The Italian Renaissance & Foreign Domination

After 1300 both the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire turned their attention away from Italy. The emperors concentrated on German affairs while the popes met increasing resistance -especially from the French- as they tried to assert their authority in Europe. For much of the 14th century the papacy was situated outside Italy, at Avignon, in southern France.

Simultaneous with the weakening of papal and imperial authority great intellectual changes took place in Italy. An intellectual revival, stimulated in part by the freer atmosphere of the cities and in part by the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Latin writings, gave rise to the humanist attitudes and ideas that formed the basis of the Renaissance. About the same time, many of the communal governments of the city-states fell under the rule of dictators called "signori", who curbed their factionalism and became hereditary rulers. In Milan the Visconti family rose to power in the 13th century, to be succeeded by the Sforza family in the mid-15th century, a few decades after the Medici family had seized control of Florence. Meanwhile the Este family ruled Ferrara from the 13th through the 16th century. Although they subverted the political institutions of the communes, the signori (who became known as principi, with royal titles) were instrumental in advancing the cultural and civic life of Renaissance Italy. Under the patronage of the Medici, for example, Florence became the most magnificent and prestigious center of the arts in Italy. During the 14th and 15th centuries, Italian ideas and style influenced all of Europe.

As the larger cities expanded into the surrounding countryside, absorbing many of the smaller cities, they involved themselves in the complex international politics of the age. The frequent wars between city-states brought to Italy the mercenary leaders known as the Condottieri and ultimately resulted in foreign intervention. In 1494, Charles VIII of France invaded Italy, marking the beginning of a period of foreign occupation that lasted until the 19th century. By 1550 almost all of Italy had been subjugated by the Habsburg ruler Charles V, who was both the Holy Roman emperor and king of Spain. When Charles abdicated in 1555-56, dividing the Habsburg territories between his brother Emperor Ferdinand I and his son Philip II of Spain, Italy was part of the latter's inheritance. Spain remained the dominant power in Italy until Austria replaced it after the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14).

In the 18th century some areas of Italy achieved independence. Savoy (the Kingdom of Sardinia after 1720) annexed Sardinia and portions of Lombardy. In 1735 the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies became an independent monarchy under the junior branch of the Spanish Bourbon dynasty. Italy itself, however, no longer played a central role in European politics.

Created: November 1996
Updated: 04/07/01
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