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Explore the powerful city-state called the Republic of Florence that thrived during the Renaissance, and test your understanding about the history of the Renaissance and the role of Florence in European culture.

Florence and the Renaissance

From roughly 1300-1600, Europe went through a period of immense social change called the Renaissance. New wealth from international trade created a healthy class of artisans and merchants, education flourished and the rich devoted themselves to sponsoring the arts. With all this money, cities grew so large and powerful that they formed their own governments, independent from any kingdom or empire, called city-states. One of the greatest city-states in all of Europe was the Republic of Florence. Florence was full of drama, political intrigue, murder, passion, art, romance and deceit.

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It was a cultural and economic center of the Renaissance, where powerful men ruled from behind the scenes.

The History of Florence

The city of Florence was first founded during the Roman Republic around 80 BC. In the year 1115 AD, the people of Florence overthrew the Tuscan rulers who controlled it and formed an independent government in the style of a republic, meaning that the government was run by officials who were elected by the people.

Florence was incredibly proud of its status as a republic throughout the Renaissance and fiercely defended its freedom against other cities and empires.As more and more city-states organized in Italy, each one developed a niche, a certain product they specialized in either importing or producing. This helped each city stay economically competitive. Florence originally specialized in wool. By some estimations, over 25% of the city worked in the wool industry. As more and more wealth entered Europe, however, Florence transitioned into a new niche: banking. Florence was the first city in hundreds of years to mass-produce gold coins as currency, called the florin, which quickly spread across Europe as the dominant currency for international business.

The popularity of the Florin meant even more wealth for Florence, and people in Florence began managing Europe’s new wealth as bankers.

Enter the Medici

Of the several families who became rich and powerful from banking, one rose to prominence above the rest: the Medici. In the early 15th century, the head of the Medici family, Cosimo de’Medici, used his personal fortune to start controlling Florentine politics from behind the scenes. Although he rarely ran for any political office, he funded the campaigns of people who owed him favors to get them elected. Florence was a democratic republic, and Cosimo used his influence to sway votes to his advantage. From this point, the Medici essentially controlled Florence.Cosimo’s son, Piero, took over after his father, and then his son, Lorenzo, replaced him.

Medici power reached its height under Lorenzo, who became so powerful and wealthy that the people called him il Magnifico, or Lorenzo the Magnificent. But even Medici power could not last forever. In 1494, Lorenzo’s son, Piero II, failed to defeat French armies that invaded Florence, and the Medici were banished. But don’t worry; they weren’t out of the game for good. In 1512, a member of the Medici family, Giovanni, was elected to one of the most powerful positions in the world. Most people remember him as Pope Leo X.

Medici power was restored in Florence and ruled for another two centuries.

Florence and the Arts

Backing up a little bit, Florence under the Medici developed another niche: art. The Medici were very aware of their public image and sponsored lots of public art to cultivate their appearance as patrons. Lorenzo the Magnificent was devoutly passionate about the arts, and in his court, an art school developed that changed history. The artists who came through the Medici courts in Florence included masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo. Lorenzo also sponsored poetry and philosophy, and his example led other wealthy families to devote immense resources as patrons of the arts.

Florence was, undoubtedly, the intellectual capital of the Renaissance during the 15th century. But this wasn’t only credited to Lorenzo de’Medici. The entire city sponsored art, philosophy and architecture on a routine basis. Amongst other developments that came from Florence was the development of Renaissance-style architecture, based on ancient Roman geometric ratios, by Filippo Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi also developed the first modern dome for the Cathedral in Florence, an engineering marvel that had not been accomplished for over a millennium. One of Europe’s foremost political theorists, Niccol; Machiavelli was Florentine, as was one of the world’s greatest poets, Dante Alighieri.

Florence, during the Renaissance, was the center of European culture.

Lesson Summary

From roughly 1300-1600, new wealth in Europe created an era called the Renaissance, characterized by a healthy merchant and artisan class, devotion to the arts and education, and the rise of several powerful cities that had their own independent governments called city-states. The Republic of Florence was one of the greatest city-states in Europe. Like most major cities, Florence had a few niches where it dominated the market. Originally it was wool, but later it became banking and art.

These last two were in part because of a single, very powerful banking family called the Medici. The Medici were the unofficial rulers of Florence; they controlled politics from behind the scenes. One of the most powerful of the Medici, Lorenzo the Magnificent, used his wealth to sponsor an incredible program of art, philosophy and poetry that helped make Florence one of the leading cultural and intellectual centers in Europe. Some of the most important accomplishments of the Renaissance came out of the incredible Republic of Florence.

Learning Outcomes

After watching the video or reading the lesson, you should set a goal to:

  • Recall the Renaissance and the emergence of city-states in Europe
  • Analyze the history of Florence
  • Describe the economy of Florence during the Renaissance
  • Discuss the Medici family and their influence on Florence
  • Consider the artistic contributions of Florence during the Renaissance

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