Why did the Italian Renaissance End?

The Duomo in Florence, Italy built during the Italian Renaissance

The Italian Renaissance (1380s-1550s) was one of the most exciting periods in human civilization. It witnessed a great flourishing of the arts, literature, philosophy, architecture, and politics. Many of the greatest figures in World Civilisation appeared during the Renaissance in Italy, including Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Raphael. However, several factors led to the end of the Renaissance and the end of one of the most creative periods in human history.

What was the Renaissance?

The term "Renaissance" or "rebirth" (or "rinascita" in Italian) was coined by Giorgio Vasari around 1550 in his book The Lives of the Artists. The Renaissance started in the late 15th century as Italians sought to imitate the lost world of ancient Greece and Rome and move away from gothic art. The Italian, artists, writers, and thinkers who all participated in the Renaissance, sought to create works that were the equal of the ancients, whom they regarded as the pinnacle of civilization.[1] The Renaissance, unlike the Middle Ages, stressed the individual, reason, beauty and secular values. This outlook became known as Humanism and has had a profound impact on European society. The Renaissance not only produced great works of art but also resulted in a dramatic change in the views of Europeans and a decisive move away from the world of the Middle Ages. The Renaissance was in many ways to lay the groundwork for the rise of the modern world and especially ‘individualism and a secular outlook.’[2] The Renaissance was able to occur because of the unique conditions that prevailed in Italy in the period from 1400 to 1500.

The country was rich, because of trade and industry and this meant that many wealthy Italians were willing to act as patrons of great artists. The Italian Peninsula was divided among a series of city-states.[3] These were Republics and they were tolerant societies, that placed a high value on creativity in the arts and though. They were unique societies in Europe of the time. Crucially, the influence of the church was limited in these city-states and there was generally freedom of thought and expression. Indeed, many prominent Churchmen were active patrons of Renaissance artists, including Popes.[4]

When did the Italian Renaissance End?

Defining when the Italian Renaissance occurred is somewhat difficult, but the most generous estimate goes from the 1380s to the 1550s. Typically, the Italian Renaissance has been tied to fortunes of Florence and Rome (especially Florence). At the end of the 14th century, after the collapse of the Florentine and Roman economies due to the Great Famine of 13150-1317 caused by the Little Ice Age, the disruption of trade by war between England and France, and the devastation of the Black Plague, Rome and Florence began to rebound. These catastrophes actually helped start the Renaissance because it was initially driven by artists such as Petrarch and Dante who began to question the authority of the Church because it had failed to alleviate the suffering of Italians during these catastrophes.

The end of the Italian is directly tied to Florence's decline and the eventual abandonment of the ideals of the Renaissance. This slow slide began with the invasion of Florence in 1494 by France and gained speed as Italy broke out into warfare between its city-states. Additionally, like most significant political and intellectual movements, the Renaissance gave birth to a significant intellectual and religious backlash. By the 1550s, many of the works of literature and art that help birth the Renaissance were banned. By the mid-1550s, the Italian Renaissance was essentially over. While the Italian Renaissance died in Florence and Rome, its ideas, beliefs, and art had spread across Europe. These other European Renaissances continued even as Florence's and Rome's rebirth ended.

Florence's Economic Decline

Leonardo da Vinci

Until 1500 Italy was at the centre of the Mediterranean world and its vast network of trade routes. Italian traders made vast profits by acting as middlemen in the trade between the Muslim and Christian worlds. Furthermore, the Italian clothing industry exported its goods all over the Mediterranean.[5] The riches made enabled the elite to fund the work of great artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. However, after Columbus discovered America, the Mediterranean economy went into a steep decline. New trade routes were established in the Atlantic and the trade of the Mediterranean dropped off. This led to less money being spent on art in Italy.[6]

Although, the Popes still continued to be great patrons of the arts. The relative decline in the Italian economy, because of changing trade routes, because of the Discovery of America, led to less money being spent on the arts and education. This had a negative impact on the Renaissance and fewer great works of art and literature.[7]

The Rise of Spain

The Italian city-states were very rich but also vulnerable to their larger neighbors. The kingdoms of Europe were becoming national states, with a unified government and standing armies. By the 16th century, the Italian city-states looked much weaker that large kingdoms such as France. In the 1490s, the French invaded Italy, in order to conquer the kingdom of Naples. The Spanish Monarchy refused to allow the French to dominate southern Italy [8] The French army eventually retreated from the Kingdom of Naples after a plague decimated the army. However, their invasion was to result in several decades of war, between France and Spain, for the control of first Naples and later Italy.

