For this generation, the most exciting place to be was the Netherlands, particularly Amsterdam. Holland had recently won its independence from Spain, after eighty years of war. It was a republic, a collection of protestant provinces. It was small and prosperous. Its ships travelled the world and its people traded and talked. It was said to be the only country where a master and servant could not be distinguished by their dress.
It was the most tolerant and liberal country in Europe. Refugees from religious persecution elsewhere on the continent moved there: different protestant sects, jews and moslems. The university of Leiden had been founded in the previous century and attracted many great thinkers, people who wanted to push back the envelope of perception in ways that were not permitted in their own countries. The microscope and telescope also expanded the human view of the smaller and greater world. Bacteria were described, as were the rings of Saturn.
Artists aimed at realism, depicting the world they saw.
Here is a street scene from Delft, by Vermeer.
For me, the brightest star in this firmament is the work of Baruch Spinoza. His family was jewish, originally from Portugal. His father worked as a merchant. He was self-educated, and earned his living as a lens-grinder. And while he was grinding lenses he contemplated the universe, infinity, God … and all without the need for the perspectives of any of the established religions that were tearing the rest of the continent apart. I found his book, Ethics, almost incomprehensible, but I love the fact that he felt enabled to explore such questions.