Introduction: The End of the World and Its Rebirth (Rinascita) as the Rinascimento

The End of the World

Did the world end in 1260? Was there an Apocalypse that we have forgotten seven and a half centuries later? Certainly if that were the case it would be convenient for a book that considers an Italian Renaissance or, as it is called in Italian, a Rinascimento, a rebirth (a rinascita) of the world in Italy that began at about that time and continued on through the last decades of the sixteenth century. Perhaps surprisingly, one thing is clear: in the middle of the thirteenth century many people were expecting the world to end. And we are not talking about those on the margins of society or the typical fringe groups that today we associate with prophecies of impending doom, but rather emperors and popes, kings, nobles, powerful clerics and merchants, as well as rural priests, peasants, and denizens of the dark alleys and warrens that often typified the Italian cityscapes of the day.

Perhaps the best place to start is with Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135–1202), an Italian preacher and prophet who, although virtually forgotten today, enjoyed great popularity in his time. In fact, he was so popular that no less than two popes encouraged him to write down his prophecies, which spread quickly not just through the learned world of theologians and church leaders, but also through the more general culture – especially that of the rapidly growing and prospering cities of Italy. At the heart of Joachim’s prophecy was a discovery he had made while studying that mysterious section of the Bible known as the Book of Revelations. There, following a long tradition of allegorical reading, he found a concealed deeper truth: a hidden third gospel to go along with the Old Testament and the New – the Everlasting Gospel.

Like many others, Joachim believed that the Old Testament was the book given by God the Father to organize and guide humans in the first age of the world: from the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden to the coming of Christ. This had been an age dominated by a wrathful and vengeful God, punishing humans for the first sin of Eve and Adam. But a new age began with the life and suffering of Christ, a new order of the world and a new relationship with God. The New Testament was the new gospel for that new age that was ushered in by Christ’s life and death to save humanity: an age of love, a return of grace, and the birth of the Church of Rome that Christ and his disciples established. Crucially, however, that second age literally ended one world and began another – the whole order of reality was changed with Christ’s life and death. A world of suffering and despair before the wrathful God of the Old Testament ended, and it was followed by a radically new world watched over by a loving God, fully human and fully divine, Christ.

But, significantly, the Christian view of God was Trinitarian: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If there had been an age of the Father/Old Testament and if Joachim was living in the age of the Son/Christ/New Testament, it was logical to assume that there would be a third age of the Holy Spirit and a new third gospel. That age, as revealed in the hidden Everlasting Gospel, like the age of the Son, would be radically different from what had gone before. Once again one world would end and a new one would be born, ruled over by the Holy Spirit. In that age the Church of Rome and Christ’s vicar on earth, the pope, both of which were temporary institutions for creating a Christian society in the second age, would be replaced by the direct rule of the Holy Spirit. In fact, all institutions and governments would fall away, unnecessary as humanity would live in perfect harmony with God via the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Thus the Trinitarian promise would be fulfilled. And the last age would be one of peace and perfection awaiting the Last Judgment and the end of time.

What changed this radical but not immediately threatening vision into a prophecy with teeth were Joachim’s calculations, based on the Bible, that the first age, from the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden until the birth of Christ, had lasted 1,260 years. As he expected that each age would be of the same length, that meant that things were about to get exciting because the year 1260, or 1,260 years after Christ’s birth, should signal the end of an age and a world and the beginning of something completely new. To make this more interesting and perhaps a little less strange and unlikely, Joachim found in the Book of Revelations a series of signs that would signal that the last days were at hand. Among the most significant there would be: a unification of all religions under the umbrella of Christianity, so that all could enter the Age of the Spirit; a rapid growth of a new order of preachers with a new leader to lead the way into the new age; and in the last days of the old age, the reign of the Antichrist that would destroy secular society and the Church. For with perfect symmetry, in the name of ultimate evil, the Antichrist would perpetrate the ultimate good, by preparing the ground for the end of the Christian era and the last age of the Holy Spirit.

All this would be only mildly amusing were it not for one troubling fact. After Joachim’s death in 1202, many came to believe that his prophecies were coming true. And, significantly, they seemed to be coming true more clearly in the Italian peninsula, especially in the north, where literally dozens of little city-states in the thirteenth century prospered, struggled, and appeared to many to be on the verge of a new age and world order. In those cities a traditional medieval order, typified by what might be labeled the Great Social Divide – where society seemed to be essentially divided between a hereditary nobility and the rest – had been radically and often violently challenged by new social classes, new social and cultural values, and new wealth. In essence the power of an old nobility had been challenged and, at least in the larger cities, pretty well limited by new groupings of merchant/banker/artisan powers who usually called themselves the Popolo (the People).

The struggles between the Popolo and the older nobility were often violent and bloody and frequently meant that when one group won power, the other was exiled from the city or worse. Also, of course, some nobles deserted their peers – after all, there was a long medieval tradition of tension and fighting among noble clans – to join the Popolo, and in turn some members of those merchant/banker/artisan groupings were also prepared to abandon their peers in an attempt to grab power in alliance with the older nobility or merely to ape their aristocratic ways. The result was messy and violent, but usually seen at the time as pitting the Popolo of a city and their new wealth and power based on commercial and artisanal activities against the nobility and their more rural landed wealth. Prophecies like those of Joachim, with their prediction that these changes signaled the end of the world, thus found a wide swath of the population ready to give them credit. This was especially true because these negative novelties promised a better last age, preordained by God, where the Great Social Divide would be wiped out and replaced by a unified populace led by the Holy Spirit.

