Today’s episode is a bonus episode on the Charter Cities Atlas, an interactive project where we help demonstrate the importance of cities and self-governance. Today we take a deep dive into the Italian Renaissance (with a focus on Venice) with world-renowned expert, Professor Corey Tazzara and special guest host Thibault Serlet. From the fall of the Roman Empire to the formation of independent city-states, to the financial and political ramifications of the crusades, to the rise and fall of Venice as an economic powerhouse, this conversation has it all! We start at the beginning, with a comment on the role of the Middle Ages in the formation of society as it is today, and how the literature of the times contributed to the maintenance of the Roman Empire as a power. Despite this, there was decentralization across Europe in the 800s, and independent city-states arose. Rome regained its power from tourism and through regaining the seat of the papacy, while Florence formed the birthplace of the Renaissance through its art, culture, and adoption of investment banking. Milan became an authoritarian state, and we hear how the condottieri contributed to this. Unexpectedly, Genoa gained wealth in the loss of the War of Chioggia, while Venice was created from the marshes by refugees. The focus of the conversation shifts to the role of Venice in the Renaissance, and how it influenced society as we see it today. We learn how venture capital was created to profit from the Crusades, and how links to other cultures and societies benefitted the trade between Venice and the rest of Europe and the Middle East. Tune in to find out how the Venice of today differs from the Renaissance era Venice, and so much more, in this incredible discussion!
Key Points From This Episode:
- Welcome to Corey Tazzara, professor of history at Scripps College and the world’s leading expert on medieval and early modern freeports.
- Background into the decentralization of the Roman Empire, and why we owe today’s society to the Middle Ages.
- How the literature of the Middle ages maintains the Roman Empire’s power.
- The formation of independent city-states across Europe, and how they worked.
- The role of the papacy in reviving Roman law.
- What the 12th Century Renaissance is, and how it impacted the European economy.
- How the crusades altered the trade done at the port city-states: sea vs land travel.
- Why the Fourth Crusade was the first example of venture capital.
- The radical democracies that started in the Byzantine era across Italy.
- A quick tour of the major houses at play across the city-states in the 1300s.
- The revival of Rome: from the center of an empire to a tourism hotspot.
- How Florence became a republic, and why Corey feels it is the birthplace of the Renaissance.
- Why the adoption of investment banking fueled Florence’s prosperity and the rise of the Medici family.
- Turning to Genoa: how the loss of the War of Chioggia lead to the gain of Western wealth in the centuries to come.
- The role of the condottieri in Milan’s authoritarian government and war-based economy.
- Who Francesco Sforza was, and how he served as an example of the dangers of the condottieri to political powers.
- A few honorable mentions of other city-states that had tumultuous histories throughout the Renaissance.
- The formation of Venice: how it was formed, and why its history is so different from other city-states.
- The story of St. Mark’s remains, why Mussolini hated the church of San Marco, and what these anecdotes say about Venice.
- Why Venice is the birthplace of investment banking and its role in the Fourth Crusade.
- How making Venice the gateway to the Levant drove up profit and Venetians who changed the world.
- A summary of the corporatist society underpinning Venetian finance.
- Why Venice can be likened to the North Korea of Renaissance Italy, and the roles of family ties in broadening its reach.
- How Venice became a cultural melting pot (relatively speaking) in the Middle Ages.
- The American pioneers of capitalism who were inspired by the Renaissance era of Venice.
- The end of the Italian Renaissance: the external and internal factors that contributed to its decline.
- Why shifting its focus to tourism in the 16th and 17th centuries was key to Venice’s ongoing prosperity, and why it became so popular with Western tourists.
- Corey’s research into free ports in the Italian Renaissance: a teaser for the next discussion!
Kurtis: Welcome to the Charter Cities Podcast. I’m Kurtis Lockhart. On each episode, we invite a leading expert to discuss key trends in global development in the world of cities, including the role of charter cities and innovative governance will play in humanity’s new urban age. For more information, please follow us on social media, or visit chartercitiesinstitute.org.
Thibault: Hi. I’m Thibault Serlet, the Director of Research of the Adrianople Group. Today, you’re listening to a special edition of the Charter Cities Podcast about the Charter Cities Atlas, a collaboration between the Adrianople Group and the Charter Cities Institute. Today, we’ll be talking about decentralization in the Renaissance and how a whole bunch of competing city states built the modern world. Today, I’m talking to Corey Tazzara. He is a professor of history at Scripps College in Claremont, California. He is the world’s leading expert on medieval and early modern freeports and specializes in Renaissance history. His other big area of research is the spread of Christianity in the Far East. He got his PhD from Stanford University in 2011.
Notable publications include The Free Port of Livorno and the Transformation of the Mediterranean World, Florence After the Medici: Tuscan Enlightenment, The Masterpiece of the Medici, Commerce, Politics and the Making of the Free Port of Livorno, Port of Trade or Commodity Market, Livorno and Cross-Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Mediterranean, and other publications about how governments attempted to regulate trade during the Renaissance.
There was a time when the Roman Empire had conquered all of the known world, everything from Scotland to Iraq, from Morocco to Ukraine was all unified under a single unitary state. And yet, in a couple of short centuries, the Roman Empire was no more. In the wake of the Roman Empire, Europe became increasingly decentralized. This decentralization gave way to great prosperity. Studies of calories that peasants may have eaten based off of the bodies that have been found in graveyards suggest that in most regions of Europe, nutrition increased, food increased. It is in the decentralized world of the Middle Ages, that the modern world, the Renaissance was born.
You see endless history channel documentaries, endless books, endless YouTube videos, endless podcasts, all talking about how much of the modern world we owe to Rome. But in between us and the Roman Empire comes the world of the Middle Ages. It is at the end of the Middle Ages during a period now known as the renaissance that the modern world was born. Historians are more and more arguing that in fact, we owe much of our modern heritage to the Middle Ages, and to the degree that we owe anything to the Roman Empire. It is all that has been transferred to us to the filter of the Middle Ages that we have left of it today.
Today, we will be talking with Corey Tazzara about how the Renaissance created the modern world and how the Renaissance was this time of intense decentralization and intense competition. Our story starts in the year 800 AD, a Germanic warlord, Charlemagne, Charles Magnus, Charles the Great, has recentralized a large territory. For the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire, a good chunk of Europe that includes parts of modern-day Spain, France, the part of Western Germany, and Northern Italy have all been unified under a single government. Charlemagne goes to the City of Rome and hoping to revive the glories of the ancient empire, has the Pope crowned him as the Western Roman Emperor, as the Holy Roman Emperor. This is where our podcast begins.
Thibault: To summarize with Charlemagne, Charlemagne has this alliance with the papal state. When he liberates the papal state from the threat of these Lombards who are these Germanic invaders, what happens afterwards is that, the papal state crowns him as Roman Emperor. As you very amusingly point out, this Roman Empire by later historians like Voltaire, they comment that it’s neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. But what you also point out is that a lot of the people at the time would have had no concept that the Roman Empire had ever fallen. To give a few examples of this, Dante, writing in a few 100 years later, 500 years later, in the 1300s and the Divine Comedy is just writing about the current Holy Roman Emperors, as if they were just like the direct continuation of Julius Caesar, and Augustus, and Constantine and all of these folks.
What’s really amusing is that, if you look at a lot of the accounts of the Crusades, I think it’s who’s a guy who goes along with the Crusades and writes a lot of stuff down. They’re talking about the Frederick the First, Barbarossa, who is the Holy Roman Emperor, who basically spent his whole life in Germany, who is kind of the successor to Charlemagne. They’re just writing about him as if he is the direct descendant of the Roman Emperor. Although, de facto, as we’re about to get into the Roman Empire, it completely no longer exists, and everything is decentralized. People have no concept that the Roman Empire has disappeared, and people have — people living in Italy at this time, from their perspective, there was this like momentary interruption where, “Yeah, there was the Goths and the Lombards, but now the Roman Emperors are back with Charlemagne.”
Moving forward in the centuries after Charlemagne, it’s less that the Roman Empire collapsed, and now there’s something else. It’s more like there was this momentary interruption, when in reality, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see sort of the broader trend that the Roman Empire disappeared. Is that sort of how you would characterize the presence of the Roman Empire in Italy and like the 800s and 900s AD?
Corey: Yeah, I would say that’s right. One other thing I would add that makes this credible — what seems to us so incredible. I think part of what makes this credible to two people in the Middle Ages, it’s just the omnipresence of the Gospels, the New Testament. They’re reading in the New Testament of this empire that is portrayed as effectively eternal, as the last of the Empires. In a way, the Empire of Rome couldn’t fall, because if it did, it would be end of the world. It would be the apocalypse. I think that that kind of mental framework also kind of made this a somewhat more believable scenario for people in the Middle Ages.
Thibault: Without getting too caught up in the details of the geopolitics, which can get quite tedious. What would life be like for somebody observing the government from a very like on the ground perspective and say, 950 in Italy? They think that the Roman Empire, in their minds, there’s still some concept that the Roman Empire is here, because the world hasn’t — the end of times isn’t here yet. But what’s going on the ground?
Corey: Yeah. I mean, on the ground, for one thing, our knowledge that the sources are a lot less vivid for this period in Italy, and a lot more monastic coming out of the monasteries, then it’s going to be true even a century later. But, my sense is that this is going to look very much like a kind of caricature of feudalism, especially in the countryside. If you’re in the countryside, and working life as a peasant, there’s not that going to be a huge — there’s not going to be huge government footprint on the ground, to put it bluntly. Instead, it’s going to be a world of basically personal relationships of personal obligations and rights.
With cities, we have a very weak sense of what the trading world at this period looks like. The most importantly traded “Commodity”, and I put air quotes around commodity is probably people in this world. Slave going across Europe, but getting sent from Italy to feed this kind of growing Islamic empire. On the one hand, we have this this under commercialized world, I guess you’d say in the cities. At the same time, in the countryside, we have what is basically a feudal kind of world. The Roman Empire, such as it is, I mean, this is something that people are hearing about primarily, I think in sermons at church. What is going to church — what does that look like? It’s hard to say, the sermons that survived from this period are all in Latin, and are kind of like models rather than actual sermons that were delivered. They would have been delivered in the local vernacular, so there was preaching going on. But it’s a world that I personally don’t have that much of a sense of, partly because I think the sources are not so great.
Thibault: There are few things though, although I think the sources aren’t that great, that historian say. Maybe they’re imagining, maybe it’s real. But this is a world where Charlemagne has called himself the emperor, and then he’s disappeared and he’s fighting random civil wars against other sort of warlords for a few hundred years. Some of these warlords stop using the title of Emperor, some of them come back to Italy. Otto I in the 900s, comes back to Italy, and once again, adopts the title of Roman Emperor, but that’s not too important because that’s very far.
There’s this great Chinese saying that says, “The heavens are high and the emperor is far away” or “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away.” I think it applies just as well to Italy in the 800s and the 900s, as well as it does to ancient China. What’s happening is that, yeah, they’re hearing about the Roman Empire in sermons. There’s this concept that everybody’s vaguely aware that there’s this emperor. Sometimes the geopolitics, which are fairly complicated, there’s these warlords who will start calling themselves Roman Emperors and the people are just kind of going along to get along.
The events that get people to start realizing, “Wait a minute. Maybe the Roman Empire doesn’t exist anymore.” Is that over time, the city states will start emerging where although they’re nominally controlled by this Holy Roman Emperor, who’s neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, their de facto starting to get charters that grants them more and more independence. Genoa is the first of these city states to get a charter. I think Genoa gets in 950s, 960s, this charter saying, “You can collect your own taxes. You can create your own laws.” What happens is that as the late 900s and early 1000s come about, you have the situation. We have all of these Italian city states, which have been paying lip service to the Emperor, but are de facto self-governing. Some of these “Roman Emperors” over the next few 100 years will try to reassert themselves. Ironically, it’s their very attempts to reassert themselves that will cause the Italians to say, “Hey! No. We’re independent. The Roman Empire has long collapsed. You’re illegitimate. Your position, you’re a usurper, the Roman Empire actually fell hundreds of years ago.” Tell us a little bit about the wars of the Lombard League?
Corey: Sure. Yeah. I mean, I think to start with that, we have to talk about papal reform, which — the wars of the Lombard League happened in the 12th century or beginning — and really give birth to what we come to think of as the Middle Ages, the High Middle Ages in Italy. The immediate predecessor to Dante, for example, who people have probably encountered. But really, I think this starts with a kind of a papal reform, in the 1060s, basically, where you get these monks, this network of monks in Central Italy who start to have a sense that, the world has come very far from the precepts of the gospel. They start to really want to assert people.
Part of the outcome of Charlemagne process, I emphasized when we were just talking about a moment ago, it as the pope who crowned Charlemagne. But really, part of the outcome of this entire process that we’re glossing over, and that’s frankly beyond my expertise. But basically, is that these warlords have a huge impact on the actual conduct of the church all throughout, not just in Italy, but throughout Western Europe. They’re in charge of the bishops and the clerical hierarchy, not the Pope.
