Virtually from the Fall of the Roman Empire (476) until 1861, Italy was never a united country and also had to endure centuries of foreign domination.
At the same time, Italy’s contribution to civilization and human progress has been inestimable: over seventy per cent of the world’s art treasures are Italian. It is probably the only nation to have had two periods of greatness, Rome and the Renaissance, when its civilizing influence was at its height. And yet, the Renaissance coincided with the beginning of a long period of occupation by the Spanish, the French and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
These two themes, Italy’s lack of national unity and her civilizing impact, were, in effect, taken up by the Swiss historian, Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897), who doubted whether the glories of the Italian Renaissance would have been created if there had not been the rivalry, in artistic patronage, between the Popes, the princes and the various noble families — such as the Medici in Florence, the d’Este of Ferrara and the da Montefeltro of Urbino — and, thus, the presence of different cultural centres, instead of the concentration in the capital city of a united country of the talent, art and energy of its people.
How differently would events have unfolded, if Machiavelli’s call — in The Prince, to the Italian rulers, to act in concert to avoid foreign invasions — had been heeded?
Would the history of the Americas, and hence of the world, have been different, if the Italians had financed Christopher Columbus?
Another interesting perspective is the complementary nature of Roman civilization and that of the Renaissance. The latter probably seemed closer in spirit to the Ancient Greek city-states and appeared to lack the political and supranational organizational genius of Ancient Rome. While the Romans excelled in literature and oratory, the greatest masterpieces of the Italian 1400s and 1500s were in the visual arts.
There many facets to Italian history: it is, for instance, intimately linked with that of the Papacy and the Catholic Church.
Italian individuality found expression in the history of the various maritime republics, Papal Rome, the Florence of the Medici and, of course, the history, art and culture of the Republic of Venice.
Have the lessons of history been learnt? Will the Italians seek and foster the spirit of national unity so ardently called for by former President Ciampi?
The modules in this program consider some important aspects of Italian history.