Baldassare Castiglione
Niccolo Machiavelli
Lorenzo de Medici
Leondardo da Vinci
Michelangelo Buonarroti
Johannes Gutenberg
Albrecht Durer
Jan van Eyck
Protestant Reformation
Martin Luther
John Calvin
Henry VIII
Elizabeth I
Counter Reformation
Ignatius of Loyola
Council of Trent
Cosimo de Medici
Desiderius Erasmus
Peace of Augsburg
Edict of Worms
Renaissance Prezi


By the 1300s four northern Italian cities had become trading centers - Florence, Genoa (JEN-uh-wuh), Milan (muh-LAHN), and Venice. These cities bustled with activity. Shoppers there could buy beautiful things from Asia. Residents could meet strangers from faraway places and hear many languages on the streets.

Italian cities played two very important roles in trade. One role was as ports on the Mediterranean Sea. Venice and Genoa were Italy's main port cities. Merchant ships brought spices and other luxuries from Asia into the cities' harbors. From there, merchants shipped the goods across Europe. The other role was as manufacturing centers. Cities specialized in certain crafts. Venice produced glass. Workers in Milan made weapons and silk. Florence was a center for weaving wool into cloth. All of this economic activity put more money in merchants' pockets. Some Italian merchant families became incredibly wealthy. Eventually, this wealth would help make Italy the focus of European culture. How did this happen?

Look at the map below. Notice that in the 1300s Italy was not a single country. Instead, it was made up of independent states. These states had different forms of government. For example, Venice was a republic, while the pope ruled the Papal States as a monarchy.

In most big Italian cities, a single rich merchant family controlled the government. This type of government was called a signoria (seen-yohr-EE-uh). The head of the family, the signore (seen-YOHR-ay), ruled the city. Under the signori, trade grew in Italy. In fact, the signori competed against each other to see whose city could grow richest from trade. They also competed for fame. Each one wanted to be known as powerful, wise, and devoted to his city.

In the 1300s, trade goods from Asia poured into Europe. Many of those items came through Italian ports. As a result, the merchant families in these cities made money. As the families grew rich and powerful, they wanted everyone to see what their money could buy. Although these factors affected most big Italian cities, one city Florence stands out as an example of trade and wealth at this time.
Although Florence's wealth began with the wool trade, banking increased that wealth. Bankers in Florence kept money for merchants from all over Europe. The Impact Today The bankers made money by charging interest. Interest is a fee that borrowers pay for the use of someone else's money. This fee is usually a certain percentage of the loan.

The greatest bankers in Florence were the Medici (MED-i-chee) family. In the early 1400s they were Florence's richest family, and by 1434 Cosimo de' Medici (KOH-zee-moh day MED-i-chee) ruled the city. As ruler, Cosimo de' Medici wanted Florence to be the most beautiful city in the world. He hired artists to decorate his palace. He also paid architects to redesign many of Florence's buildings. Cosimo de' Medici also valued education. After all, his banks needed workers who could read, write, and understand math. To improve education, he also built libraries and collected books.

During the time that the Medici family held power, Florence became the center of Italian art, literature, and culture. In other Italian cities, rich families tried to outdo the Medicis and each others in their support of the arts and learning.

This love of art and education was a key feature of a time we call the Renaissance (REN-uh-sahns). The word Renaissance means "rebirth" and refers to the period that followed Europe's Middle Ages. What was being "reborn"? Interest in Greek and Roman writings was revived. Also new was an emphasis on people as individuals. These ideas were very different from the ideas of the Middle Ages.


During the Middle Ages, most people in Europe had devoted themselves entirely to Christianity. People looked to the church for answers to problems in their lives, and most of Europe's brilliant and influential thinkers were church figures.
By the late 1300s, however, scholars had begun to study subjects besides religion. They studied history, literature, public speaking, and art, subjects that emphasized the actions and abilities of humans. Together, these subjects are called the humanities. The study of the humanities led to a new way of thinking and learning known as humanism. The humanists of the Renaissance were no less religious than people had been before. Like the people of the Middle Ages, they were devout Christians. At the same time, however, people in the Renaissance were interested in ideas besides religion.

People's newfound interest in the humanities led them to respect those who could write, create, or speak well. As a result, talented writers and artists won great fame and honor. This too was a great change from the Middle Ages, when most people had worked only to glorify God.

Rediscovering the Past

The popularity of the humanities was due in large part to a new interest in ancient history. This interest had been caused by the rediscovery of many ancient writings that Europeans had thought to be lost. During the 1300s, Turks had conquered much of the Byzantine Empire. Scholars seeking to escape the Turks fled to Italy. In their luggage these scholars carried rare, precious works of literature.

