Jacob Burckhardt in his book, Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

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Chapter 10: Renaissance and Discovery

Part I: The Renaissance

The nineteenth century historian Jacob Burckhardt in his book, Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, argued that the revival of classical learning in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries set a prototype for the modern world. Renaissance means rebirth and it was no accident then that the Renaissance first took root in Northern Italy. The Northern Italian City States were the first to develop societies able to break away from decentralized feudalism and mature into centralized states (mini-nations). Thus their chief focus was to look back for cultural values and knowledge of Greek and Roman intellectual and artistic achievements. This looking back was the heart and soul of the Renaissance and it created (or found again) that powerful idea of the Greeks, which would challenge the traditional values of the church: Humanism or the idea that man is the measure of all things. Religion was not attacked (at least openly), but its principles and authority were steadily weakened.

The Renaissance began in the city state of Florence in central Italy. Why it took place there came from a combination factors including economic and political conditions but mostly because of (1) its Republican government; and (2) the leadership and patronage of the Medici Family. From Florence, humanist culture spread through Italy and then into northern Europe. This rebirth is best described in the term Civic Humanism by which the Florentines meant a coalescence (or coming together) of humanism and the civic responsibility of the citizen. The Italian Renaissance began around 1374-1375 with the deaths of Petrarch and Boccaccio and would end in 1527 with the sack of Rome which marked the point when Italian creativity declined and Northern Italy became a battleground between France and the Holy Roman Empire.

*This sad event took place when Pope Clement VII (book says VIII but it was VII) incurred the anger of the emperor Charles V by siding with the French. Charles defeated the French but his mercenary troops mutinied and marched on Rome. The Book is also wrong because it was primarily German (Lutheran) troops [not Spanish troops] that sacked the city. The pope fled for his life by a secret tunnel (still there) to Castel Sant'Angelo; churches were pillaged; the innocent were massacred and even pro-imperial cardinals had to pay a ransom to keep their properties from further looting. The sack of Rome was both an embarrassment to Charles V and the end of the most creative phase of the Italian Renaissance.

The Italian City States

The Renaissance took place where and when it did for six reasons:

  1. Italy was a natural gateway between goods passing from east to west and west to east;

  2. The city states of Northern Italy had maintained trade with the Middle East throughout the Middle Ages and so created strong urban societies;

  3. As trade increased in the eleventh century, Italian merchants quickly mastered the skills and diplomacy necessary to maintain their trading endeavors: bookkeeping, the development of banking, scouting new markets, and securing monopolies wherever possible;

  4. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, this increasing trade and commerce caused the cities of Northern Italy to grow in the accumulation of wealth and in dominating the surrounding country sides;

  5. By the fifteenth century, these city states were – for the most part - the bankers to much of Europe;

  6. During the constant feuding between the Holy Roman Empire and France and the warfare between the pro-papal factions (or Guelfs) and the pro-imperial factions (or Ghibellines), the Italian city states were able to keep themselves from being dominated or conquered either by the papacy or the French or the Holy Roman Empire.

The five major Northern Italian city states were Milan in the northwest; Venice in the northeast; Florence in north-central Italy; the Papal States in central Italy; and the Kingdom of Naples south of Rome. Two smaller states in the north were also influential: Genoa and Siena. All except for Naples and Milan were republics but they all were characterized by vicious political infighting which made most of them evolve into despotism. Only Venice developed an aristocratic senate and governing council, the Council of Ten, which stood the test of time, lasting from 1310 to 1797, when Napoleon’s troops occupied Venice.

Florence was also the best example of the social divisions in all these states that caused so much political weakness. Florence had five classes

  1. The Grandi, or the old rich, who were the nobility and the older merchants (older in the sense of profits gained from the Silk Roads and other trade routes) who ruled the city;

  2. The Popolo Grosso, or “fat people”, who were a newer merchant class of capitalists and bankers. They were the chief rivals of the Grandi and wanted more power.

  3. The middle-class Burghers came next. They were the guild masters, shop owners, professionals and smaller business people. They tended to side with the new rich against the old rich.

  4. The Popolo Minuto or the “little people” of the lower economic classes; craftsmen and bakers.

  5. There was technically a fifth class – not really a class at all; they were the urban poor who had no wealth and who were about one third of the population.

At any rate, these social divisions led to increasing and bitter rivalry and conflict. In 1378, as a result of the feuding between the Grandi (old rich) and the Popolo Grosso (new rich), along with the social upheaval from the Black Death and the collapse of two great banking houses (all of which made life increasingly unbearable for the poorer classes), a great uprising of the poor, called the Ciompi Revolt, shattered Florence. The result was four years of bloodshed and chaos until one remarkable man brought stability and order, the banker and statesman, Còsimo di Giovanni de’ Mèdici.

Còsimo lived from 1389 to 1464 and was the founder the Medici political dynasty which became the de facto ruling family of Florence for most of the Italian Renaissance. Còsimo (also called Còsimo 'the Elder or il Vecchio) was born into a wealthy trading family and inherited his father’s business skills. But he was more and became a skilled diplomat; for example, he accompanied Pope John XXIII to the Council of Constance. But when it came to Florence, his secret (like Augustus) was to “rule by persuasion” from behind the scenes. The leading citizens were proud of their republic; so Còsimo maintained order by using his wealth to buy votes and finesse (manipulate) the city government.

Thus, Còsimo skillfully manipulated the constitution, swayed (rigged) elections and dominated the Signoria, the city’s ruling council whose members were chosen from the powerful guilds representing the clothing industries (wool, fur and silk) as well as the bankers, judges and doctors. Cosimo was also a patron of the arts, liberally spending the family fortune to enrich Florence. After his death, the Signoria gave him the title Pater Patriae, "Father of his Country" (an honor once given to Cicero of ancient Rome) and had it carved on his tomb in the Church of San Lorenzo.