Thus when a humble preacher from the little Italian town of Assisi who would become Saint Francis of Assisi (c. 1181–1226) founded a new preaching order (quickly labeled the Franciscans) and preached what seemed to most a new and more spiritual vision of Christianity, it was soon seen as a confirmation of Joachim’s prophecies of a new leader and new order leading the way to the end. But even before that was recognized, Francis’s preaching caught the imagination of a wide range of the population because it had a deep resonance with the spiritual problems created by the burgeoning wealth of the cities of Italy. Preaching a spiritual life of poverty to the poor peasants of medieval Europe made little sense and had little to offer. When virtually everyone was poor, it did not seem like an impressive sign of spirituality to be poor; it seemed merely normal. But in a society where people were accumulating impressive wealth, seemingly in opposition to the poverty that Christ had preached and that the Bible endorsed, a new preacher and a new order that promoted poverty and called for a more spiritual life had real relevance, hitting at the heart of the changes that worried people, even many of the newly rich.

Francis dramatically stripped off his clothes in the main church of his hometown of Assisi to go naked as God made him – literally with no belongings – into the world and demonstrated his rejection of all property. His followers in turn wandering the cities of Italy in rags, begging their way without material possessions, were potent symbols. In a world powerfully attuned to such signs, they demonstrated the spirituality that came with a denial of worldly goods in the name of living a Christlike life of poverty. In fact, Francis’s preaching was so extreme and potentially revolutionary that the leaders of the Church forced him and his followers to moderate their calls for poverty and to dress in clothing that at least covered their nakedness. They eventually settled on the brown robes similar to those still worn by Franciscans, belted with a knotted rope that suggested a commitment to the vow of poverty that remained central to the order. A number of Francis’s followers, however, were not happy with such compromises, and a splinter group developed called the Spirituals – again perfectly named for Joachim’s prophecy of the coming age of the Spirit. By the end of the century they were declared heretics for their commitment to complete poverty and a spiritual life. Significantly, a number of the Spirituals, when they discovered the parallel between their teachings and Joachim’s prophesies, combined the two to preach the impending end of the world with success in the cities of Italy.

As if this were not enough, Francis himself seemed to have begun to fulfill yet another prophecy of Joachim. For not only did he preach Christianity to the birds and animals, he also set out to convert the pagans, actually petitioning the pope to go to the Holy Land to convert Muslims. He eventually made it to Egypt in 1219 with a crusading army and reportedly entered the Muslim camp to try to win converts. And if Francis was the prophesized new leader, right on time a candidate for the Antichrist appeared, the Emperor Frederick II (1194–1250, emperor 1220–1250). He, of course, did not see himself as such. Officially elected emperor by German electors following medieval tradition in 1220, he was much more a Mediterranean, born and raised in southern Italy. Most of his life he lived there, balancing effectively a rich rural nobility with newer urban centered merchant wealth and supporting an impressive and vibrant court.

As emperor, and thus theoretically ruler of all the West, Frederick saw himself as the ideal leader to bring peace and order (and taxation to fill his treasury) to the cities of Italy, especially the rich but tumultuous cities of the north. In fact, many cities of the north supported him in the hope that he would deliver peace and order. Others, however, were not so enthusiastic about his attempts to dominate the peninsula. Their resistance was supported by a series of popes, who saw themselves in competition with emperors for power in Italy. For the moment this long story can be made quite short: to the struggles for power in the cities of the north, Frederick brought a new series of wars in which he squared off against local powers usually aligned with the papacy – making them frequently seem to be wars against the papacy itself. In sum, much as Joachim had predicted, here was a ruler who with one victory after another seemed to be slowly but surely destroying the papacy and the Church and fulfilling the requirements of an Antichrist, ending the reign of the Church of Rome and the papacy to clear the way for the Last Age.

Was the Second Age of Christ and the New Testament coming to an end? Was the Age of the Spirit at hand? Everything seemed to point in that direction at midcentury. The Franciscans, especially their more spiritual wing, were preaching a new, more spiritual world; an Antichrist was ravaging the old Church; and the cities of northern Italy were in turmoil. Change was rife, and an old world order seemed to be dissolving in chaos and violence, just as Joachim had prophesized.

But as Frederick’s victories mounted, and as the last days seemed ever-more nigh, Frederick II, not the Antichrist but just a powerful emperor, died suddenly in 1250 as mere men are wont to do. Some, unwilling to give up on him as the Antichrist, claimed that he was buried along the Rhine waiting for the call to begin the true last age. Some of the Franciscan Spirituals continued Joachim’s prophecies into the fourteenth century and beyond, seeing themselves as preparing the way for that last age still to come. In fact, Joachim’s prophecies endured, often emerging in times of crisis or influencing religious enthusiasms that featured world-changing visions. Ultimately, true to the strangeness of his prophecy, even some of the Nazi propagandists who preached their own last age – an age of the third and last millennium, the Third Reich – still claimed in the last century that Frederick was waiting to be called to usher in their final age.

