Part I: Italians–Their Heritage and Contributions

Chapter 1: The Italian Renaissance and Western Civilization


Italians - Their Heritage and Contributions: Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Spring.
Italians – Their Heritage and Contributions: Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Spring.


Italy became a political reality only during the Risorgimento of the mid-nineteenth century. But the cultural fabric of the Italian nation was being woven in the 14th and 15th centuries during the Renaissance, a period of intense social, political and intellectual development.

During the Renaissance the Italian language was standardized by Dante, whose uniform use of the Tuscan dialect would direct all literary efforts from that point onward. In the various art forms the interest in classical Roman works inspired a love for that civilization and a renewed interest in the people who created it. The Italians of the Quattrocento perceived themselves to be the inheritors of Latin culture and expressed their pride in art forms modeled on the Italian past.

Although the Italy of the Renaissance was indeed a patchwork of states to outside observers, it was a homogenous country where Roman Law was general and where a wide range of attitudes — religious, economic and social — were shared by other Italians. Dante remarked that “as Italians we share some very simple habits of manners, customs and speech . . .” but still lacked the mortar of a centralized governmental structure. There were acknowledged regional, political and linguistic differences. Again to quote Dante, “We have a single court though it is physically scattered.” The Renaissance was to provide the basic foundation for that “single court” which evolved into the nation of Italy.

The political realism of Machiavelli and Guicciardini anticipated the Realpolitik of the 19th century nation states by freeing politics from the confines of morality and internal restraints. It was Machiavelli who called for a united effort among all Italian states to repel the invading French and who underscored the use of native Italian troops rather than foreign mercenaries to fight Italian battles. It was Machiavelli who fanned the embers of Italian nationalism in the sixteenth century but his efforts were never translated into action. His ideas smoldered for 300 years, until they once again blazed in the successful unification efforts of the Risorgimento.

And if the dream of a unified country did not come about in the lifetime of Dante, the Medici or Machiavelli, it did develop from their ideological and cultural direction. In effect Modern Italy may well look to the Renaissance as a movement which offered those unifying standards which were essential for the development of a nation state.

The Italian Peninsula in the Fifteenth Century

Much of the vitality of Renaissance life grew out of the physical diversity of the Italian peninsula and its people. Within the 700 miles stretching the length of Italy was found five major city states, at least 25 other cities with populations between 25-50,000, a dozen regions such as Lombardia, the Romagna, Piedmont and Tuscany, and the mountainous spine of the Apennines. The largest cities — Florence, Venice and Milan — had about 100,000 inhabitants each, while other urban centers such as Urbino, Verona, Siena or Bologna numbered between 30-40,000.

Italy is bordered and separated from the rest of Europe by the Alps but was never isolated to the extent that commerce between the north and south was totally extinguished. Trade was always a predominant aspect of Italian civic life, whether in slaves from the Ukraine, wheat from Africa, or spices from the Orient. The Italian cities rapidly became cosmopolitan centers but at differing rates, consequently less homogeneous and more localized in their allegiances. An autonomous, insular political perspective soon formed, creating intense civic pride while rejecting any attempt at peninsular unification. Each city enjoyed its autonomy and looked upon forced consolidation as unrealistic.

The geography of 15th century Italy was one which promoted agriculture along with urban centers populated with merchants, craftsmen, and laborers. Any geographical reference to Italy during the Renaissance would refer to a collection of city states with little or no sense of collective unity whatsoever. Italy was indeed a geographical expression yet to be realized. It was not until the foreign invasions of the 1490’s that any sense of national feeling joined the cities, but it was too late to be effective. In 1509 Venice proposed a battle standard proclaiming “Italia . . . Italia! Libertà! Libertà!” but it again was mostly for rhetorical purposes and did not produce the expected result of military cohesion or a sense of national pride.

The tenacious particularism of the Italian cities gave rise to a variety of political solutions to the problem of self-government. In general most communal forms of government were aristocratic, with power controlled by the oligarchic Popolo Grosso (literally the “fat people”) or by a single family.


RENAISSANCE ITALY: A Patchwork of States
RENAISSANCE ITALY: A Patchwork of States


The mercantile communities of Renaissance Italy demanded a stable political regime which would not interfere with business. Indeed commerce and politics were modestly joined early in the history of the communes. The merchant gradually assumed the status of the feudal nobility, although the taint of business took time to wear off.

