The Background to the Italian Renaissance

   For all practical purposes, the Renaissance / Early Modern Period is distinguished from other periods in European history almost entirely in intellectual or cultural terms. As far as larger historical patterns are concerned, the period is more or less considered as playing out what had been set up in the later middle ages. European historians overwhelmingly tend to place Europe's major break with its medieval and classical past with the discovery of America and the Reformation.

   The historical background against which the intellectual and cultural ferment of the Renaissance / Early Modern period played itself out in its initial stages left its indelible mark on the character of the intellectual and cultural ferment. Set in the city-states of Italy in the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the constant uncertainty, both economic and political, and extreme volatility of the historical situation provided the material for new intellectual, cultural, and social experiments that would at their conclusion provide the means of constructing a new European monocultural identity, one focussed on humanistic studies, science, and the arts. This historical background is surprisingly volatile; while one might assume that political stability and economic security are prerequisites for intellectual and cultural experimentation, some of the most radical and far-reaching cultural work in the Renaissance was done in the periods of greatest insecurity.

Urbanization in Italy

   The aftermath of Justinian's reconquest of Italy in 533 left the cities in Italy largely depopulated; from 500 to 1000 AD, Italy was largely a rural region with few and sparesely populated urban centers. In the twelfth century, Italy saw a resurgence of urban living which grew into a flood in the thirteenth century. The Italian cities, especially Venezia (Venice), had long served as intermediaries in the trade between central Europe and the Muslim and Byzantine states to the east. As they grew wealthy, many of these cities became centers of banking long before the rest of Europe had discovered this lucrative area of commerce. In large part, medieval church doctrine prevented the growth of banking and money markets because it considered lending money at interest—called usury—to be a mortal sin, that is, a sin which guaranteed the damnation of one's soul.

Renaissance Atlas
Early Modern Italian States
Early Modern Italian Cities
   The phenomenal growth of wealth in the Italian cities eventually led to the growth of a series of city-states, that is, individual regions ruled centrally from a single city. In contrast to cities in central and northern Europe which were ruled by monarchs, the Italian cities were allowed a high degree of autonomy and expanded their political influence over the areas surrounding them. Some of these states, such as Firenze (Florence), were named after the city from which they were ruled. This growth in power of the city-states was fueled by the money pouring into the cities from trade and from banking. Little was done to stop the growth of these autonomous states; Italy had through most of the late middle ages been fought over by the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor; each of these was so intent on the other that both permitted the growth of powerful autonomous regions to further their own aims. By the beginning of the Renaissance, there were five major players in city-state politics: the Papal States (or Romagna) ruled by the Pope, the republics of Firenze (Florence) and Venezia (Venice), the kingdom of Napoli (Naples), and the duchy of Milano (Milan).

Social Class

   This concentration of wealth and power in the cities led to new configurations of social class which would have wide-ranging effects across the face of Europe. Most of the new wealth had been created by individuals not in the noble class; the bankers, in particular, came from the productive classes. Not only did these commercial activities produce wealth, they also seriously redistributed wealth. At the beginning of the high middle ages, wealth in Italy consisted almost entirely of land and was concentrated in the hands of the nobility. Through the development of commercial interests, wealth began to concentrate in the hands of the non-aristocratic peoples. Because the nobility tended to borrow money only to do non-productive things like gamble, party, and fight wars, they often defaulted on their loans. When they did, part of their property would transfer to the wealthy bankers and merchants. By the end of the fifteenth century, most of the wealth of Italy had been transferred away from the nobility, including the pope in Rome, to this new, commercial class.

   In general, Renaissance Italian society consisted of five classes which varied in nature and number depending on which area of Italy you were in. At the top of the class hierarchy were the old nobility and the merchant class that had traditionally ruled the cities. Below them were the emergent capitalist and banker class that identified with the lower classes and wished to become as powerful as the top class. Below them were the less wealthy merchants and tradespeople and below them, the poor and destitute. This final group probably made up one fourth to one third of the urban population in Italy during the Renaissance. Finally, there were the domestic slaves; though few in number, they represent the first attempts by post-classical European society to institute slavery as an economic practice.

   The Italy of the Renaissance was a period of simmering class resentments, particularly in the lowest ranks of society. In 1378 these resentments boiled to the surface in the Ciompi Revolt in Firenze. This led to an anarchic four year rule by the lower classes and several decades of power struggles.


   While we like to think of the Italian Renaissance as representing the best of Western culture, several less stellar practices were introduced. The rapidlly expanding mercantile culture produced class divisions far more destructive than those of earlier periods and the legal status of women declined seriously in the process. The Italian Renaissance was also the period that Europeans rediscovered slavery. The market in human slave labor in southern Europe began as early as the 12th century. Initially the Spaniards were the key trafficers in human life, but as the Italian city-states grew, their demand for slaves also grew and they became one of the largest consumers of human slaves. The slavery that they practiced was not yet racial slavery: most slaves sold in Italy were Muslims from Spain, North Africa, Crete, the Balkans, and the Ottoman Empire. There was a trickle of black slaves into Spain, Portugal, and Italy, but they were only a very small minority.

