Italian city-states

From Academic Kids

This article is about the early Italian city-states during the Italian Renaissance.

Italy in the 12th and 13th centuries was vastly different from Europe north of the Alps (feudal Europe). The Peninsula was a melange of political and cultural elements rather than a unified state.

Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel have argued that geography determined the history of the region. Because an attack across the Alps was very difficult, German princelings could not exert sustained control over their Italian vassal states, and thus Italy was substantially freed of German political interference. No strong monarchies emerged as they did in the rest of Europe; instead there emerged the independent city-state.

Within the Italian peninsula there is great physical diversity. Italy is cut into numerous small regions by mountains, which could make inter-city communication very difficult. The Po plain, however, was an exception; it was the only large contiguous area, and most city states which fell to invasion were located there. Those that survived longest were in the more rugged regions, such as Florence.

There was a strong continuity of urban awareness in northern Italy which had virtually disappeared in the rest of Europe. Some cities and their urban institutions had survived in Italy since the Dark Ages. Many of these towns were survivors of earlier Etruscan towns which had existed within the Roman Empire. The republican institutions of Rome had also survived the Dark Ages. Some feudal lords existed with a servile labour force and huge tracts of land, but by the 10th century, Venice had become a large trading metropolis.

While those Roman, urban, republican sensibilities persisted, there were many movements and changes afoot. Italy first felt the changes in Europe from the 11th to the 13th centuries. Typically there was:

  • a rise in population―the population doubled in this period (the demographic explosion)
  • an emergence of huge cities
  • the erection of churches
  • substantial migration from country to city
  • an agrarian revolution

This was a highly mobile, demographically expanding society, fuelled by the rapidly expanding Renaissance commerce.

By the 13th century, northern and central Italy had become the most literate society in Europe. Fifty per cent of the male population could read in the vernacular, as could a small but significant proportion of women.

During the 11th century in northern Italy a new political and social structure emerged―the city-state or commune. The civic culture which arose from this urbs was remarkable. In most places where communes arose (e.g. Britain and Flanders) they were absorbed by the monarchical state as it emerged. Almost uniquely they survived in northern and central Italy to become independent city-states. The breakaway from their feudal overlords by these communes occurred in the late 12th century during the Investiture Controversy between Pope and Emperor.

By the late 12th century, a new and unique society emerged; rich, mobile, expanding, with a mixed aristocracy, interested in urban institutions and republican government. Many city-states housed a violent society based on family, confraternity and brotherhood.

By 1300, most of these republics had become princely states dominated by a gran maestro. The exceptions were Venice, Florence, Bologna, Lucca, and a few others, which remained republics in the face of an increasingly monarchic Italy and Europe.


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