While explorers east and west were bringing to our knowledge new lands, new plants, and new animals, men of science were revealing the mysteries of the heavens to the superstitious peoples of Europe. Copernicus the Pole proved that the earth revolved around the sun, whereas men had long believed that the sun and the stars went round the little earth.
Then Galileo of Pisa, with his telescope, was able to study the heavens more thoroughly and defend the Copernican system. The lens had been known to the Arabians, and described by Roger Bacon, but so far it had been used only for spectacles. Galileo applied it to the making of the telescope, and soon after he also invented the microscope.
But few people believed in these astounding discoveries. The Church was hostile to him, and imprisoned him. "It is vain that you have procured the condemnation of Galileo," wrote later a wise man (Pascal) from France, "That will never prove the earth to be at rest. If unerring observation proves that it turns round, not all mankind together can keep it from turning, or themselves from turning with it." Galileo became blind in his old age, and was visited by Milton, the great Puritan poet. His work was developed by Milton's countryman, Sir Isaac Newton, one of the greatest scientists of all time, who discovered the laws of gravitation, and wrote a great book, the Principia (1687), which marks an epoch in science and mathematics. "It may well wait a century for a reader," said Newton of his book, "as God has waited six thousand years for an observer."
When he was quite an old man, and venerated by all the learned men of Europe, he spoke these words: "I know not what the world will think of my labours; but to myself it seems that I have been but as a child playing on the seashore -- now finding some pebble rather more polished, and now some shell rather more agreeably variegated than another, while the immense ocean of truth extended itself unexplored before me."
But the Renaissance was no less famous for its art than for the beginnings of modern science. The most perfect paintings ever known were done at this time, and the artists were men of "universal interests and capacity." Of Leonardo da Vinci, the "divinely endowed," his biographer tells how "he excelled not only in sculpture, but also in architecture; he made designs for mills, machines, and engines run by water." And he said of himself: "I can execute sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay; also in painting I can do as much as any one else." He was indeed the Forerunner, for he anticipated Copernicus in astronomy, and Harvey in knowledge of the circulation of the blood, guessed at the wave theory of light, and made many experiments in flying.
One of the greatest of all sculptors was Benvenuto Cellini, an artist of Florence, the home of so many great men of the Renaissance. He himself has told how he made a wonderful salt-cellar for the King of France.
"It was of oval form, and all of gold, worked with the chisel, and it represented the sea and the land. In the sea's right hand I had placed a trident, and in his left a ship to hold the salt. The water was represented by waves exquisitely enamelled in its own colour. For the land I had made a lovely lady. In her left hand I had placed a little temple, very finely wrought, and this was meant for the pepper. Under her I had fashioned the most beautiful animals which the earth produces; and the land rocks I had partly enamelled and partly left in gold. When I set the piece before the King of France, he cried aloud in astonishment, and could not look long enough."
All these wonders of inventions, of discovery, of science, of art, belong to the great awakening called the Renaissance.
And so, as modern history began, "a change was coming upon the world, the meaning and direction of which even still is hidden from us, a change from era to era. The paths trodden by the footsteps of ages were broken up; old things were passing away, and the faith and the life of ten centuries (A.D. 500-1500) were dissolving like a dream. Chivalry was dying; the abbey and the castle were soon together to crumble into ruins; and all the forms, desires, beliefs, convictions of the old world were passing away, never to return.
"A new continent had risen up beyond the western sea. The floor of heaven, inlaid with stars, had sunk back into an infinite abyss of immeasurable space, and the firm earth itself, unfixed from its foundations, was seen to be but a small atom in the awful vastness of the universe. In the fabric of habit, which they had so laboriously built for themselves, mankind were to remain no longer.
"Only among the aisles of the cathedral, only as we gaze upon their silent figures sleeping on their tombs, some faint conceptions float before us of what these men were when they were alive; and perhaps in the sound of the church bells, that peculiar creation of the mediaeval age, which falls upon the ear like the echo of a vanished world."