In the 14th century an epidemic of plague, known as the Black Death, wiped out one-quarter to one-third of Europe’s population, and seriously set back the commercial expansion of the previous century. Recovery was relatively rapid, however, and by the early 15th century cities in northern and central Italy were the centers of the most important commercial, manufacturing, and banking enterprises in Europe. In Florence modern accounting and banking was invented, and Italian textiles were sold throughout the Christian and Muslim worlds. The wealth thus created made possible artistic patronage and the extraordinary flourishing of art that began in the early 13th century with Giotto and Duccio and continued into the 16th century, the age of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. During the same period the Italian city-states nurtured the writers from whom much of later European literature developed. Florence, for example, was the home of both the poet Dante Alighieri and political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli. Siena, Pisa, Milan, Venice, and many small city-states such as Mantua were also major centers of artistic patronage.
The city-states achieved a remarkable degree of autonomy in the 14th and early 15th centuries because of the weakness of both the German emperors and the papacy. Between 1305 and 1377 the pope and his court resided in France, at Avignon, to avoid the turmoil in Rome. After the election of pope Urban VII in 1378 was declared invalid, rival popes claimed legitimacy, further weakening the papacy. This schism in the church lasted until the Council of Constance in 1420. The absence of the popes in Italy during the second half of the 14th century also weakened French rule in Italy, which had survived in Naples after Sicily came under Spanish control. In 1422 Alfonso V, king of Aragón and Sicily, gained control of Naples and reunited Sicily and the southern Italian mainland (Naples) under a single crown.
Under Aragónese leadership the southern kingdom again became a political power, and Naples emerged as a cultural center. The popes who came after the Council of Constance restored the influence of the papacy and began to extend papal authority in central Italy by exploiting rivalries between powerful city-states. The papacy, however, resented the power of the Aragónese monarchy, and in 1494 pope Alexander VI, in alliance with the rulers of Milan, invited the French king to invade Italy and claim the throne of Naples. "Italy" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.
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