By J. H. Plumb
New York: Harper Torchbacks, 1961
164 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
July 2010

This is a rather short overview of the Italian Renaissance, pitched at a general public who might read about such a topic. It’s not a ground-breaking scholarly work or anything approaching it. I don’t mean to suggest that author J.H. Plumb isn’t a capable or scholar person, but this particular book seems much more pitched to the general educated public and not to specialists in the field.

As such it was just what I was looking for. In it I found useful reminders of things I had studied years ago and of which I had forgotten much too much. I learned new things I had never known, and the read was never taxing. It was intelligent, entertaining and solid.

I read the book for my own sake, and I wrote what is below for the same reason. I sort of chat with myself chapter by chapter to give myself a much shorter reminder of the book that I may refer to down the line as the spirit may move me.


Amid the darkness of the late Middle Ages in Italy there was some hope beginning to shine, but warning lingered:

“. . . the past was dead, and its relics but morals in stone, a terrible warning of the wickedness which God had punished.”

Beset by barbarians from the north, Arabs from the south and west and Byzantine on the east, the Medieval world clung to survival.

“This curious society of peasant and priest and warrior, which drew its strength from individual men rather than from nations or countries, was held together by the Catholic Church and by feudal law.”

Italy never fully embraced the feudal world and given its fortunate position so close to the powerful east, it prospered in trade, especially selling people as slaves. A second factor which made Italy different was the growth of finance, especially in the high middle ages.

By the end of the 14th century an age was dawning in Italy centered in the city-states. Trade, finance and an urbanized populace was one line of development, the other was the huge mix of ideas from both Byzantium and the Arab world.

“Yet art was only one aspect of the brilliance of Renaissance Italy, which created an image of man, a vision of human excellence, that still lies at the heart of the Western Tradition.”

I note this book was written in 1961. I find that ironic since I think that was very close to the time when this tradition of which Plumb speaks was beginning to give way significantly to a world which lost that vision of humans and excellence, and has become increasingly devoted to personal power, freedom and wealth and which understands human existence primarily as a grasping for wealth and power. Nonetheless, I think he was probably correct in writing that in 1961.

This world of the Italian Renaissance, the world of art, ideas, learning and tradition was made possible by money. Intellectual movements bred an interest in the truth of the world more than of heaven.


In this chapter Plumb traces what he says are the real sources of power in roughly the years from the early 1300s until at least 1527 when Charles V brought Italy into the protection of the house of Hapsburg.

He argues that Italy was a dangerous place with conflicts in the earlier periods between the power of the church and that of the Empire. Slowly however, power came to be centered in the city states.

“. . . the roots were mundane enough – land, money, power.”

Earlier the city-states did better and were run by craft guilds. However, they slowly succumbed to the power of the nobility to run the ever growing complexity of the city-state and the need for protection.

“In war or in peace, in freedom or subjection, the towns grew, and in growing changed the nature of their governments, sliding from hopeful democracy into greedy oligarchy.”

Several key factors entered into this changing status:

  1. Defense became more complex and beyond the capabilities of the townsfolks and thus were born the condottieri – professional warrior class, who were under the control of the nobility.
  2. Diplomacy also became more important as a edge against excessive violence, also controlled by the nobility.
  3. Nature added to the woes with the endless plagues.

While Milan, Florence, Venice and Rome emerged as the strongest of the states, smaller city-states also flourished.

The powerful men and women who emerged as leaders were vicious and power hungry, they were at the same time desirous of fame and being loved; thus grew the rather contradictory activities of wars and oppression on the one hand, and great beneficence of the patronage system which encouraged and enabled great art of all sorts to arise.

“Display became a part of the art of government, and the wealth of Italy permitted an extravagance that would not have been unbecoming to an ancient Roman emperor. Pageantry was also a part of the aristocratic tradition, but the riches of the Medici, the Sforza, the Gonzaga, or the Este, and the skill of their painters and sculptors, raised this art to an intenser level.”

Under Lodovico Gonzaga in small Mantua a growing tradition of education was encouraged which had enormous impact.

