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Section 2: Italy During the Renaissance

  • Page ID
    3979
  • Italian Trade Cities

    Italian city-states trading during the late Middle Ages set the stage for the Renaissance by moving resources, culture, and knowledge from the East.

    LEARNING OBJECTIVES

    Show how Northern Italy and the wealthy city-states within it became such huge European powers

    KEY TAKEAWAYS

    Key Points

    • While Northern Italy was not richer in resources than many other parts of Europe, the level of development, stimulated by trade, allowed it to prosper. In particular, Florence became one of the wealthiest cities in Northern Italy.
    • Florence became the center of this financial industry, and the gold florin became the main currency of international trade.
    • Luxury goods bought in the Levant, such as spices, dyes, and silks, were imported to Italy and then resold throughout Europe.
    • The Italian trade routes that covered the Mediterranean and beyond were also major conduits of culture and knowledge.

    Key Terms

    • Vitruvius: A Roman author, architect, and civil engineer (born c. 80–70 BC, died after c. 15 BCE), perhaps best known for his multi-volume work entitled De Architectura.
    • Hanseatic League: A commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and their market towns that dominated trade along the coast of Northern Europe.
    • Tacitus: A senator and a historian of the Roman Empire (c. 56–after 117 CE).
    • Levant: The countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
    • city-state: A political phenomenon of small independent states mostly in the central and northern Italian peninsula between the 9th and 15th centuries.

    Prosperous City-States

    During the late Middle Ages, Northern and Central Italy became far more prosperous than the south of Italy, with the city-states, such as Venice and Genoa, among the wealthiest in Europe. The Crusades had built lasting trade links to the Levant, and the Fourth Crusade had done much to destroy the Byzantine Roman Empire as a commercial rival to the Venetians and Genoese.

    The main trade routes from the east passed through the Byzantine Empire or the Arab lands and onwards to the ports of Genoa, Pisa, and Venice. Luxury goods bought in the Levant, such as spices, dyes, and silks, were imported to Italy and then resold throughout Europe. Moreover, the inland city-states profited from the rich agricultural land of the Po valley.

    From France, Germany, and the Low Countries, through the medium of the Champagne fairs, land and river trade routes brought goods such as wool, wheat, and precious metals into the region. The extensive trade that stretched from Egypt to the Baltic generated substantial surpluses that allowed significant investment in mining and agriculture.

    Thus, while Northern Italy was not richer in resources than many other parts of Europe, the level of development, stimulated by trade, allowed it to prosper. In particular, Florence became one of the wealthiest cities in Northern Italy, due mainly to its woolen textile production, developed under the supervision of its dominant trade guild, the Arte della Lana. Wool was imported from Northern Europe (and in the 16th century from Spain), and together with dyes from the east was used to make high quality textiles.

    Revitalizing Trade Routes

    In the 13th century, much of Europe experienced strong economic growth. The trade routes of the Italian states linked with those of established Mediterranean ports, and eventually the Hanseatic League of the Baltic and northern regions of Europe, to create a network economy in Europe for the first time since the 4th century. The city-states of Italy expanded greatly during this period, and grew in power to become de facto fully independent of the Holy Roman Empire; apart from the Kingdom of Naples, outside powers kept their armies out of Italy. During this period, the modern commercial infrastructure developed, with double-entry bookkeeping, joint stock companies, an international banking system, a systematized foreign exchange market, insurance, and government debt. Florence became the center of this financial industry, and the gold florin became the main currency of international trade.

    While Roman urban republican sensibilities persisted, there were many movements and changes afoot. Italy first felt the changes in Europe from the 11th to the 13th centuries. Typically there was:

    • A rise in population―the population doubled in this period (the demographic explosion)
    • An emergence of huge cities (Venice, Florence, and Milan had over 100,000 inhabitants by the 13th century, and many others, such as Genoa, Bologna, and Verona, had over 50,000)
    • Rebuilding of the great cathedrals
    • Substantial migration from country to city (in Italy the rate of urbanization reached 20%, making it the most urbanized society in the world at that time)
    • An agrarian revolution
    • Development of commerce

    The decline of feudalism and the rise of cities influenced each other; for example, the demand for luxury goods led to an increase in trade, which led to greater numbers of tradesmen becoming wealthy, who, in turn, demanded more luxury goods.

