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The Economic History of Italy During the Renaissance


Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Jeong, Hae-Yoon
Term Paper, AP European History Class, November 2007



Table of Contents


Introduction
I. The Background : The Late Middle Ages
II. Economic Background of the Advent of the Italian Renaissance
II.1 Why Did the Renaissance Start in Italy ?
II.2 Why Was Italy Prosperous in the Late Middle Ages ?
III. Economic History of Italy During the Renaissance
III.1 Italy's Economic Prosperity
III.2 The Start of the Italian Renaissance : Florence
III.3 The Center of the Late Italian Renaissance : Venice
III.4 The Class Structure of Cities in Italy
III.5 Not Everyone Was Wealthy : The Rural Society
III.6 The Guilds
III.7 The Influence of Economic Prosperity on Art
IV. Economic History of Italy After the Renaisance
IV.1 The Economic Center Shifts from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic
IV.2 The Decline of the Italian Economy
Conclusion
Notes
Bibliography



Introduction


            Renaissance literally means 'rebirth'. Renaissance began in Italy, specifically in Florence. It rediscovered and revived Greek and Roman culture, and its main theme is 'human-centeredness', usually called as humanism. Humanism is the basis of the Italian Renaissance, and artists endeavored to recover the Greek and Roman culture which pursued human to be in the center. In this sense, Jakob Burckhardt named this period as 'Renaissance' in the latter part of the 19th century (1). The culture of Italy made in this period was an opportunity for the Europe to escape from the Dark Ages, and brought modernization and developments to Europe in various fields such as society, economy and politics.
            This paper is about the impact of the Renaissance on Italy, specifically about the economic aspect. In order to have a deeper understanding about the advent of the Italian Renaissance, the late Middle ages of Europe will be briefly touched. The economic background under which the Italian Renaissance started in no other place than Italy will be addressed. The economic condition of Italy after the Italian Renaissance will be added as well.
            The paper is composed of four chapters, arranged in a chronological order : the late Middle ages, the economic background of the advent of the Italian Renaissance, the economic history during the Italian Renaissance, and the economic status of Italy after the Italian Renaissance.


I. The Background : The Late Middle Ages


            Late Medieval Europe was an agricultural society based on manorialism. It is the period preceding the Italian Renaissance. In the time before Italian Renaissance, political disorder interfered with commerce, agricultural productivity declined, and the outbreak of the plague, or Black Death, drastically reduced the population in many parts of Europe (2).
            The manorial system came to an end on the occasion of the Crusades and the Black Death. The church, which had led the War against the so called 'God's enemy', paradoxically came to face severe criticism about its role in the society. On the other hand, the contact with other cultures through military efforts during the Crusades helped revive the commercial activities forgotten for a long time.
            The plague, called the Black Death, was catastrophic. The result was a reduction of one third of the European population, while particularly the loss of serfs had a very important economic significance since it meant the reduction of people to work. Remaining people after the War were better fed and had a better quality of life because of the population drop. The population fall enhanced the value of human than before, since the supply of workers diminished. This brought abundance to the survivors, and they created a leisure class. Agricultural societies on the basis of arable lands had gradually changed into commercial and industrial ones centered around newly developed cities.
            The cities became important and wealthy commercial centers. By the end of the Middle ages, central and southern Italy, once the heartland of the Roman Empire, was far poorer than the northern Italy. The northern Italy was the richest, not just part of Italy but also Europe.