“The width of Lodovico’s interests was due partly to his native genius and partly also to his education, for it was in the education of princes that Mantua made one of its most remarkable contributions to the Renaissance. Lodovico’s father had established the great humanist Vittorino da Feltre at Mantua. Vittorino’s ideas were to influence European education profoundly for centuries.”

Prior to this movement in education theology had been the center of learning. But the focus shifted and the new ideas changed the world.

“The theological way of thinking about men and events was as alien to them [the new scholars] as a salon painting to Picasso. The key to their problems they knew to be rooted in the lives and actions of men, not in universal mysteries or the attributes of God. Consequently, there is an astonishing freshness about the historians, and the political philosophers of the Renaissance, and, as with the painters and sculptors, the greatest by far were the Florentines, and the greatest of the Florentines was Niccolo Machiavelli, whose speculations about the nature of man’s political actions are as remote from the thinkers of the Middle Ages as Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings are from the illuminations of missals.”


On Plumb’s own account this chapter was influenced by the work of an early 16th century writer, Giorgio Vasari, whom Plumb acknowledges may not always have told the truth, yet still managed to capture the spirit of the times. Even Vasari’s exaggerations or naďve trust reveal how people at that time saw this great art revival.

At the same time that they deeply respected and treasured the artist of their day, they looked back at Greece and Rome as the apex of society, just as their own days were recreating the world.

I was delighted with Plumb’s account that the sheer numbers of people who lived in the world of art, rather than suggesting an abnormal time of great genius, actually reveals what would happen in any society which revered and supported art as the nobility of the period did:

“Great artists are as common as peaks in the Himalayas, leading one to believe that the ability to draw or to carve is no rarer in human beings than mathematical skill and only requires the appropriate social circumstances to call it forth in abundance.”

He returns to this theme often, suggesting that if people today were rewarded for art as people of our time are for science and mathematics, there would be a much great movement in art in our times than there is.

Despite the fact of the great art all around them, and art they deeply appreciated, the people of the time looked back to Greece and Rome as the period of great art and much in Renaissance Italian art was imitative of what was known and imagined about that ancient art.

There were definitely huge differences between Italian Renaissance art and the classical art, one being the emphasis on art which honored God in a Christian manner.

“The sense of merit in the visual expression of piety was universally held even by such naturally puritanical characters as Bernardino of Siena or Savonarola. Although they called for the burning of vanities, that did not include pictures of sacred subjects.”

The spirit of the times impacted the ruling class as well. While they were deeply concerned with power and wealth, a part of “respectability” was being seen as a patron of the arts.

“It added to the stature of kings to have a world-renowned artist attached to their courts; and the republics – particularly Florence and Venice – were as jealous of their geniuses as any king.”

However, today we look back and recognize the names of many of the famous artists of that period. Plumb argues that was not the case at the time and that the fame of artists was mainly something that occurred among the wealthy classes.

“Throughout the Renaissance, artists were working for a small public. They were well known in their cities, they were familiar to popes and princes. The atmosphere in which they worked was intimate. Also, their art served a civil as well as a religious purpose.”

Yet the artists were consulted and revered in a widening circle. In the High Renaissance there were becoming more renowned.

“By the High Renaissance, art had come to pervade all aspects of life. From the arrangement of sweetmeats to the construction of fortifications – all were matters of moment upon which an artist’s opinion might be needed and offered.”

But things had simply changed in society. Gone, among the wealthy, was any spirit of pragmatic usage of everyday objects as being divorced from art:

“This aristocratic spirit at large in a world of bourgeois delights had no use for pewter dishes, sober costume, modest feasting, or chaste jewelry. It reveled in gold, in silver, in bronze, in gaudy dishes of majolica, and in silks, in satins, and in damasks, in cunningly wrought pearls, in sapphires, in rubies and in emeralds.”


On Plumb’s view Florence always led the Italian Renaissance in the development of classical humanism and especially art. Led mainly by the Medici family in its period of great fame and growth, it was in a difficult political and physical situation.

It was surrounded by other large and powerful states. Milan on the north, Venice to the east, Siena south and Pisa, it’s needed sea port, always a problem.

Further since Florence never did much with spreading any wealth down the line; the masses lived lives of relative poverty and resented it. This made possible the popularity of populist religious reformers, the most famous of whom was Savonarola, who argued for a much simpler life style, yet not even he would abandon the arts.

