Renaissance Italy


Lord Aubrey de Baudricourt



"See how Italy beseeches God to send someone
to save her from those barbarous cruelties and
outrages; see how willing and eager the
country is to follow a banner, if only
someone will raise it."

--- Machiavelli, The Prince, 1514



'Renaissance", according to Hale's A Concise Encyclopaedia of the Italian Renaissance, is

a French label given to describe an Italian
cultural movement and to its repercussions
elsewhere ... For Italy the period is popularly
accepted as running from the second
generation of the 14th century to the second
or third generation of the 16th century.

Although the 14th century saw the initial stirring of the Renaissance in Italy, it did not become fully developed until after 1453. In that year Constantinople fell to the Turks and Byzantine scholars fled to the West bringing with them priceless manuscripts from antiquity. The effects of this event were exaggerated in the past, but the Italians used these along with those that they had possessed in the years before to build the foundations of the Renaissance.

As a cultural phenomenon, the Renaissance was erected upon the Italian's upon love and imitation of classical Greek and Roman culture. But they did not stop there. Instead, they built upon those roots and, through the works of Bellini, da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Ariosto, Machiavelli, Pico della Mirandola, Toscanelli and host of others, brought Europe to a plateau of learning not seen since the heyday of Rome. It was truly a cultural explosion of a virility and magnitude never seen before or since.


Italy before 1494

It is important to remember that prior to relatively modern times "Italy" was nothing more than a geographic term. Renaissance Italy was composed of some fourteen major states and many more minor ones. Before the intervention of the European nation-states (beginning in 1494) power within the cultural cradle of Italy was divided between five of these states: the Duchy of Milan, the Venetian Republic, the Republic of Florence, the Papal States and the Kingdom of Naples. These five states, using diplomacy and limited wars maintained a finely balanced distribution of power on the peninsula. If one state threatened to become supreme, the others banded together against it until the balance of power was restored. Wars were fought with limited goals and the sinews of the state were often armies of mercenaries serving under captains called condotierri.

Florence flourished under the benevolent dictatorship of the Medici's. She was powerful and cultured. Her history in the late 15th century is dominated by Lorenzo de' Medici, also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent. The Medici's began as financiers and organizers who first entered Florentine political life in the early 1400's. Lorenzo's time of rule (1469-1492) was looked back upon by war weary Italians of the mid 16th century as a kind of Golden Age. Florentine arts and sciences flourished with many of her architectural marvels being begun or completed during these years. Two years after Lorenzo's death, the Medici's were driven from Florence and a republic was declared. While working for this republic as a mid-level diplomat, Niccolo Machiavelli gathered first hand the information and experience necessary to write the most cynical political treatise of the times: The Prince.

Milan, the most powerful and successful example of signorial government in Renaissance Italy, was ruled first by the Visconti and then, after 1450, by the Sforza's. The Sforza Dukes, who ruled until 1499, followed a policy of alliance with Florence and came to personify continuity in Milan. They erected or restored a large number of cathedrals and other public buildings and works. Milan was also to serve as the reason for French intervention in Italy. The descent of the French Kings from the Visconti and Sforza's gave them, in their own eyes, as great a claim to Milan as the current occupants of the ducal throne. And they were not slow in pressing this claim.

The Popes, as worldly and militant as any other sovereigns of their time, ruled the Papal States and participated in the game of Italian power politics as readily as any of the other players. Pope Paul II (r. 1464-1471) tried very hard to awaken Europe to the threat of the Ottoman Empire by enlisting a Crusade against them. Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia, was noted for his patronage of the arts as much as for the corruption his Papal Court. He made his son, Cesare, the military arm of the Church and this enfant

terrible conducted military campaigns in northeastern Italy.

The great mercantile power of Venice was ruled as a Republic with elected Doges serving as the head of state. Though powerful on the mainland, Venice's prime interests lay to the east where her mercantile empire was being threatened by the expansion of the Ottoman Turks. She controlled stretches of the Adriatic coast in modern day Yugoslavia, several Greek islands and the island of Crete. She was both wealthy and cosmopolitan and well protected by her lagoons and fleets of galleys. Alone among all of Renaissance Italy's major centers, she never fell to an attacker.

