Europe slowly recovered in the years following the Black Death—a terrible sickness that claimed the lives of close to half the people of Europe between 1346 and 1353. During the next two centuries, European scholars began to study the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. Art became more true to life. Explorers discovered new lands. Historians call this age "the Renaissance,” a French word that means "rebirth."
The Renaissance began in Milan, Genoa, and Venice. Today these cities are part of the Italian Republic, but in the fourteenth century they were independent city-states. They became centers of trade between Europe and the Middle East. Wealthy merchants in the cities learned that Arab scholars had preserved the writings of the ancient Greeks in their libraries. So when the merchants traded with the Arabs, they exchanged ideas as well as goods.
The Roman Emperor Constantine moved his capital 850 miles east from Rome to the Greek-speaking city of Byzantium. For hundreds of years after Rome fell to Germanic invaders, the Byzantine Empire continued in southeast Europe. After the Byzantine Empire fell to Muslim Turks in 1453; many Christian scholars left Greece for Italy.
Inventions helped to spread learning during the Renaissance. Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press by 1450, which meant that books could be copied by machine instead of by hand. The discovery of a graphite mine in England led to the invention of the pencil.
Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man (c. 1487) depicts what the artist believed were the perfect proportions of human anatomy.
Italy did not become a unified nation until 1864. This map of Italy in 1494 shows that the peninsula was divided into many small states. Genoa, Milan, and Venice were among the most important. By this date the Turkish Ottoman Empire (on the right side of the map) replaced the Byzantine Empire.
Learning and the Arts began to flourish during the Renaissance
Wealthy families and the church had amassed enough wealth to become patrons.
The invention of the printing press encouraged literacy and helped to spread new ideas.
The 1564 discovery of a graphite mine in England and the development of Chinese papermaking in Europe made it easier for people to write.
The development of financial techniques such as bookkeeping and credit allowed merchants to prosper.
The spirit of rebirth in Europe influenced painting, sculpture, and architecture. The merchants used their great wealth to hire painters and sculptors to create great art for their churches, their homes, and their cities. Artists advanced the Renaissance style, a style that showed more scenes of nature and depicted the feelings of people. Painting and sculpture became more realistic and focused less on religious topics.
Historians consider the Renaissance to be the beginning of modern history. In the 150 years after the Black Death, the Renaissance would spread throughout Europe. England’s William Shakespeare would write great plays, Leonardo daVinci would make advances in science and art, and explorers would discover that a “New World” lay beyond the Atlantic Ocean.