Rome by the mid-fifteenth century was the head of a cultural as well as a ispiritual world, for the popes had become lavish patrons of the arts. From the days of Cimabue and Giotto in the late thirteenth century leading artists had been called to Rome for papal commissions, but the fifteenth century saw them summoned for longer and longer periods. Fra Angelico, brought from his cloister in Florence to work in the Vatican, had died in Rome ten years before Benozzo Gozzoli painted his view of the city. From the fifteenth century well through the nineteenth, Rome remained the goal of artists and her ruins left a deep impress on their style and subject-matter. But though Rome was a home for artists, the artists themselves were seldom Romans. As the Empire had once drawn her statesmen and creative workers from the imperial provinces, so Rome of the Renaissance drew her artists and scholars from other cities to serve the papal court.
The fifteenth century saw also the beginning of the new archaeology which was slowly to replace the legends of the Mirabilia as a source of information both in literature and in art. Poggio Bracciolini De Varietate Fortunae (Vicissitudes of Fortune) written before 1431, opened a new epoch in the interpretation of Roman monuments. Instead of the delightful but credulous wonder of the medieval guide, Poggio's book combined first-hand observation with study of neglected or hitherto unknown classical writings. Flavio Biondo carried still further the scientific study of Roman topography. His Roma Instaurata (Rome Restored), completed in 1446, was the first attempt to describe Roman antiquities with suggestions for their restoration. Flavio used not only the usual classical literary sources but also the late antique regional catalogues, the Notitia and Curiosum, in his evocation of ancient Rome. His Roma Triumphans seeks to recreate the social and religious life as well as the antiquities of the classic city and his Historiarum ah inclinato Romano Imperio Decades III (History of the Decline of the Roman Empire) was a forerunner of Gibbon Decline and Fall.
It was the work of these early renaissance scholars that laid the foundations for a new concept of history, including a transitional or 'middle age' between the fall of the Roman Empire and later times. The division of history into ancient, medieval, and modern periods, however, was not fully established until the seventeenth century. The ancient Roman reckoning of time as before and after the founding of Rome in 753 B.C. had lasted until the sixth century A.D. and even later in some countries. Men of the Middle Ages in general considered, not without foundation, that their civilization was a continuation of imperial Rome--Rome la grande-carried on by the coronation of Charlemagne in Rome and the succeeding Holy Roman Empire.
Petrarch, however, on the borderline between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in a letter to his friend Giovanni Colonna in 1341 noted the growing recognition of a definite break between pagan and Christian times: 'Those things which happened before the name of Christ was celebrated and venerated in Rome, we reckoned as ancient; all that has occurred since that epoch to the present time, as modern.'