Under the stable conditions of the mid-15th century Italian culture flourished with Florence serving as the unacknowledged cultural capital of Italy. Rome and, to a lesser extent, Milan, were also known for their high achievement. The Italians created unparalleled works in architecture, literature, philosophy, art, sculpture, and science. These cultural accomplishments were unmatched at any other time or place in history. Unmolested by the type and state of affairs that reigned in Europe north of the Alps, the Italian states thrived. The delicate flower of the Renaissance was born and nurtured under these precarious circumstances. It was a state of affairs that was not bound to last.


Italy after 1494

Renaissance Italy was never to fully recover from the events of the autumn and winter of 1494. During those months the King of France, Charles VIII, pursuing a shaky claim to the throne of Naples, brought large army across the Alps and by February of 1495, had made himself King of Naples, Sicily and Jerusalem. In doing so he destroyed forever the balance of power in Europe and showed newly united Spain and the powerful Empire how precariously weak Italy and France's position there really were.

Italy became a battlefield over which the armies of Valois France and the Hapsburg Spain and the Empire fought. A long procession of French Kings (Charles VIII, Louis XII, Francis I and Henri II) fought an equally long procession of Spanish and Imperial opponents (Maximillian 1, Ferdinand of Aragon, Charles V and Philip IN for what rapidly became the shattered remains of the Italian Renaissance. The French were initially successful, overrunning the peninsula twice and, under Francis 1, bringing much of the north under seemingly firm French control.

Francis laid claim to the duchy of Milan and made its occupation the cornerstone of his Italian war strategy. But defeat at Pavia in 1525 damaged the French position greatly. Faced with the wealth and might of Hapsburg Spain, France did well to survive the duel in Italy. During the course of the wars Milan was to change hands several times before it became an almost permanent part of the Hapsburg Empire.

The Italian states, tiny in comparison to the might and power of France, Spain and the Empire, tried to maneuver between the three behemoths to maintain their independence. In the end all became slaves of one or more the great powers, except for Venice. Milan, as mentioned previously, fell to the French and Spanish repeatedly before becoming a firm part of the Spanish Empire in 1535. It passed to Philip II from his father Charles V in 1554 as if it were just another part of the Hapsburg patrimony.

The Papacy, under the soldier-art patron Pope Julius II, was able to benefit territorially from the chaos at first. But Imperial forces sacked Rome in 1527. The gathering strength of Protestantism in central and northern Europe presented the Papacy with its greatest threat and greatest challenge of the Renaissance. The Reformation had begun, in part, as a response to the corruption of the Papacy under Alexander VI. The Papacy now reformed itself and then, with the active support of Hapsburg Spain and using the newly emergent Jesuits as its army, launched the CounterReformation. It is best envisioned as a war between the forces of Catholic and Protestant Europe and, many times, it came quite literally to that. The Counter-Reformation successfully prevented the transformation of France into a Huguenot state, reclaimed Austria and much of southern Germany and stabilized religious lines in Europe along lines that greatly resemble those of today.

Florence was tossed upon the winds of political instability trying to decide between Spain and France. Finally, in 1530, the Medicis were restored to power by force of Spanish arms. Machiavelli, in attempting to gain the favor of the restored Medici ruler, was to write a political masterpiece that realistically reflected the world of Renaissance Italy. Although The Prince failed to regain Machiavelli a place in the governing circles in Florence, it did bequeath to us a political treatise whose effects are still being felt today.

The Kingdom of Naples supported French and Spanish garrisons throughout the Renaissance. In the end it too became a firm part of the Hapsburg inheritance. Never an integral part of Renaissance Europe, southern Italy was to take a different path and fade from importance.

Venice was to survive and maintain her independence. But events on the peninsula had shorn her of much of her power. And yet, she was to make a vital contribution in naval power to the fleet that defeated the Turks at Lepanto in 1571. But by then most of her ambitions regarding 'Terra Firma" had been turned back. She would have to be content to decay within her borders. This she was to do until her existence, extended long past usefulness, was terminated in 1797 by Napoleon.

The world of post-1494 Renaissance Italy was drastically different than the era that preceded it. The Italian city-states were no longer free to control their own destinies nor could they continue to develop unfettered by outside influences. Machiavelli and other post-1494 writers were to refer to conditions in their own lifetimes as being dismal in comparison to the past. They were to call upon the Italians to free themselves from enslavement by foreigners. But the call was to be in vain. It is little wonder that the Italian scholars living after 1494 marked that year as the great dividing line in their history.