In the 1060s, these group of people around the pope start to assert claims to papal independence, to papal supremacy in the spiritual sphere. Meaning, the kings and emperors shouldn’t be the people who nominate the bishops. That’s the clergy’s role. To start to make a more generally, a more deep distinction between the clergy, and the clerical world, and the secular world and the layman. If that makes sense, that’s going to set them up on a collision course with the Empire.
Thibault: You have these warlords that are trying to assert themselves. You have the pope who claims what is called by Catholics. What is it? Is it Caesaropapism, which is the idea that the — what was the exact word?
Corey: Yeah, Caesaropapism. That’s going to be the idea that the Pope is ultimately — is not just a spiritual Lord, by virtue of being spiritual Lord also has authority over secular rulers.
Thibault: This comes to a head where the city states that have been de facto independent start clashing with these warlords/Roman Emperors who at this point have sort of well-organized states that they control that are in France and elsewhere, also in Germany. Tell us a little bit more about Lombard League and what essential happened.
Corey: Yeah. Sure. I mean, basically, with this assertion of papal supremacy, suddenly these city states, it really not — but these are small city states, not the kind of big city states that we’ll see on the map later on. These cities now have a big ally in their battle for autonomy. The Pope fundamentally is the kind ringleader or organizer behind the Lombard League. The Pope is just doing the same thing he had done in 800. He wants independence, he wants security. But now, you have these kinds of quasi autonomous cities who are using that papal alliance, essentially to declare themselves self-governing republics with papal authority. In many cases, these are specifically meant targeted against the incursions of Frederick the First, Barbarossa, the red bearded Frederick, who is this warrior. He’s a real warrior.
Thibault: When is Frederick Barbarossa ruling?
Corey: We’re talking the mid-12th century, mid to late 12th century. He’s sort of an amazing figure who is ultimately going to go on crusade. I mean, he starts to revive Roman law. I mean, this is part of — we haven’t really talked about this, but even though we associate the rebirth of Roman law a little bit later, it has 12 century roots. Frederick Barbarossa is one of these people who has a really strong sense of the imperial dignity, but also an increasingly legalistic view of what that might look like. He is struggling to assert what we might think as practical rule over North and Central Italy. But he’s unable to do that. It’s definitely the case, though, that his power base in Germany is more. It seems to be more integral, and more taxable, frankly, than for some of these other warlords that we had talked about in the Charlemagne era and the immediate successors to Charlemagne.
Thibault, some of that is — another thing we haven’t really talked about. We have to talk about the Crusades, because the Crusades are associated not only with this kind of ideological expansion of Christendom, but also with the economic quickening of — I mean, when we were giving a sketch of what like life on the ground in 9th or 10th centuries looked like, I mean, I was sort of vague. A part of that is, what it definitely wasn’t was a dynamic commercial society. That much, I am 100% sure about. But that changes as we get towards the Crusades, and especially during the Crusades.
There’s something that historians call the 12th Century Renaissance, not the big Renaissance, but it’s an important moment where basically, commerce and underlying kind of economic productivity of the countryside seems to be growing from about 1050 to about 1300. This is the great medieval expansion of the European economy. As to why it happens, I think people have different views. I don’t really know. I mean, we could talk a little bit about what that might look like, specifically from the Venetian case in a little bit. But the important thing is that, is that these rulers like Barbarossa have more of a tax base, a fiscal base than their ancestors, say 100 years earlier even or 200 years earlier. You also see this in England, you see this in France. It’s a European-wide phenomenon. Basically, these rulers can kind of capitalize on this economic expansion to build, I think proto states, basically.
Thibault: Yeah. We’re going to go back to the war of the Lombard League, but let’s put a quick bookmark there. There’s this major economic transformation that’s happening in Europe. It starts really before the 900s, in the late 900s and sort of picks up steam with the Crusades. Where for a very long time from maybe the end of the reign of Justinian to the beginning of the Crusades. All of the trade and all of the Cosmopolitan, sophisticated, advanced economies are in the Islamic world. Europe has this very rural sort of agrarian economy. For reasons that are way too complicated to go in to into this podcast, the Islamic world is in decline. As the Islamic world is in decline, Europe starts declaring crusades.
All of these European basically warlords from France, from Germany, from England, from Spain, start conquering Islamic territory. To a certain extent, this starts equalizing technology, although that’s very debated and controversial. But what is definitely clear is that, as far as it concerns Italy, it allows all of these Italian city states that are once again nominally part of the Holy Roman Empire, but de facto independence, such as Genoa, and Venice, which is de facto part of the Byzantine Empire. But once again, kind of like Genoa de facto independent from the Byzantines to start establishing all of these trade routes to the east, where the crusaders will arrive in Syria. They’ll arrive in modern day Israel, they’ll conquer a city and they need to finance the crusade. Tell us a little bit before we get back into the wars of the Lombard League. How the crusades lead to this changing economic pattern in medieval Italy?
Corey: Yeah. Well, it’s a great question. To begin with, the crusaders often are going to require ships, sometimes to get to the Levant or wherever they go. Eventually, they also try to conquer Egypt in the Fifth Crusade later. But also, once they conquer these lands, by far, the best way to stay in touch with them is through shipping. Really the Italian, Italian city states are best poised to do this. It’s not just Genoa and Venice, but also in this period, it’s also Pisa and Amalfi. There are these four kinds of maritime city states.
These early city states, I mean, they probably before the crusades, they were probably basically slave traders. First, they were probably trading even Catholics, slaves, but eventually, primarily, probably Slavic slaves. But with the advent of the crusades, there’s a new opportunity. Also, by the way, functioning kind of almost like pirates. They’re preying in this period, basically in the 10th and early 11th century. They’re just preying on Islamic shipping whenever they can. Partially commercial traders, partially pirates. But the crusades offers a chance not just to increase their presence on the sea, but to militarize it and legitimize it from a broader perspective.
That definitely happens in the in the wake of the First Crusade called in 1095 by the Pope, where the crusaders conquer all this territory in the Levant. The Italian crusading states, they not only have this increased demand for their shipping, but they also get effectively little colonies within the cities, conquered in the Levant. They start having personnel sort of permanently abroad. This is the start of that great phenomenon of the Italian merchant traveling, who lives abroad, but maintains all of these economic ties back home.
Thibault: To go into this trade, there’s a few dynamics at play. The first part is that you have to remember that this long-distance travel with the technology that they have is incredibly expensive. They can only trade in goods that are very like expensive at the point of sale, so luxury goods. The one that you mentioned at first is people. Human trafficking, as we’d call it today or slavery. But later on, this evolves into gold, and precious metals, and silk, that’s the famous one, spices is the other famous one. But also, all sorts of other things that you don’t think about like opium and cannabis, which are powerful medicines, honey, which is also sort of this rare commodity sugar, and all sorts of other trade goods, certain types of steel, that are very hard to produce and very expensive.
But the key thing is that, think about it, in terms of the price of shipping 100 kilos of a good, 100 kilos of grain would have a very low price. Whereas, 100 kilos of silk would have this astronomically high price. They’re only going to go for these things that have this very high price per kilogram. That’s sort of the first dynamic at play.
The second dynamic at play is that getting to the so-called Holy Land to the area that these crusaders are conquering from the Muslims is very expensive. You can go by land, but by land, there’s all sorts of problems. In fact, Frederick Barbarossa will even die falling into some pond. That land as a funny side note. But going by land is awful, right? Imagine trying to walk from France, all the way to Syria. How just horrible that would be. Really, realistically, all of the later crusades and all of the smart crusaders go by sea. But the problem is, if you go by sea, well, you got to go by boat. Who owns the boat? Well, as you said, it’s Venice, it’s Amalfi, it’s Pisa, it’s Genoa. It’s these Italian sort of sea traders. The problem is that renting these boats is expensive. How do you pay for it?
Well, there’s these contracts that are assigned, Thomas F. Madden in Venice: A New History talks about this. Where what they do is that the crusaders will, maybe similar to the way modern venture capitalists operate. They will sign these contracts where, “Hey! We’re going to conquer X, Y, Z cities and you’ll get a quarter of the city that we conquer.” As a result, the crusaders to pay for the Venetians transportation services end up giving the Venetians and the Genoans, the Pisans and all of these Italian maritime city states corridors, or thirds, or little sections of these towns in the Middle East.
Corey: I mean, that’s right. I mean, these were speculative ventures, right? Where the prospects for real repayment were in the success of the enterprise. I think there’s just no question about that. Partly because this is a — from the standpoint of the of the knights and the crusaders, they’re coming from a still what we would call kind of an under monetized, under commercialized economy, so they don’t have the wherewithal to pay for these. I mean, in some cases, these are people who are raised on almost nightly fairy tales, who have no idea about this kind of bustling commercial world that exist, say in the Middle East. Then they show up and they say, “You know. You know.”
You could really see this in the Fourth Crusade, which we’ll talk about where the Venetians kind of run circles around the Franks. But yeah, I mean, that’s not to say that people were not motivated, even the Italians were not motivated by crusading zeal. It’s just that crusading was also good for their pocketbooks.
Thibault: Right. It’s sort of how maybe modern corporations treat global warming, where a lot of modern corporations are legitimately want the world to not die and be a better place. But it also kind of benefits their pocketbook if they can take advantage of like tax breaks for going green and stuff like that. Would you say that’s sort of a fair comparison?
Corey: I do. I do think it’s a fair comparison. Also, the environmental movement has something almost religious about it. I think that’s very apt.
Thibault: You have two trends to recap. On the first case, you have this idea that the Roman Empire never fell, but de facto, you have city states that are independent. But people go to church, and they hear about the Roman Emperors and so forth. There’s these guys, mostly by the 1200s Germans, although every now and then a Frenchman will claim this title, but that’s not too important, and who are calling themselves Holy Roman Emperors. Let’s not even get into the Byzantines right now.
You have Roman emperors living in Germany, who spent no time in Rome, who spent no time in Italy. At the same time, in part because of the crusades, in part because of improvements in technology and changing climatic conditions, all of these factors, you have the economy of these Italian city states that’s modernizing where the developing trade. I think now, we have sort of a pretty good foundation to go into the ultimate event where the Italian city states will finally start really breaking free from this so called Holy Roman Empire. You’ll have the Renaissance starting in the late 1200s, 1300s. Explain how that happens.
Corey: Yeah. I mean, I think that happens by the development. I mean, I have to admit, I mean, I’m more I come out of a more of a Florentine than Venice background in terms of my studies. I have a very Florentine attitude, I guess, towards what comes out of this. But basically, the in order to defend themselves against Imperial authority, these city states in North Central Italy invented kind of radical form of democracy. It’s not democracy, in a full sense, there are exclusions of the very lowest classes, there’s exclusions of women. but there’s this upsurge in political participation that you see, that is constantly fraught. Let’s talk about the Venetian case in a little bit. It’s constantly under threat, and yet, it allows these cities to mobilize power against not really just the Emperor, because the Emperor is distant. He’s like that high mountain and distant Chinese Emperor. But really against the landed nobility who are effectively meant to be his representative.
It’s these popular uprising against the local counts and dukes who are Imperial representatives. I have to admit, the political, the fighting between these incipient city states with these kinds of radically participatory governments, and the land and elites, it’s extremely complicated. I mean, the politics of this period are truly — I was going to say, Byzantine.
Thibault: It’s not as clear as it’s just like Italians versus Germans, because within Italy, there’s kind of this whole fight. I don’t really want to get into, I just want to give it a passing mention of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Where basically, the Guelphs are supporting Italian independence and the Ghibellines are supporting the power of the rulers of France. It’s very complicated because it’s proxy wars. It really reminds me of the conflicts in between the Soviet Union and the US, over say, the control of Namibia in the 1980s and stuff like that. But what’s important is that, around the 1160s to 1180s, first, against Frederick I, there sort of — is this Lombard League that forms to fight off against the imperial powers. And there’s a whole bunch of wars of the Lombard like. After each war, Italy gets more and more independent and the city states become more and more enshrined in this very progressive process.
By the 1250s, when Frederick II is defeated, the league basically becomes obsolete and is disbanded, but Italy is de facto independent then. The conflict sort of continues on with the Guelph and the Ghibellines well into the time of Dante. Eventually, the Guelph — it gets even more complicated. We have white and black Guelphs are fighting. Let’s not go into that. But yeah, walk us through the time from say, after the end of the wars of the Lombard League into the time that we think of as sort of the beginning of the Renaissance.
Corey: Yeah. I think, I agree. I don’t know about the Namibia analogy. But I mean, I basically think that it’s best to think of this as a kind of civil war. Civil war between the city states and not so much between like, say with these German overlords, but really with the agents of those German overlords, who are the land elite. What’s significant about that, Thibault, is that they — part of what happens in Italy is the precocious commercialism, the precocious centralization around cities. Now, some of that is because like I said earlier, cities never declined as much from ancient Rome. But part of it was also because, these cities defeat the landed gentry. Basically, what happens in 13th, and early 14th and throughout the 14th century is that these cities really defeat those great landed elites and incorporate them into the city in some cases. But then looking forward to the to the outcome of the process, these…
Thibault: To just give a quick side note. The landed elites generally supported the Imperial authorities. Whereas, the new sort of merchant class that made their money, I don’t know, through trading with the Middle East or something were more supportive of independence.
