The Italian states of the fifteenth century have been called “the school of Europe,” instructing the rest of the Continent in the new realistic ways of power politics. Despots like Il Moro, Cesare Borgia, Lorenzo the Magnificent, and the oligarchs of Venice might well have given lessons in statecraft to Henry VII of England or Louis XI of France.
The Rise of the Nation
The third great north Italian state, Venice, enjoyed a political stability that contrasted with the turbulence of Milan and Florence. By the fifteenth century the Republic of Saint Mark, as it was called, was in fact an empire that controlled the lower Po valley on the Italian mainland, the Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic, the Ionian islands, and part of mainland Greece. The Po territories had been annexed to secure the defenses and food supply of the island capital, and the others were the legacy of its aggressive role in the Crusades.
The Republic of Florence, like that of Milan, was a fragile combination of aristocratic and democratic elements. It was badly shaken by Guelf-Ghibelline rivalries and by the emergence of an ambitious wealthy class of bankers and merchants. In the twelfth century the commune had acquired a dominant position.
Milan lay in the midst of the fertile plain of Lombardy. It was the terminus of trade routes from northern Europe and was also a textile and metalworking center.
In Italy the medieval struggle between popes and emperors had promoted the growth of independent communes or city-states, particularly in northern Italy. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the communes were oligarchic republics. The ruling oligarchies, however, were torn by the strife between the pro-papal Guelfs and the pro- imperial Ghibellines. Meantime, something close to class warfare arose between the wealthy, on the one hand, and the small shopkeepers and wage earners, on the other. Dissension grew so bitter that arbitrary one-man government seemed the only remedy.
The imperial title survived. It went to Rudolf of Habsburg (r. 1273-1291), whose estates lay mostly in Switzerland. Rudolf wanted to establish a hereditary monarchy for his family and make this monarchy as rich and as powerful as possible. He added Austria to the family holdings, and his descendants ruled at Vienna until 1918. Rudolf made concessions to the French in the west to get their support for the new Habsburg monarchy.