Situated on the Adriatic Sea, Venice traded with the Byzantine Empire and the Moslem world extensively. During the late thirteenth century, Venice was the most prosperous city in all of Europe. At the peak of its power and wealth, it had 36,000 sailors operating 3,300 ships, dominating Mediterranean commerce. During this time, Venice's leading families vied with each other to build the grandest palaces and support the work of the greatest and most talented artists. The city was governed by the Great Council, which was made up of members of the most influential families in Venice. The Great Council appointed all public officials and elected a Senate of 200 to 300 individuals. The Senate hen chose the Council of Ten, a secretive group which held the utmost power in the administration of the city. One member of the great council was elected 'doge,' or duke, the ceremonial head of the city.

The Venetian doge ruled for life under a system of constitutional monarchy. The Doge of Venice ruled in great splendor, and laws were passed in his name, but his power was severely limited by the Great Council, and most notably, the Council of Ten. In 1423, Francesco Fosari became doge. He ruled with excessive grandeur and exercised far greater power than had past doges, aggressively pursuing a policy of western expansion. Many in the Great Council thought he had usurped too great a degree of power. To torment and control the doge, the Council of Ten falsely accused his son, Jacopo, of treason, and began a long process during which Jacopo was exiled, readmitted, tortured, and exiled again, all the while refusing to allow the doge to resign. Finally, when the Council of Ten was satisfied that its message had gotten across, they forced Fosari to resign, affirming its power over the monarch.

Throughout the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Venice was assailed at sea by the Ottoman Turks and on land by the so-called Holy League against Venice, which sought to knock Venice from its pedestal of arrogance. The city survived the onslaught, however, by relying on its strength in sea trade.

Milan, the most northern of the major Italian city-states, came to dominate the Po River valley. The city's strategic location along trade lines and as a gateway to Italy from the north necessitated a strong military state. Due to the need for strong leadership, Milan became a strong monarchy under a succession of powerful dukes. The Visconti family ruled as dukes almost continuously from 1317 to 1447, maintaining the stability of the volatile region through military might. At the height of their power they controlled nearly all of northernmost Italy. In 1447 the last Visconti died, and the Milanese attempted to install a republic. The republic proved unable to protect the city's military interests, and in 1450, Francesco Sforza, a professional soldier, seized control of the government. His family would rule Milan for years to come. The most well known of his descendents, Ludovico Sforza, played the part of the archetypical Italian Renaissance prince, surrounding himself with intrigue and corruption. Though Ludovico was not the rightful duke of Milan and was known to use coercion and manipulation to achieve his political goals, for a time the city of Milan flourished in his care. Under Ludovico, known as 'Il Moro,' Milan was extraordinarily wealthy and its citizens participated in a splendid and excessive social culture. Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci were attracted to the glamour and wealth of Milan and flocked to the city in search of commissions.

In the late 15th century, in an effort to reduce the troublesome power of his in-laws and enemies, the royal family of Naples, Ludovico promised King Charles VIII of France free passage through Milan and into Naples. The French invasion of 1494 failed, but in 1499 another French expedition moved into Italy led by the new king, Louis XII. The French turned on Ludovico and took Milan, moving from there into many other areas of Italy. The glory of the Milanese court collapsed under French control, and the artists who had flocked to the city now fled to new locations.


The Venetians were very much resigned to hierarchy in their government and society. In 1315, the Venetian Golden Book of the Nobility listed the names of the most influential families in the city, allowing them membership in the Great Council and disenfranchising all others. During the entire two centuries of the Renaissance, the list of families changed on only a few occasions, and only after great hesitation and deliberation. In other words, the Venetian society was very stable. Even so, the lower classes had less to complain about in the wealthy city than they did in many other areas. The Venetian nobility differed from that of the majority of Europe in that they were often not excessively wealthy, but rather hard working businessmen of varying degrees of success. Thus, the hierarchy of Venice was less oppressive to the lower classes than that in other areas.

Popular pages: Italian Renaissance (1330-1550)