Corey: Exactly. The reason those landed elites support the empire is that, that’s where they held their title. When you’re a feudal lord, you owe your title to a land, to another, to a superior, a king or an emperor. They owed in some sense their status, at least partially, or legitimacy partially to the empire. That was the nature of it. But as you point out, and I think this is equally relevant, and this is going to be the big difference, ultimately, between Venice and these other Italian city states. These Italian city states, this popular participatory government ends up being incredibly unstable.
Like you said, where you have the Guelph and the Ghibellines, supposedly the pro-pope versus the pro-Imperial parties in all these towns. But really, once the Ghibellines get thrown out, then the Guelph, then they fracture as well. You got this constant fracturing of alliances. Really, the only political group that you could reliably count on was your family group, your lineage. Everything else was potentially unstable in this world.
What you end up happening though, despite this instability, once these small city states kind of cast off the Imperial yoke, which was a very light yoke, they start fighting with each other, and conquering each other and building these domains around their cities. Why is that significant? Well, significant, partly because you start getting bigger city states, and you start getting a very slow, gradual simplification of that kind of political map of Italy. But it’s also significant because you start getting the merchants who are running these cities, in many cases, they start controlling the land around and start — I mean, I don’t want to exaggerate this, but introducing more market-oriented agriculture into the countryside. That’s one kind of process that’s happening as we move into the Renaissance, as we move into the 1300s.
The next thing that happens, and that’s I think related is because of this instability. Because of this instability, we get ruling families start to take control of these republics in Italy. One by one, these radical democracies, if I can use that somewhat anachronistic term. These radical democracy start falling into the hands of, we would call them kind of despots or tyrants, right? These families who don’t have any deep legitimacy, but who start wielding real control over the cities.
Now, the most famous of these is certainly, the Visconti family in Milan. The Visconti family in Milan, who’s going to be so important for thinking about the late, late 14th, early 15th century history in Italy. But we could also think of like the Scaliger family in Verona. We could think about the Piccolomini family in Siena, and ultimately the Medici family in Florence. This whole series of these dynastic families that start threatening these republics, basically.
Thibault: Now that we’ve arrived at the beginning of the Renaissance, late 1300s, early 1400s, let’s quickly gloss over some of the major powers of the Italian peninsula and do a quick tour to see what’s around in Italy. Let’s start from the south going up north. Keep in mind, for all of you listeners, the map is constantly changing, right? The Renaissance is 150-year long period, is not going to be consistent. There’s going to be some variety. We’re going to be necessarily glossing over the history. Just keep that in mind.
Let’s start from the south. There’s the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily. It’s founded by a group of crusaders from modern day Normandy. Their very, very distant ancestors, were Vikings, but de facto in practice, they’re French. They sort of bring Frankish culture. They reconquer Sicily from a group of Muslims that had taken over Sicilian Muslims from Tunisia. Eventually, the Kingdom of Sicily breaks down, and this political entity called the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily, which controls kind of the southern half of Italy, and control Sicily emerges. What’s quite interesting is that this is the most centralized entity of the time, and it also will be heavily influenced by powers in Spain and elsewhere. Tell us a little bit about what’s happening in Naples.
Corey: Sure. Well, I mean, your account of the Norman Conquest is definitely appropriate background here. I mean, it’s another case of the Pope versus the secular rulers, basically to protect himself from — well, really from Frederick II, who we talked about earlier. The Pope invites the French, a junior cadet, cadet member of the House of Anjou to come basically, and take the throne of Naples. You get this kind of competition between — and this happens, in fact, basically the late 13th century.
For a long time, that’s going to kind of set the dynamics I think for Naples, for the next couple 100 years. You’re going to end up with rival claimants that are kind of French, House of Anjou claimant and eventually, a kind of Aragonese claimant from Spain. At various moments, there’s going to be one or another of these houses is going to be in control. But it is going to be this kind of centralized monarchy with what sometimes described as a kind of latifundium style, this big plantation style, feudal kind of social base for this kingdom. So that in some ways, most people tend to think that Naples is essentially, or the Kingdom of Naples is like the most feudal part of Italy, even as we go past into the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. The other thing to note about it, I think, and this is just a guess a corollary of that point, Thibault is that, is that Naples doesn’t have — that Kingdom of Naples doesn’t have these autonomous republics that you get in North Central Italy.
Thibault: Yeah. Naples is trapped in this world of feudalism, it’s semi-centralized in the sense that there’s a King of the Naples that controls all of it. It’s decentralized, in the sense that he controls all of this territory, like basically the southern half of Italy, through sort of feudal lords. There are city states within it. Naples doesn’t really participate in the Renaissance, the same way that other states do. Naples is much poorer. In fact, there’s a lot of people at the time, I think that Machiavelli talks about how Naples is like bureaucratic and inefficient. To put a modern analogy and anachronism, Naples is kind of sort of the backwards DMV when everybody else is sort of Tesla and SpaceX at the time by comparison. Could you comment a little bit about Naples economy and this causes this really — because it’s so port all of these random foreign powers keep intervening and messing with its politics. Tell us a little bit about Naples’ economy.
Corey: Sure. I think that part of the issue here is — I mean, I think the fact, it has a small Renaissance, especially in the — I think when we get into the 16th century, and I think we could also say that some very famous Renaissance figures do emerge out of Naples. I’m thinking for example of this guy, Lorenzo Valla. Some of you may have heard of Lorenzo Valla. He’s this early humanists, this 15th century humanist who’s the person who discovers that the continent donation of Constantine is a forgery. The donation of Constantine is this text that — in which the Emperor Constantine supposedly gave the Pope secular authority, control over Western Europe and it was a forgery. There are some of these figures from Naples, who are involved in the kind of recovery of classical knowledge and some of the things we associate with the Renaissance. But I think you can see this, frankly, just going to the City of Naples, how much it’s really a Baroque city, not a Renaissance city. I think it’s just visible, kind of even in the urban fabric.
Some of this I think has to do with this more centralized, more monarchical regime, we’ve talked about. This an economy that’s going to come increasingly to export, agricultural produce raw materials to north to supply the manufacturing kind of centers in North Central Italy, eventually, even throughout Western Europe by the time we get into the 17th and 18th century. In some ways, a lot of people trace the split, the famous split between the Italian economy, the rich north economy and the poor southern economy to this period. You’ve even heard people say that the global south starts south of Rome. I think there’s some truth to that. I mean, certainly patterns of trade tended to favor North Central Italy from a pretty early date, by the time we get into the late Middle Ages. I think this is a reminder that centralization, and a strong central government in this period do not mean economic progress.
Thibault: Moving a bit north, we have the Papal States. The papacy is this very complicated concept. I really don’t want to get too much into the origins. But to give the quick, too long, didn’t read sort of summary, the Christianity is dominated by five pentarchs, who are five sort of super powerful religious leaders. Each one controls the city. There’s one in Constantinople, one in Alexandria, one in Jerusalem, etc, one in Antioch and one in Rome. As these cities follow one by one to Islam, basically, only Constantinople and Rome are left.
What’s quite interesting is that, starting with Gregory the Great, they start kind of backtracking this history, and they’re like, “Well, all of Christianity was always run out of Rome.” Eventually, this boils into this disagreement with the Byzantines, who have their own sort of the Patriarch of Constantinople, the two popes eventually excommunicate each other, resulting in the Catholic split. The details once again are quite arcane. But you end up with the Pope who is sort of claiming control over the Catholic part of Christianity, and in terms of the Papal States themselves, Rome in antiquity has this population of, some historians say up to a million, although there’s some reasons for skepticism. But anyways, Rome has this massive population and Rome empties.
To the extent that there kind of is post-apocalyptic, if you read the letters of Gregory the Great, he describes how all of the plazas are empty, all of the buildings have collapsed. He’s writing in the 600s. Rome for a long time really is this post-apocalyptic, empty city. The only reason why it exists is because it was the capital of the empire, and it had this religious significance where there was this guy who called himself the Pope, because it was the capital of the empire and its economy lives off of pilgrimage for a long time.
However, over time, starting kind of with Charlemagne, the City of Rome starts to recover. The Republic of St. Peter, if you think of it, the Vatican to this day is kind of a republic, where the Pope is elected upon the death of his predecessor by the various high-level members of the clergy. The Republic of St. Peter is established and the Papal States becomes this collection of city states that come to dominate the City of Rome and Central Italy for various complicated reasons. Once again, I don’t want to get into the Avignon Papacy, but as a few holdings in France and elsewhere. By say, the 1400s, the City of Rome is once again starting to recover. What are the Papal States doing at the early Renaissance? What are kind of the role of the Papal States?
Corey: Well, that’s a good question. Of course, we associate Rome with the papacy. It’s not just us who do that, people in the middle ages did as well. But Bonafice VIII is this guy — readers of Dante will have encountered Boniface, because Dante hates Bonafice so much and his — I mean, his whole trip through Inferno is an attack on Bonafice. But basically —
Thibault: Is he the guy who’s in the ditch headfirst feet up?
Corey: Well, that’s his predecessor, Pope Nicholas, I think.
Thibault: But he’s like under the guy in the ditch.
Corey: He’s coming. No, he’s coming. He’s still alive, but he’s destined for the ditch. He’s destined for the ditch after. But basically, Bonafice VIII, in a way, he’s the culminating figure of all these things that you were — these tendencies that you were just talking about, Thibault. He really puts forward the strongest claims of any Pope to temporal power in the secular world. He has the sense that the Pope is really God on Earth. He effectively gets killed. Well, his death is hastened, we should say, by agents of the French. I mean, this is a real threat. These claims are a real threat to the monarchs in Europe, and especially the French monarch. The French monarch, Philip IV, basically is going to have his goons take this guy out. In the aftermath of Boniface, who dies in 1303, effectively, the papacy is going to move to Avignon, where it’s going to be controlled.
In the 14th century, really, Rome isn’t quite the center of the Catholic world. It’s really Avignon, was this papacy that is controlled by the French monarchy. Finally, through a series of I mean, that this is called the Babylonian captivity, by the way of the church.
Thibault: Just to give a quick recap, what was happened is that the French kind of have these puppet popes. Although, there’s some debate about this, but the most commonly described as puppet popes of the French kings that are based in France and Southern France called Avignon. Italy is kind of devoid of the popes. All of these shenanigans are happening in Italy during this time while the popes are out being controlled by the French. A, at times, there’s multiple guys calling each other popes, one of which is in Italy, one of which is at Germany at the time, one of which is in France. It’s this total mess. Also, there’s these random revolutionaries like Cola Di Rienzo. Earlier, there was also another attempt who are attempting to restore the Roman Republic out of Rome, because they’re like, “Well, the popes are gone, so let’s try to restore the Roman Republic.” These attempts will all last like at best, a handful of years. In the case of Cola Di Rienzo, a few months at a time.
Corey: Yeah. It’s like the revolutions of 1848. This moment of an incredible outburst of optimism that very quickly gets shut down. But yeah, the religious situation is unbelievably complicated. It finally ends with the end of the Great Schism, the Western Schism in 1417, at the Council of Constance. I think what’s significant for us in this kind of podcast is just the…
Thibault: The end of the Western Schism is when the Pope returns to Rome, and all of these other guys who are calling themselves pope acknowledged that the guy who was in France was the real Pope the whole time and sort of backed down.
Corey: Exactly. Now, we have one Pope again, one Pope and we’re back in Rome. After this interlude of over 100 years of just absolute complexity, right? We’re back in Rome, we’re back with one Pope. But now, here’s the thing is, the Pope’s realize that okay. Okay. We’re not going to make quite the same claims to secular power as say, Pope Boniface VIII had made. But we do need to have a really strong papal state, that is crucial to the wellbeing of the church, that Central Italy stays under papal control. So that nothing like this should ever happen again.
You get a series of popes, particularly as we get really closer to the 1500. A series of Popes, who are trying to really do two things I think at once one is they’re trying to really establish their control over the City of Rome itself. That means two things. That means control over the Cardinals, really making sure that it’s the pope who has the power, not the various cardinals, who as you mentioned, Thibault. Actually, the ones who elect the Pope, of course. But after that election, the pope wants increasingly make Cardinals into basically his functionaries. The Pope is also interested in battering down the various kind of big families, the baronial families who control power in Central Italy, especially the Orsini families and the Colonna families, but also others, right? They’re really trying to establish their power. You end up with really militant popes. Perhaps the most notorious of these is Pope Alexander VI, he’s the Borgia Pope. I think there’s maybe an HBO.
Thibault: Is he the guy that they call the Warrior Pope?
Corey: No, the Warrior Pope is going to be the next one, Julius II, who literally would dress himself in armor and go to battle.
Thibault: With a maze.
Corey: Yes. I mean, he was no joke. Pope Alexander Borgia would really try to carve out a state either for the church, depending on who you believe, or maybe for his son. Duke Cesare Borgia, who is this figure that some people might know from Machiavelli, because he’s sort of Machiavelli’s hero in some ways. But the point I guess is, the popes embarked on this mission of territorial consolidation. I think I need not point out that a lot of people were very skeptical of this from a religious standpoint.