As their political world fell apart around them, the Italians still continued to strive in the cultural arena. Art, science, philosophy and architecture continued to advance in Italy. And Italy's disaster now became the avenue by which the Italian Renaissance spread to the rest of Europe. The soldiers and rulers who fought across the chessboard of Italy saw first hand the wonders of the Renaissance and brought as much of it home with them as possible (sometimes in a quite literal and physical way). Ideas and thinkers were imported from Italy to France, Spain, the Empire, England, the United Provinces and even as far afield as Russia where an Italian architect supervised Ivan III's renovation of the Kremlin.



By 1545 the cultural torch had passed from Italy to stronger states north of the Alps. Da Vinci, Titian, Rafael, Cellini and Michelangelo flourished before or during these times and almost all sought some portion of their livelihood outside of the arena that Italy had become. The Italians, huddled in their little city-states while nations tremendously more powerful than themselves battled across Italy to determine their fate, continued to develop. But the vitality was gone and, amidst the ruins, even the Italians knew this. They dreamed of the day when they would unite in the face of their foreign oppressors and cleanse the peninsula of the "barbarians'. But this day was not to come for some three centuries.

In the meantime, Europe was to owe Italy an enormous cultural debt. Without the Italians the England of More, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, the France of Francis I and Montaigne, the Spain of Philip II and El Greco and the Empire of Maximilian and Charles V would not have been possible. Without the Italian Renaissance there would have been no palace of York Place, no Utopia, no Spenser or Shakespeare, no chateaus on the Loire, and no Escurial or, if they did exist, they would have been but pale images of what they might the Italian Renaissance helped them become.


1453--Constantinople falls to the Turks. This increases the number of Classical scholars who flee from Greece to Italy. This, in turns, accelerates the gathering pace of the Italian Renaissance.

1469--Beginning of the rule of Lorenzo de' Medici in Florence.

1482--War between Alfonso of Naples, Ferrara, Venice and the Pope.

1492--Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) becomes Pope.

1494--Charles VIII of France invades Italy. This invasion brings the closed world of Italy to an end and enables the Renaissance to spread to Europe north of the Alps. It also initiates a series of wars that would last for more than a century.

1495--da Vinci begins "The Last Supper".

1501--Michelangelo begins work on 'David".

1503--da Vinci paints the "Mona Lisa".

1517--Machiavelli completes "The Prince". Martin Luther begins the Reformation.

1525--Francis I of France is defeated at Pavia by a Spanish/ Imperial army and taken prisoner.

1527--The army of Charles V sacks Rome.

1530--Imperial troops restore the Medici in Florence.

1534--Michelangelo begins the "Last Judgement".

1536--Francis I conquers northwestern Italy.

1540--Philip, son of Charles V, is made governor of Milan.

1555--Philip is given all Hapsburg lands in Italy.

1571--The combined fleets of Spain, Venice and Genoa defeat the Turkish fleet.


Cheetham, Nicolaus, Keepers of the Keys: A History of the Popes from St. Peter to John Paul II, Charles Scribner's Song, New York City, New York, 1983.


Cloulas, Ivan, The Borgias, Franklin Watts, New York City, New York, 1989.

Durant, Will and Ariel, The Renaissance, Simon and Schuster, New York City, New York, 1953.

------------------------ The Reformation, Simon and Schuster, New York City, New York, 1957.

------------------------ The Age of Reason Begins, Simon and Schuster, New York City, New York, 1961.

Gilbert, Felix, The Pope, His Banker and Venice, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1980.

Hale, J.R. [editor], A Concise Encyclopaedia of the Italian Renaissance, Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, England, 1981.

Hibbert, Christopher, The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall, Morrow Quill Paperbacks, New York City, New York, 1974.

Machiavelli, Niccolo, The Prince, Penguin Books, London, England, 1981.

Morris, Jan, The Venetian Empire: A Sea Voyage, Penguin Books, London, England, 1980.

Norwich, John Julius, A History of Venice, Alfred A. Knopf, New York City, New York, 1982.

Simon, Kate, A Renaissance Tapestry: The Gonzaga of Mantua, Harper and Row Publishers, New York City, New York, 1988.

To map of Italy during the Renaissance c. 1500