    The focal point of the photo is the impressive 14th-century Palazzo Vecchio with its crenellated tower.

    Palazzo della Signoria e Uffizzi, Florence: Florence was one of the most important city-states in Italy.

    The Transfer of Culture and Knowledge

    The Italian trade routes that covered the Mediterranean and beyond were also major conduits of culture and knowledge. The recovery of lost Greek texts, which had been preserved by Arab scholars, following the Crusader conquest of the Byzantine heartlands revitalized medieval philosophy in the Renaissance of the 12th century. Additionally, Byzantine scholars migrated to Italy during and following the Ottoman conquest of the Byzantines between the 12th and 15th centuries, and were important in sparking the new linguistic studies of the Renaissance, in newly created academies in Florence and Venice. Humanist scholars searched monastic libraries for ancient manuscripts and recovered Tacitus and other Latin authors. The rediscovery of Vitruvius meant that the architectural principles of Antiquity could be observed once more, and Renaissance artists were encouraged, in the atmosphere of humanist optimism, to excel the achievements of the Ancients, like Apelles, of whom they read.

    Venice and the Ottoman Empire: Crash Course World History #19: John Green discusses the strange and mutually beneficial relationship between a republic, the city-state of Venice, and an Empire, the Ottomans—and how studying history can help you to be a better boyfriend and/or girlfriend. Together, the Ottoman Empire and Venice grew wealthy by facilitating trade: The Venetians had ships and nautical expertise; the Ottomans had access to many of the most valuable goods in the world, especially pepper and grain. Working together across cultural and religious divides, they both become very rich, and the Ottomans became one of the most powerful political entities in the world.

    Italian Politics

    Italian politics during the time of the Renaissance was dominated by the rising merchant class, especially one family, the House of Medici, whose power in Florence was nearly absolute.

    LEARNING OBJECTIVES

    Describe the intricacies of Italian politics during this time

    KEY TAKEAWAYS

    Key Points

    • Northern and Central Italy became prosperous in the late Middle Ages through the growth of international trade and the rise of the merchant class, who eventually gained almost complete control of the governments of the Italian city-states.
    • A popular explanation for the Italian Renaissance is the thesis that the primary impetus of the early Renaissance was the long-running series of wars between Florence and Milan, whereby the leading figures of Florence rallied the people by presenting the war as one between the free republic and a despotic monarchy.
    • The House of Medici was an Italian banking family, political dynasty, and later royal house in Florence who were the major sponsors of art and architecture in the early and High Renaissance.

    Key Terms

    • House of Medici: An Italian banking family, political dynasty, and later royal house in the Republic of Florence during the first half of the 15th century that had a major impact on the rise of the Italian Renaissance.
    • Hundred Years’ War: A series of conflicts waged from 1337 to 1453 by the House of Plantagenet, rulers of the Kingdom of England, against the House of Valois, rulers of the Kingdom of France, for control of the Kingdom of France.

    Italy in the Late Middle Ages

    By the Late Middle Ages (circa 1300 onward), Latium, the former heartland of the Roman Empire, and southern Italy were generally poorer than the north. Rome was a city of ancient ruins, and the Papal States were loosely administered and vulnerable to external interference such as that of France, and later Spain. The papacy was affronted when the Avignon Papacy was created in southern France as a consequence of pressure from King Philip the Fair of France. In the south, Sicily had for some time been under foreign domination, by the Arabs and then the Normans. Sicily had prospered for 150 years during the Emirate of Sicily, and later for two centuries during the Norman Kingdom and the Hohenstaufen Kingdom, but had declined by the late Middle Ages.

    The Rise of the Merchant Class

    In contrast, Northern and Central Italy had become far more prosperous, and it has been calculated that the region was among the richest in Europe. The new mercantile governing class, who gained their position through financial skill, adapted to their purposes the feudal aristocratic model that had dominated Europe in the Middle Ages. A feature of the High Middle Ages in Northern Italy was the rise of the urban communes, which had broken from the control of bishops and local counts. In much of the region, the landed nobility was poorer than the urban patriarchs in the high medieval money economy, whose inflationary rise left land-holding aristocrats impoverished. The increase in trade during the early Renaissance enhanced these characteristics.