For example, the famous scholar Erasmus, when Julius the second, this warrior Pope finally kicks the bucket, Erasmus writes this book called Julius Exclusus, Julius Excluded from Heaven. The basic story of this book is that, after Pope Julius dies, he goes to heaven and St. Peter turns him away, because he was too warlike, The Pope is supposed to be a man of peace, not a man of war. This is kind of the background to the reformation, is that people are disillusioned by the worldliness of the papacy. Not just the money and the corruption, but I think specifically the war likeness of this papacy.
Thibault: Let’s talk about what would life have been. You’re traveling to Rome, the year is 1450 in the middle of all of this. What’s Rome like?
Corey: Rome is increasingly — the population is growing again. It’s still like a City of Ruins in some sense, of the Roman ruins, but that’s starting to change. You’re starting to get, for example, great collections of the classical texts, you’re starting to get new buildings, more people. But this is really going to culminate under the papacy of the Medici Pope, Leo X, who’s elected I forget exactly around — but around 1510. That’s when you’re going to get this influx of the great Renaissance artists. That’s when Raphael and Michelangelo are going to go there.
But people, you have to imagine in the 15th century, you imagine people are starting to show an interest in these Roman ruins in a real way. There are stories of people like Brunelleschi, who’s going to go on to build the famous Cathedral of Florence, the dome, the cathedral. There are stories of him I’m studying, the pantheon in in Rome to figure out how you build a dome. It’s starting to become this kind of hotbed of the Renaissance.
Thibault: Yeah. It really serves — it’s still on the periphery of the Renaissance world. But because of its historical status, it sort of attracts a lot of the talent, and because the other areas are so economically prosperous, it really partakes in the prosperity of the whole Italian sort of peninsula as a whole. It really acts as sort of an incubator. Maybe if Florence, which we’ll get to next is San Francisco and the Silicon Valley, then it’s maybe the Houston of sort of the Renaissance world.
Corey: Yes, or Austin, and it’s going to end up coming into its own in the 16th century, where it will become a major center of the Renaissance along with Venice.
Thibault: Now, of course, it’ll all come to an end after Protestant German armies — I don’t really want to get too much into the war. Have the horrible sack of Venice, I mean of Rome in 15 — Is it 1527?
Corey: Yeah, 1527.
Thibault: The amount of rate and mass slaughter and genocide is on a scale really that’s only seen — it’s along the scale of the horrible wars of the 20th century. Tell us a little bit about sort of what Rome’s fate is sort of as this era comes to an end.
Corey: Traditionally, that’s when historians have ended the Renaissance. We say, 1527, these Germans who are many — it’s a Spanish army, it’s actually controlled by Charles V, but he’s gotten into a conflict with the Pope. Most of his army are these Lutherans, these rad who really hate the Catholic Church. It is this incredible bloodshed. We usually date the end of the Renaissance to them. But I just want to note fast forwarding. What happens is Rome recollects itself and there’s going to be something called the Council of Trent, which is going to meet — basically, on and off throughout the 1540s and 1550s, into the 1560s. It’s going to launch the counter reformation or the Catholic Reformation.
Rome is going to then become the center of a kind of resurgent church, and even a global church. Because now we have to think about the Americas, and also places in India, this sort of global expansion of Europe that’s going to start happening. It’s largely under Spanish and Portuguese auspices, which is to say, Catholic. Rome is going to become the center of the global Catholic world and the center of the Baroque. Even though there’s this awful moment, this traumatic moment, I do think Rome is going to end up in a certain way. Its real golden age for me is not the Renaissance, but really the 17th century, the Baroque era.
Thibault: How fascinating. The wonderful thing about studying history, is that it always, in the long run has a happy ending. Life always gets better. Yeah, there’s all of these horrible things that happen. But in the long term, on the scale of centuries, things always just work out. People always end up way better off than they were 500 years in the past.
Corey: At least I don’t know if that’s always true everywhere. But it’s definitely the case, I think in Rome for first traumatic is that late Renaissance moment was. But yeah.
Thibault: Well, I like to think of it — if it’s not true, it’s either true or it’s not yet true. That’s to be optimistic. All right. Florence?
Thibault: Yeah, the most libertarian of the Renaissance city states, and maybe also the most libertine. How does Florence become a republic? What goes on there? In fact, you probably wouldn’t make the case that it’s the birthplace of the Renaissance, right?
Corey: I would make that case. Yeah. The question of why, why Florence, there’s always an element of mystery there. But what I guess I would say is, Florence is the city where political conflict was incredibly intense as it was almost everywhere in the Renaissance world of Italy. But were the Republic, no one family was able to fully dominate, really right up until, I think, the 16th century when the Medici who had sort of dominated, but not totally. Had sort of informally dominated in the era before it can finally install themselves as Dukes of Florence. It’s a very productive kind of conflict. It’s a conflict that’s also has class dimensions too. Florence becomes one of the most like, I mean, industrialized cities in the course of the 14th century, where one out of five people in the city are connected with the production of wool textiles.
You get this kind of class consciousness among the lower middle classes, at the same time, that you have incredible wealth in the form of the elite banking families. Of course, that’s where the Medici are going to emerge out of that world as well. But also, many other families who — people who control capital all across Western Europe, from the King of England, all the way to various German courts. In fact, the papacy itself uses Florentine bankers. You have this kind of diversified economy, you have this unusual, political — this constant political conflict that never results in a single family, let’s say taking control. It’s a kind of productive — it’s a sort of productive, competitive society that emerges in Florence.
I think we can really see this — I mean, for me, the story of these early Renaissance artists really embody this. You think about the famous — I mentioned earlier how Brunelleschi had gone to Rome to study how to build domes and study Roman architecture more generally. Well, the reason he goes there is because he leaves Florence in a huff after losing an artistic competition so that the City of Florence, the commune, wants to build gates for their baptistry. But they have a competition to see who’s going to make the best of these gates. It goes to this guy, Lorenzo Ghiberti. Ghiberti, a famous artist, but Brunelleschi then leaves in a huff and goes to Rome. But what I like about the story is this competitiveness, the sense that the Florentines want to have the best city on Earth, and they they’re forcing their artists into competition over that. I think what’s true of art is actually true in so many arenas in 14th and 15th century Florence.
Thibault: Yeah. I’ve read Paul the Deacon. It’s kind of horrible to read. But Paul the Deacon, they don’t sound like the Italians that I know today. Paul the Deacon, it’s like Grunwald, the warlord gathered his warriors to raid and make war against — it kind of reads like the or something like that. Whereas, when you read the accounts of Lorenzo versus Brunelleschi, they’re totally recognizably Italian. It’s this like genius gay artist who’s like, “Lorenzo, I hate you. You’re taking the for me.” I love it.
What’s happening is that there’s this hyper competitive bidding process. They’re building this great cathedral in Florence. They want to build the doors. Lorenzo who is this artist makes this door panel that’s kind of toned down. Whereas, Brunelleschi makes this really hyper emotional panel for the door. Of course, the more conservative sort of church authorities and the merchants who are sort of financing the church decide to go for Lorenzo’s more toned-down sort of doors, so they go for that. Brunelleschi goes into — once again, it’s another interesting thing is it highlights how the story of Brunelleschi, how A, there’s this church that’s being financed by merchants. B, there’s this competitive bidding process. C, there’s like the ability for Lorenzo, who is this artist from sort of a middle-class background to just participate and win.
Brunelleschi and this fit of rage goes to Rome with his lover, who is a man, which also shows how tolerant society has become. He goes and he explores all the Roman ruins, and he learns from the wisdom of the ancients. He then bids to build the dome, sort of the roof of the church. He invents this super innovative system, where there’s this iron framework, sort of an iron birdcage if you can imagine that inside of the dome with a second dome inside of the big dome, holding up the dome. Because of this, he wins the bid, he kind of sticks it to Lorenzo and he ends up building the great cathedral of Florence, which is probably one of the greatest buildings. Now, it’s quite interesting is that a lot of the architectural styles are sort of stuck in that Gothic era, which is, think of it as the architecture of Charlemagne. The early sort of 1000, 1100s. he prototypical Gothic building is maybe Notre Dame in Paris, right?
That’s sort of the architecture. He goes back and tries to reimagine what Roman architecture may have looked like. Of course, his imagining of it as kind of it is kind of fantastic and not really accurately. But in the process, he invents the new architecture, which becomes the modern architecture. What’s so fascinating about Florence is that it had just the right environment to cultivate that. Another interesting thing about Florence is that, the three great Renaissance thinkers, who sort of triggered the Renaissance: Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch. Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio are all Florentine. Let’s talk a little bit about what’s happening in the intellectual world, before we get into the sort of the financing of it. Let’s talk a little bit about these great thinkers.
Corey: Sure. Again, it’s a little a mystery why Florence produces these thinkers, and not for example, Genoa or Venice. Which in so many ways seems so comparable to Florence. But what is the case is that, Dante, obviously a Florentine, he is really the first to insist on using Italian are the Tuscan really. Using it for the epic mode, saying that you could express thought, you don’t need Latin to express the most complex thought. You can do it in Italian. This is something that Dante insists on, and you’re going to end up of course, with many, many other writers following him by the time we get to the 15th century who are writing in Tuscan or Italian rather than in Latin. Even though these people could all write in Latin fairly well. That’s one of Dante’s big sort of legacies, I think.
Petrarch, a bit different, because actually, Petrarch was obsessed with trying to capture that Latin, that pure Latin of the ancients. His most famous work, the work that we read, are these love poems in Italian, but he was ambivalent about that. Instead, what he thought his best work was, was a work about the Roman conquest of Africa, really of Carthage, the Roman Conquest of Carthage, which he wrote in this high Latin poetic style. I think Boccaccio is in the same kind of boat. Boccaccio is is best known for his Decameron. By the way, there’s also a great movie based on the Decameron by Pasolini, which I recommend to anyone who hasn’t seen it.
Thibault: God It’s probably X rated.
Corey: It is true. It’s not as X rated as some of Pasolini’s other movies, I can assure you.
Thibault: I tried to read Decameron. Petrarch by the way, the Divine Comedy is wonderful. It’s my favorite sort of primary Renaissance thing I’ve read so far. I haven’t read any Machiavelli yet. Petrarch, it’s like — I’ve only read some of his love poetry, and I haven’t gotten to his political stuff yet. Petrarch and Dante, it’s kind of like what you imagined people would write it at the time. Boccaccio is fascinating, because he’s basically writing pornography. You read the Decameron and it reads like these novels that are published like these trashy romance novels. It’s incredible. He’s sort of the grandfather. It’s these stories about — there’s the doctor, there’s the guy who’s dying and the doctor says he’s dying of love. But there’s also, the degree to which his novels are just full of sex and I couldn’t believe it. I was taking it. I’d never read — I’ve read a lot of primary sources from like the Middle Ages, a little bit earlier periods, and I’d never come across anything like the Decameron. I just couldn’t believe it.
Corey: It’s the spirit of the Renaissance, I think distilled, like this kind of naturalism, this realism, this frankly, this almost impiety that you see in something like the Decameron. I should say another word. The Decameron is a bunch of these short stories, just like Thibault was saying. But it might be particularly, in light of our COVID, our two years of COVID and all that’s meant for us, it’s maybe worth noting that the Decameron takes place during the Great Plague. It’s basically these rich aristocrats, these Florentine elites who get together. Three young men and seven young women, something like that go out into the countryside and tell each other salacious stories while the pandemic is raging around them. It’s also a kind of pandemic text, which might be interesting in light of our own experiences these last few years.
What’s interesting too is that Boccaccio comes to resent, not quite repudiate, but later in his career, again, he turns back towards Latin, back towards more pious kinds of texts, or more scholarly kinds of texts. I think that’s another part of this equation. Part of it is that these Tuscans are sort of precociously writing in Italian, at the same time that they’re ambivalent about it right or anxious about it. They’re also developing their skills in Latin, and eventually in Greek too. Part of this is the Italian language side of things. But also, this becomes this great center for Latin and Greek scholarship. Greek, even, especially, I mean, it’s really the center of Greek scholarship in the 15th century, in Western Europe. This is the moment where for example, Plato really gets rediscovered and reinterpreted by westerners. But also, eventually, pretty much all of Greek literature will get that treatment.
Florence like so many things, it’s just this incredibly dynamic place. Well, I guess I’ll shut up about it. But yes, I think it’s still a mystery why it happens there, and not any of the other Italian cities.
Thibault: Actually, I’d like to maybe talk about — I’m not going to say that this is the reason, but it’s a reason. One of the most important technologies in the modern world comes from Florence. It’s really a technology that will enable the commercialization of the Americas, the industrial revolution. It will enable the modern world. This technology is investment banking, the world of double entry bookkeeping, the world of — although some people say it came from Venice, it is debated. But anyways, either Florence was an early adopter, at the very least. The world of banking in the sense that we imagine it today. Also, the world of venture capital, and private equity, has some sort of early predecessor’s influence. Can you tell us a little bit about the Medici’s, who they are and what’s happening from a finance perspective there?