Florence was the leader in building the intellectual basis of the Renaissance’s return to the classical texts of the Greeks and Romans.

“Yet the greatest gains from this self-identification with the antique were in the arts, particularly sculpture.”

Ultimately it was this class clash which made Florence weaker than it needed to be:

“The whole Savonarola episode is a curious mixture of idealism, ineptitude, and iniquity. Certainly Savonarola wanted a Florentine government that represented more fully the whole citizenship – the poor and the dispossessed as well as the rich and the powerful. He also hated life, grew drunk on his own megalomaniac visions, preferred prophecy to policy, and welcomed the disasters he had done so much to promote. Ignorance married to prejudice, blind hatred linked with a disgust for life, proved an unsatisfactory basis for statesmanship, even practiced by a saint.”

Even though Savonarola was eventually burned to death as a heretic, other factors began to weigh on Florence’s greatness. Central was the divided class structure, but the beginning of the waning of Florence’s economic strengths, and the discovery of the New World, which shifted emphasis westward and favored Spain, France and England, all left Florence coming to end of it’s golden era.


I loved an early comparison between Florence and Milan in which Plumb wrote:

“If Florence belongs to Minerva, Milan belonged to Mars.”

This says a lot. Milan was in an incredible region. To its north were the mountain passes into the rest of Europe, and formidable positions for Milan to maintain military power. In the Po River valley were extremely fertile fields which provided much food, and encourage a large population. It developed as a more warlike area, and had a tempestuous history in the period of the Renaissance.

“Milan, which became the epitome of the Renaissance state, is best seen reflected in the lives of its three greatest dukes.”

These were Visconti, Sforza and Mora. One of the problems was the question of legitimacy, which was not granted by the Pope and Italian nobility, thus had to maintained by force of power, adding to the militancy of Milan.

Another difference was the question of where was the real power? The need for maintaining the dukedom by force was one factor, but that led to a second:

“Milan . . . failed to do what Florence and the Tuscan towns had succeeded in doing – they had never subjected the feudal nobility to the authority of the merchant class.”

Nonetheless, the capable dukes, legitimate or not, managed to bring Milan to become a powerful state and hold it that way for many years. The latter years under Lodovico (Sforza) were especially successful and Plume claims:

“So Lodovico had his years of triumph. He could boast that the Pope was his chaplain, the Emperor his condottiere [military force] Venice his chamberlain, and the King of France his courier.”

However, like Florence, the issues of class struggle, both economic between the wealthy and the poor, as well as the military ruling class versus the mercantile class eventually weakened Milan.

“Although Milan possessed nature frontiers and great wealth and an able ruling house, as a state it never acquired the stability of Florence or Venice or even Naples, simply because its class struggles went unresolved.”


Rome had had a long period of decline which culminated in the Avignon papacy when from 1378-1417 the pope was mainly in Avignon, France. Thus in Rome was nearly lawless and in utter ruins.

“No one in 1425 could have foreseen that Rome was about to be reborn (not spiritually) – the Renaissance popes were not to prove men of the spirit – but physically, artistically, and politically.”

While the movement was mitigated significantly in just 100 years, Rome was to undergo at least 200 years of special glory.

“So, by and large, the Renaissance popes were worldly men, pragmatic, tough, concerned with power.”

“. . . hand in hand with the resurgent power of the Papacy went the artistic Renaissance in Rome; and because the popes controlled more wealth, the result was more splendid than anywhere else.”

The center of Rome’s interest was literature. The Vatican library became a central institution, manuscripts were sought in Europe and the whole classical world, and copies were made of many.

Yet the wonders of classical Rome was mainly ignored and plundered. However, a new Rome was to be built.

“The popes recovered a ruined city. Shrunk to a tiny area of Imperial Rome, and fields and orchards and wild, overgrown palaces abounded. Nicholas V, fortunately possessed a touch of megalomania; fortunately, because size and space are vital principles of architectural splendor. He not only dreamed but also planned, a vast new Rome, dominated by a new St. Peter’s . . .”

