At the time of the Renaissance, the region that would eventually become Italy was actually made up of Florence, Venice, Milan, Pisa, Verona, Mantua and countless other city-states that spent most of their time beating the shit out of each other. The only allegiance that crossed over those borders was to the Pope, who was considered exempt from the loyalty zoning rules because he was on a first-name basis with God and his hat was so tall that you could probably see it from your roof on a clear enough day.
They called it the Pope Signal.
A group of Italian intellectuals got one of those crazy "seriously you guys are going to laugh, but just hear us out" ideas: What if we all joined up together and created some sort of giant land-based thing. Like an empire, but unified around the same language and ideas, so we wouldn't have to murder each other to get it started?
"And once we have a bunch of these 'nations,' we can murder each other faster than ever before!"
The Pope decided he kind of liked being the biggest swinging dick on the peninsula, and what followed was a territorial culture war full of murder, mayhem and more double crosses and back stabbing than you can shake a cloak and dagger at.
Some of the greatest intellectuals of the Renaissance -- Petrarch, Dante, Machiavelli and others -- were all on one side of the massive tug of war. On the other side were the Papal States, anchored by the Pope, and all the brilliant artists he paid to make art. The rope was the place that eventually became Italy, and when the dust settled, the struggle had produced some of the most important art and influential political and religious writing in the history of the Western world.
The Italian poet Petrarch, for example, spent his whole life looking for an emperor/messiah who could both resolve the region's internal conflicts and restore Rome back to her former glory, all while receiving patronage from a tyrant in Milan. Dante was one of the first writers to actually write in the Italian language, which was considered a pretty radical political statement at the time. On the secular side, you had guys like Machiavelli proposing that Italians liberate themselves from the "barbarians" and "kill the Pope and all the cardinals." Which explains why his most famous works were all about the ideal alternatives to papal control.
"What if we replace our corrupt, violent religious leaders with corrupt, violent secular leaders?"
Speaking of popes, we can pretty much thank them for everything else we got out of the Renaissance. Because at the end of the day the struggle over the fate of Italy resulted in a propaganda war to win the hearts and minds of Renaissance Italian cities. Only instead of cheesy posters and uncomfortably racist Bugs Bunny cartoons, the Pope paid artists to create art. You might have heard of some of it: Michelangelo's "David," those epic frescoes Leonardo and Michelangelo worked on in Florence's Salone dei Cinquecento, even the whole damn Vatican. All just one big political ad.
Vote for Pope Julius II!
So, while it might be easier to teach us about the "Italian" Renaissance, it would have been more accurate to think of it as a centuries-spanning battle for the soul of a country that involved way more sex, murder and wife-boning than the East Coast-West Coast rap battle. But your teachers knew you'd be bored by all those details, so today we remember it as a bunch of guys sitting around a table, eating spaghetti and doing art.
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