Origins of country

In prehistoric times, the Italian peninsula was rather different from its current shape. During the last Ice Age, the islands of Elba and Sicily were connected to the mainland. The Adriatic Sea was far smaller, since it started at what is now the Gargano peninsula, and what is now the bay of Venice was a fertile plain with a humid climate. The arrival of the first hominins was 850,000 years ago at Monte Poggiolo. The presence of the Homo neanderthalensis has been demonstrated in archaeological findings dating to c. 50,000 years ago (late Pleistocene). Homo sapiens sapiens appeared during the upper Palaeolithic. In November 2011 tests conducted at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit in England on what were previously thought to be Neanderthal baby teeth, which had been unearthed in 1964 from the Grotta del Cavallo, were identified as the oldest modern human remains discovered anywhere in Europe, dating from between 43,000 and 45,000 years ago. Remains of the later prehistoric age have been found in Liguria, Lombardy (stone carvings in Valcamonica) and in Sardinia (nuraghe). The most famous is perhaps that of Ötzi the Iceman, the mummy of a mountain hunter found in the Similaun glacier in South Tyrol, dating to c. 3000 BCE (Copper Age).

During the Copper Age, Indoeuropean people migrated to Italy. Approximatively four waves of population from north to the Alps have been identified. A first Indoeuropean migration occurred around the mid-3rd millennium BCE, from population who imported copper smithing. The Remedello culture took over the Po Valley. A second wave of immigration occurred in the Bronze Age, from the late 3rd to the early 2nd millennium BCE, with tribes identified with the Beaker culture and by the use of bronze smithing, in the Padan Plain, in Tuscany and on the coasts of Sardinia and Sicily.

In the mid-2nd millennium BCE, a third wave arrived, associated with the Apenninian civilization and the Terramare culture which takes its name from the black earth (terremare) residue of settlement mounds, which have long served the fertilizing needs of local farmers. The occupations of the Terramare people as compared with their Neolithic predecessors may be inferred with comparative certainty. They were still hunters, but had domesticated animals; they were fairly skillful metallurgists, casting bronze in moulds of stone and clay, and they were also agriculturists, cultivating beans, the vine, wheat and flax.

In the late Bronze Age, from the late 2nd millennium to the early 1st millennium BCE, a fourth wave, the Proto-Villanovan culture, related to the Central European Urnfield culture, brought iron-working to the Italian peninsula. Proto-villanovans practiced cremation and buried the ashes of their dead in pottery urns of distinctive double-cone shape. Generally speaking, Proto-Villanovan settlements were centered in the northern-central part of the peninsula. Further south, in Campania, a region where inhumation was the general practice, Proto-villanovan cremation burials have been identified at Capua, at the “princely tombs” of Pontecagnano near Salerno (finds conserved in the Museum of Agro Picentino) and at Sala Consilina.

Evidence of civilization has been found on the Italian peninsula dating far into pre-history. Thousands of rock drawings discovered in the Alpine regions of Lombardy date from around 8,000 BC. There were sizable settlements throughout the Copper Age (37th to 15th century BC), the Bronze Age (15th to 8th century BC) and the Iron Age (8th to 5th century BC). In the north of Italy, the Etruscan culture took hold around 800BC, while Greeks settled in southern Italy from 700 to 600BC, namely in Apulia, Calabria and Sicily (then known as Magna Graecia).

Etruscan civilization

The Etruscan civilization flourished in central Italy after 800 BCE. The origins of the Etruscans are lost in prehistory. The main hypotheses are that they are indigenous, probably stemming from the Villanovan culture, or that they are the result of invasion from the north or the Near East. A more recent study has suggested a Near Eastern origin. The researchers conclude that their data, taken from the modern Tuscan population, ‘support the scenario of a post-Neolithic genetic input from the Near East to the present-day population of Tuscany’.

In the absence of any dating evidence there is however no direct link between this genetic input and the Etruscans. By contrast, a mitochondrial DNA study of 2013 has suggested that the Etruscans were probably an indigenous population. Among ancient populations, ancient Etruscans are found to be closest to a Neolithic population from Central Europe.

It is widely accepted that Etruscans spoke a non-Indo-European language. Some inscriptions in a similar language have been found on the Aegean island of Lemnos. Etruscans were a monogamous society that emphasized pairing. The historical Etruscans had achieved a form of state with remnants of chiefdom and tribal forms. The Etruscan religion was an immanent polytheism, in which all visible phenomena were considered to be a manifestation of divine power, and deities continually acted in the world of men and could, by human action or inaction, be dissuaded against or persuaded in favor of human affairs.

Etruscan expansion was focused across the Apennines. Some small towns in the 6th century BCE have disappeared during this time, ostensibly consumed by greater, more powerful neighbors. However, there exists no doubt that the political structure of the Etruscan culture was similar, albeit more aristocratic, to Magna Graecia in the south. The mining and commerce of metal, especially copper and iron, led to an enrichment of the Etruscans and to the expansion of their influence in the Italian peninsula and the western Mediterranean sea. Here their interests collided with those of the Greeks, especially in the 6th century BCE, when Phoceans of Italy founded colonies along the coast of France, Catalonia and Corsica. This led the Etruscans to ally themselves with the Carthaginians, whose interests also collided with the Greeks.

Around 540 BCE, the Battle of Alalia led to a new distribution of power in the western Mediterranean Sea. Though the battle had no clear winner, Carthage managed to expand its sphere of influence at the expense of the Greeks, and Etruria saw itself relegated to the northern Tyrrhenian Sea with full ownership of Corsica. From the first half of the 5th century, the new international political situation meant the beginning of the Etruscan decline after losing their southern provinces. In 480 BCE, Etruria’s ally Carthage was defeated by a coalition of Magna Graecia cities led by Syracuse.

A few years later, in 474, Syracuse’s tyrant Hiero defeated the Etruscans at the Battle of Cumae. Etruria’s influence over the cities of Latium and Campania weakened, and it was taken over by Romans and Samnites. In the 4th century, Etruria saw a Gallic invasion end its influence over the Po valley and the Adriatic coast. Meanwhile, Rome had started annexing Etruscan cities. This led to the loss of their north provinces. Etruscia was assimilated by Rome around 500 BCE.

Magna Graecia

In the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, for various reasons, including demographic crisis (famine, overcrowding, etc.), the search for new commercial outlets and ports, and expulsion from their homeland, Greeks began to settle in Southern Italy (Cerchiai, pp. 14–18). Also during this period, Greek colonies were established in places as widely separated as the eastern coast of the Black Sea, Eastern Libya and Massalia (Marseille). They included settlements in Sicily and the southern part of the Italian peninsula.

The Romans called the area of Sicily and the foot of Italy Magna Graecia (Latin, “Great Greece”), since it was so densely inhabited by the Greeks. The ancient geographers differed on whether the term included Sicily or merely Apulia and Calabria — Strabo being the most prominent advocate of the wider definitions.

With this colonization, Greek culture was exported to Italy, in its dialects of the Ancient Greek language, its religious rites and its traditions of the independent polis. An original Hellenic civilization soon developed, later interacting with the native Italic and Latin civilisations. The most important cultural transplant was the Chalcidean/Cumaean variety of the Greek alphabet, which was adopted by the Etruscans; the Old Italic alphabet subsequently evolved into the Latin alphabet, which became the most widely used alphabet in the world.

Many of the new Hellenic cities became very rich and powerful, like Neapolis (Νεάπολις, Naples, “New City”), Syracuse, Acragas, and Sybaris (Σύβαρις). Other cities in Magna Graecia included Tarentum (Τάρας), Epizephyrian Locri (Λοκροί Ἐπιζεφύριοι), Rhegium (Ῥήγιον), Croton (Κρότων), Thurii (Θούριοι), Elea (Ἐλέα), Nola (Νῶλα), Ancona (Ἀγκών), Syessa (Σύεσσα), Bari (Βάριον), and others.

