One of the most creative periods in history occurred in Europe around 1350–1550. This cultural revival is known as the Renaissance (meaning “rebirth”). It was inspired by the civilizations of Ancient Greece and Rome.
Italy was the powerhouse of the Renaissance. At that time it was divided into independent states, where wealthy rulers offered PATRONAGE to great artists. The Renaissance also spread through southern France and Spain, and influenced northern Europe.
There was a passion for knowledge. Scholars had mostly studied the teachings of the Church, but they now rediscovered ancient philosophers. Artists became fascinated by the human body. To celebrate its beauty, they turned away from the formal drawing style of the Middle Ages and adopted a more realistic, natural style.
Leonardo was a genius. Writer, painter, sculptor, engineer, and architect, he left behind a wealth of sketches and what has become the world’s best-known painting—the portrait of a mysterious, smiling woman known as Mona Lisa.
Many Italian cities still have splendid palaces, churches, libraries, and public squares built during the Renaissance. Visitors to Rome can wonder at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, created by Michelangelo, or the masterpieces painted by Raphael.
Patronage is the support given by the wealthy to artists, writers, and musicians. Renaissance patrons included the French royal family and powerful Italian nobles such as the Sforzas, the Medicis, and the Borgias.
The Renaissance was a period of great social change, when more and more political power came from money and trade. The Italian city of Florence was a European center of banking. Its leading family, the Medici, loaned money to popes and kings. It was the Medici fortune that paid the wages of artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.