The word 'renaissance' is from the French for "new birth" or "rebirth." This term very aptly describes what is considered one of the world's greatest periods of cultural awakening. Although best known for developments in the arts, during this period there were also major advances in science, literature, religion, politics and education.
THE BEGINNING OF THE RENAISSANCE
Although the Italian Renaissance of the 14th century is generally considered the beginning of the Renaissance period, there was actually a smaller, yet very important, "renaissance" during the 12th century in Europe.
During this time there was a renewed interest in the Latin classics and poetry, Roman law, and Greek science and philosophy. It was also during this century that the first of the European universities were founded. Scholars at these universities aided greatly in the translation and distribution of Hellenic and Islamic scientists and philosophers. The works of Aristotle were especially made available. This "new" knowledge was to form the platform for the later Italian Renaissance.
This pre-Renaissance period also signaled the way for many scientific and technology discoveries, including a bulk manufacturing process for paper, the development of the magnetic compass, the astrolabe, the windmill, and the spinning wheel. As with the development of universities, these technological advances helped create a base to serve as a "jumping-off point" for the larger renaissance to come.
THE BEGINNING OF THE 'ITALIAN RENAISSANCE'
Historians generally agree that the Renaissance period began in the 14th century in the city of Florence, Tuscany. There is still much debate, however, as to what circumstances came together in this location at that time that opened the way for this cultural movement.
The following circumstances are among those most-mentioned as resulting in the development of the Renaissance:
The Medici Family
The Medici family was a large banking family, and later an Italian ruling house, that became known for being patrons of the arts. It was Lorenzo de' Medici (1449 - 1492) who encouraged his fellow countrymen of means to commission and support the works of the then-leading artists of Florence, including Michelangelo, Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci.
The plague pandemic, also known as the 'Black Death,' swept over Europe between 1348 and 1350 AD. As a result, there was a large decrease in the population of the time. It is estimated that in England alone approximately one in four died from the disease. Florence, however, was hit especially hard - losing almost half its population in 1937 alone.
It is postulated that the result of this huge decline in population resulted in economic conditions that served as another factor leading to the Renaissance. The prices of food and land decreased by 30 - 40% in most of Europe, allowing for an increase in the middle class as more workers were able to afford food and purchased property. Many, in fact, experienced windfalls of both money and land as a result of inheritances received during that time. Additionally, they were better able to afford travel throughout Europe to find the best economic conditions. Florence proved to be such a place.
It is also theorized that the preponderance of deaths in Florence, and in fact all Italy, brought about greater piety which manifested itself in part in the sponsorship (funding) of religious works of art.
Not only were more people in possession of greater wealth due to inheritances from plague victims, but beginning in the 14th century Italians expanded their trade routes into both Asia and the rest of Europe. There was the discovery of prodigious silver veins in the Tyrol region, and an inflow of money and other luxury items from the East brought home by Crusaders. This wealth provided the resources for increased patronage of the arts in Florence.
Unique Social Structures
Socially and politically, Italy as we know it today did not exist at the time of the 14th century. The country was divided into "city states" which served as very individualistic territories. The Republic of Florence occupied the center of Italy, along with the Papal States. Scholars note that this part of Italy was extremely urbanized in comparison with the rest of Europe, with most of the cities being built on top of ancient Roman ruins. People had been living in very urbanized settings for a very long time, and thus were more likely to be supportive of advances in the arts and humanities than more rural folks.
Unique Political Structures
By the 14th century, Florence, like other Italian city-states, had evolved beyond the feudalistic society to a merchant- and commerce-based society. Florence became one of the capitals of textile manufacture and trade, bringing to it merchants from all over Europe and Asia resulting in the continued influx of both new ideas and the wealth required to commission and study the arts and sciences.