What led to the collapse of the Italian city republics?

May 2008
4,466
Fireland
#1
By the end of the 12th century most of the northern Italian city-states were proudly self-governing, autonomous Republics. They had earlier combined successfully in the Milanese led Lombard League against a ferocious onslaught by Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, who attempted to assert his traditional rights, derived from the time of Charlemagne, over the Regnum Italiicum. The most widespread form of government used by the city-state at this point was that of the podesta, an elected salaried official who was given charge of the city's affairs for a finite period and summarily rotated out of office, usually after six months, where the decisions of his tenure were held to account by the city council. If there was evidence of poor judgement, blatant partisanship etc my understanding is that he himself could be afterwards sanctioned. A podesta was normally recruited from outside the city to further ensure endemic intra-state factionalism would be transcended. From this extraordinary state of affairs, under it seems, the impetus of the oxygen that liberty provided, a revolution in thought occurred, which, in time, gave rise to the phenomenon we now refer to as the Renaissance.. Yet, by 1530, when the Medici retook Florence, Venice was the lone outlier, the last Republic standing.

What had happened?
 

Futurist

Ad Honoris
May 2014
21,131
SoCal
#2
Could France's invasion of Italy in 1494 and the subsequent Italian Wars (1494-1559) have something to do with this? I mean, I know that Florence got to experience several years of religious dictatorship and tyranny in the late 1490s as a result of this French invasion.
 
Sep 2016
1,217
Georgia
#3
Could France's invasion of Italy in 1494 and the subsequent Italian Wars (1494-1559) have something to do with this? I mean, I know that Florence got to experience several years of religious dictatorship and tyranny in the late 1490s as a result of this French invasion.
Venice also lost it's colonies in wars with Ottomans :
1. Venice lost Morea, Negroponte and Albania in the First Venetian - Ottoman War 1463 - 1479

2. Venice lost Modon and Corol in the Second Venetian - Ottoman War 1499 - 1503

3. Venice lost Cyclades, the Sporados and last strongholds in Morea during the Third Venetian - Ottoman War in 1537 - 1540

4. Venice lost Cyprus in the Fourth Venetian - Ottoman War 1570 - 1573

5. Venice lost Crete ( which was it's richest overseas possession ) in the Cretan War 1645 - 1669
 
Likes: Futurist
Jul 2009
9,955
#4
The city republics did not collapse as much as they morphed into either extremely restricted oligarchies or into signoria. As aristocratic influence was reduced by the economic importance of trade and business, republican tendencies restricted the older landed interests to their estates. The cities began to tend to their own affairs.

Economic changes during the later medieval era caused urbanization, and also economic specialization in urban centers. Guilds, business "associations" and other groupings gravitated around interests and families, as well as their adherents and clients. As human agencies, these tended toward caring for their own self interests. Tribal as people are, even though the "popolo" were more enfranchised, they preferred to associate with and to support their confreres. There arose a tendency to exclude those who were outside established groups. Factional political interests developed.

When competing interests clashed, at a certain point, turbulence and violence sometimes resulted. Families and their bravos fighting in the streets was bad for business in the cases of influential trade and industrial guilds, and by degrees, a more orderly political-business atmosphere was desired. Movements toward "law and order" to promote business and industrial trades resulted in the popolo essentially either voting for "Captains of the People" (often demagogues), or turning over the city state - sometimes even selling it - to signori who could deliver the stability they saw as important.

In the late medieval centuries - 13th, 14th - when both Imperial, and Papal influence (Babylonian Captivity), had become weak in Italy, the trend toward the despot/tyrant was established. There were more tyrants than republics by the mid 15th century.
 
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Sep 2016
1,217
Georgia
#5
How do you think situation in Italy would develop if Visconti succeeded in establishing dominance over Northern Italy ? Gian Galeazzo Visconti was close to uniting much of Northern Italy under one power in 1402. Unfortunately, he died from fever. So I wonder, what would happen if Visconti took Florence ( he was very close to taking it in 1402 ) and then Genoa ? Venice was also still a factor, of course.
 

Shaheen

Ad Honorem
May 2011
2,562
Sweden
#6
Loss of trade revenue due to the discovery of the Americas might have played a role. The Italian states were western Europes main trading outlets towards the Ottoman Empire and the east. Post 1492, the Iberian states and then England, Netherlands and France became more important trading centers. Thats my understanding at least.
 