In just a century the Rome we know today was begun and progress made. In the end it was THEN not that the revolt of Luther significantly wounded the Vatican and Rome. More immediately it was the 1527 sack of Rome by the Hapsburgs.

Reforms came, centrally with the Jesuits in response to the decline.

“They [the Jesuits] deplored paganism; repressed the licentiousness of the Romans, religious and secular; insisted on sacred subjects in art and clapped fig leaves on the statues of antiquity.”

Nonetheless, in great measure the glory of Renaissance Rome still stands today.


Venice was not typical Italy. It had been sort of like a separate nation-state for much of the late Middle Ages.

“The sea linked Venice with Byzantium, the market for her goods, the protector of her liberties, the mood of her state, the teacher of her craft, the fountain of her arts.”

Perhaps more important was her cosmopolitan nature which made Venetians at home anywhere in the Adriatic. This put pressure on the Venetians to know what everyone was up to.

By 1450 Venice was the only power in Italy, save for the Papacy, that was truly cosmopolitan, one whose interests required not only a great fleet but also a complex system intelligence system.

“ . . . every merchant, every priest, was expected to spy for his country’s good.”

The Council of Ten ruled Venice throughout the whole period of the Renaissance.

“In Venice there were no divided powers. Its immense wealth and its colossal maritime power were ruled with the iron will of a modern dictatorship.”

The patrician class was expected to participate in both economy and government. There was a fascinating contrast between the rigid social order, yet astonishing cosmopolitan manner.

“All the nations of Europe mingled with the races of the Near East. They were brought together by the single fact that Venice was the greatest market of the Western World.”

In the Renaissance Venice felt forced to extend into Lombardy to gain territory. Venice was well established and already rich when the Renaissance came. It didn’t leap into this new world with the same vigor as the rest of Italy and Europe, and not as quickly.

“No Venetians galleys probed the secrets of the New World; no hardheaded merchants sought gold in tropical Africa.

“Perhaps it is not surprising that the early, exploratory, heroic phase of the Renaissance passed Venice by.”

Yet Venice quickly adapted to the rebirth in the arts. Most especially were ways to make money from this new movement.

“Whenever the calculating eye of the Venetian entrepreneur saw a main chance he seized it. Printing, scoffed at in Rome and patronized in Milan, rapidly became a luxury industry with a growing mass market in the capable hands of Aldus Manutius and his family.”

During the 100-120 years of the Italian Renaissance these hardnosed business people of Venice profited but indulged themselves too, in art and advancements of the period.

“Yet the Renaissance settled on Venice like a golden haze, sweeting life, softening the edges. Venice had lost the future; from the city of commerce she was becoming the city of carnival.”


An explosion of newness in building and the changing of the look of cities were common sights.

“ . . . a new physical world was being build that buried or obscured the old barbarism.
In churches and monasteries scarcely a year passed without a new masterpiece being painted on the walls.’

And printing, too, was a major factor in change:

“Impossible, too, to recapture the novelty of books, the miracle that it must have seemed to scholars to possess their own Virgil, their own Cicero, or to see their own poems, plays and familiar letters stacked by the hundreds in printers’ shops."

Added to this, of course, were the earth-shattering implications of The New World and other physical discoveries.

All this gave rise to a new theory of the human – unfixed, diverse, capable of great as well as horrible deeds.

“The belief – often unconsciously adopted – that man’s instincts and abilities must find their own destiny, be it what it may, influenced sexual practices more profoundly than any other social conventions.”

Among writers and artists the new freedom brought many who expressed themselves with disdain for social customs and traditional morality and set artists up as a class apart, a view which survives to our own time.

However, the rising power and wealth of many who were not born to wealth and nobility created a counter trend. To become sophisticated, learned, gentile and to scorn all traces of barbarism was the new order of the day.

The pre-Renaissance world was simply rejected, but only one formula replaced it.

“In drawing rooms of courts, in the lounging places of the piazzas, in tents on the battlefield, in the country homes of bankers, men discussed over and over again the nature of men and the way of perfection.”

But Italy was not left without any dominant views – aristocratic attitudes mainly won out.

“In the High Renaissance, aristocratic attitudes triumphed over the rough bourgeois spirit of its earlier days."