Cosimo de’ Medici was succeeded by his son Piero di Cosimo de' Mèdici (1416-1469), who continued his father’s patronage of the arts. He was followed in turn by his son, Lorenzo the Magnificent or Il Magnifico (1449 to 1492) who ruled Florence in skilled totalitarian fashion using his grandfather’s behind the scenes skills. He also was great a patron of the arts, helping Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo secure commissions from wealthy patrons. Lorenzo was a poet and supported Humanist scholars studying Greek philosophy, especially the Christian Humanists who tried to harmonize Plato with Christianity and maintained that it was possible to be a humanist and lead a virtuous life. It is important to remember that Lorenzo’s life coincided with the high point of the early Italian Renaissance and his death marked the end of the Golden Age of Florence - and sadly, the fragile peace which he had helped to maintain between the various city states.

In Florence, the despotism of the Medici’s was subtle but in other city states’ despots hired strongmen or Podestás whose sole purpose was to maintain order. (We will meet similar individuals in Latin American where they are called Caudillos). Podestás were the chief magistrates of the city with complete executive, military and judicial authority. Their job description was simple: to keep business in business so that both the old rich and the new rich, the middle class and the lowers classes, could enjoy continuing prosperity. To enforce their authority, they hired mercenaries (soldiers hired for pay) led by professional, military men called Condottieri (from the Italian word for contractor).

The job of the Podestá was often hazardous. They could be dismissed by various power factions including those that hired them and they were popular targets for assassination. Nevertheless the rewards could be astounding. In Milan, it was as Podestá that the Visconti family came to power in 1278 and the Sforza family in 1450, both ruling without constitutional restraints or serious political competition.

During the Italian Renaissance, the rivalry between the city states and factions within the city states led to increasing skill in the art of diplomacy – political given and take. Through diplomats, city states played an endless “cat and mouse game” as they gathered information, bought or stole military technology, economic skill or new venues of economic enterprise. City states opened embassies in other city states: embassies designed to watch potential enemies, gain allies, gather intelligence and even prevent destructive wars by the art of negotiating peace treaties and alliances. This art of diplomacy between the tranquil oligarchy of Venice, the strong-armed democracy of Florence or the despots of Milan kept the peace (for the most part), and allowed Renaissance culture to flourish - and kept the North Italian City States prosperous.


Humanism, as we have seen, was an idea inherited from the ancient Greeks which stressed that man (men and women) was the measure of all things. Humanism was also championed by a new breed of Churchmen, called Christian Humanists, who felt that Plato and Aristotle were compatible with Christianity; and that it was possible to be steeped in the Greek and Roman classics and still be a good Christian. Thus – in many forms – Humanism was the examination of the legacy of Greece and Rome and of the ancient Church Fathers who were also considered to be part of the classical legacy.

It was Manuel Chrysolorus (1355-1415), a Byzantine scholar, who taught in Florence from 1397 to 1403, who opened the world of the Greek language and Greek Literature to the early humanists. These orators and poets wrote in classical Latin and vernacular Italian but under Chrysolorus, they began to learn ancient Greek which had not been written or spoken in Italy for over seven hundred years. And it was one of his students, Leonardo Bruni (d.1415), who first used the expression Studia Humanitatis. Bruni (sometimes called the first modern historian) wrote A History of the Florentine People and was the first to describe the sweep of history with three broad periods: ancient, medieval and modern.

The Studia Humanitatis was a liberal arts program embracing grammar, rhetoric (the art of speaking and writing effectively), poetry, history, political science and moral philosophy.

The humanists celebrated the classical legacy and sought to prepare people for a life of virtuous action; they were teachers or tutors to princes and prelates, and their talents were greatly sought as secretaries, speechwriters and diplomats. The humanists revived the classics in the West but the Byzantine connection must not be forgotten. For the Byzantines had never lost touch with the classics.

The scholastics of the thirteenth century (like Thomas Aquinas) studied what they could of both the Greek and Latin Classics but through incomplete and poorly copied Latin manuscripts.] Chrysolorus’ importance therefore cannot be underestimated. He not only introduced the study of Greek but he also translated the works of Homer and Plato's Republic into Latin. Nevertheless, his greatest contribution was his lasting influence on the early Renaissance humanists.

Thus, the humanists looked less to their recent tradition (i.e. Medieval and Scholastic) and more to the classical concept of humanitas: that spark of life, that competitive spirit of the Greeks. It was Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), who came to be called the Father of Humanism, because he traveled around Italy and France searching for Latin and Greek manuscripts. He quit the legal profession to pursue scholarship and spent much of his life in and around Avignon. He was also a politician deeply involved in politics in Rome and often working for the Visconti family in Milan. In his Letters to the Ancient Dead, which was a collection of imagined personal letters to famous Romans such as Cicero, Livy, Vergil and Horace, he celebrated ancient Rome and its literature. He wrote a tribute to Scipio Africanus, the Roman general who defeated Hannibal and conquered Carthage, as well as biographies of other famous Romans.

Petrarch also was determined to reconcile his Renaissance humanism (and admiration of the classical world) with his Christian faith in another work called Secretum, an intensely personal, guilt-ridden imaginary conversation between himself and Saint Augustine of Hippo. His most fascinating book was Il Canzoniere (Song Book), a collection of love sonnets to a certain Laura, a married woman, whom he loved from afar. It is said that he gave up his vocation as a priest when he first saw Laura. These poems reveal his deep love for a beautiful and unreachable woman whose early death touched him profoundly. With Dante, he laid the foundations of Italian vernacular poetry.

