Italian city-states

gigatos | March 7, 2022


Italian city-states are the political phenomenon of small independent states that existed in the ninth and fifteenth centuries, mainly in the central and northern part of the Apennine Peninsula.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, urban settlements in Italy generally retained a somewhat greater continuity with their Roman heritage than the rest of Western Europe. Many cities survived from earlier Etruscan and Roman cities. The republican institutions of Rome also survived. Some feudal lords used slave labor on large tracts of land, but by the eleventh century cities like Venice, Milan, Florence, Genoa, Pisa, Siena, Lucca, and Cremona had become major trading metropolises, able to gain independence from their formal sovereigns.

The first Italian city-states emerged in northern Italy as a result of the struggle with the Holy Roman Empire for independence. The Lombard League was a union that at its peak included most of the cities of northern Italy, including Milan, Piacenza, Cremona, Mantua, Crema, Bergamo, Brescia, Bologna, Padua, Treviso, Vicenza, Venice, Verona, Lodi, Reggio-nel-Emilia and Parma, although the numbers varied over time. The other city-states acted in conjunction with this “commonwealth” of cities, as did Genoa, Turin and Ragusa.

In central Italy were the city-states of Florence, Pisa, Lucca, Siena and Ancona, and south of Rome and the Papal Region were the city-states of Salerno, Amalfi, Bari, Naples and Trani, which in 1130 were united within the newly created Norman Kingdom of Sicily.

Around 1100 Genoa and Venice emerged as independent maritime republics. For Genoa the nominal ruler was the Holy Roman Emperor, and the bishop was the president of the city; but the real power belonged to a few councillors elected annually in a popular assembly. Pisa and Amalfi also emerged as maritime republics: trade, shipbuilding and banking maintained the strength of these cities on the Mediterranean.

Between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Italy differed considerably from feudal Europe north of the Alps. The peninsula was a mixture of diverse political and cultural elements rather than a single state.

Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel argue that the history of the region was predetermined by its geography; other scholars emphasize the lack of a central political structure. The mountainous nature of the Italian landscape hindered effective inter-city communications. The Padana plain was an exception: it was the only one that represented a broad, coherent territory, and most of the conquered city-states were located here. Those that remained independent for the longest time were in the most rugged terrain, like Florence or Venice (which was protected by its lagoon). The Alps with their cliffs prevented the Holy Roman Emperor and numerous German feudal lords from attacking the northern part of Italy, which protected the country from constant Germanic political control. Mostly for these reasons a strong monarchy did not emerge, as it did in the rest of Europe (the power of the Holy Roman Empire over northern Italy, especially after 1177, was only nominal); instead, independent city-states emerged.

Although Roman urban and republican sentiments were largely stable, there were also many changes and movements. Italy was the first to feel the changes taking place in Europe from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. These were:

In a recent work on city-states, the American scholar Rodney Stark points out that they combined responsible government, Christianity, and the beginnings of capitalism. He points out that these states were essentially republics, unlike the great European monarchies of France and Spain, where absolute power was vested in rulers who could and would discourage the development of commerce. Holding both ecclesiastical and secular power in their hands, the independent urban republics flourished through commerce based on early capitalist principles, ultimately creating the conditions for the artistic and intellectual flowering of the Renaissance.

Cambridge historian and political philosopher Quentin Skinner noted how the German bishop Otto of Freising, who visited central Italy in the twelfth century, described Italian cities as having emerged from feudalism, so that their societies were based on merchants and trade. But the northern city-states were also noteworthy for the phenomenon of merchant republics, especially the Republic of Venice. Compared to absolutist monarchies and other states with greater centralization, the Italian communes and trading republics had greater political freedom, fostering scientific and artistic development. Geographically and through the development of trade, Italian cities such as Venice became international trade and financial hubs as well as intellectual centers.

Harvard historian Neil Ferguson has pointed out that Florence and Venice, like some other Italian city-states, played a crucial innovative role in world financial progress, developing basic banking tools and practices and creating new forms of social and economic organization.

Per capita income in northern Italy is estimated to have roughly tripled between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries. This was a highly mobile society with a growing population, accelerated by the rapid development of commerce during the Renaissance.

