The Renaissance was a time of great intellectual and artistic achievement. It began in the city-states of northern and central Italy and spread to other parts of Europe from the 14th to 16th centuries.

Renaissance thinkers sought to combine classical knowledge with their own discoveries and develop new ways of understanding humanity and the world around them. Humanism was a central idea during this period, focusing on individuals and their potential for achievement, rather than relying solely on religious authority.

So how did the Renaissance change Europe? The Renaissance not only changed Europe in its own time but helped pave the way for a modern Europe with its impact (good and bad) on the rest of the world.

The Renaissance opened the doors to the Enlightenment, the Age of Discovery and Exploration, the establishment of new trading routes, and the spread of knowledge. But it also opened a dark chapter in European history with the wars of religion and the Inquisition followed by global empire-building, colo­nialism, and slavery, eventually culminating in two World Wars.

In this article, we look at 10 different ways in which the Renaissance changed Europe and with it the wider world.

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How did the Renaissance change Europe?

The impact of the Renaissance on Europe was both good and bad and can be measured from various angles. There is virtually no aspect of European life that remained unaffected by the Renaissance. Here are some of the most important ways in which the Renaissance changed Europe:

  1. It ushered in a period of great intellectual and artistic achievement
  2. It led to a proliferation of new art forms and styles
  3. It saw a revival of classical learning
  4. It refined the concept of ‘humanism’
  5. It helped to spark the Protestant Reformation and changed religion in Europe
  6. It introduced a period of rapid technological advancement (eg in printing, cartography, navigation, shipbuilding, etc)
  7. It sparked the Age of Discovery and Exploration
  8. It introduced new financ­ial concepts which changed finance, banking, commerce and trade
  9. It helped create innovations in science and med­icine
  10. It changed European politics and helped establish the nation-state system

Let’s now look at each of these seismic changes that the Renaissance brought to Europe in more detail.

#1. Intellectual and artistic achievement

The Renaissance, which started in Florence and then spread across Europe,was a time of great intellectual and artistic achievement. Innovative thinkers and artists flourished, pushing the boundaries of knowledge and creativity. The Renaissance saw the development of new ways to look at science, philosophy, and the arts.

Notable figures from this period include Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Gutenberg and Nicolaus Copernicus.

Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps the most significant figure of the Renaissance, creating iconic works of art such as The Last Supper and Mona Lisa. Galileo Galilei is renowned for his discoveries in astronomy and physics, while Nicolaus Copernicus revolutionized the understanding of planetary motion.

How Did The Renaissance Change Europe - Last Supper
The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci (Source)

Johannes Gutenberg, meanwhile, is credited with inventing the printing press, while Michelangelo and Raphael are both known for their iconic frescos and paintings.

The Renaissance led to an emphasis on education, with a focus on learning Latin and the Classics and a decline in the importance of religion as a source of knowledge.

#2. New Art Forms and Styles

The Renaissance was a period when new art forms and styles emerged in Europe. Artists began to experiment with perspective and the use of light and shade to create more realistic images.

This led to the development of new painting techniques, such as oil painting, that were used to create incredibly lifelike works of art. The Flemish artist Jan van Eyck is widely credited as the inventor of oil painting, while Michelangelo’s frescos and sculptures are still revered today.

Leonardo da Vinci also innovated new techniques in painting and sculpture, such as sfumato and chiaroscuro. These were used to create dynamic and lifelike images that looked almost three-dimensional.

The Renaissance also saw the development of new music styles, such as the madrigal and the motet, while composers such as Josquin des Prez created new works of musical art.

The Renaissance also saw the development of newer and more modern forms of architecture, such as the Italian Renaissance style, which is still popular today.

The Renaissance saw a shift away from the Gothic style that had been popular in Europe since the Middle Ages. Instead, architects embraced classical forms and symmetry to create buildings that were more harmonious and pleasing to the eye.

#3. Revival of classical learning

The term Renaissance itself comes from the French word for ‘rebirth’ (re + naissance), and the Renaissance saw a revival of classical learning, thought, education, philosophy, art, etc. Ancient Greek and Roman texts were rediscovered and translated, sparking a wave of new interest in the classical world.

This classical education also became available to the wider public, with the establishment of universities and schools. This helped to spread knowledge more widely in Europe and allowed for the development of new ideas and learning. During the Renaissance, universities were established across Europe in cities like Florence, Edinburgh, Turin and Dublin.

While education was still restricted to the wealthy and privileged classes, it did become more widely available than in previous periods. The invention of the printing press also played a key role in the dissemination of knowledge.

The Renaissance also saw a revival of interest in the humanities, with new developments in philosophy, history and literature. Notable figures such as Niccolò Machiavelli, Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More wrote influential works on government, philosophy and religion.

Notably, the Renaissance also saw a renewed interest in humanism, which focused on the potential of humans to achieve greatness. This had a profound effect on art, literature, and science in Europe.

#4. Humanism

The revival of classical learning led to the belief that humans have the power and potential to shape their own future. This idea was based on the concept of ‘humanitas’, which means the development of the human spirit through education and learning.

This focus on humanism had far-reaching consequences, both in terms of thought and in terms of political power. Humanism led to a new focus on individual rights and freedoms, as well as the development of more democratic forms of government.

The humanist concept of ‘civic humanism’, meanwhile, argued that citizens should take an active role in their communities and use their knowledge to create a better society.

