City-states emerged as a form of political organization in Europe during the Middle Ages. The city-state was a largely independent city that extended its authority over the surrounding territory. In some cases, this authority also included other cities, creating a larger territorial state. City-states adopted different forms of government; some were organized as republics*, while others were ruled by an individual such as a prince*.
Independent Sovereign States. City-states were most common in northern Italy in the regions of Lombardy, Tuscany, and the Veneto. They fell under the loose authority of the Holy Roman Empire*. Notable examples of these northern city-states include Florence, Siena, and Venice. City-states such as Ferrara and Urbino emerged in the Papal States, the area in central Italy controlled by the papacy*.
During the Middle Ages both the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy claimed to be the successor to ancient Rome. The city-state emerged out of the struggle for power between these two great authorities. Owing allegiance to neither, the city-state depended on its own resources rather than on privileges granted by a higher power. Authority and legitimacy in the city-state came from the commune (community) and the idea and practice of popular sovereignty*.
Some city-states sought to extend their frontiers well beyond the surrounding territory. Between the late 1300s and early 1500s, the Republic of Venice took over other city-states in northern Italy. Florence did the same in central Italy.
City-states in Italy formed a new social and economic order. Status and citizenship were determined by the community itself, rather than by medieval* ideas of wealth, power, and feudal* obligations. The Italian city-state drew on sources of wealth more familiar to the modern world. Employment and wealth depended increasingly on trade, industry, and financial activities such as banking and insurance. Furthermore, the scope of commerce expanded beyond local or regional activities to international trade.
Emerging city-states sought to defend their authority while reducing the power of their opponents. Urban governments constructed walls, gates, and other fortifications while taking steps to destroy private fortresses within the city and its territory. City-states also made their own laws, established their own courts, and appointed their own judges and officials. They signed treaties, declared war and peace, and raised taxes. City-states even challenged the power of the Roman Catholic Church, influencing church appointments and taxing the clergy.
Medieval Origins of City-States. Italian city-states were not truly a product of the Renaissance. Some of them—including Milan, Verona, Siena, and Florence—traced their origin to the days of ancient Rome, or even earlier. Moreover, the cities experienced their greatest economic and population growth during the Middle Ages. Their physical boundaries and layouts were also established at this time.
From the 1000s to the 1200s, an intense rivalry existed between the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy, providing an opportunity for the cities of northern and central Italy to develop. By the time of the Renaissance, the two great power centers had grown somewhat weaker. But the papacy began to recover its political authority in the Papal States in the mid-1400s. As it did, it limited the liberties of cities under its control. The Holy Roman Empire also regained authority and influence when it became part of the Habsburg empire in the 1500s.
These developments meant that during the Renaissance the number of independent city-states was actually in decline. The large representative bodies of citizens lost influence and citizenship became more strictly defined. In some cases, the right to participate in government was limited to people of noble birth. Increasingly, a privileged class of landowners, lawyers, and merchants controlled access to public office.
The social and economic changes often associated with city-states were not that significant. Although new areas of economic activity developed, land remained the basis of the economy. Even in the urban areas of northern Italy, the majority of the population had no rights to citizenship and lived and worked on the land. In most instances, the power of the noble families had not been destroyed. In fact, in some places, their influence increased.
The wealth and opportunities for political power offered by city-states attracted ambitious nobles. From the 1200s onward, many cities in northern and central Italy surrendered authority to the signoria, the lordship of a powerful noble family. This occurred in Milan and Padua. Venice was the only major city-state with the resources and political stability to keep its independence and status as a republic throughout the Renaissance. Although Florence remained a republic, after 1434 its government was increasingly controlled by the Medici family.
Contributions. Scholars now assert that Renaissance city-states were not as numerous, independent, republican, and powerful as was generally assumed. Nevertheless, the cities made significant contributions to Renaissance culture, and they had sufficient wealth to serve as patrons* of the arts. Individuals, families, guilds*, and other organizations also played an important role in supporting the arts. Economic conditions in the cities provided money, skills, and materials to undertake massive public projects, such as construction of the cathedral of Milan. These projects, in turn, increased economic activity. The rapid development of printing was another result of the resources and patronage of city-states.
City-states and their universities also contributed to law, literacy*, and other aspects of culture. The cities needed literate and trained administrators to write laws, preside over courts, keep records of legal proceedings, conduct diplomacy and correspondence, and manage accounts. The basis of laws and legal procedures in most city-states was Roman law. The need for professionals who could master ancient Roman law encouraged the study of Latin and Roman history. This produced a number of political thinkers and humanists* who were familiar with classical* ideas.
The Republic of Venice had a long tradition of native and foreign political thinkers. Other city-states produced political writers who used ancient ideas to justify the authority of their rulers. Much of this writing took the form of histories. The Medici family, for example, employed many talented writers to praise their greatness and the benefits that their rule brought to Florence.
- * republic
form of Renaissance government dominated by leading merchants with limited participation by others
- * prince
Renaissance term for the ruler of an independent state
- * Holy Roman Empire
political body in central Europe composed of several states; existed until 1806
- * papacy
office and authority of the pope
- * sovereignty
supreme power or authority
- * medieval
referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe
- * feudal
relating to an economic and political system in which individuals gave services to a lord in return for protection and use of the land
see color plate 7, vol. 3
During the 1300s many Italian city-states took on new responsibilities, as the range of government activities expanded beyond the basic tasks of making and enforcing laws and defending the city. Numerous cities began to manage the supply of food and to take steps to control disease. After a deadly outbreak of plague ravaged Italian cities in 1348, the need to control disease took on new urgency. Preventing further outbreaks of the plague prompted government actions to improve sanitation, to prevent sick people from entering the city, and to isolate infected citizens.
- * patron
supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer
- * guild
association of craft and trade owners and workers that set standards for and represented the interests of its members
- * literacy
ability to read
- * humanist
Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)
- * classical
in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome