WE do injustice to the Renaissance when we concentrate our study on Florence, Venice, and Rome. For a decade it was more brilliant in Milan, under Lodovico and Leonardo, than in Florence. Its liberation and exaltation of woman found their best embodiment in Isabella d’Este at Mantua. It glorified Parma with Correggio, Perugia with Perugino, Orvieto with Signorelli. Its literature reached an apex with Ariosto at Ferrara, and its cultivation of manners at Urbino in the days of Castiglione. It gave name to a ceramic art at Faenza, and to the Palladian architectural style at Vicenza. It revived Siena with Pinturicchio and Sassetta and Sodoma, and made Naples a home and symbol of joyous living and idyllic poetry. We must pass leisurely through the incomparable peninsula from Piedmont to Sicily, and let the varied voices of the cities merge in the polyphonic chorus of the Renaissance.
The economic life of the Italian states in the fifteenth century was as diverse as their climate, dialects, and costumes. The north—i.e., above Florence—could have severe winters, sometimes freezing the Po from end to end; yet the coastal region around Genoa, sheltered by the Ligurian Alps, enjoyed mild weather in almost every month. Venice could shroud its palaces and towers and liquid streets in clouds and mist; Rome was sunny but miasmic; Naples was a climatic paradise. Everywhere, at one time or another, the cities and their countryside suffered those earthquakes, floods, droughts, tornadoes, famines, plagues, and wars that a Malthusian Nature sedulously provides to compensate for the reproductive ecstasies of mankind. In the towns the old handicrafts supplied the poor with a living and the rich with superfluities. Only the textile industry had reached the factory and capitalist stage; one silk mill at Bologna contracted with the city authorities to do “the work of 4000 spinning women.”1 Petty tradesmen, merchants of import and export, teachers, lawyers, physicians, administrators, politicians, made up a complex middle class; a wealthy and worldly clergy added their color and grace to the courts and the streets; and monks and friars, somber or jovial, wandered about seeking alms or romance. The aristocracy of landowners and financiers lived for the most part within the city walls, occasionally in rural villas. At the top a banker, condottiere, marquis, duke, doge, or king, with his wife or mistress, presided over a court hampered with luxuries and gilded with art. In the countryside the peasant tilled his modest acres or some lord’s domain, and lived in a poverty so traditional that it seldom entered his thoughts.
Slavery existed on a minor scale, chiefly in domestic service among the rich; occasionally as a supplement and corrective to free labor on large estates, especially in Sicily; but here and there even in northern Italy.2 From the fourteenth century onward the slave trade grew; Venetian and Genoese merchants imported them from the Balkans, southern Russia, and Islam; male or female Moorish slaves were considered a shining ornament of Italian courts.3 In 1488 Pope Innocent VIII received a hundred Moorish slaves as a present from Ferdinand the Catholic, and distributed them as gratuities among his cardinals and other friends.4 In 1501, after the capture of Capua, many Capuan women were sold as slaves in Rome.5 But these stray facts illustrate the morals rather than the economy of the Renaissance; slavery rarely played a significant role in the production or transport of goods.
Transport was chiefly on muleback or by cart, or by river, canal, or sea. The well-to-do traveled on horseback or in horse-drawn carriages. Speed was moderate but exciting; it took two days and a good spine to ride from Perugia to Urbino—sixty-four miles; a boat might take fourteen days from Barcelona to Genoa. Inns were numerous, noisy, dirty, and uncomfortable. One at Padua could house 200 guests and stable 200 horses. Roads were rough and perilous. The main streets of the cities were paved with flagstones, but were only exceptionally lighted at night. Good water was brought in from the mountains, rarely to individual homes, usually to public fountains artistically designed, by whose cooling flow simple women and idle men gathered and distributed the news of the day.
The city-states that divided the peninsula were ruled in some cases-Florence, Siena, Venice—by mercantile oligarchies; more often by “despots” of diverse degree, who had superseded republican or communal institutions vitiated by class exploitation and political violence. Out of the competition of strong men one emerged—almost always of humble birth—who subdued and destroyed or hired the rest, made himself absolute ruler, and in some cases transmitted his power to his heir. So the Visconti or Sforzas ruled in Milan, the Scaligeri in Verona, the Carraresi in Padua, the Gonzagas in Mantua, the Estensi in Ferrara. Such men enjoyed a precarious popularity because they laid a lid upon faction, and made life and property safe within their whim and the city’s walls. The lower classes accepted them as a last refuge from the dictatorship of ducats; the surrounding peasantry reconciled itself to them because the commune had given it neither protection nor justice nor freedom.
The despots were cruel because they were insecure. With no tradition of legitimacy to support them, subject at any moment to assassination or revolt, they surrounded themselves with guards, ate and drank in fear of poison, and hoped for a natural death. In their earlier decades they governed by craft, corruption, and quiet murder, and practised all the arts of Machiavelli before he was born; after 1450 they felt more secure through sanctification by time, and contented themselves with pacific means in domestic government. They suppressed criticism and dissent, and maintained a horde of spies. They lived luxuriously, and affected an impressive pomp. Nevertheless they earned the tolerance and respect, even, in Ferrara and Urbino, the devotion, of their subjects, by improving administration, executing impartial justice where their own interests were not involved, helping the people in famine and other emergencies, relieving unemployment with public works, building churches and monasteries, beautifying their cities with art, and supporting scholars, poets, and artists who might polish their diplomacy, brighten their aura, and perpetuate their name.
They waged frequent but usually petty war, seeking the mirage of security through the advancement of their frontiers, and having an expansive appetite for taxable terrain. They did not send their own people to war, for then they would have had to arm them, which might be suicidal; instead they hired mercenaries, and paid them with the proceeds of conquests, ransoms, confiscations, and pillage. Dashing adventurers came down over the Alps, often with bands of hungry soldiers in their train, and sold their services ascondottieri to the highest bidder, changing sides with the fluctuations of the fee. A tailor from Essex, known in England as Sir John Hawkwood and in Italy as Acuto, fought with strategic subtlety and tactical skill against and for Florence, amassed several hundred thousand florins, died as a gentleman farmer in 1394, and was buried with honors and art in Santa Maria del Fiore.
The despot financed education as well as war, built schools and libraries, supported academies and universities. Every town in Italy had a school, usually provided by the Church; every major city had a university. Under the schooling of humanists, universities, and courts, public taste and manners improved, every second Italian became a judge of art, every important center had its own artists and its own architectural style. The joy of life spread, for the educated classes, from one end of Italy to the other; manners were relatively refined, and yet instincts were unprecedentedly free. Never since the days of Augustus had genius found such an audience, such stimulating competition, and such liberty.