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The Italian Renaissance and Its Relation to Italian Politics and Economy

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In the late Middle Ages, the Italian peninsula became a battleground for the lords that rose to power in the region and the surrounding areas. This paper will discuss how an increase in Florentine wealth brought on by the rise of the merchant class eventually prompted the flourishing of the Italian Renaissance and its aftermath. The struggle for political power within the Italian peninsula also allowed for the blossoming of the Italian Renaissance. As a result of this competitive quest, there was a rise of the merchant class which, in turn, helped to produce an excess of wealth allowing for these new lords and their citizens to spend time on more intellectual activities. The aftershocks of this great cultural event still resonate today in modern art, literature, and architecture.

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It is widely accepted that Italy’s location between Western Europe and the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean paved the way to the Renaissance. At the apex of the Holy Roman Empire, the towns of northern Italy united in an alliance called the Lombard League. In 1167 this alliance was formed in order to counteract the attempts of the Holy Roman emperors who were trying to enforce imperial rule over the cities of northern Italy . The city-states were formed from towns that were survivors of Roman towns that had existed within the Roman Empire. As the Holy Roman Empire diminished, cites rose under a communal government.

The commune was a sworn allegiance among the cities and their citizens for a mutual defense of each other both physically and in the aspects of traditional freedoms . At first the commune did not make any actual laws, just general rules in which the cities must in turn govern themselves, yet still abide by these general rules. As time passed the commune became a more powerful entity in Italy, as it began to slowly gain power over the city-states. Over time, with commune gaining more power, it started to function as a small state within the northern Italian peninsula. With the development of these small states, people began asking the important question: Who is going to rule over us? This concept created a power vacuum in which those of aristocratic potential fought for power.

The easy access to the Danube, Rhone and Rhine rivers connected Europe to the Byzantine Empire and the Moslem world. The increase in trade between the city-states and other countries led to growth of new ideas. The development of the merchant class was a new concept to the people on the Italian peninsula. Prior to this merchants existed, but in smaller numbers and most of them participated in local trade cross rather than continental trade as the large number of newly emerging merchants did. In northern Italy the most prosperous of these were Florence, Venice and Milan. Further south in Rome, the Papal States gradually grew to rival wealth of the northern states as the seat of the papacy gained a strong influence over politics and Italian life. Some of the major ruling families of the city-states were the Pope in Rome, the Medici family of Florence, the Doge of Venice, and the Sforza family in Milan.

ln Florence, the Medici family, also known as the House of Medici, was the most influential during the late Middle Ages. The Medici family grew in the 12th century when family members from the Tuscan village of Cafaggiolo moved from Florence. By the 13th century they gained political power and wealth due to their banking and commerce expertise and in so doing, they rose to be the most influential house in Florence. The Medici’s were responsible for numerous contributions to society. From simple bankers and merchants they rose, in spite of much opposition and without military conquest, until they became the most powerful and influential Dynasty in Europe . As the Medici took powerful positions such as the pope across Europe they not only gained power as individuals but as a family because they kept their blood ties sacred.

The Medici bank began to open several new branches all over Europe. In addition to banking, they also operated mines, mills and other commercial activities. Cosimo de’Medici ( or Cosimo the Elder) rose to power in 1434. Cosimo, owner of the Medici Bank, used the enormous profits he gained to finance many cultural and political activities. The family’s support for the humanities made Florence into the cradle of the Renaissance rivaled only by Greece . Through Cosimo Pater Patriae, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Pope Leo X, Pope Clement VII, Catherine de’Medici and others the name Medici occupies a larger place in history than any other family .

At the young age of twenty, Lorenzo de’Medici, also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, made his way to the head of the family and succeeded the rule of Florence following the death of his father . Through Lorenzo the Magnificent, the Medici family reached their pinnacle. Lorenzo was known as a Renaissance man. A Renaissance man by definition was one who was well-versed in all subjects and achieved true greatness through Renaissance humanism. He was a man with statesmanlike insight and judgement, political wisdom, with the ability to influence people, knowledge of ancient poets and writers, as well as passion for the various branches of art . Lorenzo was a patron of scholars, painters and sculptors including Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Angelo Poliziano, Verrocchio, Ghirlandaio, the Pollaiuoli brothers, Botticelli, da Vinci and Michaelangelo.

Lorenzo raised Florence into the most important state in Italy, making it the capital of intellectual and artistic knowledge . He did so by increasing the prosperity of its citizens and brought about a far reaching change to the government of Florence, turning it into a jealousy- guarded Republic of what was practically an autocracy . In doing so, he was able to accomplish what those around him could not. He created a government that was a combination of an autocracy and a democracy. This form of government was not only admired by his countrymen, but it also left him as an absolute ruler of Florence . This allowed for a time of peace where citizens were encouraged by their government to become patrons of the arts hence the Renaissance continued to flourish and the Middle Ages came to an end.

Following the death of Lorenzo, his son Piero was chosen, although under aged, by the Signoria and the Colleges combined with the four councils, in a vote 483 to 63, as the most qualified to run all the offices held by his father. Although the council originally had faith in his rule, they proceed to blame him in times of tragedy because once he gained power, Piero abandoned the principles of his family and more importantly his father who preceded him . There are little known records of Piero besides the above accusations, unlike the bounty of records of his father, and while his eldest son was still a boy, Piero passed away . These contributions not only made the family well known but it made it that the Medici had a hand in numerous aspects of medieval society all of which, created a political stance that paved the way for the Renaissance.