Apr 2018
273
Italy
#7
Internal instability of comuni leaded progressively to more authoritative government. This was a trend present in all cities republics. The first signoria was established in 1240 in Ferrara by the house of Este, in 1262 in verona by Della Scala, in 1277 in Milan by Visconti ecc. The last republic to become a signoria was Florence in 1434. After having established thei dominance such families obtained some kind of legitimation by the pope or the emperor usually paying for this.
 
Likes: Tulun
Jul 2009
9,955
#9
How do you think situation in Italy would develop if Visconti succeeded in establishing dominance over Northern Italy ? Gian Galeazzo Visconti was close to uniting much of Northern Italy under one power in 1402. Unfortunately, he died from fever. So I wonder, what would happen if Visconti took Florence ( he was very close to taking it in 1402 ) and then Genoa ? Venice was also still a factor, of course.
The question is not so much about the demise of the city republics as it is about dynastic ambition and predation of weaker neighbors. Not that such conduct was restricted to states like Milan. At the same time period around Gian Galeazzo's decease, Milan was subduing cities on its periphery while Venice (a republic) was doing the same on the Terra Firma, and Florence (another republic) was subjugating Pisa (like 1405 or 1406 IIRC). Hey, it was Renaissance Italy. Condottieri were muscling in on the action, and the nobility and/or oligarchs were busy poisoning and strangling their rivals.

Gian Galeazzo Visconti establishing dominance over northern Italy would probably have caused other regional powers (Venice; probably Florence, and smaller states such as Ferrara and Mantua) to contest such expansionism, perhaps forming alliances with "barbarians" from north of the Alps earlier than the 1490s. Perhaps Savoy would also have become involved against Milan. Who can say?

Even without such developments, Milan and Venice fought each other off and on for about 25-30 years as I can recall. I think they were both becoming exhausted and demoralized by the time of the "Concert" of Italy, 1454 and afterward, until the French showed up. (That time of peace in Italy was still interrupted by half a dozen wars before the 1490s.)

Sorry for the longer response - I get carried away. :)
 
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Likes: Gvelion

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
26,874
Italy, Lago Maggiore
#10
First of all, I would underline that the phenomenon of the "comune" [what in this thread is called "city republic"] wasn't exclusive of Northern Italy, but it was a model which knew a good diffusion in Europe [Germany, France, Great Britain, Spain ...].

This said, we should start from the beginning: why the cities were able to reach such a level of "autonomy"? Because of their growth. It was centuries that cities didn't grow in that way. The XI century saw a new class of not noble persons carrying business ... the bourgeois class [we should say today]. This new class [because of its own nature] felt as a problem the imperial / feudal power and saw an opportunity in the demographic dimension of the cities which meant a great potentiality [also to organize an army ... they had money to equip an army ...].

The feudal power wasn't ready to face such a social development: the new class had enough money to gather more soldiers than the feudal lords [or even the Emperor!], because they gathered citizens as common soldiers not glorious Knights ...

[Franco Cardini has underlined that also the local election of the Bishops made a difference and I think he's right].

This said, the evolution of the "comune" saw the most important families taking over the power. Nothing more simple than this. Overall the consuls begun to be chosen among the main families [like the Popes at Rome!]. In Italy there was the problem that these main families were noble [while beyond the Alps this wasn't so common], so that they tent to interpret the power towards a new kind of central administration [they were going towards the Lordships ...]. Anyway the "middle class" gained importance and it was able to express consuls and "podestà" as well. The podestà was also a not citizen [so someone from an other city]. But when there was a podestà he had no control on the city army [there was a People Captain].

If we want to understand the end of the "comune", we have to keep in mind that in the Italian lands the urban noble families were embedded with the bourgeois and the families connected with the clergy [I live in a land which still sees a lot of properties of the historical family of the Borromeo, a family who gave not a few members of the high clergy to the Catholic Church].

The middle class tried and exclude the aristocracy from the power, but there was a kind of alliance between the urban aristocracy [noble families who accepted to become part of the system of power of the "comune"] and a part of the middle class [and the clergy ...]. There was a kind of mix which generated what Italian historians call the "Fat People" and from this Fat People the Lords came out.

An other engine of this phenomenon was the territorial competition among the cities ... the citizens themselves accepted to give the power to an important personality if he was able to ensure protection and military expansion [this meant to have enough money to hire mercenaries, the citizens didn't mind if the Lord was noble or not].

And that was the end of the "comune" and the beginning of the Lordship.