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The Italian city-states were a remarkable political phenomenon of small independent states in the northern Italian peninsula between the tenth and fifteenth centuries. After antiquity this was the second period in European history in which the city became the locus of political power and citizenship.
After the fall of Roman Empire there was a strong continuity of urban awareness in northern Italy which had virtually disappeared in the rest of Europe. Some cities and their urban institutions had survived in Italy since the Dark Ages. Many of these towns were survivors of earlier Etruscan and Roman towns which had existed within the Roman Empire. The republican institutions of Rome had also survived. Some feudal lords existed with a servile labour force and huge tracts of land, but by the 11th century, many cities, including Venice, Milan, Florence Pisa, Siena and Genoa, had become large trading metropolises, able to conquer independence from their formal sovereigns.
Difference from northern Europe
Between the 12th and 13th centuries, Italy was vastly different from feudal Europe north of the Alps. The Peninsula was a melange of political and cultural elements rather than a unified state.
Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel have argued that geography determined the history of the region, other scholars however emphasize the absence of central political structures. The very mountainous nature of Italy's landscape was a barrier to effective inter-city communication. The Po plain however, was an exception: it was the only large contiguous area, and most city states that fell to invasion were located there. Those that survived the longest were in the more rugged regions, such as Florence or Venice, which was protected by its lagoon. The rugged terrain of the Alps prevented the German Princes from attacking Northern Italy, safeguarding the country from German political control. For these reasons, no strong monarchies emerged as they did in the rest of Europe; instead there emerged the independent city-state.
While those 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 in addition to many others such as Genoa, Bologna and Verona, which had over 50,000 inhabitants)
*the rebuilding of the great cathedrals
*substantial 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 revolution
*the development of commerce
In recent writing on the city states Rodney Stark emphasizes that they married responsive government, Christianity and the birth of capitalism . He argues that these states were mostly republics unlike the great European monarchies of France and Spain with absolute power vested in rulers who could and did stifle commerce. Keeping both direct Church control and imperial power at arms length the independent city republics prospered throuh commerce based on early capitalist principles ultimately creating the conditions for the artistic and intellectual changes produced by the Renaissance.
Cambridge University historian and political philosopher Quentin Skinner has pointed out that Otto of Freising (c. 1114 - 1158), a German bishop visited central Italy during the 12th century and commented that Italian towns had appeared to have exited from Feudalism so that their society was based on merchants and commerce. Even northern cities and states were also notable for their merchant Republics, especially the Republic of Venice . Compared to absolutist monarchies or other more centrally controlled states the Italian communes and commercial republics enjoyed relative political freedom conducive to academic and artistic advancement. Geographically, and because of trade, Italian cities such as Venice became international trading and banking hubs and intellectual crossroads.
In his discussion of the "financial history of the world" Harvard historian Niall Ferguson points out that Florence and Venice, but also several other Italian city states played a crucial innovative role in world financial developments, devising the main instruments and practices of banking and the emergence of new forms of social and economic organization.
It is estimated that the per capita income of northern Italy nearly tripled from the 11th century to the 15th century. This was a highly mobile, demographically expanding society, fueled by the rapidly expanding Renaissance commerce.
Literacy and numeracy
By the 13th century, northern and central Italy had become the most literate society in the world. More than one third of male population could read in the vernacular (an unprecedented rate since the decline of the Western Roman Empire), as could a small but significant proportion of women. The Italian city states were also highly numerate, given the importance of the new forms of bookkeeping that were essential to the trading and mercantile basis of society. Some of the most widely circulating books, such as the Liber Abaci by Leonardo of Pisa Fibonacci included applications to business practice of mathematics and artithmetic. or were business manuals based on sophisticated numeracy and literacy.
During the 11th century in northern Italy a new political and social structure emerged ― the city-state or commune. The civic culture which arose from this ''urbs'' was remarkable. In most places where communes arose (e.g. Britain and Flanders) they were absorbed by the monarchical state as it emerged. Almost uniquely, they survived in northern and central Italy to become independent and powerful city-states. The breakaway from their feudal overlords by these communes occurred in the late 12th century and 13th century, during the Investiture Controversy between the Pope and the Emperor: Milan led the Lombard cities against the Holy Roman Emperors and defeated them, gaining independence (battles of Legnano, 1176, and Parma, 1248 - see Lombard League). Meanwhile Venice and Genoa were able to conquer their naval empires on the Mediterranean sea (1204 Venice conquered one-fourth of Byzantine Empire see Fourth Crusade).
By the late 12th century, a new and unique society had emerged; rich, mobile, expanding, with a mixed aristocracy, interested in urban institutions and republican government. But many city-states housed also a violent society based on family, confraternity and brotherhood, who under-mined their cohesion (see Guelphs and Ghibellines).
By 1300, most of these republics had become princely states dominated by a Signore. The exceptions were Venice, Florence, Lucca, and a few others, which remained republics in the face of an increasingly monarchic Europe.
During 14th century and 15th century the most powerful of these cities (Milan, Venice, Florence) were able to conquer the other weaker city-states, creating regional states. The 1454 Peace of Lodi ended their struggle for the hegemony in Italy and started a policy of balance of power (see Italian Renaissance).
At the beginning of 16th century, apart some minor city-states like Lucca or San Marino, only the republican Venice was able to preserve her independence and to match the European monarchies of France and Spain and the Ottoman Empire (see Italian Wars).