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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 1 of 2)

The island belonged to the King of Aragon


style="text-align: justify;">? 7. Italy.

In the end of the fifteenth century, Italy contained a very great number of petty principalities and five States which might be called the great powers of Italy--Venice, Milan, and Florence in the north, Naples in the south, and the States of the Church in the centre. Peace was kept by a delicate and highly artificial balance of powers. Venice was a commercial republic, ruled by an oligarchy of nobles. The city in the lagoons had been founded by trembling fugitives fleeing before Attila's Huns, and was more than a thousand years old. It had large territories on the mainland of Italy, and colonies extending down the east coast of the Adriatic and among the Greek islands. It had the largest revenue of all the Italian States, but its expenses were also much the heaviest. Milan came next in wealth, with its yearly income of over 700,000 ducats. At the close of the century it was in the possession of the Sforza family, whose founder had been born a ploughman, and had risen to be a formidable commander of mercenary soldiers. It was claimed by Maximilian as a fief of the Empire, and by the Kings of France as a heritage of the Dukes of Orleans. The disputed heritage was one of the causes of the invasion of Italy by Charles VIII. Florence, the most cultured city in Italy, was, like Venice, a commercial republic; but it was a democratic republic, wherein one family, the Medici, had usurped almost despotic power

while preserving all the external marks of republican rule.

Naples was the portion of Italy where the feudal system of the Middle Ages had lingered longest. The old kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Naples and Sicily) had, since 1458, been divided, and Sicily had been politically separated from the mainland. The island belonged to the King of Aragon; while the mainland had for its ruler the illegitimate son of Alphonso of Aragon, Ferdinand, or Ferrante, who proved a despotic and masterful ruler. He had crushed his semi-independent feudal barons, had brought the towns under his despotic rule, and was able to hand over a compact kingdom to his son Alphonso in 1494.

The feature, however, in the political condition of Italy which illustrated best the general tendency of the age towards coalescence, was the growth of the States of the Church. The dominions which were directly under the temporal power of the Pope had been the most disorganised in all Italy. The vassal barons had been turbulently independent, and the Popes had little power even within the city of Rome. The helplessness of the Popes to control their vassals perhaps reached its lowest stage in the days of Innocent VIII. His successors Alexander VI. (Rodrigo Borgia, 1492-1503), Julius II. (Cardinal della Rovere, 1503-1513), and Leo X. (Giovanni de Medici, 1513-1521), strove to create, and partly succeeded in forming, a strong central dominion, the States of the Church. The troubled times of the French invasions, and the continual warfare among the more powerful States of Italy, furnished them with the occasion. They pursued their policy with a craft which brushed aside all moral obligations, and with a ruthlessness which hesitated at no amount of bloodshed. In their hands the Papacy appeared to be a merely temporal power, and was treated as such by contemporary politicians. It was one of the political States of Italy, and the Popes were distinguished from their contemporary Italian rulers only by the facts that their spiritual position enabled them to exercise a European influence which the others could not aspire to, and that their sacred character placed them above the obligations of ordinary morality in the matter of keeping solemn promises and maintaining treaty obligations made binding by the most sacred oaths. In one sense their aim was patriotic. They were Italian princes whose aim was to create a strong Italian central power which might be able to maintain the independence of Italy against the foreigner; and in this they were partially successful, whatever judgment may require to be passed on the means taken to attain their end. But the actions of the Italian prince placed the spiritual Head of the Church outside all those influences, intellectual, artistic, and religious (the revival under Savonarola in Florence), which were working in Italy for the regeneration of European society. The Popes of the Renaissance set the example, only too faithfully followed by almost every prince of the age, of believing that political far outweighed all moral and religious motives.


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