   Almost all the slaves in Italy were domestic servants and most wealthy in most cities had at least one. When a slave was acquired, the owner acquired full rights, including the right to sell and "enjoy," that slave. For the most part, the slaves were incorporated into the household and their children were always were always born free. In many cases when a slaveowner produced a child with a slave, the slaveowner would raise the child as a legitimate child. A more insidious side of slavery was developing, however, in this period. In the Venetian sugar cane plantations in Cyprus and Crete, a new kind of "plantation slave" grew into existence. Since sugar is a labor intensive industry, this new type of slave was acquired for purely economical reasons: the cheapest labor possible.


   The forms of government that the various city-states assumed was as varied as the number of states. The Kingdom of Naples, consisting of the entire southern half of the Italian peninsula, was a standard monarchy. Milan and Savoy, however, were autonomous duchies; the area around Rome and the northeastern Italian peninsula, Romagna, were a series of semi-autonomous states under the control of the pope—the Papal States. The popes of the later middle ages and the Italian Renaissance could scarcely be considered churchmen; drawn from the nobility, they were ruthless politicians whose central goal was the expansion of their political power. Finally, Venice and Florence were republics, nominally ruled by senates but in reality ruled by a small group of nobility and wealthy capitalists.


   The area around Firenze (Florence), called Tuscany, had long been the center of Italian culture throughout the high middle ages. The most significant writers of the high middle ages and the Renaissance were Tuscans, including Dante, Boccaccio, and Machiavelli. So important is this area for Italian culture that after the unification of Italy in the nineteenth, the Tuscan language eventually became the official and widespread language of Italy.

   While most of the city-states produced significant additions to Italian culture, the center of gravity throughout the Renaissance was Firenze or Florence in English. It was here that the rulers, both hidden and explicity, sought to glorify their wealth and power by subsidizing literature, philosophy, science, architecture, and the arts. It is an old given in Renaissance studies that the phenomenal growth of wealth in these small city-states is directly responsible for the flowering of literature, scholarship and the other arts during the Italian Renaissance as the aristocracy and the powerful sought to praise and legitimate their power by patronizing the arts and scholarship.

Italian Renaissance
   Although Firenze was nominally a republic, the chaos that followed the Ciompi Rebellion (1378), continued for almost five decades until Cosimo de' Medici (1389-1464), the wealthiest of the Florentines, secretly gained control of the city. He exercised his power behind the scenes and spent money wildly on poets, scholars, painters, and sculptors. It was Cosimo who founded the Platonic Academy and provided both the resources and the centralization that revived Neo-Platonism in the western tradition.

   His son, Lorenzo de' Medici (1449-1492), ruled Firenze openly as a totalitarian ruler. He, as did his father, sought to legitimate that rule by dumping vast amounts of resources into the arts, literature, and scholarship. However, his son, Piero de Medici, did not have the strength or the shrewdness of his father and Medici was overturned at the establishment of a Florentine Republic under the puritanical monk, Savonarola.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Piero de Medici
Domenico Ghirlandaio
Piero de Medici

The Treaty of Lodi

   Italy, however, roiled with internal conflict. The world of the early Renaissance was a world where simple power and military ability was not enough. The states were small and numerous and out of this tension grew a sophisticated and devious kind of diplomacy. The only way to successfully maintain territorial integrity was to ally oneself with allies that one couldn't fully trust. The first of those alliances was struck between Firenze and the states of Milano and Napoli, both bitter enemies of each other, in the Treaty of Lodi (1454-1455). The purpose of the alliance was to check the growing power of Venezia; a frequent fourth party in this alliance was the pope himself who also crossed horns with Venezia over the northernmost Papal States.

   This delicate balance, however, fell through when the pope, Alexander VI (reigned 1492-1503), and the two states of Firenze and Napoli betrayed Milano when Napoli invaded that country. This is perhaps one of the single most important bad moves in the history of the Renaissance. Stung by the betrayal and fearful that Firenze of the Papal States may militarily support Napoli, the ruler of Milano, Ludovico il Moro, asked the French king for help.

The French Invaions

   Charles VIII of France (reigned 1483-1498) was more than willing to help Milano. The French had claims over Italian territory; throughout the fifteenth century, however, they were content to do nothing about them. Charles VIII, young and fierce, raised his forces with blinding speed and in 1495 sped through Firenze, the Papal States, and Napoli as a conqueror. Such a feat had not really been seen since Hannibal's march through Italy in the Second Punic War.

   The speed and efficiency of Charles' march through Italy, as well as the seemingly unstoppable power of an alliance between France and Milano, struck terror in the hearts of all the other city-states. At the instigation of Ferdinand of Aragon, King of Sicily and Spain, the League of Venice was formed in 1495 consisting of Spain, Sicily, Venezia, the Papal States, and the Holy Roman Empire. Ludovico il Moro was equally terrified by the swiftness of Charles' conquests and joined the League of Venice the year after it was created.