    This change also gave the merchants almost complete control of the governments of the Italian city-states, again enhancing trade. One of the most important effects of this political control was security. Those that grew extremely wealthy in a feudal state ran constant risk of running afoul of the monarchy and having their lands confiscated, as famously occurred to Jacques Coeur in France. The northern states also kept many medieval laws that severely hampered commerce, such as those against usury and prohibitions on trading with non-Christians. In the city-states of Italy, these laws were repealed or rewritten.

    The 14th century saw a series of catastrophes that caused the European economy to go into recession, including the Hundred Years’ War, the Black Death, and numerous famines. It was during this period of instability that the Renaissance authors such as Dante and Petrarch lived, and the first stirrings of Renaissance art were to be seen, notably in the realism of Giotto. Paradoxically, some of these disasters would help establish the Renaissance. The Black Death wiped out a third of Europe’s population. The resulting labor shortage increased wages, and the reduced population was therefore much wealthier and better fed, and, significantly, had more surplus money to spend on luxury goods. As incidences of the plague began to decline in the early 15th century, Europe’s devastated population once again began to grow. The new demand for products and services also helped create a growing class of bankers, merchants, and skilled artisans.

    Warring Italians

    Northern Italy and upper Central Italy were divided into a number of warring city-states, the most powerful being Milan, Florence, Pisa, Siena, Genoa, Ferrara, Mantua, Verona, and Venice. High medieval Northern Italy was further divided by the long-running battle for supremacy between the forces of the papacy and of the Holy Roman Empire; each city aligned itself with one faction or the other, yet was divided internally between the two warring parties, Guelfs and Ghibellines. Warfare between the states was common, but invasion from outside Italy was confined to intermittent sorties of Holy Roman emperors. Renaissance politics developed from this background. Since the 13th century, as armies became primarily composed of mercenaries, prosperous city-states could field considerable forces, despite their low populations. In the course of the 15th century, the most powerful city-states annexed their smaller neighbors. Florence took Pisa in 1406, Venice captured Padua and Verona, and the Duchy of Milan annexed a number of nearby areas, including Pavia and Parma.

    A popular explanation for the Italian Renaissance is the thesis, first advanced by historian Hans Baron, that the primary impetus of the early Renaissance was the long-running series of wars between Florence and Milan. By the late 14th century, Milan had become a centralized monarchy under the control of the Visconti family. Giangaleazzo Visconti, who ruled the city from 1378 to 1402, was renowned both for his cruelty and for his abilities, and set about building an empire in Northern Italy. He launched a long series of wars, with Milan steadily conquering neighboring states and defeating the various coalitions led by Florence that sought in vain to halt the advance. This culminated in the 1402 siege of Florence, when it looked as though the city was doomed to fall, before Giangaleazzo suddenly died and his empire collapsed.

    Baron’s thesis suggests that during these long wars, the leading figures of Florence rallied the people by presenting the war as one between the free republic and a despotic monarchy, between the ideals of the Greek and Roman Republics and those of the Roman Empire and medieval kingdoms. For Baron, the most important figure in crafting this ideology was Leonardo Bruni. This time of crisis in Florence was the period when the most influential figures of the early Renaissance were coming of age, such as Ghiberti, Donatello, Masolino, and Brunelleschi. Inculcated with this republican ideology, they later went on to advocate republican ideas that were to have an enormous impact on the Renaissance.

    The Medici Family

    The House of Medici was an Italian banking family, political dynasty, and later royal house that first began to gather prominence under Cosimo de’ Medici in the Republic of Florence during the first half of the 15th century. The family originated in the Mugello region of the Tuscan countryside, gradually rising until they were able to fund the Medici Bank. The bank was the largest in Europe during the 15th century, which helped the Medici gain political power in Florence—though officially they remained citizens rather than monarchs. The biggest accomplishments of the Medici were in the sponsorship of art and architecture, mainly early and High Renaissance art and architecture. The Medici were responsible for the majority of Florentine art during their reign.