After Pyrrhus of Epirus failed in his attempt to stop the spread of Roman hegemony in 282 BCE, the south fell under Roman domination and remained in such a position well into the barbarian invasions (the Gladiator War is a notable suspension of imperial control). It was held by the Byzantine Empire after the fall of Rome in the West and even the Lombards failed to consolidate it, though the centre of the south was theirs from Zotto’s conquest in the final quarter of the 6th century.

The Roman Empire

Little is certain about the history of the Roman Kingdom, as nearly no written records from that time survive, and the histories about it that were written during the Republic and Empire are largely based on legends. However, the history of the Roman Kingdom began with the city’s founding, traditionally dated to 753 BCE with settlements around the Palatine Hill along the river Tiber in Central Italy, and ended with the overthrow of the kings and the establishment of the Republic in about 509 BCE.

The site of Rome had a ford where the Tiber could be crossed. The Palatine Hill and hills surrounding it presented easily defensible positions in the wide fertile plain surrounding them. All of these features contributed to the success of the city. The traditional account of Roman history, which has come down to us through Livy, Plutarch, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and others, is that in Rome’s first centuries it was ruled by a succession of seven kings. The traditional chronology, as codified by Varro, allots 243 years for their reigns, an average of almost 35 years, which, since the work of Barthold Georg Niebuhr, has been generally discounted by modern scholarship. The Gauls destroyed much of Rome’s historical records when they sacked the city after the Battle of the Allia in 390 BCE (Varronian, according to Polybius the battle occurred in 387/6) and what was left was eventually lost to time or theft. With no contemporary records of the kingdom existing, all accounts of the kings must be carefully questioned.

According to the founding myth of Rome, the city was founded on 21 April 753 BCE by twin brothers Romulus and Remus, who descended from the Trojan prince Aeneas and who were grandsons of the Latin King, Numitor of Alba Longa. The Roman Forum, the commercial, cultural, and political center of the city and the Republic which housed the various offices and meeting places of the government. According to tradition and later writers such as Livy, the Roman Republic was established around 509 BCE, when the last of the seven kings of Rome, Tarquin the Proud, was deposed by Lucius Junius Brutus, and a system based on annually elected magistrates and various representative assemblies was established. A constitution set a series of checks and balances, and a separation of powers. The most important magistrates were the two consuls, who together exercised executive authority as imperium, or military command. The consuls had to work with the senate, which was initially an advisory council of the ranking nobility, or patricians, but grew in size and power.

In the 4th century BCE the Republic came under attack by the Gauls, who initially prevailed and sacked Rome. The Romans then took up arms and drove the Gauls back, led by Camillus. The Romans gradually subdued the other peoples on the Italian peninsula, including the Etruscans. The last threat to Roman hegemony in Italy came when Tarentum, a major Greek colony, enlisted the aid of Pyrrhus of Epirus in 281 BCE, but this effort failed as well.

In the 3rd century BCE Rome had to face a new and formidable opponent: the powerful Phoenician city-state of Carthage. In the three Punic Wars, Carthage was eventually destroyed and Rome gained control over Hispania, Sicily and North Africa. After defeating the Macedonian and Seleucid Empires in the 2nd century BCE, the Romans became the dominant people of the Mediterranean Sea. The conquest of the Hellenistic kingdoms provoked a fusion between Roman and Greek cultures and the Roman elite, once rural, became a luxurious and cosmopolitan one. By this time Rome was a consolidated empire – in the military view – and had no major enemies.

In the mid-1st century BCE, the Republic faced a period of political crisis and social unrest. Into this turbulent scenario emerged the figure of Julius Caesar. Caesar reconciled the two more powerful men in Rome: Marcus Licinius Crassus, his sponsor, and Crassus’ rival, Pompey. The First Triumvirate (“three men”), had satisfied the interests of these three men: Crassus, the richest man in Rome, became richer; Pompey exerted more influence in the Senate; and Caesar held consulship and military command in Gaul.

