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Why Renaissance? Why Florence?

Jon Cook identifies the mix of factors that helps explain the Florentine Renaissance.

When Edmund Blackadder memorably lamented, ‘Baldrick, to you the Renaissance was just something that happened to other people’, it was probably the citizens of Florence to whom he was referring. For nowhere else were the ingredients that enabled the Renaissance to flourish – a politically-active citizenry, a vigorous humanist movement and abundant wealth – better blended. It is these ingredients, in Italy in general and in Florence in particular, that are the subject of this essay.


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.

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