The Waning of the Renaissance



THE wars of invasion were not yet at an end, but they had already changed the face and character of Italy. The northern provinces had been so devastated that English envoys advised Henry VIII to leave them to Charles as a punishment. Genoa had been pillaged; Milan had been taxed to death. Venice had been subdued by the League of Cambrai and the opening of new trade routes. Rome, Prato, and Pavia had suffered sack, Florence had been starved and financially bled, Pisa had half destroyed herself in her struggle for freedom, Siena was exhausted with revolutions. Ferrara had impoverished herself in her long contest with the popes, and had dishonored herself by abetting the irresponsible attack upon Rome. The Kingdom of Naples, like Lombardy, had been ravaged and plundered by foreign armies, and had long languished under alien dynasties. Sicily was already the nursery of brigands. The only consolation of Italy was that its conquest by Charles V had probably saved it from spoliation by the Turks.

By the settlement of Bologna (1530) the control of Italy passed to Spain with two exceptions: cautious Venice retained her independence, and the chastened papacy was confirmed in its sovereignty over the States of the Church. Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, and Milan became Spanish dependencies, ruled by Spanish viceroys. Savoy and Mantua, Ferrara and Urbino, which had usually supported or connived with Charles, were allowed to keep their indigenous dukes subject to their good behavior. Genoa and Siena retained their republican forms, but as Spanish protectorates. Florence was compelled to accept another line of Medici rulers, who survived by cooperating with Spain.

The victory of Charles marked another triumph of the modern state over the Church. What Philip IV of France had begun in 1303 was completed by Charles and Luther in Germany, by Francis I in France, by Henry VIII in England, and all in Clement’s pontificate. The powers of northern Europe had not only discovered the weakness of Italy, they had lost their fear of the papacy. The humiliation of Clement injured the respect that the transalpine populations had felt for the popes, and prepared them mentally for their secession from Catholic authority.

In some ways the Spanish hegemony was a boon to Italy. It put an end for a time to the wars of the Italian states against one another; and after 1559 it ended, till 1796, the battles of foreign powers on Italian soil. It gave the people some continuity of political order, and quieted the fierce individualism that had made and unmade the Renaissance. Those who craved order accepted the subjugation with relief; those who cherished freedom mourned. But soon the costs and penalties of peace by subjection damaged the economy and broke the spirit of Italy. The high taxes levied by the viceroys to sustain their pomp and soldiery, the severity of their laws, the state monopolies in grain and other necessaries, discouraged industry and commerce; and the native princes, competing in vain luxury, followed the same policy of taxing to frustration the economic activity that supported them. Shipping declined to a point where the surviving galleys could no longer protect themselves from Berber pirates, who raided ships and coasts and carried Italians off to serve Moslem dignitaries as slaves. Almost as irksome were the foreign troops quartered on Italian homes, openly despising a once unrivaled people and civilization, and contributing more than their share to the sexual laxity of the age.

Another misfortune befell Italy, more enduringly disastrous than the devastations of war and the subjection to Spain. The rounding of the Cape of Good Hope (1488) and the opening of an all-water route to India (1498) provided a cheaper means of transport between the Atlantic nations and Central Asia and the Far East than the troublesome route across the Alps to Genoa or Venice, thence to Alexandria, overland to the Red Sea, and again by ship to India. Moreover, the control of the eastern Mediterranean by the Turks made that route hazardous, subject to tribute, piracy, and war; and this was still more true of the route via Constantinople and the Black Sea. After 1498 Venetian and Genoese trade, and Florentine finance, declined. As early as 1502 the Portuguese bought so much of the available pepper in India that the Egyptian-Venetian merchants there found little left for export.1 The price of pepper rose one third in a year on the Rialto, while in Lisbon it could be had for half the price that merchants had to charge in Venice;2the German traders began to desert their Fondaco on the Grand Canal and transfer their buying to Portugal. Venetian statesmanship almost solved the problem in 1504 by proposing to the Mameluke government of Egypt a united enterprise to restore the old canal system between the Nile delta and the Red Sea; but the Turkish conquest of Egypt in 1517 blocked the plan.

In that year Luther pinned his rebel theses to the door of a Wittenberg church. The Reformation was both a cause and a result of the economic decline of Italy. It was a cause in so far as it diminished the movement of pilgrims and ecclesiastical revenues from the northern nations into Rome. It was an effect insomuch as the replacement of the Mediterranean-Egyptian route to India by the all-water route, and the development of European commerce with America, enriched the Atlantic countries while helping to impoverish Italy; German trade moved more and more down the Rhine to North Sea outlets, less and less over the mountains to Italy; Germany became commercially independent of Italy; a northward drift and pull of power wrenched Germany from the Italian web of trade and religion, and gave Germany the will and strength to stand alone.

The discovery of America had even more lasting effects upon Italy than the new route to India. Gradually the Mediterranean nations declined, left on a siding in the movement of men and goods; the Atlantic nations came to the fore, enriched with American trade and gold. This was a greater revolution in commercial routes than any that history had recorded since Greece, by her victory at Troy, had opened to her vessels the Black Sea route to Central Asia. It would be equaled and surpassed only by the airplane transformation of trade routes in the second half of the twentieth century.