At the beginning of the 14th century Italy was the economic capital of Western Europe: the states of the Apennine peninsula were the main producers of finished wool products. However, with the coming of the bubonic plague in 1348, the birth of the English wool industry and a permanent military position, Italy temporarily lost its economic advantage. By the end of the fifteenth century, however, Italy had regained control of the Mediterranean trade. It found a new niche in the trade of luxury goods such as ceramics, glassware, lace and silk, while at the same time temporarily reviving the wool industry.

However, Italy never regained such a strong position in the textile industry. Although it was the birthplace of the banking industry, by the sixteenth century German and Dutch banks began to create serious competition. The discovery of America at the end of the fifteenth century, as well as new routes to Africa and India (which made Spain and Portugal leaders in trade) caused a decline in Italian economic power.

By the thirteenth century, northern and central Italy was the most literate society in the world. More than a third of the male population could read in local dialects (an unprecedented level since the fall of the Western Roman Empire), as did a small but notable percentage of women.

Italian city-states also had an extremely high proportion of the population adept at counting, which was related to the importance of developing new forms of accountancy necessary for the merchant base of society. Some of the most common books, such as Leonardo Fibonacci”s Book of the Abacus (Liber Abaci) of Pisa, contained applied examples of the use of mathematics and arithmetic in commercial practice, as well as commercial manuals based on sophisticated mathematical and literary literacy.

Luca Pacioli contributed to the creation of the banking system in the Italian city-states with his system of “double entry”: his 27-page treatise on bookkeeping is the first known published work on the subject, and is considered to have laid the foundation for double entry based bookkeeping (Genoese merchants) as it is used today.

In the eleventh century a new political and social structure emerged in northern Italy: the city-state, or commune. The civic culture that grew up in these communes was a notable phenomenon. In some places where communes emerged (e.g., England or France), they were absorbed into the monarchical state as soon as it appeared. But they survived in northern and central Italy, as in several other parts of Europe, to become independent and powerful city-states. In Italy the separation from their feudal suzerains occurred in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, during the Struggle for investiture between the popes and the Holy Roman Emperors: Milan led the cities of Lombardy against the Holy Roman Emperors and won independence by winning the Battle of Legnano (1176) and the Battle of Parma (1248) (see also the Lombard League).

Similar urban revolutions led to the founding of city-states throughout medieval Europe: in Russia (Novgorod Republic, 12th century), Flanders (Battle of the Golden Spurs, 14th century), Switzerland (cities of the Old Swiss Confederation, 14th century), Germany (Hanseatic League, 14th-15th centuries), and Prussia (War of the Thirteen, 15th century).

Some Italian city-states quickly became significant military powers. Venice and Genoa created vast maritime empires on the Mediterranean and Black Seas that threatened the growing Ottoman Empire. During the Fourth Crusade (1204), Venice conquered a quarter of the Byzantine Empire.

The maritime republics were one of the most important results of the development of this new civic and social culture based on commerce and the exchange of knowledge with other areas of the world outside Western Europe. The Republic of Dubrovnik and the Republic of Venice, for example, had important trade links with the Muslim and Indian worlds and this contributed to the initial development of the Italian Renaissance.

By the end of the twelfth century a new type of society had emerged in northern Italy; rich, mobile, expanding, with a mixed aristocracy and an urban burgher class (abitante) interested in urban institutions and republican government. But many of the new city-states were also riven by contradictions between parties based on kinship ties and fraternities of all kinds, which undermined their unity (e.g., the Guelphs and the Ghibellines).

By 1300 most of these republics had become principalities governed by the Signors. The exceptions were Venice, Florence, Lucca, and a few others, which remained republics in the face of an increasingly monarchical Europe. In many cases, by 1400 the lords were able to establish stable dynasties in the ruled cities (or groups of cities within a region), also taking a noble title from their formal suzerain. For example, in 1395 Gian Galeazzo Visconti bought for 100,000 gold florins the title of Duke of Milan from Emperor Wenceslas IV.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Milan, Venice, and Florence conquered neighboring city-states, forming regional states. In 1454 the Peace of Lodi ended their struggle for hegemony in Italy by achieving a balance of power (see also Italian Renaissance).

At the beginning of the 16th century, apart from small states like Lucca or San Marino, only republican Venice remained capable of maintaining its independence and competing with the European monarchies of France and Spain, as well as with the Ottoman Empire (see The Italian Wars).


  1. Итальянские города-государства
  2. Italian city-states
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