By William Landon, Northern Kentucky University
In the late Medieval and early Renaissance periods, ‘Italy’ was best understood as a geographical descriptor which gave the peninsula its name. Yes, luminaries such as Francesco Petrarch dreamt of a united peninsula—‘Italia mia’ or ‘My Italy’ is what he called it. But Petrarch was an exception. Poetic visions of unity were crushed by a fragmented reality.
In the late 13th and early 14th centuries, the peninsula was filled with dozens of small states, some of which were ruled by aristocratic families. We can call them principalities. Other cities were governed by bodies of elected officials. Such cities usually self-identified as ‘communes’. It might help for us to think of them as ‘city-states’.
Cities, which today are famous for their cultural patrimony rather than their industriousness—for example, Pisa, Genoa and especially Venice—were powerhouses of maritime trade. They all grew incredibly wealthy, in large part due to the development of a revitalized trade in luxuries.
Spices proved to be the most lucrative commodities, followed by silken items and wool (both in finished and raw forms). Merchant ships from Pisa, Genoa and Venice traversed the Mediterranean, from the Levant (where spices were purchased) to destinations as far-flung as the Baltic Sea.
While the remainder of Europe was slowly making its way out of the localism and economic stagnation that followed the collapse of Rome, the city-states of the Italian peninsula were booming.
Trades and Wars
Landlocked cities such as Florence were forced to trade with coastal cities such as Pisa, if they wanted their refined silk and woolen goods to make it to foreign markets. This dependence upon Pisa, a theme which shadowed Florence from the 13th century right through the end of the Medici period in the 18th century, brought frequent wars between the two cities. The Florentines would, for a while, subjugate Pisa and dominate its seafaring trade, then the Pisans would win back their freedom, forcing Florence to abide by Pisan trading rules and regulations.
Florence also frequently sparred with its Tuscan neighbors—Siena in particular. The Sienese state, which was a model for good government in the late Medieval period, rivaled Florence’s mercantile activities to such an extent that they sometimes went to war, even as Genoa and Venice tangled with one another constantly.
This article comes directly from content in the video series How the Medici Shaped the Renaissance. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Importance of Rome
Rome, generally speaking, was only important because it was the seat of the Roman Catholic Church. It was a malarial city, extremely poor and sparsely populated with perhaps 40,000 inhabitants, and its industries were few.
Matters grew infinitely worse for Rome in 1309 when the French monarchy was able to wrest control of the Roman Church away from the city itself to a new home—this time in Avignon, France, a period of exile known as the Babylonian Captivity. While the papacy was able to move back to Rome in 1377, the schism in the Church between Rome, France and Catalonia led to multiple popes claiming authority over the Church simultaneously.
That great divide in the Roman tradition was not settled until 1417 at the Council of Constance.
The Black Death
Just before the mid-point of the 14th century, street preachers and prophets made crescendoing predictions that the abuse of Christ and His Church would invite divine retribution. Their dire warnings and prayers for judgment seemed to be answered in 1347, when the Black Death appeared in Italy, ironically as a result of maritime trade.
Wherever it arrived, populations were decimated. In some cases, perhaps 25% of a given population would perish, along with wild and domesticated animals which weren’t immune to the disease. In other cases, the mortality rate could be as high as 80%. During the first years of the pestilence, Florence lost 50% of its population, declining from 80,000 to roughly 40,000 souls. In the main, epidemiologists estimate that the Black Death killed between 30% and 50% of the European population.
While it is commonly thought that the Black Death was caused by bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis, descriptions of the ways the disease presented, taken directly from sources written at the time of the ‘first wave’, have led a number of scholars, most notably Professor Samuel Cohn, to suggest that the Black Death is a catch-all term for a variety of diseases that happened to strike Europe at the same time.
Despite the frequent warring between Italy’s city-states in the lead-up to 1347, the economies and governments of those states were, generally, growing and stable. In the aftermath of the Black Death, cities were faced with the grim certainty that the world had changed, and that a return to the days before the plague was impossible. Every stratum of society was affected; international trade halted; businesses shuttered; markets closed; city streets emptied. Life was irrevocably altered.
Common Questions about Italy Before and after the Black Death
Cities governed by bodies of elected officials usually self-identified as ‘communes’. They can also be called ‘city-states’.
In 1309, the French monarchy was able to wrest control of the Roman Church away from Rome to a new home—in Avignon, France, a period of exile known as the Babylonian Captivity. While the papacy was able to move back to Rome in 1377, the schism in the Church between Rome, France and Catalonia led to multiple popes claiming authority over the Church simultaneously.
While it is commonly thought that the Black Death was caused by bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis, descriptions of the ways the disease presented suggest that the Black Death is a catch-all term for a variety of diseases that happened to strike Europe at the same time.