Many of the works they brought to Italy were ancient classical writings, such as works by Greek thinkers. You may remember some of their names—Plato and Thucydides, for example. Europeans had thought that these ancient writings were lost forever. Excited by their return, scholars then went looking for ancient texts in Latin. They discovered many Latin texts in monasteries, where the monks had preserved works by Roman writers. As Italian scholars read the ancient texts, they rediscovered the glories of Greece and Rome. As a result, they longed for a renewal of classical culture.
Among the ideas that Italian scholars wanted to revive were subjects that the Greeks and Romans had studied. These subjects included grammar, speaking, poetry, history, and the Greek and Latin languages --- the humanities.
Other ancient sources of inspiration for Renaissance artists and architects were all around. Roman ruins still stood in Italy. Fine classical statues were on display, and more were being found every day. Throughout the Renaissance, Italian artists studied these ancient statues. They tried to make their own works look like the works of the Romans and Greeks. In fact, some artists wanted their works to look ancient so badly that they buried their statues in the ground to make them look older!

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Many Italian writers contributed great works of literature to the Renaissance. The earliest was the politician and poet named Dante Alighieri (DAHN-tay ahl-eeg-YEH-ree), or simply Dante. Before Dante, most medieval authors had written in Latin, the language of the church. But Dante wrote in Italian, which was the common language of the people. By using Italian, Dante showed that he considered the people's language to be as good as Latin. Later writers continued to use common languages in their works of literature.

Dante's major work was The Divine Comedy. It describes an imaginary journey he took through the afterlife. On this journey, The-Divine-Comedy.jpgDante meets people from his past as well as great figures from history. In fact, the Roman poet Virgil is one of the guides on the journey. In the course of his writing, Dante described many of the problems he saw in Italian society.

A later Italian writer was also a politician. His name was Niccolo Machiavelli (neek-koh-LOH mahk-yah-VEL-lee). In 1513 Machiavelli wrote a short book called The Prince. It gave leaders advice on how they should rule.The_Prince.jpg

Machiavelli didn't care about theories or what should work. In his writings, he argued that rulers had to focus on the "here and now", not theories, to be successful. He was only interested in what really happened in both war and peace. For example, Machiavelli thought that sometimes rulers had to be ruthless to keep order. In this way, Machiavelli serves as a good example of Renaissance interest in human behavior and society.
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Another Italian writer was Baldassare Castiglione (bahl-dahs-sah-re kah-stee-lyaw-ne). In 1528 a year before his death he wrote his most famous book called The Book of the Courtier. His book is a courtesy book which addresses court life and the constitution of a perfect courtier. In his last installment he discusses a perfect lady. Interesting to see what he may have said? Click here to read The Book of the Courtier.

Manners_For_Dummies.gif Castiglione.jpg


During the Renaissance Italian artists created some of the most beautiful paintings and sculptures in the world. Rich families and church leaders hired the artists to create these works. New techniques made their work come alive.

Renaissance ideas about the value of human life are reflected in the art of the time. Artists showed people more realistically than medieval artists had done. Renaissance artists studied the human body and drew what they saw. However, because artists often used classical statues as their guides, many of the human beings they drew were as perfect as Greek gods.

Artists also used a new discovery—perspective, a method of showing a three-dimensional scene on a flat surface so that it looks real. Perspective uses various techniques. For example, people in the background are smaller than those in front. Also, straight lines, such as on floor tiles, appear diagonal. Colors could also show distance. So mountains in the background of a picture are a hazy blue.

Great Artists

In the work of the greatest Italian artists the people shown are clearly individuals. In this way, the art reflects the Renaissance idea of the value of human beings. For example, the figures in the painting below by the artist Raphael have clear personalities.

Sandro Botticelli (bot-ti-CHEL-lee), a painter from Florence, also showed respect for people. Many of his paintings show scenes from Roman myths. But he painted everyone—whether ancient gods, saints, angels, or farmers—in fine detail.

The work of Titian (TISH-uhn), the finest artist of Venice, reflects interest in the past. Like Botticelli, he often painted scenes from classical myths. For Venice’s churches, though, Titian painted colorful scenes from Christian teachings.

One of the greatest Italian artists was Michelangelo (mee-kay-LAHN-jay-loh). He had many talents. Michelangelo designed buildings, wrote poetry, carved sculptures, and painted magnificent pictures. Perhaps his most famous work is a painting that covers the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. The muscular human figures in this immense painting remind the viewer of Greek or Roman statues.
Visit the Sistine Chapel

The scuplture on the left is called Pieta, a depiction of the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the Cruifixion, was carved in 1499, when the sculptor was 24 years old. Below you see two photos of the sculpture of David. The center one is a representation of what would be scuplted today based on us fat Americans! The right picture is Michelangelo's original that is approximately 17 feet tall. It was completed by Michelangelo in 1504, and is one of the most renowned works of the Renaissance.
pieta.jpg imagesCA0133R1.jpg

Leonardo da Vinci
The true genius of the Renaissance was Leonardo da Vinci. In fact, some call him the greatest genius that has ever lived. In addition to being an expert painter, Leonardo was a sculptor, architect, inventor, and engineer. He was even a town planner and mapmaker. All these things together give him the title of "Renaissance Man" someone who is well-rounded and talented in many avenues.