Another group who were intimately lined up with the ruling factions in the communes were the literati or humanists. In the larger city states the literati, educated rhetoricians, skilled in the arts or in pursuasive speech and debate, were hired by the governing bodies to write and deliver the speeches, create the political mythologies, praise the city and vilify the opposition in eloquent Latin prose. The better the humanist performed his job the better his employment potential.

In general major communes and nearly all of the smaller ones were governed by despots or Signori, a word which has odious connotations to the modern reader. To the Italian of the 15th century social stability was much more important than individual voting rights. Despite lavish excesses by some despots they usually ruled benevolently and turned their anger against individuals rather than the general population. The Age of the Despots was one which did produce monuments to art, music and literature because of the extensive patronage system encouraged and supported by these singular rulers. Michaelangelo was first appointed to the Medici circle as a young artist, and later was commissioned to do the Sistine Ceiling by an autocrat with unlimited financial resources, Pope Julius II. Petrarch was a frequent guest at these despotic courts, and Leonardo was employed by the Duke of Milan to design costumes for festivals.

Yet the term of rule for the Signori was rather precarious because assassination and the more classical approach, tyrannicide, easily attracted desperate men, seeking justification for their action. Milan, Bologna, Florence, Siena, Rome — all experienced somewhat abrupt political changes caused by the untimely demise of their rulers. But the communes survived because in no case was any city ruled totally by only one man. His power was sustained by the aristocratic elements within the city, his position being that figurehead usually controlled by a patriciate of wealth.

Several brief points should be made about Renaissance military policy. In the first place hired mercenary forces, condottieri, were used in Italy as long as warfare was inter-communal and on a minor scale. The concept of communal militias was not in vogue because it was not practical. Experience had proven that a more lasting inducement for military forces was financial gain rather than patriotism. Therefore companies of condottieri were employed for specific periods by the many city states in Italy.

It should be recalled that Niccolo Machiavelli, better known for his Il Principe, was also the author of a work entitled The Art of War in which he argued in favor of a communal militia. He actually was briefly in charge of recruiting and training the Florentine militia but his attempt was a failure. It was unsuccessful because the only troops which would volunteer were from the farm areas, the contado, and because the Florentine government doubted the political wisdom of arming her own citizens!

Mercenary warfare was wholly effective yet dangerous for all parties involved. Because of their notorious unreliability condottieri could not always be depended upon to continue military operations if the payments were late in arriving. Condottieri were also known to have turned upon their employers if they were not adequately reimbursed or if they were bribed by the opposing city, which was often the case. War was a career, not a political matter, so prolonged expeditions and engagements were to the financial advantage of these Captains of Fortune. Unrestrained and bloody engagements and no-quarter battles were certainly not in keeping with a mercenary’s responsibility to himself. War was another example of Italian love of spectacle with few lives lost, minimal loss of respect and status for the losing side, and the maximum of pageantry. This was to change dramatically and abruptly when the Italians fought Spanish, French and German invaders at the close of the 15th century.

The condottieri captains were an interesting lot and usually were nicknamed by their followers or employers in colorful and descriptive terms. Niccolò Fortebraccio (Strong Arm), Niccolò Piccinino (Little One), or Gattamelata (Honeyed Cat) were a few of the more noteworthy captains of fortune. There were others, perhaps not as interesting for their names but just as effective as commanders, such as Sigismondo Malatesta, Castruccio Castracane, Francesco Sforza, and the Englishman, Sir John Hawkwood.

With the French invasions of Italy in 1494, followed by the repeated assaults by the Spanish, Swiss and Germans, Italy became the battleground of the great powers of Europe. The battles of Fornovo and Marignano concluded a tradition of limited Italian political and military involvement and marked the end of a purely Italian Renaissance.


By and large Renaissance humanism was an elitist movement, presented by highly educated individuals to a select audience of intellectuals.

There were two basic components in the composition of Italian humanism, each interacting with the other, finally evolving into a varied but positive attitude toward man and his environment. The first factor in humanistic thought was a reverence for and later an obsession with Greco-Roman culture, thereby indicating a clearly defined break with medieval scholasticism. It was in Italy that this classical culture had been established and it was in Italy that the past cultural heritage was to flourish once again. By returning to classical literature and philosophy early writers such as Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch revived the consciousness of the self and the value of the individual. Humanism marks the beginning of the modern state of mind.