Of course, it might seem obvious that the world did not really end in 1260 as Joachim had promised. A good historian would certainly admit that it did not, yet in a way that is at the heart of this book, I would suggest that one world did end around the middle of the thirteenth century in Italy, and another was born. What has been labeled misleadingly the Middle Ages, a rural feudal world dominated by a nobility whose wealth was based on land and a medieval church whose economic roots were similarly rural, was largely superseded in Italy by a new age often labeled the Italian Renaissance. The change did not occur in a day or a year or ever completely, for the nobility continued and even the urban world of Renaissance Italy was highly reliant on the rural world that surrounded it and supplied many of its basic needs. Moreover, its culture and traditions drew heavily on medieval precedents.

And of course, this new age was not the age that Joachim had predicted: poverty did not replace wealth, and churches and governments did not wither away as humanity came to embrace the peace and harmony of the Holy Spirit. Rather, ironically in the north of the Italian peninsula and slowly elsewhere, wealth and material goods came to power as never before, and more urban-based churches and governments flourished. And obviously Joachim’s promise of an age of peace and harmony remained unfulfilled. But still I would suggest that the many signs that his followers saw as indicating the imminent fulfillment of his prophecy were in a way correct, for they signaled the end of one world and the start of a new age. The culture and society of that strangely new/old/reborn age is the story of this book.

Time and Rebirth: The Rinascimento a New/Old Age

For all its strangeness to modern eyes, Joachim’s prophesy was perhaps most strange to contemporaries for a claim that would go largely unnoted today – that this third age would be a new age and a better one because it was new. One of the deep differences that sets modern society and culture off from most others is that it tends to accept without question that the new is good. The premodern world, by contrast, had a deep suspicion of change and the new. In fact, in many ways it was enough to label a thing new or a change as an innovation to ensure that it would be seen as wrong and rejected. At one level there is a profound logic in this, for if one looks at the world around us, all things do seem to break down with time and change; thus, from that perspective, change over time, and the new, imply decay. In the best of worlds, then, the ideal would be to hold things as they are or, better yet, to return to their beginnings before change and decay set in, that is, return to when they were first made.

How did this vision of time come to change? This is a complex and perhaps ultimately unanswerable question, but historians usually posit two very broad cultural factors. The first was a general acceptance of a Christian vision of time, which saw it as moving forward positively from a low point with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden to the Last Judgment, when the world would end with the saved living happily ever after with God. The second key factor in this vision was the idea of progress itself, which to a large extent was merely the secularization of the Christian promise that in God’s plan for the world, as time passed, things would improve. What both progress and the Christian vision of God’s unfolding plan for humanity implied was that time was linear and going somewhere positive, and that meant ultimately that change and the new were good.

But many things in the premodern world and daily life contradicted this vision of linear time and the new. In fact, many still do today as we live in a culture where we tend to overlook the fundamental contradiction between a linear vision of time and a circular vision that we use interchangeably to understand change. Certainly a circular vision of time seemed natural in premodern times. Perhaps most significantly, along with the way things seem to decay with time, the cycles of the seasons and the rotations of the heavens, along with the repeating sequences of time – years, months, days, hours, and so on – all literally turn on the idea that time repeats and thus is circular, not linear. The mechanical clock, invented in the fourteenth century in Italy, is a mechanized version of such a circular vision of time. The first clocks used circular gearing to reproduce the circular motions of the heavens, which were seen as directly creating circular time. In this mimicking of the very nature of the heavens, and time, mechanical clocks seemed to have almost a magical dimension. And, in fact, they were often used in magic, before they were adopted by natural philosophers to measure time in ways that would lead to the development of what we label modern science – a particularly effective offshoot of earlier natural magic.

Although Joachim built his predictions on a linear vision of time dating from the birth of Christ in order to predict the end of the world in 1260, most of his contemporaries still had not adopted the habit of dating from the birth of Christ. In the Middle Ages dates normally were recorded using a cyclical calendar based on the ancient Roman measure of time, the fifteen-year cycle known as the indiction. These cycles were often keyed to the rule of emperors, popes, or local rulers, and just as years and weeks represented time as repeating and circular, so too indictions represented longer periods of time as circular. It was only in the fourteenth century that the more linear vision of time associated with dating from the birth of Christ began to catch on more generally, and even then documents often were dated both in indictions and from the birth of Christ.

The central point, however, is that time remained more circular than linear until the modern world, which meant that the new was seen almost unquestionably as negative and wrong. Change, in this way of seeing time, meant one of two things, either positively returning to the beginning when things were done or made correctly, or negative decay and movement away from good beginnings. The result was that those who benefited from or saw as positive the changes of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries found it difficult to represent them as new and positive. They tended to portray and conceptualize the changes that they wished to present as good not as new, then, but rather as returns (going back to the first turn of the cycle of time when things were as they should be); reforms (going back to the first, correct form of things); renewals (going back to when things were new and first put together correctly, thus undoing the damage of time and decay); or, although the term was used less often, rebirths (going back to when things first came into being). All these “re” words stressed that the changes they described were not to something new but rather a return to something old and better, because time was circular and the first times of things were the best times.

