15th Century Italy Part 1

Welcome to the 15th century! As in the century, we will begin in the heart of it all: Italy. As Italy works to move past the tragedies of the 14th century, it begins to take on the ideals of Petrarch, and humanism becomes the norm. 

The first would be the Kingdom of Sicily, and the fact that Alfonso V of Aragon, now secure in his dominance of the Sicilian Island, would use it to launch an invasion of the Kingdom of Naples. We will learn more about his full reign when we discuss Spain, but for now know he did not focus on Aragon much, and instead set his attention to Italian expansion. His attempts were brutal, but unsuccessful until Joanna II of Naples adopted him and named him her heir. She would recant this and was incredibly hot-cold over the arrangement. When she would rally against Alfonso, she would seek to the other possible heir she has, Louis III of Anjou. Alfonso would return home to help settle a dispute between Aragon and Castile, and then return to Italy. Once he returned, he would never set foot in Spain again. In 1442, he was successfully named King of Naples, where he spent the rest of his life in Italy. When he died in 1458, he did not have a legitimate heir despite being married for years. He split his kingdom between his two heirs: his brother John was given Aragon and Sicily, his eldest illegitimate son, Ferdinand, inherited Naples. Ferdinand would rule Naples until his death in 1494; his reign would be dominated by the conflicts of the surrounding states, high taxes, and attacks from the Ottoman empire. 

The rest of Italy was still dealing with the consequences of the Papal Schism. The Papacy has returned permanently to Rome, but that doesn’t mean everyone is happy about it. The church maintains stiff control over Ancona & Southern Umbria, and that’s about it. Even Rome holds strong anti-papacy/pro-republic sentiments. This brings a rise in power for the people as “papal vicars” start to rise; specifically Este of Ferrara, Montefelto of Urbino, and the Bentivoglio and Baglioni families. The various Popes worked to change this and assert more power. Martin V began renovations to the church and commissioned art for them that helped give the Renaissance more momentum. Eugene IV tried unsuccessfully to unite Roman Catholic and East Roman Orthodox churches when he suggested a crusade against the Turks, and allowed Henry, Prince of Portugal, to raid Northern Africa for slaves. 

Nicholas V began to change things around for the Pope’s though. He helped end the 100-Year-War, commissioned art and architecture like St. Peter’s Basilica, and finally reunited the Papal States. His predecessors worked to maintain the work he started and build upon it to reach their immediate domain strong (in theory their domain was any Roman Catholic country). Sixtus IV is supposed to have brought their vision to light, and under him Rome embraced the Renaissance, especially with the construction of the Sistine Chapel. He also aided Spain with the inquisition and was involved in what is known as the Pazzi scheme. 

Pope Innocent VIII almost had everything come crashing down. A man with few morals, he disposed Ferdinand as King of Naples in 1489 and engaged in wars throughout Italy that depleted the church’s treasury. His reign ended in 1492, and the infamous Pope Alexander VI. Under his rule, his family name of Borgia became a synonym for nepotism and libertinism, and it is mostly remembered for using his power to further those of his children who are as infamous (if not more so) than he is; Lorenzo, Gioffre, and Lucrezia. 

It is no wonder that most of the Italian States searched elsewhere for leadership with the ebb and flow of their Papacy, and insufficient faith this appeared to establish. Many states witnessed the rise of “Papal Vicars”, who would rule on “behalf” of the papacy. Some of the most prominent were Este of Ferrara, Montefeltro of Urbino, and the families of Bentivoglio and Baglioni. While some states struggled, others prospered. Florence, for instance, flourished with strong trade and wealth from banking. Giovanni di Bicci founded Medici Bank in 1397, after breaking with the bank his nephew owned, and moved from Rome to Florence. Slowly, he began to build influence and wealth. He commissioned the Church of San Lorenzo by Brunelleschi, with art by Donatello. He fought successfully for the release of anti-pope John XXIII, but had supported Pope Martin. He worked diligently to remain in favor of the population, and did his best not to flaunt his growing wealth. This began to change though when he started bringing his sons, Cosimo and Lorenzo, more into the family business. By the time he passed in 1429, they were the 2nd wealthy family in Florence and the unofficial rulers of the state. 