The emphasis of life was shifted from the totally spiritual to the secular. Man’s personal identification was affirmed; he was no longer to be shaped primarily by his association with the Church or with a race, but by his mere existence. This spiritual reawakening was the other important factor involved in humanism.

Humanism however, was not a monolithic phenomenon, all “humanists” perceiving man as a dignified inheritor of the earth. Indeed, some humanists were rather skeptical of man, such as Pietro Pomponazzi who, while eschewing the virtues of man, denies him an immortal soul and defends predestination. While many humanists were inclined to propose that man was his own ruler, some noteworthy literati espoused reliance on astrology.

Much of the confusion surrounding definitions of humanism could be clarified if we try to understand what the Italians understood humanism to mean. The term humanism, as it was understood, was derived from a series of scholarly subjects known as the studia humanitatis in the universities of Italy. It was an educational curriculum consisting of grammar, rhetoric, poetry and ethics gathered from classical texts. In this context humanism was a particular educational discipline, not a philosophical movement. It was a cultural and literary response to scholasticism that contained some philosophical implications.

Many humanists were teachers who later entered the political arena and were influential politicians. Their abilities as orators and rhetoricians were frequently called upon by the governing bodies, thereby combining their academic talents with political necessity. Their “philosophies,” if they existed, were primarily civic in temperament; they defended their community with the skills acquired as literary men. They appreciated and restored the classics, wrote some Latin prose, but were more attached to Florence and Urbino than to ancient Rome or Athens.

What importance does humanism play in the history of the Italian Renaissance and western civilization? As a consequence of the “rediscovery” and emphasis on antiquity the humanists salvaged and put to practical use a large corpus of learning which had been neglected during the Middle Ages. This emphasis can be seen in the effect it had on the art and architecture of the period. Humanism also stimulated critical attitudes of unrestricted thought, imaginative questions and answers about man, his nature and destiny.

The world of the humanists also produced a system which emphasized actual experience rather than authority in the making of decisions and the rendering of judgment. Franceso Petrarca, an early humanist, was unafraid to raise his voice in criticism to the Emperor Charles IV about certain documents of “ancient” origin which Petrarca felt to be forgeries.

Beginning with Petrarch we notice the development of the antiquarian, a man with a sense of the past. His discoveries were based not on reliance on myths for explanations but on an actual experiment search for the causes of events. He realized the concept of change, and that the passage of time often obscured the past. In this sense he initiated a modern sense of historical understanding.

This idea of the passage of time affected two important disciplines other than history, those of art and law. In painting it also had an immense impact, forcing artists to accurately portray their subjects, at least as far as their historical setting permitted. This care and precision now became the essential attitude of the artists and would be reflected in the work of Leonardo and Michaelangelo, who literally recreated the anatomy of their subjects first before they covered their flesh with clothing.

Another result of this critical sense of the past was the discovery that law also had a history and was not a static collection, eternal and immutable.

The Renaissance literati made men realize that all things have a history and change over a period of time. If laws have a history and if words may have different connotations during different time periods, then laws should be analyzed and interpreted in their historical context. Law was not permanent but might require alteration or even rejection according to circumstances. It was a major discovery, one which would ultimately influence French and English systems of law.

In the spectrum of intellectual development in the West a distinctive place is reserved for the humanists of Italy. Many of their ideas were curious and short-lived. Some concepts, such as the dignity of man and the significance of the individual, are part of our own philosophical structure. More than anything else, however, I think that the significance of the humanists rests with their techniques in ascertaining the truth about themselves and the world around them.

The Society of the Court, the Family and the Street

The society of the Italian communes was one of tension and conflict, where the ideals of past laws and customs clashed with the new situations and standards of urban life.

Wealth and social mobility unrestrained by the accident of birth became an early factor in the development of Italian society. However, this fluidity of social status was rapidly solidifying by the mid-15th century into a well-defined hierarchy of wealthy patriciates, middle class merchants, and the poor urban proletariat.

As the Renaissance matured and decayed in the 16th century men rejected the idea of the world as a beautiful court populated by cultivated gentlemen and ladies.