II. Economic Background of the Advent of the Italian Renaissance

II.1 Why Did the Renaissance Start in Italy ?
            By 1400, Europe, Asia, and Africa formed a trade network called Silk Road, the trade routes passing the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the deserts of Arabia formed the main arteries. Europe was located on the point of contact being in this system of transcontinental and transoceanic trade (3).
            Cities located in northern Italy such as Milan, Florence, and Venice had become very prosperous around the end of the Middle Ages. These cities were located between western Europe and the eastern seaside of the Mediterranean. Northern Italy was able to lead the Italian Renaissance due to the Mediterranean, the central location for trade. They controlled trade with Asia mostly through the silk road. From Asia, northern Italian cities imported spices, dyes, and silks which were not enough or new in Europe. Thus they were sold expensively, and northern Italian cities became rich.
            The riches accumulated by the merchants of Venice, Milan, and many other smaller cities supported Italy's political and cultural achievements such as art and architecture. Also, the Italian trade routes covered more than just the Mediterranean, enabling Italy to acquire various foreign exports. New culture and knowledge came to the Europe through these routes. These situations enabled Italy to escape from the Dark ages and led artists to create the notion of Humanism.
II.2 Why Was Italy Prosperous in the Late Middle Ages ?
            The reason northern Italy was so much more prosperous than other European countries was that commerce was extremely developed in northern Italy. As already mentioned, contact with other cultures through Crusades helped reviving commercial activity. Trade was increased with the exchange of luxury goods in the Mediterranean region and various commodities such as fish and fur.
            Eventually, commerce soon moved inland, bringing new prosperity to the citizens of cities along major trade routes. As traffic along these routes increased, existing settlements grew and many non-residents came from the countryside. Simultaneously the international and inland trade became active centering around the Mediterranean, and the commerce of port cities advanced. Also the merchant families accumulated enormous amount of properties by trade, and they supported the port cities. Thus, though the northern Italy was not abundant of resources compared to other places of Europe, the advancement created by trade allowed it to prosper.
            There is another geographical aspect of northern Italy that made it become rich. During the Middle Ages, Italy was divided into many states. Each states cooperated, but mostly were in competition to live better. So states pursued to expand activities in order to be better than other states. The states' struggle to become dominant on commerce and other fields were the motive power for the economy of northern Italy to run actively.


III. Economic History of Italy During the Renaissance

III.1 Italy's Economic Prosperity
            The emergence of prosperous cities and rich merchants is the core factor which made the Italian Renaissance possible. They drew substantial income from their urban subjects in their Italian cities and from foreign consumers. The commerce kept cities alive. The capital was accumulated and the ideas were flown into the cities. During this period, the modern commercial infrastructure including joint stock companies, the international banking system, a systematized foreign exchange market, insurance, and government debt developed (4). The Renaissance culture was cultivated in such prosperity in Italy.
            Cities were centers of wealth production and creative mind. Urban areas of the Italian Renaissance was commercialized and standard price of commodities was fixed. The cities having particularly dense areas of urbanization were mostly in northern Italy, which acted as the main hubs for international trade in commodities such as wool, cloth, silk, spices, silver and armour (5). Merchants provided a ready market for these commodities, and it was only in the city, by the help of skilled artisans, that the manufacture of luxury goods and the complex technology of book production was possible, especially for Venice which was dominant in book printing.
            Commerce alone was not enough to build up the largest fortunes however; the richest merchants acted also as bankers. Italian banking houses established networks in the later Middle ages playing for huge figures such as princes. Capital accumulated through trade was eventually able to be spent for other enterprises like banking or to the industry. Florence was prominent in that field and became the center of this financial industry by banks. Gradually the flux of money was centered in Florence and led to prosperity. These alternate enterprises played a big role on the wealth of Florence, the leading cultural center of the Italian Renaissance.
            The cities of Italy grew hugely during the Italian Renaissance and got power to become relatively independent of the Holy Roman Empire. The autonomy of cities varied from state to state by their economic status. Cities which developed commerce were usually relatively independent. It is because of the unrestricted atmosphere created by trade culture, and that the wealth was to the merchants instead of the despots. For instance, in the Holy Roman Empire cities might have had a considerable degree of independence, for the Empire lacked finance and thus had become a loose confederation of some hundreds of different political units, some of them independent cities.
            These economic growth became the base of the political and cultural changes in Italy. Cities provided an environment that was an appendage of increased trades. The pursuit of wealth and the opportunity for traders and bankers to interact with the world created an atmosphere more open to new ideas, innovation, experimentation (6).

III.2 The Start of the Italian Renaissance : Florence
            Florence has been recognized as the birthplace of the Renaissance. Why in Florence, and not elsewhere in Italy ? Are there any unique features in Florence which might have caused such a cultural movement? This has long been a matter of debate among many scholars and historians. Some say that it is as a result of luck that it became a place where the Renaissance began and that the 'Renaissance Men' such as Da Vinci, Botticelli and Michelangelo were all born in Florence. It should not be forgotten, however, that these 'Renaissance Men' were able to be eminent because of the prevailing cultural conditions at the time. The Medici family played a significant role in encouraging and stimulating the arts. Especially, Lorenzo de' Medici devoted much of his property to aid the artists of Florence (7).
            Florence became one of the wealthiest cities of Northern Italy, and at last, in the early 14th century, became the center of international trade. The wealth was due in some part to its woolen textile production under the supervision of its dominant trade guild, the Arte della Lana (8). The wealth of Florence came also from alternate enterprises such as banking. In a sense, it was banking, rather than the textile production, that helped build the greatest family fortunes in Florence. It was because Florentine citizens could hardly participate in seaborne trade, the method to sell commodities like textile, formed in a large scale since it was situated in inland area.
            By the active operations of the Medici bank, Florence's role as an international finance center was strengthened in the 15th century. Under the management of Cosimo de' Medici (9), this firm maintained branches in the major cities of Europe. The Medici bank loaned money to huge figures, and carried on its own mercantile businesses. It accumulated enormous profits that were used to finance political activity and to support cultural activities.
            Since there was adequate capital in Florence, cultural activities were supported. Thus art and architecture were developed mainly in Florence, and this led Florence to be the beginning of the Italian Renaissance.