Both nature and technology fascinated Leonardo. Detailed drawings of plants, animals, and machines fill his sketchbooks. To make his art more real, Leonardo studied anatomy, or the structure of human bodies. He dissected corpses to see how bones and muscles worked. Yet Leonardo’s paintings also show human emotions. For example, people who see his Mona Lisa can’t help wondering what made the lady smile.


Many of the texts rediscovered in the 1300s dealt with science. For the first time in centuries, Europeans could read works by ancient scientists. After reading these works, Renaissance scholars went on to make their own scientific advances.

Some scholars thought mathematics could help them understand the universe. They studied ancient math texts and built upon the ideas in them. In the process, they created symbols we still use in math today. For example, they created symbols for the square root () and for positive (+) and negative (−) numbers.

Advances in math led to advances in other fields of science. For example, engineers and architects used new mathematical formulas to strengthen buildings. One Renaissance architect who used these new ideas was Filippo Brunelleschi (broo-nayl-LAYS-kee). He designed a huge dome for a cathedral in Florence. But Brunelleschi ran into a problem. The dome that he wanted to build was so big that it would be too heavy for the cathedral’s walls to support. To solve the problem, he built the dome out of two thin, light layers instead of one thick, heavy one.

Other Renaissance scientists wanted to know more about the sky and what was in it. They studied astronomy to learn about the sun, stars, and planets. In the Middle Ages, scientists had thought that the sun and stars revolved around the earth. They thought that the earth was the center of the universe. But Renaissance scientists learned that the earth moves around the sun. Later astronomers built on this discovery to lay the foundations for modern astronomy. Other scholars were less interested in the stars and more curious about the earth itself. They wanted to know the exact size and shape of the earth and its lands. These scholars used measurements and calculations made by merchants and sailors to create better, more accurate maps.

In time, these changes in literature, art, science, and technology would spread beyond Italy. For these changes to spread, however, required changes in education.
During the Middle Ages, students had concentrated on religious subjects. During the Renaissance, students learned about the humanities as well. The Impact Today History was one subject that received more attention. An early Renaissance scholar named Petrarch (PEH-trahrk), wrote about the importance of knowing history:

“O inglorious age! that scorns antiquity, its mother, to whom it owes every noble art… What can be said in defense of men of education who ought not to be ignorant of antiquity [ancient times] and yet are plunged in… darkness and delusion?”

Petrarch’s ideas would affect education for many years to come. Education and new ways of spreading information would take the Renaissance far beyond Italy.


Travelers and artists helped spread the Renaissance throughout Europe. But the development of printing was a giant step in spreading ideas. For the first time ever, thousands of people could read books and share ideas about them.

Paper and Printing

By the late 700s papermaking had spread from China to the Middle East. From there it came to Europe. European factories were making paper by the 1300s. Because it was cheaper and easier to prepare, paper soon replaced the animal skins on which people had written before.

Then in the mid-1400s a German man, Johann Gutenberg (GOOT-uhn-berk), developed a printing press that used movable type. That is, each letter was a separate piece. A worker could fit letters into a frame, spread ink on the letters, and press a sheet of paper against the letters. In this way, an entire page was printed at once. Then the worker could rearrange letters in the frame to create a new page. How much faster printing was than writing!

The first printed book was a Bible printed in the Latin language in about 1455. Soon, some thinkers began to call for the Bible to be translated into common languages. Although church leaders fought strenuously against it, the Bible was eventually translated and printed. Bibles were suddenly available to more people. Because the Bible was available to read, more people learned to read. The Impact Today Then, they wanted more education.

New Universities


Students from around Europe traveled to Italy to study at Italian universities. By the early 1500s most of the teachers in these universities were humanists. Students from northern Europe who studied with these teachers took Renaissance ideas back with them to their home countries.

Over time, many of the new scholars became teachers in Europe’s universities. In addition, new universities opened in France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Because these schools were set up by humanists, Renaissance ideas about the value of people spread throughout Europe.

Although only men could attend universities, women also helped spread these ideas. Many noble families educated their daughters at home. They encouraged young women to study classical literature, philosophy, and the arts. Some educated women became powerful political figures. They married nobles from around Europe and encouraged the spread of Renaissance ideas in their husbands’ lands.


