The Renaissance (the word means “rebirth”) is generally understood to have started during the 14th century and lasted until the mid-16th century. This marked the transition between the Medieval or Dark Ages to Early Modern Europe. It was exemplified by a renewed interest in the arts, science, and philosophy.
During the flowering of the Italian Renaissance, however, there were a number of catastrophes that contributed to its demise.
A change in climate resulted in harsh winters and the decline of agriculture; this led to repeated famines and shortages. On the heels of a previous swell in the population, these shortages exacerbated the food problem.
Trade throughout northwest Europe was disrupted by the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, and the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. When King Edward III of England refused to pay his debts, this had a ripple effect that caused the two largest Florentine banks (Bardi and Peruzzi) to collapse.
The Black Death was wiping out inhabitants in densely populated Northern Italian cities and it kept returning. As with any major health crises in a city, disorder and pandemonium resulted. It is believed that the Black Death reduced Europe’s population by one third.
As the population saw that the Church was at a loss to provide relief or succor during the Black Death, this had a hand in the decline of church influence.
There is a school of thought that espouses that the rise to power in Florence of Girolamo Savonarola marked the end of the city’s flourishing. For others, it is the return of the Medici. Some say the end of the Renaissance was hastened by French invasions of the early 16th century, and then the battle between France's and Spain's rulers for control of Italian territory.
It is notable that during the time of Savonarola’s rise to power a backlash towards the permissive atmosphere of the Renaissance caused many works of art to be destroyed; an Inquisition was formed, and there was a prohibition and ban on many Renaissance works of literature. This prohibition saw the end of the illuminated manuscript.
The Italian Wars, when the northern states were invaded by France (1494), ended independence for many of the city-states. With the sacking of Rome (1527) by the Spanish and German, the role of the Papacy (as the largest patron of Renaissance art and architecture) all but ended. Then there was war between Florence and Milan; at sea, there were battles between Pisa, Genoa and Venice.
There was the matter of trade. The way to India had been opened by Vasco da Gama (1498), and the discovery of the New World shifted trade routes away from Italy and the Mediterranean and toward Portugal and Europe’s west coast; this decreased Italian income.
Equally important was that the resurgence of art, science and literacy engendered an educated class, and this class questioned the teachings of the Church. As much of the Renaissance was powered by the Church’s wealth, when the educated class (the wealthy and the nobles) began to turn a deaf ear, the Church contributed less to fund art.