The final factor in the fading of the Renaissance was the Counter Reformation. To Italy’s own political disorder and moral decay, to her subjugation and desolation by foreign powers, to her loss of trade to the Atlantic nations, to her forfeiture of revenue in the Reformation, was now added a detrimental but natural change in the mood and conduct of the Church. The unformulated, perhaps unconscious, gentlemen’s agreement by which the Church, while rich and apparently secure, had permitted considerable freedom of thought in the intellectual classes provided these made no attempt to disturb the faith of the people—to whom that faith was the vital poetry, discipline, and consolation of life—was ended by the German Reformation, the English secession, and the Spanish hegemony. When the people themselves began to reject the doctrines and authority of the Church, and the Reformation made converts even in Italy, the whole structure of Catholicism was threatened in its foundations, and the Church, considering herself a state, and behaving like any state imperiled in its very existence, reacted from tolerance and liberalism to a frightened conservatism that laid severe restraints upon thought, inquiry, publication, and speech. The Spanish domination affected religion as well as politics; it shared in transforming the lenient Catholicism of the Renaissance into the rigid orthodoxy of the Church after the Council of Trent (1545–63). The popes who followed Clement VII took over the Spanish system of uniting Church and state in strict control of religious and intellectual life.

Just as a Spaniard had been instrumental in establishing the Inquisition when, in the thirteenth century, the Albigensian revolt had vitally challenged the Church in southern France, and new religious orders had then been founded to serve the Church and renew the fervor of the Christian faith, so now in the sixteenth century the rigor of the Spanish Inquisition was imported into Italy, and a Spaniard founded the Jesuits (1534)—that remarkable Society of Jesus which would not only accept the old conventual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but would go forth into the world to spread the orthodox faith, and to fight, everywhere in Christendom, against religious heresy or revolt. The intensity of religious debate in the age of the Reformation, the Calvinist intolerance, the mutual persecutions in England, encouraged a corresponding dogmatism in Italy;3 the urbane Catholicism of Erasmus gave place to the militant orthodoxy of Ignatius Loyola. Liberalism is a luxury of security and peace.

That censorship of publications which had begun under Pope Sixtus IV was extended by the establishment of the Index librorum prohibitorum in 1559 and the Congregation of the Index in 1571. Printing facilitated censorship; it was easier to watch public printers than private copyists. So in Venice, which had been so hospitable to intellectual and political refugees, the state itself, feeling that religious division would damage social unity and order, instituted (1527) a censorship of the press, and joined with the Church in suppressing Protestant publications. Italians here and there resisted these policies; the Roman populace, on the death of Paul IV (1559), cast his statue into the Tiber, and burned the headquarters of the Inquisition to the ground.4 But such resistance was sporadic, unorganized, and ineffectual. Authoritarianism triumphed, and a somber pessimism and resignation fell upon the spirit of the once joyous and exuberant Italian people. Even the dark Spanish dress—black cap, black doublet, black hose, black shoes—became the fashion in once colorful Italy, as if the people had put on mourning for glory departed and liberty dead.5

Some moral advance accompanied the intellectual retreat. The conduct of the clergy improved, now that competitive faiths put them on their mettle; and the popes and the Council of Trent reformed many ecclesiastical abuses. Whether a similar movement occured in the morals of the laity is hard to determine; apparently it is as easy to gather instances of sexual irregularity, illegitimacy, incest, obscene literature, political corruption, robbery, and brutal crime in the Italy of 1534–76 as before.6 The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini indicates that fornication, adultery, brigandage, and murder tempered the orthodoxy of the age. Criminal law remained as severe as before: torture was frequently applied to innocent witnesses as well as to the accused, and murderers still had their flesh torn away by red-hot pincers before being hanged.7 The restoration of slavery as a major economic institution belongs to this period. When Pope Paul III opened war upon England in 1535 he decreed that any English soldiers captured might lawfully be enslaved.8 About 1550 the custom developed of using slaves and convicts to row the galleys of trade and war.

Nevertheless the popes of this period were men of relatively high morals in their personal life. Paul III was the greatest of them—that same Alessandro Farnese who had obtained the cardinalate through the effect of his sister’s golden hair upon the spirits of Alexander VI. It is true that Paul had begotten two bastards;9 but this had been an accepted custom in his youth, and Guicciardini could still describe him as “a man adorned with learning, and of unspotted character.”10 He had been trained as a humanist by Pomponius Laetus; his letters rivaled those of Erasmus in the classic elegance of their Latin; he was an accomplished conversationalist, and surrounded himself with capable and distinguished men. However, he was elected probably less for his talents and virtues than for his age and infirmities; he was sixty-six, and the cardinals could reasonable rely upon him to die soon and give them another chance to make bargains and receive more lucrative benefices.11 He held them at bay for fifteen years.

For Rome his pontificate was among the happiest in the history of the city. Under his direction Latino Manetti, his maestro delle strade, drained, leveled, and widened streets, opened up many new public squares, replaced slum houses with handsome dwellings, and so improved one avenue—the Corso—that it became the Champs Elysées of Rome. As a diplomat Paul’s greatest feat was to persuade Charles V and Francis I to a ten years’ truce (1538). He almost achieved a greater aim—a reconciliation of the Church with the Protestants of Germany; but his efforts came too late. He had the courage—so lacking in Clement VII—to call a general council. Under his presidency and with his approval the Council of Trent restated the orthodox faith, reformed many ecclesiastical abuses, restored discipline and morality among the clergy, and shared with the Jesuits in saving the Latin nations for the Roman Church.

Paul’s tragic failure was his nepotism. He gave Camerino to his grandson Ottavio, and he invested his son Pierluigi with Piacenza and Parma. Pierluigi was assassinated by discontented citizens, and Ottavio joined in a conspiracy against his grandfather. Paul lost his love of life, and died two years later of a heart stroke at eighty-three (1549). He was mourned by the Romans as no other pope since Pius II a century before.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!