Most men were not courtiers but were engaged in various trades and commerce. They had their own code of ethics, moral standards and practical advice, above all the dictum “For God . . . and Profit.” The Italian merchant created a revolution in his own manner, transforming a medieval disdain for wealth and religious prohibitions against usury into an acceptance for and appreciation of the value of capital and the culture it could support.

The world of the Italian merchant was a sophisticated terrain of contracts, loans, promissory notes, commercial investments, banks and bankruptcy.

No other class of men had more of an impact on the economic foundations of modern Europe than these early Italian entrepreneurs. For example, through their business transactions and constant search for new markets they achieved commercial ties with the Moslem world as well as the Near and Far East. Italian merchants were in China in the early 14th century and were describing the journey, the people, and the spices in popular trade manuals. They even produced language guides for merchants going to Persia and China in 1303, with helpful phrases used in the merchant trade. While Dante was describing his spiritual journey through hell, purgatory and heaven, other Italian writers of somewhat less literary stature were advising the wanderers of this world of more tangible treasures of the East.

An interesting example of the diversity of the merchandise sought by these men is included in the term “spices”: quicksilver, cotton, asphalt, glue, cinnamon, lead, fennel, wax, opium, pearls, dragon’s blood (a gem), silkworms, eggs and sugar. The list, found in a 15th century manual, lists over 300 items under this single heading.


Vespasiano di Bisticci, a Florentine biographer of the great men of his age, considered women to live under two authorities throughout their lives, God and their husbands. There is little argument to the statement that women in Italy did and still do live in a male-dominated society. It comforts some to cite the life of Vittoria Colonna, poet and friend of Michaelangelo, as a model of courtly learning, or Caterina Sforza, the “Renaissance virago,” or the splendid court of Beatrice d’Este. Yet these women were exceptional and would be noteworthy in any age. Suffice it to say that the image of the Renaissance man had his female counterpart but both were part of a minority, an elite society of wealth, power and culture.

We must consider the lives of women during the Renaissance in relation to their family or their husbands. Women did not live individual existences but were seen in either of these two relationships. The mother of Lorenzo de Medici for example, Lucrezia Tornabuoni, is known to us as a daughter in a wealthy family who gave birth to an illustrious son. Lorenzo’s wife Clarice Orsini also was recorded for posterity not as an individual woman but as a personality linked with the Medici clan. In Lorenzo’s Ricordi he made the following notation regarding his new bride: “Today, June 4, 1468 . . . I Lorenzo took for wife Clarice, daughter of the Lord Giacopo . . . or rather she was given to me.”[1] In fact the custom of Morgengabio was still in existence during the 16th century when the groom ceremoniously “purchased” his bride from her family with six rings, two on the betrothal, two at the wedding, and two on the day after the wedding.

There were the detractors, those who would relegate woman to an a priori inferior status. An inconsistency in humanistic thought is evident, for while some humanists exalted man as a free agent in the universe they predestined women to specific domestic positions. Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), one of the great literati, wrote in his treatise On The Family the following comments:[2]

The beauties of a woman can be judged not simply in the grace and gentility of her face . . . but even more in the robust form of her figure . . . suited to carrying and producing an abundance of children. Husbands who take counsel with their wives . . . are madmen if they think true prudence or good counsel lies in the female brain.

It was only in Castiglione’s Courtier that women were given an explicit role outside the circle of family and household. Castiglione’s ladies were of the court, cultured, influential and usually aristocratic. These women Castiglione found to be man’s mental equal, concluding “As to the mind I say that woman can understand all the things men can understand, and that the intellect of a woman can penetrate wherever man’s can . . .”[3] His book, coupled with the wealth and leisure time at the disposal of some of the ladies, gave the intellectual impetus for a more liberated attitude toward women, at least women of noble birth.

If the average girl living in Italy during the Quattrocento was considered an investment by her family and prospective husband, she became the personification of the family as soon as children were born. It was not uncommon for girls 12-13 years of age to begin their families, while the average age of their husbands was at least 12 years older. For this reason there seems to have been a relative closeness in age between the mother and children. Also, if the husband were a merchant the family could expect long periods of absence, perhaps two years in some cases. Early deaths or political exile also made many Italian mothers the sole authority in the family for long periods of time.

