What Are the Defining Moments of the Renaissance?

Throughout the Renaissance a series of remarkable discoveries, inventions and innovations were made that impacted all strands of society.

Aug 10, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art


The Renaissance, spanning the 14th to the 17th century, was a monumentally significant period in our human history, when seismic breakthroughs in multiple fields including art, architecture, science, travel and literature were made. In fact, many of the discoveries and inventions of the Renaissance continue to shape how we view and understand the world today. From the invention of the printing press to wider explorations into the universe, we take a look through a series of the definitive moments that came to encapsulate the Renaissance era.


The Medici Family Became Head of the City State of Florence

Raffaello Sanzio (Urbino 1483 – Rome 1520) Portrait of Leo X with the Cardinals Luigi de ‘Rossi and Giulio de’ Medici, image courtesy of Sky History


One of the most powerful families in European history, the Medici family’s wealth, prosperity and patronage played a vital role in the development of the Renaissance. They became head of the city state of Florence during the 15th century, and continued to hold power through the successive generations until the 18th century. During their totemic rise to power, the Medici family established the largest bank in Europe, expanding from Florence into Geneva, Venice and Rome, followed by London, Bruges and Lubeck. As well as securing financial power, the Medici family also became art patrons whose wealth paid for many of the best-known Renaissance masterpieces including Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Donatello’s Bronze David, Raphael’s School of Athens, and Filippo Brunelleschi’s Duomo of Florence


The Invention of the Printing Press

The first printing press, invented by Johannes Gutenberg during the Renaissance, image courtesy of Getty Images


Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1445 was to have a long-lasting impact on society, all around the world. Prior to Gutenberg’s discoveries, bookmaking was a long and arduous process that involved writing and copying by hand. This meant books were a rare and expensive commodity reserved for the wealthiest and most privileged. But Gutenberg’s discovery meant books and other printed matter could be reproduced quickly and easily, allowing for the wide distribution of books across all strata of society. This in turn lead society to become more literate, and allowed for more writers than ever to distribute their ideas freely.


Christopher Columbus Travelled Far and Wide

Christopher Columbus At The Court Of The Catholic Monarchs, by Juan Cordero, 1850

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Italian intrepid explorer Christopher Columbus made a series of transatlantic maritime journeys between 1492 and 1504, during which time he happened upon the Americas. While historically his journeys are often described from a colonial perspective as the ‘discovery’ of the Americas, millions of people did in fact already live here. The subsequent colonization of the so-called New World became a complicated period in history driven as much by greed as the quest for knowledge. However, his epic journeys opened up greater connections between Europe and the wider world that would stay open forever, securing trade routes and launching a period of world travel that is now known as the Age of Discovery. 


Telescopes and Explorations into Astronomy

Galileo Demonstrating the New Astronomical Theories at the University of Padua, by Félix Parra, 1873


The invention of powerful telescopes during the Renaissance period allowed for a deeper understanding of astronomy and the wider universe. Several leading scientists including Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler uncovered tools that allowed for the study of deep space. Their inventions and discoveries challenged the centuries old belief established by the ancient Greeks, that the Earth was at the center of the universe, orbited by the sun and the planets. Instead, they proved that the sun was the center around which all other planets orbit, even if their discoveries took some time to be believed by the wider public!


The Discovery of Linear Perspective

A page from Jean Cousin’s Livre de Perspective, 1560, via Christie’s


One of the key principles of the Renaissance was a fusion of the arts, sciences and mathematics. Nowhere is this more evident than in the discovery of linear perspective by the artist and architect Filippo Brunelleschi. This handy mathematical trick involving horizon lines and vanishing points opened up a whole new means of creating depth and space in art, and its application within the arts became increasingly complex and sophisticated as the Renaissance progressed.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.