Eras and Their Highlights

The Renaissance

How is the attitude of the Renaissance characterized?

The artists and thinkers of the Renaissance, like the ancient Greeks and Romans, valued earthly life, glorified man’s nature, and celebrated individual achievement. These new attitudes combined to form a new spirit of optimism, the belief that man was capable of accomplishing great things.

This outlook was the result of the activities of the wealthy mercantile class in northern Italy, who, aside from supporting the arts and letters, also began collecting the classical texts that had been forgotten during the Middle Ages (500–1350). Ancient manuscripts were taken to libraries, where scholars from around Europe could study them. The rediscovery of classical texts prompted a new way of looking at the world. During the Middle Ages, scholars argued that the meaning of life on Earth lay primarily in its relation to an afterlife. Therefore, they believed that art for its own sake had no value, and they even frowned on the recognition of individual talent. (For this reason, many of the great works of the Middle Ages were created anonymously or were hidden from public view.)

In contrast, Renaissance artists and thinkers studied classical works for the purpose of imitating them. As an expression of their new optimism, Renaissance scholars embraced the study of classical subjects that addressed human, rather than scientific, concerns. These “humanities,” as they came to be called, included language and literature, art, history, rhetoric, and philosophy. Above all, humanists, those who espoused the values of this type of education, believed in man’s potential to become well versed in many areas. Thus, a “Renaissance man” is anyone whose talents span a variety of disciplines. During the Renaissance, people in all disciplines began using critical skills as a means of understanding everything from nature to politics.


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