For culture, society, and even government that meant that positive change was portrayed as going back – return, renewal, reform, rebirth – to ancient, better, first times. In the first-time culture of ancient Rome, most pertinently, society and government in Italy had functioned as they should and were perceived as having been virtually perfect, a golden age of peace, prosperity, and happiness. For spiritual life and Christian salvation, change also needed to be presented as going back to the first time of Christ and the Church. Positive personal change often aimed at literally going back to imitate Christ’s life itself, much as Saint Francis had preached. In fact, Francis claimed to have literally reformed his own body and thus developed the stigmata of Christ, the wounds that Christ suffered in his passion on the Cross – an impressive personal reforming. The Church also portrayed positive institutional change as going back to the first Church of Christ’s disciples and the Church Fathers. Once again the affirmative terms were “return,” “renewal,” “reform,” and “rebirth.”

And significantly, for all these “re” words the crucial first times were often closely associated with the early days of the Roman Empire, when both that empire and the first Christian Church were born. For the flourishing cities of the Italian peninsula, especially the cities of the center and north, such a return to a glorious past was especially attractive because their citizens felt that they were occupying the same spaces, both physical and spiritual, as their forebearers of those superior first times. Frequently, in fact, they lived among the ruins and with the relics of that first Christian and imperial time – the very landscape of Italy was alive with vivid recollections of that more perfect past. Local memories, ruins of ancient Roman buildings, and relics of the martyrs and founders of Christianity (often still working miracles that attested to their potency), all supported by oral and written traditions that recalled superior first times, served as a constant reminder of those glorious first days. And thus they were everywhere available for rethinking the dangers and fears of change or the new as instead positive reforms, returns, or rebirths of a better, more perfect time, what we might call a Rinascimento.

Italy and the Rinascimento

The term more commonly used in English to label the period, the Italian Renaissance, has a number of problems that the Italian term Rinascimento avoids. First, of course, there was no Italy in a modern sense in the thirteenth century or across the period usually labeled the Italian Renaissance. The center and north of Italy in the second half of the thirteenth century were divided into dozens of little city-states, all with their own strong local traditions, loyalties, and local dialects, fiercely defended. Yet for virtually all of those little cities the business of governance was carried out in a common language, a late medieval Latin that was understood by lawyers, notaries, and bureaucrats and by the university-trained in general, as well as by a number of artisans and men of lower status. A significant portion of what was perceived as the more serious literature of the day was also written in Latin, including most prescriptive and philosophical works, religious texts, and even local chronicles. Thus, in a way, a Latin culture that was seen as rooted in a common Roman and Christian past was shared among the cities of the center and north. Of course, that Latin culture was shared more widely throughout the rest of Europe as well, but once again the cities of Italy had a special relationship with that language as they saw it as the language of their own special Roman heritage and first times.

At the level of the language that everyone spoke, however, things were more complex. Local dialects were the norm, and at times they could vary virtually from neighborhood to neighborhood. More pertinently, someone from Venice would have had some trouble understanding a person from Rome or Florence and even more trouble understanding someone from Naples or further south. But the key here is “some trouble,” because it was widely agreed that in most cities the local dialects were just that, dialects of alanguage or at least an imagined language that was Italian . Thus Dante could write his famed poem The Divine Comedy in a Tuscan dialect of Italian, and although it was attacked for not being written in the learned language of Latin, it also came to be seen as a foundational work for Italian as a language that could be understood by a more general populace in an Italian cultural zone.

In fact, Dante wrote an important work on the importance of Italian (in Latin, ironically), De vulgari eloquentia, to convince the intellectual elites of his day that behind the many dialects of the Italian peninsula there stood a primal Italian language that informed and unified them, a topic that he had also explored in an earlier work in Italian, the Convivio. Although there appear to be some significant differences in their arguments, the two works agreed that this more general shared Italian language was based on shared historical and cultural experiences at least among the cities of northern and central Italy. At some moments it seemed as if Dante was referring to a language that still needed to be developed, at others it seemed as if he was referring to his own use of the language that would pull forth this underlying unifying language.

Later in the fourteenth century the famous poet Francesco Petrarch, even as he advocated writing a purer, more classical Latin, wrote his love poetry in a Tuscan dialect that he and his admirers again saw as foundational for Italian as a language. Less well known but equally indicative of this development of an Italian culture, based on the local dialects of what was not yet one language, was the decision of many poets in the north of Italy at the end of the thirteenth century to write their poetry in their own dialects rather than in Latin. In sum, for all their local loyalties, the denizens of the cities of northern Italy were beginning to see their culture and society as somehow different in terms of a still largely imagined common language, Italian.

Another measure of a developing sense of Italianità has been suggested by those who study the medieval Italian trading cities that sent out groups of their citizens, primarily merchants, to live in the Islamic world and in northern Europe. In both instances these merchants were treated as outsiders and identified with their homeland as Italians. In Islamic lands their separation was usually more rigorous, with their living and working conditions strictly regulated – at least in theory – often in terms that saw them as a particular people. In northern Europe regulations and limitations were usually less strict, but Italian bankers and traders were again definitely seen as outsiders and often labeled Italian. Thus although the trading and banking cities of Italy were frequently involved in intercity competition that at times spilled over into war, they ironically often found themselves abroad grouped as one people, Italians.

