The prevalent modern notion that a “renaissance period” followed Western Europe’s medieval age was first expressed by numerous Italian writers who lived between 1350c and 1550c.


Renaissance should be reserved to describe certain exciting trends in the thought, literature, and the arts that emerged in Italy from roughly 1350 to 1550 and then spread to northern Europe during the first half of the 16th century. This paper will limit itself to the understanding of a renaissance period to mean an epoch in intellectual and cultural history.


The word renaissance literally means rebirth, it is sometimes thought that after about 1350, certain Italians who were newly cognizant of Greek and roman cultural accomplishments initiated a classical cultural rebirth after a long period of death.




In the realms of thought, literature, and the arts important distinguishing traits may certainly be found that make the concept of a renaissance meaningful for intellectual and cultural history:


1. The continuity rediscovery and the spread of classical learning


Medieval scholars knew many roman authors such as Virgil, Ovid, and Cicero but in the renaissance, the works of others such as Livy, Tacitus and Lucretius were rediscovered and made familiar. More importantly was the renaissance discovery of the literature of classical Greece.


In the 12th and 13th century, Greek scientific and philosophical treatises were made available to westerners in Latin translations, but none of the great Greek literary masterpieces and practically none of the major works of Plato were yet known. Only a handful of medieval westerners read the Greek language.


In the renaissance, large numbers of western scholars learned Greek and mastered almost the entire Greek literary heritage that is known today.


2. New uses for classical learning


Renaissance thinkers not only knew many more classical texts than their medieval counterparts, but they used them in new ways.


Medieval writers tended to employ their ancient sources for the purposes of complementing and confirming their own preconceived Christian assumptions but renaissance writers customarily drew on the classics to reconsider their preconceived notions and alter their modes of expression.


There was firm determination to learn from classical antiquity, more pronounced in the realms of architecture and art.


3. A secular renaissance culture


Although renaissance culture was by no means pagan, it certainly was more secular in its orientation than culture of the middle ages. During this period, the Italian city- states focused on the attainment of success in the urban political arena and the living well in this world. Such secular ideals helped create a culture that was increasingly non- ecclesiastical.


Humanism and education


This word has two different meanings, one technical and one general but both apply to the cultural goals and ideals of a large number of renaissance thinkers.


In its technical sense, humanism was a program of studies that aimed to replace the medieval scholastic emphasis of logic and metaphysics with the study of language, literature, history and ethics. Ancient literature was always preferred: the study of Latin classics was at the core of curriculum and whenever possible, the student was expected to advance to Greek.


Humanistic teachers argued that scholastic logic was too arid and irrelevant to practical concerns of life. They preferred humanities which were meant to make their students virtuous and prepare them for contributing best to the public functions of the state. Women were ignored but aristocratic women were sometimes given humanist training in order to make them appear more polished.


Humanism stressed the dignity of man as the most excellent of all Gods creature below the angels. Some renaissance thinkers argued that man was excellent because he alone of the earthly creatures could obtain knowledge of god.


The first humanist : Francis Petrarch (1304-1374).


Among the greatest accomplishment of Italian renaissance scholars and writers, the work of Francis Petrarch was the earliest of the humanists in the technical sense of the term.


Petrarch was a committed Christian who believed that scholasticism was entirely misguided because it concentrated on abstract speculation rather than teaching peoples how to behave properly and attain salvation.


He dedicated himself to searching for undiscovered ancient Latin texts and writing his own moral treatises in which he initiated classical style and quoted classical phrases.


Civic humanism (1400-1450)


It was developed by Italian thinkers and scholars located mainly in Florence. Civic humanists like Florentines Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444) centuries and Leon Battista Albert (1404-1472) centuries agreed with Petrarch on the need of eloquence and study of classical literature. But they taught that mans nature equipped him for action, for usefulness to his family and society and for serving the state.


The most vivid of the civic humanists writing is Alberti’s on the family (1443), in which he argued that the nuclear family was instituted by nature for the well being of humanity.


Alberti believed that man is by nature more energetic and industrious and that woman was created to increase and continue generations and to nourish and preserve those already born.


The civic humanists are noted for their success in opening up the field of classical Greek studies. They recognized the glories of ancient Greek literature. Some of Italian scholars traveled to Constantinople and eastern cities in search of forgotten masterpieces.


In 1423 one Italian, Giovanni aurispa, alone brought back 238 manuscript books, including works of Sophocles, Euripides and Thucydides. They were also involved in the work of translation into Latin. In this way, most of the Greek classics, particularly the writings of Plato, the dramatists and the historians were first made available to Western Europe.


The evolution of music as an independent art


Music in Western Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries reached such a high point of development that it constitutes, together with painting and sculpture, one of the most brilliant aspects of renaissance endeavor.


The development of music followed an independent path that had been in progress in medieval Christ Dom. Leadership came from those trained in the service of the church, but secular music was valued as well and its principles combined those of sacred music to bring a decided gain in color and emotional appeal. The distinction between sacred and profane became less sharp; and most composers did not restrict their activities to either side. Music was no longer regarded merely as a diversion or an adjunct to worship but came into its own serious independent art.


Contributions of the renaissance period to education


1. Philosophies of the period like Neo-Platonism helped scientific thinkers to reconsider older notions that had impeded the progress of medieval sciences.


2. A mechanistic view of the universe advanced by the great Greek mathematician and physicist Archimedes played an enormous role in the development of modern science because it insisted upon finding observable and measurable caused and effects in the world of nature. Archimedes taught that the universe operates on the basis of mechanical forces like a great machine.


3. One of the other renaissance developments that contributed to the rise of modern science was the breakdown of the medieval separation between the realms of theory and practice. This period shows advancement in mathematics, science e.g. human anatomy and architecture. In general, they helped make science more empirical and practically oriented than it had been earlier.


4. The achievement per excellence in astronomy –the formulation and proof of the heliocentric theory that the earth revolves around the sun (Copernicus 1530).


5. Among the physicist of renaissance were Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo. Leonardo da Vinci worked out the principles of an astonishing variety of inventions including a diving board, a steam engine, an armored tank, and a helicopter. Galileo developed the law that guide the gravitational fall which was later improved on by Newton some fifty years later.


6. Paracelsus (1493-1541) insisted on the close relationship of chemistry and medicine foreshadowed and directly influenced important modern achievements in pharmacology and healing.


7. Michael Servetus (1511-1553) discovered the pulmonary circulation of the blood. He described how the blood leaves the right chambers of the heart, is carried to the lungs to be purified then returns to the heart.




Alberti, Leon Battista, The Family in Renaissance Florence, R.N. Watkins, Columbia ,             1969.


Cassirer, E., et al. eds., The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, Chicago, 1948.


Kohl, B.G. and R.. G. Witt, eds., The Earthly Republic: Italian Humanists on Government and Society, Philadelphia, 1978.


Philip. L. Ralph, et al.(1997) World civilizations: Their History and Their Culture. http://

Source by Kinuthia Benson