The Human Story – The European Renaissance

The Renaissance was an eventful period of European cultural, political, artistic and economic “rebirth” following the miserable Middle Ages. Generally, described as taking place from the 14th to 17th centuries, the European Renaissance promoted the rediscovery of classical philosophy, art and literature. Some of the greatest authors, statesman, thinkers and scientists in human history lived and flourished during this period of history, while global exploration opened new lands and cultures to European commerce. The Renaissance is credited with bridging the gap between Europe’s Middle Ages and modern society and ushering in an era of secularism, individualism and rationality.

However, this grand notion of the Renaissance can prove to be a little controversial. Why, is this? Well, the whole idea of the Renaissance presupposes that Europe was like an island unto itself, cast off from the rest of the world, that was briefly enlightened when the Greeks were philosophising and then lost its way before rediscovering its former glory. Was this really the case?

Essentially, the Renaissance was an explosion of arts, primarily visual, but also literary, and ideas in Europe that coincided with the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman culture. It is easiest to see this in the terms of visual art; Renaissance art tends to have a common theme of the human form, a form that was somewhat idealised by the Romans and especially the Greeks. This “classicising” is also apparent in the architecture of the Renaissance which featured Greek columns and Roman arches and domes.

In addition to “rediscovering” forgotten classical art forms, the Renaissance saw the revival of ancient Greek and Roman literature and ideas. This opened a whole new world for scholars looking to advance Europe’s wisdom and learning. The scholars who translated, studied and commented upon these writings were called humanists and they were concerned with wider worldly and human concerns. Because the Renaissance really was a revival, this rediscovered thought was based on learning about the old ways, especially the studies of the humanities: the three liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric and logic. This, in turn, led to the so-called sciences of theology, medicine, laws and philosophy.

It is important not to fall into the common, but incorrect, misconception that Renaissance scholars, writers and artists were secretly not all that pious due to their focus on the “humanities”. The truth is that Renaissance artists were deeply religious. If you want evidence of this then look no further than the subject matter of much of the masterpieces of the age: Da Vinci’s Last Supper, Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, Giotto’s The Lamentation and the countless depictions of the Madonna.

Funding the Renaissance

Although the Renaissance occurred all across Europe, we will focus primarily on Italy as this is where it really all kicked off and the Italian city-states were the nucleus of the Renaissance. What was it about Italy that lent itself to Renaissance? Italy was primed for Renaissance for one reason: money! A society must be incredibly wealthy to support artists, elaborate building projects and scholars enlightening the age. And the Italian city-states were vastly rich for two principle reasons:

  • Many of the city-states were miniature industrial powerhouses, each specialising in a specific industrial product. Florence, for example, spun fine textiles, Milan was famous for its metalwork and Urbino was known for beautiful ceramics.
  • The cities of Genoa and Venice were immensely wealthy from trade, with Genoa turning out fine sailors (including Christopher Columbus). It was Venice who became the richest city-state of them all, however. The Venetians were expert shipbuilders and sailors and the city was home to a merchant class who had figured out how to deal with the Islamic empires, including the greatest economic power of them all, the Ottoman Empire. Without trading in the Islamic world, especially in spices, the Venetians would never have been able to afford and fund the artists, scholars and building projects that defined the Renaissance.

Trade has often made appearances throughout the human story, but that is because trade is fantastic and binds the world together, enriching those who participate in it. However, not everyone wants to participate in fair trade, and this is exactly what one opportunistic Italian merchant and his godfather (who happened to be the Pope) had in mind when they sought to curb Ottoman economic power.


The Venetians exported lots of textiles to the Ottoman Empire. These stylish garments were usually woven in other cities, like Florence; and the reason that Florentine textiles were so valuable is because their colour remained vibrant. This was due to a process of dying the materials with a chemical called alum, which was primarily found in Anatolia, the heartland of the Ottoman Empire. To make the fabrics that the Ottomans craved, the Italian craftsmen required Ottoman alum, at least until 1461 that is. When Giovanni de Castro, Pope Pius II’s godson, discovered alunite, the source of alum, in Tolfa near Rome. He wrote to his godfather hoping to receive support to mine the alunite, arguing that the Ottomans would lose their profits, thus weakening the menacing power to the east, and filling the coffers of the Papacy. Pope Pius II accepted Castro’s offer and granted a monopoly in alunite mining rights to the Medici family from Florence. Critically, Italian alunite mines did not bring victory over the Ottoman Empire, or cause them to lose all their profits, as there will always be a need to trade commodities.

And without commodity trading enriching the Italian city-states there certainly would have been no European Renaissance. In these prosperous cities, artists, composers, writers and scholars thrived along with the commerce that paid for everything. Urban merchants and manufacturers built a vigorous business that brought in products and ideas from across Afro Eurasia, with some families accumulating obscene amounts of wealth which allowed them to support the world of Renaissance artists and thinkers in a system called patronage.

Banking institutions also sprang up, and bankers funded civic events and the construction of grand cathedrals. These bankers also backed or personally paid for the building of masterworks in the rediscovered classical style of the pre-Christian Roman Empire. They also financed artists who required funds to complete their works, including Botticelli and Michelangelo. City governments also proved to be important patrons of the Renaissance whilst individual leaders also spent much of their personal incomes on the arts.


