The Renaissance started in the 14th century and went on to the 17th century (Carney). It is an age in Europe widely considered to be the link between modern history and The Middle Ages (Carney). The Renaissance was a period marked by the proliferation of cities and forms of government that thrived greatly in Europe. Countries and states grew so much due to trade amongst themselves. Consequently, as a result of the lots of contacts between different cultures, many ideas also grew. Initially, trade took place along coastal centers. This soon changed as trade and commerce found its way inland through the principal trade routes (Carney). The Renaissance, as a movement and period in history, is widely regarded to have begun in Italy. This is mainly because of its strategic location between the western parts of Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean shores. Many of the cities in Italy were critical to the trade that occurred in Europe and Asia at the time. It was natural, then, that Italian cities grew and became wealthy; thus sustaining the social and political changes which took place at the time.
The Renaissance is a period that is synonymous with the rise of Florence, an Italian City (Shaw 10). This was a city that largely grew due to the family fortunes of such families as the Medici family (Carney). A large part of this wealth was made in industry and banking. Florence was at the center of this; being Italys banking center in the 14th century. The Medici Family, established the Medici Bank in Florence. With growing profits, they soon set up branches in other cities across Europe. The huge profits that came in from the bank were used in financing political and cultural activities (Bizer). With time, however, other countries began organizing their governing bodies. Countries such as France, England, and Spain consolidated their power and challenged Italys economic power. This was as a result of the policies that they established and were advantageous to tradesmen who were comprised of the middle class. Thus, the Italian middlemen lost out the huge profits they used to make previously.
Italy had other city states such as Rome, Milan, and Venice (Skinner). Florence encouraged democratic ideals. It was admired for that. Behind the other city states were wealthy families like the Medicis (Skinner). Such families were powerful and often sought expansion of their territories. There was always competition and lots of wars between the city states.
According to Shaw (2000), the renaissance was a time when political exiles were many. The states that banished these exiles often got concerned for many reasons amongst them, the fact that they would be instruments that other governments would use to interfere with their internal affairs; both political and economic. 15th Century Italy saw lots of exiles and such intrigues in political power. There were often high stakes involved with regards to political action and political authority.
One of the then government officers who often got himself exiled was Niccolo Machiavelli (Goodwin and Machiavell). He was born in 1469. He saw the problems that many of the Italian city states went through. Many of Italys city states became vulnerable as other European powers grew in strength while they remained divided and governed by different families (Goodwin and Machiavelli). Some parts of Italy democratized and some became Republics. Even so, other states were ruled by dictators. The corrupt Alexander Borgia became Pope and appropriated funds of the church to his family. While his son was a war-mongering fellow, the daughter Lucrezia moved from one husband to another; rumored to have had them killed via poisoning in order to inherit their wealth. Machiavelli, served as an adviser to the family for a given time. He had grown tired of the instability that he had seen through the years across Italy (Goodwin and Machiavelli). As such, he deemed it fit to support the Borgia Family in seizing as well as retention of power.
Machiavelli came up with his own theory for effective governance. It became known as The Prince (Goodwin and Machiavelli). His basis for the ideal Prince was Cesare Borgia. From this premise, he indicated that good rulers did not have to be good. They had to learn not to be like that and would have to be ready to put aside all ethical concerns and values such as kindness, honesty, and justice so as to effectively maintain the stability of their states or regions they governed. While it had been believed that Kings were individuals picked by God to serve Him here on Earth by upholding his law and ensuring justice on his people, Machiavelli dismissed this. According to him, such ideals as justice and the law had to be bypassed at times in order to maintain stability and leadership of a state. Cesare Borgia did as Machiavelli prescribed. To him, it was better to be feared than loved. Additionally, Machiavelli dictates in his theory that preparations for war should always be a leaders primary occupation. He indicates that the preemptive and constant action prevents other people from thinking about seizing control from the ideal Prince.
The precedence for the political changes that occurred during the Renaissance was set following the collapse of the mighty Roman Empire. This was around 500 AD. What remained after that was the Roman Catholic Church to unify the people. Self-preservation became a primary focus and pre-occupation of leaders of the time (Bizer). Thus, such leaders accumulated wealth, many cities, as mentioned above, grew and the previously agricultural life transformed into city life. This is because there were lots of jobs in cities. The growth of urban populations meant that more people were available to be taxed and fund expansions abroad.
In the medieval era, the Holy Roman Emperor was the political head of most of Europe (Shaw). The Pope was the Spiritual head. This changed when the Empire fell. There soon came the papal exile and the decline in the powers of the Pope. While Italians had City States, other parts of Europe such as France and England had Kingdoms. Monarchies thrived over nobilities. This was largely because the monarchs realized the power that trade had as opposed to land ownership and land owners by noble families.
While many cities were autonomous during the Renaissance and each had a different structure of governance, Venices was amongst the most elaborate (Shaw). There was a well-defined hierarchy. There was a closed nobility caste at the top, followed by the broader pile of citizens and finally, the plebians who formed the bottom of the structure. Only members of the nobility held power. They were responsible for public building as well as public spectacle. This meant that they defined the virtues to be upheld in the states. There was order as a result of this. The other city to maintain an elaborate structure was Florence. The Medici Family dominated. They maintained the virtues of the city and were ambitious. They loved art and commissioned the painting of several art pieces in Florence.
While there was independence within Italys city states, this was not the case in centralized monarchies such as England. When Renaissance ideas reached Spain, the upper classes were prosperous. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella put in place measures for religious domination during this time. Their aim was for the country to be fully Catholic. The consequence of this is that other religious groups such as Moslems, Moors, as well as Jews, faced persecution or expulsion from Spain.
Spain engaged in exploration of trade routes to reach India among other places. Voyages by Christopher Columbus are some of the main voyages funded by the state. France and England were affected during the Renaissance. They had war from 1337 to 1453. Apart from the wars between the two nations, there were power struggles amongst nobilities. While England was lesser in population as compared to France, the more centralized control that the King had over noble families meant that the nation could fund wars. Even so, France won the war and soon there was rebuilding to be done by each nation which soon built an environment for the proliferation of art and literature; most notably that of William Shakespeare. He wrote several sonnets and plays that are celebrated to date. It was during Queen Elizabeth Is reign that this enrichment of culture happened.
Bizer, Marc. Homer and the Politics of Authority in Renaissance France. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Carney, Eldridge Jo. Renaissance and Reformation, 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001.
Goodwin, Rufus and Niccolo Machiavelli. The Prince. Boston: Dante University Press, 2003.
Semenza, Gregory M. C. Sport, Politics, and Literature in the English Renaissance. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2003.
Shaw, Christine. The Politics of Exile in Renaissance Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Skinner, Quentin. Visions of Politics: Renaissance Virtues. - Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
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