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The Italian Renaissance Still Matters: A Compilation of Recent Studies (September 2022): Politics and Religion

By Brian Jeffrey Maxson

Politics and Religion

The Italian Renaissance has always been seen as political and usually secular. However, recent studies have changed how many view the period’s politics and convincingly demonstrated people’s deep faith during this time. The greatest political thinker of the period, Niccolò Machiavelli, continues to attract attention from specialists, including more nuanced appraisals of his views on both religion and politics. Alexander Lee and Christopher Celenza have published excellent biographies, respectively Machiavelli: His Life and Times and Machiavelli: A Portrait, and John Najemy’s collection The Cambridge Companion to Machiavelli remains a key point of introduction. John McCormick’s work, notably Reading Machiavelli, has been particularly influential for unpacking the democratic currents and sympathies in some of Machiavelli’s texts.

Beyond Machiavelli, most 20th-century scholars tried to link the Italian Renaissance to the origins of modern republican ideas and institutions. However, in recent years these connections have been problematized. In Virtue Politics, for instance, James Hankins argues that political virtue was much more important than political forms in Renaissance political thought. In addition, much scholarhip emphasizes the range of political experiences across the peninsula during the period, as in the edited volume After Civic Humanism, compiled by Nicholas Baker and this author. Similarly, in The Italian Renaissance State editors Andrea Gamberini and Isabella Lazzarini bring together a range of essays that synthesize key developments, themes, and narratives across many of Italy’s most important political centers. Informed by deep archival research, new studies of diplomacy during the period also capture the many ways that varied political powers negotiated with one another, formally and informally, through direct diplomatic channels or subtle displays of power. Examples include Isabella Lazzarini’s Communication and Conflict and Italian Renaissance Diplomacy, edited by Monica Azzolini and Lazzarini. Freed from telelogical narratives about the rise of the “modern state” or the “resident diplomat,” historians have shed new light on the fascinating ways that power centers worked through things like the law, as recounted in Jane Black’s Absolutism in Renaissance Milan, and astrology, as detailed in Marcia Azzolini’s The Duke and the Stars, among other channels. 

As noted above, the Renaissance was as religious as it was political. More than twenty years ago, David Peterson pinpointed the growing popularity of the history of Renaissance religiosity in his essay for Renaissance Quarterly, “Out of the Margins.”2 Interest in that area of study shows no signs of abating. Some scholars have even reintroduced the different religious reform movements that characterized the 15th century, with major influences on many aspects of society, including the visual arts. Nicholas Eckstein’s Painted Glories and Anne Leader’s The Badia of Florence are both good sources for exploring this subject further. Looking at religion from another perspective, Sharon Strocchia’s Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence and Joanne Ferraro’s Marriage Wars in Late Renaissance Venice show how the lives of nuns were interwoven into the fabric of their cities. In convents, women lived lives ranging from extraordinary piety to religious indifference. The surviving copies of sermons from the Italian Renaissance are another rich source for scholars. Such texts reveal not only perceptions of piety during this period but also other aspects of life, as Peter Howard documents in Creating Magnificence in Renaissance Florence. Other sources reveal other insights, such as the persecution of non-Christians. Sometimes people converted from one faith to another, sometimes such conversions were forced, but all converts were usually viewed with suspicion, as Tamar Herzig reveals in A Convert’s Tale.

2. Peterson, David S. “Out of the Margins: Religion and the Church in Renaissance Italy.” Renaissance Quarterly 53, no.2 (2000): 835-879.

Works Cited