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Why Italy?

As the saying goes, you gotta start somewhere. Italy was that place for the Renaissance, though neither by accident nor coincidence.

Define Your Terms

city-state is a political unit, or state, the size of a city. A city-state often controls the land immediately surrounding the city. Ancient Sparta and Athens are great examples of city-states.

During the Middle Ages, Italy was in a unique situation. To begin with, both before and during the Renaissance, there was no country or nation named Italy. Instead, there was a geographic area that stretched from the vicinity of Venice and Milan in the north along “the boot” to Naples and the island of Sicily in the south. Italians were Italians based roughly on a common geography and language. Cities known as city-states dominated the political, cultural, and economic scene in Italy, and that alone went a long way toward keeping Italy fragmented.

It also could be argued that, throughout the Middle Ages, Italy never quite fit the definition of “European.” Italy sat south and east of Europe, west of the Ottoman Empire and north of Africa. This great location gave Italy access that Europe did not have to the rest of the world. In terms of politics and economics, Italy never found itself dominated by feudalism like the rest of Europe. Furthermore, while trade stagnated and even dried up in some parts of Europe during the Middle Ages, Italy always had at least some trade. Granted, the Crusades opened up Europe to some trade, but for Italy the Crusades bolstered trade that was already bustling. In fact, Italy’s prominence after the Middle Ages can be attributed almost entirely in one way or another to trade and commerce. Dating back to the days of the Roman Empire when “all roads led to Rome,” much of the Mediterranean world’s trade flowed through Italy. The perception of Rome and Italy as the world’s trade center never completely disappeared even after the fall of Rome.

The monetary benefits of trade need little explanation. If a city-state exported more than it imported, it profited. This made several city-states and many individuals very wealthy. However, trade did much more for Italy than just fill up bank accounts. Trade centers like the Italian city-states, even dating back to classical Athens, have always had the unique qualities of sophistication and cosmopolitanism. If a city wanted to be successful in the world of trade, it had to be willing to open its doors to outsiders. Merchants from other parts of the world flooded trade centers with not only new goods from other parts of the world but also with new languages and new ideas. Cities such as Venice, Milan, Rome, and especially Florence became the cultural centers of Italy and Europe because they first were the financial centers.

The Commercial Revival

Trade and commerce served as the catalyst for the Renaissance in Italy and later in the rest of Europe. Were it not for cities, though, trade and commerce would have had no place to call home. The cities of Italy grew and became bustling urban areas rich with both money and culture. But where did the cities get the cash to finance the rebirth of civilization?

A large portion of the revenue of the Italian city-states flowed into the cities from trade. Italy exported wool from Flanders and from Italy to foreign traders who then took the goods and resold them elsewhere. The Italian merchants then used the money to purchase imported goods such as spices, silks, and other luxury items to resell throughout Italy and Northern Europe.

With the growth of cities across Europe came the regional fairs. These fairs, which were both carnivals and open-air markets, attracted vendors of all descriptions from across Europe. These fairs gave locals a chance to purchase luxury items they otherwise would never have been able to purchase, and Italian merchants were more than willing to sell them. Unsavory though it may seem today, Italy benefited from the slave trade as well. Slavery was indeed a vital element of Italy’s economic success. Echoing the Roman days, Italian cities brought people from around the Mediterranean area to be bought and sold all across Europe and on into Asia.

By the end of the Middle Ages, Italy had established quite a network of buyers and sellers all over Europe and the Mediterranean region. This made many men extremely wealthy. However, trade wasn’t the only way to make a buck in Italy. While merchants made their fortunes by peddling goods, financiers made their fortunes by peddling, well, their fortunes.

The Power of Banking Families

Perhaps the one constant across Europe throughout the Middle Ages was war. Kings, princes, and even the pope engaged in war on a regular basis. Sometimes war served offensive and expansionist purposes; other times war was the only way to defend against invasion. One fact remained constant: War was very, very expensive. Many times monarchs emptied their coffers to pay for war efforts only to find themselves at war again long before the coffers were refilled by the outrageously high taxes they levied. Furthermore, the administration of newly conquered lands also cost dearly. What was a king to do?

Similarly, the Church always sought to expand its sphere of influence by building churches, monasteries, and schools along the frontiers of the continent. Just as it cost kings to manage their holdings, so, too, did it cost the Church to build and maintain its holdings. What was the Church to do?

Italy found itself in a win-win situation with the financial crises of the princes and pontiffs. Because of the success of trade, plenty of individuals had money to loan to whoever needed it; whether the borrowers were secular or religious made no difference to the moneylenders.

