The Renaissance refers to the era in Europe from the 14th to the 16th century in which a new style in painting, sculpture and architecture developed after the Gothic. Although a religious view of the world continued to play an important role in the lives of Europeans, a growing awareness of the natural world, the individual and collective humanity’s worldly existence characterize the Renaissance period. Derived from the French word, renaissance, and the Italian word rinascità, both meaning ‘rebirth’, the Renaissance was a period when scholars and artists began to investigate what they believed to be a revival of classical learning, literature and art. For example, the followers of the 14th-century author Petrarch began to study texts from Greece and Rome for their moral content and literary style. Having its roots in the medieval university, this study called Humanism centered on rhetoric, literature, history and moral philosophy.
During the Renaissance, many features of the medieval persisted, including the heritage of the artistic techniques used in books, manuscripts, precious objects and oil painting. The paintings of Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden record the exquisite details of the natural world in order to facilitate the viewer’s religious and spiritual experience. North of the Alps, Renaissance ideals culminated in the work of Albrecht Dürer in the early 16th century, and Germany became a dominant artistic centre. With the Reformation and the absence of the Catholic church in German speaking lands of the 16th century, prints in the form of woodcuts and engravings helped to disseminate the spread of Protestant ideals. As a result, artists such as Pieter Bruegel I in the Netherlands and Hans Holbein in England specialized in more secular subjects, such as landscape and portraiture.
Finally, the pinnacle of the period, referred to as the High Renaissance, is best known for some of Western art’s greatest masters: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. Renowned works like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, and Raphael’s famous Madonnas continue to marvel viewers with their naturalism. Following the High Renaissance, Mannerism developed from c. 1510–20 to 1600. Works of this style often emphasized the artifice and adroit skill of the artist. Major works such as the Palazzo del Te by Giulio Romano and Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck reflect Mannerist innovations. In France, the presence of Italian Mannerist painters at Fontainebleau established the courtly taste. For many, the artistic creations of the Renaissance still represent the highest of achievements in the history of art.