Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Italy in the Thirteenth Century

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Italy in the Thirteenth Century

By Jean Charles Léonard Simonde de Sismondi (1773–1842)

From ‘A History of the Italian Republics’

WHILE the power of the kings of Naples, of the emperors, and of the popes, was as it were suspended in Italy, innumerable small States, which had risen to almost absolute independence, experienced frequent revolutions, for the most part proceeding from internal and independent causes. We can at most only indicate shortly those of the republics which were the most distinguished and the most influential in Italy; but before thus entering within the walls of the principal cities, it is right to give a sketch of the general aspect of the country,—particularly as the violent commotions which it experienced might give a false idea of its real state. This aspect was one of a prodigious prosperity, which contrasted so much the more with the rest of Europe, that nothing but poverty and barbarism were to be found elsewhere. The open country (designated by the name of contado) appertaining to each city was cultivated by an active and industrious race of peasants, enriched by their labor, and not fearing to display their wealth in their dress, their cattle, and their instruments of husbandry. The proprietors, inhabitants of towns, advanced them capital, shared the harvests, and alone paid the land-tax; they undertook the immense labor which has given so much fertility to the Italian soil,—that of making dikes to preserve the plains from the inundation of the rivers, and of deriving from those rivers innumerable canals of irrigation. The naviglio grande of Milan, which spreads the clear waters of the Ticino over the finest part of Lombardy, was begun in 1179, resumed in 1257, and terminated a few years afterwards. Men who meditated, and who applied to the arts the fruits of their study, practiced already that scientific agriculture of Lombardy and Tuscany which became a model to other nations; and at this day, after five centuries, the districts formerly free, and always cultivated with intelligence, are easily distinguished from those half-wild districts which had remained subject to the feudal lords.

The cities, surrounded with thick walls, terraced, and guarded by towers, were for the most part paved with broad flagstones; while the inhabitants of Paris could not stir out of their houses without plunging into the mud. Stone bridges of an elegant and bold architecture were thrown over rivers; aqueducts carried pure water to the fountains. The palace of the podestas and signorie united strength with majesty. The most admirable of those of Florence, the Palazzo-Vecchio, was built in 1298. The Loggia in the same city, the church of Santa Croce, and that of Santa Mariadel Fiore with its dome so admired by Michael Angelo, were begun by the architect Arnolfo, scholar of Nicolas di Pisa, between the years 1284 and 1300. The prodigies of this first-born of the fine arts multiplied in Italy: a pure taste, boldness, and grandeur struck the eye in all the public monuments, and finally reached even private dwellings; while the princes of France, England, and Germany, in building their castles, seemed to think only of shelter and defense. Sculpture in marble and bronze soon followed the progress of architecture: in 1300, Andrea di Pisa, son of the architect Nicolas, cast the admirable bronze gates of the Baptistery at Florence; about the same time, Cimabue and Giotto revived the art of painting, Casella that of music, and Dante gave to Italy his divine poem unequaled in succeeding generations. History was written honestly, with scrupulous research and with a graceful simplicity, by Giovanni Villani and his school; the study of morals and philosophy began; and Italy, ennobled by freedom, enlightened nations till then sunk in darkness.

The arts of necessity and of luxury had been cultivated with not less success than the fine arts: in every street, warehouses and shops displayed the wealth that Italy and Flanders only knew how to produce. It excited the astonishment and cupidity of the French or German adventurer who came to find employment in Italy, and who had no other exchange to make than his blood against the rich stuffs and brilliant arms which he coveted. The Tuscan and Lombard merchants, however, trafficked in the barbarous regions of the west, to carry there the produce of their industry. Attracted by the franchises of the fairs of Champagne and of Lyons, they went thither as well to barter their goods as to lend their capital at interest to the nobles, habitually loaded with debt; though at the risk of finding themselves suddenly arrested, their wealth confiscated by order of the King of France, and their lives too sometimes endangered by sanctioned robbers, under the pretext of repressing usury. Industry, the employment of a superabundant capital, the application of mechanism and science to the production of wealth, secured the Italians a sort of monopoly through Europe; they alone offered for sale what all the rich desired to buy: and notwithstanding the various oppressions of the barbarian kings, notwithstanding the losses occasioned by their own oft-repeated revolutions, their wealth was rapidly renewed. The wages of workmen, the interest of capital, and the profit of trade rose simultaneously, while every one gained much and spent little; manners were still simple, luxury was unknown, and the future was not forestalled by accumulated debt.