In 53 BCE, the Triumvirate disintegrated at Crassus’ death. Crassus had acted as mediator between Caesar and Pompey, and, without him, the two generals began to fight for power. After being victorious in the Gallic Wars and earning respect and praise from the legions, Caesar was a clear menace to Pompey, that tried to legally remove Caesar’s legions. To avoid this, Caesar crossed the Rubicon River and invaded Rome in 49 BCE, rapidly defeating Pompey. With his sole preeminence over Rome, Caesar gradually accumulated many offices, eventually being granted a dictatorship for perpetuity. He was murdered in 44 BCE, in the Ides of March by the Liberatores.

Caesar’s assassination caused political and social turmoil in Rome; without the dictator’s leadership, the city was ruled by his friend and colleague, Mark Antony. Octavius (Caesar’s adopted son), along with general Mark Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, Caesar’s best friend, established the Second Triumvirate. Lepidus was forced to retire in 36 BCE after betraying Octavian in Sicily. Antony settled in Egypt with his lover, Cleopatra VII. Mark Antony’s affair with Cleopatra was seen as an act of treason, since she was queen of a foreign power and Antony was adopting an extravagant and Hellenistic lifestyle that was considered inappropriate for a Roman statesman.

Following Antony’s Donations of Alexandria, which gave to Cleopatra the title of “Queen of Kings”, and to their children the regal titles to the newly conquered Eastern territories, the war between Octavian and Mark Antony broke out. Octavian annihilated Egyptian forces in the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. Mark Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, leaving Octavianus the sole ruler of the Republic.

In 27 BCE, Octavian was the sole Roman leader. His leadership brought the zenith of the Roman civilization, that lasted for four decades. In that year, he took the name Augustus. That event is usually taken by historians as the beginning of Roman Empire. Officially, the government was republican, but Augustus assumed absolute powers. The Senate granted Octavian a unique grade of Proconsular imperium, which gave him authority over all Proconsuls (military governors).

The unruly provinces at the borders, where the vast majority of the legions were stationed, were under the control of Augustus. These provinces were classified as imperial provinces. The peaceful senatorial provinces were under the control of the Senate. The Roman legions, which had reached an unprecedented number (around 50) because of the civil wars, were reduced to 28. Under Augustus’s rule, Roman literature grew steadily in the Golden Age of Latin Literature. Poets like Vergil, Horace, Ovid and Rufus developed a rich literature, and were close friends of Augustus. Along with Maecenas, he stimulated patriotic poems, as Vergil’s epic Aeneid and also historiographical works, like those of Livy. The works of this literary age lasted through Roman times, and are classics. Augustus also continued the shifts on the calendar promoted by Caesar, and the month of August is named after him.[34] Augustus’ enlightened rule resulted in a 200 years long peaceful and thriving era for the Empire, known as Pax Romana.

Despite its military strength, the Empire made few efforts to expand its already vast extent; the most notable being the conquest of Britain, begun by emperor Claudius (47), and emperor Trajan’s conquest of Dacia (101–102, 105–106). In the 1st and 2nd century, Roman legions were also employed in intermittent warfare with the Germanic tribes to the north and the Parthian Empire to the east. Meanwhile, armed insurrections (e.g. the Hebraic insurrection in Judea) (70) and brief civil wars (e.g. in 68 CE the year of the four emperors) demanded the legions’ attention on several occasions.

After the death of Emperor Theodosius I (395), the Empire was divided into an Eastern and a Western Roman Empire. The Western part faced increasing economic and political crisis and frequent barbarian invasions, so the capital was moved from Mediolanum to Ravenna. In 476, the last Western Empreror Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Odoacer; for a few years Italy stayed united under the rule of Odoacer, but soon after it was divided between several barbarian kingdoms, and did not reunite under a single ruler until thirteen centuries later.

Middle Ages

Odoacer’s rule came to an end when the Ostrogoths, under the leadership of Theodoric, conquered Italy. This led to the Gothic War against the armies of Byzantine Emperor Justinian, that devastated the whole country with famine and epidemics, ultimately allowing another Germanic tribe, the Lombards, to take control over vast regions of Italy. In 751 the Lombards seized Ravenna, ending the Byzantine presence in central Italy. Facing a new Lombard offensive, the Papacy appealed to the Franks for aid.

