FLORENCE IN THE RENAISSANCE
The Renaissance is an important event in European history that stretched from the 14th century to the 17th century. It was preceded by the Middle Ages in Europe and eventually led to other major events such as the Age of Enlightenment. In historical terms the Renaissance is important because it led to a major shift in European thought and worldview. The Renaissance is considered to have begun in the city-states of the Italian peninsula, such as: Genoa, Florence, Milan, Naples, Rome and Venice.
In each of these city-states, the significant changes of the overall Renaissance occurred and unfolded. For example, the most significant changes that emerged as a result of the Renaissance can be seen in European architecture, art, literature, mathematics, music, philosophy, politics, religion and science. Intellectual thought in these fields flourished during the timeframe of the Renaissance and led to many people questioning long held beliefs about each. This created an environment of discovery and curiosity in which new ideas were constantly being introduced and tested. As well, European life before the start of the Renaissance was dominated by feudalism and the Manor System, but these both played small roles for citizens in the powerful Italian city-states. As such, the major Italian city-states listed above were well positioned to undergo the societal shift brought about by the new Renaissance ideas.
Florence is one of the most significant city-states from the Renaissance in Italy and developed in the northern section of the Italian peninsula. The region is surrounded by hills with the Arno River in the center. As such, the city-state of Florence developed in the valley of the hills and around the river. Historians believe that people had been living in the region since ancient history but it became a much more significant area in the timeframe of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
While Florence experienced political strife throughout the Middle Ages, it also prospered economically. For instance, the ‘florin’ (which was a coin and method of currency) was first introduced in 1252 for the Republic of Florence. The florin is significant because it highlights the economic strength of Florence in the Middle Ages. For instance, the florin was widely used beyond the borders of the Republic of Florence due to its gold weight and its reliability as a currency. As a result, the florin became one of the most common currencies in all of Europe at the time. In fact, the florin remained in use without a major change to its design until 1533. This caused the bankers of Florence to gain power in the city-state and beyond. For example, the major banks of Florence created branches in other cities and regions and led to Florence’s economic and political influence spreading throughout the Italian peninsula. As such, Florence prospered as a center of trade and commerce.
By the mid-1300s (which was the start of the Renaissance), Florence was one of the largest cities in all of Europe with estimates placing the total population of the city between 80,000 and 100,000 people. It was a diverse society, with some people finding success in the common industries of the city-states, while others struggled. For instance, in 1338 it is estimated that there were about 17,000 beggars in Florence of which 4,000 of them were receiving public relief. On the other hand, approximately 25,000 of the people were engaged in employment in the city’s main industry: wool production. Many of the workers in Florence belonged to guilds, which were professional organizations related to whole industries. These guilds saw workers apprentice towards a trade in different occupations, such as: wool production, silk production, etc. With that said, the city-state was ravaged by the Black Death. The plague spread from Asia into Europe in 1347 and had devastating impacts for all of the European continent. For instance, many historians have argued that the large death tolls of the Black Death led to major societal changes, such as: demise of the feudal system and political and economic changes. Cities with large populations were especially hit hard because people were living in much closer situations and the plague was able to spread more easily.
Florence first emerged as a republic in the early 12th century. A republic is a form of government in which the people of the state have a great deal more power and influence than they previously did under an absolute monarchy, which was the common form of government in Middle Ages Europe. However, in Florence, the republic did not last long due to several factors, including: economic strife, wars with neighboring states, and civil conflict between rival families.
The most powerful of the rival families in Renaissance Florence were the Medici. They were a wealthy family from the Tuscany region and established the famous Medici Bank. The bank, which was first created in 1397, became the largest in Europe during the timeframe of the Renaissance and allowed them to wield political and economic control throughout Europe. For example, the Medici family gained political control over Florence in the 1430s, which ultimately led to the end of the Florence Republic and led to their reign as monarchs over the city-state. With their massive wealth, the Medici became patrons of famous Renaissance artists including: Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Cosimo de Medici was the first Medici family member to control the Florence city-state. While Florence was still considered to be a republic at the start of the Medici reign, the immense wealth and power of Medici meant that Cosimo de Medici could effectively rule over the city-state from behind the scenes. Famously, Cosimo de Medici supported early Renaissance art and humanism in Florence which helped establish the city-state as the center of Renaissance Europe. For instance, he had Florence construct many buildings to support Renaissance ideals such as libraries, churches and academies. As well, he oversaw the negotiations of the Treaty of Lodi from 1454. This treaty ended the war between Florence and other city-states such as: Venice, Milan, Rome and Naples.
Cosimo de Medici was eventually succeeded by his son Piero di Cosimo de Medici and later his grandson Lorenzo de Medici. Lorenzo de Medici continued the patronage of his grandfather and sponsored several famous Renaissance artists and sculptors. After Lorenzo’s death in 1492, his son Piero took over control of Florence, however it was to be short-lived. In 1494, the French (under the leadership of King Charles VIII) invaded Italy. This caused Piero to be forced into exile and the Medici rule over Florence ended. The Florence Republic was restored.
Modern Florence is a major city in the country of Italy and is the capital city of the Italian region of Tuscany.