Moreover, of course, the Italian peninsula was regularly perceived as a geographical unit. Separated by the Alps and the sea from the rest of Europe and various peoples who spoke other languages (perceived by Italians as having less of a Roman heritage), the peninsula of Italy seemed the center of a Mediterranean world once ruled by the great Roman Empire. In a region where the technology of sailing meant that ships still hugged the coastline rather than braving long open-water voyages, that centrality was even more pronounced. And it helped make the peninsula the center of trade within the Mediterranean and a crucial entry point for northerners into that great sea, which for most Europeans was still the center of the world. Thus for all its geographical variety, Italy was seen as a particular and significant geographical entity.

Finally, as a place, the Italian peninsula was highly unusual not just for its association with the homeland of ancient Rome or its centrality in the Mediterranean, but also for its dozens of burgeoning cities and towns. It was a land heavily influenced by its rich and rapidly developing urban life, which had already dramatically changed the economy, culture, and society of the region, wiping out the Great Social Divide that was the order of the day in much of the rest of Europe. Thus the vague and largely undefined concept of “Italy” also turned on its unusual urban nature and the culture and society that went hand in hand with it. In the end, then, while there was no Italy in a modern sense, and while most people in the region thought of themselves first in terms of their local loyalties, most were aware that they were in a special land that set them apart from the rest of Europe, one with a glorious past and a rich and vibrant urban culture, unmatched by that of the “barbarians” of the North or the rich and dangerously pagan cultures of the East and the north coast of Africa. Like many Italians of the day, then, we will use the terms “Italy” and “Italian” to indicate this larger geographical, cultural, and social entity.

The other problem with the label “Italian Renaissance” is the term “renaissance” itself. One wonders what Dante or even Petrarch, who lived for a good portion of his life north of the Alps in and around Avignon, would have thought of the idea that they were living in a period that would be named using a French term, renaissance. Both may well have been pleased to learn that a French scholar of a much later day, Jules Michelet (1798–1874), was so impressed with the culture of their day that he coined the term “renaissance” in 1855 largely to celebrate the rebirth of classical culture in an earlier age and French participation in it. But more than a century and a half later, it does seem rather strange to continue referring to that earlier time in Italy using an anachronistic term from a different, later culture and language, especially when in the twenty-first century we no longer share the same vision of the period. Perhaps, then, it is time to use a term that might have made sense to those who lived several hundred years earlier. The term that would perhaps fit most closely for someone like Petrarch or Dante would be the Latin term Renovatio or renewal, as both men, along with many of their contemporaries, were fascinated with the idea of renewing the Roman world and the days of the first Christians.

But its Italian equivalent, Rinnovazione, has the unfortunate ring today of fixing something up, an association that seems to disqualify it for the name of a period of history. Reformatio, another term that was often used at the time to refer to the positive change associated with reforming past society or reform itself, has problems of another sort. We already have one Reformation, and labeling a slightly earlier and slightly overlapping period with the same name, even if one opted for the Italian equivalent,Riformazione, would create more confusion than clarity. Perhaps the best option, then, is to return to the term rinascita, rebirth, admittedly less popular at the time, but which is in many ways the “re-word” that sums up best the thrust of the way reform and renewal were used to refer positively to the changes that the urban world was undergoing. An age of rinascita or the Rinascimento seems a much better label for the period, even if the older term “renaissance” might be used in the sense of a more general period of European history that was heavily influenced culturally, politically, and economically by the Rinascimento. It should be noted, however, that even this term has its problems as in the recent historiography of Italy, Rinascimento has become associated with the birth of the modern era and is used to denote a period that began around the year 1500 and lasted for two or three centuries. Obviously, when the modern era began (or whether it ever actually did begin) is an issue fraught with problems beyond the scope of this book, but suffice it to say that here the term will look more at the period from c. 1250 to c. 1575 as one that with all its returns, renewals, reforms, and rebirths in Italy fits fairly comfortably under the label Rinascimento.

In Search of a New Paradigm for the Rinascimento

One problem that the period has long faced is that it lacks a generally accepted paradigm. In fact, unable to agree on an acceptable general vision for some time now, many have uneasily evaded the issue or ignored the question. At first it might seem paradoxical, but this lack of a clear paradigm is largely the result of a tremendous explosion of scholarship on the period following the Second World War. Essentially it completed the scholarly project, already well under way, of destroying the aesthetically pleasing, but anachronistic, paradigm formulated by the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818–1897) in his classic nineteenth-century work The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, published just five years after Michelet’s work in 1860. It did so by greatly expanding our knowledge of the social and cultural history of the period, in the process largely destroying the last vestiges of Burckhardt’s vision of the period as foundational for the modern world – an age of epochal changes that prepared the ground for modern individualism, secularism, and states (as works of art) in the context of a flourishing of great intellectuals, artists, leaders and “Renaissance men.” Actually, this new scholarship might be more accurately labeled as “overwhelming” rather than as destroying. For in many ways this outpouring of studies overwhelmed with detail not only Burckhardt’s paradigm, but virtually all attempts at a broad overview.

