The Birth of Renaissance in Italy

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How the Medici Shaped the Renaissance

By William Landon, Northern Kentucky University

The Renaissance was born in Florence. Due to the demographic changes brought about by the Black Death, and by the political turmoil, a group of scholars who had their homes in Florence began to seek out answers to their present problems in past human experience—and they chose to focus upon Rome. That’s what the term Renaissance means—‘rebirth’.

Mural painting by Renaissance artist Raphael.
Florence, because of its highly qualified scholars, became the birthplace of the Renaissance. (Image: Raphael/Public domain)

Florence in the Wake of the Black Death

The Black Death’s devastation in Europe ultimately allowed already successful economies to be re-shaped. As urban economies such as Florence’s began to recover, people from the country moved to town in search of work.

Among those who moved to Florence from the contado, the countryside around Florence, some became skilled artisans, merchants, politicians and even bankers.

Many of those who became successful also came to dominate the Florentine government. Those with ancient family names such as the Strozzi and the Albizzi, to name but two, were able to retain a good deal of their power, but they were joined by the nuovi ricchi who entered the Florentine aristocracy as a result of their business acumen.

The new Florentine government that developed in the wake of the Black Death was increasingly diverse. But the urban poor, who bore the majority of the tax burden in Florence, remained underrepresented and therefore resented the city’s elite—both old and new.

This article comes directly from content in the video series How the Medici Shaped the Renaissance. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Ciompi Rebellion

Painting showing the Ciompi Rebellion.
The Ciompi Rebellion was a series of armed rebellions by Florence’s working poor. (Image: Giuseppe Lorenzo Gatteri/Public domain)

By 1378, groups among Florence’s working poor began a series of armed rebellions—known collectively as the Ciompi Rebellion. The ciompi, a Florentine word for ‘wool beaters’, sought political representation, fairer taxation, and the ability to join the guild network which dominated Florence’s economy.

Guilds were, for all practical purposes, the first manifestations of organized labor. They existed across Europe, but in Florence, in particular, because of its international wool trade, the major Florentine guilds were extremely powerful. The working poor were denied membership to the guilds, which meant being denied participation in civic matters and protections that the guilds offered.

The ciompi overthrew the government of Florence, installed their own representatives and created new guilds. However, their people’s revolutionary government pushed too far beyond the boundaries of the Florentine government’s oligarchical traditions. It couldn’t last. The ciompi government was overthrown in 1382, after only four years in power; by a coalition of old Florentine families.

Tensions between Florence’s Old Elites and the Poor Inhabitants

Those old families deeply distrusted the ciompi, but they felt compelled to reform Florence’s tax structure, alleviating the punitive taxation on the city’s working poor, and to open Florence’s old guild network to larger membership.

The tensions between Florence’s old elites and the city’s poor inhabitants was never fully healed. In fact, it might be argued that the Medici family used this deep division to gain power in Florence. After all, when the Ciompi Rebellion first erupted in Florence in 1378, Salvestro de’ Medici, a wealthy Florentine patrician—but importantly not of ancient noble lineage—sided with the Wool Beaters against the nobility to reorganize Florence’s unbalanced political system.

In the nearly four years of tumult that ensued, Salvestro came to be viewed as a traitor by Florence’s elite and yet not revolutionary enough by the ciompi. He was sent into exile in 1382: a political embarrassment that pushed the Medici from the Florentine government for over two decades.

The Renaissance

Historians have endlessly debated why the Renaissance was born in Florence. A satisfactory answer points to the fact that in the late 14th century, Florence happened to be home to a group of scholars of the highest rank, individuals of almost unparalleled genius. They sought answers to the problems caused by Black Death and political turmoil in past human experience—and they chose to focus upon Rome.

The term Renaissance means ‘rebirth’­—of classical texts, the literature of antiquity.

At this point, two key words associated with the Renaissance have emerged: ‘literature’ and ‘texts’. In the early Renaissance, the definition of ‘literature’ was far broader than our contemporary notions associated with that word. The world of ancient Roman encompassed rhetoric, history, geography, mathematics, the literary arts of all sorts and the study of the Latin language itself.

Such studies were only made possible by scouring monastic libraries for long-neglected Roman ‘texts’. Why were these texts neglected? Well, the simple answer is that they were the products of pagan—that is, pre-Christian and non-Christian—minds.

Importance of Pagan Thought

In the wake of the Roman Empire’s fall in the west, its successor, the Roman Catholic Church was not especially interested in pagans who had clearly been judged by God. But monastic orders all across Europe still realized the importance of pagan thought. As a result, texts from the classical world were copied, shared and stored—even though they were infrequently studied.

When the Black Death made it clear that Christian Europe was not immune from God’s judgment, some of those who survived that cataclysm sought answers outside of the Christian tradition—and they found them in texts preserved in monastic libraries.

Those truth seekers came to be known as humanists—a title derived from the educational curriculum that they developed—the studia humanitatis (The Study of What It Means to Be Human)—which focused upon the literature of the ancient world. Today, we call the study of those literatures the Humanities.

The Republican Humanists

At the turn of the 14th century, the Florentine government was filled with humanists. Having gone through nearly 50 years of tumult, they sought to apply Roman precedent to their predicaments, and they established a republic.

Despite their obsession with pagan classical antiquity, the Republican humanists at Florence did not give up their Christian faith. They were devout geniuses who sought to harmonize the classical pagan tradition with Catholic orthodoxy.

One of the ‘problems’ that they addressed was access to capital. Under the successive leadership of the intensely erudite Coluccio Salutati and the humane and supremely eloquent Leonardo Bruni, banking restrictions were slowly rescinded. This localized easing was complemented by similar acts instigated by the papacy.

Common Questions about the Birth of Renaissance in Italy

Q: What did the ciompi seek through the Ciompi Rebellion?

Through the Ciompi Revolution, the ciompi sought political representation, fairer taxation, and the ability to join the guild network which dominated Florence’s economy.

Q: Why were some Roman ‘texts’ long-neglected in monastic libraries?

Some Roman ‘texts’ were neglected because they were the products of pagan—that is, pre-Christian and non-Christian—minds.

Q: What did the term ‘studia humanitatis‘ mean?

The term studia humanitatis meant the ‘study of what it means to be human’. It focused upon the literature of the ancient world. Today, we call the study of those literatures the Humanities.

Keep Reading
The Influence of Ancient Rome on the Italian Renaissance
Education in the Renaissance
The Black Death: How It Ravaged Florence