By Dr Humfrey Butters FRHS
In The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), the most brilliant account of its subject ever written, Jacob Burckhardt set out to explain why it was Italy, rather than any other part of Europe, that gave birth to the Renaissance. Not all the answers that he gave to that question have stood the test of time, but a concern with the singularity of Italy in the period 1100-1600, its peculiar and special characteristics, and not simply with its role in begetting the Renaissance, has been an abiding feature of historical study. One signal feature of northern and central Italy in that period was that it was home to a revival of the city state. This socio-political formation, distinguished from a simple city by the degree of political autonomy that it enjoyed and by its possession of territory beyond its walls, had played a crucial role in the ancient world. A second unusual characteristic of that part of Italy was the scale and sophistication of the economic undertakings of its principal cities which marked an early stage in the development of commercial capitalism.These cities, therefore, presented an extraordinary blend of contrasting and conflicting elements, well captured in the writings of Philip Jones.
From an economic point of view they marked a decisive break with the world of Greece and Rome, which had been dominated by landowners and regarded merchants, on the whole, as vulgar or venal; and yet from a socio-political point of view they constituted a revival of that world’s most characteristic form.
Of this interesting class Florence and Venice were exceptional members. Economically Venice’s rise to prominence occurred long before that of Florence, since as a cluster of islands on the north-east coast of Italy she was perfectly placed to assume the role she played from the eleventh century to the seventeenth, that of principal commercial intermediary between East and West. Florence enjoyed no such geographical advantage, so that it was not till the thirteenth century that her economy began to grow vigorously. By the end of that century, however, she had won a place in the first rank of European powers, in commerce, industry and international banking, indeed in the last of these she became preeminent. Venice never was a centre for international banking, and until the fifteenth century her only major industry was shipbuilding, although the Arsenal was by far the largest industrial complex in medieval Europe. In the course of the fifteenth century, however, she became, like Florence, a major silk producer, and by its end she was Europe’s principal producer of printed books, powerfully assisted by German technology and German capital. In the following century she also became a major centre for the manufacture of woollen cloth.
The two cities were also distinguished by their political life. In the late Middle Ages both preserved their republican constitutions, at a time when most Italian city states had become subject to the rule of one man, the Signore. Florence finally ceased to be a republic after 1530, when the Medici family established a duchy that lasted till the eighteenth century; Venice, by contrast, remained a republic until 1797, when she was conquered by Napoleon. Unsurprisingly, she became a byword in Europe for political stability and the virtues of aristocratic republicanism, since political eligibility was confined to a closed and hereditary nobility, the members of the Great Council. The roles played in Venetian government by the Doge, the Senate and the Great Council made Venice appear to be the perfect model of a mixed constitution, a form favoured by Plato and Aristotle.
But economic success and political stability were not simply fruits of the peaceful production, exchange and sale of commodities by an elite of merchants. Firstly, because the upper class of Florence and Venice, even from the earliest days, was composed not simply of merchants but of landowning merchants, in whose portfolios earnings from land played a significant role. Secondly, because the governments of both cities were always prepared to deploy military force in the pursuit of their objectives. By the end of the fifteenth century both cities were masters of substantial Italian territorial states, which in the case of Florence comprised most of Tuscany.
Venice’s military accomplishments were even more dramatic, since her territories included substantial possessions in the Eastern Mediterranean, the so-called ‘Stato da Mar’, acquired over several centuries largely at the expense of the Byzantine empire. In 1204, for example, the Venetians helped to conquer Constantinople. Although they lost their political position there in 1261, they retained their economic position there for centuries to come.
Culturally as well the two cities presented contrasts. In poetry and literary prose Venice produced no writers to rank with Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio (though Petrarch never lived in Florence); nor did she beget a political thinker to rival Machiavelli. This helps to explain why the Italian language is based on the Tuscan rather than the Venetian dialect. In architecture Venice was slower to adopt the classicising style that Brunelleschi and Alberti made fashionable in Florence; but in the sixteenth century Andrea Palladio created versions of it that subsequently won a European reputation. Each city produced influential painters of the highest quality, such as Michelangelo and Titian, masters of contrasting styles. Both made important but different contributions to the growth of classical studies: Florentine humanists (classical scholars) persuaded the European upper classes that gentlemen needed a classical education; printers based in Venice like Aldus Manutius helped to provide the necessary texts. Finally, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries both cities were at the forefront of musical innovation: Venice was particularly celebrated for its sacred music, while in Florence opera was born.
By the beginning of the eighteenth century Italy had largely lost its position as an economic and cultural powerhouse, thanks in part to the longterm consequences of Columbus’s discovery of America and Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the direct sea route to India. But educated north Europeans in the eighteenth century were perfectly aware of how much their world owed, economically and culturally, to Italians, and especially to Florentines and Venetians, of an earlier age.
One signal feature of northern and central Italy in the period 1100 to 1600 was the revival of the city state. A second unusual characteristic of that part of Italy was the scale and sophistication of the economic undertakings of its principal cities which marked an early stage in the development of commercial capitalism. Of this interesting class Florence and Venice were exceptional members.
Dr Humfrey Butters FRHS is a Reader in Warwick’s Department of History and co-ordinator of the Venice Programme for third year history students. His research interests lie in the political history of Florence during its last 50 years as a republic (1480-1530); the writings of Machiavelli, and public law and the state in Italy, 1100-1300. He was one of an international group of scholars working to produce a complete edition, with historical commentary, of the correspondence of Lorenzo de’ Medici.