In defence of the city-state

The early modern Italian republics are often portrayed as models of bad government. But the fusion of civic humanism and Christianity they championed endures to this day.

Detail of the fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti of 'Good Government' in the Sala della Pace in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena.
Detail of the fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti of 'Good Government' in the Sala della Pace in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. Credit: Alinari Archives/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Modern political thinkers have almost unanimously condemned Italian early modern republics as examples of bad institutions and bad mores. In Leviathan (1651), Hobbes ridicules the claim of Lucca, and of all the republics, to be repositories of true political liberty: ‘There is written on the turrets of the city of Lucca in great characters at this day, the word Libertas; yet no man can thence infer that a particular man has more liberty or immunity from the service of the Commonwealth there than in Constantinople. Whether a Commonwealth be monarchical or popular, the freedom is still the same.’ Montesquieu, the acknowledged master of constitutionalism, presents the Italian republics as detestable examples of arbitrary power and, as Hobbes had done with Lucca, equates Venice with Constantinople. In the republics of Italy, he writes in The Spirit of the Laws (1748), where the legislative, the executive and the judiciary powers are not properly divided, there is less liberty than in our monarchies: ‘Their government is obliged to have recourse to as violent methods for its support as even that of the Turks.’

Equally harsh is the verdict of The Federalist Papers (1788), one of the fundamental texts of American democratic thought: ‘It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and ltaly without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.’ Whereas for Montesquieu the chief failing of Italian republics had been that they were unable to institute a true separation of powers, for The Federalist they had proved incapable of curing the ills of factions. The former defect denied them the status of models of liberty; the latter downgraded them to negative examples of permanent instability.

If we move from conservatives, liberals and democrats, to the Marxists, things look no better. Antonio Gramsci, in my opinion the last and most intelligent Marxist thinker, considered the free communes an expression of the primitive, economic-corporatist phase of the modern state. With remarkable intellectual courage, he wrote in his Prison Notebooks that the last Florentine Republic (1530) belonged to the past, a past from which not even Machiavelli – although he did understand that only an absolute monarch could resolve the problems of the era – was able to escape.

A few dissenting voices are to be found in the 19th century, and they all focused on the mores and the culture of the Italian republics, in particular Florence. Simonde de Sismondi (1773–1842), a man of Protestant faith, reminded the Italians, in his Histoire des républiques italiennes du Moyen Age (1809–18), that their old republics were models of patriotism and religion. Some years later, Carlo Cattaneo, the intellectual leader of Italian republican federalism, wrote that Italian old republics deserve to be admired because they spread the sense of civic dignity even within the lowest strata of the people.

Both Sismondi and Cattaneo were right. Despite the strong inequalities that marked their social structure, despite the fact that only a minority of the inhabitants of the cities enjoyed full political rights, despite the pervasive power of family and clan connections, Italian city-republics offered their citizens greater opportunity to directly participate in political life than monarchies or tyrannies. In addition to direct political participation reserved for the citizens, civic rituals involved the entire population. As a result, both citizens and non-citizens developed a strong sense of loyalty to their republics. For mysterious reasons, the civic spirit that flourished in late medieval republics has remained alive over the centuries, as Robert Putnam has suggested in his Making Democracy Work: civic traditions in modern Italy (1993). Even today, some of the most civic cities and regions of Italy were in the past self-governing republics.

The practice of participation produced – and was in turn sustained by – a highly refined theory, or language, called civic humanism, masterfully studied by the German-American historian Hans Baron in The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance (1955), and later in In Search of Florentine Civic Humanism: Essays on the Transition from Medieval to Modern Thought. The basic tenets of civic humanism – derived primarily, though not exclusively, from Cicero’s De Officiis – were the principle that active life (life of business and active participation in political deliberations) is more praiseworthy than contemplative life (the life of solitary meditation); that active participation in political deliberations enhances the citizen’s wisdom and magnanimity; that each citizen has a moral obligation to serve the republic. This set of beliefs was reinforced by the persuasion that to be a good citizen is not only morally right but also wise: if citizens devote themselves to the service of the republic, they can stop corrupt and powerful citizens from becoming the owners of the republic, thereby enslaving the other citizens.

It is fair to point to the ideological nature of many self-representations of republics as models of popular sovereignty, of intense and free participation, of strong civic spirit inspired by the ideals of republican liberty. It is also fair, however, to stress that the political theorists, the historians, the jurists and the religious preachers who elaborated the language of civic humanism were perfectly aware that they were indicating a set of moral and political ideals, not describing existing social and political practices. Their hope was that their words had the power to inspire their fellow citizens to follow the ideals and change their practices.

