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All the banking and commerce that drove the rise of the communi also fueled the wealth of their principal families. These families demonstrated their wealth by commissioning art. The Sforza and Visconti families in Milan, the della Scala family of Verona, the d’Este family in Ferrara, the Medici in Florence”all were gearing up for the titles of duke and duchess. They required paintings and sculptures to dress up their power, and perhaps impart a few convenient social lessons in the process. The richest families”the Barberini, the Borgia, and the Medici”were awarded an even better feudal title, the pontificate, and the popes worked just as hard in that age to outdo each other with decorative contributions.

From its Renaissance right up to its unification in 1861, Italy continued to be a collection of Papal States, foreign-ruled kingdoms, and the odd republic. One historian pointed out that there were more independent states in Italy in the 14th century than there were in the entire world in 1934. This helped breed the phenomenon of campanilismo (the idea that Italians are loyal only to their local campanile, or bell tower). There was very little trade between the small states, contributing to a weak economy and consequently a slim chance of overthrowing their wealthy conquerors. Instead, they preferred to go to war with each other.

While fractious, each of them was more or less dominated by either the popes or Venice, Milan, Florence, or the Kingdom of Naples, which in turn had been ruled by a merry-go-round of foreigners since the Dark Ages. Only the republics of Venice, Siena, and Florence managed to keep some degree of independence. For example, in just 400 years, Naples passed through the hands of the Normans, the Spanish (specifically, the Aragonese), the French, the Spanish again, and then was ceded to the Austrians after the War of Spanish Succession. The Austrians then transferred Naples to the Bourbon kings before it landed in the hands of Napoleon in 1796. But Naples was just one illustration of the way Italy was humiliated by foreign powers after the Renaissance, just as Machiavelli had predicted. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the city-states’ industries were beaten out by foreign competition and French and Austrian military might, while the port towns suffered with the rise of Dutch, Spanish, and English maritime prowess. the campanile in Siena

At one point, Spain was in control of the entire peninsula, except for Venice. In 1519, Charles V purchased the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor and set his sights on northern Italy. He already ruled the South and held just about everything north of the Alps, all the way to Holland. Milan and the other French-held territories on the Po River plain were an inconvenient gap in his communications network, a sector that Charles V knew well. He spoke all of the languages, he said: Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to his horse.

After he defeated the French at Pavia and stormed Rome two years later in 1527, he had done the impossible: unified Italy, albeit without Venice and for only a short period of time. Peasant revolts in Naples and elsewhere loosened Charles’s grip, and the War of Spanish Succession would spin off many of those holdings to Austria. Napoleon was on the rise, and so was another new player on the geopolitical stage”the king of Piedmont. Under his flag, Giuseppe Garibaldi and his men would unify Italy again, this time for good.

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