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Stagnation - 1530-1790

From 1530 until 1790, that is for a period of nearly three centuries, the Italians had no history of their own. Their annals are filled with records of dynastic changes and redistributions of territory, consequent upon treaties signed by foreign powers in the settlement of quarrels which nowise concerned the people. Italy only too often became the theater of desolating and distracting wars. But these wars were fought, for the most by alien armies; the points at issue were decided beyond the Alps; the gains accrued to royal families whose names were unpronounceable by southern tongues. The affairs of Europe during the years when Hapsburg and Bourbon fought their domestic battles with the blood of nobles may teach grave lessons to all thoughtful men of our days, but none bitterer, none fraught with more insulting recollections, than to the Italian people, who were haggled over like dumb, driven cattle in the mart of chaffering kings. We cannot wholly acquit the Italians of their share of blame.

When they might have won national independence, after their warfare with the Swabian emperors, they let the golden opportunity slip. Pampered with commercial prosperity, eaten to the core with interurban rivalries, they submitted to despots, renounced the use of arms, and offered themselves, in the hour of need, defenseless and disunited to the shock of puissant nations. That they had created modern civilization for Europe availed them nothing. Italy, intellectually first among the peoples, was now politically and practically last; and nothing to her historian is more heart-rending than to watch the gradual extinction of her spirit in this age of slavery.

From the fall of Siena on to the nineteenth century Italy can scarcely be said to have existed at all except as a geographical expression. Italians still ruled over certain parts of the land, but they had the vices without the virtues of their nation, and reigned more as the dependents of foreign sovereigns than as independent princes. During the seventeenth, the eighteenth, and the early part of the nineteenth centuries, Italy was made the scene of wars in which her people had no interest, and was divided by treaties which brought her no good.

The general aspect of Italy, during the whole course of the seventeenth century, remained unchanged by any signal revolution. The period which had already elapsed between the extinction of national and civil independence and the opening of the period before us had sufficed to establish the permanency of the several despotic governments of the peninsula, and to regulate the limits of their various states and provinces. If we except some popular commotions in Naples and Sicily, the struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor had wholly ceased. Servitude had become the heirloom of the people; and they bowed their necks unresistingly and from habit to the grievous yoke which their fathers had borne before them. Their tyrants, domestic and foreign, revelled or slumbered on their thrones.

The Italian princes of the seventeenth century were more voluptuous and effeminate, but perhaps less ferocious and sanguinary, than the ancient Visconti, the Scala, the Carrara, the Gonzaga. But the condition of their subjects was not the less degraded. Their sceptres had broken every mouldering relic of freedom; and their dynasties, unmolested in their seats, were left (we except that of Savoy) to that quiet and gradual extinction which was insured by the progress of mental and corporeal degeneracy - the hereditary consequences of slothful and bloated intemperance. The seventeenth century, however, saw untroubled to its close the reign of several ducal houses, which were to become extinct in the following age.

The seventeenth century saw the renewal of fighting as the Thirty Years' War spilled southward over the Alps. A pan European war had once again broken out on Italian soil. Drained by the expense of war, increasingly challenged by the growing commercial power of the Dutch and the English, and ravaged once again by the plague, Italy suffered a severe economic depression from which it did not begin to emerge for another hundred years.

In mid century, southern Italy was convulsed in a peasant war against the Spanish and their baronial allies. While the north was developing a nascent form of capitalistic economy and social structure, the south remained virtually untouched, still locked in feudalism. The peasant wars were initially successful, conquering entire provinces and rousing massive popular support, but in the end the barons won, inflicting horrendous revenge on the rebel population. The defeat of the peasant rebellion of 1647-48 doomed southern Italy to remain frozen in time, isolated from the rest of the country and economically exploited by the Spanish and the feudal lords.

Compared with that of the preceding century, the history of Italy at this period may appear less deeply tinged with national crime, and humiliation, and misery; for the expiring throes of political vitality had been followed by the stillness of death. But, as a distinguished writer has well remarked, we should greatly err if, in observing that history is little more than the record of human calamity, we should conclude that the times over which it is silent are necessarily less characterised by misfortune. History can seldom penetrate into the recesses of society, can rarely observe the shipwreck of domestic peace and the destruction of private virtue. The happiness and the wretchedness of families equally escape its cognisance. But we know that, in the country and in the times which now engage our attention, the frightful corruption of manners and morality had sapped the most sacred relations of life. The influence of the Spanish sovereignty over a great part of the peninsula had made way for the introduction of many Castilian prejudices ; and these were fatally engrafted on the vices of a people already too prone to licentious gallantry. The merchant-noble of the Italian republics had been taught to see no degradation in commerce ; and some of the numerous members of his household were always engaged in pursuits which increased the wealth and consequence of their family.

But the haughty cavalier of Spain viewed the exercise of such plebeian industry with bitter contempt. The Spanish military inundated the peninsula ; and the growth of Spanish sentiment was encouraged by the Italian princes. They induced their courtiers to withdraw their capital from commerce, that they might invest it in estates, which descended to their eldest sons, the representatives of their families; and the younger branches of every noble house were condemned to patrician indolence, poverty, and celibacy. It was to recompense these younger sons, thus sacrificed to family pride, and forever debarred from forming matrimonial connections, that the strange and demoralising office of the cieisbeo, or cavaliere servente, was instituted : an office which, under the guise of romantic politeness, and fostered by the dissolute example of the Italian princes and their courts, thinly veiled the universal privilege of adultery.

This pernicious and execrable fashion poisoned the sweet fountain of domestic happiness and confidence at its sources. The wife was no longer the intimate of her husband's heart, the faithful partner of his joys and cares. The eternal presence of the licensed paramour blasted his peace ; and the emotions of paternal love were converted into distracting doubts or baleful indifference. The degraded parent, husband, son, fled from the pollution which reigned within his own dwelling, himself to plunge into a similar vortex of corruption. All the social ties were loosened : need one demand of history if public happiness could reside in that land, where private morality had perished.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:01:00 ZULU