The Rise of Italian City-states

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

In the late medieval world, few things defined Italy more than the powerful city-states and their international trade networks. In this lesson we'll examine the rise and function of these trading cities, and see how they conducted their affairs.

Italian City-States

Italian cities are world-renowned for certain characteristics. Food. Wine. Amore. Really, it's not a bad reputation to have. But there's one thing we've forgotten about, something that was perhaps the definitive trait of Italian cities from roughly the 13th to 16th centuries. Self-governance. For a while, many Italian cities were not part of a greater kingdom or empire or nation, they were each their own, independent states, miniature kingdoms and republics based around an urban center. We call these city-states. A city-state has the right to make its own laws, raise its own army, collect its own taxes, and even conduct its own foreign policy, completely independent of anyone else. For the people of the late medieval world, these self-governing cities were the definitive characteristic of urban Italy. Right up there with pasta, painting, and leaning towers.

Rise of the City-State

Obviously, the Italian city-states were pretty unique in a world of kingdoms and empires. So, where'd they come from? The history of this period actually starts not in Italy, but in Asia. In 1206, the Mongol leader Genghis Khan unified the nomadic tribes of the Eurasian steppe and formed the Mongol empire. Over the next century, the Mongols unified all of Asia under their control, creating a massive empire that stretched from the Black Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Now, what did the Mongols do with this empire? They opened it up to trade. I'm guessing you've heard of the silk roads, the trade routes between Europe and Asia. Those were made possible by the Mongol Empire, and guess who was in a prime position to start taking advantage of the new trade opportunities? Italian port cities already traded across the Mediterranean, and these merchants started working their ways into China. As wealth flowed into Europe through Italy, these cities formed their own local governments to oversee their growth from trade, although most were technically still ruled by larger powers like the Holy Roman Empire. We call these cities communes. Eventually, certain communes became rich and powerful enough to completely separate themselves from a ruling kingdom, and became independent city-states.

The Silk Roads connected European and Asian markets

Trade in the Major City-States

While Italian city-states popped up across the peninsula, some of the most powerful were those with coastal ports who directly controlled access to trade items coming in from Asia. The Republic of Pisa was one of the first city-states to emerge, based on the fact that it had developed massive fleets of merchants and an armed navy dating back to the first Holy Crusade. Pisa's dominance was soon challenged by the Republic of Genoa, whose massive commercial empire was based on shipbuilding and banking. Not only were the Genoese amongst the first professional bankers in Europe, but they also developed a reputation as the finest sailors in the Mediterranean. Ever heard of Christopher Columbus? He was taught to sail in Genoa, which is why he was able to complete an uncharted transatlantic voyage. The other major trading city-state was the Republic of Venice, which controlled the majority of silk that entered Europe. Venetian traders had the easiest access to trade routes stretching into the Black Sea and the Mongol Empire, and Venice grew to be one of the most powerful states of Europe.

Italian sailors were internationally recognized, as seen in this depiction of Pisan merchants

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