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The Renaissance


History and Culture

  • While Renaissance means “rebirth,” the term more accurately pertains to a vision that the artists and intellectuals of the Renaissance possessed of the world of antiquity, which they then saw “reborn” in their own works.
  • Italian humanist scholars began to use new scholarly methods that gave them fuller access to the cultural legacy of the ancient world of Greece and Rome.
  • Although the Renaissance began in Italy, it peaked at different times in different countries.
  • The Renaissance was occupied more with this life than with the life beyond.
  • Church and state seemed inextricably bound together; the Papacy was a political and military power as well as a spiritual one.
  • Every cultured person studied Greek and spoke Latin, which became the international language, while making allusions to classical mythology, philosophy, and literature as well as references to the Scriptures were the common linguistic currency.
  • Human action was judged not in terms of right and wrong or good and evil, with reward or punishment in the afterlife, but in terms of its present concrete validity, effectiveness, and beauty.
  • The Renaissance lost the firm belief in the final unity and intelligibility of the universe, and once the unity of design had lost its authority, certainty about the final value of human actions was no longer to be found. The result was called “Renaissance melancholy.”
  • The people of the “New World” produced in the European explorers a sense that reality had been decisively altered and could never revert to older familiar ways.
  • The moral question hovering over the conquest of the New World became paramount with authors, who wanted to shock Europe and implement reforms in the colonizing mission because they believed the marvels of the New World had been utterly destroyed by the colonists.
  • In all modes of exploration—discovery, conquest, and defense or self-critique—Renaissance Europeans staged an encounter with their own ethical convictions about what it meant to be human in an ever-changing world.


  • Renaissance writers explored the relationships of literary characters and their society; the characters that populate Renaissance literature have greater autonomy and more fully realized personalities than their Middle Ages counterparts.
  • Characters are often presented in debate with themselves and others as they investigate a course of action.
  • Renaissance authors inhabited a world of such widespread revolutionary change that they could not passively receive the traditional wisdom of the previous ages.
  • John Donne wrote about the psychological threat the new discoveries and theories posed to those who were unable to cope with so much uncertainty.
  • Petrarch anticipated certain ideals of the Renaissance: a lofty conception of the literary arts, a taste for the good life, a basic pacifism, and a strong sense of the memories and glories of antiquity.
  • “Fame” and “glory” became associated with the art of poetry because the Renaissance drew from antiquity the idea of the poet as celebrator of high deeds, the “dispenser of glory.”