Travel topics > Cultural attractions > Historical travel > European history > Medieval and Renaissance Italy
- See also: European history
Italy was not unified as a nation-state until the 19th century. From the fall of the Roman Empire, the nation was mostly divided between city-states and regional kingdoms. Still, from the 14th to 16th centuries, Italy experienced a Golden Age, known as the Renaissance, with wondrous feats of art and science, as well as intrigue and conflict.
Those who lived before AD 1500 obviously did not use the term "Middle Ages" for their own time; the concept of "Middle Ages" or "Dark Ages" was coined in the 17th century, when Europeans often regarded the enlightened ideals of Ancient Greek and the Roman Empire to have been lost with the fall of Rome in the 5th century, and revived in the 14th to 17th centuries; the word renaissance (Italian: rinascimento) means "rebirth".
During this millennium, Europe was dominated by feudal monarchies. Italy was an exception, as city-states held power. Many of them had a prosperous merchant class, who made profit from the Silk Route and other routes.
Nationalism only arose in the late 18th, early 19th century and the states had little to no sense of being "Italian" in any sense but the geographic. The city-states were usually rivals, though the Catholic Church was a unifying force. Although most of the city-states had their own languages, such as Venetian in Venice and Neapolitan in Naples, the popularity of Dante Alighieri's works gradually led to the Tuscan language becoming the lingua franca of the entire Italian peninsula, eventually resulting in the Florentine dialect of the Tuscan language being selected as the basis for standard Italian upon unification.
The period from AD 1000 to the mid-14th century is today described as the High Middle Ages; in Italy and other European countries it saw the rise of cathedrals, universities and castles that have survived until today. Italy became a thoroughfare for the Crusades to the Holy Land. This period of relative progress is held to have ended with the Great Famine in the 1310s and the Black Death of the 1340s.
While many pieces of lost ancient knowledge were indeed re-invented during the Renaissance (such as perspective painting, concrete casting, and republican government), the periodization is disputed. Graeco-Roman scholarship survived through the Byzantine, Islamic and Ottoman civilizations, and the arts and sciences in Europe made significant progress from at least AD 1000, so some historians today disregard the dichotomic concept of "middle ages" and "renaissance". Still, the continuity with Roman civilization was probably particularly strong in Italy, with relics of ancient Rome all around that people could look at and be influenced by or copy.
Among critical technologies of the 15th century were the printing press (which brought the Bible, ancient literature, legal documents and news stories to common people, and allowed the rise of vernacular written language parallel to Latin), gunpowder weapons (which disrupted the feudal system by obsoleting castles and chivalry) and the mariner's compass (which made navigation easier). These had been known in imperial China for centuries, and it is still unknown whether they were imported from Asia, or independently invented in Europe.
Decimal numbers were indisputably adopted from the east, and are still today known as Arabic numerals. While they were known in southern Europe since the 10th century, the printing press brought them to widespread use in the 15th century.
Oil painting on canvas and wood was developed in the 15th century in the Netherlands and Italy, and became the most iconic legacy of the Renaissance; see European art.
The Renaissance ideals spread to the rest of Europe in the 16th century, and contributed to the Protestant Reformation, in which Christian congregations withdrew from the Roman Catholic Church. While the Protestants were successful in many parts of northern Europe, they failed in Italy, which has remained nearly universally Catholic.
As Vasco da Gama discovered the Cape Route around Africa, commerce between Europe and Asia shifted from the Mediterranean to the high seas, making Italy less important.
Following the 16th-century Italian Wars, the Italian states lost their cultural and economic dominance, and some of them were conquered by foreign empires, such as Spain and the Kingdom of France, with the Ottomans wresting control of some of their possessions in the Eastern Mediterranean. Austria later occupied much of Northern Italy. Italy was not unified until the 19th century, and the cities and regions maintain strong cultural identities today, often with roots in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
While politically divided, the Italian peninsula has remained a hotspot for fashion, visual arts and classical music to this day. Italy was an important destination on the Grand Tour, the traditional educational journey for the few young men and women who could afford to travel.
- 1 Venice. Capital of the Venetian Republic and absolutely chock-full of splendid Gothic and Renaissance buildings. While La Serenissima only lost its status as an independent republic in 1797, its heyday (and most of its architecture) date to the Renaissance.
- 2 Verona. Famous as the location of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the city's real-life history is also exciting.
- 3 Mantua. The city of the Gonzaga family. UNESCO World Heritage site. Claudio Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, the earliest opera that is still regularly performed today, premiered in the Ducal Palace in 1607.
- 6 Bologna. The location of what is arguably the world's oldest university and certainly the oldest in the Christian world, the University of Bologna (Università di Bologna).
- 7 Genoa. Controlled the western half of the Mediterranean, and was the hometown of Christopher Columbus.
- 8 Milan. The Duomo, Milan's most famous building, is a huge Gothic edifice that was begun in 1386 and took almost 600 years to complete.
- 9 Turin.
- 10 Pisa. A Medieval rival of Florence, it was defeated before Siena but produced the world-famous Campo dei Miracoli, featuring the Leaning Tower, Duomo, Baptistery and Camposanto Monumentale, and also Santa Maria della Spina in a separate location near the Arno.