    Their wealth and influence initially derived from the textile trade guided by the guild of the Arte della Lana. Like other signore families, they dominated their city’s government, they were able to bring Florence under their family’s power, and they created an environment where art and Humanism could flourish. They, along with other families of Italy, such as the Visconti and Sforza of Milan, the Este of Ferrara, and the Gonzaga of Mantua, fostered and inspired the birth of the Italian Renaissance. The Medici family was connected to most other elite families of the time through marriages of convenience, partnerships, or employment, so the family had a central position in the social network. Several families had systematic access to the rest of the elite families only through the Medici, perhaps similar to banking relationships.

    The Medici Bank was one of the most prosperous and most respected institutions in Europe. There are some estimates that the Medici family were the wealthiest family in Europe for a time. From this base, they acquired political power initially in Florence and later in wider Italy and Europe. A notable contribution to the profession of accounting was the improvement of the general ledger system through the development of the double-entry bookkeeping system for tracking credits and debits. The Medici family were among the earliest businesses to use the system.

    Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici was the first of the Medici political dynasty, and had tremendous political power in Florence. Despite his influence, his power was not absolute; Florence’s legislative councils at times resisted his proposals, something that would not have been tolerated by the Visconti of Milan, for instance. Throughout his life he was always primus inter pares, or first among equals. His power over Florence stemmed from his wealth, which he used to control votes. As Florence was proud of its “democracy,” Medici pretended to have little political ambition, and did not often hold public office. Aeneas Sylvius, Bishop of Siena and later Pope Pius II, said of him, “Political questions are settled in [Cosimo’s] house. The man he chooses holds office… He it is who decides peace and war… He is king in all but name.”

    A painting of Cosimo Medici, clothed in red, to his left is a laurel branch and leaves.

    Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici: Portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici, the found of the House of Medici, by Jacopo Pontormo; the laurel branch (il Broncone) was a symbol used also by his heirs.

    The Church During the Italian Renaissance

    The new Humanist ideals of the Renaissance, although more secular in many aspects, developed against a Christian backdrop, and the church patronized many works of Renaissance art.

    LEARNING OBJECTIVES

    Analyze the church’s role in Italy at the time of the Renaissance

    KEY TAKEAWAYS

    Key Points

    • The Renaissance began in times of religious turmoil, especially surrounding the papacy, which culminated in the Western Schism, in which three men simultaneously claimed to be the true pope.
    • The new engagement with Greek Christian works during the Renaissance, and particularly the return to the original Greek of the New Testament promoted by Humanists Lorenzo Valla and Erasmus, helped pave the way for the Protestant Reformation.
    • In addition to being the head of the church, the pope became one of Italy’s most important secular rulers, and pontiffs such as Julius II often waged campaigns to protect and expand their temporal domains.
    • The Counter-Reformation was a period of Catholic resurgence initiated in response to the Protestant Reformation.

    Key Terms

    • neo-Platonism: A tradition of philosophy that arose in the 3rd century CE, based on the philosophy of Plato, which involved describing the derivation of the whole of reality from a single principle, “the One.” Plotinus is traditionally identified as the founder of this school.
    • Western Schism: A split within the Roman Catholic Church that lasted from 1378 to 1417, when three men simultaneously claimed to be the true pope.
    • Counter-Reformation: A period of Catholic resurgence initiated in response to the Protestant Reformation.

    The Church in the Late Middle Ages

    The Renaissance began in times of religious turmoil. The late Middle Ages was a period of political intrigue surrounding the papacy, culminating in the Western Schism, in which three men simultaneously claimed to be the true pope. While the schism was resolved by the Council of Constance (1414), a resulting reform movement known as Conciliarism sought to limit the power of the pope. Although the papacy eventually emerged supreme in ecclesiastical matters by the Fifth Council of the Lateran (1511), it was dogged by continued accusations of corruption, most famously in the person of Pope Alexander VI, who was accused variously of simony, nepotism, and fathering four children.

