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The Renaissance

Books on the Renaissance

What you need to know


  • Florence
  • City-states
  • Balance of Power
  • Diplomacy
  • Renaissance Monarchs
  • Fresco
  • Perspective
  • Humanism
  • Individualism
  • Secularism
  • Popolo
  • Northern Renaissance


  • Petrarch
  • Mirandola
  • Machiavelli
  • Erasmus
  • Thomas More
  • Giotto
  • Masaccio
  • Donatello
  • Boticelli
  • Michelangelo
  • Leonardo
  • Raphael
  • Van Eyck
  • Bosch
  • Durer
  • Rabelais
  • Lorenzo d’Medici
  • Sfortzas
  • Borgias
  • Giberti
  • Francis I
  • Henry VIII
  • Charles V
  • Charles VIII


  • Fall of Constantinople
  • Invasion of Charles VIII
  • Spanish sack of Rome


(The student should be able to describe each of the following works)

  • Summa Theologica
  • The Divine Comedy
  • Oration on the Dignity of Man
  • The Prince
  • In Praise of Folly
  • Utopia
  • The Courtier
  • Adam and Eve
  • The Holy Trinity
  • The Arnolfini Portrait
  • The Garden of Earthly Delights
  • Praying Hands
  • Primavera
  • Birth of Venus
  • Sistine Chapel
  • Mona Lisa
  • The Last Supper
  • Baldisare Castiglione
  • School of Athens
  • Pieta
  • David
  • Florence Cathedral
  • Doors of the Baptistry
  • St. Peter’s
Questions to answer

Questions You Must Be Able to Answer

  • What is Humanism and what role did it play in the Renaissance?
  • Explain Humanism by citing specific works of art, sculpture, and letters.
  • How did the Northern Renaissance differ from the Italian Renaissance?
  • How did economic changes in European society contribute to the Renaissance?
  • Discuss political changes that occurred during the Renaissance.
  • Explain how Renaissance Monarchs consolidated power into proto-nation states.
  • Renaissance means “rebirth.” Rebirth of what? Explain using examples from arts and letters of the time.
Sample questions answered

Renaissance means "rebirth." Rebirth of what? Explain using examples from arts and letters of the time.

The "rebirth" that was the Renaissance was the re-discovery of the sacraments of ancient Greece and Rome. They can be seen in Petrarch, Mirandola, and in the paintings of Botticelli and Raphael.

Petrarch is rightly called "The Father of the Renaissance." It was he who discovered original texts from ancient Rome and translated them into local vernacular. He then urged his fellow European intellectuals to do the same—to uncover ancient wisdom and use that knowledge to rebuild society and bring it out of what he called the "Dark Age" it had been living in.

Mirandola was a practitioner of this method. His famous Oration on the Dignity of Man takes directly from Plato to posit man as living "half way between the beasts and God." His vision of man as possessing infinite potential exemplified the optimistic ethos of the Renaissance. It is one of the highest expressions of Humanism.

Finally, the paintings of Botticelli and Raphael, to name just two painters, use subject matter directly derived from ancient Greece. Botticelli’s Primavera shows a rite of spring in which gods interact with mortals in the setting of nature. It is right out of Greek mythology. In Raphael’s School of Athens Plato and Aristotle are the central subjects. They are surrounded by many other luminaries from the pantheon of Greek secular giants.

How Did Economic Changes in European Society Contribute to the Renaissance?

The most important economic change in Europe that contributed to the Renaissance were the wealth of northern Italy, its concentration in the hands of a commercial oligarchy, and the emergence of towns.

The Crusaders had transited through northern Italy on the way to the Holy Lands. This made those cities among the wealthiest in Europe. When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, the artists and philosophers who had kept alive the sacraments of ancient Greece fled to those cities, unleashing the "rebirth" that is the meaning of "Renaissance."

Then, that wealth was concentrated in the hands of a new urban, commercial oligarchy, a locus of social influence that had no place in the traditional King-Noble-Peasant hierarchy of the Middle Ages. They were not bound by convention, including tithing to the Church, so used their wealth to adorn their lives with the highest forms of art. It was they who were the patrons of the Michelangelos and Leonardos who we know as the progenitors of Renaissance art.

