The Birth of the Renaissance in Italy

By William Landon, Northern Kentucky University

The Renaissance was born in Florence. Due to the demographic changes caused by the Black Death and by the political turmoil, a group of scholars based in Florence began to seek answers to their current problems in past human experiences – and they chose to explore themselves focus on Rome. That’s the term Renaissance means “rebirth”.

Mural painting by Renaissance artist Raphael.
Florence became the birthplace of the Renaissance because of its highly qualified scholars. (Image: Raffael/Public domain)

Florence in the wake of the Black Death

Eventually, the devastation of the Black Death in Europe allowed already successful economies to be reshaped. As urban economies like Florence’s began to recover, people from the countryside moved to the city in search of work.

Among those who moved to Florence from the contadocountryside around Florence, some became skilled craftsmen, merchants, politicians and even bankers.

Many of those who became successful also dominated the Florentine government. Those with old surnames, like the Strozzi and the Albizzi, to name just two, were able to retain much of their power, but they were overthrown by the nuovi ricchi who entered the Florentine nobility because of their business acumen.

The new Florentine government that developed after the Black Death was increasingly diverse. But the urban poor, who bore most of Florence’s tax burden, remained underrepresented and therefore resented the city’s old and new elite.

This article is taken directly from content in the video series How the Medici shaped the Renaissance. Watch it now on Wondrium.

The Ciompi Rebellion

Painting showing the Ciompi Rebellion.
The Ciompi Rebellion was a series of armed rebellions by the working poor of Florence. (Image: Giuseppe Lorenzo Gatteri/Public domain)

By 1378 groups among the working poor of Florence began a series of armed rebellions known collectively as the Ciompi Rebellion. the ciompia Florentine word for “wool beater”, strove for political representation, fairer taxation, and the opportunity to join the guild network that dominated Florence’s economy.

Guilds were practically the first manifestations of organized labor. They existed throughout Europe, but in Florence in particular, the large Florentine guilds were extremely powerful due to their international wool trade. The working poor were denied membership in the guilds, which meant they were denied participation in civic affairs and the protection the guilds offered.

The Ciompi overthrew the government of Florence, installed their own representatives and founded new guilds. However, the revolutionary government of her people went too far beyond the bounds of the oligarchic traditions of Florentine government. It couldn’t last. The Ciompi government was overthrown in 1382 after only four years in power; by a coalition of old Florentine families.

Tensions between Florence’s old elite and the poor residents

These old families deeply distrusted the Ciompi, but they felt compelled to reform Florence’s tax structure, ease punitive taxation of the city’s working poor, and open Florence’s old guild network to greater membership.

Tensions between Florence’s ancient elites and the city’s poor were never fully healed. In fact, one could argue that the Medici family used this deep division to rise to power in Florence. When the Ciompi Rebellion first broke out in Florence in 1378, Salvestro de’ Medici, a wealthy Florentine patrician – but notably not of ancient noble lineage – sided with the woolbeaters against the nobility in order to end Florence’s unbalanced political system to reorganize.

In the nearly four years of turmoil that followed, Salvestro was viewed as a traitor by the Florentine elite and yet not revolutionary enough by the Ciompi. He was exiled in 1382: a political embarrassment that pushed the Medici out of Florentine government for over two decades.

The Renaissance

Historians have endlessly debated why the Renaissance was born in Florence. A satisfactory answer indicates that at the end of the 14thth In the 19th century Florence happened to be home to a group of scholars of the highest order, individuals of almost unparalleled genius. They sought answers to the problems caused by the Black Death and political unrest in humanity’s past – and chose to focus on Rome.

The term Renaissance means “rebirth” – of classical texts, the literature of antiquity.

At this point, two keywords associated with the Renaissance have emerged: “literature” and “texts”. In the early Renaissance, the definition of “literature” was much broader than our contemporary ideas associated with the word. The world of the ancient Romans included rhetoric, history, geography, mathematics, the literary arts of all kinds, and the study of the Latin language itself.

Such studies were only made possible by combing monastic libraries for long-neglected Roman “texts.” Why have these texts been neglected? Well, the simple answer is that they were the product of pagan – that is, pre-Christian and non-Christian – thinking.

Significance of Pagan Thought

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, its successor, the Roman Catholic Church, was not particularly interested in Gentiles who had clearly been judged by God. But monastic orders across Europe still recognized the importance of pagan thought. As a result, texts from the classical world were copied, shared, and stored—although they were rarely studied.

When the Black Death made it clear that Christian Europe was not immune from God’s judgment, some of the survivors of that catastrophe sought answers outside the Christian tradition – and they found them in texts preserved in monastic libraries.

These seekers of truth came to be known as humanists – a title derived from the curriculum they developed humanitatis (The Study of What It Means to Be Human) – which focused on ancient literature. Today we call the study of these literatures the humanities.

The Republican Humanists

By the turn of the 14th century, the Florentine government was filled with humanists. After enduring almost 50 years of turmoil, they attempted to apply Roman precedent to their predicament and they established a republic.

Despite their obsession with pagan classical antiquity, the republican humanists in Florence did not abandon their Christian faith. They were pious geniuses trying to reconcile classical pagan tradition with Catholic orthodoxy.

One of the “issues” raised was access to capital. Under the successive leadership of the highly learned Coluccio Salutati and the humane and extremely eloquent Leonardo Bruni, the banking restrictions were slowly being lifted. These selective relaxations were supplemented by similar measures by the papacy.

Frequently asked questions about the birth of the Renaissance in Italy

Q: What does the ciompi Searching through the Ciompi Rebellion?

By the Ciompi Revolutionthat ciompi sought political representation, fairer taxation, and an opportunity to join the guild network that dominated Florence’s economy.

Q: Why have some Roman “texts” been neglected in monastic libraries for a long time?

Some Roman ‘texts’ were neglected because they were the product of pagan—that is, pre-Christian and non-Christian—thoughts.

Q: What does the term ‘humanitatis‘ mean?

The term humanitatis meant the “study of what it means to be human”. It focused on ancient literature. Today we call the study of these literatures the Humanities.

Continue reading
The Influence of Ancient Rome on the Italian Renaissance
Education in the Renaissance
The Black Death: How It Devastated Florence

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