Corey: Sure. I mean, a couple a couple of things. First, I think you’re quite right and and you get this development of modern bookkeeping techniques. You also get this basically, these family firms that learn how to transfer wealth across Europe, through something like a kind of version, the bill. It’s called the bill of exchange, but it’s basically, it’s kind of medieval check, similar to our checks, which I guess even our checks are kind of no longer really — nobody really uses checks anymore. I think you still at least need to know what they are.
I mean, part of the issue, there’s a paradox, which is that, nowhere in the world in Eurasia, is there more of a direct prohibition against taking interest what medieval Christians called usury. And yet, that is exactly where these banking methods are going to come out of. Some people think it’s even in an effort to kind of circumvent the usury prohibition that you start to get these kinds of investment mechanisms. But you end up getting banks that develop into particularly by the late 14th century, even into like what we might think of as holding companies as a kind of — as a way to shield individual components of these banks, individual firms, to shield the family from total liability.
You get a kind of limited liability arrangement in finance, which allows — what happened in the early 14th century, basically, I think the 1320s, you had these big Italian families like the Bardi. and the Peruzzi family. This is before the Medici are really on the scene. They’re just a family firm, in which their assets are all in banking. When the King of England defaults on his debts, just decides he’s not going to pay what he owes to these families. Then these families basically collapsed, their finances collapsed and it causes the kind of maybe the first financial crisis in European history. This is even before the black plague. But what’s going to happen in the aftermath, as we go closer to 1400 is, you’re going to get these ways of shielding then, shielding family firms from that kind of unlimited liability. Part of that is definitely going to be this holding company model. The Medici are going to be the greatest example in 15th century Italy of that style.
Thibault: One of the most interesting things in my mind about the history of Florentine banking is this institution called la Montagne. Florence, like many governments, like many republics throughout history is running a deficit. The government is spending more than it’s taking in. What it does is that it starts issuing municipal bonds that are privately traded on a private market, and it creates this mountain of debt, this Montagne. It works well for about 100 years. Then, as you mentioned, for completely unrelated reasons to the Montagne influence, Florence has this financial crisis, Florence defaults on its debt, and it has this sort of disastrous inflationary consequences where the government of Florence sort of ends up debasing the currency to pay for its debts. Instead of printing money, because they don’t have paper money, they put like copper, and the gold coins or whatever, tin into silver or whatever. The economy is hyper inflated, nobody wants to loan money to the government. Florence kind of slips back from being a republic that was kind of an imperfect oligarchy republic into just becoming over time, the County of Tuscany once again, which is quite interesting. It goes back to sort of the old system of sort of the big man who’s in charge of society.
Corey: Yeah. I mean, it’s true that — I mean, that the question that’s sort of there is also, how did the Medici turn their financial resources, convert it into kind of political power? I think some of that has to do with — especially the early 14th century is this moment of really broad-based economic growth that involves most of society. It’s a little bit different by the time we get to the 15th century. There’s something like a kind of aristocratization of wealth as the families that kind of survived the difficulties of the 14th century ended up constituting kind of a smaller, narrower oligarchy of wealth and power, of which the Medici are the first at the top.
I mean, the other thing about these — but you do get these public debts, so that by the time you get into the 16th century, if you’re an Italian, a wealthy Italian family, you probably own — you own public debt, probably throughout Italy. Just so you have kind of diversified portfolio of bond holdings. You get this new form of wealth alongside business enterprise, alongside landowning. That of course is going to be part of the history of modern finance or the pre-history, you might say of modern finance.
Thibault: Right. It’s not this low risk, low returns. You own a few surfs, you own some land, and you don’t make that much money. But unless there’s like a storm or something, you don’t have to lose that much. Instead, you get the sort of high risk, high return immaterial assets. Many scholars like Karl Marx, and David Graeber, and Noam Chomsky identify this period sort of as the birth of capitalism. Although, you could maybe say the same about the Abbasids or whatever, but still, it’s very interesting that people sort of traced modern western capitalism to Florence during this period.
Corey: Yeah, that’s one. I mean, I think it has good arguments as any, as coming out of this context. I mean, I think for example, in this connection, especially it might be worth thinking about the Genoese bankers were also the biggest banking rival of the…
Thibault: Yeah, let’s move to Genoa. Genoa is the oldest city state to emerge from sort of the Lombard League. Genoa gets this charter during the time I think of Otto I, like 950s. Genoa is sort of — maybe you could call it a special economic zone, although I hesitate to use that anachronistic term of the Holy Roman Empire. Genoa profits like Venice, and Amalfi and Pisa from the crusades by being sort of one of these maritime shipping powers and establishes its own sort of commercial empire. Tell us a little bit about what Genoa is during this time.
Corey: Yeah. I mean, it’s moment of transition for — for much of the Middle Ages, anybody from Genoa was just assumed to be a merchant. It was probably the most pound for pound, the most merchantilized city in Europe. It was just — it’s this tiny scrap of a city basically wedged between the mountains and the sea. But just thoroughly, thoroughly commercialized. And they do, just like you were saying, in the wake of the Crusades, they establish merchant colonies, city state type things all throughout the eastern Mediterranean, even in the Black Sea.
However, basically, in the 14th century, they engaged in a series of struggles with Venice over commercial control of the eastern Mediterranean. Genoa kind of loses that, it kind of emerges as the defeated party from the struggle by the time we get, after what’s called The War of Chioggia in the late 14th century. There are kind of two things happened for Genoa, that I think are worth noting. One is that you get the rise of these Genoese banks. I mean, there had been some already, but they really come into their own as we go into the 15th century. Secondly, there’s a move westward, towards the western Mediterranean, eventually towards the Atlantic. As we say, it ends up not being surprising that Christopher Columbus is from Genoa. The ties between Genoa and the early project of colonialism in the Americas go deeper. Basically, the Genoese elite families become the main bankers for the Spanish kings in this period, and essentially fund a substantial portion of Spanish colonialism in the America. Even though Genoa kind of loses the battle with Venice over the eastern Mediterranean, it ends up kind of luckily turning westward, just when that’s going to be where all the profits are going to be anyways.
Thibault: Now, let’s move on to the last city before we end the podcast by sort of talking about Venice, Milan. Milan, is sort of the anti-Florence. Milan is controlled by these authoritarian rulers, the attempt to create this short-lived Ambrosian Republic, but it doesn’t really work out. The government constantly have this cycle where decadent leaders take over a mercenary or a noble, stages a coup. They are great because it turns out that coups are actually a pretty good way of doing regime change in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Then their children and grandchildren are decadent, and the cycle starts over.
However, unlike other sort of authoritarian states, we tend to have this modern bias to like the libertarianism, and the freedom of speech, and the tolerance of Florence and to be predisposed against Milan. But objectively speaking, although Milan is authoritarian, it partakes in the Renaissance. The greatest Renaissance thinker of all, Leonardo da Vinci is patronized by sort of the rulers of Milan. Milan in many ways outlasts a lot of its competitors like Florence. Let’s talk a little bit about Milan. What’s going on there?
Corey: Yeah. I’m glad you bring up Milan. I mean, I think Milan is not only a center, a lesser center than Florence, but it’s nonetheless important center for artistic patronage. Also, I mean, there’s a famous project, for example, for city architecture that’s meant to honor one of these warlords that you just described, who had taken control of the city. But also, the other thing to say about Milan, and I think we still know too little about this. I mean, I can tell you, the historians focus obsessively on Florence, Genoa and Venice. Whereas, Milan is clearly the richest most centralized part of Northern Italy.
Milan, comes quite close to conquering most of Northern Italy in the late, late 13, early 1400s. It has some of the most advanced kinds of — some of the most advanced economy and technology available in the day for example, I’m thinking — in particular of its arms industry. I mean arms, then as now, the ability to manufacture cutting edge weapons is crucial. Milan had the most important arms industry in Italy and it’s making armor, but also muskets, and cannons and things like this. It’s a major economic center as well as a major center for power and artistic patronage. There’s no doubt about it.
Thibault: While we’re talking about Milan, I think it’s important to talk about warfare. Warfare at this time in Italy is essentially privatized. It’s dominated by mercenary groups called the condottieri. This has some very interesting effects. The condottieri are having an incentive to be as cost efficient, and as technologically savvy as possible. They don’t have the same incentives as State Military. As a result, there’s a few downsides. The downside is that sometimes that it’s loyal. Machiavelli rails against this, although many modern military historians say this is a bit of a myth. Sometimes they’ll go and they’ll work for your other one.
They have an incentive to lobby for perpetual war. Because if there’s no war, then they go broke. That’s kind of the downside. But the upside is that the wars are much smaller. They’re not wars that involve like the mass slaughter of civilians, like World War II. It’s usually two armies will go into field, dance around, a few people get killed. That’s the end of the war. The other thing is that, they also have an incentive to adopt a lot of the new military technologies, like gunpowder. Milan is most well known for having condottieri take over the government at times, and also for being home to the most fearsome condottieri. Tell me a little bit more about who these people are.
Corey: Yeah. These people, I mean, you’re right to bring up Machiavelli and this kind. I mean, these condottieri are military entrepreneurs, basically. They have a bad rep, and I can talk about that in a second. But basically, they come from, like, what we think usually like the lesser nobility, not exclusively, though, from that kind of demographic. People who have a warrior vocation, and in a way, show how incomplete the monopoly of violence that these city states had really, really was, that they — nothing like a professional army really exists anywhere except Venice. Venice, it only exists for the Navy, really.
But why does this happen? Well, we have to go back to the Lombard League and the wars that we talked about. Those participatory democracies, made war right up until about 1300. For 150 years, primarily made war with Militia. Citizen Militias, the same people who are voting in the town councils and all this stuff are the same people who go and fight when you have to fight battles. I think for reasons that you alluded to, these are not great warriors, these people. These are people who might be shopkeepers, or merchants, suddenly having to arm themselves. War is getting more complex, not less complex, as you get into the gunpowder age.
You increasingly I think need — you need specialists. I guess we would say, why don’t the states just commission a permanent army to do that? I think that that was politically problematic as well as fiscally problematic. Much easier to hire an army for when you needed it, and then make it and it somebody else’s problem when you don’t need it.
Thibault: I have a good analogy for this. Imagine that private armies during this time are like jets. Most people can afford to buy a plane ticket to basically rent a jet. But very few people can afford to just have a private jet. If you think of the economics of scale, it’s much cheaper for these republics to just rent an army when you need it, than to just have it all around gathering dust during peacetime.
Corey: Exactly. Gathering dust and maybe manipulating and getting their feet into politics, right?
Thibault: Another thing is that these republics and even though Milan’s not really republic, many of the same dynamics apply. People don’t want to fight and die. Nobody wants to really like go die for their country. Most democracies in the 20th century would abandon conscription for this reason, like the US. Conscription was one of the major reasons why the Vietnam War was so unpopular. It’s much better not only is it more economical, but it’s much more just better when you have an electoral society to just hire some dudes who are some experts to do the fighting for you.
Corey: I think that’s a great point. I actually think both of those points are great points. When I’m teaching Machiavelli in class, I often asked my students whether they think the United States has a mercenary arm or militia, and meant to just, of course, provocatively get them to think about the place of the military in modern society. But to go back to the Renaissance, I think the advantages of this are yes, these economies of scale and relative affordability that you get through this system as well as the political — they’re politically more palatable. The danger is yes, on the one hand, these condottieri have an interest in constant war. But to be honest, I’d tell you, I have to say, I think the impulse toward war in this period was so constant that I don’t know how much blame the condottieri really could take.
This was a highly unstable political and geopolitical context. The other thing is that, I think the real problem, and this comes out in the career of Francesco I Sforza. We’ll talk about in a moment. The real problem is that, when you have a successful condottiere, he could become too big for his britches. Suddenly, you have somebody who’s nominally under your control, but who’s actually the guy who people are, who’s popular, who people like, who’s winning victories and who’s got a military. Controlling that person is difficult. I think we’d have to imagine what it would be like to try to control Amazon or Google, if Amazon and Google actually had an army and not just lobbyists working for it. That’s a little bit of the kind of problem you get with these military.
Thibault: That’s coming. A very interesting thing is that, the use of military contractors is increasing. As a little bit of an aside, I recommend everybody who’s interested in this, read Erik Prince’s autobiography. Erik Prince is the founder of Blackwater, which was the largest military contracting company during the Iraq War. Now, about half of all US military operations are actually done by essentially modern-day condottieri. Corey, this is going to blow your mind. You know how Erik Prince got the idea of starting Blackwater?
Corey: Oh, no. It was from Machiavelli?
Thibault: No, it was by studying the condottieri of the Italian Renaissance. That’s how he opens. He realized how much more effective the condottieri would be against the non-state actors of Al Qaeda and the Guerrilla forces. Isn’t that interesting?
Corey: That’s fascinating. It also just speaks to the larger concern with relative state weakness in our age and what that might mean in terms of new kinds of institutions or organizations, rather than ones just exclusively run by and for the state.
Thibault: Prince reminds me of Sforza, who you mentioned. You probably have seen a painting of him. Because he’s there with his wife. This is the right one, right? He has a very ugly big nose. Why? Because he had the bridge of his nose removed. He lost one of his eyes. To be able to keep riding in battle, he had his nose bridge removed. Most people kind of photoshop, so to speak the paintings to make people look good. He’s like, “No. I want you to paint me how I am, and I want people to know that I’m ugly and this like hard ass.” Tell us a little bit about him.