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), another early humanist, was a student and friend of Petrarch, who also collected Greek and Latin manuscripts and compiled an encyclopedia of Greek and Roman mythology. His most famous work was The Decameron, a collection allegorical tales (stories that teach lessons), often bawdy (crude) sketches of love, wit and witticism, and practical jokes. The setting for the Decameron was a country estate far away from the ravages of the Black Death and it is both a harsh social commentary about personal and economic mores (character) but also a sympathetic look at human behavior. In that sense, it is in contrast to the traditional medieval values which stressed Church rules and salvation. A more intriguing work was De Mulieribus Claris (On Famous Women), a collection of biographies of historical and mythological women from Eve to Cleopatra to Joanna, the contemporary Queen of Naples.

Humanists scoured ancient manuscripts and used them to improve their minds and as an aid to help society. Their goal was wisdom: eloquently spoken and thoroughly learned.

A quote I once learned, to know is good; to understand is better (scire est bonum; comprehendere est melius), catches that spirit – and thus emphasizes that learning is not meant to be abstract but a useful part of life. Petrarch said that “It is better to will the good than to know the truth” and by that he meant that education ennobled people; that is, made them better.

In 1416, a complete manuscript of Quintilian’s, Institutio Oratoria (Education of an Orator), was found and it quickly became a guidebook for the emerging humanist curriculum. Quintilian not only taught that an orator uses rhetoric to win over people’s opinions but also – just as importantly - advocates that a good orator must, first and foremost, be a good man. So to be a good man – remember Plato -, a good orator had to study philosophy and possess a “loftiness of the soul” that never let greed or the desire to win become more important than the truth.

Thus, the humanist revolution had a profound effect on education. Pietro Vergerio, was a humanist, statesman, and canon lawyer. He taught logic at Padua and Florence, and was a tutor to the princes of Carrara at their court at Padua until 1505, when Padua was conquered by Venice. After that, his career diminished but he soon became a papal secretary and participant in the Council of Constance (which had burned John Huss and ended the Great Schism). He was the author of the most influential Renaissance treatise on education, On the Morals that befit a Free Man, which laid out the principles of liberal education: …that education…develops those highest gifts of body and mind which ennoble men….

Vittorino da Feltre (1378 – 1446), was another Italian humanist and teacher who (perhaps most of all) epitomized the goal of an educator. He studied at Padua and, after being tutor to the children of the Marquis of Mantua, he opened his own boarding school. His methods were revolutionary. He lived with his students and befriended them. His students studied the great Roman authors and he cared for their health especially by introducing physical education. His school was comfortable, well lighted and he made the curriculum more interesting by taking field trips. So successful were his contributions that many of his contemporary humanists sent their own children to da Feltre’s boarding school.

Humanist principles were not confined to orators or the classroom. Baldassare Castiglione (1478 – 1529) was an courtier (A courtier is a person who is an attendant in the court of a king or prince.), diplomat, soldier and author who wrote, The Book of the Courtier (Il Libro del Cortegiano), which described the ideal princely court, the duties of a courtier and many details about the philosophical, cultured and lively conversations that should take place among courtiers. It was written as a practical manual for the Court of Urbino, a small duchy in central Italy, and it also gave guidance on how to use ancient languages and history along with athletic, military and musical skills, while not ignoring good manners and good character.

Although mentioned previously for her contributions to chivalry and women, Christine de Pizan (1364–1430), needs to be counted among the early humanists as she promoted the new education and culture. We noted how she challenged misogyny (hatred for women) and wrote forty one treatises - which defended the contributions of women – which established her as Europe’s first professional woman writer. Her most famous work (based on Boccaccio’s On Famous Women) was The Treasure of the City of Ladies, which was a chronicle (a historical account of events arranged in order of time usually without analysis) of the great women of history. The work was more than a series of biographies; rather Pizan questioned why women should not be taught as men are; why men think women should not be educated; and finally she pointed out that women are more natural learners than men.

The Revival of Platonism

The most important of all the “recoveries” of the Renaissance was that of Greek studies, especially the works of Plato. There were three reasons for this new fascination of Greek studies. First, we have seen that in 1397, Manuel Chrysoloras came from Constantinople and began to teach Greek literature and translated Plato’s Republic. Second in 1439, a Church Council held in Florence tried to heal the Great Schism of 1054. The council failed but a door was opened for Greek scholars to pour into Italy. Finally in 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, even more Greek scholars fled to Italy – with precious manuscripts - and mostly, they went to Florence.

So it was no surprise that the center for the revival of Platonism was in Florence at the Florentine Academy, a discussion group, which was founded after more of Plato’s works had been introduced during the Council of Florence. It was sponsored by Cosimo de' Mèdici and led by Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499). It is important to understand that the Florentine Academy was never a formal group but its members considered themselves a modern form of Plato's Academy. They were devoted to the study of Plato and the Neoplatonists such as Plotinus. Since humanism praised humanity, so the members of the academy were attracted to Plato because of his favorable view of human nature.

Ficino was in touch with every major thinker of his day and translated from Greek to Latin the complete works of Plato. More interestingly, he re-introduced the term Platonic Love. For Plato, love (or Eros) carries men to the contemplation of the divine (always searching for the perfect), that is, that it is the beauty or loveliness of another person (Platonic Love) which inspires the human mind and the soul to the spiritual and abandon the physical.

Another leader of the Florentine Academy, Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494), proposed, at the age of twenty-three, to defend nine hundred propositions on religion, philosophy, natural history and magic against all comers, for which he wrote, as an introduction, his famous Oration on the Dignity of Man, which has been called the Manifesto of the Renaissance. These theses (propositions) were intended to serve as topics of discussion on what was really important in life. He stressed the amazing nature of human achievement; that humans were the only creatures in the world that had the capacity to be whatever they chose to be: the fly with angels or wallow with the pigs. Mirandola stressed the importance of the quest for human knowledge and raised this quest to a mystical vocation [calling].

The humanists were also anxious to discover philological (language) accuracy and historical truth. They scorned the convoluted writing style of the scholastic theologians and realized that during the previous millennium the Latin language and the meaning of many Latin texts had been changed (usually miscopied) or altered (by ignorance or superstition) and so they were determined to use dispassionate and ruthless scholarship to reveal the truths which medieval tradition and lack of scholarship had blurred.

