Civilizations are born. Civilizations die. It's rare, however, that one dies and comes back to life after a thousand year slumber. That's what happened in the Renaissance. It was a once-in-the-history-of-the-world event.
Western civilization was born in Ancient Greece around 500 B.C. It grew to maturity in Ancient Rome. But Rome fell to the Goths in 476 A.D. The Classical Age had lasted almost a thousand years. Rome's fall plunged the Western world into a millennium of "darkness," what later writers would call a "dark age."
But around 1450 A.D., the darkness began to ebb. In 1453, the Ottoman Turks overthrew Constantinople-modern day Istanbul, at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean. It was in Constantinople that the treasures of Greece and Rome had been preserved by the Byzantines, the descendants of the Eastern Roman Empire.
The intellectuals, priests, artists, and philosophers of the Byzantine Empire who had husbanded the flame of Greece and Rome fled back to the place that their forebears had abandoned a thousand years before: Italy. This set off the greatest cultural revival the world has ever known.
It was in Italy that the flame of the ancient world was reignited. It was in Italy that the artistic geniuses Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael hailed. The Sistine Chapel, Mona Lisa, and The School of Athens are virtual synonyms for artistic genius still unequalled today.
Italy also was spawned new expressions in architecture. Most people would recognize the towering dome of Brunellesci'sCathedral of Florence. Even more know the dome from Bramante's St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome. But artistry and architecture were only the beginnings of the this Great Civilizational Revival.
Machiavelli and Sir Thomas More created new expressions of culture in politics. Martin Luther set off a revolution in religion: the Protestant Reformation. Gutenberg invented printing. Columbus discovered America. And Copernicus discovered that the earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around.
Most people don't associate these latter geniuses with their artistic brethren. But they are just as much a part of that miraculous revival as are the artistic titans whose names we do consider.
This is precisely the power and the wonder of the Renaissance: it revolutionized art and architecture, religion and politics, exploration and science, indeed almost all of the institutions of the Western world. It truly merits the meaning of its name: re-birth. It will never be surpassed and probably never even equaled.
Robert Freeman is the author of The Best One Hour History series…