The influence that the political leaders such as the Medici’s had on the Renaissance was merely the spark that started the fire. The tinder that allowed the spark to ignite was the economy, specifically the increase of the wealth of the common people coupled with the rise of the merchant class within the economy. Although it developed much later than other maritime ports such as Pisa, Genoa, and Venice, it went through a rapid rate of growth and development and still emerged one of the most populous and wealthy cities in the Italian peninsula . It turned from a society that was dominated by the church to all that upheld the philosophical principles of humanism. The focus of the Italian people turned from the next world stressed by religion to everyday life. They became more interested in individual achievements in art, literature, politics and personal life. Renaissance thinkers viewed Medieval life as archaic and backward and became inspired by ancient Greeks and Romans.

Two significant developments that positively affected the city’s growth were the establishment of close ties with the papacy and the Angevin kingdom of Naples, and the rise of the woolen cloth industry in a city located in a prime position for trade with both European and Asian markets . The reason for the development of close political ties with the papacy and the Angevin kingdom of Naples draws us back to the great Medici family. As the Medici took powerful positions such as the pope across Europe they not only gained power as individuals but as a family because they kept their blood ties sacred. On the other hand, the success of the merchants was not only the fact that they increased trade, it was more so the fact that they created a population boom within the city of Florence. This miracle was brought by the woolen cloth industry, which provided employment for thousands of workers, producing cloth of such a quality that it went for the highest prices within the markets, fairs and bazaars of the three known continents . The Florentines entered the woolen cloth industry at a very prime time which allowed for them to be so successful.

They were late to the scene as other regions such as Flanders and Lombardy had developed their industries long before the Florentines, however, the Flemish cloth Industry was declining at the time the Florentines was just beginning to boom . The Florentines first produced cloth by refinishing cloth that had been imported from abroad, their greed and special skills allowed for them to quickly develop their own system to produce cloth from imported wools . The mercantile network of the city contributed to the economic growth of the woolen cloth industry by providing capital, arranging for and importing high quality wool from England and Spain, as well as being aggressive and efficient in marketing the finished wool on the global market .

The development of the merchant class was a new concept to the people on the Italian peninsula. Another trade concept that began to emerge was the idea of merchants dabbling in multiple types of trade. In Florence specifically the mercantile community was constantly changing, it became more of a matter of circumstance based off opportunity and inclination . The wealth that arose from these sources allowed citizens to live a more comfortable lifestyle. Between the Medicis’ encouragement of the arts and the newly developing wealth within Florence, citizens began devoting more of their time to more intellectual endeavors, allowing for them to make great advances in technology and themselves to become patrons of the arts.

The Renaissance was both a social as well as an artistic movement. Encouraged both the scholar and the student to go against the norm and transcend the boundaries of traditional disciplines . The Renaissance in its most basic form can be stripped down into two groups of people, humanists and artists. This new way of thinking was called Humanism. Humanists were philosophers who took an ethical stance and their goal was to emphasize the rights of everyone as human beings. One of the earliest and most prominent humanist writers was Francesco Petrarch. He believed that the eloquence and wisdom of the middle ages could only be found when one explores the writings of the past. The important points to stress about early developments of humanism are one, that it was a secular movement because it was largely a secular discipline, or two, it was practical, meaning functionally defined . Humanists were extremely useful in politics and trade, as they served well for diplomatic purposes such as treaties.

Humanists were philosophers who took an ethical stance and their goal was to emphasize the rights of everyone as human beings. The important points to stress about the early developments of humanism include that it was a secular movement because it was largely a secular discipline, and two, it was practical, meaning functionally defined . The goal of the humanist was to persuade those who read their work to take their advice and follow what they are say as a human being. As a whole, Humanists were extremely useful in politics and trade, as they served well for diplomatic purposes such as treaties and domestic correspondence of peace and war .

As humanism spread across Italy, it became well known in princely despotism and papal Rome as a mercantile republic such as Florence . One interesting fact that came from the concepts of humanism was the development of methods for counting the dead during times of war and plague. When the Bubonic Plague made its way to the Italian peninsula and caused massive death across Europe, Humanists believed that every human life is sacred . The relationship between the government and the humanists was not always the most peaceful. Humanist beliefs often challenged laws already put into place by Lords. Although found to be useful in politics, humanists challenged other parts of the already established government; this idea of challenging tradition had previously not been seen on such a large scale. This is what made the Humanist movement so influential in society and how it was able to impact so many people in a short period of time.

Traditionally, the Renaissance is defined as one of the great movements in the history of art; in fact, when the average person is asked to exemplify the Renaissance, most observers give an example that finds its home in the world of art . This idea of a great artistic movement comes from a new style of art in which nature is reproduced with a greater accuracy, where flat canvases are transformed into three dimensional art through sculpture . What separated these supposed renaissance artists from those prior was the fact that they were able to reproduce what the eyes can see through turning the two dimensional into a three dimensional plane. As artistic designs became more accurate representations of people the tradition of an artisan workshop became a highly recognized profession within the Italian city-states . Most skilled artists and architects were hired by royal patrons of the arts and their promotion of the arts is what helped drive the Renaissance to its heights of excellence .

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In conclusion, based on the information presented in this paper, it becomes apparent that the influence of the political as well as the economic changes in the Italian culture during this Renaissance period has aided in the transformation and growth of the culture of today’s modern world. Modern day banking still mimics the Medici banking system as its foundation. There are few Renaissance figures as prominent as Leonardo da Vinci. He was not only a revolutionary artist and thinker, he also pioneered several advances that we take for granted today . Overall, as the woolen cloth production in Florence dominated the industry, the population along with the wealth of Florence increased. More citizens had become wealthy and did not need to spend their time and money on things that they did not need. They did not have all the material things that we have today so they turned to people in powerful political positions such as the Medici. The Medici themselves were patrons of the arts, as more people became wealthy the demand for art increased in Europe, specifically in Florence. We now can see how the Medici, the merchants, the woolen cloth industry, the wealth and Florence all contributed to the blossoming of the Italian Renaissance.

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