Italian term for the self-governing city-states of late-medieval and early Renaissance Italy. The commune originated as a spontaneous organization of the citizens of an urban community. At its origin, such a commune had no legal status but assumed de facto control of the city and sometimes also control of the surrounding countryside. This development was a result of the struggle between popes and emperors during the 12th and 13th centuries, which brought about the collapse of effective control of northern and central Italy by the emperors or any other external political authority and left the cities practically independent. Although the formation of communes was almost always led by wealthy landowners and merchants, the early communes were organized as republics in which most inhabitants who owned property and belonged to one of the guilds had some political voice. During the 13th century, these informal urban communities came to be more systematically organized as city-republics which might acknowledge some nominal subordination to the emperor, the pope, or some other external authority but in practice were independent republics. From the late 13th to the middle of the 15th century, military threats from outside and internal social conflict caused most of these republics to accept the rule of a signore, or dictator. In the same period, many of the smaller cities of northern and central Italy were conquered by larger ones, so that the northern and central Italy of the communes gave way to medium-sized territorial states. Florence and Venice were the most important of the cities that resisted the tendency toward princely rule and retained their republican form of government through all or most of the Renaissance. The consolidation, rivalries, and wars of these independent states form the political background for the cultural developments of the Italian Renaissance.
   In many respects, the political condition of Italy was similar to the political condition of ancient Greece, in which the independent poleis (city-states) provided the social and political background for the growth of classical Greek civilization. Renaissance Italians did not fail to note this similarity. In particular, living in fully or largely self-governing cities made the Italians regard themselves as citizens rather than subjects. Many of them found in the political and social thought of the ancient Greeks and Romans a set of ideals and values that they attempted to assimilate into their own urban life, a development that some modern historians have labelled "civic humanism." This development helps to explain the attractiveness of Roman and Greek literature, and especially republican political thought, to the political elites of Renaissance Italy.
   See also Humanism.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.


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