Italy: The Rise of Cities

The Rise of Cities

The characteristic development in central and N Italy was the rise of the city (see commune and city-state), beginning in the 10th cent. The rise was partly political in origin—the burghers were drawing together to protect themselves from the nobles—and partly economic—contact with the Muslim world was making the Italian merchants the middlemen and the Italian cities the entrepôts of Western Europe. The survival of Roman institutions and the example of the commune of Rome facilitated the process.

To protect their commerce and their industries (particularly the wool industry) cities grouped together in leagues, which often were at war with each other. The leagues were particularly strong in Lombardy. The attempt by Emperor Frederick I to impose imperial authority on some cities led to the formation of the Lombard League, which defeated the emperor in 1176. Rivalry among the cities, however, prevented the formation of any union strong enough to consolidate even a part of Italy. In the 13th cent. the struggle between Emperor Frederick II and the papacy divided the cities and nobles into two strong parties, the Guelphs and Ghibellines. Their fratricidal warfare continued long after the death (1250) of Frederick, which marked the virtual demise of imperial rule in Italy and the ascendancy of the papacy. In 1268, Frederick's grandson, Conradin, was executed at Naples, thus ending Hohenstaufen aspirations.

The factional strife led to the rise of despots in some cities. These despots, who were of noble or bourgeois origin, were generally factional leaders, who, having obtained the magistracy, made it hereditary. Some of them managed to restore order in the cities. In many cities, however, the republican institutions were upheld with little interruption. In other cities, dynasties were established and invested (14th and 15th cent.) with titles by the emperors, who still claimed suzerainty over N Italy. The most powerful princes (e.g., the Visconti and Sforza of Milan, the Gonzaga of Mantua, the Este of Ferrara, and the dukes of Savoy) and the most powerful republics (e.g., Florence, Venice, and Genoa) tended to increase their territories at the expense of weaker neighbors. The cities in the Papal States passed under local tyrants during the Babylonian captivity of the popes at Avignon (1309–78) and during the Great Schism (1378–1417).

By the end of the 15th cent. Italy had fallen into the following chief component parts: in the south, the kingdoms of Sicily and Naples, torn by the rival claims of the French Angevin dynasty and the Spanish house of Aragón; in central Italy, the Papal States, the republics of Siena, Florence, and Lucca, and the cities of Bologna, Forlì, Rimini, and Faenza (only nominally subject to the pope); in the north, the duchies of Ferrara and Modena, Mantua, Milan, and Savoy. The two great merchant republics, Venice and Genoa, with their far-flung possessions, colonies, and outposts, were distinct in character and outlook from the rest of Italy.

Constant warfare among these many states resulted in political turmoil, but did little to diminish their wealth or to hinder their cultural output. The wars were generally fought in a desultory manner by hired bands led by professional commanders (see condottiere). Compared to the Black Death, the plague that ravaged Italy in 1348, the local wars did little harm. Material prosperity had been furthered considerably by the Crusades; by the expanding trade with the Middle East; and by the rise of great banking firms, notably in Genoa, in Lucca, and in Florence (where the Medici rose from bankers to dukes). The prosperity facilitated the great cultural flowering of the Italian Renaissance, which permanently changed the civilization of Western Europe.

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