The Renaissance developed a new and unique form of politics referred to as Despotism. Despotism is a form of government in which a single entity rules with absolute power. The single ruling entity may be an individual, as in an autocracy, or it may be a group, as in an oligarchy. The great Renaissance historian John Addington Symonds refers to the 14th and 15th Centuries in Italy as the “Age of the Despots. ” It was under the tyrannies, in the midst of all the wars and revolutions, that the Italians were given the chance to develop their peculiar individuality.
This individuality determined the qualities of the Renaissance and affected Europe as a whole. Italy, due to their unique form of politics, was able to lead the way in the education of Western races, and was the first to distinguish Classical and Medieval life. The conditions that led to this new form of Political government were distinctive to Italian urban life. By the 14th Century, Italy was divided into many principalities surrounding city-States.
The cities were an integral part of life in Italy due to commerce, and Italians were the first to reap the benefits of new and increasing trade due to their favorable geographic position in the Mediterranean Sea. Because there was a constant political and class struggle in the cities, Italy lacked a central authority of power. In cities such as Florence, Pisa, and Milan, the age-old rival between Pope and Emperor played itself out. The Guelph party supported the Pope, while the Ghibbiline party supported the Emperor.
Civil wars were fought in the cities and ended with a despotism system of ruling, either with an oligarchy or an autocracy. The forming of these authorities was crucial, because peace is essential for trade, and the surplus wealth from commerce is what led to the growth or art and literature, which began the Renaissance. The despots, who were the powerful rulers during despotism, were not from traditional dynasties, and therefore they reached their positions of power in various other ways.
Some were appointed by the Holy Roman Emperor to assert his rule, as was the case for the Visconti of Milan in the 14th Century. Other despots were hired soldiers, who later became rulers of the cities they were hired to protect, as was the case for the Sforzas in Milan in the 15th Century. Some despots were elected Mayor of their towns, some controlled their town’s elections- as the Medici family in Florence did, and some despots ruled solely because they were the sons and nephews of Popes.
Due to their various ways of gaining power, the despot was usually not from a traditional dynasty, and therefore they did not have the traditional loyalty of the people. Each despot had to gain the loyalty of the people either through a winning personality, or by being clever in the political game. The Despotic court had to set its own rules, which were eventually written down in the Book of the Courtier, which became the guide book for the courts of Early Modern Europe. The most important and the most influential work dealing on Despotism is Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Machiavelli is considered by some to be the father of modern Power Politics.
The Italian Renaissance was essentially a mind-set, a collection of powerful attitudes and beliefs. The development of despotism pacified the country from the chaos of their constant civil wars, and allowed them peace, which was essential for trade. As commerce reopened, people began traveling freely, and the level of education began to rise as well as the amount of books that were read. This soon led to an overwhelming growth of literature and art, of which the Renaissance is famous for.
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