What contemporary scholars, with few exceptions, have not adequately explored, however, is the fact that Italian city-republics produced – and were the product of – a particular kind of Christianity: a Christianity sustained by a religious sentiment that cultivated charity and preached the principle that only a good citizen who loves and serves the common good can be a good Christian. That kind of civil Christianity, as I believe it is fair to call it, also taught that Christian virtue is strength – not the strength to endure oppression and be resigned to corruption, but the strength to resist the men who want to impose their domination and to fight against the bad custom of placing particular and personal interests above the public good. Republican Christianity also affirmed that the republican form of government is the most grateful to God because it is the most apt to permit human beings to live in freedom. All the theorists of republican Christianity also maintained that republics need God because they have to face powerful enemies from within (tyranny and corruption), and from without (foreign invasions) and because it takes an enormous degree of wisdom to wisely deliberate for the common good. For this reason, all the important meetings of the deliberative bodies of Italian republics were preceded by the Holy Mass and prayers. Lastly, civic Christianity exhorted citizens to respect the law and to serve their republics guided by the confidence that citizens who govern well become similar to God (imitatio Dei) and deserve perennial glory.

Examples of republican Christianity are the texts written between the 13th and 15th centuries to instruct the governors of Italian republics on their duties and their prerogatives. The Oculus pastoralis, written around 1220, for instance, places great emphasis on the sacred dimension of the republican regime and on the duty of serving justice. The Liber de regimine civitatum (1240), by Giovanni da Viterbo, is even richer in considerations about the republican religion. The author begins his treaty with an invocation to God and adds that he intends to treat, with the help of divine grace, the principles of the republican government. The most influential treatment of republican religion is to be found, however, in the Livres dou Tresor, written by the magistrate and master of rhetoric Brunetto Latini (c1220-94). In the third book, Latini explains that ‘all dominions and dignities are conferred upon us by our sovereign Father, who, in the sacred order of earthly things, wanted that the cities’ government be founded on the three pillars of justice, reverence, and love’ and quotes the apostle to admonish that reverence to God is’“the only thing in the world which augments the faiths’ merits and overcomes every sacrifice’.

The treaties on government helped to spread the beliefs of republican religion. Even more effective, however, were the images that expressed those beliefs. Whereas the concepts expounded in the treaties appealed first and foremost to reason, paintings struck the eyes, and from the eyes touched the passions. The republics’ rulers were aware of the images’ strength, especially when accompanied by clear words, written in big and visible characters, preferably in the vulgar Italian. For this reason, they commissioned valid artists to produce works of art that explained to the magistrates and the citizens the principles of good republican government. The message that came from the walls of the city government’s most important halls was political and religious at once: civic duties are also religious duties, they are God’s and Christ’s commandments, not just human wisdom’s best advice.

An example is Simone Martini’s wonderful Maestà (1315), in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, in which Christ holds the scroll with the Book of Wisdom’s words: ‘Diligite iustitiam qui iudicatis terram [Love justice you who are rulers on earth]’. The Madonna too speaks a severe republican language: ‘More than flowers,’ the Virgin says, ‘I love good advice, and I suffer when men prefer their own advantage to the common good.’ The Virgin continues: ‘My beloved, bear in mind that as you wish I will meet your pious honest prayers. However, if the powerful harass the weak by burdening them with disgrace or harm, do not pray for them or whoever else deceives my land.’ Christ’s mother hereby warns Siena’s magistrates and citizens that she sides with the weak people offended and oppressed by the powerful. If they want to be heard by the Virgin, the citizens of Siena must take the side of justice. A perfect republican warning, but also a religious warning: because it is the Virgin who is speaking, and because her words pose a specific condition for the reception of divine help.

The principles of republican religion emerge also from the Cycle of Famous Men which Taddeo di Bartolo (1362–1422) painted between 1413 and 1414 in the Anticappella, placed between the Hall of the Nine and the Council Hall, that is at the centre of Siena’s institutional space. The artist powerfully represents the fundamental tenet of republican Christianity by the image of ‘Religio’ on top of the arch which leads to the chapel. Underneath ‘Religio’, portrayed as a Roman matron, lies the map of Rome, to signify the link between Christian religion and the classical republican ethos. The message is, however, unmistakably Christian: ‘Omne quodcumque facitis in verbo aut in opera in nomine domini iesu christi facite [Whatever you do in words or deeds, do it in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ].’ Serving the common good is once again asserted as the only way to be a true Christian.

If we move from Siena to Florence, the artistic representations which were meant to give a religious significance to republican liberty are equally splendid and meaningful. One of the most important examples, because of its artistic value and the eloquence of its political message, is the statue of David which Donatello began to sculpt in 1409, and which was transferred to the Palazzo Vecchio’s Sala dei Gigli in 1416. David is the biblical hero who decides to confront alone, armed only with a sling, the gigantic Goliath, and overcomes him. The religious character of the statue’s message emerges not only from the choice of a biblical hero, but also from the explicit reference to God’s help to those who fight for liberty, as we can read from the inscription placed at the base of the statue: ‘Pro patria fortiter dimicantibus etiam adversus terribilissimos hostes deus prestat auxilium [God helps those who fight with courage even against the most terrible enemies].’