Corey: Yeah. He is a hard ass. He’s the son of another condottiere who had basically been fighting all across Italy. But Francesco Sforza, he ends up — by the time we get into like the 1420s, he’s ended up basically, he’s working for the Duke of Milan, against — well, depending on the moment, against Venice or against Florence. The Duke of Milan, this is the moment actually when Venice is really actually kind of winning, and is getting control of all these mainland territories on the Italian mainland. The Duke of Milan gets more and more dependent on Francesco Sforza. Eventually, Francesco Sforza — well, the Duke of Milan has no heir to the throne. He just has a daughter.
Sforza figures his — this is his big opportunity. Because if he could marry this woman, then he could basically make himself the next Duke of Milan. That’s exactly what happened. You basically have this warlord who is happy to switch sides. He’s fighting for the Duke of Milan, but he’s in constant contact with Venice and Florence throughout this whole period. He’s basically pretty close to Cosimo de’ Medici in Florence. He’s trying to use his position really to parlay it into the duchy, and he succeeds. He founds this kind of dynasty, that very much like you said, ends up producing progressively less competent children who eventually get blamed for bringing Spanish and French forces into Italy and kind of ending the Renaissance. I just want to briefly note, we didn’t talk about that yet.
The other thing that’s weird about the 14th and 15th century in Italy, is how much those 200 years, more like 100, and say 175 years are really dominated by Italian politics. You don’t have these outsiders, the Spaniards, or French or Germans. It’s like, Italy has been thrown onto itself and it’s just fighting itself out without these outsiders. That’s going to change in 1494, when when one of the Sforza, this guy called Ludovico the Moro, because he had dark skin. This guy, Ludovico the Moro calls in French…
Thibault: That’s da Vinci’s patron, right?
Corey: Yes, exactly. It’s Leonardo da Vinci’s patron. I was going to essentially summon French armies, and that’s going to give the start to what we call the Italian wars, which is in one way, the Italian wars are going to be the end of the Renaissance. It’s like what we talked about with the Sack of Rome in 1527. But in another way, it’s also going to be the export of the Italian Renaissance to the rest of Europe, because suddenly, Italy is sort of the center of Europe. It’s going to be exporting its culture, its personnel. Leonardo da Vinci ends up, himself ends up getting attached to the French court and goes to France, where he ends up dying. That’s why the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre and not somewhere in Italy. It becomes the end of the Renaissance in Italy, but the export of the Renaissance to Europe. Sorry, that’s a long way from the condottieri.
Thibault: No, I think it’s fascinating. Look, I think what’s very important about the Sforzas is that, this is not a unique phenomenon with him. There are many other cases of this happening in the early modern and sort of late medieval world. In the Holy Roman Empire, this happens. Happens in Netherlands. In fact, the fact that there’s just these like mercenaries who can just overthrow the government and become in charge is one of the major factors that actually leads to sort of state formation. It’s at least why one of the reasons why Louis XIV was so skeptical of mercenaries. A few 100 years later, would start implementing a lot of the nationalization of the French armies.
Corey: I think that’s quite right. I mean, we sometimes forget that the 30 years war, which was — the 30 years war is fought mostly in Germany, but basically, it’s the most destructive conflict on European soil until World War I, mentally destructive. But it’s fought by mercenaries, some of whom become so big that the kings and the emperors start to worry about whether these guys are going to take over. Now, they don’t quite, but I think people like Louis XI, are really conscious of this. They do undergo that kind of nationalization of their armies, precisely as a project of state control. Whether they fight better is only part of their calculation, I think. The other part of the calculation was political. It’s not so much whether they fight better or worse. I can at least control them if it’s my state army. But yeah, they’re absolutely common throughout Italy in the 14th and 15th century. Everybody has condottiere.
Thibault: Before we move on to Venice, let’s give a few little honorable mentions. It’s important to remember that Italy is chock full of city states. A lot of these city states like Pisa, it’s very hard to pin down because during part of the period, Pisa is independent, during part of the period, Pisa is part of Florence, etc. Other honorable mentions include Mantova, Bologna, Trevizo. If you consider Ragusa as an Italian city state, but sort of located in modern day Croatia. I don’t know if it’s fair to count it, but sort of a colony, there’s that. You can even maybe consider some of the crusader states that were dominated demographically, by Italians, perhaps the sort of extensions of this Italian culture. Let’s jump into Venice.
Corey: Wait, Thibault, can I do one more honorary mention, which is Ferrara. The City of Ferrara, which is under — is basically becomes this major center of Italian court life and epic poetry. The great Renaissance epics, maybe most famously, Tasso, but also Ariosto, get out of this court, and even the theory of what it was. What is court life supposed to be, really comes out also of this court on Ferrara. We always think about Renaissance in the republics, but we got to remember the Renaissance and the monarchies, Milan, but also Ferrara as well.
Thibault: I think that’s a very good point, because it’s not just republics and monarchies, but there’s the Papal States, which is like a theocracy. There are so many weird forms of government, there’s bishoprics. There are some places that are like communes that have no heads of state. It’s just like a committee that ruling the place. There are some attempts at creating governments by lottery. It’s kind of like this Cambrian explosion of really weird governments that are very short lived at times. You can’t just say, this makes it very hard to make just blanket statements about the Renaissance, because it’s like — as we’ve seen, are you going to compare Milan — how in the world are you going to compare Milan, Naples and Florence? Such different societies? It’s almost as if they’re completely different universes.
Corey: No, I just think, yeah. The diversity of the Renaissance, and I think the analogy to the Cambrian explosion is exactly right. All these weird forms that tend to get forgotten in our obsession with Florence especially.
Thibault: It’s very important because we have this bias, where it turns out that Western liberal democracy kind of wins, and a lot of the historiography is kind of only looking at these in terms of how are these steps towards Western liberal democracy, right? We’re not thinking of them as terms of — a lot of these places turn out to be evolutionary dead ends. The Republic of Florence is much more a step towards, I don’t know, the monarchies of the 1600s, then it is a step towards western liberal democracy. I really think it’s important when you hear about these republics, not to think of it as, this evolves, not to look at it from this modernist perspective of like, this is going to evolve into America. But to really look at it for what it is and its own sake.
On that historic graphical note, let’s look at Venice. We’re looking back at the collapse of the Roman Empire. All of these other city states that we have mentioned have been in the sphere of the Holy Roman Empire at some point and have sort of the successor states, maybe with Naples and Sicily as kind of an exception. But for the most part, these are very much connected to the west. Venice is founded by refugees who are fleeing the barbarian invasions during the collapse of the Roman Empire. They find this marshland. This marshland has a few patches of mud. At some places, there’s some reeds that grow in it. If you go in a boat there, you can still see some of it. A lot of it is only visible during low tide.
Right off of the coastline to hide from these barbarians, they start building islands that are artificial. At first, they only live in these artificial islands during times of war. Whenever there’s conflict happening on the mainland, they go out. But over time, instead of constantly evacuating and returning to these artificial islands, they just start living there permanently. This process of Venice being built starts kind of in the 600s and goes into the 900s. The Venetian economy is mostly based off of cultivating the only thing they can cultivate, salt. Because there’s no arable land. However, Venice has some advantages. The cleanest city in the Middle Ages, because you can just poop in the water and the water will wash it away. It doesn’t just like rot and fester. Venice does very well during a lot of the various plagues and disease outbreaks.
Venice is this is tied to the Byzantine Empire, and is technically part of the Eastern Roman Empire, which is kind of like the Roman rump state based out of modern day Turkey and Greece. They’re not really tied to this western Holy Roman Emperor. A few of these Holy Roman emperors, notably Charlemagne himself, camped outside of Venice to try to extract some money and whatever, but it never amounts to anything. Unlike the other city states, which kind of overtime break free from the continental powers of Europe, Venice always is independent. Let’s pick up the story of Venice, from the crusades maybe culminating with the Fourth Crusade.
Corey: Yeah. Thank you. I mean, Venice is absolutely anomalous. I mean, is it really Italy? Is it really part of the West? Is it really Byzantine? But clearly, it’s in between those two. Also, I want to emphasize as well. It’s really close to the Slavic lands, which is the major source of slaves in the, basically what we call the dark ages before our sources become abundant again. It’s in this really liminal position, this borderland position. It’s definitely able to benefit from that. It is the same stories about the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope. There are famous examples of Venice essentially trying to broker treaties between them, because they’re supposedly independent of both. Obviously, you could see the Byzantine art, or the Byzantine legacy in the art of Venice, which is inescapable. Anyone who’s been to Venice and seen the church of San Marco, but Venice is trading from a…
Thibault: As a side note about the church of San Marco. Mussolini, who had actually only went to Venice relatively late in his life and went to Greece first. Mussolini hated Venice. He sees it and he’s like, “What are these Greeks with this Greek architecture?” He actually wanted to blow up Venice to Italianize it, which sounds so insane. He actually went about and built these like, horrible, disgusting, concrete plots everywhere and mowed down all of these ancient medieval buildings to build modern streets. It’s funny how Venice, not only has it stood apart, but the ultimate embodiment of sort lowbrow nationalism. Mussolini hated it for that reason, as a bit of a side note.
Corey: Yeah. I mean, it just feels so different from these other Italian cities and probably — and has always felt that way to people. I mean, of course, Mussolini had an extreme reaction. But I think it’s inescapable. And yet, we have to imagine this early Venice, it’s actually the very early dates is definitely 100% still actually under, probably the first few doges were actually Byzantine exarchs or something. But it’s essentially independent, and always thought of itself as independent as part of its kind of political mythology. It’s trading slaves from a pretty early date to the Muslim world. At the same time that it becomes — this is very characteristically Venetian. It’s both ideologically incredibly anti-Islamic from an early date, at the same time that it does more trade with the Muslim world than any other part of Europe.
One example of this that I think illustrates this is that the story that St. Mark — St. Mark is buried in Alexandria, which of course is under most Muslim rule by the Middle Ages. Venetians are there doing business. But what else do they do? Well, they steal the relics of St. Mark, and they put it supposedly in a vat of pig fat, so that the Muslims wouldn’t dig through it. But they steal these relics in the early 9th century, and bring them to Venice and that’s where we get St. Mark, San Marco from this act.
Thibault: The miracle of St. Mark is this amazing — Google the miracle of St. Mark’s, you’ll get some accounts of this medieval legend. It’s probably all just like fanciful, but it’s so much fun.
Corey: Exactly. Because what you say about this heist, I totally forgot about. They take the body. St. Mark was born sort of in the region of Venice. Of course, Venice didn’t exist during the late Roman Empire. He came from the mainland, but the Venetians claimed him as his because he like allegedly once went camping in the marshes where Venice would later be built. He traveled to preach to the Eastern Roman Empire, he ends up — he travels all over the Middle East. He dies in Alexandria, which is a city in Egypt, and his body is held there by the Coptic Greeks in the — I think it’s — when is it? It’s like 830s, 840s, somewhere along that time. It’s really early in Venetian history. It’s right when Venice is going from permanent settlement, trading salt to like starting to do commerce.
Two Venetian merchants arrive in Alexandria. They talk to the Greeks and they decide that they’re going to steal the body and bring it back to Venice as this trophy. It’s so disgusting to us, the idea that you’re going to just like parade around this court. It’s so weird. But it turns out this is quite common during the time, right? There are all sorts of toenails, I’m not joking. Literally toenails, foreskin, ears, and fingers of saints that are being circulated around as these precious relics. The ultimate relic is the whole body of St. Mark. The toenail would be priceless, let alone the whole body, so they bring it back. The problem is that when they’re trying to sneak it out of Alexandria, they realize that the body stinks. They describe it as having this rosy aroma.
The Greeks, by the way, are not at all cool with this. The Greek Christians are really upset at this at first. The Venetians placate them by giving them gold, and by telling them that St. Mark is from Venice. They make it sound like it’s telling them St. Mark is from Venice, but if you read through the lines, they just kind of bought the corpse off of them, corrupted Christian priest with them.
The Muslims, by the way, wanted to foster the preservation of religion in Egypt. They give the corpse to St. Mark. They gave the corporate to the Coptic Greeks of Alexandria. They hide it under the pork, as you said. There’s this very tense scene in The Legend where the Muslims open the body because they can smell something and they’re not sure what it is. I think one of the Muslims, they even put words in his mouth. It’s like, “Ah! It smells like a dead Saint here.” It’s just amazing. He opens it, and it’s like, “Oh, pork. Disgusting” and they send it back. It’s really this amazing little nugget.
Corey: It’s great, because I think it encapsulates this tension that you see running throughout all of Venetian history, right? Are we enemies of the of the Muslims or are basically, are we the business partners? Are we enemies of the Byzantines or are we their partners? Of course, at times, they’re both later on in Venetian history. Venice comes to be called the Turks courtesan, the courtesan of the Turks because they’re effectively right, they’re in bed with the Turk. Because the idea, even though Venice had fought all these wars against the Ottomans as well.