Would You Believe?

The famous financial district of London, Lombard Street, was so named because of the Italian financiers who established themselves there during the Middle Ages.

After generations of money lending by a number of families throughout Italy, one family emerged as the most powerful and influential of all. The Medici family of Florence reigned supreme. Their fortune was uncountable and their power was unrivaled. By the time the Medici family reached the pinnacle of their power, the Renaissance truly was in full effect in Italy.

Would You Believe?

Niccolo Machiavelli's classic handbook for rulers, The Prince, was written for Lorenzo de' Medici. Machiavelli had fallen out of favor with the government so he decided that writing a book for Lorenzo the Magnificent was the ideal way to kiss up and win back the job he had lost.

The Medici family made its mark on Renaissance Italy not because of the size of its accounts and estates but because of the breadth of the family’s influence on politics and culture. Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464) epitomized the mighty Medici family. Cosimo controlled virtually all the politics in his hometown of Florence, yet he never held office. He controlled the elections and persuaded elected officials to do as he wished. Cosimo’s son Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-1492) proved to be a shrewd banker and negotiator like his father. Often known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, he expanded the Medici influence beyond Florence. Lorenzo managed to single-handedly cause Naples and the pope to declare war on Florence and then talked his way out of the mess. Lorenzo’s son, Giovanni (1475-1521), did more than just engage the pope in negotiations. Giovanni actually became pope. Known as Pope Leo X, Giovanni de’ Medici did as his father did and his father’s father did: he dominated the political landscape of Florence, then Italy, as well as the cultural landscape.

The influence of the Medici family on Florentine and Italian politics and culture cannot be overstated. Beginning with Cosimo and continuing with both Lorenzo

Continental Quotes

"He who wishes to be obeyed must know how to command."

—The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli and Giovanni, or Pope Leo X, the Medici family took great pride in its benevolence. Perhaps it was a result of vanity and pride more than generosity, but the Medicis spent obscene amounts of money sponsoring the greatest painters, sculptors, and architects of their day. By allowing Italy’s finest artists to do what they did best, the Medici family arguably helped define the legacy of the Italian Renaissance.

Communes, Republics, and City-States

Dating back to the Middle Ages, the Northern Italian cities were communes composed of free men who did not wish to live under the rule of local lords as other Europeans did under feudalism. Many nobles settled in these cities because of the lucrative business opportunities. There they married into prominent merchant families and essentially created a wealthy merchant class similar to nobility that ultimately would rule these cities.

The wealthy had the political power; the working classes had none. The popolo, as the common workers were known, often demanded political power. The popolo formed militia-like groups and competed for power with the urban nobles. When the popolo were successful, they established republican governments within the cities, but these governments eventually failed.

Define Your Terms

An oligarchy is a government in which power lies in the hands of only a few people. In Venice, for example, the “few" were wealthy noble businessmen.

In the event of a failed government, city-states would often turn over power to the signori, or tyrant-like rulers. The signori controlled all major political issues and appointed who they wished to office.

In other cases, oligarchies ruled city-states when republics failed. Venice was a classic example of a highly successful oligarchic government.

Florence was a mighty city-state that succeeded in making the republican form of government work. To do that, though, Florence had to make a few adjustments that eventually would prohibit newcomers from ever having a say in politics. In Florence, disputes over citizenship and the right to participate in the political system eventually resulted in an uprising known as the Ciompi Revolt. The Ciompi were unskilled laborers who revolted against the authorities. After several weeks, though, the revolt was crushed and the leaders were imprisoned or exiled. Power stayed in the hands of the wealthy upper class for a while, then passed into the hands of Cosimo de’ Medici.

Balance of Power Politics

Unlike in the rest of Europe, the city-states dominated Italy. There was no nation of Italy or even a kingdom of Italy. Rather, the land called Italy provided a home for dominant city-states like Florence, Venice, Milan, the Papal States, and Naples. The city-states never united because of the intense competition amongst them. To further complicate matters, city-states allied with each other to gain an edge in commerce and in political power, but these political alliances shifted like the wind.

Occasionally a city-state or an alliance would rise up and appear to hold too much power. Eventually the city-states realized the potential dangers and established permanent ambassadors to each city-state. They established a policy known as balance of power politics. If one city-state grew so powerful that it threatened the balance of power in Italy, the rest of the city-states would ally against the insurgent to keep it in check. This proved effective until the late fifteenth century, when forces from Europe turned their eyes toward Italy and began to ravage the region.

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