From city-states to Machiavelli’s call for a unified Italy

Throughout history, the region that we now know as Italy has experienced a multitude of shifts in territory, culture, and values. The Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the unification of Italy are arguably some of the most important times in Italian history; all representing large, region-wide changes. During the Middle Ages, Italy was broken up into city-states, which were independent states that each had their own culture, population, and government. Cities provided centers of trade, protection, centers of government, networks, and communication- making them highly beneficial to populate and the backbone of the Renaissance. When the Italian Renaissance started in the city-states on the Italian Peninsula, it quickly spread throughout Italy’s other city-states. The benefits and growth seen during the Renaissance were facilitated by the use of urban centers and cities in Italy because they allowed for the spread of ideas. The Renaissance is characterized as a period of enlightenment, with flourishing trade, politics, and art. It also marked the emergence of new values and ideals, such as humanism, the thought that the importance of humans should be more prevalent in values than the importance of divine beings. This period brought on many new ways of analyzing society, with one of the most famous individuals that proposed new ideas being Niccolo Machiavelli. Throughout his works, Machiavelli expressed his own values that were hugely different from the values previously favored in Italian culture. Before Machiavelli, a very important ideal was to protect the good of the people; that is, the common good was more important than the individual. Machiavelli believed that people were inherently bad, so there is no shame in being the worst version of yourself in order to meet an end goal. His beliefs led him to call for what he believed was the most important end goal, the unification of Italy in order to avoid foreign domination. However, the Italian city-states did not unify and were subsequently conquered by French and Spanish rulers at the end of the Renaissance. The avoidance of Italian unification could be caused by a number of reasons. Italian city-states were vastly different from city-states in other countries, such as Germany or France. This is because they evolved from large Italian towns with substantial populations, meaning they could field extensive militaries on their own and did not need to rely on each other to form large armies. Thus, Italian city-states were in similar standing with sovereign states. In addition, the trade market within city-states was mostly filled with luxury goods, causing a predatorial market in which the individual city-states competed with each other viscously. This was unique because many other trade markets benefitted from market collusion, which would destroy the Italian trade market. Evidently, Italian city-states were able to function and thrive independently through the Renaissance, each with different cultures, governments, and values than each other. They were strong on their own, meaning they had the potential of thriving after unification, and theoretically could have withstood foreign rule by following Machiavelli’s advice and unifying. This begs the question, why didn’t the Italian city-states take Machiavelli’s advice and unify against foreign rule? Italian towns have done so in the past, yet the city-states remained independent. Many theories can be explored as to why this happened, and each theory raises important questions. Were Italian city-states thought to be large and strong enough to stand up to foreign domination independently? Were the differences between the city-states too strong for the people within them to see past their differences even in the face of foreign rule? Was Machiavelli’s approach too extreme? 

 As previously mentioned, Italian city-states were far more advanced than city-states in other regions, such as France or Germany. While many factors could have led to their prosperity, scholars mostly credit it to the trade market, urbanization, and vast population of the large Italian city-states. Hendrick Spruyt, a political scientist from Northwestern University, explains how these factors helped certain Italian city-states thrive in his book, The Sovereign State and Its Competitors.  It is important to note that not all Italian city-states thrived. In fact, the larger of these city-states -such as Venice, Florence, Milan, and Genova- dominated other city-states through trade. This allowed for a predatorial market to occur in Italian trade, meaning that city-states benefitted from wiping out their competitors, rather than benefitting from competition between markets. The unique predatorial market that Italy faced was mainly due to the fact that luxury goods were the main items traded in the Italian market. While Italy did engage in the trade of normal goods, the main focus was on luxury goods. Some argue that the trade market in Italy affected the city-states’ reluctance to unify because it furthered the competition and divide between towns, making them rivals of each other. However, we must examine all factors that could cause the city-states to keep from unifying against foreign rule, such as the theory that the city-states simply did not see the need to do so because they already acted similarly to sovereign states. Italian city-states were far more large and urbanized than their counterparts in other countries. One large Italian city-state could easily round up large militaries that German city-states, for example, would need to unify multiple city-states to form. Below is a map of the Italian city-states in the late fifteenth century, displaying the large regions they took up. 

Italian city-states during the late 15th-century

While the city-states took up much land in Italy, the largest city-states hardly recognized non-urban citizens. This created a pull to urban centers because the city-states operated almost completely in the city, including trade operations, politics, and communal gatherings. Each city-state conducted its own gatherings, separating itself from the others with different cultures and governments. It is possible that the divisions discussed in this section helped lead to the city-states remaining independent during the Renaissance. On the other hand, we must also evaluate why Machiavelli was able to predict that unification was necessary to avoid foreign domination, and what reasoning led to his conclusion. 

Machiavelli was a revolutionary figure throughout the Renaissance because of his new, extreme views. His views contradicted the teachings commonly valued in Italy before and during his time. He believed that the ends justified the means, in other words, it was not a problem to delve into evil in order to successfully meet an end goal. He uses his own definitions of the concept of man and the concept of virtue to justify his beliefs. He understands that people cannot always be good, but goes on to explain that attempting to be good is useless when people are inherently bad. In chapter XV of The Prince, Machiavelli states, “Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good. Hence a prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how not to be good,” (Machiavelli, 42). This is an extreme viewpoint from Machiavelli, stating that it is in the best interest of a leader to learn to choose when evil is necessary to remain in power. As for the concept of virtue, Machiavelli makes claims that virtue is directly related to leadership and that a virtuous man could become a great leader if the opportunity arises. Machiavelli states that “He [Hiero] was a man of such character [virtù], even as a private citizen, that somebody said of him, ‘the only thing he needs to be a ruler is a kingdom,’”. This shows the importance Machiavelli places on virtue, which directly contradicts his belief that a leader must learn to be evil to gain power. As pointed out in the podcast “The Misunderstood Machiavelli,” Machiavelli constantly contradicts himself in his own writing. Another contradictory example in his work, The Prince, is how Machiavelli contradicts himself by promoting a forceful way of gaining power, yet in reality, it is very possible that following his advice to gain leadership would eventually lead to revolt due to the harsh treatment he advises. This leads to the question, why would Machiavelli intentionally express such extreme opinions? As explained by Leo Strauss in Machiavelli’s Intention: The Prince, Machiavelli completely disregards the difficulties obstructing the unification of Italy. He states that the last chapter of The Prince in which Machiavelli makes calls to unify Italy, “creates the impression that the only thing required for the liberation of Italy is the Italians’ strong loathing of foreign domination, and their ancient valor: the liberator of Italy can expect spontaneous cooperation from all his compatriots and he can expect that they all will fly to arms against the foreigners once he ‘takes the banner’”. This examines Machiavelli’s choice to ignore the issues that could cause Italian city-states to unify, which includes the issues previously mentioned in this essay. Perhaps Machiavelli’s views were too extreme or contradictory, but we can also identify that his calls for a unified Italy were simply unachievable at the time due to underlying tension between the city-states. 

The shift from city-states into Machiavelli’s calls for a unified Italy is a huge part of Italian history, leaving many open-ended questions as to why Italy was never unified during the Renaissance to avoid foreign domination. However, scholars claim that Machiavelli overestimated the ease of unifying Italy, as there were many factors that went against the unification of the Italian city-states. These factors were plentiful, with the tension between city-states arguably coming from multiple different sources. In this essay, I examined the effects of trade, urbanization, and population on the rivalry between city-states and how they could have impacted the avoidance of unification. This is not to say that these factors were the only things preventing Italy’s union towards the end of the Renaissance, but they are important to note. Machiavelli was able to predict the foreign domination of Italy after the Renaissance, but it is questionable whether or not his extremist or contradictory views prevented his advice from being followed. Some also believe that his advice was too optimistic and that it was unachievable to unify Italian city-states during the Renaissance. Nonetheless, Italian city-states failed to unify and were subsequently ruled by foreign powers, just as Machiavelli predicted.