III.3 The Center of the Late Italian Renaissance : Venice
            During the late Italian Renaissance, the Republic of Venice reigned as one of the wealthiest and most powerful cities in Italy, largely to an extent to Europe. Venice was successful because the leaders created a powerful navy, which enabled Venice to gain some part of control of the trade routes of the Mediterranean. Due to this, Venice maintained hundreds of merchant ships, warships and thousands of sailors.
            Also, Venice maintained a dominant status in glass industry. During the 14th century Venice became a very wealthy trading nation. It enabled the arts flourish and there was a resurgence in the art of making glass vessels. Glass was first introduced in the early 13th century, and became Venice's most important and valuable export by the mid 15th century. Venetian glass workers had formed themselves into a guild and set out the basic rules of a highly organized industry, which was to guarantee the quality of the finished product (10).
            Another factor that made Venice to the center of the late Italian Renaissance is book printing. The first book was printed in Venice by Johannes de Spira of Mainz (11), and soon many other Northern European printers set up shops in Venice. By the end of the century, Venice became the center of international book publishing, ideas travelling rapidly via the well-established commercial network. Venice also became the most flourishing center of woodcut illustration in Italy, partly because the foreign printers are often accompanied by Northern specialists in woodblock cutting (12). Venice enjoyed this position until the third quarter of the sixteenth century.
            In Venice, like in Florence, many artists were patronized by wealthy merchants. With the decline of the High Renaissance and mannerist artists in central Italy during the late Italian Renaissance, Venetian painters assumed a position of artistic supremacy (13). Architects built beautiful palaces and official buildings throughout the city. The most preeminent artist during this period would be Tiziano Vecellio, or Titian, of Venice. The influence of Titian on Venice¡®s art could be known from some critic's extollment that Venice remains one of the most beautiful cities in the world due to the masterpieces of Titian.

III.4 The Class Structure of Cities in Italy
            As the urban areas, the cities, expanded, their social and political organization became more complex. The population of the urban areas tended to be uniform when the cities were in small scale. As the cities incremented its size and prosperity, the populations and the social classes became more diverse. The main determinant of dividing the classes was the wealth as in any places. Peasants who migrated to the cities from the countryside began to form a working class that had no political rights. Members of the nobility who lived in the cities made up another distinct class. There were even classes between tradesmen. Merchants who engaged in commerce of large scale or other specifically profitable enterprises were soon distinguished from other tradesmen by their greater wealth. Also, different guilds had different power. As this status when on, the gap between social classes widened.

III.5 Not Everyone Was Wealthy : The Rural Society
            The cities and wealthy families of Italy provided the resources and the enterprise behind the Italian Renaissance, but the majority of Europeans still lived in rural areas and worked the land. The participation of the rural populations to the new movements of the Italian Renaissance was minute. Political decisions made during the time made the residents of rural areas suffer intensely, as they bore the burdens of the warfare and economic reorganization that the competition between nations and internal struggles brought. Nonetheless, they did not receive the benefits of the Renaissance culture, which hardly affected on changing the rural areas. The driving forces behind both the political and cultural changes of the period were the citizens, especially the urban elite, and the rulers with whom they were allied (14).