- 11 Florence. The city of the Medici merchant-rulers, who helped trigger the early Renaissance; it is the city of Dante, Petrarch, Landini, Giotto, Donatello, Ghiberti, the Della Robbia brothers, Botticelli and Michelangelo, among many other brilliant artists in different media (literature, music, painting, sculpture). Even today, the standard form of the Italian language is based on the dialect of Tuscan spoken in Florence. Anyone with the vaguest interest in the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Italy should make sure to visit Florence. Also the birthplace of opera; the first ever opera, Jacopo Peri's Dafne (now lost), was premiered at the Palazzo Corsi in 1598.
- 12 San Gimignano. San Gimignano is an extremely well-preserved small Medieval walled city, with great art in its municipal museum and churches and impressive towers that are several hundred years old
- 13 Siena. Once fiercely warlike, Siena was Florence's chief rival in Gothic times, as reflected in its architecture, and had its own unique but more conservative school of art in its heyday (13th-15th centuries), which you can see in its magnificent Romanesque Duomo, Baptistery, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, with its magnificent Maestá by Duccio, the museum in the late 13th-/early 14th-century Palazzo Pubblico, still the city's town hall, and the various other churches, museums and palazzi around town. Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena (founded in 1472 with headquarters in the Gothic Palazzo Salimbeni) is the oldest continuously-operating bank in the world. Another Medieval aspect of Siena is the twice-yearly Palio, a horse race preceded by time-honored pageantry and processions that has been run almost every year since the 12th century and has since 1590 been restricted to the Piazza del Campo, the city's famous Medieval central piazza.
- 14 Chiusure. The tiny town of Chiusure is notable as the location of the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, a 14th-century Benedictine monastery that is still active today; it contains frescoes by the Renaissance master, Luca Signorelli on one side of the Cloister and some impressive 15th-century intarsial woodwork in the Choir.
- 15 Arezzo. Arezzo's central Piazza Grande is Medieval, and this ancient city features the Gothic Basilica di San Domenico, which has a painted Crucifix by the late Romanesque master, Cimabue; the Medieval church of San Francesco, which contains the frescoes of Legend of the True Cross by the Renaissance master, Piero della Francesca; and the Duomo, where Guido d'Arezzo invented the musical system of solfeggio in the early 11th century.
- 16 Pienza. Redesigned according to a central plan in Gothic style in honor of Pope Pius II, who ruled from 1458 till his death in 1464, its Centro storico remains a living Gothic space and is a UNESCO World Heritage site
- 17 Gubbio. This small Umbrian city, like the larger Tuscan city of Siena, is a walled Medieval hill town, and while it has no single building as spectacular as Siena's Palazzo Pubblico or Duomo, its collection of buildings and physical location are very beautiful
- 18 Perugia. Perugia is a walled, cobblestoned city that makes a rewarding visit for fans of the Gothic and early Renaissance in Italy. The central Piazza IV Novembre is graced with the Fontana Maggiore, sculpted by the great early Gothic sculptor, Giovanni Pisano, and bounded by the Gothic Duomo (San Lorenzo) and Palazzo dei Priori — and those are just the highest highlights.
- 19 Assisi. Assisi is the city of the Medieval Saint Francis, after whom the current pope took his papal name; accordingly, the Basilica di San Francesco (Basilica of St. Francis), containing work by Cimabue, Giotto, Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti, although damaged in the 1997 earthquake and painstakingly restored, is the highlight among quite a few other Medieval buildings.
- 20 Spoleto. This ancient Roman garrison town also features a beautiful Romanesque Duomo, among other Medieval buildings.
- 21 Orvieto. Orvieto is a walled Medieval hill town with a splendid Gothic Duomo in black and white striped style like Siena's Duomo, with frescoes by Luca Signorelli inside
- 22 Urbino. The Palazzo Ducale, a Renaissance building, today houses the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, with a major Renaissance collection
- 23 Civita di Bagnoregio. A medieval hill town founded by Etruscans.
- 24 Rome. Capital of the Papal States, where the Pope reigned supreme with both religious and political authority. Rome has many famous buildings from the Renaissance, including the Campidoglio and its palaces, which were designed by Michelangelo. But probably the most famous Renaissance works in Rome are frescoes — those in the Sistine Chapel, particularly the ceiling frescoes by Michelangelo, and those by Raphael and Fra Angelico in the Vatican Apartments. The Basilica of St. Peters itself was designed as a Renaissance building by Michelangelo, but its nave and narthex were lengthened by Carlo Maderno in the early 17th century, so the result is quite distinct from a Renaissance aesthetic.
- 25 Priverno. Famous mainly for the Abbey of Fossanova, a historically important building in Burgundian Early Gothic style that functions to this day as a Cistercian monastery.
- 26 Naples. Naples is famous for being an ancient Hellenistic and Roman city and for its 18th- and 19th-century institutions such as the Teatro di San Carlo. However, it also has a number of Medieval buildings including the 13th-century Castel Nuovo, and the National Museum of Capodimonte is a great art museum whose collection includes quite a few Renaissance paintings. It is also known for being the birthplace of pizza.
- Assassin's Creed Tour: Assassin's Creed II and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood take place in Renaissance Italy.