This book examines the debates on Republican and Signorial Renaissance political systems in Renaissance Italy. The period between the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries saw significant discussion in Italy about the two different political models of republicanism and seignorialism, reaching a climax at the end of the Trecento when the most influential scholars of Florence and Venice began to attack the despotism imposed on Milan by the Visconti. The arguments put forward by both sides were largely predictable: supporters of a Republic argued that liberty – represented by an elective government and independent from foreign powers – was of greatest importance, while those in favour of seignorialism instead claimed that they brought order, unity, and social peace.

In this book, the two systems of government represented in Italy are revisited, the arguments put forward by their supporters are compared and contrasted, and the development in the use of political language, especially in the city-states of central and northern Italy, are explored. The reality, it is suggested, is that the political systems of republicanism and seignorialism were not so very different. Republican governments ignored universal suffrage, those supported by signori did not always run totalitarian governments, and in both cases, power continued to be held by recurring oligarchical groups who were unwilling to enter into constructive dialogue with their opponents. However, as the two sides fought for power, the political arena became the testing ground for new forms of communication that could be used to manage and manipulate public opinion.

Ricciardelli - Book Cover FinalThis volume invites scholars to observe Italian republicanism from a different perspective by shifting attention away from the analysis of the various systems of government (monarchy, aristocracy, democracy) toward the vision of the city as an institution because, as contemporary theorists of communes and signorie assert, it is always and only the will of the city, independently of the political system, that governs it, which seeks the bonum commune. Whether it is a comune or a signoria, at the centre of the city’s governability is found the civis for which the system itself becomes nothing other than an interchangeable ‘political product’ to be utilized according to the circumstances. Tyranny is evidently a completely different form of government not to be equated with the signoria, as coeval intellectuals demonstrate. Therefore, between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Italian communes became a republican exception within an almost uniformly monarchist (Christian) West, and the personalization and dynasticization of seignorial domains represented a sort of homogenization of central and northern Italy within the larger Euro-Mediterranean framework. And still another important issue arises from the gratitude that all historians have regarding the theories of Hans Baron and for that numerous and illustrious group of exiles, to which belonged scholars such as Paul Oskar Kristeller and Ernst Kantorowicz, who from nazi Germany relocated their academic careers to the United States in the years of the second World War and who theorized the Florentine republicanism of the Renaissance as a model for contemporary democracies in contrast to the ruling and useless nazi regime. Baron thus elaborates the theory of the birth of civic humanism as a reaction of Florentine intellectuals to the threat represented by the Milanese expansionism of the tyrant Giangaleazzo Visconti. Once again, however, while being a fascinating theory, it remains unilateral and is at least somewhat forced. In any case, the example of the Italian republics has undeniably represented a fundamental reference point for the values of modern political thought, which has made controversial and sometimes severe judgements in their regard.

But even if they were vertically oligarchic and incapable of avoiding an exponential aristocratization of the mercantile classes, the Italian republics were experiments of government that contributed to extending the participation in government and in legislative power to sometimes large segments of the population.