III.6 The Guilds
            Guild is a corporation of craftsman exercising the same craft. As corporations, such guilds enjoyed monopolies (15). No one who wasn't in the guild of a specific commodity could sell the commodity. Guilds dominated the sales market, producing most of the commodities of the urban market, except for imported commodities. Thus the accession to the market was very limited for the domestic merchants who wasn't in the guild. It seems that guild members knew the certain laws of controlling monopoly. To reduce the competition in order to keep the price high, they restricted the entrance of the market. Also, guilds valued the high standard of quality significantly. This was one of the reasons that guilds could exist without being threatened by the consumers for monopolizing.
            Economic organization within cities was usually through guilds. Although guilds were intended to protect the employment of members, it would not be correct to think them merely as trade unions. Guilds had a strongly religious dimension within Catholic Europe, giving spiritual solidarity through their brotherhood, or confraternity (16).
            Guilds made much of the hierarchical relations between the guild members and other guilds. This meant that the guild member in a higher status in the same guild had the priority to commerce where he/she wanted, and the guild in a higher status was able to influence other guilds.
            These hierarchies between guild members and guilds were mainly created by the economic power. Merchants belonged to powerful guilds whose economic power was protected by the urban government. well, One fact notable here is that they themselves constituted the urban government. On the other side the artisans belonged to less prestigious guilds which had far less relation with urban government and whose activities were closely overseen by the urban government, restricting their activities.

III.7 The Influence of Economic Prosperity on Art
            Although economic conditions played an important role on the development of Italian Renaissance, economic prosperity and the accumulation of wealth were not necessarily the most important factors in the achievements of the era. The importance of Economic growth could be defined as the stimulant of the political and cultural changes that became part of the Renaissance. The most important achievements of the Italian Renaissance were the cultural and art achievements, and the escape from the Dark ages.
            Artists of the Italian Renaissance period needed new sponsors to fund them, and the wealthy merchants of cities were the ones affordable to pay the expenses. The wealthy merchants of Florence, specifically the Medici supported them, and the Medici became the underpinning of the Italian Renaissance. The Medici's endeavor to finance the promotion of art and architecture could be seen by the Academia Laurenziana, which was established by Lorenzo de Medici in the late 15th century (17). Academia Laurenziana contributed to Florence becoming the center of the early Italian Renaissance. The Renaissance art spreaded to other cities of Italy later on, and the prosper of Renaissance culture started.
            The Renaissance art differs so much from the Medieval art that it may be called contrasting. It is said that the Medieval art tried to depict the religious devotion or sanctity of a person rather than the details of his physical appearance, and regarded nudity and sexuality a taboo (18). The Renaissance artists repulsed the art of this period and tried to revive the culture of Greek and Rome, the Hellenism. They focused on the reality of objects, and reintroduced the nudity which was banned during the Dark ages.
            The Renaissance art undoubtedly shows the richness of the Italian Renaissance of that period. It has a lot of structures, for instance, cathedrals which the eminent painters drew pictures on their walls. Painters painted various kinds of pictures such as portrays and mythological pictures.
            Even though Renaissance art and literature are inspirational enough, it is unwise to be too idealistic about the circumstances of its production. Lisa Jardine described the Renaissance is one in which money plays a large part (19). The concept of magnificentia was central to Renaissance thinking. Those were conspicuous expenditure on magnanimous gestures, including the patronage of art and scholarship (20).

IV. Economic History of Italy After the Renaisance

IV.1 The Economic Center Shifts from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic
            As the Italian Renaissance approached the end, foreign forces challenged the economic hegemony of Italy. The countries on the Atlantic coast established themselves as competitors. This was accompanied by the growing prosperity of local business and by efforts to dispense with the Italian intermediary trade (21).
            Also, Portugal's discovery of a new sea route to Asia at the end of the 15th century stopped Italy's role as the dominant middlemen between the Eastern and the Western World. Gradually, the commerce centering around the Mediterranean shifted to the Atlantic after the 15th century. As a corollary, the Italian Renaissance was passed on beyond the Alps, and commenced to be called the Northern Renaissance. Though, this didn't mean that the Renaissance was over. Actually, it was one of the most momentous developments of the Renaissance era. A series of explorations such as the discovery of new continent by Christopher Columbus, and the discovery of a new route to India by Vasco da Gama, sparked European imagination during the late Renaissance period.

IV.2 The Decline of the Italian Economy
            After the Renaissance, the economic status of Italy fell overall, due to the shift of the trade routes from the Mediterranean to the Pacific. The trade routes were changed because the newly discovered sea routes directly going to Asia enabled other countries than Italy to participate significantly in overseas commerce. Also, the Italian wars which occurred from 1521 to 1544 devastated Italy's land and the Renaissance mind. The Italian war disrupted the political relationship among the cities of Italy, leading to much confusions. Thus the economic situation of Italy was devastated.

