In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness – that which was turned within as that which was turned without – lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues.
— Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy
There’s perhaps no other time period in human history that fascinates me more than the 15th-16th century renaissance. Art, culture, politics, technology, science, literature and music all seem to have been completely reformed during a relatively short timespan, with multiple prominent figures pushing the envelope - Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Gutenberg, Galileo, Machiavelli - but what gives?
One of the factors to consider, and strangely one that is relatable right now, is that the renaissance was immediately preceeded by the plague, which killed an estimated 30-60% of Europe’s population. Historians claim that “the resulting familiarity with death caused thinkers to dwell more on their lives on Earth, rather than on spirituality and the afterlife”, which manifested in the form of huge sponsorships to make great art, likely bringing otherwise invisible artists to light.
Rebellious winds were also flowing through Europe after the discovery of the “New World” by Columbus in 1492, which resulted in a generally low-trust society openly questioning everything about our existing knowledge of the world. The invention of the printing press, which democratized learning and sped up distribution of ideas, was a cherry on top. This combination of healthy skepticism and a search for answers is perhaps the most conducive environment for science, and natually resulted in a period of major scientific contributions.
You would think these scientific advancements along with a skeptical society would also result in religious turmoil, and you would be right, partially. While movements such as Conciliarlism sought to limit the power of pope and accused him of corruption, new ideals of Humanism - aimed to create a universal man whose person combined intellectual and physical excellence and who was capable of functioning honorably in virtually any situation - were still largely built on Christian backdrops. A lot of art and literature focused on this conflict, and religion is widely considered as a catalyst for renaissance by historians.
Alas, a lot of people attribute the renaissance to just pure dumb luck, alluding to the “great man” theory by stating that Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli and Michelangelo were all born in Tuscany. Arguing that such chance seems improbable, other historians have contended that these “great men” were only able to rise to prominence because of the prevailing cultural conditions at the time.
Make no mistake, while the reasons may have been several and complex, society was moving so fast that a lot of people were self-aware that they were in a period of great change and innovation. Writers, architects etc. had started using phrases such as modi antichi (in the antique manner) or alle romana et alla antica (in the manner of the Romans and the ancients) to describe their work.
Will we ever go through such a period again? Nobody knows. But, one can hope that there be a renaissance soon, and as with all matters of the heart, we will know when it does happen.