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Florence in the Early Renaissance

The Renaissance really gets going in the early years of 15th century in Florence. In this period, which we call the Early Renaissance, Florence is not a city in the unified country of Italy, as it is now. Instead, Italy was divided into many city-states (Florence, Milan, Venice etc.), each with their own government (some were ruled by despots, and others were republics).
Italy in 1494
Italy in 1494

The Florentine Republic

We normally think of a Republic as a government where everyone votes for representatives who will represent their interests to the government (think of the United States pledge of allegiance: "and to the republic for which it stands..."). However, Florence was a Republic in the sense that there was a constitution which limited the power of the nobility (as well as laborers) and ensured that no one person or group could have complete political control (so it was far from our ideal of everyone voting, in fact a very small percentage of the population had the vote). Political power resided in the hands of middle-class merchants, a few wealthy families (such as the Medici, important art patrons who would later rule Florence) and the powerful guilds.

Why did the Renaissance begin in Florence?

There are several answers to that question: Extraordinary wealth accumulated in Florence during this period among a growing middle and upper class of merchants and bankers. With the accumulation of wealth often comes a desire to use it to enjoy the pleasures of life—and not an exclusive focus on the hereafter.
Florence saw itself as the ideal city state, a place where the freedom of the individual was guaranteed, and where many citizens had the right to participate in the government (this must have been very different than living in the Duchy of Milan, for example, which was ruled by a succession of Dukes with absolute power). In 1400 Florence was engaged in a struggle with the Duke of Milan. The Florentine people feared the loss of liberty and respect for individuals that was the pride of their Republic.
Luckily for Florence, the Duke of Milan caught the plague and died in 1402. Then, between 1408 and 1414 Florence was threatened once again, this time by the King of Naples, who also died before he could successfully conquer Florence. And in 1423 the Florentine people prepared for war against the son of the Duke of Milan who had threatened them earlier. Again, luckily for Florence, the Duke was defeated in 1425. The Florentine citizens interpreted these military "victories" as signs of God's favor and protection. They imagined themselves as the "New Rome" -- in other words, as the heirs to the Ancient Roman Republic, prepared to sacrifice for the cause of freedom and liberty.
The Florentine people were very proud of their form of government in the early 15th century. A republic is, after all, a place that respects the opinions of individuals, individualism was a critical part of the Humanism that thrived in Florence in the 15th century.
Essay by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Lauren Swalec
    What does the author mean by 'rebirth of the Renaissance'? I thought the Renaissance started in this period, so how could it be reborn?
    (1 vote)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Trey Thompson
    I'm just wondering, did they worship the Roman Gods in Florence at that time?
    (3 votes)
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    • female robot ada style avatar for user kleecolor
      If they did, it was in a private manner. Essentially, the answer is "no": This was an intensely religious (catholic) republic, and Roman Gods would have been considered false idols prohibited by the church and bible. All of this said, classical stories from antiquity were often used as inspiration and subject-matter for paintings.
      (5 votes)
  • starky seedling style avatar for user pim hienkens
    Was it not so that during the beginning of the 15th century that Turks were threatening Constantinople more and more and that a great flight of artists, painters, sculpturers, writhers and scientists fled the city and came to Italy. Their knowledge of the source of the classical orders and ideas formed greatly the Renaissance. Of course this exodus continued after Constantinople was conquered by the Turks in 1453.
    (5 votes)
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  • mr pants teal style avatar for user Leigh
    What were some examples of the "powerful guilds" mentioned in the second paragraph and were they in any way similar to Bards' guilds?
    (2 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user aecaroe
      The guilds of Florence were secular corporations that controlled the arts and trades in Florence from the twelfth into the sixteenth century. The guilds were took the term 'Arti' in Italian. The Arti included seven major guilds (collectively known as the arti maggiori), five middle guilds (arti mediane) and nine minor guilds (arti minori). Thru careful quality control and limited membership, these guilds formed the basis of Florence's commercial success before 1425. The richest and most powerful guild included only cloth merchants but excluded the highly skilled tradesmen that actually produced the goods. (In this way they were completely different from labor unions of today The Arti were similar to organizations like Stock Market Traders of today.) Other significant guilds included wool merchants, bankers, masons, builders, sculptors, lawyers and solicitors, Doctors and Apothecaries. The Arti were all unlike the fictional Bard's guilds as follows: "Mastery of the arts in the Bard's guilds requires cunning and experimentation rather than diligent preparation and simple method as in most professions." Cunning and experimentation were not encouraged in most apprentices to the Arti.
      (7 votes)
  • duskpin seedling style avatar for user lynn penner
    how is Florence different today from then?
    (2 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Felicity K.
    I must beseech, why did the Duke of Milan and all the other persons threaten Florence? Perhaps because they had a different manifestation of government? Or it may beest from an earlier encounter/and or disagreement between the two city states at the time, not unlike yon Sparta and Athens in ancient Greece during 431 BC? (Or perhaps they were just that disfavored.)
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user 22_kelley
    What year was this article published?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user hschiro2022
    How is Florence different from what it was in the renaissance
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user michael.springmeyer
    why did they start bringing up roman and greek culture in florence
    (2 votes)
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  • piceratops seed style avatar for user benjamin grimm
    is it possible that in the renaissance Florence there were paintings of a rare herb that could grant immortality
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      At the ripe old age of 67, and with friends in their 90s, I've come to think of the old Messopotamian address to a sovereign, "Oh King, live forever!" as a curse. Even the wishes to Chinese and Japanese emperors that they might live for 10,000 years (wan-soe in Chinese, Banzai in Japanese) are curses. An herb that would grant immortality? If such were found, rather than be painted (in Florence or anywhere) it should be plucked up and thrown into the fire.
      (2 votes)