Over the following decades, Italy became a battleground for the first time in centuries.[9] This was to have a negative impact on the Renaissance. In 1527, the Spanish army sacked Rome and caused widespread loss of life and devastation. Eventually, the Spanish, under Phillip II, established Spanish domination in Italy. The Italian city-states were still technically independent, but they were under de-facto Spanish control. The Spanish control resulted in a loss of political and individual freedom and this dealt a blow to the Renaissance as increasingly artists and thinkers were unable to create the worked they wanted or to freely express their own ideas and opinions.

The Impact of the Counter-Reformation

Sack of Rome by Johannes Lingelbach

The Reformation began in Germany and soon Protestant Churches were being established throughout Northern Europe. This cause a crisis in the Catholic Church in Italy and throughout Europe. Many feared that Italy would even turn Protestant. This caused a change in direction in the Catholic Church and led it to change its direction. In response to the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church engaged in a series of reforms and other measures. These sought to make sure that Protestant teachings did not become popular. The response of the Catholic Church became known as the Counter-Reformation. One of the most important aspects of the Counter-Reformation was the increasing role of the Inquisition in Italian Society. Any person, believed to be sympathetic to Protestant ideas was arrested as a heretic by the Inquisition. The Inquisition also arrested those who have opinions and views that were contrary to the teachings of the Church. [10]

The Counter-Reformation was to have a dramatic impact on artists, writers, and scientists’ in Italy. No longer could they discuss or express their views freely. They were afraid to create any daring works, in case they offended the Catholic Church. Girolamo Savonarola rose to power in Florence and ruled between 1494-1498. He sought to reverse the influence of secularism and ruled Florence as began its economic and cultural decline. Rulers such as Savonarola forced artists to recommit to the church to avoid attracting the attention of the Inquisition. The threat of the Inquisition ensured that artists and writers tailored their works to be more suitably Catholic. The result of the Counter-Reformation was that Italian artists worked in an environment that was repressive. This led to Italy, falling behind the rest of Europe, intellectually and artistically. It should still be remembered that Italy still produced great artists and thinkers such as Galileo, but they were far fewer and less original. The old humanist tradition, of the Renaissance, was abandoned, during the Counter-Reformation.[11]

Conclusion

The Renaissance was one of the most important historical epochs, it produced a culture that created great works of art and provided the world, with the humanist view of life, which encouraged individualism and the use of reason. However, economic decline meant that there was less money for the arts and learning. The Spanish came to dominate the city-states and this meant that artists had less freedom of expression. Finally, the Counter-Reformation by enforcing Catholic Orthodoxy meant that artists, thinkers and writers were afraid to be as daring or original as they had been in the past.[12] These factors led to the end of the Renaissance.

References

  1. Burke, Peter. The Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society in Italy (Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 6.
  2. Burke, p.9.
  3. Ruggiero, Guido. The Renaissance in Italy: A Social and Cultural History of the Rinascimento (Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. 648.
  4. Ruggiero, p. 78.
  5. Ruggiero, p. 134.
  6. Lopez, Robert Sabatino, The Three Ages of the Italian Renaissance (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1970), p. 89.
  7. Lopez, p. 98.
  8. Lopez, p. 67.
  9. Lopez, 112.
  10. Mullett, Michael A., The Catholic Reformation (Routledge, London 1999)p. 56.
  11. Mullet, p. 141.
  12. Mullet, p. 134.

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