The Italian trade routes that covered the Mediterranean and beyond were also major conduits of culture and knowledge. The recovery of lost Greek classics and, to a lesser extent, Arab advancements on them following the Crusader conquest of the Byzantine heartlands , revitalized medieval philosophy in the Renaissance of the 12th century , just as the refugee Byzantine scholars who migrated to Italy during and following the Turkish conquest of the Byzantines between the 12th and 15th centuries were important in sparking the new linguistic studies of the Renaissance, in newly created academies in Florence and Venice.
Humanist scholars searched monastic libraries for ancient manuscripts and recovered Tacitus and other Latin authors. The rediscovery of Vitruvius meant that the architectural principles of Antiquity could be observed once more, and Renaissance artists were encouraged, in the atmosphere of humanist optimism, to excel the achievements of the Ancients, like Apelles , of whom they read. In the 13th century, much of Europe experienced strong economic growth. The trade routes of the Italian states linked with those of established Mediterranean ports and eventually the Hanseatic League of the Baltic and northern regions of Europe to create a network economy in Europe for the first time since the 4th century.
The city-states of Italy expanded greatly during this period and grew in power to become de facto fully independent of the Holy Roman Empire ; apart from the Kingdom of Naples , outside powers kept their armies out of Italy. During this period, the modern commercial infrastructure developed, with double-entry book-keeping , joint stock companies , an international banking system, a systematized foreign exchange market , insurance , and government debt.
The new mercantile governing class, who gained their position through financial skill, adapted to their purposes the feudal aristocratic model that had dominated Europe in the Middle Ages. A feature of the High Middle Ages in Northern Italy was the rise of the urban communes which had broken from the control by bishops and local counts. In much of the region, the landed nobility was poorer than the urban patriarchs in the High Medieval money economy whose inflationary rise left land-holding aristocrats impoverished.
The increase in trade during the early Renaissance enhanced these characteristics. The decline of feudalism and the rise of cities influenced each other; for example, the demand for luxury goods led to an increase in trade, which led to greater numbers of tradesmen becoming wealthy, who, in turn, demanded more luxury goods. This change also gave the merchants almost complete control of the governments of the Italian city-states, again enhancing trade.
One of the most important effects of this political control was security. Those that grew extremely wealthy in a feudal state ran constant risk of running afoul of the monarchy and having their lands confiscated, as famously occurred to Jacques Coeur in France. The northern states also kept many medieval laws that severely hampered commerce, such as those against usury , and prohibitions on trading with non-Christians.
In the city-states of Italy, these laws were repealed or rewritten. The 14th century saw a series of catastrophes that caused the European economy to go into recession. The Hundred Years' War between England and France disrupted trade throughout northwest Europe, most notably when, in , King Edward III of England repudiated his debts, contributing to the collapse of the two largest Florentine banks, those of the Bardi and Peruzzi.
In the east, war was also disrupting trade routes, as the Ottoman Empire began to expand throughout the region. Most devastating, though, was the Black Death that decimated the populations of the densely populated cities of Northern Italy and returned at intervals thereafter. It was during this period of instability that the Renaissance authors such as Dante and Petrarch lived, and the first stirrings of Renaissance art were to be seen, notably in the realism of Giotto.
Paradoxically, some of these disasters would help establish the Renaissance. The Black Death wiped out a third of Europe's population. The resulting labour shortage increased wages and the reduced population was therefore much wealthier, better fed, and, significantly, had more surplus money to spend on luxury goods.
As incidences of the plague began to decline in the early 15th century, Europe's devastated population once again began to grow. The new demand for products and services also helped create a growing class of bankers , merchants, and skilled artisans. The horrors of the Black Death and the seeming inability of the Church to provide relief would contribute to a decline of church influence. Additionally, the collapse of the Bardi and Peruzzi banks would open the way for the Medici to rise to prominence in Florence. Roberto Sabatino Lopez argues that the economic collapse was a crucial cause of the Renaissance.
