Italian Trade Cities

Italian city-states trading during the late Middle Ages set the stage for the Renaissance by moving resources, culture, and knowledge from the East.

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Learning Objectives

Show how Northern Italy and the wealthy city-states within it became such huge European powers


Key Takeaways

Key PointsWhile Northern Italy was not richer in resources than many other parts of Europe, the level of development, stimulated by trade, allowed it to prosper. In particular, Florence became one of the wealthiest cities in Northern Italy.Florence became the center of this financial industry, and the gold florin became the main currency of international trade.Luxury goods bought in the Levant, such as spices, dyes, and silks, were imported to Italy and then resold throughout Europe.The Italian trade routes that covered the Mediterranean and beyond were also major conduits of culture and knowledge.Key TermsVitruvius: A Roman author, architect, and civil engineer (born c. 80–70 BC, died after c. 15 BCE), perhaps best known for his multi-volume work entitled De Architectura.Hanseatic League: A commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and their market towns that dominated trade along the coast of Northern Europe.Tacitus: A senator and a historian of the Roman Empire (c. 56–after 117 CE).Levant: The countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean Sea.city-state: A political phenomenon of small independent states mostly in the central and northern Italian peninsula between the 9th and 15th centuries.

Prosperous City-States

During the late Middle Ages, Northern and Central Italy became far more prosperous than the south of Italy, with the city-states, such as Venice and Genoa, among the wealthiest in Europe. The Crusades had built lasting trade links to the Levant, and the Fourth Crusade had done much to destroy the Byzantine Roman Empire as a commercial rival to the Venetians and Genoese.

The main trade routes from the east passed through the Byzantine Empire or the Arab lands and onwards to the ports of Genoa, Pisa, and Venice. Luxury goods bought in the Levant, such as spices, dyes, and silks, were imported to Italy and then resold throughout Europe. Moreover, the inland city-states profited from the rich agricultural land of the Po valley.

From France, Germany, and the Low Countries, through the medium of the Champagne fairs, land and river trade routes brought goods such as wool, wheat, and precious metals into the region. The extensive trade that stretched from Egypt to the Baltic generated substantial surpluses that allowed significant investment in mining and agriculture.

Thus, while Northern Italy was not richer in resources than many other parts of Europe, the level of development, stimulated by trade, allowed it to prosper. In particular, Florence became one of the wealthiest cities in Northern Italy, due mainly to its woolen textile production, developed under the supervision of its dominant trade guild, the Arte della Lana. Wool was imported from Northern Europe (and in the 16th century from Spain), and together with dyes from the east was used to make high quality textiles.

Revitalizing Trade Routes

In the 13th century, much of Europe experienced strong economic growth. The trade routes of the Italian states linked with those of established Mediterranean ports, and eventually the Hanseatic League of the Baltic and northern regions of Europe, to create a network economy in Europe for the first time since the 4th century. The city-states of Italy expanded greatly during this period, and grew in power to become de facto fully independent of the Holy Roman Empire; apart from the Kingdom of Naples, outside powers kept their armies out of Italy. During this period, the modern commercial infrastructure developed, with double-entry bookkeeping, joint stock companies, an international banking system, a systematized foreign exchange market, insurance, and government debt. Florence became the center of this financial industry, and the gold florin became the main currency of international trade.

While Roman urban republican sensibilities persisted, there were many movements and changes afoot. Italy first felt the changes in Europe from the 11th to the 13th centuries. Typically there was:

A rise in population―the population doubled in this period (the demographic explosion)An emergence of huge cities (Venice, Florence, and Milan had over 100,000 inhabitants by the 13th century, and many others, such as Genoa, Bologna, and Verona, had over 50,000)Rebuilding of the great cathedralsSubstantial migration from country to city (in Italy the rate of urbanization reached 20%, making it the most urbanized society in the world at that time)An agrarian revolutionDevelopment of commerce

The decline of feudalism and the rise of cities influenced each other; for example, the demand for luxury goods led to an increase in trade, which led to greater numbers of tradesmen becoming wealthy, who, in turn, demanded more luxury goods.


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Palazzo della Signoria e Uffizzi, Florence: Florence was one of the most important city-states in Italy.


