15 Characteristics of the Renaissance

Sandro Botticelli: The Birth of Venus . c. 1482-1485. Tempera on canvas. 278.5cm × 172.5cm. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

The Renaissance was a period of history that began at the end of the Black Death in the mid-14th century and lasted until the first half of the 16th century. Some consider it the beginning of the modern era and others as the preamble to modernity. In any case, it was a historical turn towards secularization through the promotion of scientific and humanistic thought, processes that were crystallized in the art and literature of the time. But what were the most important characteristics of the Renaissance?

1. Secularization and laicization of knowledge

The main characteristic of the Renaissance lies in the impulse of the secularization of society. Secularization is the name given to the transformation of a society organized according to religious doctrine, to a society with diversified and autonomous interests with respect to it.

Secularization brought with it the secularization of knowledge, that is, the possibility of cultivating and promoting knowledge among civil sectors, outside the ecclesiastical domain. This brought with it greater freedom of research and scientific and cultural production.

2. Anthropocentrism and humanism

Michelangelo: The Creation of Adam . Detail of the Sistine Chapel.The Renaissance is defined as an anthropocentric period. This means that the human being becomes the center of reference from which the sociocultural order is structured, displacing theocentric thinking (which should not be understood as the passage from a believing society to an agnostic or atheist one).

Anthropocentrism was founded on humanism, a philosophical current of that period that exalted the qualities of human nature. This humanism derived from the theological humanism of the late Middle Ages, which allowed the assessment of the human being as a favorite creature of God, leaving the doors open for the new perspective of the Renaissance.

3. Revaluation of Classical Antiquity

The Renaissance found its inspiration in Classical Antiquity, that is, in the study of the thought and art of ancient Greece and Rome. The Greco-Roman past, idealized to a certain extent, became the reference model. For this reason, this period gave itself the name of the Renaissance and had its epicenter in the Italian peninsula, eager to recover the splendor of the Roman era.

4. Assessment of rational thought

The Renaissance generation begins to question medieval beliefs and seeks rational explanations for the most varied phenomena. Rational thought (scientific and philosophical) becomes a tool for the discovery of the world, nature and man.

5. Scientific and technical curiosity

Scientific curiosity was the order of the day in the Renaissance. Many advances were recorded in all areas, such as astronomy, anatomy, biology, botany, etc. It was also a time marked by important inventions such as the printing press, which allowed the dissemination of thought among the literate elite.
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6. Nature study in the arts

Curiosity was expressed with special emphasis on the study of nature, which implied removing the veil of mystery that the Middle Ages interposed. The arts were touched by this spirit, which led to the improvement of naturalism, that is, in the principle of imitation of nature characteristic of Western art (from Greece to the nineteenth century inclusive). Specifically, it involved the following aspects:

  • Study and analysis of diaphanous light, thanks to which chiaroscuro arose.
  • Study and analysis of spatial geometry, which favored a new perspective model called “linear” or “vanishing point”.
  • Detailed study of anatomy.

7. Art as knowledge and separation from craft

The creators of the plastic arts who worked from the conscientious study of nature, animated by the spirit of the time, understood art as a form of knowledge. Thanks to this, the separation between art and crafts began to take shape, culminating in the reappearance of the artist’s signature, which had fallen into disuse during the Middle Ages.

8. Autonomy of art

The new separation between art and crafts, emphasizing the change in production modes (passage from the guild to the artist’s workshop), took precedence over the current classification system in the Middle Ages, which ranked the arts according to content (sacred art / sacred art). profane).

9. Search for symmetry, proportion and balance

With Classical Antiquity as a reference, aesthetic values ??based on symmetry, proportion and balance, widely developed during the classical Greek period, became applied models in the arts and literature.

10. Practice of patronage

Sandro Botticelli: The Birth of Venus . c. 1482-1485. Tempera on canvas. 278.5cm × 172.5cm. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.
Sandro Botticelli: The Birth of Venus . c. 1482-1485. Tempera on canvas. 278.5cm × 172.5cm. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

Patronage is the promotion of artistic creation and economic protection of artists. This practice was very common in ancient times. The term derives, in fact, from Gaius Maecenas, a Roman nobleman who promoted and protected the poets of his time, an initiative that earned him great prestige in his time.
In imitation of Cayo Maecenas, the secular sectors of the Renaissance (no longer just the monarchs and the Church) dedicated themselves to promoting all kinds of arts to honor God, the city and themselves, as the Florentine Rucellai said. With Renaissance patronage, art was also born as an economic investment.


11. Emergence of the Gentile-man

With the Renaissance a new ideal of person appeared which was called “gentle-man”. He was referring to the model image of the multiple and learned man, who should have knowledge of all areas (science, arts and humanities). Therefore, the idea of ??the specialist did not exist, but comprehensive knowledge was valued.

12. Rise of usury and the modern banking system

In the transition from the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance, the class of moneylenders and usurers arose, and with them the first modern banks appeared. This process began in the Italian cities of Florence, Venice and Genoa. The Medici family was one of those who participated in this kind of activity.

13. Growth of cities

The growth of cities had already begun in the Late Middle Ages, when the surplus of agricultural production, along with other factors, stimulated trade and the formation of towns, where markets were established. In the Renaissance, the cities reached greater height and were imposed as centers of reference. In fact, in the Italian peninsula, the sociopolitical organization was carried out through the polis, city-states that competed with each other, such as Florence, Rome and Naples.

14. Artistic and literary flourishing

The Renaissance was, above all, a time of great cultural flourishing under schemes of greater compositional, aesthetic and, above all, thematic freedom. Throughout this period, there was a great development of various arts such as literature, architecture, sculpture, and painting. The latter, in fact, was particularly important thanks to the appearance of the oil technique, which made painting independent of fixed supports (walls), favoring collecting.


15. Most important works

It is not easy to make a list of the most important works of the Renaissance, given that it was an extremely prolific period. However, some are mandatory reference. We suggest below a list of authors and their most outstanding works.

  • Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510): The Birth of Venus; Spring; Venus and Mars; The Adoration of the Magi.
  • Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519): La Gioconda or Mona Lisa; The Last Supper, The Virgin of the Rocks; The Lady with an Ermine; Saint John Baptist.
  • Rafael Sanzio (1483-1520): The School of Athens; The betrothal of the Virgin; self portrait; The Sistine Madonna.
  • Donatello (1386-1466): David, Gattamelata; Maria Magdalena; Herod’s Feast.
  • Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564): David; Sistine Chapel vault; Moses; Tondo doni; The piety.
  • Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378 -1455): Reliefs of the so-called Door of Paradise of the Florence Baptistery.
  • Filippo Brunelleschi (1377 -1446): Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore.
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