A Short History | Renaissance | Classical

‘Renaissance’ is a French word meaning ‘rebirth’. It has been used since the nineteenth century to describe the period between c. 1300 and 1600. Three hundred years is a long time for a single historical or cultural period, and the strain shows in any attempt to define the term ‘Renaissance’.

The cultural phenomenon central to the Renaissance was a revival of interest in the literature, philosophy and architecture of classical antiquity. Early Christian leaders had been eager to put the polytheistic culture of imperial Rome behind them, and they did this with considerable success. But in the fourteenth century, with the power of the church on the wane and secular education on the rise, the wealthy educated classes started paying attention to the relics of Greek and, more particularly, Roman, civilization that lay unexamined around them. This studia humanitas, now known as Humanism, is first evident in the works of the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch. By the fifteenth century, scholars such as Poggio Bracciolini, artists like Donatello and architects like Filippo Brunelleschi were eagerly recovering, imitating and evaluating the artefacts of the classical world.

Music played an important part in the humanist educational curriculum from the early fifteenth century, and by its last quarter more dramatic developments were being made; we have thus marked the beginning of the Renaissance at 1475, but it should be remembered that many of the ideals and practices of the Renaissance overlap with those of the late-medieval period. The application of Renaissance ideals to musical composition at this time was difficult. Few works survived from classical times, and those that did were difficult to interpret; it was not possible in music, as it was in other disciplines such as architecture and sculpture, to copy ancient models. There were, on the other hand, many references to music in classical texts, and humanists turned to these with enthusiasm.

Key Events

1477 Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (written c. 1386) first printed by William Caxton
1478 Ferdinand and Isabella establish Spanish Inquisition, led by the infamous Torquemada
1485 Richard III defeated at Bosworth Field; Henry VII becomes first Tudor monarch in England
1492 Christopher Columbus embarks on his journey that ends with the discovery of the Americas
1494 Beginning of the Italian Wars between the major European powers
1495 Leonardo da Vinci paints Last Supper in monastic refectory in Milan
1504 Francesco Petrarch’s Rime (written 14th century) published by Italian linguistic reformer Pietro Bembo
c. 1510 Raphael’s School of Athens painted
1517 Martin Luther nails ‘95 theses’ to door of castle church in Wittenberg
1520 Henry VIII of England and François I of France meet at the ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’
1527 Sack of Rome by imperial forces
1528 Baldassare Castiglione’s Il libro del cortegiano published in Italy
1531 Henry VIII establishes himself Supreme Head of Church of England
1535 Michelangelo begins Last Judgement in Sistine Chapel
1540 Jesuit order confirmed by Pope Paul III
1545 Beginning of Council of Trent
1555 Peace...

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