Lorenzo Valla (1407 –1457), a priest, humanist and educator, wrote De Elegantiis Latinae Linguae (Elegances of the Latin Language), a critical examination of Medieval-Church Latin as opposed to Classical Latin, which caused humanist scholars to purge their contemporary Latin of Medieval words and style. Using his new knowledge of Classical Latin style, he shocked the Christian world by proving that a document, The Donation of Constantine, (which gave the pope jurisdiction in Judea, Greece, Asia, Thrace, and Africa as well as Italy and the entire Western Empire, while Constantine would retain imperial authority in the Eastern Empire) could not possibly have been written in the Fourth Century. Valla was a loyal Catholic and did not intend to damage the papacy, but in the next century Protestant reformers would use his work with devastating effect. However, the bottom line is that Valla had established the science of Textual Criticism which dedicates itself to finding the original text and meaning of any given historical document.

Another conviction of the humanists was that of Civic Humanism (often called Classical Republicanism), which drew inspiration from classical writers such as Aristotle and Cicero and was built around concepts such as civil society, civic virtue and mixed government (i.e., containing elements of democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy). Civic Humanism also came from the idea that education should ennoble and thus promote both individual virtue and public service. The ideal remained but many humanists who served in government [just like today] simply wanted to exercise power or became a snobbish elite, who wrote pure, classical Latin and were recognized for their academic accomplishments. In reaction, many humanist historians, such as Niccolò Machiavelli (whom we shall soon meet) wrote in Italian and used their scholarly education for practical politics.

It is important to remember that Classical values encouraged the humanists to reconsider or re-evaluate medieval ethical teachings. Medieval moral philosophers had taught that the most honorable calling for any human being was that of monks and nuns who withdrew from the world and dedicated their lives to God in prayer and contemplation. However, the humanists, who drew inspiration from classical authors like Cicero, argued that it was possible to lead a morally virtuous life while participating actively in the affairs of the world. They argued that it was perfectly honorable for Christians to enter into marriage, business relationships and public affairs and still be good Christians.

Renaissance Art

To the average person of the twenty-first century, the beginnings of modern art are synonymous with the Renaissance. Secular values became more and more important as the Renaissance unfolded. Politics, personal lives and the new education all transformed the Medieval Christian mindset to a more worldly spirit. In the arts, the humanists began to examine Greek and Roman art and architecture and began to imitate.

The process, new to the west, had first been revived in Byzantium and new ways in the arts accompanied the scholars who fled from conquered Constantinople. The greatest visual change was that now art was no longer formulaic and abstract but natural and emotional; religious subjects were still the predominate choice, but the figures and scenes were becoming more and more secular.

Studying classical art, Renaissance artists began to master the ancient techniques in order to achieve greater realism. Two were of primary importance. The first was Chiaroscuro or the use of shading to achieve a sense of volume in modeling three-dimensional objects such as the human body. The second was Linear Perspective or the use of size and diminishing lines to give the view a feeling of size and depth on a flat surface. The father of Renaissance painting was Giotto (1266 – 1336). He was an admirer of St. Francis of Assisi and painted a series of frescoes of St. Francis. Though still religious, Giotto broke the flat, formulaic and abstract barrier with natural depictions of the saint and his life [The Marriage at Cana]. The painter Masaccio (1401 – 1428) [The Tribute Money] and the sculptor Donatello (1386 – 1466) [his statue of David] continued the process portraying realistic people in a realistic world. But the three greatest masters of the Italian Renaissance were Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the archetype of the Renaissance man. He was a sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer; but most historians consider him one of greatest painters (if not the greatest) of all time. He spent much time employed by Francis I of France as a military engineer and his genius foresaw such modern marvels as the submarine and airplanes. Among his greatest paintings are the Virgin of the Rocks, The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. Raphael (1483 – 1520) was a kindly man and painter of great sensitivity who was enormously productive and ran a large painting workshop despite his early death at the age of thirty seven. Three famous works are: The Transfiguration, the Wedding of the Virgin and the School of Athens. Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 – 1564) was melancholy and moody in contrast to the curious da Vinci and kindly Raphael. Nevertheless he was a dynamo of creativity and production; he was more interested in creativity than in creature comforts. He saw himself as a sculptor but worked as a painter and architect as well. His most famous sculptures are David, the Tomb of Pope Julius II and the Pieta; among his most famous paintings are the frescos on the ceiling and back wall of the Sistine Chapel; and his crowning achievement was his design of the Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Slavery in the Renaissance

Slavery was a given in the Renaissance world as it had been in the Classical and Medieval worlds. The Vikings, the Mongols and the Muslims all raided coastal towns for slaves to sell in the great slave markets of Byzantium and Damascus. By 1000, Viking raids had largely ceased as the Viking began to settle down in the east and west. As far back as the eighth century, the Muslim states had carried on an extensive slave trade down the east coast of Africa to meet their own needs. Most of Islamic slavery was domestic but many Islamic slaves were worked unmercifully as manual laborers or for filling the harems of the caliphs. By 1100, with the Reconquista (reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula) the Spanish sold captured slaves to wealthy Italians and other buyers. Most slaves of the Renaissance era fell into two classes: domestic servants who often became members of the family and less humanely treated slaves who worked in gangs on the sugar plantations of Cyprus and Crete.

These latter became a model for the Atlantic Slave Trade. In either case, slaves were property who could be bought or sold, treated well or mistreated at their masters’ pleasure. The Black Death made slaves more valuable and slavery more profitable. And it is important to remember that, although large numbers of slaves came from Sub Saharan Africa, color or race was no badge of slavery. Anyone could be a slave if he or she were unfortunate enough to be captured in a slave raid or in war. By the end of the fourteenth century, slaves were common in almost every well-to-do household of Renaissance Italy.

