History Of Italy Since The Renaissance And The Decline Of Italian Art

IN OUR own time only, has Italy taken a place among European powers as a united national state. Her national existence as a country with one government is as recent as 1871, and even the beginnings of her rise to national unity are as recent as 1859.

It was in this year that the Kingdom of Sardinia, whose main and most important territory was the province of Savoy, began, under Victor Emmanuel, to extend its power over other parts of Italy. In 1859 the territory of Milan was added to this kingdom at the expense of Austria, which then controlled it, by the Peace of Villafranca.

It will assist our conception of the condition of Italy during the period between the early Renaissance and the second half of our own century if we now trace the history of Milan from 1859 back to 1545. Till 1859 Milan had been Austrian territory since the French Revolution. Be-fore the French Revolution it had been Austrian territory since 1713 and the close of the War of the Spanish Succession. Before 1700 Milan had been Spanish territory since 1545.

In 1860, one year after the Kingdom of Sardinia had acquired Milan, General Garibaldi inaugurated a revolution in Sicily which had momentous consequences. The State of Naples, that is all Italy south of the States of the Church, including Sicily, declared for Italian unity under Victor Emmanuel; and Tuscany, with several minor Italian States, followed the same course. This gave Italy her present national dimensions, less the States of the Church and the State of Venice.

We will now trace back the histories of Naples and Tuscany to the time of the early Renaissance, as we have already traced that of Milan. Before 186o Naples and Sicily were ruled by a Spanish Bourbon dynasty. Aside from the time of the French Revolution and of Bonaparte, Naples and Sicily had been Spanish Bourbon since 1738. Before 1738 they had been Austrian territory since 1713. Before 1713 they had been Spanish territory since 1501.

Before 186o Tuscany was ruled by a branch of the House of Austria, and had been so ruled, aside from the time of the French Revolution and of Bonaparte, since 1737. Be-fore 1737 Tuscany had been ruled in the interest of Spain by a dynasty dating from the year 1530 and the marriage of a Medici grandee with a daughter of the Hapsburg Emperor, Charles V.

We will now return to modern Italy after 1860. Her next step toward consolidation was the incorporation of the territory of Venice, which fell to Italy as a result of her participation in the war waged by Prussia against Austria under the direction of Count Bismarck, in 1866. Venice, therefore, before 1866, was Austrian territory and had been so ruled since the Congress of Vienna, in 1815. The loss of her independence had been then as recent as the campaigns of Bonaparte in Italy.

The final step in the consolidation of modern Italy was the acquisition of the States of the Church and the occupation of Rome as the capital city of the nation. This event occurred in 1871 as a result of the Franco-Prussian war.

The French troops who had occupied Rome in the interests of the States of the Church were withdrawn for service at home against the Germans, and united Italy thus gained Rome for its capital. The independence of the States of the Church then terminated, dated from the time when the Exarchate of Ravenna was presented to the popes by the father of Charlemagne.

From this sketch of the recent history of Italy, and from these facts relating to the earlier history of her various territories it results that at the opening of the French Revolution and the close of the last century, her only important independent territories were the States of the Church and the State of Venice, then in a condition of political dotage and decay.

Otherwise, it results from this sketch, that of the three main political divisions of Italy, aside from the two just named, Naples and Sicily were foreign territory as early as 1499; that Tuscany was ruled in foreign interest as early as 1530, and that Milan was Spanish as early as 1545.

In other words, the decline of Italy and of Italian art after the first quarter of the sixteenth century is explained by a loss of political independence, according to dates and conditions thus briefly sketched, and what has been said about the greater Italian States holds, with slight variations of time and detail, for the lesser ones.

In the political downfall of Italy, following the early Renaissance period, we have two turning points of decisive import: the sack of Rome by the army of Charles V. in 1527, the siege of Florence and consequent downfall of Tuscany in 1529 and 1530. All other events are merely matters of detail in comparison with these. In 1527, through the sack of Rome, the popes were obliged to abandon the task they had set themselves of defending Italy from foreign invasion. In 1530 the establishment of a Medici despotism over the State of Florence (Tuscany) sounded the death-knell of the less powerful Italian free-states and principalities.

Let us now observe the relation of dates in the history of Italian art to these events. The last monumental wall painting in point of time, belonging to the zenith of the Italian Renaissance, was Michael Angelo’s “Last Judgment.” This was begun in 1534; the painter, Correggio, died in the same year. Raphael died in 1520 and Leonardo da Vinci died in 1519. We cannot point to any important school or artist of the zenith of the Italian Renaissance after 1534, outside of the school of Venice, whose pertime longer. We also note that Venice was the one important State of Italy which had preserved its independence after this time. In the architecture and decoration of Renaissance style, we trace a rapid contemporaneous decline. In the sculpture of the Renaissance we follow the same course and tendency.

In the philosophy of our subject, then, we follow the lead of all great writers and critics in connecting the greatest development of Italian art with a period of then unexampled commercial prosperity, which the country enjoyed between 1300 and 1530 and with the existence of a series of small but vigorous and stirring principalities, republics, and free-states, whose small dimensions allowed and favored a wonderful development and assertion of individual character, whose very rivalries and contentions contributed to a production of works of art in which each little state strove to surpass its neighbors.

In the philosophy of our subject we again agree with greater authorities in connecting the first decline of Italian Renaissance art with the political overthrow of the small Italian principalities and free-states. But this political downfall of the Italian communities has a deeper significance for social history, both in Italy and in northern Europe, than might be imagined. When its obvious causes are sought for they appear to be the weakness of small states divided by jealousies and unable to unite against a foreign foe (France or Spain, as the case might be) of greater military power. Undoubtedly the Italian States were small and divided one against the other. Undoubtedly the Italians had grown effeminate through over-civilization, by contrast with the more brutal soldiery and larger standing armies of the North but the essential fact remains that Italy became the battle-ground of Europe in the early sixteenth century because her territories were the richest and most highly civilized. The essential fact remains that the entry of northern powers into Italy, implies the necessary spread of Italian civilization to the North by virtue of this contact. The decline of the Italian Renaissance at home is thus contemporaneous with the spread of the Italian Renaissance over Europe, and the very downfall of the Italian States attests the superiority of their material prosperity and of their civilization as attracting the cupidity of France and Spain and Germany.

( Originally Published 1894 )

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