One result of this overflowing of knowledge was the lack of new scholarly works that attempted an overview of the period – a result that evidently contributed to the problem, for without an overview it was difficult to engage with the period from a broader historical or intellectual perspective or even to teach it. A few scholars have attempted to redress this issue by providing new ways of seeing the period. Perhaps the most successful was Lauro Martines with his Power and Imagination: City States in Renaissance Italy: a work that, in line with the title, offered a powerful and imaginative series of essays that suggestively melded the newer scholarship on the social history of the period with a sophisticated vision of its culture. As essays, and highly learned ones at that, however, the book required considerable prior knowledge of the events and personalities of the time in order to be appreciated, and unfortunately, it ended early in the sixteenth century just as Martines was at his most imaginative and controversial best.

Another general study that revealed well the problem of producing an overview in the face of the overwhelming scholarship produced in the last half-century was John Law and Denys Hays’s Italy in the Age of the Renaissance, 1380–1530. Topically arranged, the volume bristled with names, dates, and details that revealed both erudition and great range, but often left even readers familiar with the period wondering how things went together and who or what was being referred to – nonspecialist readers found the detail daunting and an overview difficult to see. The volume was also quite traditional in its view of politics and social history, with newer topics such as gender and popular culture essentially brief “tack-ons.” Examples could be multiplied, and several recent attempts to provide an overview have much to recommend them, but none has provided a paradigm that has won wide acceptance.

Others have tried to provide an overview by collecting in one volume a series of topical essays by experts on subjects deemed central to understanding the period. Perhaps the best example of this was John Najemy’s recent edited volume, Italy in the Age of the Renaissance. This volume worked well and was written at a level that could both stimulate specialists and be appreciated by nonspecialists in most cases; but its topical coverage made the period seem static and offered little in the way of a paradigm to pull together its various perspectives; also, newer work on gender, sexuality, and popular culture was largely overlooked or treated in rather traditional ways that left those topics on the periphery of the life of the day. Such composite volumes have flourished of late, because they allow specialists to describe the period from the perspective of their now often massive specialized literature, but once again they lack a general narrative or a paradigmatic vision to pull together the period. Thus, with a certain irony, as our knowledge of the period has grown exponentially, it has tended to dissolve and disappear.

Given the tendency in the Anglo-American academic world to focus on one or two cities in discussing the Renaissance, especially Florence or Venice, studies of these cities have often been used to provide an overview of the period. Unfortunately, however, scholars agree that neither city was typical of the period – in fact, no one city seems capable of serving as a model. Thus, although excellent overviews for Florence have been provided by a host of scholars – most notably, perhaps, by Gene Brucker and more recently by Najemy – and a similar overview for Venice has recently been published by Joanne Ferraro to replace the dated studies of Frederic Lane and D. C. Chambers, they do not meet the need for a work that radically rethinks the Rinascimento as a period.

What this book seeks to offer, then, is a general rethinking of the Renaissance in Italy as the Rinascimento: a rethinking that aims to provide not so much a new way of seeing it as a period, as a suggestion for a new paradigm built upon the impressive scholarship of the last few generations that would allow us to conceptualize it at once as a period and a movement of return and rebirth that typified the time. At the most general level it will suggest that we think in terms of two rather different urban civilizations in the period under consideration, c. 1250–c. 1575, that set the Rinascimento apart: a first civilization (c. 1250–c. 1450) centered in the cities of the center and north of the Italian peninsula – in many ways the area that comprised the theoretical kingdom of Italy (but long lacking a king) – that focused on an urban culture and the values of a new urban-centered elite often labeled the popolo grosso (the great people or the big people) that to a significant degree supplanted an older rural/feudal elite politically, socially, and culturally; and a second civilization (c. 1450–c. 1575) that involved the center and south of Italy as well, which turned around the morphing of that earlier urban elite and culture into a progressively more aristocratic and courtly society, but still primarily in an urban context.

The use of the term “civilization” may raise eyebrows given its association with privileging one culture over another, and Western society and culture in general over non-Western ones, but I use the term in its Latin root meanings of civitas, civitatis – a city-state, state or town; or the adjective civilis – of, connected with, arising from, affecting the citizens usually of a city or town; or, finally, a vita civilis – an urban civic life. In sum, I use the term “civilization” in its premodern and more classical and Rinascimento sense of that which concerns the population of a city and, more generally, the shared culture, practices, and values that bind together an urban populace and make it imaginable as a society by its members. Thus, at the broadest level, what sets the Rinascimento apart from the Middle Ages in this paradigm is the fact that it was an urban society that saw itself as a civilization/civitas led by a new elite made up primarily of merchants, bankers, and investors (often called at the time the popolo grosso) – in contrast to a medieval society that saw itself as basically rural, led by a rural nobility and, more distantly, by popes and emperors. In many ways the term civiltà, which gained popularity in Italy in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, summed up this distinction, indicating the superior culture and society of the urban society of the day.

Cities, of course, were not new in Europe, and especially in northern Italy they had long been important, but what was new was the assertion that these cities had the right to dominate their societies and offer a crucial vita civilis not to be found so nakedly defended elsewhere in Europe. Significantly, however, this urban society that seems in many ways strikingly new, as discussed earlier, like most premodern societies in the West rejected its newness. Rather, this “new” civiltà saw itself and was careful to portray itself not as a new birth or spring, following Johan Huizinga’s famous Autumn of the Middle Ages, but rather as a rinascita or rebirth of earlier first times, especially of an urban civitas/civilization (ancient Rome) and an earlier Christian community (the first Church) – a Rinascimento.