Why was so much spent on art and architecture? Well, for much the same reasons that rich people today often fund art and buildings: for status, for recognition, and possibly even for the love of beauty. Also, funding public artworks and churches served to legitimise the wealth of the families. The Church could hardly condemn merchant wealth if it were being spent on building and decorating churches, nor could the governments that came to depend on that wealth. We see this cycle again and again throughout history; wealth supporting institutions that, in turn, legitimises that same wealth.

Art, Science & Exploration


Through the sponsorship of the patrons, art, architecture and science became intricately linked together during the Renaissance. In fact, it was a rather unique period of history when these fields of study seemed to seamlessly intertwine. For instance, artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo incorporated scientific principles, such as anatomy, into their works so that they could recreate the human body with extraordinary precision. There is speculation that Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, one of the frescoes that adorns the roof of the Sistine Chapel, displays an anatomically correct human brain. How did these artists gain such precise knowledge of the workings of the inner human body? They dissected cadavers, of course; no stone was left unturned in the pursuit of perfection in their chosen discipline. After all, Renaissance art was characterised by realism and naturalism and artists strived to depict people and objects in as true a way as possible, using perspective, shadows and light to add depth to their work, and infuse emotion into their artwork.


Scientific discoveries led to major shifts in thinking: Galileo Galilei and Renee Descartes presented a new view of astronomy and mathematics, whilst the Polish polymath, Nicolaus Copernicus, arguably the Renaissance’s greatest mind (with fields of study including astronomy, law, medicine, mathematics and economics; very much a “Renaissance Man”), figured out that the earth was not the centre of the universe. However, it is very unlikely that he did not figure this out on his own. There is no way to be sure whether he had access to Islamic scholarship on this topic, but one of his diagrams is so suspiciously similar to one found in an Islamic mathematics thesis that it seems unlikely that he did not have access to it.

While many artists and scholars used their talents to express new ideas, some other Europeans took to the seas to learn more about the world around them. The era known as the “Age of Discovery”, a period of several vitally important explorations, was kickstarted during the European Renaissance. Voyages were launched to travel the entire globe, discovering new shipping routes to the Americas, India and the Far East with explorers journeying across areas that were not yet fully mapped. Famous journeys were taken by the likes of Marco Polo (the merchant who documented his travels across the Silk Road), Christopher Columbus (the explorer credited with “discovering” the Americas), Amerigo Vespucci (after whom the Americas are named), Ferdinand Magellan (who organised the first circumnavigation of the globe, although he never completed it himself and was killed in battle on the island of Mactan), and many other explorers.

Was the Renaissance Even a “Thing”?

One of the main problems with the idea of the European Renaissance is its longevity. It was not like the Norman Invasion of England or the American Revolution were people were aware that the world around them was changing and that they were living amid history being made. No one was aware that they were living through a glorious age when man’s relationship to learning was changing. Most people living in Europe throughout the European Renaissance were unaware of the Renaissance because its art and learned scholarship only affected a tiny proportion of the continent’s population. In a bitter twist of irony, life expectancy in many areas of Europe went down during this period. The art and learning that defined this period of European history did not filter down to most people in the way that technology filters down to us today and for this reason the Renaissance was only ever really, truly, experienced by the richest of the rich and those people, like painters and architects, that served them.

There were, of course, some extra commercial opportunities above the usual, like binding books and framing paintings, but these were not available to most Europeans who still lived on farms as peasants or tenants. The rediscovery of Aristotelian thought did not change their lives in any way, which were governed for the most part by the rising and setting of the sun, and by the rationality of the Catholic Church.


The reason that the Renaissance is so important is not because it was central to the lives of Europeans living at the time but because it is important to us. We have retroactively applied such importance to the period because we care about the musings of Aristotle and Plato, the heliocentric model of the solar system, the Mona Lisa and the concept of individualism. At the time, Europe was rather insignificant and led the world in very little, so it is important to us that we highlight this period of European rediscovery. Because these things provide a narrative that makes sense: Europe was enlightened by the free-thought of the Greeks; Europe was un-enlightened with the fall of the Western Roman Empire; and Europe was re-enlightened with the rediscovery of the ideas of the ancient Greeks, and has remained alight ever since.

It is true that many of the ideas that were introduced to Europe during the period of the Renaissance became extraordinarily important to western thought, art and culture, but it is also crucial to remember that this extended period of time lasted for hundreds of years. The Florentine sculptor Donatello and the Bolognese female sculptor, Properzia de’ Rossi were born 104 years apart, whilst 325 years separates the birth of the Florentine humanist Petrarch and the death of the Scottish humanist David Hume of Godscroft.

Whilst the exact timing and overall impact of the European Renaissance is sometimes debated, there is little dispute that the events of the period ultimately led to advances that changed the way some people understood and interpreted the world around them. The real question to ask is whether the Renaissance was truly one “thing”, or whether it was a lot of mutually interdependent “things” occurring throughout the continent over an extended period?

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
  15. The Rise of Islam
  16. The Dark Ages
  17. The Cross and the Crescent – The Crusades
  18. Medieval Africa and Islam
  19. The Mongols
  20. Black Death & DiseaseBlack Death & Disease
  21. Indian Ocean Trade
  22. The Venetians & The Ottomans: A Convenient Relationship
  23. Rise of the Bear: Early Russia

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