. . . “Style in the turn of a phrase or the cut of a cloak; fields of knowledge, of taste, even of sport, that a gentleman might know or practice; attitudes to love, to religion, to the prince – all these marked off the gentleman from the man.”


This is one of the stranger chapters in the book. Plume is rightly concerned with the incredible role the upper classes of women played in the Renaissance, and how their new freedoms and power, their sense of class and elegance, set patterns that deeply affected women of the west for centuries after.

“It was the new prosperity that influenced the lives of women most profoundly. It brought them fresh opportunities for adornment; it increased their dowries and their value. It emancipated many from the drudgery of the household and from the relentless, time-consuming demands of children. Women entered more fully into the daily lives and pursuits of men.”

Now he is right about that and the operative adjective in the above quite is “many.” Yet, many did become so emancipated. But, if one begins even slightly to quantify this “many,” it would be an very tiny portion of women.

I was just surprised in his long and interesting treatment of his historically important change, he waited until the last couple of pages to indicate that this new world of women was for only a tiny proportion of the women.

Later on he tells us:

“The lot of most women was harsh; they worked in the home at the looms or in the fields alongside their men. They bred early and died young, untouched by the growing civility about them, save in the piety.”

It was a bit disappointing that this caute came so late. Nonetheless, it is somewhat understandable since for two small classes of women the world dramatically changed and the western world with them. The place of these aristocratic women and then the courtesans who imitated them, set a tone for a different way for women of wealth and leisure to be for centuries. Much later, with the greater wealth after the Industrial Revolution, even middle class women began to enjoy some of those freedoms begun in the Italian Renaissance.

This wasn’t quite a women liberation movement. But within strict rules and limits it was like an explosion of freedom.

“The presence of these leisured women in society helped to transform it. [Again, within a limited class.] It created the opportunity for personality to flourish, for women to indulge the whims of their temperaments – free from the constraining circumstances of child birth, nursery, and kitchen."

Growing up alongside this new freedom within these high upper-class women were the courtesans, especially of Rome, Naples and Venice. These courtesans were highly trained, skilled and elegant.

“ . . . there developed a class of grand courtesans more akin to geisha girls than prostitutes. . . “

. . .

“The trade in women became more profitable and extensive than it had been since the days of Imperial Rome.”

Thus these two relatively small classes of Renaissance women exercised an historical influence felt deeply among women of the west.


Plumb seems to relish the rather ironic situation that as the 16th century dawned and the Italian Renaissance’s achievements and model was being widely accepted in the more western reaches of Europe, the Renaissance’s power and influence began to fade in Italy.

There were three main reasons for this:

  1. The new riches provided by the New World accrued primarily to France, England, Holland, Spain and Portugal. Thus wealth grew and those nations, eager for the benefits of the Italian Renaissance, which they much envied, was possible to be purchased, whether it was the art work or the skills of the artists and thinkers themselves.
  2. At the same time, with Luther’s introduction of the Protestant Reformation the Papacy was on the defensive and had to respond to this strong challenge. It clamped down on some forms of luxury and sexual behavior and tamed some of the spirit and force of the Italian Renaissance.
  3. Other factors were invasions and military successes of the French against Italy and the loss in control and power by Italy.

Despite the gradual decline of Italy itself, there was no decline in Renaissance spirit, it just changed location.

“In the visuals arts, in its themes as well as its techniques, the achievements of the Italian Renaissance permeated Europe like an indelible stain. They expressed the world in which men wished to live – their dreams, their aspirations, as well as their actualities.”

Ironically, however, the new scholarship provided tools in theology which aided the growth of Protestantism and to some degree redirected Italian Renaissance values.

Yet, on Plumb’s view, ultimately is was in the sense of education that the Renaissance made its greatest mark.

“Profoundly important as the influence of the Italian Renaissance might be, on art and literature and learning, it was greater still in education, using that word in its widest possible sense.”

The impact of the Renaissance would dominate until the coming of the French Revolution, and while staggering gains would be made by the merchant classes in that period, it was not until the French Revolution that the power of the nobility began to slowly give way to that of the merchant class, making the way for our modern society.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett