This past weekend, Italy held snap parliamentary elections to replace its unpopular government. Although results are still being finalized, it looks as though the big winner of the day was the right-wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party. Brothers of Italy received the greatest share of the vote, twenty-six percent, and together with Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, they seem poised to build a government with popular backing.
If you’ve heard anything about the results of this democratic process from the mainstream media, however, it has likely been descriptions of Brothers of Italy and particularly Meloni herself as “hard right,” “far-right,” or even “fascist.” She has been labeled “a danger to Italy and the rest of Europe” by The Guardian, and the New York Times called her “the first far-right nationalist to govern Italy since Mussolini.” Reading those pieces, you might expect Meloni’s views to echo Il Duce’s famous fascist dictum: “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.” In reality, this media framing relies purely on conjecture, guilt by association, bad history, and bias.
* The images from the Appendix referenced herein are instead spread throughout the text of this essay for easier reading. Enjoy!
When the term ‘Italian Renaissance’ is used, most people think of figures like da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Petrarch; this association with a flourishing of the arts and Western culture is understandable, yet it misses much of the complexity and dynamism inherent in the period, especially during the fifteenth century. That period – known historically as the Quattrocento – was a time of rapid change, political tumult, and dynastic struggle throughout the Italian Peninsula. These geopolitical evolutions were just as radical and revolutionary as were those occurring in the cultural world at the time; in fact, without the political developments of the Quattrocento, many of the cultural aspects of the Renaissance may never have gotten off of the ground. To gain a better understanding of these changes and their impact on society, one must understand the very different political situation in Italy prior to the Renaissance.
Italian history for the few centuries before the Quattrocento was largely dominated by two powerful forces: the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire of the Hohenstaufens. These factions were mutually reliant on one another for legitimacy as well as rivals for the overlordship of the Italian Peninsula. This conflict defined the late Medieval period in Italy, culminating with the Guelf-Ghibelline wars and vendettas in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This all changed in the fourteenth century, however, as the Papacy relocated to Avignon, spiraled into a destructive schism, and lost much of the temporal power formerly emanating from its traditional seat in Rome. With respect to the Holy Roman Empire, a previously dominant power in Italy, the historian Jacob Burckhardt states that “The Emperors of the fourteenth century, even in the most favourable case, were no longer received and respected as feudal lords, but as possible leaders and supporters of powers already in existence.” Upon the return of the Popes to Italy in 1376 and the resolution of the Great Western Schism with the election of Pope Martin V in 1417, the Papacy once again sought to retake its temporal role in Italian politics. However, the Italian world into which this newly invigorated Papacy was returning to assert its traditional role was not at all the same one which it had left in the early fourteenth century. During the period of the ‘Babylonian Captivity’ of the Church, the political situation in Italy had devolved away from a more unified, hierarchical, feudal-type system into a patchwork of independent city-states, statelets, and kingdoms which often were involved in intractable conflicts with one another. The power vacuum created by the flight of the Popes to France and the aloofness of the Holy Roman Empire allowed for the flourishing of local civic identity, the creation of territorial rivalries, and the internecine Italian conflict which came along with them.
The Republic of Venice – also known as the Republic of St. Mark or La Serenissima – was a medieval city-state centered around the Adriatic city of the same name and governed by a merchant oligarchy. That governing group of elites met in the Grand Council chamber, or Sala del Maggior Consiglio, of the Palace of the Doges to make critical decisions on war, peace, and commerce. The walls of the room are bedecked with beautiful paintings by Renaissance masters like Tintoretto and Vicentino, depicting famous scenes of glory from the history of the Republic, including the 1177 Peace of Venice. A large portion of the chamber, however, is taken up by a series of works related to the infamous Fourth Crusade. That fateful conflict has historically been seen as an utter disaster for Christendom, both at the time of its occurrence and centuries later; observers and commentators from Pope Innocent III – who declared the crusade initially – to Voltaire lambasted the crusaders, especially the Venetians. Given this widespread condemnation, why would the Venetians, who had the opportunity to renovate the Grand Council chamber after a devastating fire in 1577, choose to celebrate their participation in the Fourth Crusade? Are the tales “of the Venetians who had no religion but profit and the state, and of the devious Dandolo who spun a web to entrap the naïve northerners to achieve his ends” true? Could the Venetians not be the greedy, rapacious villains of this story?