It’s this very ambivalent position of the Venetians, but again, as with Genoa and Pisa, it is the calling of the First Crusade that was really going to launch Venice on its grand imperial —
Thibault: That was not as much of a slip as you think it is.
Corey: It’s going to launch Venice on its career as an imperial power. Where they get these holdings that we mentioned in the Levant, they’re calmer. This is the moment where — and this is going to be true in a certain way. It’s going to be true until the 20th century. Where commerce in the Mediterranean, the shipping is going to be dominated by Europeans, particularly by Italians, as we talked about earlier. Is Venice an empire at this point? Well, you know, yes and no. Venice owns some territory up in the up in the Adriatic. It is not above manipulating its neighbors on the Italian mainland. I mean, I think, Thibault mentioned salt.
Really, this is city that from pretty early date wants to make sure that it controls commerce in the upper Adriatic. If that means having to intervene on the mainland to do that, it will happily do that. But even so, most of us wouldn’t really call this an empire yet. It’s not until the Fourth Crusade, which is — Jerusalem is lost to the west, the Franks in I think 1087, or sorry, 1187. The Third Crusade has crawled almost immediately thereafter to try to recapture Jerusalem. That’s when Frederick Barbarossa, we talked about early drowns in the ditch.
The Fourth Crusade is called around 1203 for the same reason. But this time, they’re going to go by ship. What ends up happening, I don’t want to make it a surprise is, these crusaders end up conquering Constantinople instead of Jerusalem. How does that happen? How does this adventure get diverted from Muslims to Greek Orthodox?” Well, part of this has to do with growing religious difference between the Greek and the Latin churches. Part of it has to do with the complexities of Byzantine politics, which is that — there was a pretender to the Byzantine throne, hanging out in these Frankish circles with Venetians and these Frankish crusaders. Basically he’s saying, if you put me back on the throne, then I’ll make sure it’s really easy for crusaders to go back and forth between Western Europe and the Levant. There’s that part.
But then part of it is this issue that that Thibault mentioned earlier, which is that, the Franks show up to be carried across to Jerusalem, but they don’t have anything like the money they need for the shipping. The wily Venetians are basically like, “Well, if you help us conquer these places, basically in the Adriatic, and then help us restore this guy to the Byzantine throne, then we’ll carry you all the way to the Holy Land.” That’s the bargain that gets made. They do this, and they go to Constantinople and they actually put this fellow on the throne, but it initiates a series of a political cascade, where very quickly, it ends up being the Franks and the Venetians fighting actually the Byzantines, who basically want to reject this whole proposition.
When the Venetians and the Franks win, the Venetians are given. I think it’s something like there’s some formula — it’s like one quarter and a half of a quarter of the Byzantine Empire to rule directly. What that means is a big segment of Constantinople itself, but also islands throughout the Ionian Sea, throughout the Peloponnese, throughout Greece, basically. This whole archipelago of empire that the Venetians now have the rights to, and this is really the moment we’re Venice becomes an empire.
Thibault: The best historical analogy for those of you who aren’t familiar with the Fourth Crusade is Star Wars, specifically Darth Vader. Why? Because Anakin Skywalker starts off by by killing a few Tusken raiders. Then before he knows it, he’s having an affair with the noble woman. Then he’s training to become a Sith. Then he before he knows it, he has an empire and it’s kind of similar. These crusaders go to Venice. They need transportation to go to Jerusalem to fight the Muslims. The Venetians are like, “Oh, you can’t pay for it.” Don’t worry. All you got to do is, take care of a few pirates that are messing with us in the Adriatic Sea. The problem, of course, is that the pirates are Catholics. It’s the Zara, right? It’s Zara.
They go attack the city state. It’s kind of a crappy little Slavic city, piracy-based city state of the Adriatic and they all get excommunicated for this. The Pope Boniface is enraged. They decide to proceed, but then the crusaders have this idea and they say, “By the way, we’re actually not going to Israel/Jerusalem. We’re actually going to go attack via Egypt, but our men will hate that, so we’re not going to tell them.” They go to Egypt. They look at the coastline and they realize that it’s way too defended. They think to themselves, “Oh crap!” The Venetians say, “Hey! This expedition has been going on way too long. You owe us even more money now.” There’s this pretender once again, why would a Byzantine depose Byzantine pretender be in Venice? Well, because Venice is sort of de jure but not de facto part of the Byzantine Empire. Because it’s on paper part of the Byzantine Empire, but the Byzantines have no control. It’s the perfect place for Byzantine pretended to hang out.
They place the pretender. The pretender turns out to be a moron. There’s a bit of power shuffling in Constantinople. As a result, the guy who takes charge, who comes to power in Constantinople is this like anti-Byzantine populist kind of guy. This, at first, they’re trying to negotiate. But during the negotiations, there’s a few incidents, there’s different versions of it. The Byzantine version of it, which is the most damning version is that the Crusaders raped some girls, which leads to some mass riots, which leads to fighting on the streets. Before they know it, 1, 2, 3, I just said, “Constantinople, give your empire to me.”
The Venetians end up with all of these random territories. Plus, on top of that, they’ve been slowly buying up chunks of the Middle East from the area that seized by the Crusaders. On top of that, there’s some manipulations, there’s some strange sort of complicated geopolitical stuff that’s happening in Italy. The Venetians have a good chunk of the former Byzantine Empire, they control —at certain times, they control Athens, they control Crete, they control the Island of Naxos, they control Corfu and Greece, they control some parts of Anatolia. They end up with some Frankish emperors, who are the Emperors of the Byzantine Empire who are very friendly to them.
They end up with all sorts of colonies in the Black Sea, and they even purchase not only purchasing land from the crusaders in the Middle East, but also purchasing lands from Muslims with the most distant outpost being in Bosnia in the late 1290s, which is quite fascinating. The Venetians have this maritime sort of commercial trade empire. What happens after this?
Corey: Well, in the very long run, what’s going to happen is the rise of the Ottoman Empire is going to constitute a gradual, but kind of fundamental existential threat to this empire. As the Ottomans conquer, they’re going to incorporate these Imperial exclaves, I guess, into the empire itself. But in the short run, this is going to make Venice into the preeminent broker between East and West when it comes to commerce. Again, there’s a reason why a figure like — someone like Marco Polo is a Venetian, who’s eventually going to be trading all across Eurasia, as everyone knows. But if you read the early chapters in Marco Polo, he’s basically in this Byzantine world in the Levant and the Black Sea region. This by then, by this point, Constantinople is back in Greek hands. That’s a blow to Venice. But nevertheless, you can see this kind of these islands, these almost Venetian Islands in the Middle East, become places where the spices, silks, other luxury goods get ultimately conveyed to Venice.
I think the other interesting thing is how the Venetians tried to manage this. Because part of what they had to do was to keep other Europeans from enjoying the benefits of this. The way they did that, they fought wars that I mentioned with Genoa to sort of really establish themselves as preeminent in the eastern Mediterranean and in the Levant. They also allied themselves with the Mamluk Sultans of Cairo to basically exclude other Europeans that kind of saying — to make themselves the exclusive buyers of this of the spices that come over the Indian Ocean and over land, over Sinai up to up to Cairo.
Finally, they try to make sure that anyone who wants to do business with them in Europe has to come to Venice. If you’re a European, especially a German, you’re not supposed to go all the way to the Levant. You’re going to go to Venice and you don’t go any further. They make Venice itself into this huge entrepot for all these commodities that are coming from the east that are going to eventually be distributed all throughout Europe. But where’s that point happened? That point happened In Venice itself.
Thibault: One very interesting aspect of this is that Venice starts developing like Florence and like Genoa, very advanced commercial systems. Once again, I mentioned this earlier, but some people, whether the Western invention, there’s actually an independent Islamic invention of double entry bookkeeping appears in Europe. It’s either Florence or Venice, right? That’s very illustrative. Either way, it’s an early adopter.
Another interesting thing, and I’m getting this from Laurence Bergreen, who wrote a biography of Marco Polo about 15 years ago. One of the most and I have sort of — I have no clue how accurate this is. This are all tertiary substance. But one of the most fascinating things about Marco Polo is that when he comes back, he is briefly imprisoned for like a couple of years in kind of a luxury prison by the Genoese to the rivals of the Venetians, where he writes his famous book. But his life after, he’s an adventurer, he lives another 20 or 30 years or something like that. What he becomes is one of the world’s first foreign direct investment consultants, which is an industry nowadays that I’m very intimately familiar with. What the business is, interestingly enough, is that he helps Venetians using the all the contacts he made out east find the best deal on taxes in ports when they’re doing business with all of these groups. I guess his life would have been what? Late 1200s. This probably intersects with the Mamluks, and it definitely coincides with the time when the Venetians are losing a little bit of their hold on Greece.
It’s very interesting to think of the financial instruments that are developing in Venice around this time. Even Marco Polo, you always think of him as the adventurer, not the banker. Tell us a little bit about finance in Venice.
Corey: I mean, I think that — I mean, broadly speaking, I think the techniques were very similar to what we see in Florence. I would say the biggest difference that occurs to me, or the most famous difference would be a better way to put it, is the way that the galley system, the shipping that is connecting Venice to the east is effectively a state-run enterprise. Venice is a very corporatist kind of society. I’ll talk about that in a moment. But basically, it is the government itself that’s going to essentially license these ships to private entrepreneurs who are going to be the merchants who are going to rent space aboard the ships. These spaces could be could be extremely subdivided. so that relatively middling kinds of investors could invest in an enterprise space aboard the ships. At the same time, that big merchants would have much more space.
Thibault: Can I comment briefly on how the investment is handled?
Corey: Sure. Yeah.
Thibault: At first, what it is, is that you can buy stock in a ship. It’s this very high risk return venture. The problem is that if your ship sinks, you lose everything. As independently invented later on in the Netherlands, they start this idea, which is once again, very similar to private equity. Where you buy 1/5 of a ship, and you buy stock and that distributes the — it reduces the profits, so you’re not going to 10x your money, but it reduces the risk. Now, you can own wealth by owning stock in a whole bunch of these shipping expeditions that are going east. You also get the rise of things such as naval insurance, and all sorts of institutions like that appear out of that. Just to sort of supplement what you’re saying.
Corey: I think that’s a great point. I mean, I think a whole entree into thinking about this world of Renaissance capitalism is really thinking about all the ways in which people try to attenuate risk, to mitigate risk. Another common way that you see and you see this certainly in these Venetian merchants, is not only the way they tried to spread their shares out over different ships, especially if you’re a rich merchant. But also, just the sheer diversity of goods in which they invested so that nobody really in this day is invested — specifically a kind of silk merchant or specifically a pepper merchant, but these are all generalists, who are investing in like an array of different goods, partly to hedge against market fluctuations.
Another way we see this too is the use of family relations. I mean, the 12th century is largely an age of resident traveling merchants. You yourself are traveling with your goods in many cases. But over the course of that, and the following century, you get these agency relations where you set a principal merchant, the rich guy back in Venice and you have an agent in — I don’t know, Damascus or Constantinople. This is risky. How do you know that this agent is not going to just lie to you and take your property?
Well, this is one reason why you tend to rely on family members who owe you other things besides just this business relation. This is a major problem for the Venetians and for the Florentines. But in both cases, they’re kind of the problems resolved by these sorts of family firms, but not exclusively families. I mean, you had partners who are also just acquaintances as well, . These early partnerships, relationships develop as well in this period. With Islamic, there’s some Islamic analogues to that as well, I should say.
Thibault: Many modern libertarians falsely believe that Venice is sort of this ultra-capitalist, ultra-libertarian utopia. When in fact, most of scholars make the point that Venice was, if not the most authoritarian, maybe contested with Milan, then one of the most authoritarian police states of Renaissance Italy. One historian went as far as calling it the North Korea of Renaissance Italy. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it really stuck with me. Tell me a little bit about Venice’s governance.
Corey: Yeah. It’s a good question. Venice’s governance, like actually all of these republics is to begin with is incredibly complex. I’m going to just read you, just to illustrate how is this. Venice was ruled nominally by the doge, which is just the Venetian word for duke. The doges, increasingly, especially by the time we get to the 14th century, they are like head of state. But they don’t determine policy, which is largely determined within the council of 40 and this other body that I’m going to be talking about, called the Council of 10, which is the police state element that Thibault was mentioning.
Recall that I said, in the 1300s, in the 1400s, there’s all of these big men that are setting themselves up as leaders over cities. What the Venetians wanted to do was make sure that never happened in Venice itself. I’m just going to read how the electoral process here work. The great council chose 30 of their number, 30 great councilman, then reduce that 30 a lot by nine. These nine would then vote for 40, who were reduced to 12, who in turn would vote for 25, who were reduced by law, again, to nine who voted for 45, who were reduced to 11. And it was those 11, who finally voted for 41. It was these 41 members, so painstakingly chosen by the great council, who finally voted for the doge.