Cosimo was the one to inherit the business, and he was considered a menace by those who were anti-Medici. The beginning of his rule is marked by a series of exiles as factions pushed him out and pulled him back again. In 1434, this dance ended, and he returned to Florence with the goal to stomp out the factionalism that led to his revolving door of exile in the first place. In 1447, he sent Francesco I Sforza to Milan after the death of Filippo Visconti, who had only one legitimate heir named Bianca. Francesco was considered a thug by many, having gained his lands and title through theft, and he set his sights on Milan. He married Bianca, and when he succeeded, aligned with Cosimo. This, along with the alliance of Venice and Naples, was greeted with a general peace in Italy for almost 50 years. Cosimo worked steadily during this period to bring peace to Italy and attempted to keep foreign powers out of the area, and after his death, the Signoria of Florence gifted him the title once held by Cicero, “Father of the Fatherland”. His work towards peace, his patronage of several artists including Donatello, Michelozzo, Benozzo Gozzoli, and Fran Angelico, as well as his construction of the San Marco library, helped the Renaissance snowball into the movement we know it as. He died in 1464 and was succeeded at the bank by his son, Piero the Gouty. 

Piero was not nearly as crafty as his father with business, and while he kept it operating smoothly, he created new enemies of the Medici’s by driving them into bankruptcy. He died of gout and lung disease 5 years after his father. His son though, was as legendary as his father, and known as Lorenzo the Magnificent. Lorenzo managed the bank alongside his brother Giuliano, and the brothers were known for participating in jousts and horse racing in their spare time. While Lorenzo had been groomed for power, he inherited a complicated situation, and hatred for the Medici rule was growing. It came to a boiling point in 1478 when Pope Sixtus IV approved the assassination of the two brothers in what is known as the Pazzi conspiracy. Named for the family that orchestrated it, the men were attacked on April 26th in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. Giuliano died, but Lorenzo escaped with minor injuries thanks to poet Poliziano. 

The public was furious, and justice against the Archbishop of Pisa and involved Pazzi family members was brutal and swift. In response, Pope Sixtus excommunicated Lorenzo and the Florence government while seizing every Medici asset he could get his hands on. This had little effect, so he recruited Ferdinand Iof Naples to use his army to enact justice. Lorenzo did rally the people, and despite not having allies like the Duke of Milan, they were able to hold off the army. It wasn’t enough though, and Lorenzo traveled to Naples and negotiated in person, as a prisoner, for peace. His success gave him more power and allowed him secure constitutional changes to the Republic. He spent the rest of his tenure advocating for peace, including with Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire, whom he traded with. He expanded the Medici business into mining in Tuscany and spent over 600,000 florins on charity (something he was proud of). He died at the end of the century in 1492, and the business and role as Lord of Florence went to his eldest, Piero the Unfortunte. Piero would lose the title after two years after he infuriated the public and ruling Signoria when he attempted to coerce Charles VIII of France an ally, and instead caved to the Frenchman’s every demand. The peace Lorenzo had formed was toppled when France and Spain began fighting over territory, and this was Piero’s way of protecting Florence, but instead it forced him to flee and the Medici’s would not rule over Florence again until 1512. 

Would you believe me if I told you this is only half of what was going on in Italy during this century? Well, this is part one, so we definitely have more to cover! In part two, we will dive in the Duchy of Milan, the Republic of Venice, and what prompted France and Spain (mostly Aragon) to play tug-o-warfare between the Italian States leading into the Italian Wars. 

I hope you are excited to learn more about the 15th century! If you believe we missed some things in the 14th century, have no fear. There is a list, and once we finish the 17th century, we will be free posting and circling back! There are heaps of topics from the Renaissance, and we are excited to discuss them all! If you have any suggestions, please feel free to reach out on our social media accounts! 

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