The Renaissance redefined the concept of ‘humanism’, focusing on individuals and their potential for achievement, rather than relying solely on religious authority.

#5. Protestant Reformation

The spread of humanism impacted the most important aspect of life in Europe during the Renaissance: Religion. Free thinkers began to question the authority of the Catholic Church, which had held a monopoly on all religious matters since the fall of the Roman Empire.

This questioning ultimately led to the Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517 with Martin Luther’s ‘The 95 Theses’ or The Disputation on the Power of Indulgences. In this publication, Luther challenged Church doctrines and argued for the freedom of individuals to interpret the Scriptures according to their own beliefs.

Luther wasn’t the only one to challenge the Church. Figures such as John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli also had a major impact on the Reformation, advocating for reforms in doctrine, worship and Church governance.

The Protestant Reformation had a profound impact on the political landscape of Europe and led to the establishment of Protestant churches and allowed for more individualized forms of worship.

The Protestant Reformation also led to the emergence of new religious denominations, such as Lutheranism, Calvinism and Anabaptism.

#6. Rapid Technological Advancements

An era of free-thinking, rapid growth in intellectual and artistic pursuits, and relative political stability led to innovations and technological advancements.

Innovations in printing, cartography, navigation and shipbuilding allowed Europe to explore new lands and build strong trading networks. It was during the Renaissance that Portuguese sailors reached India and Christopher Columbus tried to do the same going around the world, but instead stumbled upon the New World.

The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century revolutionized the production of books and allowed for wider dissemination of knowledge. The invention of the telescope by Galileo Galilei in 1609 also allowed astronomers to better study the night sky, leading to a greater understanding of the universe.

#7. The Age of Discovery and Exploration

The inevitable result of the technological advances of the Renaissance and the intellectual interest in the unknown was an increased interest in exploration. This led to a period known as the Age of Discovery, which saw Spain, Portugal and other European countries establish colonies in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australia.

The Age of Discovery saw Europeans exploring new lands and trading with previously unknown peoples. It was also a period of conquest and subjugation, as Europeans sought to impose their will on the people they encountered.

The Age of Discovery also led to the spread of European culture and ideas throughout the world, as well as the transfer of knowledge through books, art, and other media.

#8. Changes to Finance, Banking, Commerce and Trade

Do you know the origin of the term “bankrupt”? It comes from the Renaissance Italian term “banca rotta” which means broken bench. In Renaissance Italy money lenders and traders used to use benches in public squares to conduct their business. If the money lender went out of business, his bench would be broken into half, thus giving the term “broken bench” or “banca rotta” or “bankrupt”.

This little anecdote speaks to the influence that Renaissance finance still has on modern finance. Innovations such as double-entry bookkeeping, the development of joint-stock companies, and the proliferation of money lenders and banks is still reflected in modern Europe as well as the world at large.

The Age of Discovery also had a great impact on trade and commerce, as advances in navigation and shipbuilding allowed for far-reaching trading networks.

The Renaissance saw the rise of merchant classes, particularly in Italy, as well as increased competition between nations for colonies and resources. This led to wars, territorial disputes, and alliances being formed.

In fact, many rulers in Italian city-states started as traders and upon amassing immense wealth directed their attention toward politics and warfare. For instance, the Medici family which ruled Florence at the height of the Renaissance was started by Cosimo de’ Medici who was a banker.

#9. Innovations in Science and Medicine

Intellectual curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge were driving forces during the Renaissance and naturally, they led to innovations in both science and medicine. Most of all it led to an understanding of the scientific method and a rejection of superstitions.

A key advancement was in the understanding of the human anatomy. During the Middle Ages (and even during Roman times), the dissection of humans was not permitted. As a consequence, many medical practitioners had to rely on animal anatomy to understand the human body by drawing parallels.

At the forefront of studying human anatomy was none other than Leonardo Da Vinci who personally performed numerous dissections of the human body making detailed drawings in his diaries many of which survive to this day.

Other luminaries of the Renaissance pushing the boundaries of the knowledge of medicine were French surgeon Ambroise Pare who used silk threads to stitch veins and arteries and William Harvey who studied the circulatory system and eventually rising to the post of Physician Extraordinary to King James I of England.

#10. The Nation-State System

One of the enduring legacies of the Renaissance was a shift of power from the papacy toward secular leadership either in the city-states of Italy or the kingdoms of France, England, Spain and other nations.

In Italy, city-states were ruled by familial dynasties like the Medici in Florence, the Sforza in Milan, and Visconti in Rome.

In France and England, kings asserted their sovereignty and competed in wars to expand or protect their holdings. These shifts of power lead to the formation of nation-states each with its own laws and customs.

This shift in the political landscape had a profound effect on the cultural identity of each nation and the idea of a nation-state still endures strongly in modern Europe.

The Bottom Line

So how did the Renaissance change Europe? The Renaissance ushered in a period of great intellectual and artistic achievement which led to a proliferation of new art forms and styles, saw a revival of classical learning, and refined and promulgated the concept of ‘humanism’.

The Renaissance It helped to spark the Protestant Reformation and changed religion in Europe, it introduced a period of rapid technological advancement and sparked the Age of Discovery and Exploration.

It spawned new financ­ial concepts which changed finance, banking, commerce and trade, helped create innovations in science and med­icine and changed European politics by establishing the nation-state system.