Princes and Princedoms

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Princes and Princedoms

Renaissance princes were the heads of independent states. The territory ruled by a prince might be a kingdom, a duchy*, a city-state, or some other type of self-governing realm. Originally the term prince referred to the emperor of ancient Rome. In the Middle Ages it was applied to the Holy Roman Emperor*. During the Renaissance, however, the meaning of prince changed, as princedoms—states governed by strong and effective rulers—emerged.

Renaissance princes ranged from monarchs of large kingdoms to rulers of minor cities. They could be legitimate or illegitimate, depending on their position with regard to the law. The prince's right to rule might or might not be recognized by long tradition, by local authorities, or by a superior power such as the Holy Roman Emperor or the pope. The most important characteristic of a prince was effective power—the ability to make and enforce laws, impose taxes, command armies, form alliances, and declare war.


The Rise of Princedoms. Renaissance princedoms developed in three stages. The first stage was the formation of self-governing towns, or communes, in northern and central Italy in the late 1200s. In the absence of any authority from the emperor or pope, these cities began to exercise powers usually held by such rulers. The second stage in the development of princedoms came with the transfer of powers from community institutions (the commune) to an individual signore (lord). The individual was usually, but not always, a leading member of a prominent and powerful local family.

The third, and perhaps most crucial, stage in the development of princely power involved a basic change in the relationship between the commune and the signore. The key to this change was the recognition of the hereditary nature of the signore's authority. This right of succession gave the rulers legitimacy as princes. It also represented a strengthening of the power and resources of princes and gave them significant military and political advantages over rivals.


Powers of the Prince. For many years, historians viewed the Renaissance prince as a sort of all-powerful ruler who could impose his will on society. However, most recent scholars have shifted away from that view. Research has shown that the Renaissance princedom involved a complex web of power-sharing relationships among the prince, prominent members of society, governing bodies, and other groups. Even Renaissance princes with far-reaching power, such as Lorenzo de' Medici of Florence, did not possess absolute authority. In such cases, the city's republican* institutions continued to function alongside the governing bodies controlled by the prince.

A prince's power sometimes depended on his relationship with other authorities, such as the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1395 Emperor Wenceslas recognized the rise to power of Giangaleazzo Visconti by naming him duke of Milan. However, when the Sforza family gained control of Milan in the 1450s, the emperor refused for decades to give them the title duke. Similarly, the pope could influence the extent of a prince's power. Popes often granted princely titles to noble families, such as the Este of Ferrara, that supported papal* causes.

(See alsoCity-States; Government, Forms of; Holy Roman Empire; Machiavelli, Niccolò. )

* duchy

territory ruled by a duke or duchess

* Holy Roman Emperor

ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a political body in central Europe composed of several states that existed until 1806

* republican

refers to a form of Renaissance government dominated by leading merchants with limited participation by others

* papal

referring to the office and authority of the pope