At the time that we begin our study of Italian history, in the latter part of the 18th Century, the peninsula had suffered over a thousand years of political fragmentation. In the years following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, traditionally dated as 486 AD, political fragmentation, invasion, and a general breakdown in technical and cultural levels became the norm throughout Europe. Italy's situation, therefore was not unique.
By the 1400's, however, the situation had changed dramatically. Europe had recovered cultural attainments of the classical world and were going on to new advances in architecture, the arts, business organization, and military technology, to mention only a few areas. The states of Italy were in the forefront of these developments. but there was a major lag in one major area. Whereas powerful unified monarchies appeared in such states as England, France, Spain, and Muscovy, there was no such success south of the Alps. In Italy a number of regional powers struggled among themselves for prominence.
Their weakness relative to the larger European states, the relative wealth of their cities, and their continual conflicts left the Italian states vulnerable to the predations of their larger neighbors. France began the onslaught in 1494; thereafter, Italy became a major battlefield on which the greater powers fought. As the British historian Harry Hearder remarked, there was a "tendency of the European peoples to murder each other, and to do so, if possible, on Italian territory." In the process most of the Italian states fell under foreign domination.
This political weakness led to
economic weakness as well. For the better part of three centuries, Italy
lay outside the mainstream of Europe, falling behind the most dynamic developments
in the other states. For this reason, the introduction to this course should
explore the reasons for Italy's fragmentation. The lectures for the first
week will focus on the role of geography and on the historic political
and social factors which inhibited political unification.