Italy’s Political Decline (1494-1527)

As we have noted, the Italian city-states were fiercely independent but they also knew how to cooperate in the face of external threats, especially the Ottoman Turks. But an unraveling of their cooperation began with The Treaty of Lodi (1454 – 1455) which brought Milan, Naples and Florence into an alliance. These three balanced Venice and her ally, the Papal States. But in the early 1490s, the rise of Ludovico il Moro (1452-1508), a member of the Sforza family, caused hostilities to break out again. In 1494, the Treaty of Lodi expired and Florence joined Alexander VI, the infamous Borgia pope, in a campaign against Milan. Ludovico felt threatened and made a fatal mistake by asking the French to come to his aid. The French were only too eager to get involved because they wanted to reconquer Naples which they had controlled from 1266 to 1442 when they were driven out by Duke Alfonso of Sicily. Ludovico failed to foresee that the French wanted to conquer his duchy and dominate all of Italy.

The French king, Charles VIII (r. 1483 – 1498) answered the call. Within six months he had crossed the Alps and in the summer of 1494, as he was approaching Florence, Piero de’ Mèdici (1472-1503; the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent) simply gave up and tried to appease Charles by handing over the Florentine possession of Pisa. This caused the citizens of Florence to rise up and exile Piero (known to history as Piero the Unfortunate) and brought to power a radical Dominican monk, Savonarola. Charles entered Florence and accepted a large ransom to spare the city being sacked.

After Charles left, Savonarola convinced the Florentines that the French conquest of their city was a long overdue punishment by God because of their immorality. He gained power and ruled Florence as a puritanical and tyrannical autocrat. He confiscated everything associated with moral laxity: mirrors, cosmetics, lewd pictures, pagan books, immoral sculptures (which he wanted to be replaced by statues of the saints and modest depictions of biblical scenes), gaming tables, chess pieces, lutes and other musical instruments, fine dresses and women’s hats, and the works of immoral and ancient poets, and burnt them all in the town square. But his Puritanism did not last and people grew weary of living in a puritanical dictatorship. In 1498, he was arrested, accused of heresy, convicted and burnt at the stake.

After taking Florence, Charles went on to invade the Papal States and Naples. This brought about an alliance, led by Ferdinand of Aragon (the husband of Isabella of Castile who commissioned Christopher Columbus) the HRE emperor Maximilian along with Venice and the Papal States which became an allied league known as the League of Venice. At Fornovo in July 1495, the League soundly defeated the French army and Charles lost nearly all the spoils of his campaign - and was forced to withdraw back to France. Even il Moro joined the League of Venice because he recognized his mistake. Charles tried to rebuild his army but his debts were too great. He died accidently (while playing tennis) in 1498 and, since his children had predeceased him, he was succeeded by a cousin, Louis XII (r. 1498-1515).

Louis XII returned to Italy and found a new ally in Pope Alexander VI who was probably the most corrupt pope in the history. Without shame, Alexander promoted the careers of his illegitimate children, Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, and he made the papacy a tool for his family’s political ambitions in Romagna in Northern Italy. Many principalities in Romagna had freed themselves from papal domination with the aid of Venice.

Alexander VI wanted a French alliance to recapture those lost principalities. So to secure French favor, he annulled Louis XII’s marriage to Charles VIII’s sister so Louis could marry Charles VIII’s widow, Ann of Brittany, a political move to keep Brittany French. Alexander also made Louis’ favorite bishop a cardinal and agreed to abandon the League of Venice, which would make the league too weak to resist France. In exchange, Cesare married Charlotte of Albert, sister of the king of Navarre, which increased Borgia military strength. Cesare also received land from Louis XII with the promise of French military aid.

All this was a shocking mockery of morality by both Alexander and Louis but it did allow the French king to conquer Milan in 1499 - and imprison Ludovico il Moro (who died in a French prison). In 1500, Louis and Ferdinand of Aragon divided Naples between them and Alexander and Cesare acquired much territory in Romagna. Cesare was awarded the title “Duke of Romagna.” In 1503, Alexander VI died and, after the short one-month papacy of Pius III, he was succeeded by the warrior pope, Guilano della Rovere, who took the name of Julius II. Julius was more than pope; he was a secular general and diplomat as well as a great patron of the arts. It was he who commissioned Raphael to paint The School of Athens in the Vatican Palace and Michelangelo the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Julius II also took the papacy to the peak of its secular and military authority; he suppressed the Borgia family and gained the title of the Warrior Pope. So secular and political was his reign that the Christian humanist scholar, Erasmus (1466-1536) wrote an anonymous satire, Julius excluded from Heaven, a comical description of Julius, after his future death, trying to convince St. Peter that he ought to be admitted to heaven. Peter questioned him about his deeds on Earth. The frustrated Julius threatened St. Peter with his army and excommunication. Julius then went into a long explanation of his deeds and tried to justify his sins. Peter was so disgusted that he shut heaven’s gates on Julius who threatened to raise an army, capture heaven and create his own paradise.

In 1509, Julius drove the Venetians out of Romagna and secured the northern portion of the Papal States. In 1512, Julius formed a Holy League with Venice, Ferdinand of Aragon, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and Henry VIII of England, and drove the French back across the Alps and out of Italy. The next year, the Swiss won a greater victory at The Battle of Novara in Piedmont.

Louis XII of France died on New Year’s Day, 1515 and was succeeded by his nephew (and son-in-law), Francis I who ruled France until 1547. Francis once again invaded Italy and in 1515 at the Battle of Marignano, the victorious Francis massacred the defeated Swiss in revenge for their defeat at Novara. Julius’ successor, Pope Leo X, was then forced to sign the Concordat of Bologna in 1516, which gave the French king control over the French clergy in exchange for Francis’ recognition of the pope’s superiority over church councils and the pope’s right to collect the Annates in France. It is important to understand that the Concordat of Bologna not only helped keep the French monarchy loyal to the papacy during the Protestant Reformation but also set the framework for the four Hapsburg-Valois Wars in Italy, all of which France lost.