However, in the leaner years of the 14th century, the wealthy found few promising investment opportunities for their earnings and instead chose to spend more on culture and art. Another popular explanation for the Italian Renaissance is the thesis, first advanced by historian Hans Baron ,  that states that the primary impetus of the early Renaissance was the long-running series of wars between Florence and Milan. By the late 14th century, Milan had become a centralized monarchy under the control of the Visconti family.
Giangaleazzo Visconti , who ruled the city from to , was renowned both for his cruelty and for his abilities, and set about building an empire in Northern Italy. He launched a long series of wars, with Milan steadily conquering neighbouring states and defeating the various coalitions led by Florence that sought in vain to halt the advance. This culminated in the siege of Florence, when it looked as though the city was doomed to fall, before Giangaleazzo suddenly died and his empire collapsed.
Baron's thesis suggests that during these long wars, the leading figures of Florence rallied the people by presenting the war as one between the free republic and a despotic monarchy, between the ideals of the Greek and Roman Republics and those of the Roman Empire and Medieval kingdoms. For Baron, the most important figure in crafting this ideology was Leonardo Bruni.
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This time of crisis in Florence was the period when the most influential figures of the early Renaissance were coming of age, such as Ghiberti , Donatello , Masolino , and Brunelleschi. Inculcated with this republican ideology they later went on to advocate republican ideas that were to have an enormous impact on the Renaissance. High Medieval Northern Italy was further divided by the long-running battle for supremacy between the forces of the Papacy and of the Holy Roman Empire : each city aligned itself with one faction or the other, yet was divided internally between the two warring parties, Guelfs and Ghibellines.
Warfare between the states was common, invasion from outside Italy confined to intermittent sorties of Holy Roman Emperors. Renaissance politics developed from this background. Since the 13th century, as armies became primarily composed of mercenaries , prosperous city-states could field considerable forces, despite their low populations. In the course of the 15th century, the most powerful city-states annexed their smaller neighbors.
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The first part of the Renaissance saw almost constant warfare on land and sea as the city-states vied for preeminence. On land, these wars were primarily fought by armies of mercenaries known as condottieri , bands of soldiers drawn from around Europe, but especially Germany and Switzerland, led largely by Italian captains. The mercenaries were not willing to risk their lives unduly, and war became one largely of sieges and maneuvering, occasioning few pitched battles.
It was also in the interest of mercenaries on both sides to prolong any conflict, to continue their employment. Mercenaries were also a constant threat to their employers; if not paid, they often turned on their patron. If it became obvious that a state was entirely dependent on mercenaries, the temptation was great for the mercenaries to take over the running of it themselves—this occurred on a number of occasions.
At sea, Italian city-states sent many fleets out to do battle. The main contenders were Pisa, Genoa, and Venice, but after a long conflict the Genoese succeeded in reducing Pisa. Venice proved to be a more powerful adversary, and with the decline of Genoese power during the 15th century Venice became pre-eminent on the seas. In response to threats from the landward side, from the early 15th century Venice developed an increased interest in controlling the terrafirma as the Venetian Renaissance opened.
On land, decades of fighting saw Florence, Milan and Venice emerge as the dominant players, and these three powers finally set aside their differences and agreed to the Peace of Lodi in , which saw relative calm brought to the region for the first time in centuries. This peace would hold for the next forty years, and Venice's unquestioned hegemony over the sea also led to unprecedented peace for much of the rest of the 15th century.
Until the late 14th century, prior to the Medici, Florence's leading family were the House of Albizzi. In the Ordinances of Justice were enacted which effectively became the constitution of the republic of Florence throughout the Italian Renaissance.
The main challengers of the Albizzi family were the Medicis , first under Giovanni de' Medici , later under his son Cosimo di Giovanni de' Medici. The Medici controlled the Medici bank —then Europe's largest bank—and an array of other enterprises in Florence and elsewhere. In , the Albizzi managed to have Cosimo exiled.