The Transfer of Culture and Knowledge

The Italian trade routes that covered the Mediterranean and beyond were also major conduits of culture and knowledge. The recovery of lost Greek texts, which had been preserved by Arab scholars, following the Crusader conquest of the Byzantine heartlands revitalized medieval philosophy in the Renaissance of the 12th century. Additionally, Byzantine scholars migrated to Italy during and following the Ottoman conquest of the Byzantines between the 12th and 15th centuries, and were important in sparking the new linguistic studies of the Renaissance, in newly created academies in Florence and Venice. Humanist scholars searched monastic libraries for ancient manuscripts and recovered Tacitus and other Latin authors. The rediscovery of Vitruvius meant that the architectural principles of Antiquity could be observed once more, and Renaissance artists were encouraged, in the atmosphere of humanist optimism, to excel the achievements of the Ancients, like Apelles, of whom they read.

Venice and the Ottoman Empire: Crash Course World History #19: John Green discusses the strange and mutually beneficial relationship between a republic, the city-state of Venice, and an Empire, the Ottomans—and how studying history can help you to be a better boyfriend and/or girlfriend. Together, the Ottoman Empire and Venice grew wealthy by facilitating trade: The Venetians had ships and nautical expertise; the Ottomans had access to many of the most valuable goods in the world, especially pepper and grain. Working together across cultural and religious divides, they both become very rich, and the Ottomans became one of the most powerful political entities in the world.

Italian Politics

Italian politics during the time of the Renaissance was dominated by the rising merchant class, especially one family, the House of Medici, whose power in Florence was nearly absolute.


Key Takeaways

Key PointsNorthern and Central Italy became prosperous in the late Middle Ages through the growth of international trade and the rise of the merchant class, who eventually gained almost complete control of the governments of the Italian city-states.A popular explanation for the Italian Renaissance is the thesis that the primary impetus of the early Renaissance was the long-running series of wars between Florence and Milan, whereby the leading figures of Florence rallied the people by presenting the war as one between the free republic and a despotic monarchy.The House of Medici was an Italian banking family, political dynasty, and later royal house in Florence who were the major sponsors of art and architecture in the early and High Renaissance.Key TermsHouse of Medici: An Italian banking family, political dynasty, and later royal house in the Republic of Florence during the first half of the 15th century that had a major impact on the rise of the Italian Renaissance.Hundred Years’ War: A series of conflicts waged from 1337 to 1453 by the House of Plantagenet, rulers of the Kingdom of England, against the House of Valois, rulers of the Kingdom of France, for control of the Kingdom of France.

Italy in the Late Middle Ages

By the Late Middle Ages (circa 1300 onward), Latium, the former heartland of the Roman Empire, and southern Italy were generally poorer than the north. Rome was a city of ancient ruins, and the Papal States were loosely administered and vulnerable to external interference such as that of France, and later Spain. The papacy was affronted when the Avignon Papacy was created in southern France as a consequence of pressure from King Philip the Fair of France. In the south, Sicily had for some time been under foreign domination, by the Arabs and then the Normans. Sicily had prospered for 150 years during the Emirate of Sicily, and later for two centuries during the Norman Kingdom and the Hohenstaufen Kingdom, but had declined by the late Middle Ages.

The Rise of the Merchant Class

In contrast, Northern and Central Italy had become far more prosperous, and it has been calculated that the region was among the richest in Europe. The new mercantile governing class, who gained their position through financial skill, adapted to their purposes the feudal aristocratic model that had dominated Europe in the Middle Ages. A feature of the High Middle Ages in Northern Italy was the rise of the urban communes, which had broken from the control of bishops and local counts. In much of the region, the landed nobility was poorer than the urban patriarchs in the high medieval money economy, whose inflationary rise left land-holding aristocrats impoverished. The increase in trade during the early Renaissance enhanced these characteristics.

This change also gave the merchants almost complete control of the governments of the Italian city-states, again enhancing trade. One of the most important effects of this political control was security. Those that grew extremely wealthy in a feudal state ran constant risk of running afoul of the monarchy and having their lands confiscated, as famously occurred to Jacques Coeur in France. The northern states also kept many medieval laws that severely hampered commerce, such as those against usury and prohibitions on trading with non-Christians. In the city-states of Italy, these laws were repealed or rewritten.

The 14th century saw a series of catastrophes that caused the European economy to go into recession, including the Hundred Years’ War, the Black Death, and numerous famines. It was during this period of instability that the Renaissance authors such as Dante and Petrarch lived, and the first stirrings of Renaissance art were to be seen, notably in the realism of Giotto. Paradoxically, some of these disasters would help establish the Renaissance. The Black Death wiped out a third of Europe’s population. The resulting labor shortage increased wages, and the reduced population was therefore much wealthier and better fed, and, significantly, had more surplus money to spend on luxury goods. As incidences of the plague began to decline in the early 15th century, Europe’s devastated population once again began to grow. The new demand for products and services also helped create a growing class of bankers, merchants, and skilled artisans.

