The rise of many prosperous and independent cities in northern and central Italy constitutes the most distinctive feature of Italy’s history during the Middle Ages. As these cities grew more powerful, they came to control their surrounding territories, including smaller cities, and thereby became city-states. Trade was their principal source of wealth.
Venice was the first of the great Italian cities. From its participation in the Fourth Crusade, Venice gained territories from the Byzantine Empire, including Crete, other Greek islands, and portions of the Greek mainland. These possessions placed Venice at the center of a far-reaching commercial empire. Pisa, Genoa, Milan, and Florence also became powerful commercial centers. As their trading links expanded, so did the rivalry among the city-states. The struggles between Genoa and Venice were especially fierce until Venice emerged as the winner in the late 14th century.
As the cities won greater independence from the authority of the Holy Roman emperors, they also became the scenes of intense internal power struggles as prosperous merchants began to challenge the power exercised by the nobles. Gradually, the nobles were stripped of their power and forced to abandon their extensive landholdings. New forms of oligarchic government—government by small groups—emerged. As a result the politics of the city-states became increasingly factionalized (split into competing groups). Rival factions adopted the broader rival causes of the Guelphs and Ghibellines despite their own more localized objectives. Civil strife was incessant, and the triumph of one party frequently resulted in the banishment of members of the other. On occasion, the banished party sought to regain power with the aid of other cities, so that city often warred against city, resulting in shifting alliances, conquests, and temporary truces.
These disturbances interfered with commerce and industry, and in many towns new offices such as the podesta, or chief magistrate, were established to mediate the differences of the contending parties. This office proved ineffective, however, and the podesta came in time to be primarily a judicial officer. His place as head of the city was taken by a “captain of the people,” representing the dominant party. This position was usually held by a noble. From these different experiments power within the cities became more concentrated, resulting in the emergence of individual rulers who were initially referred to as despots, or absolute rulers. The office of despot in many cases became hereditary in a noble family, such as the Scala at Verona, the Este at Ferrara, the Malatesta at Rimini, and the Visconti and later the Sforza at Milan.
Under the rule of the despots, known as signoria in Italian, wealth increased, life became more luxurious, and literature and the arts flourished. The rise of the signoria was accompanied by the territorial expansion of the more powerful cities that became the centers of new city-states. The smaller cities gradually passed under the influence of the larger ones. Italy’s lack of political unity encouraged competition between the city-states in politics and culture as well as commerce. The rise of the city-states and their worldly rulers was accompanied by new ideas of political independence and of the nobility of republican government—that is, government by chosen leaders. In reality, however, these ideas often served to legitimize the leadership of the wealthy families. Both the city-states and the wealthy families invested heavily in patronage of the arts, of artists, and of writers and intellectuals. This provided the background for the unprecedented artistic revival known as the Renaissance and for the birth of humanism. "Italy" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.
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