In the 12th cent. a rediscovery of Greek and Roman literature occurred across Europe that eventually led to the development of the humanist movement in the 14th cent. In addition to emphasizing Greek and Latin scholarship, humanists believed that each individual had significance within society. The growth of an interest in humanism led to the changes in the arts and sciences that form common conceptions of the Renaissance.
The 14th cent. through the 16th cent. was a period of economic flux in Europe; the most extensive changes took place in Italy. After the death of Frederick II in 1250, emperors lost power in Italy and throughout Europe; none of Frederick's successors equaled him. Power fell instead into the hands of various popes; after the Great Schism (1378–1415; see Schism, Great), when three popes held power simultaneously, control returned to secular rulers.
During the Renaissance small Italian republics developed into despotisms as the centers of power moved from the landed estates to the cities. Europe itself slowly developed into groups of self-sufficient compartments. At the height of the Renaissance there were five major city-states in Italy: the combined state of Naples and Sicily, the Papal State, Florence, Milan, and Venice. Italy's economic growth is best exemplified in the development of strong banks, most notably the Medici bank of Florence. England, France, and Spain also began to develop economically based class systems.
Beginning in the latter half of the 15th cent., a humanist faith in classical scholarship led to the search for ancient texts that would increase current scientific knowledge. Scientific thinkers such as Leonardo da Vinci, Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo, Tycho Brahe, and Johannes Kepler attempted to refine earlier thought on astronomy.
Attracted by the values and rhetorical eloquence of ancient writers, figures such as Petrarch, Giovanni Boccaccio, and Lorenzo Valla rejected medieval Scholasticism in favour of human-centred forms of philosophy and literature. In northern Europe, Desiderius Erasmus cultivated Christian humanism, and writers such as FranÇois Rabelais and William Shakespeare produced works that emphasized the intricacies of human character.
Inspired by ancient Greece and Rome, Renaissance painters and sculptors took the visible world for their subject and practiced according to mathematical principles of balance, harmony, and perspective. The new aesthetic found expression in the works of Italian artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, and Michelangelo, and the Italian city of Florence became the centre of Renaissance art.