Renaissance refers to the era in Europe, beginning approximately in the 14th century, when a new style in painting, sculpture and architecture was forged. In a broader cultural sense, this era signified the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern age. This period culminated in the High Renaissance, a brief phenomenon confined essentially to Italy in about the first two decades of the 16th century and supremely embodied in some of the work of that time by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.
Early Renaissance 1300 to 1450
Initially the early Renaissance in Italy emanated only from Florence, while north of the Alps it was mainly the rich trading cities in the southern Netherlands and south-west Germany, where middle-class patrons were to be found, who welcomed the new creative possibilities. Consequently, the early Renaissance can be described as the first great cultural achievement of the middle classes. They created their own forms of expression, while the church and the nobility, backed by tradition, at first rejected the new realism.
Renaissance 1450 to 1500
Over wide areas north and south of the Alps from c. 1450 there was a reversion to Late Gothic forms, such as the elongated figures, the predominance of vibrantly lively lines over sculptural modelling and the inclusion of decorative detail. Even so, new creative possibilities did emerge amid this return to Gothic forms. Especially in the field of sculpture the idea of a single, fixed viewpoint gave way to multiple viewpoints.
High Renaissance 1500 to 1520
All the artistic trends of the 15th century culminated around 1500 in the short-lived High Renaissance which Heinrich Wölfflin, in Klassische Kunst (1898), described as the Classic Art of the modern age. It is as hard to give precise time limits to the period as it is to give a comprehensive definition of it. It is generally accepted that artists of the High Renaissance developed more monumental forms and created unified and harmonious compositions that reject the decorative details of 15th-century art.
Late Renaissance or Mannerism 1520 to 1600
The High Renaissance period could only last a short time. The integration of the real into the ideal, of the utmost fullness of life into something strictly composed, of the spontaneous into the intellectual, of the extremely individualistic into the typical, of the perfect, illusionistic representation of space into a flat surface and of the secular into the sacred could not be surpassed. It was in fact the very people who had participated in the High Renaissance who introduced new developments, for example: Michelangelo when he painted the ceiling of the Sistine chapel in the Vatican (1508–12) by the passionate sweep of movement in his figures and the blurring of the boundaries between painting and sculpture.
[from Grove Art Online]