At the time of the Renaissance Italy was governed by a number of powerful city-states. These were some of the largest and richest cities in all of Europe. Some of the more important city-states included Florence, Milan, Venice, Naples, and Rome.
Map of Italian city-states (click picture to enlarge)
What is a city-state?
A city-state is a region that is independently ruled by a major city. Italy wasn't one unified country, but a number of small independent city-states. Some of these cities were run by elected leaders and others by ruling families. Often times these cities fought each other.
Why were they important?
The wealth of the Italian city-state played an important role in the Renaissance. This wealth allowed prominent families to support artists, scientists, and philosophers spurring on new ideas and artistic movements.
Florence is where the Renaissance first began. It was ruled by the powerful Medici Family who used their money to support artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. One of the early architectural achievements of the Renaissance was the massive dome on the Florence Cathedral. Florence was known for its textile production as well as a banking center.
In the early 1400s Milan was still a Middle Ages city focused on war and conquering Florence. However, the Sforza family took over in 1450. They brought peace to the region and with peace came the new ideas and art of the Renaissance. Milan was famous for its metalwork which included suits of armor.
The island city of Venice had become a powerful city-state through trade with the Far East. It imported products such as spices and silk. However, when the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople, Venice's trade empire began to shrink. Venice controlled the seas around the east coast of Italy and was famous for its artistic glassware.
The pope ruled both the Catholic Church and the city-state of Rome. Much of the city of Rome was re-built under the leadership of Nicholas V beginning in 1447. Rome became a patron of the arts and supported the Renaissance through commissions to artists such as Raphael and Michelangelo. Michelangelo worked as architect on St. Peter's Basilica and painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
The city-state of Naples ruled much of southern Italy at the time of the Renaissance. It was one of the last city-states to embrace the movement, but in 1443 Alfonso I conquered the city. He supported Renaissance artists, writers, and philosophers. Naples also became known for its music and is where the mandolin was invented. Naples was captured by Spain in 1504.
Interesting Facts about the Italian City-States of the Renaissance
Guilds were powerful institutions in the city-states. In some city-states you had to be a member of a guild to run for public office.
The small city-state of Ferrara was known for its music and theatre.
The city-state of Urbino was known for its library as well as its beautiful ceramics.
Most of the people who lived in the city-states were craftsmen and merchants. This was a growing class of society during the Renaissance.
Milan, Naples, and Florence signed a peace treaty called the Peace of Lodi in 1454. This helped to establish boundaries and peace for around 30 years.