We have followed Petrarch and Boccaccio through Italy. But politically there was no Italy; there were only city-states, fragments free to consume themselves in hate and war. Pisa destroyed its commercial rival Amalfi; Milan destroyed Piacenza; Genoa and Florence destroyed Pisa; Venice destroyed Genoa; and half of Europe would join most of Italy to destroy Venice. The collapse of central government in the barbarian invasions, the “Gothic War” of the sixth century, the Lombard-Byzantine dichotomy of the peninsula, the decay of the Roman roads, the contest of Lombards and popes, the conflict of papacy and Empire, the papal fear that one secular power sovereign from the Alps to Sicily would make the pope a prisoner, subjecting the spiritual head of Europe to the political leader of a state: all these had wrought the disunity of Italy. Partisans of the popes and partisans of the emperors not only divided Italy, they split almost every city into Guelf and Ghibelline; and even when that strife subsided the old labels were used by new rivalries, and the lava of hate flowed into all the avenues of life. If Ghibellines wore feathers on one side of their caps, Guelfs wore them on the other; if Ghibellines cut fruit crosswise, Guelfs cut it straight down; if Ghibellines wore white roses, Guelfs wore red. In Crema the Ghibellines of Milan tore a statue of Christ from a church altar and burned it becaused its face was turned in what was considered a Guelf direction; in Ghibelline Bergamo some Calabrians were murdered by their hosts, who discovered from their way of eating garlic that they were Guelfs.60 The timid weakness of individuals, the insecurity of groups, and the delusion of superiority generated perpetual fear, suspicion, dislike, and contempt of the different, the alien, and the strange.
Out of these impediments to unity rose the Italian city-state. Men thought in terms of their city, and only a few philosophers like Machiavelli, or a poet like Petrarch, could think of Italy as a whole; even in the sixteenth century Cellini would refer to Florentines as “men of our nation,” and to Florence as “my fatherland.” Petrarch, freed by foreign residence from a merely local patriotism, mourned the petty wars and divisions of his native country, and in an eloquent ode—Italia Mia!— besought the princes of Italy to give her unity and peace.
O my own Italy!—though words are vain
The mortal wounds to close
Innumerable that thy bosom stain—
Yet may it soothe my pain
To sing of Tiber’s woes
And Arno’s wrongs, as on Po’s saddened shore
Mournful I wander, and my numbers pour….
Oh, is this not the soil my foot first pressed?
And here, in cradled rest
Was I not softly hushed and fondly reared?
Oh, is not this my country—so endeared
By every filial tie—
In whose earth shrouded both my parents lie?
Oh, by this tender thought
Your hard hearts to some pity wrought,
Look on the people’s grief,
Who, under God, of you expect relief,
And, if ye but relent,
Virtue shall rouse her in embattled might,
Against blind fury bent,
Nor long shall doubtful hang the unequal fight.
No, no! The ancient flame
Is not extinguished yet, that raised the Italian name!
Petrarch had dreamed that Rienzo might make Italy one; when that bubble burst he turned like Dante to the head of the Holy Roman Empire, theoretically the secular heir to all the temporal powers of the pagan Roman Empire in the West. Soon after Rienzo’s retirement (1347) Petrarch addressed a stirring message to Charles IV, King of Bohemia and, as “King of the Romans,” heir apparent to the Imperial throne. Let the King come down to Rome and be crowned emperor, the poet pleaded; let him make Rome, not Prague, his capital; let him restore unity, order, and peace to “the garden of the Empire”—Italy.61 When Charles crossed the Alps in 1354 he invited Petrarch to meet him at Mantua, and listened courteously to appeals echoing the impassioned pleas of Dante to Charles’s grandfather Henry VII. But Charles, having no force adequate to conquer all the despots of Lombardy and all the citizens of Florence and Venice, hurried to Rome, got himself crowned by a papal prefect for lack of a pope, and then hastened back to Bohemia, sedulously selling Imperial vicariates on the way. Two years later Petrarch went to him in Prague as Milanese ambassador, but with no significant results for Italy.
Perhaps there would have been no Renaissance if Petrarch had had his way. The fragmentation of Italy favored the Renaissance. Large states promote order and power rather than liberty or art. The commercial rivalry of the Italian cities inaugurated and completed the work of the Crusades in developing the economy and wealth of Italy. The variety of political centers multiplied interurban strife, but these modest conflicts never totaled the death and destruction caused in France by the Hundred Years’ War. Local independence weakened the capacity of Italy to defend herself against foreign invasion, but it generated a noble rivalry of the cities and princes in cultural patronage, in the zeal to excel in architecture, sculpture, painting, education, scholarship, poetry. Renaissance Italy, like Goethe’s Germany, had many Parises.
