The Rebirth As early as about 1350 in Italy, representations of a new cultural movement, usually called the Renaissance, began to challenge certain basic medieval assumptions and offer alternatives to medieval modes of literary and artistic expression. By around 1500 Renaissance ideals not only had triumphed fully in Italy, but also were spreading to northern Europe where they were re conceived to produce the highly influential movement of Christian humanism. The widespread modern idea that a "Renaissance period" followed Europe's medieval age was first expressed by numerous Italian writers who lived between 1350 and 1550. According to them, one thousand years of constant darkness had intervened between the Roman era and their own times. During these "dark ages" the Muses of art and literature had fled Europe before the onslaught of barbarism and ignorance. Almost miraculously, however, in the fourteenth century the Muses suddenly returned, and Italians happily collaborated with them to bring forth a glorious "renaissance of arts." Ever since this took place most historians have taken for granted the existence of some sort of "renaissance" intervening between medieval and modern times.

Indeed, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many scholars went so far as to argue that the Renaissance was not just an epoch in the history of learning and culture but that a unique "Renaissance spirit" transformed all aspects of life: political, economic, and religious, as well as intellectual and artistic. Today, however, most experts no longer accept this characterization because they find it impossible to locate any truly distinctive "Renaissance" politics, economic or religion. Instead, scholars tend to agree that the term "renaissance" should be reserved to describe certain trends in thought, literature, and the arts that emerged in Italy from 1350 to 1550 and then spread to northern Europe during the first half of the twentieth century. The Renaissance originated in Italy for many reasons. The most fundamental was that Italy in the later middle ages encompassed the most advanced urban society in all of Europe. Unlike aristocrats north of the Alps, Italian aristocrats customarily lived in urban centers rather than in rural centers and consequently became fully involved in urban public affairs.

With these living terms the aristocratic class was less sharply set off from the class of rich merchants than in the north. A final reason why late-medieval Italy was the birthplace of an intellectual and artistic renaissance was in the fact that it had a far greater sense of understanding with the classical past than any other territory in Western Europe. Despite numerous intellectual and literary advances, the most long-lived achievement of the Italian renaissance was made in the realm of art. Of all arts, painting was undoubtedly supreme.

In 1300 very impressive beginnings were made in the history of Italian painting by the artistic genius Giotto, but it was not until the fifteenth century that Italian painting began to achieve its majority. One reason for this was that in the early fifteenth century the laws of linear perspective were discovered and the first engaged to give the fullest sense of three dimensions. Fifteenth-century artists also experimented with the effects of light and shade and for the first time carefully studied the anatomy and proportions of the human body. Around 1550 the Renaissance in Italy began to decline after some two hundred glorious years. The causes of this decline were varied.

Perhaps at the head of the list should be placed the French invasion of 1494 and the nonstop warfare that ensued. Though a final cause of the decline of the Italian Renaissance was the Counter Reformation. During the sixteenth century the Roman Church was sought increasingly to exercise firm control over thought and art as part of a campaign to combat worldliness and the spread of Protestantism. It should be emphasized that cultural and artistic achievements was by no means extinguished in Italy after the middle of the sixteenth century.

On the contrary, impressive new artistic styles were developed between 1540 and 1600. Italian music registered enormous accomplishments virtually without interruption from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. Though whatever seemed threatening to the Church could not be tolerated, and the free spirit of the Renaissance culture was found no more.