As the sources that I have cited indicate, republican Christianity had a strong patriotic meaning. Its main principle was taken from De Regimine Principum [On the Government of Rulers], begun by Thomas Aquinas and completed by his disciple Tolomeo da Lucca. The crucial passage appears in the third of the work’s four volumes, and deserves to be quoted at length: ‘Amor patriae in radice charitatis fundatur [Love for the fatherland is founded in the root of charity]’ – which puts not the private things before those that are common, but the common things before the private, as Augustine says, elucidating the words of the Apostles on charity. Deservedly, the virtue of charity precedes all other virtues because the merit of any virtue depends upon that of charity. The text was referring to a passage from Psalm 121:12 where Augustine remarked that although it is a love that does not look for one’s own advantage or interest (‘non quaeret quae sua sunt‘), but for common goods, charity is a powerful passion. ‘Love is as strong as death’: these words, writes Augustine, describe in the best way the force of that particular love that we call charity (‘fortitudo caritatis‘). Death is more powerful than kings, fire, water, iron, and yet charity is as powerful because, like death, it destroys what we are so that we may be what we were not (‘ipsa caritas occidit quod fuimus, ut simus quod non eramus‘). Understood as a form of charity, love of country has therefore a transformative and empowering effect: it generates – through the death of the former souls attached to private goods – a different one, which puts common things before private and is longing for sharing and unity. The new soul is larger and more powerful than the old one, so powerful that it challenges death because it makes the individual part of a larger unity that outlives him.

This interpretation of patriotism also inspired the life and writings of Niccolò Machiavelli, the most renowned political thinker of the Renaissance. ‘I love my fatherland more than my soul [Amo la mia patria più della mia anima]’, he wrote in one of his last letters. Respected scholars like Isaiah Berlin have stressed that these words clearly indicate that Machiavelli was a pagan. But this view misinterprets Machiavelli’s belief. As he wrote in his Discourses on Livy, Christian religion ‘permits the exaltation and defence of our country’ and teaches us that it is ‘our duty to love and honour it’, and ‘to strive to be able and ready to defend it.’ To love our fatherland and to work and struggle to defend it was, therefore, for Machiavelli, the most Christian way of thinking.

The last important feature of republican Christianity was the prophetic spirit that animated and inspired it. Between the 13th century and 1530, prophets, diviners and the prescient crowded the public squares, streets, churches and courts of Italy. The intellectual and the social elite, as well as the popular classes, listened eagerly to their words. During the Renaissance, prophecy was ‘a generalised culture that had profound ties to the political and religious events of the period […] disseminated very broadly through different channels’, a ‘living experience’, and an important part of ‘townspeople’s practical knowledge’, as Ottavia Niccoli noted in her book Profeti e popolo nell’italia del Rinascimento [Prophecy and People in Renaissance Italy]. The prophetic spirit of the age of city-republics has left visible traces in the two literary masterpieces of that time, Dante’s Divine Comedy and Machiavelli’s The Prince. Dante reworks the verse of Virgil: ‘The ages turn new again/Justice returns with the first age of man/ And new progeny from heaven descends’ (Purgatorio 22); Machiavelli cites Petrarch: ‘Virtue will seize arms/Against fury, and the battle will be brief/For ancient valour/Is not yet dead in Italian hearts’ (The Prince, Chapter 26).

The prophetic spirit, as well as republican Christianity and republican patriotism, faded around 1550. By that time, also Italian republics had almost completely disappeared. In 1776, however, a new republic, the republic of the United States of America, the first republic on a large territory, was born. In its foundational years and in other crucial moments of its history, that republic showed evidence of the pervasive presence of an interpretation of Christian religion very similar to the one that had existed in the Italian republics. It also showed the presence of a patriotism and of a prophetic language that evoke the patriotism and the prophetic language that flourished in those Italian republics. The best evidence of this claim is the Great Seal of the United States. In this image, reproduced on the dollar bill, we read the inscription ‘In God we trust’, which powerfully summarises the core tenet of the old republican Christianity elaborated by the Italian republics. On the reverse of the Great Seal, we also read the words ‘Novus ordo seclorum [New order of the ages]’ lifted from the very same lines of Virgil which had inspired Dante’s prophetic verses some five centuries before.

It may well be a mere coincidence. Another interpretation, however, could be that republics can better survive, flourish, and experience moral and political rebirth, if they can count on a civic religion, on a patriotism and on a prophetic spirit similar to the republican Christianity, the patriotism and the prophetic spirit that the old Italian republics elaborated and bequeathed to modern times.


Maurizio Viroli