Politically, Italy was different from the rest of Europe. Whereas elsewhere monarchs ruled their kingdoms as God’s representatives on earth, most of the Italian peninsula (Naples and the Papal States were exceptions) consisted of city-states in which power was shared between a greater or lesser number of the inhabitants. Political life was therefore a good deal more complicated in Florence, Milan, Venice, Siena, and their like than it was in the feudal world of oath-making and obligation.
In Italy, politics was a colourful and often bloody business. Within cities, the leading family or families held power and were prepared to use every means from ballot rigging to political assassination in their bid to keep it. But, despite such chicanery, political fortunes could fall as well as rise: challenges came sometimes from the guilds who were the rulers’ social inferiors and at other times from jealous members of the rulers’ own class who might find themselves excluded from a share of political power. Between cities, rivalry was every bit as intense, as states, armed with the muscle of hired mercenaries, squabbled with one another for control of the countryside that separated them. Such was the volatile nature of Italian politics that it was not unknown for mercenary servants of city-states to become their masters, as the troubled history of 15th-century Milan suggests.
It was in such a dynamic political atmosphere that the Italian city-states nurtured the great intellectual movement of the Renaissance: humanism. Insofar as humanism consisted of a study of classical remains and classical texts, it was not new: medieval scholars had done plenty of that, especially in Italy, where the relics of the classical past lay literally all around. But whereas medieval thinkers had scrutinised antiquity for signs of a divine plan that vindicated the teachings of the church, what 15th-century humanists believed – and this was new – was that classical civilisation was altogether different from, and superior to, medieval times in the way it looked at the world.
With this belief came a realisation among the humanists that what they read and learned of the classical period had a practical value for their own lives. Hence, without renouncing Christianity, they strove to imitate and then to surpass their classical ancestors in government, in art, in literature, in building and so on. To rulers seeking to legitimise their political control in an uncertain world, or to architects trying to build a brighter one, classical examples had much to teach.
As a further contrast with the medieval period from which they were conscious they were emerging – a world in which scholars had been cloistered and thought had been theocentric – humanists often combined their studies with active political careers. Thus ‘civic humanism’ argued that antiquity demonstrated that the pursuit of wealth was not automatically to be condemned since it could be used for the benefit of the community. To merchants whose accumulated riches tweaked their consciences and contravened Christian teaching, beliefs like these were attractive indeed.
For such ideas to be put into practice, one commodity above all was required: money. And nowhere else in Europe was there more of it than in Italy, a society full of rich guilds, rich cities ruled by rich merchants, and rich popes. Europe in the 15th century depended on Italy for much of its commerce, and on this the guilds and merchants grew wealthy. It was this wealth that made patronage of the arts possible.