As humanism spread, scholars in northern Europe became more interested in history. Northern scholars, however, focused not on Greece and Rome but on the history of Christianity. The resulting combination of humanist and religious ideas is called Christian humanism. Many northern scholars felt that the church was corrupt and no longer true to the spirit of Jesus’s teachings anymore. They began to call for church reform.

A Dutch priest named Desiderius Erasmus (des-i-DEER-ee-uhs i-RAZ-mus) was the most important of these scholars. In 1509 he published a book, The Praise of Folly, in which he criticized corrupt clergy. Erasmus also wanted to get rid of some church rituals that he considered meaningless. Instead of rituals, he emphasized devotion to God and the teachings of Jesus.

Northern Renaissance Art

Northern Europeans also changed some Renaissance ideas about art. For one thing, the humans in northern paintings don’t look like Greek gods. Instead, they are realistic, with physical flaws. Northern artists embraced realism in another way, too. They painted objects, from rocks to flowers, so clearly that the objects don’t look like they were painted at all. They almost appear to be the real thing, glued to the painting.

Biblical scenes and classical myths were the traditional subjects of Italian Renaissance art. In contrast, northern artists painted scenes of daily life. For example, look at the painting below of hunters returning home. It was painted by Pieter Brueghel (BROY-guhl) the Elder, an artist from what is now Belgium. Some of Brueghel’s other paintings show people working in fields, dancing, or eating. His son, called Brueghel the Younger, later used his father’s ideas in his own works.

Albrecht Dürer (AWL-brekt DYUR-uhr) was a famous northern artist from Germany. Like Italian artists, Dürer studied anatomy so he could paint people more realistically. Like his fellow northerners, Dürer showed objects in great detail. A lover of nature, Dürer drew even a patch of weeds so clearly that today scientists can identify the plant species.

Dürer created religious paintings for churches. But he is most famous for his prints. A print is a work of art reproduced from an original. First, Dürer carved the image into either a metal sheet or a wooden block. Then he covered the image with ink and pressed a sheet of paper down onto it. The image transferred to the paper. Dürer sold his prints at fairs and markets.

Among other great artists of the Northern Renaissance were two portrait painters—Hans Holbein (HAWL-byn) and Jan van Eyck (yahn van YK). Holbein grew up in Switzerland but moved to England. There he painted a portrait of King Henry VIII. Among van Eyck’s works are many religious scenes. Van Eyck worked in oil paints, a new invention. The colors in his paintings seem to glow from within.



Writers in other countries besides Italy also included Renaissance ideas in their works. Like Dante, they wrote in the languages of their home countries (vernacular - common everyday spoken language, not in Latin). In Spain Miguel de Cervantes (mee-GEL day ser-VAHN-tays) wrote Don Quixote (kee-HOH-tay). In this book Cervantes poked fun at romantic tales of the Middle Ages. His main character is an old man who decides to become a knight, a decision that Cervantes mocks.

“At last, when his wits were gone beyond repair, he came to conceive the strangest idea that ever occurred to any madman in this world. It now appeared to him fitting and necessary, in order to win a greater amount of honor for himself and serve his country at the same time, to become a knight-errant and roam the world on horseback, in a suit of armor.”
Like many writers of his day, Cervantes thought his own time was much better than the Middle Ages.

In France, too, writers poked fun at the ideas of the Middle Ages. The greatest of these French Renaissance writers was François Rabelais (fran-swah RAB-uh-lay). Like many Renaissance figures, Rabelais was a person of many trades. In addition to being a writer, he was a doctor and a priest. But it is for his writing that he is best known. Rabelais wrote a series of novels about characters named Gargantua and Pantagruel. Through his characters’ actions, Rabelais mocks the values of the Middle Ages as well as events that had happened to him in his own life.

Readers around the world consider William Shakespeare the greatest writer in the English language. Although he also wrote poems, Shakespeare is most famous for his plays.

Shakespeare wrote more than 30 comedies, tragedies, and histories. London audiences of the late 1500s and early 1600s packed the theatre to see them. Ever since, people have enjoyed the beauty of Shakespeare’s language and his understanding of humanity. The following passage reflects the Renaissance idea that each human being is important. Shakespeare compares people to the actors in a play who should be watched with great interest:
“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.”

The works of Cervantes, Rabelais, and Shakespeare have been translated into dozens of languages. Through these translations, their Renaissance spirit lives on.



The Renaissance

Renaissance Artists

Northern Renaissance


The Medici Family - Godfathers of Renaissance

The Magnificent Medici - PBS

Leonardo da Vinci - History Channel

Michaelangelo - BBC

Agony and the Ecstasy