The modern period ushered the end of the Age of Faith and the beginning of the Age of Reason. It witnessed movements like the Renaissance and the Reformation. These movements brought many changes in cultural, intellectual, religious, social and political life of the people all over the world. This period is also characterized by urbanization, faster means of transport and communication, democratic systems and uniform laws based on equality.
The literal meaning of Renaissance is ‘rebirth’. It started in Italy around 14th Century AD. Italy was divided into small city states at that time. Many of them were built on the ruins of ancient Roman buildings. The geographical position of Italian cities made them great trading and intellectual centers.
Moreover, the position of Italian cities such as Venice made them centers of trade and intellectual crossroads. Many great ideas, along with wealth, were brought by merchants from far corners of the globe. The new form of political and social organisation gave political freedom and a suitable atmosphere for academic, artistic and cultural advancement. People had more leisure time for study and other activities.
This was also a period of great economic expansion. Many commercial and financial techniques were developed for trade practices like book keeping, bills of exchange and public debt. This enabled Italy to become the centre of Renaissance.
The major developments of this time were the revival of urban life, commerce based on private capital, banking, formation of nation states, explorations to find new routes and territories and the development of vernacular literature which was popularised by the printing press. This new mercantile society was less hierarchical and more concerned with secular objectives.
It was in sharp contrast to the earlier rural, tradition bound society. The adventures and explorers played a significant role in opening a world economic system. Many new commodities were brought from America, Asia and Africa after the discovery of trade routes. These goods enriched the life of Europeans and inspired them to develop new ways of producing them in large numbers to make profit.
The result was that merchants, entrepreneurs and bankers joined hands and ‘Capital’ came to enjoy an important position in the political life as well as in relations with other countries.
The new ideas that were generated in this period like humanism, rationalism and the spirit of inquiry brought a profound change in the thinking pattern of the people. There was a renewed interest in the cultural achievements of the Classical Greek and Roman Civilizations. Human beings became the central concern of the new scholars. They believed in the creative potential of the human beings and their right to seek joy and pleasures in this world itself. This was contrary to the belief of the Medieval Church which opposed worldly pleasures. This respect for human beings encouraged interest in art, history, language, literature, ethics, etc.
The spirit of Humanism also found expression in the field of art and literature. The greatest achievements of Renaissance artists were in the field of paintings. Painters studied the anatomy and proportions of the human body. They wanted the human beings to be painted in realistic form and proportion. Some of the outstanding artists were Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli and Titian.
Even in the field of sculpture, artists began to make free standing statues. These sculptures now stood apart from the building or background and were separate works of art. The first great Renaissance sculptor was Donatello who made the statue ‘David’.
The Renaissance spirit also marks the rise of Nationalism in Europe. People now began to free themselves of medieval religious restrictions and bonds. National identities grew stronger and this was reflected in the development of modern European languages such as Italian, Spanish, French, German, English, etc. as the languages of literature. The works of Renaissance authors became accessible to a large number of people due to the use of vernacular languages and the introduction of printing press.
The Bible was printed and read by a large number of people. Several works that were produced in Modern European languages were Dante’s Divine Comedy, Erasmus, In Praise of Folly; Machiavelli’s The Prince and Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
Two major developments took place in the history of Europe towards the later part of the Renaissance. The first was the Protestant Reformation which resulted in the split in Christianity. The second development concerned reforms within the Roman Catholic Church, generally referred to as Catholic Reformation or Counter Reformation. Reformation was a part of the socio-religious and political movement which led to the emergence of the modern world.