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The Renaissance - always with the definite article and an initial capital letter, and pronounced in British English with the stress on the second syllable, rer-NAY-serns, IPA: /rə (or ɪ) ˈnei səns/ (the standard American pronunciation is 're-nay-SONSS'), /ˌrə nei ˈsɑːns/ was the cultural and intellectual movement which marked the transition in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Modern Era.

The word Renaissance, which is a French word (pronounced in its own language wigth little differentiation of satress between the three syllables) adopted, in this sense ('a period of renewal, or a new beginning, in a wide intellectual or artistic sense', and specifically the European Renaissance discussed here) into English from the 1830s, is sometimes written renascence, a form which derives from the Italian rinascimento. This is first recorded in Matthew Arnold'a Culture & Anarchy (1869): "... the Renascence1
1I have ventured to give to the foreign word Renaissance an English form." (159)
Renascence, with the adjective renascent, had been used in English (which had taken it from the same Latin root renascent- as the Italian) with the general sense of 'rebirth' or 'regeneration', since the seventeenth century, but is now rarely to be seen in this sense.

The Renaissance began in the fourteenth century in Italy, over the following centuries spread to much of the rest of Europe, and did not end in some parts of Europe until the seventeenth century. (The expression 'the High Renaissance' is sometimes used to refer to the period from c1490 to c1520, when the ideals of the Renaissance were considered to have been fully realised in the work of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo (1475-1564), and Raphael (1483-1520). See further below.)

The Renaissance was a complex movement with many interrelated aspects:

  • The revival of classical learning. In the fourteenth century there was a renewed interest in the study of ancient Greece and Rome - both for its own sake and because it was realised that classical literature contained a wealth of knowledge, observation, and experience which could be relevant to the contemporary world. The Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1378) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), author of the Decameron, were among the first of many to seek out lost classical manuscripts; and in the second half of the fifteenth century, after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, many Greek-speaking scholars emigrated to western Europe, and particularly to the Italian city of Florence, bringing with them more manuscripts and promoting study of the Greek language. The spur that this gave to scholarship is sometimes called 'the New Learning'.
  • A re-evaluation of human nature. The renewed interest in the classical world and greater familiarity with the attitudes of ancient Greece and Rome, which were in some ways very different from those of medieval Christianity, led to a new sense of, and confidence in, human powers and to a conviction that the human condition did not simply have to be endured, but could be changed and improved by human agency. There was a growing recognition that the medieval assumptions about what human beings could, and should, do were too restrictive.
  • The expansion of knowledge. An element in this new way of thinking was the belief that human knowledge is not a fixed body of truths to be passed on from one generation to the next but can be expanded by the discovery of new truths through experiment and exploration. Examples of this new spirit of inquiry include: the work of the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1478-1543); the experimental-mathematical methods of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642); and the voyages of discovery by, e.g., Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), who in 1492 sailed to America, Vasco da Gama (1460-1524), who discovered the sea route to India in 1498 by rounding the Cape of Good Hope, and Sebastian Cabot (1474-1557), who in 1509 organised an expedition to seek a north-west passage (westwards round the north of America) to India.
  • Artistic achievement. Associated with this new confidence was a desire to celebrate the human powers, mental and physical, which were its foundation. Art flourished: painters and sculptors represented the human form in a more realistic way that emphasised its physicality, as, e.g., in the Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), and David, the well-known sculpture of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564); while the work of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was informed by his extensive studies of human anatomy. For many nowadays it is the art of the period that is the most salient, and valued, aspect of the Renaissance.
  • The rise of secularism. Insofar as the Roman Catholic Church was responsible for, and inclined to enforce, the old ways of thinking about the world and the place of human beings in it, the Renaissance involved a decline in the power and authority of the Church and a shift from a religious to a more secular outlook.

It cannot be overemphasized that the changes which constitute the Renaissance were cultural and intellectual. They had little or no impact on the economic and social conditions of the period, and affected the attitudes and lives of only a small, educated minority. Most of those who lived in Europe at the time of the Renaissance will have been completely unaware of it.

The expression 'the Renaissance' may refer either to the movement itself - as in 'Central to the Renaissance was a more optimistic view of human nature' - or to the historical period during which the movement flourished - as in 'During the Renaissance there was relatively little change in economic and social conditions'. The word Renaissance (without the definite article) may also be used as a modifier - as in 'Raphael is one of the best-known Renaissance painters'. With an adjective or qualifying phrase, but still with the definite article and an initial capital, the word may be used of other extensive cultural or intellectual revivals - such as the Carolingian Renaissance or the Renaissance of the twelfth century - and, without an initial capital, may be used to refer to any cultural or intellectual revival, however restricted its scope - as in 'The recent renaissance in Middle Eastern studies has produced a number of excellent monographs on Syrian history'. The word 'renaissance' comes from the French renaissance, which means 'rebirth'.

Some of the best-known figures of the Renaissance, such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, had exceptional abilities in many different fields. Hence the phrase 'a Renaissance man' may be used to describe any person who has a wide range of intellectual interests and accomplishments.