There’s like seven different little elections just to elect the people who are going to elect the doge. This was this deep desire to kind of randomize participation, not just at the level of doge, but at all of the — really, in all of the main government bodies in Venice, as a way to prevent any particular family from monopolizing power. There are many other aspects of this. This was effective. I have to say, Venice remains the most functional republic of anyone on the Italian peninsula, really right up until Napoleon puts it to an end. But by the same token, and this is sometimes called the myth of Venice, is a pretty famous phrase. This myth of Venice is absolutely central to political theory in the 16th, 17th and even in the 18th century. Because you have to remember, nowhere else in Europe is power transferred as regularly as automatically as in Venice itself. People were really envious of that.
But at the same token, there was this kind of dark side to it. That’s the Council of Ten, which actually involves more than more than 10 people. But this Council of Ten is set up in the early 14th century, after some doge is sort of accused of taking too much power. This Council of Ten can effectively — by the time you get to the 15th, the late 15th and the 16th centuries, can effectively execute without judicial process, anybody that it deems a threat to the republic.
For example, there’s a famous conspiracy in the 1620s called the Spanish conspiracy, where supposedly these Spanish affiliates are going to try to take control of the government. Who knows how real this conspiracy was? But anyways, a number of people just mysteriously died and get hung up, appear in the morning in the gallows. The other victim of this, so there’s these political threats, and the Council of Ten acts with the utmost swiftness, but also without judicial process to suppress these political threats.
In the 16th century, there’s also the threat heresy. Again, the Council of Ten, in some cases, would act to suppress heresy, where in other contexts, that would be really church bodies that were involved in doing that. Part of their apparatus, there were these anonymous denunciation boxes. Basically, they would have these like lions’ heads, and you would slip into denunciation of somebody who you thought was a threat to the Republican to one of these lions’ mouths. Then Council of Ten would get it and it would investigate. I don’t want to say that they did these things like automatically, it’s not like a witch hunt. But it did happen with secrecy and kind of without judicial process.
Thibault: Venice, paradoxically, at the same time as it’s kind of this environment where there’s this surveillance state with these denunciation boxes, with the famous lion’s head is also an incredibly multicultural state. There’s a very large Muslim population that is usually tied later on in the history to the Mamluks, and the Ottoman trading partners of the Venetians. There also is a very large Jewish population. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the, of course, Shakespeare is this very famous play, the Merchant of Venice, which is why a lot of the Venetian Jews have entered the popular consciousness. Can you speak a little bit to Venice as multiculturalism?
Corey: Yeah. This is a huge part of, I mean this is part of more than maybe, I’d say the more positive aspects of its history is, you have as you get — as you get into the 16th century, you have sizable thousands of Jews living in Venice. Also, hundreds, probably of Ottoman, many of these, would some of these would be Turkish, many of them would have been Greek Ottomans, Orthodox Ottomans, Armenians. You have an Armenian population, and you also have Protestants, you have German Protestants, you have English Protestants, famously. You have this melting pot. Melting pot is not the right word, because these groups, their interaction was pretty structured. I think that religious boundaries were policed in Venice.
Yes, you want these people here for trading purposes. You want to do business with them. You want to treat them, in some cases, like political equals. At the same time you don’t want your population become protestant, let alone Muslim or something.
Thibault: The Jews, for example, are confined to this old brick factory called the ghetto. But of course, paradoxically, you think of the ghetto. Well, nowadays, you think of like the Holocaust and the Warsaw Ghetto. But that’s not at all what the ghetto was, the Jews were very happy, because elsewhere, although in Venice, they were confined to the ghetto. Elsewhere in Europe, they’re getting genocide much more regularly. At least in the ghetto, they can own property. They’re safe. There’s a lot of very wealthy Jews, some of the wealthiest citizens of Venice. Yes, the Jews are confined to the ghetto. But once again, you really have to contextualize it in the context that it’s this very brutal world that they live in. But I think that the ghetto kind of illustrates both the paradox of the fact that it’s this very tolerant society, but where Jews can escape persecution, own property. But at the same time, it’s kind of this police state where at night, they’re locked into this place, and there’s Christians watching over them.
Corey: I mean, I think that’s just quite right. This is not a liberal order, where everyone is thought to be equal, where everyone ought to have free speech, etc. This is a world in which it was thought that the unity and continuity of the state dependent on maintaining order at all levels. Order about who can say what, order about where the Jews and the Muslims and the Protestants had to reside. But this still. within this pretty firm structure, I guess, there was still room for interesting contact. For example, Christians who wanted to learn Hebrew, could be taught by one of the rabbis in the ghetto. We know that people did this. There were contacts within this structure. There were artistic exchanges.
There’s a whole undercurrent of the ways in which various art and architectural details in Venice in the 15th, and 16th and 17th centuries are deliberately modeled on say Islamic arts. You can that even within this kind of structure, which was tightly policed, there were moments of contact and exchange.
Thibault: One last thing, we’re going to move on to the end of Venice, but there’s one last fascinating aspect of Venetian civilization. The Venetians invention of mass production at the Arsenal. Henry Ford, interestingly enough, just as you know, Erik Prince was inspired by the condottieri. Henry Ford himself was inspired by the Venetian Arsenal, which is quite interesting. Tell me about — I also find it funny that there’s so many American, like pioneers of capitalism that are inspired by Renaissance era of Venice. What is the Arsenal and tell us about it?
Corey: Yeah, the Arsenal is — as you as you alluded to, it’s the hands down the biggest industrial enterprise in pre-industrial Europe. It’s this place where the ships, the state-owned ships that I mentioned are manufactured in a highly systematic way, with a division of labor between not just skilled and unskilled, but various kinds of skilled laborers. You should remember that ship building along with something like cannon founding, this is one of the advanced technologies of the day. This is this vast area in Venice. You can even see — I mean, it’s so big, you can pretty much see on any of these early maps and you can visit it today. This is the place where these things get made. They could get made very quickly. There are reports of an entire ship being constructed in one day. I mean, there’s just nothing else like that really in pre-modern Europe.
Thibault: Venice, they pulled of the ships being constructed in one day. It’s similar to the way Henry Ford pulled off the cars. The parts were pre-fabricated so they wouldn’t build part by part. They will like, 100 matts, 10,000 oars. They kind of like build thing in batches and whip them together, which is really modern.
Corey: Exactly. I mean, Adam Smith starts the Wealth of Nations with this famous example of the pin factory, but he could adjust as well if he wanted to started with the Arsenal in Venice, because it’s the same kind of example of the power of batch production, the power of divided labor within one enterprise. Venice is also involved in other of these advanced tech. The other big advanced technology of this day was the printing press. We’ve mentioned this, but it is worth noting that Venice is the center of printing in Italy, pretty quickly after the invention of the printing press around 1450 in Germany. But Venice becomes one of those great centers. I think one of the other positive aspects of the society is, you could almost say anything you wanted in print. By no mean is this like, a total free for all.
But there was nowhere else in Italy, especially after the counter reformation gets underway where you could talk so freely in print, as in Venice. Venice had the freest press in Italy and one of the freest presses in Europe. This makes it both the center of information as well as this additional industry.
Thibault: The other industry that Venice is quite well known for is the glass production on the island of Murano right outside of Venice. Where like the Arsenal — although the Arsenal is run by the government, because the government controls shipping and is forced to have the strength of the state. The other thing that the mass produce is glass trinkets that they sell and export. I think the Arsenal is a great way to end sort of the golden age of Venice, because in many ways, Venice starts getting involved in these increasingly violent and large-scale confrontations against the Ottomans and other groups. My favorite paintings are of the Battle of Lepanto where the Venetians built this massive fleet and there’s so many great paintings of the Battle of Lepanto. It’s really epic unlike any other art that comes from this period in my opinion. The Venetian, the Ottomans who are this massive empire. Goliath has this huge fleet. The Venetians allied with the Holy Roman Empire fight to defend their holdings that they still have in Greek area that are kind of enclaves against Ottoman. It’s outside of the Greek area of Lepanto, which I believe was an Ottoman naval base. Am I right about that?
Corey: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think it was in this day. I’m not actually sure.
Thibault: I’m not sure. But it was some strategically important point controlled by the Ottomans. It wasn’t one of these Venetian outposts. That’s sort of the key thing and there’s this epic naval battle that kind of illustrates the power of the Arsenal, how Little Venice can stand up to the big Ottomans because of their mass production.
Corey: Yeah. It had been — yeah, I forgot. It’s just really not better known. Lepanto as a town is better known as Nafpaktos. The Venetian had had a little fortress there in the past. The Ottomans had taken over that fortress. It was a center of Ottoman power, small center of Ottoman power that had once been in Venetian hands.
Thibault: Eventually, times change. The Italian Renaissance comes to an end, one by one, the autonomy of the Italian city states falls. Aragon, the Spanish Kingdom takes over the Kingdom of Naples. At the same time, the exciting trade to be done stops being with the Middle East. It starts being with the new world and for reasons, basically outside of Venice’s control, as well as some maybe some reasons of internal decline. Venice stops being this hub of international trade and finance. Instead it goes to places like France, England, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands.
What Venice does is that it reinvents itself into 16th and 1700s into pretty much the existence that has had ever since then, as a center for tourism. Many of the early tourists are English tourists arriving in the 1600s. Can you speak a little bit about one horrifying statistic about Venice during sort of the beginning of its tourist — Is that as many as 10% of its population were prostitutes. Can you talk a little bit about Venice and sort of the birth of the tourism industry?
Corey: Yeah. I just want to say. I just want to push back a little on predating in decline. The other thing that happens that is not tourism that I think is important is that Venetian manufacturing, not just in Venice, but in its territory, the modern Veneto region. Venetian manufacturing, and agricultural productivity grows even in the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s no longer the center, there’s no question about it. It’s no longer the center of trade that it had been, let’s say, in the late Middle Ages, early Renaissance. But it participates, I think more fully than people think in this kind of growth of the European economy. Especially that manufacturing, agricultural economy. But you’re right, though, at a basic level, as we move into the 17th century, Venice increasingly becomes neutral in European conflicts and tries to maintain its neutrality. It’s no longer really, I mean, there’s exceptions, but its empire’s very small now. It’s really gone.
It becomes this great center for tourism. Really, I think the heyday of that’s the 18th and 19th centuries, but I think you see it already in in really the very late 16th and early 17th centuries, especially with the English. I think the English choose Venice, kind of as a base, I think for just a basic political reason, which is that, Venice A, is relatively independent, and B, it’s relatively tolerance in Protestants. It’s tolerant of Protestants that some of these early English ambassadors and visitors keep talking and they keep fantasizing about the idea that Venice itself is going to just convert to Protestantism, which of course is not crazy, because that’s what some of the free towns of Germany had done. That’s what some of the Swiss towns have done. There’s this expectation that maybe Venice is going to fall asleep one day Catholic and wake up Protestant the next day. That never happens.
But it is a very tolerant place for English Protestants and becomes a place where Englishmen, and then later I think Westerners more generally can begin to enter into the Italian Renaissance. They could collect paintings, collect the art, collect the literature and so forth.
Thibault: Before we put an end to this podcast, I actually want to talk about one last bit of research. I hope we can have another podcast in the next, I don’t know, six months about this, just focused on this topic. But let’s just give a little bit of a teaser into your research into free ports in the Italian Renaissance. I kind of think that a few months from now, we should kind of make a part two of this podcast. We’re just going to detail about the history of free ports from the Renaissance onward. But what’s going on with free ports?
Corey: Well, that’s the other side. I mean, to connect this I think to what we’re saying. We’ve talked a lot about toleration, how important religious toleration becomes for the ongoing commercial prosperity. It gets only more important as we go in the era of the reformation, as well as the era in which — let’s be honest, Spain is relentlessly persecuting Jews. On the one hand, attracting Jews, on the other hand, attracting Protestants to Italy becomes an important way for commercial connections to work. The other side of this is also something you mentioned.
If the center of the economy is sort of moving away from the eastern Mediterranean, well, that’s also an opportunity for the western Mediterranean. That’s the opportunity that’s also only going to be taken by the Port of Livorno, which is to make itself this exceptionally tolerant and exceptionally tax friendly port that’s going to enable Tuscany in the first order. But ultimately, all of North Central Italy to connects itself into the developing Atlantic economy, to connect itself to Amsterdam and London and beyond that, to the Americas and the East Indies.
Thibault: Well, thank you very much for doing this podcast with us, especially because it’s so lengthy. But you know what, I think that having these very long discussions about history, because to really get into any depth in history, you can’t just do it in 10-minute video clips, right? I think that for people who really want to sort of get a teaser as to what’s happening, you really need to have these long form podcasts. I really would like to thank you for accepting to do this interview today.
Corey: Yeah. Thank you for being such a gracious host and such a well-read host as well. It’s been a real pleasure.
Thibault: Well, thank you. I have one question. Where can our listeners find your work?
Corey: Well, they can they can find my work on Amazon search with my name. But also, they should feel free to email me. I’m sure you should post my email, but it’s just [email protected]. Any questions or follow up from anything I discussed today, I’d be happy to chat.
Thibault: All right. Well, thank you very much and we’ll include the link to your university page.
Corey: Thank you.
Kurtis: Thanks so much for listening. We love engaging with our listeners, so please always feel free to reach out. Contact information is listed in the show notes. To find out more about the work of the Charter Cities Institute, please follow us on social media, or visit chartercitiesinstitute.org.
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