Tensions in Renaissance Cities

Great and Wretched Cities

Lavish courts and towering cathedrals, entrancing polyphony and artistic masterpieces—our romantic fascination with the cultural glories of the Renaissance often eclipses one truth, recorded by astute observers of the age like Machiavelli, that the era of Michelangelo and Shakespeare was, in many ways, darker than the “Dark Ages” which it named.  The crisis had one unexpected cause: progress.  In the centuries after the Black Death, regenerating urban centers, strengthened by financial and commercial innovations, linked together to form an increasingly interconnected society.  Soon English wool was no longer finished at home, but exported to be woven and dyed in Italy, before shipping out across trade networks which stretched from the Middle East deep into the New World.  As Europe’s economic bloodstream strengthened, the same increase in trade and travel which let architects build with exotic stones and scholars recover lost Greek manuscripts also transmitted diseases with unprecedented speed and ferocity, while larger, denser cities were richer breeding grounds for violence and contagions.  As wealth and power flowed in, richer states could muster larger armies, innovative weaponry could shed blood on unprecedented scales, and ambitious rising families could hire mercenary forces larger than frail governments could withstand.  

This exhibit lays out a geography of tensions which characterized Renaissance cities.  In a world still plagued by war and banditry, urban growth often meant density rather than sprawl, as swelling populations jockeyed for space within the circumferences of city walls.  Crowded and wealthy cities became powder kegs, where old tensions—between men and women, citizens and visitors, Jews and Christians, religious and secular authorities—channeled the energies of new and increasing factional and economic rivalries.  Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets are fictitious portraits of a real phenomenon, and such violence often brought ruin on far more than just two houses. Great families led patronage networks which included hundreds of clients from many social classes, whose members lived only a few blocks from their bitterest rivals, and whose alliances reached out into dozens of neighboring towns and distant capitals.  Tensions between cities intensified as well, as economic interdependence, and printing which enabled the faster circulation of news and new ideas, allowed tumults in one city to bring strife to another half a world away.  Cities competed to frame their political identities, claiming uniqueness and dignity by presenting themselves as the capitals of particular trades, religious movements, cultural innovations, or political structures, often in ways which contradicted or challenged the identities claimed by their neighbors.  Art, literature, and culture recorded these tensions and also relieved them, offering bloodless avenues for competition, and a release valve for the pressure that kept Renaissance cities forever on the edge of violence.

Where Antiquity is Power

Desperate times birth desperate measures, and the Renaissance’s desperation birthed a true cultural transformation: the revival of antiquity.  The Florentine poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) wrote of the wretched state of Italy, fractured by selfish wars of vendetta and ambition, and threatened by mighty France and Spain. But since the ancient Romans had conquered Europe, Petrarch speculated, surely their descendants could achieve the same if they recovered the lost arts of their ancestors.

For Europe, ancient Rome was a golden age, whose relics saturated the countryside from England to Turkey. Renaissance humanism was a cultural and educational movement dedicated to reviving the lost arts of antiquity, not just for aesthetic or intellectual purposes, but as a survival mechanism.  Humanists argued that works of ancient art and engineering would make Italian city-states glorious and strong, books of law and statecraft would make them just and stable, and books of ethics and philosophy would restore the values which had made Cicero and Seneca put city and people before ambition and self-interest. Soon a French ambassador, arriving in Florence filled with scorn for this ignoble merchant republic, found himself awed by bronzes of impossible complexity, libraries packed with rediscovered secrets, and new buildings which invoked the awe-inspiring ruins that littered France.

Antiquity offered an alternate nobility, deriving, not from blood or chivalry, but from the memory of Rome. Art intimidated, cowed, and tempted, and visitors to Italy quickly realized they too could use classicism to glorify themselves. For glory-hungry cities and monarchs alike, cultural competition had long been an alternative to conquest. Patrons of the classics could outshine rivals by possessing the most learned Greek scholar, the most classical palace, or the most extensive library.  Soon every city in the European sphere hungered for Roman sculptures, Italian artists, and humanist scholars. For factions within cities, displaying power through a festival song, a statue, or a learned sermon was a bloodless alternative to displaying strength through violence.

While the classical revival did not bring peace to war-torn Europe, it was one of the most powerful cultural transformations in human history, and the export of humanism by explorers and missionaries made classical antiquity a vocabulary of power recognized from Mexico to Japan.  In this sense, the Renaissance world was not limited to Europe, but included every part of the Earth that was touched by the revival of Greek and Roman antiquity.

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