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The Italian Renaissance Still Matters: A Compilation of Recent Studies (September 2022): Local and Global Contexts

By Brian Jeffrey Maxson

Local and Global Contexts

English-language scholarship on the Italian Renaissance has historically gravitated to Florence and Venice, and work on both cities continues. For Florence, much past scholarship focused on the republican period during the 14th and especially the 15th centuries. Recently this has started to change, and there is more work examining this crucial city during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries under the Medici Dukes. In The Fruit of Liberty Nicholas Baker reveals the long process by which Florentine patricians changed their older republican behaviors and expectations to accommodate their changed political situations under a duchy during the 16th century. Another illuminating volume is A Companion to Cosimo I de’ Medici, edited by Alessio Assonitis and Henk van Veen, which offers a synthesis of the complicated, crucial figure of Duke Cosimo I. When it comes to Venice, scholars have increasingly looked to the city’s sprawling empire across the eastern Mediterranean. Rich areas of inquiry include how the Venetian government and Venetians themselves sought to manage, rule, and seek honors within their empire; how people in the places ruled sought to maintain their own agency; and how Venetians worked with their neighbors, especially the Ottoman Turks. Works exploring these topics include Karl Appuhn’s A Forest on the Sea, Monique O’Connell’s Men of Empire, Erin Maglaque’s Venice’s Intimate Empire, and Natalie Rothman’s The Dragoman Renaissance.

Recent trends have moved interest in the Italian Renaissance far beyond these two key cities. Powerhouses like Milan and Naples have benefited from this shift, as have smaller but still important centers like Brescia and Bologna. Comparisons across smaller republics have also emerged. Among the worthy books on these areas are John Gagné’s Milan Undone; A Companion to Early Modern Naples, edited by Tommaso Astarita; and New Approaches to Naples c. 1500–c.1800, edited by Melissa Calaresu and Helen Hills; Stephen Bowd’s Venice’s Most Loyal City; Nicholas Terpstra’s Cultures of Charity; and Christine Shaw’s Reason and Experience in Renaissance Italy. Scholars have also revisited old stereotypes about Renaissance Rome, its popes, and its cardinals and found fascinating nuance and complexity, as detailed in Jennifer DeSilva’s The Office of Ceremonies and Advancement in Curial Rome, 1466–1528; A Companion to the Early Modern Cardinal, edited by Mary Hollingsworth, Miles Pattenden, and Arnold Witte; and John Hunt’s The Vacant See in Early Modern Rome.

Alongside this research on local contexts are studies situating the Italian Renaissance within broader geographies. Indeed, the ways that Italy impacted and was impacted by other parts of the world in culture, politics, and so much else has come to the forefront of scholarship. For some areas this shift has come somewhat naturally, with new work challenging old notions of the relationships between Italian city-states and their Islamic neighbors to the east, as in the case of The Renaissance and the Ottoman World, edited by Anna Contadini and Claire Norton, and Margaret Meserve’s Empires of Islam in Renaissance Historical Thought. These exchanges particularly impacted culture and philosophy as ideas and people traveled from West to East and East to West, a topic John Monfasani explores in Greek Scholars between East and West in the Fifteenth Century. Indeed, although scholars have long viewed Italy as mostly closed off from the rest of Europe and the world before 1500, recent studies have shown connections between Italy and England, France, North Africa, and beyond. These connections are investigated in depth in, respectively, Humanism in Fifteenth-Century Europe, edited by David Rundle; The Politics of Culture in Quattrocento Europe by Oren Margolis; Trickster Travels by Natalie Davis; and Empire of Eloquence by Stuart McManus.

This global focus is also bearing fruit for areas of Italy seemingly distant from transalpine or Mediterranean powers. For example, Florence in the Early Modern World, edited by Nicholas Baker and this author, focuses on how Florence often enjoyed a far more expansive cultural reach than the city’s political influence. That limitation did not, however, mean that Florence was somehow excluded from the increasingly global world starting in the 15th century. Florence cultivated and appreciated artistic forms associated with the Americas, which Lia Markey recounts in Imagining the Americas in Medici Florence. The city’s Medici dukes also invested resources in turning the Tuscan port city of Livorno into a major hub of Mediterranean trade, which Corey Tazzara considers in The Free Port of Livorno and the Transformation of the Mediterranean World. Although, from the 16th century, Florence failed to establish its own overseas empire, the city nevertheless adapted its strategies to work within the empires of others, as Brian Brege details in Tuscany in the Age of Empire.

Works Cited