In 756 Frankish forces defeated the Lombards and gave the Papacy legal authority over much of central Italy, thus establishing the Papal States. In 800, Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by the Pope in Saint Peter’s Basilica. After the death of Charlemagne (814), the new empire soon disintegrated under his weak successors. There was a power vacuum in Italy as a result of this. This coincided with the rise of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and the Middle East. In the South, there were attacks from the Umayyad Caliphate and the Abbasid Caliphate. In the North, there was a rising power of communes . In 852, the Saracens took Bari and founded an emirate there. Islamic rule over Sicily was effective from 902, and the complete rule of the island lasted from 965 until 1061. The turn of the millennium marked the end of the darkest period of Italian history. In the 11th century, trade slowly recovered as the cities started to grow again. The Papacy regained its authority, and undertook a long struggle against the Holy Roman Empire.

The Investiture controversy, a conflict over two radically different views of whether secular authorities such as kings, counts, or dukes, had any legitimate role in appointments to ecclesiastical offices such as bishoprics, was finally resolved by the Concordat of Worms in 1122, although problems continued in many areas of Europe until the end of the medieval era. In the north, a Lombard League of communes launched a successful effort to win autonomy from the Holy Roman Empire, defeating Emperor Frederick Barbarossa at the Battle of Legnano in 1176. In the south, the Normans occupied the Lombard and Byzantine possessions, ending the six century old presence of both powers in the peninsula.

The few independent city-states were also subdued. During the same period, the Normans also ended Muslim rule in Sicily. In 1130, Roger II of Sicily began his rule of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily. Roger II was the first King of Sicily and had succeeded in uniting all the Norman conquests in Southern Italy into one kingdom with a strong centralized government. In 1155, Emperor Manuel Komnenos attempted to regain Southern Italy from the Normans, but the attempt failed and in 1158 the Byzantines left Italy. The Norman Kingdom of Sicily lasted until 1194 when Sicily was claimed by the German Hohenstaufen Dynasty. The Kingdom of Sicily would last under various dynasties until the 19th century.

Between the 12th and 13th centuries, Italy developed a peculiar political pattern, significantly different from feudal Europe north of the Alps. As no dominant powers emerged as they did in other parts of Europe, the oligarchic city-state became the prevalent form of government. Keeping both direct Church control and Imperial power at arms length, the many independent city states prospered through commerce, based on early capitalist principles ultimately creating the conditions for the artistic and intellectual changes produced by the Renaissance. Italian towns had appeared to have exited from Feudalism, so that their society was based on merchants and commerce. Even northern cities and states were also notable for their merchant republics, especially the Republic of Venice. Compared to feudal and absolute monarchies, the Italian independent communes and merchant republics enjoyed relative political freedom that boosted scientific and artistic advancement.

Thanks to their favorable position between East and West, Italian cities such as Venice became international trading and banking hubs and intellectual crossroads. Milan, Florence and Venice, as well as several other Italian city-states, played a crucial innovative role in financial development, devising the main instruments and practices of banking and the emergence of new forms of social and economic organization.

During the same period, Italy saw the rise of numerous Maritime Republics, the most notable being Venice, Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi. From the 10th to the 13th centuries these cities built fleets of ships both for their own protection and to support extensive trade networks across the Mediterranean, leading to an essential role in the Crusades. Venice and Genoa soon became Europe’s main gateways to trade with the East, establishing colonies as far as the Black Sea and often controlling most of the trade with the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Mediterranean world. The county of Savoy expanded its territory into the peninsula in the late Middle Ages, while Florence developed into a highly organized commercial and financial city-state, becoming for many centuries the European capital of silk, wool, banking and jewelry.


