‘Petty Despots’: The Condottieri Tyrants of Quattrocento Italy

Introduction

* 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.”[1] 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.

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On Police Abolition

The conflict over police abolition is essentially a fight over how we view humanity; in the battle between Hobbes and Rousseau, the Englishman wins.

Over the past few weeks of protests and civil unrest following the tragic killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, discussion of police brutality has been widespread and bipartisan. Politicians, journalists, and regular people across the ideological spectrum have come together around the idea that police reform is necessary. This is an excellent development, as any changes to American policing need to be generally popular with all groups to have any chance of being made permanent and accomplishing their goal of improving public safety for us all. Unfortunately, radical (and unpopular) ideas have come to dominate some aspects of this conversation, particularly on the political left. The idee du jour among American progressives is the concept of total police abolition, or in its slightly tamer variant, the defunding of the police. In this article, I am going to group these two somewhat different ideas under the same heading of police abolition for one major reason: those advocates for defunding of the police often see it as a step towards a wholly new model of public safety that does not involve policing at its heart. To me, this seems like a slower version of the more aggressive slogan of ‘abolishing the police’, so it is fair to lump them together when thinking in the abstract.

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