Modern Italy

Florence Cathedral - Brunelleschi's Dome
Florence Cathedral – Brunelleschi’s Dome

Modern History of Italy

At the beginning of the modern era, which historic convention dates from the Discovery of America in 1492 by the great Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, Italy’s division into many small municipalities, city-states and lordships prevented for a long time the creation of a unitary state as elsewhere in Europe.

Therefore Italy had to compensate for the greater political and military strength of the European national states by the strategic intelligence of its political leaders.

A shining example of the latter was the Lord of Florence Cosimo de’ Medici, with good reason nicknamed Pater Patriae, or “Father of the Fatherland”, considered to be one of the main architects of the Florentine Renaissance. As future events will show, his foreign policy, aimed at maintaining a constant and subtle balance among the various Italian states, turned out to be prophetic in its ability to identify in Italian concord the key element to prevent foreign states from intervening in Italy by taking advantage of its divisions.

The importance of Cosimo’s strategy, continued by his grandson and successor in the government of Florence Lorenzo the Magnificent (who reigned after his father Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici), in his incessant search for an agreement among the Italian states able to make up for their lack of political unity, is not however understood by the other Italian princes, so such a strategy comes to an end with the death of Lorenzo in 1492.

After that Italy becomes the theatre of many foreign invasions: first by the French of Charles VIII, then by the Spanish troops of Charles V, starting a long period of foreign domination of Italy.

The years 1550-1620 are among the periods during which Italian civilisation left its strongest mark on western civilisation. They coincide with the predominance exerted in Italy by the Spanish monarchy, which maintained a situation of peace in the peninsula, preventing sea and land invasions and acting as a mediator and arbitrator of tensions among Italian states.

Italy’s cities flourished thanks to manufacturing and commercial activities, and in the financial sector Italians possessed a superior technical capacity. In the 16th century the economy takes off and with it the population grows, showing the groundlessness of the pessimistic theory of the Anglican cleric Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), because population growth urged people to devise new techniques of food production.

The years 1620-1730 see the wear and tear of the pax hispanica, following the Thirty Years War and the attempts by the Duchy of Savoy and the Republic of Venice to break the status quo in Italy. Wars, tax levies and the epidemics of 1630 and 1656 weaken the country’s economy and reduce its cultural influence in Europe.

Even after the peace of the Pyrenees in 1659, which sets the scene for a rather long period of peace, Italian production will not recover, due to a lack of flexibility which will only partially allow it to adapt to the challenges that came from new markets in Northern Europe, especially the English and Dutch ones.

The economic decline produces a demographic decrease, mainly due to the raising of the bridal age, and some subsistence crises, which weaken the immune system of people and expose them to the great contagions of the 17th century, to which, however, Italy responds with forms of prevention and assistance that had nothing to envy to those of other European countries: in fact Italy was the first country to free itself from the great epidemics of plague. As early as the 14th century northern Italy’s health authorities had established the importance of a 40-day quarantine period (“quarantine” derives from the Italian word for 4o, “quaranta”), which became the gold standard for continental Europe for the next 300 years but was not adopted in England until the 16th century.

In the period from 1620 to 1730 the Italian cultural and scientific worlds were very lively, thanks to the contribution of Catholics, especially the Jesuits gathered around the Roman College. This period started with the continuation of the centuries-old clash in the Mediterranean between Islam and Christianity and closes with the twilight of the Venetian empire, which remains almost the only force to contend to the Turks every island of the Aegean Sea and every possession in Greece and Dalmatia, proudly fighting the war of Candia, which culminates with the fall of the island in 1669.

From 1730 to 1800 we witness the end of Hispanic hegemony in Italy, where the Hapsburg dynasty of Austria and the Bourbons are beginning to take over.

All over the country, transformations are taking place, including the emergence of a new elite of business and administration, a society whose rules supplant the vision of the aristocratic world, the diminished incidence of traditional Catholicism in the name of a new efficiency. These changes, however, do not determine either a cultural revolution or significant de-Christianisation.

Austrian dominance in Italian politics is followed by the end of almost all the Italian family dynasties – the Gonzagas of Mantua, the Farneses of Parma, the Medicis of Florence and the Estes of Modena – and a long period of peace after 1748.

After the French Revolution in 1789, France’s dictator Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) invaded Italy. This ruthless and violent tyrant holds the infamous record of having imprisoned two popes, Pius VI and Pius VII, the latter of whom died in France during his imprisonment.

What is not often remembered by history books are the anti-Jacobin and anti-Napoleonic or, more accurately, counter-revolutionary insurgencies, which took place almost everywhere in the Italian peninsula between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th.

It was really a people’s event, unlike the process of forced unification of Italy led by the Savoy dynasty decades later.

During Napoleon’s twenty years of occupation many Italians rose against French domination, not so much because it was foreign, but because it tried to impose a forced change to the way of life of Italians, introducing compulsory military conscription, increasing taxes, prohibiting Christian processions, closing churches and even imprisoning the Pontiffs because they had dared to oppose the power of Napoleon’s empire.

At least one hundred thousand Italians die on the field.

It was a repetition of what had occurred in the Atlantic region of the Vendée in western France in 1794, at the height of the Reign of Terror, when a popular movement against the Revolution was ferociously repressed with a carnage.

Revolutionary soldiers killed everyone and everything they saw. Thousands of men, women and children were slaughtered in cold blood, farms and villages were torched.

Photo credits:
Pixabay, Florence Cathedral Dome