   Charles did not really stand a chance and he was soon driven out of Italy. This conflict, however, lasted well into the sixteenth century; the politics of this conflict helped such radical cultural changes as the Reformation in Germany.

   The French, however, were not finished and returned under the leadership of Louis XII (reigned 1498-1515). They were assisted by Alexander VI, the pope from the Borgia family that had originally supported the Neapolitan invasion of Milano. Like Ludovico il Moro, Alexander VI saw an alliance with France as a way to solve his conflict with another Italian state, in this case Venezia. The Papal States extended far to the north on the eastern coast of the Italian peninsula where they came very close to the territory controlled by Venezia. These regions had always been a problem to the popes and Venezia actively encouraged their disloyalty. Even though Venezia was an ally of the Papal States, Alexander VI nevertheless quit the League of Venice and allied himself with Louis XII. This alliance was enough to shatter the delicate balance that had been holding the city-states so precariously together. In 1499, Louis XII conquered Milano and in 1500 Louis XII and Ferdinand of Aragon essentially conquered Napoli and divided it in half between them. The power of France allowed Alexander VI to conquer all the cities of Romagna and quell any rebellion that might happen in the future.

The Papal States

   No single group of people is treated more unkindly than the popes of the Italian Renaissance. With the three "worldly" popes in the vanguard, Alexander VI, Julius II, and Leo X, the papacy from the mid-fourteenth century to the mid-sixteenth century is often narrated as one long series, with a couple interruptions, of greedy, political, devious, and sometimes sex-crazy popes interested in everything except religion.

The Ottomans
The Ottomans

Discovery and Reformation
Discovery and Reformation
   This point of view is a slight disservice both to history and these odd men that found themselves bishops of Rome in both an exciting and frightening time. Without going into details about individual faults, the popes of the Renaissance pursued a remarkably consistent set of objectives and believed that those objectives outweighed every other consideration. From the mid-fourteenth century to the Reformation years, the popes and the Papal States government pursued three central objectives: 1.) reasserting the supreme authority of the pope over Christians; 2.) bringing about a uniformity of Christian belief by stamping out heresy; 3.) recovering political power of the Papal States so that the papacy could remain politically neutral and unaffected by European and Italian power politics; 4.) protecting Christianity from Islam primarily by driving the Ottoman Turks out of Europe and freeing Constantinople from Turkish domination. This latter fear was very real. Although we like to stress the great accomplishments of the Renaissance, to Europeans of the time it appeared as if the Ottomans would eventually conquer all of Europe. To church officials, including the pope, this meant nothing less than the complete destruction of Christianity. These were the goals of popes and each one pursued them differently; all of the sordid history of the papacy in the Renaissance arose from these rather intelligent and laudable goals. The most important of these goals, as far as the popes were concerned, was the maintenance of papal neutrality by shoring up the pope's control of the Papal States.

   At the end of 1500, the only major Italian players left were Venezia and the Papal States. In 1503, the Papal States came under the rule of Giuliano delle Rovere, or Julius II (reigned 1503-1513). Julius had two overwhelming goals: the eviction of the Venetians from Romagna and the eviction of the French from Italy. Both the Venetian presence in the Papal States and the French presence in Italy threatened to make the papacy a pawn of either the Venetians or the French. Julius accomplished his first goal in 1509 and permanently secured papal power in Romagna. However, two years later, Julius allied himself with Venice and with Ferdinand of Aragon in the second Holy League. With their combined strength, they drove the French out of Italy by 1512 (one year later); the French were finally defeated by a Swiss army in 1513.

   While an effective military leader and deviously effective politician, Julius II and Alexander VI before him made evident to the rest of the world the dramatic shift in the character of the pope from the leader of Christianity to a despotic, petty politician. It was Julius II who inspired open criticism by the humanists of the Northern Renaissance, including Erasmus, who questioned the spiritual authority of a person and an office that was so overwhelmingly and disgustingly secular. It isn't entirely an exaggeration to conclude that the growth of the Papal States in the High Renaissance was one of the direct causes of the European Reformation. This was the same pope who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine chapel—Julius, the inspiration of the northern humanist critique of the papacy, a critique which lit the initial spark of the Reformation, and the man who paid for one of the greatest works of European art.

   France, as you might imagine, was not finished with Italy. Under Francis I (reigned 1515-1547), France invaded yet again but was eventually defeated by the forces under Pope Leo X in 1516. The Papal States and France cut a deal which gave the King of France control over his clergy and the pope control over church councils. It was the last significant moment in Italian Renaissance history; the Reformation, one of the most significant events in European history, was on the eve of its eruption, awaiting a cold morning at the end of October, 1517, to permanently change the face of European culture. During this time, Italy would be successively invaded by France, Germany, and Spain, in a titanic struggle over the floundering city-states. No politician like Alexander VI or Julius II could stand in the way, and in 1527, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, sacked Rome—as so many invaders had done before him—and brought the power of the Papal States to its close.

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World Cultures

1996, Richard Hooker

For information contact: Richard Hines
Updated 6-6-1999