Niccolò Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) was a Florentine historian, philosopher, humanist, diplomat, civil servant and writer, who is perhaps the most well-known of the founders of modern political science. The papal wars and the subsequent French and German invasions of Italy convinced him that Italian political unity could only be achieved by brutal and pragmatic means. Thus he developed the maxim for which he is known: The End Justifies the Means. As a humanist scholar, Machiavelli was impressed by Virtus (strength or manly courage) which he believed the ancient Romans possessed, and that only by displaying such courageous strength could greatness be achieved.

Machiavelli’s best-known book, The Prince, is filled with advice on raw politics, not so much for the more traditional hereditary rulers, but more for the new rulers or princes (like the Mèdici whom he served) on how to rise to and retain power. He pointed out that the hereditary prince had to carefully maintain the socio-political institutions with which the people are accustomed; whereas a new prince had a more difficult task, since he had to first stabilize his new-found power to build a secure political foundation. That required that the new prince be concerned not only with his reputation and social mores but also the necessity to act immorally when the occasion demanded. Thus, Machiavelli emphasized the occasional need for the methodical exercise of brute force, deceit, tyranny and so on.

Some scholars see The Prince as a satire but most feel that he was sincere. After all, he dedicated it to Lorenzo de’ Mèdici, the grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent. The Church condemned The Prince as unethical and contrary to Christian morality, as did most humanist scholars, especially Erasmus. Moreover, The Prince also stands in strong contrast to Platonic thought in that Machiavelli insisted that an imaginary ideal society is not the model for a prince to orient himself by. And it is interesting that the a Mèdici pope, Clement VII, watched helplessly in 1527 when Charles V overran Rome, the year that Machiavelli died.

The Growth of Monarchy in Northern Europe

1450 is a watershed year in European History because it marks the point when strong unified monarchies began to coalesce in northern Europe. This coalescence doomed Feudalism because the tide had turned as the new monarchs gained increasing control in France, Spain and England. The Feudal model of government was one in which the powers of government were divided between the king and semi-autonomous vassals. The nobility and the townspeople acted with varying degrees of unity (and success) to limit the power of the kings; hence the development of the English Parliament, the Spanish Cortes and the French Estates General. After the Hundred Years’ War and the Great Schism of the West, the nobility and papacy were in decline and less able to thwart the ambitions of the new monarchs, who filled their places by the increasingly influential townspeople of the rising Middle Class.

It was these merchants, professionals and entrepreneurs of the Middle Class, who more and more staffed the royal bureaucracies and assisted the monarchs as courtiers, lawyers, bookkeepers, military officers and diplomats. Thus it is crucial to understand that it was this alliance that broke Feudalism and led to the rise of modern nation building. The powers of taxation, making war and law enforcement were transferred from feudalized vassals to the monarch and his government. Ferdinand and Isabella in Spain rarely called the Cortes into session; the Estates General was summoned even less frequently; only in England was Parliament more assertive. Nevertheless, the great Tudor monarchs, Henry VII, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, all knew how to finesse (manipulate) Parliament for the revenues they needed. Echoing Defensor Pacis (Defender of the Peace) of Marsilius of Padua, who stressed the independent origin and autonomy of secular governments, Jean Bodin (1530-1596) wrote a 1576 treatise, The Six Lives of the Republic, in which he defended the sovereign right of the monarch in his famous quotation that The Sovereign Prince is accountable only to God.

The monarchs used their appointed civil servants whose vision was national and whose loyalty was to the monarch to spread the monarch’s authority throughout the land. In Castile, they were called Corregidores; in England they were called Justices of the Peace; and in France Bailiffs. The goal was to create an administrative bureaucracy, which was uniformly trained in the classical model. Monarchs also began to create standing armies and replace the feudalized knights on horseback. With the advent of gunpowder weapons, cavalry did not disappear, but infantry and artillery became the backbone of the royal armies.

Often, kings hired mercenaries (soldiers for hire), most often from Switzerland and Germany. These professional soldiers fought for pay and were more loyal than vassals - unless the money ran out. Warfare (not to mention bureaucracies) became more expensive with the new technologies, so kings needed new sources of revenue.

The most effective means of increasing revenue was taxation. The French kings taxed sales, hearths, salt (the Gabelle) and the peasants themselves (the Taille); the English taxed hearths, individuals and plow teams; the Spanish used a 10% sales tax called the Alcabala. One major difficulty was the nobility’s complete refusal to be taxed. By custom they were immune from taxes but they refused to even consider the smallest of taxes on themselves. They claimed such taxes would be an insult and humiliation. To raise money rulers also sold public offices, issued government bonds and borrowed from either the rich nobility or the great banking houses such as those of Northern Italy.

France: In the last chapter, we saw how Charles VII (r. 1422-1461) had been made a great king by those who served him, especially by Joan of Arc but it was Jacques Cœur, who built the king a strong economy, diplomatic corps, and loyal bureaucracy. He could do this for two reasons: First, the collapse of the English empire in France as a result of the Hundred Years’ War; and Second, the defeat of Charles the Bold (r. 1467-1477) of Burgundy at the Battle of Nancy in 1477. Burgundy, basically French, was independent and a creature of both the Holy Roman Empire and France. (Remember the Burgundian part of the French army just stood by as their fellow Frenchmen were slaughtered by the English at Agincourt in 1415.) Charles the Bold and his predecessors had wanted to be the French monarchs, but that dream died at Nancy, after which Louis XI of France and Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I divided Burgundy between them. Unfortunately, Louis’ successors tried to grow France by invasions of Italy and power struggles with the Hapsburgs so that by the mid sixteenth century France was again a disorganized and defeated nation.

