Unknown Authors, historical artefact.—THE RENAISSANCE IN ITALY

This text below is copied from ‘The New Illustrated Universal Reference Book [Odhams Press]’ , seemingly published in 1933. (Authors/editors unknown).

I will give more precise details of the reference book I am copying from in future parts of this series of posts. And I will try to discover who was involved in  compiling this book I am studying:



The meaning of the Renaissance—The word “Renaissance” is used in a very wide, and often in a loose and inaccurate sense, to cover a great variety of subjects and a period of anything up to two hundred years. It’s literal meaning is “re-birth,” implying the revival of a profound interest in the past, a passionate interest in the present, and a healthy curiosity about the future.

In fifteenth-century Italy, conditions were particularly well adapted to the growth and development of these ideas. After the death of Gian Galcazzo Visconti in 1402 all question of a united kingdom in North Italy was, for the time being, at an end. The country again became divided up into a series of small city-states, presided over by a republican government which was in most cases giving way to the despotic rule of one family. The rise of the despots meant the setting up of little courts, where the ruler was the natural patron of the arts and the friend and protector of craftsmen and scholars.

When, in 1454, the Peace of Lodi brought Italy relief from internal strife, there followed a period of forty years (until the invasion by Charles VIII of France) during which scholarship and the arts had the opportunity they needed to develop under ideal conditions. As far as Italy is concerned, this is the golden age of the Renaissance.

The Italian City-States.—It is impossible to generalize on the subject of the Italian city-states; the chief characteristics of each of the most important must be briefly sketched, if the development of the Renaissance is to be made comprehensible.


Florence.—In Florence the republic was notoriously weak and unsteady, since all citizens had a great love of equality and yet every family passionately desired to be first. The ruling class was, in practice, an oligarchy founded on wealth (not, as in Venice, on birth), and this oligarchy regulated taxation, which became in their hands a purely party matter. Gradually the power passed into the hands of the Albizzi and then the Medici, who were far too subtle to claim the title of “Duke.” Cosimo (d. 1464) and Lorenzo de Medici were supreme rulers, but they never called attention to the fact; they merely taxed their rivals out of existence, and kept Florence free form warfare and party strife.

Lorenzo de Medici was himself a scholar and poet, and under his rule (1469-1492) Florence took a leading place in painting and sculpture, in music and poetry. The Platonic Academy was founded with Cosimo’s encouragement, and he was friend as well as patron of scholars and artists. The humanist Marsilio Ficino said, “I owe to Plato much, to Cosimo no less.”

Other Tuscan and Umbrian cities, notably Siena and Perugia, took their cue from Florence, and developed their own schools of poetry and painting, while owing much to the example of the great Florentines. Botticelli (d. 1500), with his freshness and delicacy, is no more typical of his time than Pietro Vanucci “Il Perugino” (d. 1523) with his clear luminous landscapes, far removed from the conventional backgrounds if mediaeval times, and his still greater pupil, Raphael Santi (1483-1530) who produced a masterpiece every time he laid a brush to canvass.


Milan.—In the Visconti of Milan a modern writer sees the most illustrious example of “those nobles who obtained the title of Vicars of the Empire and built an illegal power upon the basis of Imperial right in Lombardy.”[**Symonds, “Renaissance in Italy,” vol. I., p.99.**] Although Gian Galeazzo Visconti’s dominations fell to pieces at his death in 1402, his son Filippo Maria (1412-1447) succeeded in piecing together the Dukedom. On his death the famous condottiere, Francesco Sforza (who was married to Bianca, the illegitimate daughter of Filippo Maria) seized Milan and established there a good and strong government. He was a capable and enlightened ruler, and something of a statesman. It was Sforza who engineered the Peace of Lodi (with Venice) in 1454 and so contributed greatly to the peace of Italy. Like his contemporaries, he was intensely interested in art, music and literature, and he built the great Sforza castle which stand grimly in the centre of Milan to-day to remind posterity of his strength and efficiency.

Rome.—In the Middle Ages Rome was in an anomalous position; the ancient centre of the world, the seat of the Papacy, and yet in Italy she was merely one among a number of city-states, not necessarily the most important.

When Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, already famous as stylist and scholar, was elected Pope as Pius II in 1458, he determined to make Rome the centre of the Renaissance. In this he was imitating his predecessor Nicholas V (1447-1455), who had summoned to Rome the best artists and sholars of the day and had built up a great library. His biographer says of Nicholas, “he used to say there were two things he would do, if he had money to spend, that is to say, buy books and build houses. During his pontificate he did both. . . . All men of letters are under heavy obligation to Pope Nicholas for the favour he extended to them, and for the high estimation he gained for books and writers everywhere.” [“The Vespasian Memoirs.” Trans. Waters, pp. 37-8.**]

In his own city the Pope was less a sovereign than he was abroad, or in any other part of the Papal states (which included the Romagna, Umbria, Bologna, Ferrara and the March of Aneona). The Roman Republic was still governed nominally by a Prefect and the Senate. Actually, power was in the hands of the fickle and undisciplined Roman mob; perhaps the population of Rome was the most ignorant and uncivilized in Italy. Under these these circumstances there was little hope of a united Italy under the leadership of Rome.

Venice.—The Renaissance came later to Venice than to other Italian states, for she was less susceptible to the influence of her neighbours, on account of her isolated position and self-contained policy. In the fifteenth century she was occupied with the attempt to advance as a mainland power at the expense of Milan. She was wise enough to allow her subject states a measure of self-government, and in this Venice was unique, as she was also in the strength and impartiality of her justice. For this reason her colonies and dependencies seldom revolted, and if she had seized her opportunities Venice might well have become the chief power in Italy.

Venice was essentially a commercial power, trade was the foundation of her greatness, and she carried commercial principles into the conduct of all her affairs. If a servant of the Republic was successful, he might be rewarded; if he made a mistake or was unfortunate, swift retribution would follow. This attitude is illustrated by the execution of the condottiere Carmagnola in 1432. The Venetian government was secret, ruthless, and terribly efficient in its methods, in striking contrast to that of Florence.

With the discovery of new trade routes, Venetian commerce began to decline, and this, combined with the activities of the League of Cambrai had, by 1509, reduced her once marvellous prosperity in a marked degree.

When at last Renaissance culture reached Venice, it was of a different quality. Abstract scholarship meant less to Venetians than to Florentines; no Platonic Academy was founded in Venice, to its citizens the Renaissance meant beauty of line and colour and form; the gorgeous and voluptuous rather than the spiritual. The decorative patterns of Crivilli, the lovely calmness of Bellini’s Madonnas, the strength and grandeur of Titian—all these are typically Venetian.

The Theory of Sovereignty.—When the despots acquired their position in the communes, their first thought, naturally, was for their own safety. They had every reason to distrust the city militia, which was, in fact, the chief obstacle to their rule. Instead they employed the condottieri, who could be dismissed in time of peace, and who could be relied on to fight “politely” according to definite rules. Bloodshed was rare, the mercenaries won their battles by out manoeuvring or outmarching their opponents, and their artificial warfare soon became a burlesque. That Italian condottieri were successful only against Italians—who kept the rules of the game—was made abundantly clear when foreign troops invaded the country in 1494.

The man who saw most clearly the evils of this system was Niccolo Machiavelli (d. 1527), who complained that the condottieri “used every means to spare themselves and the soldiers any hardship or fear by not killing each other in their encounters, but taking prisoners without a blow . . . to avoid trouble and danger.” These words were written in his treatise “The Prince,”[**Trans. L. Ricci**] which he dedicated to Lorenzo de Medici. Machiavelli, like the historians Commines and Guiccardini, his contemporaries, tried to interpret the logical meaning of the time in which he lived, and to make a serious study of the problems of political science. To him, failure was the one unpardonable sin, and this view, together with his approbation of craftiness in a ruler, has led to a general misunderstanding on the part of posterity.

Probably no writer has been so often and persistently misrepresented and misquoted as Machiavelli. He was the Apostle of the “new monarchy” which was one of the phenomena of this age. “Calulation, courage, fit means for resolute ends, human force,—only these can rebuild a world in ruins.”[**Morley, “Machiavelli,” p.27.** This was Machiavelli’s creed, and tese were the qualities of the typical Renaissance prince. Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503), was Machiavelli’s chosen type. This young prince carved out a principality for himself, and might even have succeeded in uniting central Italy, but for his sudden death. He was “close, solitary, secret and quick”; his revenge on those who had failed or betrayed him, swift and terrible. He was only thirty-one years old when he died.

Other exponents of the “New Monarchy” are Ferdinand the Catholic of Spain (1479-1516), the wily Louis XI of France (1461-1483), and in the next century, most typical of all, Henry VIII of England (1509-1547). OF all of these it might have been said, as of Machiavelli’s “Prince,”  “It would be well if he could be loved and feared; but if circumstances force a choice, then it is better to be feared.” Of the darker types, sinister and cruel, yet personally gifted and charming, it must suffice to quote—in addition to Cesare himself—Sigismondo Malatesta of Rimini, in whom all the virtues and the vices of the Renaissance Prince are seen in startling juxtaposition.

Office clerk.

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