The importance of the mother in the structure of the Italian family can not be overemphasized. Italian wills often included a clause which provided for the wife only if she continued to live with the children and remained a widow.

Regardless of the initial reasons for marriage or the social assumptions which may have been prevalent there was tenderness and love in the marriage bond.

It has generally been assumed that Renaissance families dreaded the birth of daughters because of the dowries and the task of putting surplus females into convents. While it was a typical attitude it was by no means the only nor the prevailing one. There was such a wide range of opinions on the raising and education of daughters in Italy that the only conclusion we can reach is that a definite shift in attitudes in favor of women was evident in Italy during the late 15th century.

Sumptuary laws controlled feminine expression in dress and jewelry. In the Archivio di Stato of Florence we find prohibitions against the wearing of golden ornaments above a certain value. In part a law of 1433 reads:[4]

It is not in accordance with nature for women to be burdened by so many expensive ornaments. Women were created to replenish this free city and to live chastely in matrimony and not to spend gold and silver on clothing and jewelry.

Hard as it is to believe, not all women heeded the good advice of the city fathers. We find one Monna Bice, “daughter of Simone di Giorgio, who was going through this city with 5 rings. Fine: 37 lire, 10 soldi.” Monna Agnella was found “wearing a prohibited gown, one part of sky blue cloth, the other part of velvet with sleeves wider than one yard in circumference. Fine: 28 lire.”[5]

For the upper-and middle-class woman family life held the possibility of good marriage security with the normal day to day cares and anxieties endemic in urban life. The lower-class women were a different matter altogether but we can only ascertain their lifestyles by their transgressions of the social norm.

The daughter of a poor laborer had really three choices in her life although she was usually much freer than her aristocratic sisters in terms of social restraints. Normally she would be married at 13 and become pregnant as often as she could until about the age of 25. It was, of course, much more important to have sons, upon whose shoulders the fortunes of the family rested. Her life expectancy was about 30-35 years.

She could enter the convent as many girls did, often for mere survival rather than out of religious conviction. Some convents were being filled with nuns without vocations and these houses soon acquired unsavory reputations for their laxity. In the 16th century Venetian convents were the scene of dances and festivals for young noblemen. The Inquisition rolls in Florence list a number of nuns whose vows were repeatedly compromised with local youths. These were, of course, exceptions, but it was a means of existence in a quickly accelerating urban society.

For the unmarried girl a third and somewhat more lucrative occupation was always available. Prostitution was more widespread than commonly believed. In Venice there were more than 11,000 prostitutes in a population of some 100,000 souls while Rome’s ladies of the night numbered some 7,000 in a city of less than 50,000. In Venice courtesans were not permitted to include Jews or Turks among their clientele and were expected to register with the republic and wear a yellow scarf as a badge. Florence, as did all of the larger cities, attempted to regulate prostitution by initiating communal brothels in 1415. The women would be supervised and taxed, and the houses would be located “in places where the exercise of such scandalous activity can be concealed . . . for the honor of the city.” Women caught soliciting outside of the brothels were fined heavily but were released. Panderers were severely treated when caught, maimed and occasionally executed for their efforts. It was one thing to be a whore, quite another to induce women into the “scandalous activity.”[6]

In sum, the woman of the Renaissance emerged into a society with a strong almost obsessive sense of family and made her mark within that social framework. At no other previous period of history were women held in such high esteem, usually as partners with their husbands in the task of raising a family. Unfortunately the powerful social norms narrowly channeled women into only these few occupations. But the woman of wealth and leisure could control the artistic and cultural destinies of others as a patroness of the arts.

  1. Orville Prescott, Princes of the Renaissance (London: 1970). Cecilia Ady, Milan Under the Sforzas (London: 1907). E. H. Gombrich, "The Early Medici as Patrons of Art," in E.F. Jacob, ed., Italian Renaissance Studies (London: 1960) pp. 279-311
  2. Leon Battista Alberti, I Libri della Famiglia, translated by Renee Neu Watkins (Columbia, S.C.: 1969) pp. 210ff.
  3. Baldasare Castiglione, The Courtier, translated by Friench Simpson (New York: 1959) Book III.
  4. Gene Brucker, ed., The Society of Renaissance Florence (New York: 1973) p. 181.
  5. Ibid., p. 188-189.
  6. Ibid., p. 188-189.


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