We enter Italy at the beginning of the century, and find a world on the brink of bursting with life through trade while also overcoming natural disaster.
The Holy Roman Empire has been revived and a power struggle ensued between them and the papacy. The Anjou dynasty is establishing itself in the country, and the Kingdom of Aragon is pushing for its own piece of the Italian pie. The reason for this power struggle is simple: as always, it all came down to money.
Once an area full of small towns, Italy had found its footing in the wool trade in Florence, and trade began flourishing through the region. Soon, merchants became wealthy enough to begin lending money to powerful people– the Pope included. This is when we see huge banking institutions that are not tied directly to the church form and powerful families including the Medici’s begin to take the stage. Not only did this family dominate the financial aspects of Renaissance Italy, they sponsored many of our beloved artists. Most notably Leonardo de Vinici.
The century begins with an odd shift not often discussed due to it being temporary: the Avignon Papacy. Rome had been chosen centuries beforehand when St. Peter, who had been chosen by Jesus himself to be the “rock” of Christianity, had been martyred in the city. Pope Clement V, though, pressured by the French King and growing factions in Rome, made a drastic decision to house himself in Avignon, France and the papacy did not return to Rome for several decades. While this had lasting effects on both France and the papacy, it left a vacancy for the Renaissance to sneak into Florence.
But if the Pope is in France, who is ruling Italy?
Well, at this point, Italy a country. At this point in history we are discussing several states and duchies that are constantly under regime changes as Spain and France attempt to determine dominance through land conquest:
Papal State (Rome to Bologna), Republic of Florence, Republic of Venice, Republic of Siena, Republic of Lucca, Republic of Genoa, Kingdom of Naples, Kingdom of Sicily, Duchy of Savoy, Duchy of Milan, and the Duchy of Ferrara and Modena.
Each had its own ruler and customs, and constructed up the Italian States. These territories were fought over intensely. Aragon (and eventually half of Spain) were given control of Sicily during this century and by the end the Holy Roman Emperor and France were battling for control of Milan and Savoy in what we now call the Italian Wars.
We also bear witness to masses of tragedy that create panic among the Italian countries. Along with the papacy moving to France we see the fall of their loyal soldiers, the Knights Templar, just as the Great Famine of 1515 rears its ugly head followed by the Black Plague. To top it off, Northern Italy experiences a 6.9 earthquake leading the people to the conclusion of the Apocalypse.
Basically they had almost 50 years of disease, hunger, and fear. As we have all been through a single year of this in 2020 with our minds barely intact, we have a better understanding of classics like the Divine Comedy. It’s easy to imagine hell when you believe you are trekking through it already. It also helps us understand Petratch’s desperation to connect to a period not devoured by death. It is said that only tragedy can birth true beauty, and in the case of the Renaissance that is true. Not that in the fact the entire Middle Ages was a miserable existence, but that these decades here bore a desire to push passed the status quo in a desire to not only survive, but to live.
This is a common theme within the countries it infects and bares fruit ideas that would have scandaled the men of this century, while emboldening Kings and Queens to rule as they never had before. Some even break with the Church of Rome, while others hold the city hostage, and the Pope with it.
- “Italian Peninsula, 1000–1400 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=07®ion=eust (October 2001)
- The Great Famine of 1315 — Frequently Asked Questions
Viking, Courtesy of, and Photograph by Ahmad Gharabli. “The Templars Got Rich Fighting for God-Then Lost It All.” National Geographic News, 23 Sept. 2017, http://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/09/knights-templar-crusades-dan-jones/#close.