Florence in the Early Renaissance

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the powerful city-state called the Republic of Florence that thrived during the Renaissance, and test your understanding about the history of the Renaissance and the role of Florence in European culture.

Florence and the Renaissance

From roughly 1300-1600, Europe went through a period of immense social change called the Renaissance. New wealth from international trade created a healthy class of artisans and merchants, education flourished and the rich devoted themselves to sponsoring the arts. With all this money, cities grew so large and powerful that they formed their own governments, independent from any kingdom or empire, called city-states. One of the greatest city-states in all of Europe was the Republic of Florence. Florence was full of drama, political intrigue, murder, passion, art, romance and deceit. It was a cultural and economic center of the Renaissance, where powerful men ruled from behind the scenes.

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  • 0:03 Florence & the Renaissance
  • 0:50 The History of Florence
  • 1:57 Enter the Medici
  • 3:12 Florence and the Arts
  • 4:34 Lesson Summary
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The History of Florence

The city of Florence was first founded during the Roman Republic around 80 BC. In the year 1115 AD, the people of Florence overthrew the Tuscan rulers who controlled it and formed an independent government in the style of a republic, meaning that the government was run by officials who were elected by the people. Florence was incredibly proud of its status as a republic throughout the Renaissance and fiercely defended its freedom against other cities and empires.

As more and more city-states organized in Italy, each one developed a niche, a certain product they specialized in either importing or producing. This helped each city stay economically competitive. Florence originally specialized in wool. By some estimations, over 25% of the city worked in the wool industry. As more and more wealth entered Europe, however, Florence transitioned into a new niche: banking. Florence was the first city in hundreds of years to mass-produce gold coins as currency, called the florin, which quickly spread across Europe as the dominant currency for international business. The popularity of the Florin meant even more wealth for Florence, and people in Florence began managing Europe's new wealth as bankers.

Enter the Medici

Of the several families who became rich and powerful from banking, one rose to prominence above the rest: the Medici. In the early 15th century, the head of the Medici family, Cosimo de'Medici, used his personal fortune to start controlling Florentine politics from behind the scenes. Although he rarely ran for any political office, he funded the campaigns of people who owed him favors to get them elected. Florence was a democratic republic, and Cosimo used his influence to sway votes to his advantage. From this point, the Medici essentially controlled Florence.

Cosimo's son, Piero, took over after his father, and then his son, Lorenzo, replaced him. Medici power reached its height under Lorenzo, who became so powerful and wealthy that the people called him il Magnifico, or Lorenzo the Magnificent. But even Medici power could not last forever. In 1494, Lorenzo's son, Piero II, failed to defeat French armies that invaded Florence, and the Medici were banished. But don't worry; they weren't out of the game for good. In 1512, a member of the Medici family, Giovanni, was elected to one of the most powerful positions in the world. Most people remember him as Pope Leo X. Medici power was restored in Florence and ruled for another two centuries.

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