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Renaissance (French, “rebirth” or “revival”), transitional period between the Middle Ages and modern times (1350–1650). The term was first applied by the Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt in 1860. The Renaissance saw the Reformation challenge the unity and supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church, along with the rise of humanism, the growth of large nation-states with powerful kings, far-ranging voyages of exploration, and a new emphasis on the importance of the individual.

The origins of the Renaissance are disputed, but its first flowering occurred in Italy. In the world of learning a new interest in secular Latin literature can be detected in early 14th century, and by the middle of the century Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio were searching for old texts and self-consciously cultivating a prose style modeled on Cicero. They inaugurated an age of research and discovery in which the humanists ransacked the monastic libraries of Europe for old manuscripts, and scholars like Desiderius Erasmus set new standards in learning and critical scholarship. Greek was also studied, particularly after the fall of Constantinople (1453) drove many Greek scholars to the West. The invention of printing (1440) and the discovery of the New World (1492) by Columbus gave further impetus to the search for knowledge.

The Renaissance marked the end of feudalism and the rise of national governments, for example, in Spain under Ferdinand II of Aragon, in France under Francis I, in England under Henry VIII and Elizabeth. In Italy, however, independent city states engaged in fierce rivalry, providing Niccolò Machiavelli with his notorious “ideal” of a Renaissance prince. Prosperous trading provided money for the arts, and princes like Cosimo de'Medici eagerly patronized artists, musicians, and scholars. Renaissance painting and sculpture flourished in Florence and Rome with the works of Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Literary revivals occurred in England, France, and Spain; William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser were prominent in Renaissance English literature, and some of the finest French writing came from François Rabelais and Pierre de Ronsard. In science the findings of the astronomers Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei were the basis of modern astronomy and marked a turning point in scientific and philosophical thought.

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