For by returning to first times such as ancient Rome and the beginnings of Christianity to find the sources of their modern civilization, this new society became comfortably old and gloriously traditional. It became a movement that claimed to be returning to what were generally accepted as superior cultures, societies, and civilizations that had been lost. And, nicely, the most important of those lost worlds, ancient Rome, had also been an urban society, with an urban culture and elites that were city-based; thus the new became at once safely old and clearly better. In fact, in the Middle Ages there had been numerous proclaimed rebirths of ancient Rome and ancient Roman culture, but what made this rebirth different was that it was urban and led by a new urban populace and elite, one that was, theoretically at least, largely non-noble and nonclerical, much as had last been the case in ancient Rome. Essentially it re-conceptualized the Great Social Divide of medieval society out of existence and did so without claiming to be doing anything new or radical, merely returning to a better past. Thus, crucially, this rebirth was conceived as making the cities of the center and north of Italy in many ways not just unique, but the home of a civilization superior to the rest of Europe.

That superiority was perhaps best expressed by a key term: virtù – a term that has a long, contested history, but that implied essentially the social practices that demonstrated that one person was superior to another. As will be discussed with minor local variations in the first civilization of the Rinascimento in Italy, virtù stressed reason, moderation, and self-control sliding toward cunning and furbizia (cleverness that is slightly immoral, self-serving, yet effective), essentially the values of an urban elite that could be shared widely in an urban environment, where older feudal noble values of direct confrontation, violence, and manly force were increasingly seen as disruptive and dangerous to a civilized existence. Once again, significantly, this new virtù, or at least the term and similar values, could be claimed to have been rediscovered in the classic texts of the ancient Roman world – even if its nuances were usually much more contemporary than ancient. And, crucially, it was seen and defended as a major feature in the movement to recover an earlier great civilization that had been lost.

Tellingly, however, the vision of virtù evolved across the period and especially in concert with the significant social and cultural changes of the second civilization of the Rinascimento. As urban society across the peninsula gradually became more aristocratic, courtly, and princely, virtù became progressively more aristocratic, mannered, graceful, and courtly. It placed a greater emphasis on self-display and self-fashioning and sprezzatura (the ability to accomplish great things effortlessly) and fostered a greater suspicion of a growing range of activities associated with work that would come to be seen as debasing. As we shall see, this was not simply a return to older noble values, as often claimed, but part of a much more complex process of adjusting to a new aristocracy and new courts that had developed in Italian urban society across the period. Although that new urban aristocracy and those courts claimed medieval and ancient roots, both were usually anything but traditional or ancient. And slowly but surely the aristocracy also began to abandon cities and move out into the countryside adopting an aristocratic life that spawned what might be called a villa culture and bringing with that expansion more modest bureaucratic attempts to discipline and “civilize” rural life, both of which paved the way for a formulation of a new aristocratic society that socially and culturally fit with greater ease with similar developments in the rest of Europe.

What often creates confusion about this second civilization of the Rinascimento is that it seems to be a rebirth of an older noble society and culture – a return to feudal and medieval forms. But in reality this second civilization was, if anything, much newer than the first. And it actually had much more difficulty denying the new in the face of new inventions (most notably the printing press, the arquebus, and the canon), new geographical discoveries (the “new world” and the coastal route around Africa to the East), new religions (the many reform sects of northern Europe, Catholic reform itself, and a lesser noted but significant influx of Jews forced out of Spain and Portugal), new economies (more efficient profit-oriented forms of agriculture, new trade routes, new “industries,” new competitors), new powers (the emerging nation-states of the north, the Habsburg empire, especially Spain, and the Turks), challenging new political forms (the developing nation-state and the increasing dynastic ambitions of the leading noble families of Europe), and even new diseases (syphilis) and foods (from the “new world” and the East).

But, perhaps most significantly, the aristocracy of the northern cities of Italy was new, based as it was to a great extent on the merchant/banker urban elites of the first period of the Rinascimento and their growing aristocratic pretensions, which often contributed to the ongoing flourishing patronage of art and architecture that we associate with the period as well as the more general cultural flourishing that in many ways continued, with a more aristocratic vision, well beyond the end of the sixteenth century. And, crucially, this second civilization promulgated a new, challenging cultural mix of older urban values, ancient Roman and Greek ideals, and contemporary European noble values appropriated and adapted to fit urban Italian social and cultural realities. At the same time the social hierarchy of this new and progressively more aristocratic society became with time more strictly defined, and there reopened a virtually impassable divide between the upper aristocracy and the rest of society in the sixteenth century that might well be seen as the Great Social Divide recreated (although in its details it was quite different from the medieval one), a divide that lay at the heart of a more general European Renaissance and eventually what was once called the ancien régime, which would dominate Europe at least until the French Revolution.

