What Were Politics Like During the Renaissance?

The Renaissance is historically notorious for its violent, divisive and often treacherous brand of politics. This was especially the case in Italy, where city-states were often ruled by powerful families or political factions, rather than by all-powerful kings. One of the most important tracts of political theory ever written, Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” has forever immortalized this intrigue.

Italy grew as a center of the Renaissance primarily due to trade. According to Open University, it was Italy and the Low Countries which acted as “hubs of international trade and commodities.” City-states, like Florence, Venice and Genoa, thus became fabulously wealthy, and soon powerful families emerged that controlled commerce and banking and often had small mercenary armies at their disposal. Among the most infamous families of the period are the Medici of Florence and the Borgias of Rome. The Borgias, in particular, became so powerful that they installed one of their own as pope.

At times, party factionalism grew so furious that members of the losing side experienced exile, torture or even death. For example, the famous poet, Dante, found himself supporting the wrong faction and was banished from his beloved Florence for life. Machiavelli was accused of favoring Republican forces against the Medici and was eventually tortured and exiled, only to be allowed to return later in a minor capacity.

If any text exemplifies the nature of Renaissance politics, it is Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” In a telling passage from Constitution.org, he says that “It is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them…to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able to know how to change to the opposite.” In this wording, Machiavelli captures the duplicity, calculation and attention to appearances that defined a successful man of Renaissance politics.