Conclusion

            The Italian Renaissance clearly influenced Italy, and gradually the whole Europe to experience prospers on various aspects. The era preceding was the late Middle ages, which had poor environments. The agricultural productivity was low, and the bubonic plague reduced a third of the European population. Also the church enforced abstinence that brought stagnation throughout the Europe, causing the Middle ages to have another name, the Dark ages. This deteriorated situation of the late Middle Ages had been recovered during the two Renaissances; the Italian Renaissance and the Northern Renaissance.
            The Italian Renaissance was based on the economic prosperity of Italy. Italy was bounded by Mediterranean, facilitating it to be dominant to international trade. The preeminent cities for commerce were the cities of northern Italy, and they developed additional enterprises such as banking and book printing which accumulated more property to them.
            In this abundant condition, the cities of Italy were financially available to support for the development of leisure activities. Moreover, the Italian trade routes covered more than just the Mediterranean, enabling Italy to acquire new culture and knowledge. As those factors were combined, property was spent to enhance the culture of Italy.
            The cultural achievements were magnificent during the Italian Renaissance, advancing greatly in architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, and philosophy. The cultural achievement is considered the most important achievement of the Italian Renaissance along with the escape from the Dark ages.


Notes

(1)      Ganse 2007 p.19
(2)      Article Renaissance, from Encarta
(3)      Ganse 2007 p.28
(4)      Article Italian Renaissance, from Wikipedia
(5)      Looking at Renaissance, from Open University
(6)      Pierre / Prosper 1988 pp.32-35
(7)      Article : Renaissance, from Wikipedia
(8)      Article : Renaissance, from Encarta
(9)      Hutchinson 1999 p.277, Article Cosimo de Medici
(10)      Plumb 2001 pp.78-80
(11)      Welch 1997
(12)      Miskimin 2003
(13)      Venice and Northern Italy 1400-1600, from Met Museum
(14)      Article Renaissance, from Encarta
(15)      Ganse 2007 p.13
(16)      Looking at the Renaissance, from Open University
(17)      Ganse 2007 p.19
(18)      ibid. p.21
(19)      English Literary Renaissance, from Blackwell Synergy
(20)      Welch 1997
(21)      Article : Renaissance, in : Encyclopedia Britannica


Bibliography

Note : websites quoted below were visited in October 2007.
1.      Ganse 2007 : Alexander Ganse, KMLA Handbook Modern European History, 5th edition, KMLA 2007, chapters Late Middle Ages, Renaissance, pp.13-21
2.      Pierre / Prosper 1988 : Michel Pierre and Martin Prosper, The Human Story. Europe in the Middle Ages. New Jersey : Silver Burdett Press 1988, chapter Late Middle Ages, pp.32-35
3.      Hutchinson 1999 : The Hutchinson Encyclopedia of the Renaissance, Westview Press 1999, articles Catherine de Medici (p.83), Glass in the Renaissance (p.191), The History of Art in the Renaissance (p.216), Cosimo de Medici (p.277), The Platonic Academy of Florence (p.327), Titian (p.387)
4.      Welch 1997 : Evelyn Welch, Art and Society in Italy 1350-1500, Oxford : UP 1997, chapter Artistic Enterprises pp.35-129
6.      Miskimin 2003 : Harry A. Miskimin, The Economy of Early Renaissance Europe 1300-1460, Cambridge : UP 2003, chapters Italy pp.65-72, Town and Industry pp.73-75
7.      Article : Renaissance, in : Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, Micropaedia Vol.9 pp.1019-1021
8.      Gleason 1993 : Elisabeth G. Gleason, Gasparo Contarini, Berkeley : University of California Press 1993, chapter Venice, Rome and Reform, pp.166-168
9.      Article : Renaissance, from Encarta, http://encarta.msn.com/text_761554186___11/Renaissance.html
10.     Article : Italian Renaisance, from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_Renaissance
11.     Article : Looking at the Renaissance, from Open Renaissance, www.open.ac.uk/Arts/renaissance2/economic.htm
12.     Chapter : Renaissance, from Renaissance Era Webquest, http://mhsweb.townofmanchester.org/Library/webquests/rencompare.html
13.     Venice and Northern Italy 1400-1600, from Timelines of Art History, posted by Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/08/eustn/ht08eustn.htm
14.     Social and Economic Changes During the Renaissance, from Renaissance Faires, www.all-about-renaissance-faires.com/.../economic_social_and_religious_change_in_the_renaissance.htm
15.     English Literary Renaisance, from Blackwell Synergy, http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1475-6757.2007.00091.x
16..     Plumb, J. H., Bishop, Morris, The Italian Renaissance, Mariner Books, 2001. pp. 78-80.
17..     Article : Renaissance, from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renaissance

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