The Great Age of Italian Cities from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance

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A general knowledge of European and Italian history.


This course examines the historical development of Italian cities and city-states from their medieval origins (communes) to the early 17th century with special emphasis on the political, social, economic and cultural development of Milan, Venice, Florence, and Rome.  Topics include the economic underpinnings of the city-states, the development of business practices, manufacturing, banking and trade, urban society and politics, the role of women in society, and cultural life.

Attendance policy: 

Regular class attendance is mandatory. Students are expected to attend classes each day, including course-related excursions.

IES Abroad Milano allows a maximum of TWO excused absences per semester. Each further absence will automatically result in a penalty of two points off (2/100) on the final grade. SEVEN absences per course (including 2 excused absences) will result in a failing grade for that course. Furthermore, an absence on the date of scheduled tests, presentations or quizzes does not entitle you to recover/reschedule such tests. Failure to attend your midterm and/or final exam will result in an F grade on that paper/exam.

Method of presentation: 

Classroom lectures, discussions and weekly assigned student presentations.


1. Development   of   an   agrarian   economy:      population   growth,   reclamation   of   land,   technological advancements; social change: peasant proletarization, freeing of "servi della gleba," erosion of ecclesiastic landed property in favor of a new urban middle class.

2. Rise of urban life:  aggressive conquest of "contado" by the towns; the "comuni;" permeation between feudal and landed ranks and the urban middle classes; the town as a center of artisan production and exchange of goods.

3. Relationship  between  the  "comuni"  and  the  universal  powers:    Papacy  and  Emperor;  Guelfism  and Ghibellinism; consular administration of the "comune;" popular involvement in social life; "Comune" infighting; podesta administration of "comune."

4. The town as center of culture; the first urban schools and universities; end of monastic isolation; the renewed study of law; the intellectual as exponent of communal and urban society and member of an

intercommunal cultural elite; the question of language: early Italian.

5. Church and heretical dissentions; religious renewal in the cities; deep influence of folkloric and civic ritual in the life of the common people; Church reaction: the Inquisition and the Mendicant Orders.

6. The development of commercial capitalism; the constitution of new social groups; monetary economy; the role of the Tuscan bankers; primitive capitalistic character of social relations.

7. Comune:   from the consular and podesta administratione to the popular fase; explosion of social contrasts; overpopulation and famine; the plague of 1347-51.

8. Florence:  the oligarchic comune; the "popolo minuto" and the uprising of Ciompi; the wool industry and its decline; the idealization of the city-state and the formation of an intellectual class (humanists); the "signoria" of the Medici; 1434-94 and Renaissance splendor; the importance of public patronage in art and culture.

9. Milan:  the "signoria" of Visconti; a policy of territorial expansion; the Sforza dynasty; administrative centralization; textile and military industries.

10. Venice:  the commercial and the military fleet; the Turkish threat; Expansion tendencies and relations with Milan and the rest of Lombardy and the Adriatic regions of Central and Southern Italy; The League of Cambrai; the end of Venice as a political power on the mainland; Venice as a center of cultural freedom in Italy.

11. The Papal State:  a theocratic power dominated by the clergy and by a divided nobility; Alexander VI:  a papacy of nepotism and worldliness; a backward society.

12. The French and Spanish in Italy, marking the end to Italy's leading cultural role in Europe and the beginning of Italian decadence:  the invasion of Carlo VIII; Milan and Venice, along with Austria, Spain and the Pope form a league; Milan passes under French domination following the invasion of Francesco

I; defeat of the French at Pavia (1525) by Charles V; Treaty of Cambresis (1559) sanctions Spanish domination of Milan and the rest of Italy (except Venice); immobilization and social polarization; the role of women in society; the importance of family.

13. The Papacy and the Counterreformation:  Venice reaffirms its autonomy from the Church; Paolo Sarpi; Rome and the Baroque; heresy: Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei; a parasitic aristocracy and a backward economy.

Required readings: 
  • Aries, P., and G. Duby. La vita privata dal Rinascimento all'Illuminismo.  Bari: Laterza, 1987.
  • Galasso, Giuseppe. "Le forme del potere, classi e gerarchie feudali."  Storia d'Italia I (1972): 401-508.
  • Garin, Eugenio.  Scienza e vita civile nel Rinascimento italiano.  Bari: Laterza, 1980.
  • Ginzburg, Carlo.  "Folklore, magia, religione."  Storia d'Italia I (1972): 603-676.
  • Le Goff, Jacques. Tempo della Chiesa, tempo del mercante.  Torino: Einaudi, 1957.
  • Rutenburg, Viktor.  "La funzione sociale del denaro nel comune italiano." Storia d'Italia VI (1972): 113-133.