It might be said that the Rinascimento ended simply when it became clear that the new had triumphed in Italy and the concept of a renovatio/rinascita could no longer be sustained. Contemporaries most often saw this in terms of new political realities, with Italy overrun by northern powers and economically weakened in comparison to expanding economies elsewhere in Europe and the world. Yet culturally and politically the Rinascimento had a long afterglow as its vision enjoyed a worldwide diaspora carried literally on the backs of Italian intellectuals, artists, bureaucrats, artisans, explorers, immigrants, and, often overlooked, aristocratic wives, who left or were sent out from Italy to make their fortunes in areas that were perceived as backward culturally, but more promising. In contrast to the Middle Ages, which has been seen as drawing to a close with a “harvest time” of medieval culture, the Rinascimento might be seen as ending with a planting season: a long period that saw the planting of the seeds of its rich culture in the rest of Europe and the broader world and deeply shaped the history of the West and the world for better and worse. In many ways we are the “harvest time” of that planting.

This book, then, will tell the tale of a different Italian Renaissance – a tale of a Rinascimento when, one after another, two new urban civilizations flourished in Italy in the period between c. 1250 and c. 1575: new civilizations based on new virtù-ous values, new economic realities, new elites, new social hierarchies, and new cultural forms. But for all their newness these civilizations and their many innovations were viewed as returns to older, tried, and proven ways – over and over again renovatio/rinascita and thus superior not just to the Middle Ages but to the rest of Europe and the world. Thus, although the term was not used at the time, the Rinascimento seems a particularly appropriate label for the time and the movement of return that dominated its vision of its time and of time itself.

To tell the immensely complex tale of this Rinascimento and contain it within one volume has required that many important topics be left out, and certainly many of the dozens of histories of individual cities and famous people have been skimmed over or uncomfortably ignored, but the goal has been to include the exemplary and the evocative in order to stimulate critical thought and provide a deeper and more nuanced vision of the period and its relevance. In this vein, in order to essay the Rinascimento I too have opted to attempt a rebirth of a more traditional historical format – a type of modified narrative. Thus the book is divided into two broad chronological sections representing the two civilizations of the period just discussed. And each section is divided in turn into chapters that provide a narrative that breaks down those larger periods into smaller ones and focuses on what might be seen as the most important issue in each time frame: thus Chapter 1 focuses on the question of legitimacy, both political and social, c. 1250–c. 1340; Chapter 2 on developing urban values and concepts of civiltà, c. 1300–c. 1375; Chapter 3 on the plague, its nature and its impact, c. 1325–c. 1425; Chapter 4 on violence and war from c. 1350 to c. 1454; and finally, Chapter 5 on imagination and the shared primary culture of the first Rinascimento, with a focus on c. 1350–c. 1475. The second half of the book continues the narrative format, with Chapter 6 tracing the development of courts and a more aristocratic society, following serially the development of courts in several cities, c. 1425–c. 1500; Chapter 7 narrates the development of a sense of self as a work of art, going back to the early fourteenth century but focusing on the period c. 1425–c. 1525; Chapter 8 traces the way the high Rinascimento dealt with the new that seemed to be breaking out all over, c. 1450–c. 1560; Chapter 9 follows the various ways in which the leading thinkers of the period dealt with the crisis that seemed to threaten the Rinascimento with the successive invasions of northern European powers in the sixteenth century, particularly during the period c. 1490–c. 1560; Chapter 10 follows the trajectory of a series of religious reforms that attempted to re-found the Rinascimento and maintain its cohesion as a Catholic society, c. 1500–c. 1575; and Chapter 11 looks at political reform and retreat as Italy became increasingly divided and disciplined and as its society and culture slowly dissolved into a broader European Renaissance, c. 1525–c. 1575 and beyond. A brief epilogue abandons the narrative format to essay the diaspora of Rinascimento culture, society, and political ideals more broadly in Europe and the world.

Although once again this return to a more traditional narrative format might slightly mask the newness and perhaps even the radical nature of the vision of the Rinascimento that underlies this book, that was not my goal. For hopefully its newness is its chief strength. As a new vision that seeks to draw out and emphasize the strongest themes of the new scholarship on the period, this volume is primarily an attempt to suggest new ways of seeing the period rather than an attempt to establish a final understanding of it. It has been written with an eye to opening debate, while repositioning the period in the central place it merits in the ongoing discussion not only of the meaning and importance of the Western tradition, but also of the fundamental questions of social organization and cultural values that all face in the increasingly global society of the twenty-first century.

In a way this book was written often thinking in terms of a Rinascimento garden – a rather crowded, messy, and at times overflowing garden in the Italian mode. As one strolls along the paths of this book’s narrative one comes to realize that gardens, like societies, are constantly transforming what seems the natural into the cultural in ways worth rethinking carefully. So hopefully a wide range of readers can enjoy strolling through this garden with both its flowers and its thorns. But readers should be warned that Rinascimento gardens, as in Veronese’s famous painting Mars and Venus United by Love, also tend to have their lurking satyrs – those classical metaphorical creatures that stress that humans are a mix of reason and passion and even at their best not always good – and of course no lack of serpents offering attractive apples. Such is the Rinascimento of this book: beautiful, attractive, and rich, yet also dangerous, cruel, alien, and certainly suggestive of a wider range of human possibilities worthy of critical consideration (seeIllustration 9.1).

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