Italy was the main center of the Renaissance, whose flourishing of the arts, architecture, literature, science, historiography and political theory influenced all of Europe. By the late Middle Ages, central and southern Italy, once the heartland of the Roman Empire and Magna Graecia respectively, was far poorer than the north. Rome was a city largely in ruins, and the Papal States were a loosely administered region with little law and order. Partly because of this, the Papacy had relocated to Avignon in France. Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia had for some time been under foreign domination. The Italian trade routes that covered the Mediterranean and beyond were major conduits of culture and knowledge. The city-states of Italy expanded greatly during this period and grew in power to become de facto fully independent of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Black Death in 1348 inflicted a terrible blow to Italy, killing perhaps one third of the population.[44] The recovery from the demographic and economic disaster led to a resurgence of cities, trade and economy which greatly stimulated the successive phase of the Humanism and Renaissance (15th–16th centuries) when Italy again returned to be the center of Western civilization, strongly influencing the other European countries with Courts like Este in Ferrara and De Medici in Florence.

The Renaissance was so called because it was a “rebirth” not only of economy and urbanization, but also of arts and science. It has been argued that this cultural rebirth was fuelled by massive rediscoveries of ancient texts that had been forgotten for centuries by Western civilization, hidden in monastic libraries or in the Islamic world, as well as the translations of Greek and Arabic texts into Latin. The migration west into Italy of intellectuals fleeing the crumbling Eastern Roman Empire at this time also played a significant part.

The Italian Renaissance began in Tuscany, centered in the city of Florence. It then spread south, having an especially significant impact on Rome, which was largely rebuilt by the Renaissance popes. The Italian Renaissance peaked in the late 15th century as foreign invasions plunged the region into turmoil. The Renaissance ideals first spread from Florence to the neighbouring states of Tuscany such as Siena and Lucca. Tuscan architecture and painting soon became a model for all the city-states of northern and central Italy, as the Tuscan variety of Italian language came to predominate throughout the region, especially in literature.

Accounts of Renaissance literature usually begin with Petrarch (best known for the elegantly polished vernacular sonnet sequence of the Canzoniere and for the craze for book collecting that he initiated) and his friend and contemporary Boccaccio (author of the Decameron). Famous vernacular poets of the 15th century include the renaissance epic authors Luigi Pulci (Morgante), Matteo Maria Boiardo (Orlando Innamorato), and Ludovico Ariosto (Orlando Furioso).

Renaissance scholars such as Niccolò de’ Niccoli and Poggio Bracciolini scoured the libraries in search of works by such classical authors as Plato, Cicero and Vitruvius. The works of ancient Greek and Hellenistic writers (such as Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, and Ptolemy) and Muslim scientists were imported into the Christian world, providing new intellectual material for European scholars. 15th century writers such as the poet Poliziano and the Platonist philosopher Marsilio Ficino made extensive translations from both Latin and Greek. Other Greek scholars of the period were two monks from the monastery of Seminara in Calabria. They were Barlaam of Seminara and his disciple Leonzio Pilato of Seminara. Barlaam was a master in Greek and was the initial teacher to Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio of the language. Leonzio Pilato made an almost word for word translation of Homer’s works into Latin for Giovanni Boccaccio. In the early 16th century, Baldassare Castiglione with the Book of the Courtier laid out his vision of the ideal gentleman and lady, while Niccolò Machiavelli in The Prince, laid down the foundation of modern philosophy, especially modern political philosophy, in which the effective truth is taken to be more important than any abstract ideal. It was also in direct conflict with the dominant Catholic and scholastic doctrines of the time concerning how to consider politics and ethics.

Italian Renaissance painting exercised a dominant influence on subsequent European painting for centuries afterwards, with artists such as Giotto di Bondone, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Titian. The same is true for architecture, as practiced by Brunelleschi, Leone Alberti, Andrea Palladio, and Bramante. Their works include Florence Cathedral, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini. Finally, the Aldine Press, founded by the printer Aldo Manuzio, active in Venice, developed Italic type and the small, relatively portable and inexpensive printed book that could be carried in one’s pocket, as well as being the first to publish editions of books in ancient Greek.

Yet cultural contributions notwithstanding, some present-day historians also see the era as one of the beginning of economic regression for Italy (due to the opening up of the Atlantic trade routes and repeated foreign invasions) and of little progress in experimental science, which made its great leaps forward among Protestant culture in the 17th century.

