Economic Underpinnings of the Renaissance in Northern Italy

The Renaissance in northern Italy was a period between roughly 1350 and 1550 (definitions vary) when a proto-modern outlook and culture and economy replaced  feudal medieval society. We all know about the great artistic and literary and scientific advances made at this time and place. I got curious about the economics behind all this. It is clear that the cities of northern Italy, such as Florence, were extremely prosperous, otherwise they could not have funded all these artists and architects.

It has jokingly been said, “Ah, I don’t see what is so great about Shakespeare – – all he did was string together a bunch of famous quotes.”  Well, since I know little about all this, what I will do here is mainly string together a bunch of relevant quotes.  Let the citations begin….

This blurb from “helenlo-weebly” (?) gives a good overview, noting the  importance of trade and the shift from rural barter to an urban money economy:

Trade brought many new ideas and goods to Europe.  A bustling economy created prosperous cities and new classes of people who had enough money to support art and learning.  Italian city-states like Venice and Genoa were located on the trade routes that linked the rest of western Europe with the East.  Both these city-states became bustling trading centers.  Trading ships brought goods to England, Scandinavia, and present-day Russia.  Towns  along trading routes provided inns and other services for traveling merchants.

          The increase of trade led to a new kind of economy.  During the middle ages people traded goods for other goods.  During the Renaissance people began using coins to buy goods which created a money economy.  Moneychangers were needed to covert one type of currency into another.  Therefore, many craftspeople, merchants, and bankers became more important i society.  Crafts people produced goods that merchants traded all over Europe.  Bankers exchanged currency, loaned money, and financed their own business. 

         Some merchants and bankers grew very rich.  They could afford to help make their cities more beautiful.  Many became patrons and provided new buildings and art; they helped found universities.  This led many city-states to become a flourishing educational and cultural center. notes  technical advances in ship construction, and the rise of Florentine bankers:
Genoa and Venice also made advancements in shipbuilding allowing ships to sail all year long and the increased the volume of goods that could be transported (accelerated speed)…Florentine merchants and bankers acquired control of papal banking (acting as tax collectors).

Brewminate  notes the rise of modern commercial infrastructure (which depends on law and order, with contracts being honored) and the virtuous cycle of trade and urban craftsmanship promoting each other. Also, the economic and social impact of the Black Death (which is a huge topic of itself):

The Crusades had built lasting trade links to the Levant, and the Fourth Crusade had done much to destroy the Byzantine Empire as a commercial rival to Venice and Genoa. Thus, while northern Italy was not richer in resources than many other parts of Europe, its level of development, stimulated by trade, allowed it to prosper. Florence became one of the wealthiest cities of the region…

In the thirteenth century, Europe in general was experiencing an economic boom. The city-states of Italy expanded greatly during this period and grew in power to become de factofully independent of the Holy Roman Empire. During this period, the modern commercial infrastructure developed, with joint stock companies, an international banking system, a systematized foreign exchange market, insurance, and government debt. Florence became the center of this financial industry and the gold florin became the main currency of international trade.

The decline of feudalism and the rise of cities influenced each other; for example, the demand for luxury goods led to an increase in trade, which led to greater numbers of tradesmen becoming wealthy, who, in turn, demanded more luxury goods…

The Black Death [in the fourteen century] wiped out a third of Europe’s population, and the new smaller population was much wealthier, better fed, and had more surplus money to spend on luxury goods like art and architecture.

What motivated the newly rich urban elites to so assiduously patronize the arts? According to, it was largely a desire to assert one’s status and to curry favor with the local citizens:

The New Elites such as the De Medici used spectacles and display to assert themselves in society and to demonstrate their wealth. Wealthy members of the urban elite and the aristocracy were always keen to demonstrate their status. This need to publicize and affirm one’s status led to the patronage of great artists and writers to provide displays and exhibit the wealth and power of the elite. This need for others’ recognition was vital in the Renaissance, which led to the lavish patronage of the period. This led to a great deal of competition to patronize the best artists and writers.

And there you have it.

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