We need not exaggerate, to appreciate, the degree in which Petrarch and Boccaccio prepared the Renaissance. Both were still mortgaged to medieval ideas. The great storyteller, in his lusty youth, laughed at clerical immorality and relicmongering, but so had millions of medieval men and women; and he became more orthodox and medieval in those very years in which he studied Greek. Petrarch properly and prophetically described himself as standing between two eras.62 He accepted the dogmas of the Church even while he flayed the morals of Avignon; he loved the classics with a troubled conscience at the close of the Age of Faith as Jerome had loved them at its opening; he wrote excellent medieval essays on contempt of the secular world and on the holy peace of the religious life. Nevertheless, he was more faithful to the classics than to Laura; he sought and cherished ancient manuscripts, and inspired others to do the same; he overleaped nearly all medieval authors except Augustine to regain continuity with Latin literature; he formed his manner and style on Virgil and Cicero; and he thought more of the fame of his name than of the immortality of his soul. His poems fostered a century of artificial sonneteering in Italy, but they helped to mold the sonnets of Shakespeare. His eager spirit passed down to Pico, his polished form to Politian; his letters and essays threw a bridge of classical urbanity and grace between Seneca and Montaigne; his reconciliation of antiquity and Christianity matured in Popes Nicholas V and Leo X. He was truly, in these ways, the Father of the Renaissance.
But again it would be an error to overrate the contributions of antiquity to this Italian apogee. It was a fullfillment rather than a revolution, and the medieval maturation played a far greater role than the recovery of classic manuscripts and art. Many medieval scholars had known and loved the pagan classics; it was the monks who had preserved them; it was clerics who in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries had translated or edited them. The great universities had since 1100 passed down to the youth of Europe some measure of the mental and moral heritage of the race. The growth of a critical philosophy in Erigena and Abelard, the introduction of Aristotle and Averroes into university curriculums, the brave proposal of Aquinas to prove nearly all Christian dogmas by reason, so soon followed by Duns Scotus’ confession that most of these doctrines were beyond reason, had reared and shattered the intellectual edifice of Scholasticism, and had left the educated Christian free to attempt a new synthesis of pagan philosophy and medieval theology with the experience of life. The liberation of the towns from feudal hindrances, the widening of commerce, the spread of a money economy—all these had preceded Petrarch’s birth. Roger of Sicily and Frederick II, not to speak of Moslem caliphs and sultans, had taught rulers to give glamour to power by patronizing art and poetry, science and philosophy. Medieval men and women, despite an otherworldly minority, had kept, unabashed, the natural human relish for the simple and sensual pleasures of life. The men who conceived, built, and carved the cathedrals had their own sense of beauty, and a sublimity of thought and form never surpassed.
Therefore all the bases of the Renaissance had been established by the time of Petrarch’s death. The amazing growth and zest of Italian trade and industry had gathered the wealth that financed the movement, and the passage from rural peace and stagnation to urban vitality and stimulus had begotten the mood that nourished it. The political basis had been prepared in the freedom and rivalry of the cities, in the overthrow of an idle aristocracy, in the rise of educated princes and a virile bourgeoisie. The literary basis had been prepared in the improvement of the vernacular languages, and in the zeal for recovering and studying the classics of Greece and Rome. The ethical bases had been laid: increasing wealth was breaking down old moral restraints; contact with Islam in commerce and Crusades had encouraged a new tolerance for doctrinal and moral deviations from traditional beliefs and ways; the rediscovery of a pagan world relatively free in thought and conduct shared in undermining medieval dogmas and morality; interest in a future life gave ground before secular, human, earthly concerns. Esthetic development proceeded; the medieval hymns, the cycles of romance, the songs of the troubadours, the sonnets of Dante and his Italian predecessors, the sculptured harmony and form of The Divine Comedy, had left a heritage of literary art; the classic models transmitted a refinement of taste and thought, a polish and politeness of speech and style, to Petrarch, who would bequeath it to an international dynasty of urbane genius from Erasmus to Anatole France. And a revolution in art had begun when Giotto abandoned the mystic rigor of Byzantine mosaics to study men and women in the actual flow and natural grace of their lives.
In Italy all roads were leading to the Renaissance.