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In this lesson, you will begin to explore the history of independent trading cities called city-states that emerged during the Renaissance. Then you will test your understanding of this important period in world history.

Introducing the City-State

Around the year 1300, a new society rose in Europe in which the people had more political power, education and art were renewed, and wealth poured into Europe. This era, called the Renaissance, lasted from roughly 1300-1600. One of the key characteristics of the Renaissance was a change in social structure with the rise of independent trading cities called city-states.

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Background

We’ll discuss the city-states more in a minute.

First, we need some critical background information about the rise of the Renaissance in Europe. So naturally, this story begins in China. Around 1206, the famous Mongolian leader Genghis Khan formed the Mongol Empire, which stretched over 12 million square miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea by 1271. This meant that, for the first time, anyone could travel from Europe to Asia without crossing dozens of different kingdoms that either attacked foreigners or charged them heavy taxes.

Suddenly, Europe could establish trade routes with Asia, like the famous Silk Road, and new wealth from imports and exports came flowing in. It was the first major era of international business in human history.At the same time in Europe, cities in Northern Italy began fighting for independence from Germany’s Holy Roman Empire. They became independent and formed their own governments. These were the first city-states, independent governments based around a major urban center.

Most of the Italian city-states were a republic, meaning they were governed by officials who were democratically elected to represent the people, as opposed to having a king or other supreme ruler. City-states were not part of any larger kingdom or nation. If you had asked someone in Venice who they were during the Renaissance, they would have said Venetian, not Italian.

Growth of the City-States

The new city-states grew quickly because of the wealth coming into Europe. Italian city-states were in an ideal position for international trade because Italy sits at the intersection of both land and sea trade routes between Europe and Asia.

The city-states were able to make huge profits from importing Asian spices, silks and products.Some of the first major city-states were Genoa and Venice, both from sea-based trade. As more wealth flowed and more city-states grew in power, most cities carved out a trade niche for a specific item they specialized in importing or producing. For example, Milan specialized in metal and armor. Genoa was famous for importing ivory.

Venice became extremely rich from importing silks and spices.With lots of money and power came other things as well, such as art and education. For an example of this, look at the city-state of Florence. Florence was one of the wealthiest city-states in Europe, supported by a massive banking industry owned by the powerful Medici family. Florence under the Medici became the center of European art, training masters like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. The city-states competed against each other to construct the biggest, best and most expensive government and religious buildings as a display of their wealth. They also competed against each other militarily and sometimes fought for territory or power.

Wealth in Europe from these trade cities created a culture of education, art, philosophy, poetry and engineering that changed Europe forever.Like all good things, the Renaissance came to an end around 1600, and new empires across Europe took over most of the independent city-states.

Lesson Summary

Around 1300, Europe began transitioning into a new period of social change, art and education called the Renaissance, all supported by new wealth coming in from Asia. The Mongol Empire had recently conquered the Asian continent, allowing European merchants to cross it much more easily than when it was hundreds of smaller kingdoms and thus opened new trade markets.Italy, situated at the intersection of European-Asian trade routes, became instantly rich.

New independent governments based around urban centers, called city-states, emerged to handle the new import/export businesses. To stay economically competitive, most city-states developed a niche, a product it specialized in importing or producing. It is not an overstatement to say that the wealth of the city-states created the Renaissance. This money led to a new class of educated merchants who were very rich and displayed their wealth by commissioning great works of art. So when you think Renaissance, think city-states. They are practically inseparable.

Learning Outcomes

Thoroughly study this video lesson and take the accompanying quiz to be sure that you can:

  • Understand how the Mongol takeover of China fed the European trade
  • Describe how self-governing urban centers in Europe created city-states
  • Identify many of the wealthiest and most powerful city-states

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