The Discovery of the Individual and the Rediscovery of Classical Art and Literature
Interest in classical literature started during the Middle Ages, then during the later part of the Middle Ages, theologians, philosophers and writers were interested in Latin literature as well as the Latin translations of Greek literature. Studies of the classics remained primarily limited to this “class” (theologians, philosophers and writers) but that all changed for the Renaissance.
People of differing segments of society began studying the history, art and literature of the past. This is a distinct shift from the Middle Ages where “professionals” did most of the studies. As the Renaissance came into being, more and more amateurs began to study and become interested in art, literature and history.
Art, in particular, changed dramatically. During the Middle Ages, art (and literature to a great degree) was designed for a specific purpose or interest (mostly religious). During the Renaissance, art and literature came to exist for its own beauty and/or as ideals of beauty or learning.
Humanism and Individualism
Recognizing individual efforts and the concept of becoming known beyond the local area (fame) began to grow during the Renaissance. Artists, in particular, understood that by signing their works, they could gain renown in areas far from their own. This is in stark contrast to artists during the Middle Ages, who, for the most part, painted to glorify God. In addition, a painting to glorify God did not require the artist to sign the work. As a result, the artists for many of the works done during the Middle Ages remain unknown today.
The attention to the development of the individual during the Renaissance also included education. Importance was placed on individual education in all intellectual areas as well as becoming knowledgeable about ones physical being, which meant learning things like swordsmanship or wrestling. During the Renaissance, you could become educated in many different areas (writing, swordsmanship, etc). This was almost the opposite of beliefs of the Middle Ages when education was highly structured and typically was for only one field. So during the Middle Ages, experts in specific fields were highly regarded, and during the Renaissance, such need to become a specialist in a single field was not held high regard. As a matter of fact, the beliefs during the Renaissance were that an individual should study many different fields and become as educated in as many varying fields as possible.
Interest in History and the Rebirth
During the 14th and 15th centuries in Italy, the study of history became popular. The conclusions drawn by Italian scholars who had studied history was that they were living in new era. They believed that they were free from the “darkness and ignorance” of the past.
Scholars began comparing their accomplishments with the glories of the achievements of ancient Greece and Rome. During the 14th century, one group of Italian writers believed that the current age was like the great civilizations of the past because the current age showed an emphasis on artists and their achievements as did, as they believed, all great societies of the past.
A shift in political beliefs began too. Florentine scholar Leonardo Bruni believed the best form of government was a republican or representative form of government. He, and like-minded thinkers, found such a government when they studied ancient Rome before the emperors came to power. They believed this was the best model for a government to take. This movement encouraged education in social and political life. They believed in patriotism and in humanistic learning and that, the residents of Florence, in particular, and other Italian cities should be proud of their heritage.
These political and cultural changes eventually made their way out of Italy and into other parts of Europe.
The 18th century, also known as the “Age of Enlightenment” was a time when the ideas of the Renaissance continued to grow and become more widespread. Specifically, it was a time when the advancements in science led to an emphasis on the power of human reasoning.
One of the better-known intellectuals or “Enlightened” thinkers was French philosopher Voltaire. He believed that this new era was a time to liberate thinking away from the superstition that, he believed, characterized the Christian society of the Middle Ages. He applauded the declining power of the prevalent Roman Catholic Church.
History was sometimes rewritten and during the 19th century Romantic Movement, the Renaissance was evaluated in an entirely different manner by the romanticists. They tended to emphasize passion over logic and reason. They had a great interest in those who were well known but who had unconventional personalities. People like the poet Petrarch, or the artist Michelangelo or the philosopher Descartes. These romanticists believed a very important part of the Renaissance was the individualism that flourished at the time. The capabilities and the rights of individuals were most important to them.
Which Belief is Correct
Scholars who have studied the Midddle Ages became convinced that the changes attributed to the Renaissance actually began to occur during the Middle Ages. These scholars believe the Renaissance is not a “rebirth” but a continuation of the changes in the processes and beliefs that began centuries before the Renaissance began.
Some argue that the Renaissance was more an ending of the Middle Ages than any sort of rebirth. They argue that the scholars during the Middle Ages studied, knew and valued classical writings and art.
The once held belief that there was some sort of rapid and/or abrupt change between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is all but gone now.
Regardless of the interpretation, most agree that the Renaissance intellectuals believed that they were in an age that would be a turning point in history and that they, with their new wisdom and enlightenment, were entirely different from their medieval predecessors.