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The term Renaissance (re-birth) was coined by scholars and artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to claim that they were heirs of the classical world. This process of rebirth and re-evaluation of the classical inheritance began in Italy during the early fourteenth century and spread across Europe. This period was also a great age of geographical exploration and scientific discovery.
The major political power was the Holy Roman Empire, which stretched from the Netherlands to Hungary. Its rival was the more centralised French monarchy. The struggle between them was fought in Italy, then a patchwork of different states. Renaissance popes were also active participants and in 1527 Rome was sacked by imperial forces.
Renaissance rulers used their patronage of arts and scholarship to promote their power and legitimacy. In Italy, Renaissance art reached a pinnacle of achievement in the work of Leonardo (1452-1519) Raphael (1483-1520) and Michelangelo (1475–1564). The invention of a printing press in about 1450 in Nuremberg introduced the idea of mass production. This ensured that the anti-papal ideas of the German monk, Martin Luther (1483-1546) circulated widely. The resulting Reformation by the mid-sixteenth century ended a unified Christendom. The sophisticated prints of Luther’s countryman, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) made him the first artist with a truly international reputation.
Renaissance drawings and prints can be consulted in the Department of Prints and Drawings. Renaissance scientific instruments, and artefacts including maiolica, gems, medals, glass, painted enamels and goldsmiths’ work, are displayed in Galleries 45, 46 and in the Enlightenment Gallery.