Spain: the culmination of state building in Spain was achieved by the marriage in 1469 of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, which united the two wealthiest and most important Iberian kingdoms. Under their dual monarchy, they collected taxes from sales to support a powerful standing army and build an efficient bureaucracy. They won the allegiance of the Hermandad, a powerful league of cities and towns that helped them break down the last vestiges of Feudalism. Their grandson, Charles, would not only become Holy Roman Emperor but the first king of a truly united Spain. They were called the Catholic kings because they not only completed the Reconquista in 1492 (absorbing the Moorish kingdom of Granada), but also (under Cardinal de Cisneros) expelled the surviving Moors in 1502. As the sixteenth century dawned, Ferdinand controlled Naples and Sicily; and they (mostly Isabella) sought Asian commercial markets and financed Christopher Columbus to find a western route to China. This resulted in a huge Spanish empire in the Americas that would soon pour tons of gold and silver into the Spanish economy.

England: England’s defeat in the Hundred Years’ War in 1453, left England with only port of Calais but her defeat would soon be followed by a more difficult thirty year period that has come to be called the War of the Roses. The roots of the conflict began with the removal of Richard II in 1399 and the rivalry of two families, the House of York whose symbol was a white rose and the House of Lancaster whose symbol was a red rose. Backed by wealthy towns in southern England, the House of York, headed by Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York, challenged the monarchy of the Henry VI (r. 1422-1461) who was from the house of Lancaster. In 1461, the son of the Duke of York, seized the throne and became Edward IV (r. 1461-1483). Although his rule was heavy handed and lasted more than twenty years (except for a short period between 1470-1471 during which Henry was briefly restored), Edward did much to build to effectiveness of the monarchy.

Edward died in 1483 and his brother, Richard III, usurped the throne from Edward’s son, Edward V. Richard’s reign was troubled and the later Tudor monarchs accused him of murdering Edward’s sons in the Tower of London. Then Henry Tudor, through his mother Margaret Beaufort from the House of Lancaster, was the senior member of the House of Lancaster, returned from exile in Brittany and defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in August of 1485. Henry then ruled as Henry VII (1485-1509) and founded the Tudor Dynasty that would rule England until 1603. Henry VII was the last English king to win his throne – and Richard the last king to die - on the battlefield; and more importantly, in order to bring dynastic peace, Henry married Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV.

Henry brought peace to England and controlled the English nobility by a unique institution known as Star Chamber, a court which had the approval of Parliament and whose function was prevent the nobility from using intimidation and violence to win court cases. Star Chamber was staffed with the king’s judges who were not afraid of the nobility and so brought in a more stable and equitable (fair) court system.

Henry appointed Justices of the Peace on a large, nationwide scale to enforce his authority and the common law, just as his ancestor Henry II did. These justices were appointed for every shire (county) and served for a year. Their chief task was to see that the laws of the country were obeyed in their area. Henry also used Star Chamber to confiscate the land and monies from the nobility and he used that money to run his government and avoid potential conflicts with Parliament over taxation. Henry was the quintessential Machiavellian diplomat who finessed Parliament to get what he wanted and to lay a solid political foundation upon which his son Henry VIII and granddaughter Elizabeth I would build.

The Holy Roman Empire: Germany and Italy stood in stark contrast to England, France and Spain when it came to the process of state building. The history of the empire was one of territorial rulers and cities resisting every effort at imperial unification. Even Charlemagne (more than 600 years previously) had ruled mostly by persuasion and by 1450, Germany was hopelessly divided into about three hundred autonomous (self-ruling) political entities. Nevertheless, territorial princes and imperial cities did work together to create the mechanisms of law and order.

In 1356, the emperor Charles IV had reached an agreement with the major princes and cities called the Golden Bull, which established a seven member electoral college consisting of the archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne; the duke of Saxony; the Margrave of Brandenburg; the Count Palatine; and the King of Bohemia. This college functioned as an administrative body which both elected the emperor and worked with him to provide administrative unity in the empire.

Thus, the emperor became more and more a figurehead and every newly elected emperor had to renegotiate how power would be shared between the electors and himself. Thus the rights of princes were always balanced with the rights and power of the emperor.

In the fifteenth century, an Imperial Diet (or formal deliberative assembly) called the Reichstag was created in an attempt to control quarreling between the imperial princes. The Reichstag consisted of the seven electors, most of the non-elector princes, and representatives from the sixty-five imperial free cities. The cities were the weakest members of the assembly. Nevertheless in 1495, its members convinced Maximilian I to enforce a ban on private warfare and to create both a Supreme Court of Justice (to enforce internal peace) and a Council of Regency (to coordinate imperial and internal policies). These reforms were a step forward in state-building but, compared to France, England and Spain, were a pitifully weak step toward true unity.

The Northern Renaissance

After 1527 and the sack of Rome, Italy began to decline as the center of the Renaissance - mostly because French and Spanish kings had occupied much of Italy and new, expanding Atlantic trade routes were beginning steer much trade (and many $$$) away from the Italian City States. After 1450, Northern Europe caught the spirit of humanism with its emphasis on Greek and Roman literature, culture and art. But the Northern Renaissance was more conservative.

Northern painters, for example, were less daring in depicting the human form and generally more serious about religion, often depicting scenes from hell and purgatory. Yet slowly (and sometimes painfully) humanist ideas merged with religious values. The Brothers of the Common Life, for example, was an influential lay religious movement that began in the Netherlands that permitted men and women to live a shared religious life without making the three traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Thus Northern Humanists developed a culture quite distinctive from Italian Renaissance.

