The cities of Italy prospered during the late Middle Ages, serving as trading posts connecting Europe to the Byzantine Empire and the Moslem world via the Mediterranean Sea. Commerce enriched and empowered regions in which the feudal system had not taken a strong hold, especially in northern Italy. The most prosperous of these cities—Florence, Venice, and Milan—became powerful city-states, ruling the regions surrounding them. Further south, the Papal States, centered in Rome, gradually grew to rival the wealth of the northern cities, and as the seat of the papacy, exerted a tremendous influence over Italian life and politics. Along with a few other minor centers of wealth and power, including Urbino, Mantua, and Ferrara, these four regions became the cradle of the Renaissance, beginning in the fourteenth century to undergo political, economic, and artistic changes.
The beginning of the Renaissance in the mid-fourteenth century was marked by a turn from medieval life and values dominated by the Church toward the philosophical principles of humanism. The Italian people, especially the educated middle class, became interested in individual achievement and emphasized life in this world, as opposed to preparation for life in the next world, which was stressed by religion. They believed strongly in the potential for individual accomplishment in the arts, literature, politics, and personal life. Individuals began to be encouraged to excel in a wide range of fields and showcase their talents. Renaissance thinkers decried medieval life as primitive and backwards, and looked further back in history, to the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, for inspiration.
One of the earliest and most prominent humanist writers was Francesco Petrarch, often known as the founder of humanism. Many historians cite April 6, 1341, the date on which Petrarch was crowned Poet Laureate upon the Capitol in Rome, as the true beginning of the Renaissance. Petrarch believed that true eloquence and ethical wisdom had been lost during the Middle Ages, and could only be found by looking to the writings of the ancients, especially Virgil and Cicero. Petrarch wrote extensively, producing poetry, biographies of historical figures, and wrote scores of letters, many of which were eventually published and widely read. One of his most popular letters, "The Ascent of Mount Vertoux," describes his journey to the summit of a mountain, but more importantly, it is an allegory comparing the hardships of the climb to the struggle to attain true Christian virtue.
Geography, more than anything else, gave Italy an advantage over northern Europe in regard to potential for amassing wealth and breaking free from the feudal system. Jutting into the Mediterranean Sea, and strategically located between the majority of Europe and the Byzantine Empire, Italian cities had almost no choice but to participate in international trade and the market economy, and to integrate the activities of commerce into daily life. In this way, Italy became exposed to the large-scale flow of both goods and ideas much earlier than most other regions in Europe. Thus, during the later years of the Middle Ages, northern Italy flourished economically and intellectually. Further, because Italy's maintained its market economy while the rest of Europe developed a self- contained barter economy of feudal territories spawned by agrarian life, feudalism did not take hold in northern Italy as it did elsewhere in Europe. In both society and mind, it can be argued, northern Italy was more sophisticated and freer than the rest of Europe.
The history and ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans, cast into shadow throughout Europe in medieval times, had perhaps remained closer to the surface of contemporary thought in Italy than elsewhere, due to the geographical location of the Italian city-states, which had been built basically on top of the ruins of the Roman Empire. However, this geographical proximity should not be overstated. Even in the city of Rome, the buildings of the empire had fallen into ruin, and many were covered by centuries of waste and overgrowth. It seems unlikely, but even the citizens of Rome who lived in the shadow of the Coliseum and the Pantheon had little sense and less reverence for the history around them during the Middle Ages. The Greek influence on the cities of northern Italy was maintained by the trade with the Byzantine Empire, which had as its byproduct the flow of ideas and history. The Greek influence grew throughout the late fourteenth century and into the fifteenth, as the Ottoman Turks increasingly threatened Constantinople, the center of the Byzantine Empire, which finally fell in 1453. This constant pressure forced many Greeks into refuge in northern Italy, which benefited greatly from the treasures and knowledge of ancient Greece that these refugee/immigrants they brought with them. Many Italian and Greek contemporaries commented that it seemed Constantinople had not fallen at all, but simply been transplanted to Florence.
The influence of the revival of interest in Greek and Roman history is undeniable, and contributed greatly to the spirit of the times. Petrarch's writings demonstrate that while the intellectual focus of the time was evolving and changing to reflect this influence, the primary aspect of medieval life, the Church, remained powerful, and religion continued to exert an extraordinary power over the thoughts and actions of individuals. Petrarch and many other Renaissance intellectuals thus often described feelings of being torn between two sides of their personalities. Petrarch, like many Renaissance intellectuals, was comfortable in the seclusion of pious monastery life, but he also loved to travel. He believed in the Christian ideal of self-denial, but also enjoyed the pleasures of the world. He advocated study and learning, but feared that the accumulation of worldly knowledge might prevent him from achieving salvation. This was a common dilemma for Renaissance thinkers, as the principles of humanism rose up to rival the doctrines of the Church.