In the 14th century, Northern Italy and upper Central Italy were divided into a number of warring city-states, the most powerful being Milan, Florence, Pisa, Siena, Genoa, Ferrara, Mantua, Verona and Venice. High Medieval Northern Italy was further divided by the long running battle for supremacy between the forces of the Papacy and of the Holy Roman Empire. Each city aligned itself with one faction or the other, yet was divided internally between the two warring parties, Guelfs and Ghibellines.

Warfare between the states was common, invasion from outside Italy confined to intermittent sorties of Holy Roman Emperors. Renaissance politics developed from this background. Since the 13th century, as armies became primarily composed of mercenaries, prosperous city-states could field considerable forces, despite their low populations. In the course of the 15th century, the most powerful city-states annexed their smaller neighbors. Florence took Pisa in 1406, Venice captured Padua and Verona, while the Duchy of Milan annexed a number of nearby areas including Pavia and Parma.

The first part of the Renaissance saw almost constant warfare on land and sea as the city-states vied for preeminence. On land, these wars were primarily fought by armies of mercenaries known as condottieri, bands of soldiers drawn from around Europe, but especially Germany and Switzerland, led largely by Italian captains. The mercenaries were not willing to risk their lives unduly, and war became one largely of sieges and maneuvering, occasioning few pitched battles. It was also in the interest of mercenaries on both sides to prolong any conflict, to continue their employment. Mercenaries were also a constant threat to their employers; if not paid, they often turned on their patron. If it became obvious that a state was entirely dependent on mercenaries, the temptation was great for the mercenaries to take over the running of it themselves—this occurred on a number of occasions.

At sea, Italian city-states sent many fleets out to do battle. The main contenders were Pisa, Genoa, and Venice, but after a long conflict the Genoese succeeded in reducing Pisa. Venice proved to be a more powerful adversary, and with the decline of Genoese power during the 15th century Venice became pre-eminent on the seas. In response to threats from the landward side, from the early 15th century Venice developed an increased interest in controlling the terrafirma as the Venetian Renaissance opened.

On land, decades of fighting saw Florence, Milan and Venice emerge as the dominant players, and these three powers finally set aside their differences and agreed to the Peace of Lodi in 1454, which saw relative calm brought to the region for the first time in centuries. This peace would hold for the next forty years, and Venice’s unquestioned hegemony over the sea also led to unprecedented peace for much of the rest of the 15th century. In the beginning of the 15th century, adventurers and traders such as Niccolò Da Conti (1395–1469) traveled as far as Southeast Asia and back, bringing fresh knowledge on the state of the world, presaging further European voyages of exploration in the years to come.

The foreign invasions of Italy known as the Italian Wars began with the 1494 invasion by France that wreaked widespread devastation on Northern Italy and ended the independence of many of the city-states. Originally arising from dynastic disputes over the Duchy of Milan and the Kingdom of Naples, the wars rapidly became a general struggle for power and territory among their various participants, marked with an increasing number of alliances, counter-alliances, and betrayals. The French were routed by Emperor Charles V at the Battle of Pavia (1525) and again in the War of the League of Cognac (1526–30). Eventually, after years of inconclusive fighting, with the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis (1559) France renounced all its claims in Italy thus inaugurating a long Spanish hegemony over the Peninsula.

Much of Venice’s hinterland (but not the city itself) was devastated by the Turks in 1499 and again invaded and plundered by the League of Cambrai in 1509. In 1528 most of the towns of Apulia and Abbruzzi had been sacked. Worst of all was the 6 May 1527 Sack of Rome by Spanish and German troops that all but ended the role of the Papacy as the largest patron of Renaissance art and architecture. The long Siege of Florence (1529–1530) brought the destruction of its suburbs, the ruin of its export business and the confiscation of its citizens’ wealth. Italy’s urban population fell in half, ransoms paid to the invaders and emergency taxes drained the finances. The wool and silk industries of Lombardy collapsed when their looms were wrecked by invaders. The defensive tactic of scorched earth only slightly delayed the invaders, and made the recovery much longer and more painful.

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