The Decline of the Renaissance in Italy

The dome of Florence's principal church exemplified one of the great architectural achievements of the Renaissance.
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It is impossible to simplify a seismic historical movement with a single description. Still, the Renaissance, as it is generally understood, began in Italy in the early 1400s. It was a time of cultural renewal that led to new developments in art, literature, politics, science and philosophy, as well as a new appreciation for the works of ancient Greece and Rome. It is just as challenging to explain why the Italian Renaissance ended. Many factors contributed to this decline, particularly political and religious turmoil.

1 An Italy At War

In part, the Italian Renaissance withered on account of political strife. Wars -- a seeming ceaseless parade of them -- ravaged the Italian countryside beginning with the French monarch Charles VIII’s 1494 invasion. However, it was not just a question of French attacks on Italy, for “Italy” itself would not exist as a nation for centuries. Rather, different cities and regions in Italy battled against each other, enlisting the help of other nations in attempts to gain power over their neighbors. These wars became so intense and drained resources so thoroughly that in 1527, the Holy Roman Emperor’s own soldiers mutinied and sacked Rome.

2 A Climate of Growing Religious Dissent

The cultural achievements emblematic of the Renaissance began to cease in Italy on account of religious tensions. In 1517, Martin Luther had introduced a religious movement that would result in the Protestant Reformation and would lead to a break with the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic authorities responded to the reformers’ harsh criticisms with the Counter-Reformation, which entailed a severe policing of religious practices. The Inquisition was renewed and practically anyone could be suspected of heresy, the ultimate punishment for which was to be burnt at the stake.

3 Costs of Oppression

In the repressive atmosphere of the Counter-Reformation, the reverence for antiquity was condemned as misguided worship of paganism. Consequently, art and literature became stifled, often limited to religious subjects. One poet, Torquato Tasso (1544-1595), wrote a famous epic, the “Jerusalem Delivered.” Rather than enhance his reputation, the poem drove its author insane. Tasso, obsessed with religious rectitude and terrified of producing heretical work, was committed to Sant’Anna, a mental institution. He would later revise his poem into the nearly unreadable “Jerusalem Conquered.” Counter-Reformation values distorted the poet’s work—and that of many other artists and writers.

4 Science versus the Catholic Church

The gloomy atmosphere of Counter-Reformation Italy influenced other areas as well. In the 15th century, humanists and scientists were entertaining new ideas about the world -- its past and its future. However, even the ''Father of Modern Science,'' the famed Galileo Galilei, suffered from harsh ecclesiastical policies and was prevented from advancing his groundbreaking heliocentric theory (the idea that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the reverse). Not only was the celebrated scientist’s books banned, but the Church accused Galileo of heresy and sentenced him to house arrest for the remainder of his life.

Alana Shilling is a contributor to several publications including "The Brooklyn Rail," "Art in America" and the "Fortnightly Review." She writes on subjects ranging from archaeology and history to contemporary art. Shilling received a Master of Arts and Ph.D. in comparative literature from Princeton University and has been writing for audiences both general and academic since 2005.