Italy, the Renaissance, and Religious Conflict

Italy as a unified nation did not exist until the late 19th century. After the fall of the Roman Empire in 5th century BCE, the small patch of surrounding territory still belonging to Rome became known as the Papal States, with the Pope as its monarch.

By Galileo’s time, nearly a thousand years later, the Italian-speaking peoples had grouped themselves into rival, local, independent states, each centered on a commercial city ruled by a dominant family. The relative stability and freedom of these city-states combined with the rediscovery of the works of ancient Greece and Rome to give birth to the Italian Renaissance – a flowering of arts, culture, and thought that spurred Western civilization into the modern age.

Spain, at the time a mighty power, controlled these Italian republics and made them pawns in the religious wars among the great rulers of Europe. In 1517, the German priest Martin Luther famously nailed his Ninety-Five Theses for the reform of the Church to the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg. Luther’s protest movement against the Church, now known as the Reformation, responded to the Church’s history of abuse and corruption, and argued that an official Church – and even a priesthood – was unnecessary for the individual to commune with God. Luther’s movement spread like wildfire, leading to two centuries of religious wars between the Catholic powers of Europe and those nations that officially adopted Protestantism.

The most intense of these wars took place during Galileo’s lifetime. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), in some ways Europe’s first “world war,” devastated the continent in a complicated series of conflicts. The war pitted the Holy Roman Empire (Spain, Austria, and the Catholic German states) against a shifting coalition composed of the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, France (although France was Catholic), and the Protestant German states.

Italy was spared some of the worse devastation, but the endless conflict, largely fought by scavenging mercenaries, led to widespread famine and disease and decimated Europe’s population. France would eventually emerge as the continent’s new great power, and the Church’s political influence would wane.

– Scott Horstein


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