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In the south, Germanic rule was ousted by Charles of Anjou, who had defeated and beheaded Conradin, Frederick II's 16 year old grandson and heir. French dominion brought heavy taxes, particularly on rich landowners, who did not accept such measures graciously. Although always a hated foreigner, Charles supported much needed road repairs, reformed the coinage, imposed standard weights and measures, improved the equipment of ports and opened silver mines.

Charles and Anjou had the pope's ear and was off conquering and sacking Jerusalem and Constantinpole when not in his kingdom. But none of his exploits or alliances could alter the hatred he and his French troops had unleashed among the Sicilian.

The revolted, allegedly because of an assault by French soldiers on a Sicilian woman in Palermo in 1282. The rising came to be known as the Sicilian Vespers. While locals massacred French soldiers, they peacefully accepted the rule of Peter of Aragon, who thus managed to take control of the island for the Kingdom of Aragon (in Spain) without  firing a shot. Not until 1423 would the Aragonese take over Naples and so restore unity of the southern kingdom.


Fourteenth-century Europe was a continent ripe for disaster. Population growth, mismanaged agriculture and urban overcrowding led to famine and paved the way for the horrors of the plague.

If anything, Italy, with a total population of around nine million at the end of the 13th century, was in a worse position than some of its neighbours. Population density in the cities was greater than in many other parts of Europe and the consequent pressure on the surrounding countryside to feed people was enormous - famines were frequent. 

In 1348 the first great wave of plague swept across Italy and much o the rest of Western Europe, killing swathes of people in urban centres (Florence is said to have lost three quarters of its populace) and wreaking havoc in the country as well. The Black Death, as the disease came to be known, remained a constant of life in Europe well into the next century, visiting death and suffering on one region or another with frightening frequency.

People starved while unemployed armies and destitute nobles roamed the countryside and bandits. With hunger never far away, peasant and urban revolts (such as that in 1378 of the Ciompi, or artisan class, in Florence) became a frequent occurrence. Farming and business suffered enormously.

In spite of the hardships and uncertainties, some people prospered. The grand traders, speculators and bankers lived in aristocratic opulence while other strata of society suffered. Florence's Medici family was perhaps the clearest example. They built one magnificent mansion after another as they took control of the city's government.

War between the city-states was also a constant and eventually a few emerged as small regional powers while the others, no longer able to pay the high price of independence (especially he payment of mercenary armies to protect them), were absorbed by their more powerful neighbours.

In Florence, prosperity was based on the wool trade, finance and general commerce, allowing craft and trade guilds to become increasingly powerful in the affairs of the city. Abroad, its coinage, thefirenze (florin), was king. By dint of war and purchase, Florence had managed to acquire control of almost all Tuscany by the 1450's - only Siena and Lucca remained beyond the city's grasp.

In Milan, the Della Torre family, which represented the popular party of the city state, came into fierce conflict with the Visconti family, representing the Ghibelline nobility. Ottone Visconti had been made archbishop of Milan in 1262 and his nephew, Matteo, was made imperial vicar by Henry VII. He subsequently destroyed the power of the Della Torre, extending Milanese control over Pavia and Cremona, and later Genoa and Bologna. Giangaleazzo Visconti (1351-1402_ would turn Milan from a city-state into a strong European pwerand although the Visconti were disliked as dictators, Milan managed to resist French attempts at invasion.

The policies of the Visconti( up to 1450), followed by those of the Sforza family, allowed Milan an economix and territorial development that extended the border sof the signoria from Genoa to Bologna and from Ticino in Switerland to Lago do Garda. During those years of tireless labour, the entire area of the Po Valley was transformed. Massive hydraulic and irrigation projects (involving Leonardo da Vinci) converted the plain from a swampy woodland into an extremely productive agricultural collective with some of the most fertile farmland in Italy. Among other things, the cultivation of rice and mulberries was introduced. In the 15th century parmesan cheese, a product of Parma, Reggio Emilia and Lodi, was among the most prized cheeses in Europe and butter from the plains of Lombardy was exported as far as Rome.

The Milanese sphere of influence butted up against that of Venice in the east. By 1450 the lagoon city had reached the height of its territorial greatness. In addition to its possessions in Greece, Dalmatia and beyond - all serving to feed its commercial empire - Venice had expanded inland. The banner of the Lion of St Mark flew across all north-eastern Italy, from Gorizia across to Bergamo.

The other big players were the Papal States, a forever-changing constellation of states and regions under papal control, and the kingdom of the south, with its capital in Naples and by now under Aragonese control.


The growth of this handful of regional states necessitated the creation of increasingly complex administration and led inevitably to the growth of courtly life around their rulers. As the 15th century progressed, more universities were founded and growing importance was placed on learning. And so emerged a lively intelligentsia, whose protagonists frequently moved from one court to another, enriching their knowledge and scholarly interchange.

As early as the 12th century, Averroes, a Muslim philosopher born in 1126 in Cordoba (Souther Spain), had resurrected Aristotle's doctrine that immortality was gained through individual efforts towards universal reason. This emphasis on the autonomy of human reason, based on the ancient theories of the classical philosophers instead of the increasingly self-serving dogmas of the Church hierarchy, was a revolutionary philosophical position which by the 15th century became known as humanism.

The church had chosen to embrace only those classical philosophers whose thinking fitted its theological purposes. However, humanist thinkers were discovering ancient Roman and Greek works which had been transcribed by religious orders during the Middle Ages and remained hidden away, often thought lost in monasteries throughout Europe. Many of these works had been named as subversive by the Church but now inspired great debate among intellectuals.

Translated into Latin, Averroes' work strongly influenced another interpreter of Aristotelian thought, St Thomas Aqunias, who was educated at Monte Cassino by the Benedictines and at the University of Bologna before joining the Dominicans in 1243. Aquinas bridged the gap between the Christian belief in God and Aristotle's respect for the validity of reason with his Summa Theologiae. This resulted in Italian Christianity never losing either its grip on the real world or its respect for good works.

By the early decades of the 15th century, the thirst for classical knowledge had been greatly accelerated by the arrival of Greek scholars from Byzantium, fleeing before the advance of the Turks. Through them, western European scholars were able to rediscover the works of the ancients, especially of those key figures such as Plato and Aristotle. A rigorous scientific approach to learning, frequently flying in the face of Church doctrine, characterised the new studia humanitatis (study of the humanitities).

This rediscovery of classical learning would inevitably spill over into a rediscovery of classical art and architecture that would lead in turn to the artistic explosion that was the Italian Renaissance (see The Renaissance later). The seats of Italian government increasingly sought the prestige of the the presence of scholars in their midst. Venice, Florence, Milan and lesser cities frequently chose to thumb their noses at Rome and shelter scholars considered heretics by the papacy.

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