Saylor.org's Early Globalizations: East Meets West (1200s-1600s)/The Idea of the Renaissance

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Michelangelo's David, perhaps the most iconic sculpture of the Renaissance

The Renaissance: French for re-birth. In history, the term "Renaissance" is used to connote the period of the 14th to the 17th centuries in Europe, when, it has been said, the classical splendor of Ancient Greece and Rome was born anew. The traditional interpretation of the Renaissance is that it was a period that witnessed a flowering of academic and artistic brilliance for the first time since the fall of the classical world. The Renaissance, it is said began in Italy due to the wealth that Italians acquired due to their extensive trade networks, especially with the Islamic near-east. This accumulation of wealth, to say nothing of the cultural contact with Islamic scholars who had preserved and improved upon classical texts, encouraged the wealthy to commission works of art and literature .

This traditional interpretation of the Renaissance, however, is actually more controversial than it would initially seem. Apart from the eurocentric connotations that European "re-birth" owed nothing to the Islamic civilization that had largely kept ancient ideas alive, there is the troubling implication that the Renaissance was a sharp contrast to the "Dark Ages" of roughly 476-1453 CE. The traditional interpretation implies that the thousand years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire were a period of barbarism, ignorance and stagnation. In recent years, medieval historians have critiqued this historical narrative quote strongly for these implications of the so-called "Middle Ages" (in the middle of antiquity and the early modern period). Medievalist are keen to point out that many of the most important artisitc or philosophical ideas "re-born" in the Renaissance had never truly disappeared in Europe. Perhaps even more challenging to the traditional narrative of the Renaissance is the fact that it was not an immediately recognizable change in European social, cultural and political life, but rather an amalgam of several centuries of changes. Europeans did not suddenly throw off the religious worldview that largely colored the medieval period. In fact, the majority of renaissance art still depicted scenes from the Bible. For the majority of non-nobles, merchants, artists, scholars, etc. that comprised the European population, life in the countryside was hardly indistinguishable between life "before" and "after" the Renaissance. IN any event, the Renaissance did not mark an end to feudalism, kingship or the power and prestige of the Catholic Church...and in some ways, the Renaissance actually strengthened these institutions.