    A painting of a pope in adorned robes kneeling at an open casket in an open field.

    Pope Alexander VI: Alexander VI, a Borgia pope infamous for his corruption.

    Churchmen such as Erasmus and Luther proposed reform to the church, often based on Humanist textual criticism of the New Testament. In October 1517 Luther published the Ninety-five Theses, challenging papal authority and criticizing its perceived corruption, particularly with regard to instances of sold indulgences. The Ninety-five Theses led to the Reformation, a break with the Roman Catholic Church that previously claimed hegemony in Western Europe. Humanism and the Renaissance therefore played a direct role in sparking the Reformation, as well as in many other contemporaneous religious debates and conflicts.

    Pope Paul III came to the papal throne (1534–1549) after the sack of Rome in 1527, with uncertainties prevalent in the Catholic Church following the Protestant Reformation. Nicolaus Copernicus dedicated De revolutionibus orbium coelestium(On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) to Paul III, who became the grandfather of Alessandro Farnese (cardinal), who had paintings by Titian, Michelangelo, and Raphael, as well as an important collection of drawings, and who commissioned the masterpiece of Giulio Clovio, arguably the last major illuminated manuscript, the Farnese Hours.

    The Church and the Renaissance

    The city of Rome, the papacy, and the Papal States were all affected by the Renaissance. On the one hand, it was a time of great artistic patronage and architectural magnificence, when the church pardoned and even sponsored such artists as Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Bramante, Raphael, Fra Angelico, Donatello, and da Vinci. On the other hand, wealthy Italian families often secured episcopal offices, including the papacy, for their own members, some of whom were known for immorality.

    In the revival of neo-Platonism and other ancient philosophies, Renaissance Humanists did not reject Christianity; quite to the contrary, many of the Renaissance’s greatest works were devoted to it, and the church patronized many works of Renaissance art. The new ideals of Humanism, although more secular in some aspects, developed against a Christian backdrop, especially in the Northern Renaissance. In turn, the Renaissance had a profound effect on contemporary theology, particularly in the way people perceived the relationship between man and God.

    A photo of Michelangelo's Pieta, a statue depicting Mary holding the dead body of Jesus.

    Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City:Michelangelo’s Pietà exemplifies the character of Renaissance art, combining the classical aesthetic of Greek art with religious imagery, in this case Mother Mary holding the body of Jesus after the crucifixion.

    In addition to being the head of the church, the pope became one of Italy’s most important secular rulers, and pontiffs such as Julius II often waged campaigns to protect and expand their temporal domains. Furthermore, the popes, in a spirit of refined competition with other Italian lords, spent lavishly both on private luxuries and public works, repairing or building churches, bridges, and a magnificent system of aqueducts in Rome that still function today.

    From 1505 to 1626, St. Peter’s Basilica, perhaps the most recognized Christian church, was built on the site of the old Constantinian basilica in Rome. This was a time of increased contact with Greek culture, opening up new avenues of learning, especially in the fields of philosophy, poetry, classics, rhetoric, and political science, fostering a spirit of Humanism–all of which would influence the church.

    Counter-Reformation

    The Counter-Reformation, also called the Catholic Reformation or the Catholic Revival, was the period of Catholic resurgence initiated in response to the Protestant Reformation, beginning with the Council of Trent (1545–1563) and ending at the close of the Thirty Years’ War (1648). The Counter-Reformation was a comprehensive effort composed of four major elements—ecclesiastical or structural reconfigurations, new religious orders (such as the Jesuits), spiritual movements, and political reform.

    Such reforms included the foundation of seminaries for the proper training of priests in the spiritual life and the theological traditions of the church, the reform of religious life by returning orders to their spiritual foundations, and new spiritual movements focusing on the devotional life and a personal relationship with Christ, including the Spanish mystics and the French school of spirituality. It also involved political activities that included the Roman Inquisition. One primary emphasis of the Counter-Reformation was a mission to reach parts of the world that had been colonized as predominantly Catholic, and also try to reconvert areas, such as Sweden and England, that were at one time Catholic but had been Protestantized during the Reformation.

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