Finally, towns themselves represented a new social configuration. The typical medieval locus of culture was the landed feudal estate—the fiefdom of the feudal lords. But there, everything functioned on the basis of agricultural self-sufficiency. In towns, on the other hand, there was trade, finance, and manufacture for sale at a distance. These activities produced economic surpluses above self-sufficiency. It was this surplus, in these towns, in the hands of the commercial oligarchs which funded the art of the Renaissance.

How did the Northern Renaissance differ from the Italian Renaissance?

The Northern Renaissance occurred in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and later, in England. Because of this geographic fact, it had less immediate influence from the classical sources of Greece and Rome that had motivated innovation in the south.

One of the main consequences of this fact is that there was less of an emphasis on "rebirth" and more on "reform." For example, much of the intellectual energy in the Northern Renaissance was focused on the reform of the Church. Exemplary thinkers included Erasmus with his In Praise of Folly, and Thomas More with his Utopia. Martin Luther, of course, was the most impactful of those Northern thinkers seeking to reform the Church.

A second consequence of the different geographical locuses is revealed in the technical facets of the arts. Italy has marble, so sculpture was in marble. The north does not have marble, so used wood in its sculpture. Italy has a temperate climate so painting in tempera and fresco was possible. That was not possible in the north (because the colder climate inhibited curing) so they focused more on oils.

Finally, these two differences come together in thematic focuses. Pagan themes were prominent in Italian art, due to the influences of Greece and (pre-Christian) Rome. There is little of such influence in the Northern Renaissance, where the art adhered to more conventional religious themes or to expression in landscapes or portraiture.

Original documents

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The Renaissance Writers

Supplementary notes

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The Renaissance Supplementary Notes

Intro to the book

Civilizations are born. Civilizations die. And sometime—very rarely—they go to sleep and re-awaken. That’s what happened to European civilization after the fall of Rome in 476 C.E (Common Era). For almost a thousand years, until around 1400, Europe was in an extended slumber, a hibernation that later writers would call a “Dark Age.” When it finally awoke, it did so with a vitality and a creativity that startled the world, that startled even Europeans themselves. It was almost as if the intellectual glories of Greece and Rome had been brought back to life, as if the majesty of the ancient world had been reborn. Indeed, that is what “Renaissance” means: “Rebirth.”

This work discusses the astonishing achievements of the Renaissance. It begins with their origins in the breakdown of the medieval order. It discusses the central idea of the Renaissance, Humanism, and how that idea came to be reflected in art, sculpture, architecture, and letters. It looks at the changes that occurred in Europe’s core institutions—politics, economics, science, and religion—and how those changes defined the character of the emerging modern world. Finally, it considers the critical questions of why these tectonic changes occurred in Europe and why they occurred at this particular time.

One of the devices we use to clarify our understanding of major periods is to express their essence in as economical a form as possible. So, for example, we said of the Middle Ages, “After the fall, a thousand year darkness.” For that is what happened: Rome fell, and a “darkness” enveloped Europe. In the case of the Renaissance, the simplification we have chosen is this: “Europe awoke by rediscovering its ancient past.” For that is what the Renaissance really was: a rediscovery of the majesty of Europe’s classical past, of Greece and Rome.

Yet, while those legacies had so much to impart, so much more emerged as well. That is the mystery (if not the miracle) of the Renaissance: that it was so fertile in reviving an ancient culture; yet so creative in how it changed that culture into the roots of what we now know as the modern world. This is that story.

Table of Contents to the book
  1. Introduction
  2. Background: The Middle Ages
    1. The Two Foundations
    2. Foundations Crumble
  3. The Explosive Awakening
  4. New Perspectives
    1. Painting
    2. Sculpture
    3. Architecture
    4. Letters
  5. New Institutions
    1. Printing and Literacy
    2. Nation States
    3. Religious Revolution
    4. Science
    5. Capitalism
    6. Global Exploration
  6. Why Here? Why Now?
  7. Final Word
  8. Timeline
Comments and Questions

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