Italy: From Revolution to Republic, 1700 to the Present

By Spencer M. Di Scala | Go to book overview

Introduction: From "School of Europe"
to Conquered Land

During the eighteenth century, the most famous philosophe of all, Voltaire, summed up Renaissance Italy: "The Italians had everything, except music, which was still in its infancy, and experimental philosophy, which was unknown everywhere until Galileo finally introduced it into the world." Yet in the eyes of many observers, and especially, it seems, of modern historians, within a hundred years of Emperor Charles V’s sack of Rome in 1527, Italy appeared a "land of the dead." Is this view of post-Renaissance Italy accurate, and, if so, how is this rapid decline explained by historians?


The Invasions

During the Middle Ages, Italy was divided into a great number of independent political entities that eventually coalesced into five major states— Naples, Florence, Rome, Venice, and Milan—and several minor ones. Although the Swiss historian of the Renaissance, Jacob Burckhardt, argued that these states were the first in Europe with modern attributes, none of them developed enough strength to conquer and unify the entire peninsula.

Peculiar to Italy and marking its entire history was the Papal State, which the popes considered essential to ensure their independence from secular rulers anxious to dominate the Church. For centuries popes battled the German-based Holy Roman Empire, which claimed Italy and the authority to intervene in Church affairs.

The fight between papacy and empire enabled the Italian states to remain independent. Over the centuries, the empire steadily declined; but during the "Babylonian Captivity" and the "Great Schism" between 1308 and 1417, when the French nominated the popes and competing pontiffs claimed the allegiance of the faithful, the papacy’s power did as well. The threat of political domination of Italy by either the Holy Roman Empire or the pope thus receded.

By 1454 the Italian states had consciously established a balance of power. This equilibrium meant that none of the major states could dominate the entire peninsula, because the others would ally against it. In effect, the territorial di-

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