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Studying the Renaissance with the Open University

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Looking at the Renaissance

Economic and political context

Inspirational as much Renaissance art and literature remains, it is unwise to be too idealistic about the circumstances of its production. For Lisa Jardine the Renaissance she explores in Worldly Goods is one 'in which money plays a large part'. The concept of magnificentia was central to Renaissance thinking; conspicuous expenditure on magnanimous gestures, including the patronage of art and scholarship, was evidence of virtue, of a greatness of soul. Those who held or aspired to authority could justify their claims by just such an expenditure, and competitive consumption came to be the order of the day, as each sought to demonstrate that his (or very occasionally her) cultural credentials were of the highest order. It is a brutal way of looking at the period, but a realistic one.

Urban economy and government
Cities and towns were centres of wealth production and of creativity. Urban society in the Renaissance period was thoroughly commercialized; everything had a price. There were two particularly dense areas of urbanization, North Italy and the Low Countries, which acted as the main hubs for international trade in commodities such as wool and woollen cloth, silk, tapestries, spices, silver and fine armour. With the invention of printing Venice came also to be the centre of the European book trade, ideas travelling rapidly via the well-established commercial network. The Renaissance prince, the aspirant courtier or socially climbing merchant provided a ready market for all these commodities, for expensive fabrics and intricately decorated armour were as much manifestations of magnificentia as paintings or sculpture. And it was only in the town, with its concentration of skilled artisans, that the manufacture of luxury goods and the complex technology of book production was possible. Commerce alone was not enough to amass the largest fortunes however; the richest merchants acted as bankers. Italian banking houses had well established networks in the later middle ages playing for huge stakes as creditors to princes. By the 16th century such loans were also being advanced by the more spectacularly wealthy merchants of the Low Countries and of German towns where profits had been amassed on the strength of the trade in silver.

Expenditure was not just a personal matter; it was a matter of corporate status as well. European cities expressed their sense of corporate pride and identity in public buildings, secular and ecclesiastical. Cities experienced various degrees of autonomy. Claiming the most independence were the few remaining city republics of north Italy, though they were not republics in the sense that we understand the term today. Venice had the most clearly articulated hierarchy: a closed caste of nobility; a broader body of citizens; the plebians at the bottom of the pile. Power was restricted to members of the nobility who made sure that public building and public spectacle constantly broadcast the virtues of the Venetian state, the unparalleled blessings it brought, the sanctity of the city. Equally conscious of its virtue was the Florentine republic. This too was effectively run by a wealthy elite increasingly dominated by the Medici. The Medici, however, were very canny operators in the 15th century and expressed their magnificentia in public works which ostensibly demonstrated their loyalty to the Republic; only within their palaces, in rooms to which just the privileged had access, was the scale of their ambition fully represented in the art they purchased.

The autonomy of cities and towns varied from state to state. Within the Holy Roman Empire towns might have a considerable degree of independence, for the Empire was a loose confederation of some hundreds of different political units, some of them independent cities. The lack of a centralising bureaucracy in the Empire contrasts with the highly centralised monarchy in England, where, London excepted, towns had little autonomy. But all cities and towns possessed certain shared characteristics: collective authority exercised by a group which was selected or elected, and not hereditary. Usually this meant control by a wealthy elite of magistrates, who influenced by humanist values, liked to think of themselves as patricians. The public buildings they had erected in their cities both reflected and served to create this image of themselves.

Economic organisation within towns was usually through guilds. Although guilds were intended to protect the employment of members it would be a mistake to equate them with trade unions. Guilds had a strongly religious dimension within Catholic Europe, giving spiritual solidarity through their brotherhood, or confraternity. And guilds were very hierarchical in organisation, both internally and in the relationship between guilds. Within the guild masters protected their position against apprentices and journeymen, the very small scale of most industry facilitating this kind of control. Indeed printing was one of the few industries where more than a handful of people were employed in each production unit. Relationships between guilds were also far from equal. Merchants belonged to elite guilds whose economic power was protected by the urban government (which of course they constituted) or the state; artisans belonged to less prestigious guilds which had far less stake in urban government and whose activities were closely overseen by the urban magistrates.

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