Renaissance Italy

The White Devil's Italian setting is a reflection of English perceptions about Italy's history and culture.

The Italian Renaissance

The opening phase of the Renaissance, a period of great cultural change and achievement in Europe, started in Italy and spanned the period from the end of the 13th century to about 1600, marking the transition between Medieval and Early Modern Europe. (See Religious / philosophical context > The Renaissance.)

Growing economic prosperity

In the fourteenth century the Black Death wiped out a third of Europe's population, producing a labour shortage. Economically this meant that the reduced population was much wealthier, better fed and had more surplus money to spend on luxury goods such as art and architecture.

As incidences of the plague began to decline in the early fifteenth century, Europe's devastated population once again began to grow. This new demand for products and services, and the reduced number of people able to provide them, put the labouring classes in a more favourable position. Furthermore, this demand also helped create a growing class of bankers, merchants, and skilled artisans.

Additionally, the collapse of the Bardi and Peruzzi banks opened the way for the Medici family to rise to prominence in Florence. In a more prosperous era, businessmen would have quickly reinvested their earnings in order to make more money in a climate favourable to investment. However, during the leaner years of the fourteenth century, the wealthy found few promising investment opportunities for their earnings and instead chose to spend more on culture and art.

War, a spur to new culture

The primary impetus of the early Renaissance may also have been the long-running series of wars between Florence and Milan.

More on War between Milan and Florence: By the late 14th century, Milan had become a centralized monarchy under the control of the Visconti family. Giangaleazzo Visconti, who ruled the city from 1378 to 1402, was renowned both for his cruelty and for his abilities, and set about building an empire in Northern Italy.

He launched a long series of wars, with Milan steadily conquering neighbouring states. Although Florence led a series of coalition powers against the Milanese advance, these were defeated. Finally Florence itself was besieged in 1402. It looked as though the city was doomed to fall, before Giangaleazzo suddenly died and his empire collapsed.

The rise of republicanism

During these long wars, the leading figures of Florence rallied the people by presenting the war as being:

  • Between the free republic and the despotic monarchy
  • Between the ideals of the Greek and Roman Republics, and those of the Roman Empire and Medieval kingdoms.

This time of crisis in Florence was the period when most of the major early Renaissance figures were coming of age, such as Ghiberti, Donatello, Masolino, and Brunelleschi, and meant that they were inculcated with this republican ideology. These and other figures later went on to advocate republican ideas that were to have an enormous impact on society.

Attitudes towards Italy

Many Jacobean Revenge tragedies were set in Italy as that country had the reputation for corruption and violence. During the Renaissance, Italy was a scene of intense political conflict involving the dominant city-states of Florence, Milan, Venice, and Naples, plus the Papacy, France, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. Each city attempted to protect itself by playing the larger powers off against each other. The result was massive political intrigue, blackmail, and violence.

What added to Italy's reputation was probably:

The Borgias

In The White Devil, the behaviour of Vittoria's family, as well as of those supporting Isabella, was a reflection of what was known of Italy's governing families. For example, the Borgias produced eleven cardinals of the Catholic Church, three Popes and a saint. They were a family whose power and influence began in the fourteenth century in Spain. Gradually this influence, typified by greed, murder and incest, extended into Italy, Spain and France, through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Four members of this notorious family are remembered in particular as remarkable examples of greed and evil:

  • Alonso Borgia became Pope Calixtus III
  • Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI
  • Cesare Borgia was for a time a cardinal, elevated to that position by his father, Alexander VI. Later, after leaving holy orders, he was a murderous and ruthless duke
  • Lucrezia Borgia, sister of Cesare, has become a metaphor for feminine evil.

While other family members are important, these four form the nucleus for which the family is remembered. They were handsome, charming and amoral. Like Mafia dons, they inspired admiration and loyalty. But, most of all, they inspired fear.

The Borgia family established itself in one of Italy's most glorious periods and dominated the Renaissance by power and intrigue for fifty years. Their heritage was felt by Church and State for two hundred years.

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