The Medici became the town's leading family, a position they would hold for the next three centuries. Florence organized the trade routes for commodities between England and the Netherlands, France, and Italy. By the middle of the century, the city had become the banking capital of Europe, and thereby obtained vast riches. This brought books and, especially after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in , an influx of scholars to the city. Florence remained a republic until , traditionally marking the end of the High Renaissance in Florence, but the instruments of republican government were firmly under the control of the Medici and their allies, save during the intervals after and Cosimo and Lorenzo rarely held official posts, but were the unquestioned leaders.
Cosimo de' Medici was highly popular among the citizenry, mainly for bringing an era of stability and prosperity to the town. One of his most important accomplishments was negotiating the Peace of Lodi with Francesco Sforza ending the decades of war with Milan and bringing stability to much of Northern Italy.
Cosimo was also an important patron of the arts, directly and indirectly, by the influential example he set. Cosimo was succeeded by his sickly son Piero de' Medici , who died after five years in charge of the city. In the reins of power passed to Cosimo's year-old grandson Lorenzo , who would become known as "Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Under Lorenzo, the Medici rule was formalized with the creation of a new Council of Seventy , which Lorenzo headed. The republican institutions continued, but they lost all power. Lorenzo was less successful than his illustrious forebears in business, and the Medici commercial empire was slowly eroded. Lorenzo continued the alliance with Milan, but relations with the papacy soured, and in , Papal agents allied with the Pazzi family in an attempt to assassinate Lorenzo. Although the plot failed, Lorenzo's young brother, Giuliano , was killed, and the failed assassination led to a war with the Papacy and was used as justification to further centralize power in Lorenzo's hands.
Renaissance ideals first spread from Florence to the neighbouring states of Tuscany such as Siena and Lucca.
The Tuscan culture soon became the model for all the states of Northern Italy, and the Tuscan variety of Italian came to predominate throughout the region, especially in literature. In Francesco Sforza came to power in Milan and rapidly transformed that still medieval city into a major centre of art and learning that drew Leone Battista Alberti.
Venice , one of the wealthiest cities due to its control of the Adriatic Sea, also became a centre for Renaissance culture, especially architecture. Smaller courts brought Renaissance patronage to lesser cities, which developed their characteristic arts: Ferrara , Mantua under the Gonzaga , and Urbino under Federico da Montefeltro. In Naples , the Renaissance was ushered in under the patronage of Alfonso I who conquered Naples in and encouraged artists like Francesco Laurana and Antonello da Messina and writers like the poet Jacopo Sannazaro and the humanist scholar Angelo Poliziano.
In the Papacy returned to Rome, but that once imperial city remained poor and largely in ruins through the first years of the Renaissance.
He launched a dramatic rebuilding effort that would eventually see much of the city renewed. As the papacy fell under the control of the wealthy families, such as the Medici and the Borgias the spirit of Renaissance art and philosophy came to dominate the Vatican. The popes also became increasingly secular rulers as the Papal States were forged into a centralized power by a series of "warrior popes". The nature of the Renaissance also changed in the late 15th century. The Renaissance ideal was fully adopted by the ruling classes and the aristocracy.
In the early Renaissance artists were seen as craftsmen with little prestige or recognition. By the later Renaissance the top figures wielded great influence and could charge great fees. A flourishing trade in Renaissance art developed. While in the early Renaissance many of the leading artists were of lower- or middle-class origins, increasingly they became aristocrats. As a cultural movement, the Italian Renaissance affected only a small part of the population. Italy was the most urbanized region of Europe, but three quarters of the people were still rural peasants.
Some scholars see a trend towards refeudalization in the later Renaissance as the urban elites turned themselves into landed aristocrats. The situation differed in the cities. These were dominated by a commercial elite; as exclusive as the aristocracy of any Medieval kingdom. This group became the main patrons of and audience for Renaissance culture. Below them there was a large class of artisans and guild members who lived comfortable lives and had significant power in the republican governments.
This was in sharp contrast to the rest of Europe where artisans were firmly in the lower class. Literate and educated, this group did participate in the Renaissance culture. Like the peasants, the Renaissance had little effect on them. Historians debate how easy it was to move between these groups during the Italian Renaissance.
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