thirds in church music, had been debated (at best), discouraged, and sometimes punished with death. There had, to be sure, been a measure of artistic, intellectual and political activity, but by contrast with what preceded and followed it, and for all its (often considerable) technical and aesthetic quality, this now seems both uneventful and unadventurous.

From the 14th century onwards, by contrast, pluralism and experimentation became norms. Printing was crucial to this process, making ideas universally available instead of the property of a select and initiated few. One by one, the old certainties were re-examined. Some survived (political movement, for example, was far slower than any other); others were reinvigorated or junked. Ptolemy\'s model of the universe was totally discredited; systematic methods of diagnosis and treatment began to make their way into medical practice in place of a kind of guru approach to healing; in all the arts, from architecture, painting and sculpture (where the results were, perhaps, most noticeable) to poetry, music and drama (virtually reinvented overnight), the discovery that classical models existed and could be imitated and developed caused an explosion of the new activity whose reverberations can still be felt throughout Western culture. Most important of all, the idea of the dignity of Man (not to mention of every individual man and woman) replaced former notions of religious and social hierarchy, with devastating effects in law, learning, philosophy and eventually politics. It is this change that accelerated momentum for a challenge to the monolithic Roman Catholic view of Church and State: humanism and Protestantism, no less than the cathedral domes of Brunelleschi or the plays of Shakespeare, are the most glorious achievements of the Renaissance.

Europeans are perhaps prone to make too much of the Renaissance. It was, after all, the greatest period in their continent\'s history since the cultural dominance of ancient Rome. To outsiders, the Renaissance may seem no more important, globally speaking, than (for instance) the Heian period in Japan or the years of Mogul rule in India do to most Europeans. But for Europe, it was the time the continent reinvented itself: a true renaissance. The mercantile enterprise which had been increasing in previous centuries now led to exploration and expansion of trade worldwide (helped by improvements in chart-making consequent on the abandonment of Ptolemy\'s fanciful geographies, and by the invention of the multi-sailed galley). This in turn triggered an increase in importance for the cities and countries of northern Europe, whose attitudes and practices were different from those of the previously-dominant south. New riches, spread among the bourgeoisie as well as the aristocracy, led to artistic patronage, and to an artistic efflorescence, on an unprecedented scale. Science shook itself free from the shackles imposed by Christian dogma and began seeking rational explanations for universal phenomena. The divine right of princes (whether of Church or State), a crucial medieval notion, began to be challenged: a first, small step on the on the long road to democracy and equality.

There is a dark side to almost all of this. In the arts, for example, new dogmatisms quickly began to replace the old ones: they were, perhaps, more numerous than before (a dozen ways to write plays or poems; a hundred ‘isms’ in architecture or painting) but they were just as programmatic. In religion, the rise of Protestantism led to Christian sectarianism on a massive scale, a development which was to have (and still has) catastrophic and bloody consequences throughout the world. In political life, the rise of individual towns and rulers all over Europe—at one stage there were 300 individual princedoms in Germany alone—led to persistent squabbles, uneasy alliances and often wars which were protracted as they were pointless. The self-confidence Europeans had rediscovered, coupled with their new mobility beyond the continent, led them to regard other parts of the world not as the home of equals, but as places to be ‘discovered’, colonized and plundered. To some extent, this Eurocentric view of the world still persists—with justice, Europeans sometimes claim in their Eurocentric way—but in today\'s pluralist, multicultural world it seems an idea well past its time. KMcL

See also arts; academies of Western art; Catholic political thought; Christian art; Machiavellianism; perspective.



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