Starting in Tuscany in the late 13th century, the Renaissance (from the French word for "rebirth") was a cultural explosion that spurred Italy's progression from the Dark Ages to the modern era. While the exact roots of the Renaissance are still hotly debated, many scholars agree that it started when Florence began to serve as a major junction for goods from northern Europe, while Venice, Genoa, and Pisa established trade routes with the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Black Death decimated the population, weakening medieval society's rigid hierarchical structure and promoting greater social mobility. Newly wealthy merchants, financiers, and craftsmen increasingly dominated local politics and government and spent their riches on art, scientific innovations, and higher education, bankrolling some of the world's greatest masterpieces. The Renaissance also marked a philosophical return from the superstitions of the Middle Ages to ancient Roman beliefs in reason, ethics, justice, and the essential worth of humankind.
Peaking in the mid-1500s, the Italian Renaissance eventually yielded to the foreign invasions that demolished the comparative political stability of the era and plunged the region into the bloody Italian Wars. Endangered Italian artists and intellectuals fled to France and regions north, where they passed on their techniques and skills. Italy's aggressors, too, carried the ideas and achievements of the Renaissance home to their native countries. Consequently, the principles of the Italian Renaissance survived and spread throughout Europe. Though each region eventually experienced its own Renaissance and contributed to the modern era, the seeds of the Western world as we know it--in medicine, science, art, architecture, music, and literature--were originally planted in Italy.
The Italian Renaissance (1963)
By J. H. Plumb
Encompassing topics as diverse as politics, war, religion, culture, art, education, and the role of women, the first half of this classic, highly readable overview of the Italian Renaissance, penned by late British historian and Cambridge University Professor John H. Plumb, fleshes out the era's principle events, personalities, and ideas. The second half, a collaborative effort by some of the 20th century's leading scholars, is divided into minibiographies of the era's movers and shakers, including those of Leonardo da Vinci, Lorenzo de' Medici, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and Petrarch. Although our understanding of the Italian Renaissance has changed over the last half century, this breezy, entertaining account continues to stand out as one of the best.
THE BORGIAS AND THE MEDICI
Two legendary families rose to power during the Italian Renaissance: the Borgias held sway through the Roman Catholic Church, and the Medici built an international banking empire. Tales of corruption, torture, murder, incest, and revenge within these families have established their place in the popular imagination, inspiring works by Alexandre Dumas, Honore de Balzac, and Mario Puzo, as well as plays, operas, movies, and television series. While historians currently question some of the most infamous rumors attached to these families, the facts they've been able to document are shocking enough.
The House of Medici
Its Rise and Fall (1975)
By Christopher Hibbert
Inextricably tied to the history Florence, this illustrious family produced two popes and two queens of France while commissioning some of history's greatest art from the Renaissance's most brilliant artists. Highlighting their political maneuverings, Oxford-educated historian Christopher Hibbert tells the story of the Medici family, from their humble beginnings as merchants to their remarkable rise to the aristocracy in the 15th century, their iron-fisted rule over Renaissance Florence, and their dismal decline 300 years later. Because of the book's tight focus and its lack of background detail, some knowledge of the Renaissance or the history of Florence would be helpful to readers.
The Cardinal's Hat
Money, Ambition, and Everyday Life in the Court of a Borgia Prince (2005)
By Mary Hollingsworth
Despite his lack of a vocation for the priesthood, Ippolito D'Este, the second son of Lucrezia Borgia and the Duke of Ferrara, was destined by tradition for service in the Church. On the basis of a voluminous cache of firsthand correspondence and documents, Mary Hollingsworth charts his rise through the hierarchy of the Church, from his appointment to the archbishopric of Milan at the age of 10 to his eventual promotion to Cardinal at the age of 29-26 years before he was even ordained as a priest. Hollingsworth also chronicles the affairs of his household, including his travels, political machinations, affairs with women, hobbies, and prolific spending on luxury and vice. A fascinating expose of daily life among the wealthy.
Florence and the Plot against the Medici (2003)
By Lauro Martines
On Easter Sunday in 1478, assassins attacked Lorenzo de' Medici and his brother Giuliano, de facto rulers of the Florentine Republic, as they attended mass. Lorenzo escaped, but Giuliano died on the church floor. Untangling twisted threads of obsession, ambition, betrayal, and...