Renaissance Thinkers

Essential Question

What advances were made by Renaissance thinkers?


Dante Alighieri

Many Italian writers contributed great works of literature to the Renaissance. The earliest was the politician and poet named Dante Alighieri (DAHN-tay ahl-eeg-YEH-ree), or simply Dante. Before Dante, most medieval authors had written in Latin, the language of the church. But Dante wrote in Italian, which was the common language of the people. By using Italian, Dante showed that he considered the people's language to be as good as Latin. Later writers continued to use common languages in their works of literature.

Dante's major work was The Divine Comedy. It describes an imaginary journey he took through the afterlife. On this journey, Dante meets people from his past as well as great figures from history. In fact, the Roman poet Virgil is one of the guides on the journey. In the course of his writing, Dante described many of the problems he saw in Italian society.

Niccolo Machiavelli

A later Italian writer was also a politician. His name was Niccolo Machiavelli (neek-koh-LOH mahk-yah-VEL-lee). In 1513 Machiavelli wrote a short book called The Prince. It gave leaders advice on how they should rule.

Machiavelli didn't care about theories or what should work. In his writings, he argued that rulers had to focus on the "here and now," not theories, to be successful. He was only interested in what really happened in both war and peace. For example, Machiavelli thought that sometimes rulers had to be ruthless to keep order. In this way, Machiavelli serves as a good example of Renaissance interest in human behavior and society.

"A controversy has arisen about this: whether it is better to be loved than feared, or vice versa. My view is that it is desirable to be both loved and feared; but it is difficult to achieve both and, if one of them has to be lacking, it is much safer to be feared than loved .. . For love is sustained by a bond of gratitude which, because men are excessively self-interested, is broken whenever they see a chance to benefit themselves. But fear is sustained by a dread of punishment that is always effective."

The Prince by Machiavelli

Miguel de Cervantes

Writers in other countries besides Italy also included Renaissance ideas in their works. Like Dante, they wrote in the languages of their home countries. In Spain Miguel de Cervantes (mee-GEL day ser-VAHN-tays) wrote Don Quixote (kee-HOH-tay). In this book Cervantes poked fun at romantic tales of the Middle Ages. His main character is an old man who decides to become a knight, a decsion that Cervantes mocks.

"At last, when his wits were gone beyond repair, he came to conceive the strangest idea that ever occurred to any madman in this world. It now appeared to him fitting and necessary, in order to win a greater amount of honor for himself and serve his country at the same time, to become a knight-errant and roam the world on horseback, in a suit of armor. "

-Miguel de Cervantes, from Don Quixote,

translated by Samuel Putnam

Like many writers of his day, Cervantes thought his own time was much better than the Middle Ages.

William Shakespeare

Readers around the world consider William Shakespeare the greatest writer in the English language. Although he also wrote poems, Shakespeare is most famous for his plays. Shakespeare wrote more than 30 comedies, tragedies, and histories. London audiences of the late 1500s and early 1600s packed the theatre to see them. Ever since, people have enjoyed the beauty of Shakespeare's language and his understanding of humanity. The following pas- sage reflects the Renaissance idea that each human being is important. Shakespeare compares people to the actors in a play who should be watched with great interest:

"All the world's a stage,

And all the men and women merely players.

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. "

- William Shakespeare, from As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7

The works of Dante, Machiavelli, Cervantes, Shakespeare and more have been translated into dozens of languages. Through these translations, their Renaissance spirit lives on.


During the Renaissance Italian artists created some of the most beautiful paintings and sculptures in the world. Rich families and church leaders hired the artists to create these works. New techniques made their work come alive.

Renaissance ideas about the value of human life are reflected in the art of the time. Artists showed people more realistically than medieval artists had done. Renaissance artists studied the human body and drew what they saw. However, because artists often used classical statues as their guides, many of the human beings they drew were as perfect as Greek gods.

Artists also used a new discovery-perspective, a method of showing a three-dimensional scene on a flat surface so that it looks real. Perspective uses various techniques. For example, people in the background are smaller than those in front. Also, straight lines, such as on floor tiles, appear diagonal. Colors could also show distance. So the background of a picture are a hazy blue. In the work of the greatest Italian artists the people shown are clearly individuals. In this way, the art reflects the Renaissance idea of the value of human beings. For example, the figures in the painting above have clear personalities.


One of the greatest Italian artists was Michelangelo (mee-kay-LAHN-jay-loh). He had many talents. Michelangelo designed buildings, wrote poetry, carved sculptures, and painted magnificent pictures. Perhaps his most famous work is a painting that covers the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. The muscular human figures in this immense painting remind the viewer of Greek or Roman statues.


Sistine Chapel


Leonardo d Vinci

The true genius of the Renaissance was Leonardo da Vinci. In fact, some call him the greatest genius that has ever lived. In addition to being an expert painter, Leonardo was a sculptor, architect, inventor, and engineer. He was even a town planner and mapmaker.

Both nature and technology fascinated Leonardo. Detailed drawings of plants, animals, and machines fill his sketchbooks. To make his art more real, Leonardo studied anatomy, or the structure of human bodies. He dissected corpses to see how bones and muscles worked. Yet Leonardo's paintings also show human emotions. For example, people who see his Mona Lisa can't help wondering what made the lady smile.

The Mona Lisa

The Last Supper

Mathematics & Engineering

Some scholars thought mathematics could help them understand the universe. They studied ancient math texts and built upon the ideas in them. In the process, they created symbols we still use in math today. For example, they created symbols for the square root (V) and for positive(+) and negative (-) numbers.

Advances in math led to advances in other fields of science. For example, engineers and architects used new mathematical formulas to strengthen buildings. One Renaissance architect who used these new ideas was Filippo Brunelleschi (broo-nayl-LAYS-kee). He designed a huge dome for a cathedral in Florence. But Brunelleschi ran into a problem. The dome that he wanted to build was so big that it would be too heavy for the cathedral's walls to support. To solve the problem, he built the dome out of two thin, light layers instead of one thick, heavy one.

Astronomy & Cartography

Other Renaissance scientists wanted to know more about the sky and what was in it. They studied astronomy to learn about the sun, stars, and planets.

In the Middle Ages, scientists had thought that the sun and stars revolved around the earth. They thought that the earth was the center of the universe. But Renaissance scientists learned that the earth moves around the sun. Later astronomers built on this discovery to lay the foundations for modern astronomy.

Other scholars were less interested in the stars and more curious about the earth itself. They wanted to know the exact size and shape of the earth and its lands. These scholars used measurements and calculations made by merchants and sailors to create better, more accurate maps.

Discussion Questions

  • What famous writers lived during the Renaissance? What was unique about their writings?

  • What famous artist lived during the Renaissance? What was unique about their paintings?

  • What advancements were made in math and engineering?

  • What advancements were made in astronomy and Cartography?

Activity 1: What advances were made by Renaissance thinkers?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the questions in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

Extension Activities