Printing Press: Literacy also contributed to growth of the Northern Renaissance. In 1468, Johannes Gutenberg, a German metalworker and inventor, combined metal-movable type and oil based inks to create the modern printing press and produced rapid printing of written materials. The result was that books became common place and affordable. It also meant that literacy rates began to climb and new ideas began to spread: humanistic, secular and personal. It is important to understand that without people who could think critically, the spread of Renaissance thought would have been at best stunted. Some of the most popular publications stemming from the invention of the printing press, after Bibles printed in the vernacular and religious works, were almanacs discussing subjects from childrearing, farming, weather forecasting and the making of liquors. Finally increased literacy boosted self esteem and encouraged education; ushered in an era of pamphleteering, and weakened both the Church’s and states’ control of people’s thoughts and values.

Erasmus: The most illustrious of the Northern humanists was a theologian and priest, Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536). He was a classical scholar who wrote in a pure Latin style and enjoyed the sobriquet (nickname), Prince of the Humanists. Using humanist techniques for working on texts, he prepared critical new Latin and Greek editions of the New Testament. He was a life-long, loyal Catholic who wanted major reforms in the Church. He was also a teacher who often earned his living by tutoring the children of the wealthy. He authored short Latin dialogues, the Colloquies, which were intended to teach his students how to speak and live well. In them, he also wrote anticlerical dialogues and satires on religious dogmatism. Erasmus also collected and published ancient and contemporary proverbs, which were called the Adages. Some of Erasmus’ most famous Adages are still common today, such as Leave no stone unturned and Where there is smoke, there is fire.

In 1509, Erasmus wrote his most famous work, The Praise of Folly, which was a satirical examination of pious but superstitious abuses of Catholic doctrine and corrupt practices in both the Curia (the central administrative body of the Roman Catholic Church) and among the clergy before ending with a clear and powerful exposition of Christian Ideals. It is filled with classical allusions delivered in a style typical of the learned humanists. Folly parades as a goddess, offspring of Pluto, the god of underworld and a nymph, Freshness. She was nursed by two other nymphs Inebriation and Ignorance, her faithful companions included Philautia (self-love), Kolakia (flattery), Lethe (oblivion), Misoponia (laziness), Hedone (pleasure), Anoia (madness), Tryphe (wantonness – uncontrolled behavior) and two gods, Komos (intemperance) and Egeretos Hypnos (dead sleep). Folly praises herself endlessly, arguing that life would be dull and distasteful without her. It was published in 1511 and dedicated to his friend Sir Thomas Moore.

Erasmus was a true idealist and his goal was to inspire the union of the classical ideals of humanism and civic virtue with the Christian ideals of love and piety. He summarized his own belief in the phrase Philosophia Christi, a simple, ethical piety in imitation of Christ. What offended him most was that both the Catholics and the Protestants were rooted in their own dogmas and, in their competition for the hearts and souls of Christians, had forgotten simple and sincere Christian piety. Nevertheless, both Catholics and Protestants criticized and praised Erasmus’ works and philosophy. At one point, all Erasmus’ works were on the Roman Church’s Index of Forbidden Books and Erasmus and Luther had (after initial sympathy with each other) a falling out over the freedom of human will. But as we shall study in the next chapter, the popular and ironic (supposedly hatched with bitterness by Catholic Counter Reformation) maxim that Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched was correct.

In Germany, the father of German Humanism was Rudolf Agricola (1443-1485) who spent ten years in Italy before he returned to Germany to introduce the new learning. Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523) was a knight and a humanist who gave German humanism both a nationalist sentiment and hostility to non-German culture, especially Italian culture. He admired Luther and Erasmus; and published an edition of Valla’s exposé (bringing to light) of the Donation of Constantine. Von Hutten would later be killed in a knight’s rebellion against German princes.

What brought von Hutten to notoriety [being famous - especially for something bad] was his support of Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522) who was Europe’s foremost authority on Hebrew and Jewish studies and who wrote the first reliable Hebrew grammar. However a converted Jew named Pfefferkorn led a movement to suppress Jewish writings and attacked Reuchlin claiming his work as being unchristian. Von Hutten was at the forefront of German humanists who can to Reuchlin’s defense. When Martin Luther was attacked in 1515 for his famous Ninety-five Theses and its attack on the sale of indulgences, most of the same German humanists also rushed to his defense.

In England, William Grocyn (d. 1519) and Thomas Linacre (d.1524) first introduced humanism in their lectures at Oxford University; Erasmus later lectured at Cambridge and John Colet (1467-1519), dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, was a great patron of humanist studies, especially for the promotion of religious reform. But the most famous of the English humanists was Thomas More (1478-1535) whose best known work was Utopia, which depicted an imaginary society that had overcome all social and political injustice by holding all property and goods in common and requiring every person to earn their own living. More became a trusted counselor of Henry VIII but fell from favor and was executed because he would not support the Act of Supremacy which made Henry head of the Church in England and Henry’s putting away of his queen, Catherine of Aragon, and marrying Anne Boleyn. Like Erasmus, More died a Catholic but still helped lay the framework for the English Reformation.

The French humanist leaders, who encouraged both educational and religious reform, were the Greek scholar, Guillaume Budé (1468-1540), and the biblical scholar Jacques Lefévre d’Etaples (1454-1536). Lefévre especially exemplified the new scholarship and greatly influenced Luther. Another

French humanist was Guillaume Briconnet (1470-1533), Bishop of Meaux, who cultivated a generation of reform-minded young humanists including John Calvin, and who opposed any break from the Catholic Church harshly condemning Martin Luther. His followers became known as the Meaux Circle which emphasized the study of the Bible and a return to the theology of the early Church.

Spanish humanism was thoroughly sublimated [under the control of] to the Catholic Kings and the Roman Catholic Church. The key figure was Francisco Jimenez de Cisneros (1437-1517), who as confessor to Queen Isabella and after 1508 the Grand Inquisitor, held a position in which he enforce the strictest Roman Catholic orthodoxy upon Spain and its people. He founded the University of Alcalá near Madrid in 1509 and used the new learning to reform and to reinforce the Roman Catholic practice of religion. His greatest literary achievement was the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, a six volume work that placed Latin, Greek and Hebrew texts in parallel columns.

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