Warring Italians

Northern Italy and upper Central Italy were divided into a number of warring city-states, the most powerful being Milan, Florence, Pisa, Siena, Genoa, Ferrara, Mantua, Verona, and Venice. High medieval Northern Italy was further divided by the long-running battle for supremacy between the forces of the papacy and of the Holy Roman Empire; each city aligned itself with one faction or the other, yet was divided internally between the two warring parties, Guelfs and Ghibellines. Warfare between the states was common, but invasion from outside Italy was confined to intermittent sorties of Holy Roman emperors. Renaissance politics developed from this background. Since the 13th century, as armies became primarily composed of mercenaries, prosperous city-states could field considerable forces, despite their low populations. In the course of the 15th century, the most powerful city-states annexed their smaller neighbors. Florence took Pisa in 1406, Venice captured Padua and Verona, and the Duchy of Milan annexed a number of nearby areas, including Pavia and Parma.

A popular explanation for the Italian Renaissance is the thesis, first advanced by historian Hans Baron, that the primary impetus of the early Renaissance was the long-running series of wars between Florence and Milan. By the late 14th century, Milan had become a centralized monarchy under the control of the Visconti family. Giangaleazzo Visconti, who ruled the city from 1378 to 1402, was renowned both for his cruelty and for his abilities, and set about building an empire in Northern Italy. He launched a long series of wars, with Milan steadily conquering neighboring states and defeating the various coalitions led by Florence that sought in vain to halt the advance. This culminated in the 1402 siege of Florence, when it looked as though the city was doomed to fall, before Giangaleazzo suddenly died and his empire collapsed.

Baron’s thesis suggests that during these long wars, the leading figures of Florence rallied the people by presenting the war as one between the free republic and a despotic monarchy, between the ideals of the Greek and Roman Republics and those of the Roman Empire and medieval kingdoms. For Baron, the most important figure in crafting this ideology was Leonardo Bruni. This time of crisis in Florence was the period when the most influential figures of the early Renaissance were coming of age, such as Ghiberti, Donatello, Masolino, and Brunelleschi. Inculcated with this republican ideology, they later went on to advocate republican ideas that were to have an enormous impact on the Renaissance.

The Medici Family

The House of Medici was an Italian banking family, political dynasty, and later royal house that first began to gather prominence under Cosimo de’ Medici in the Republic of Florence during the first half of the 15th century. The family originated in the Mugello region of the Tuscan countryside, gradually rising until they were able to fund the Medici Bank. The bank was the largest in Europe during the 15th century, which helped the Medici gain political power in Florence—though officially they remained citizens rather than monarchs. The biggest accomplishments of the Medici were in the sponsorship of art and architecture, mainly early and High Renaissance art and architecture. The Medici were responsible for the majority of Florentine art during their reign.

Their wealth and influence initially derived from the textile trade guided by the guild of the Arte della Lana. Like other signore families, they dominated their city’s government, they were able to bring Florence under their family’s power, and they created an environment where art and Humanism could flourish. They, along with other families of Italy, such as the Visconti and Sforza of Milan, the Este of Ferrara, and the Gonzaga of Mantua, fostered and inspired the birth of the Italian Renaissance. The Medici family was connected to most other elite families of the time through marriages of convenience, partnerships, or employment, so the family had a central position in the social network. Several families had systematic access to the rest of the elite families only through the Medici, perhaps similar to banking relationships.

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The Medici Bank was one of the most prosperous and most respected institutions in Europe. There are some estimates that the Medici family were the wealthiest family in Europe for a time. From this base, they acquired political power initially in Florence and later in wider Italy and Europe. A notable contribution to the profession of accounting was the improvement of the general ledger system through the development of the double-entry bookkeeping system for tracking credits and debits. The Medici family were among the earliest businesses to use the system.

Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici was the first of the Medici political dynasty, and had tremendous political power in Florence. Despite his influence, his power was not absolute; Florence’s legislative councils at times resisted his proposals, something that would not have been tolerated by the Visconti of Milan, for instance. Throughout his life he was always primus inter pares, or first among equals. His power over Florence stemmed from his wealth, which he used to control votes. As Florence was proud of its “democracy,” Medici pretended to have little political ambition, and did not often hold public office. Aeneas Sylvius, Bishop of Siena and later Pope Pius II, said of him, “Political questions are settled in house. The man he chooses holds office… He it is who decides peace and war… He is king in all but name.”