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CR: The New Centennial Review 2.1 (2002) 17-31

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Italy and the Invention of America

Theodore J. Cachey Jr.
University of Notre Dame



According to a venerable historiographic commonplace, when the Genoese Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, he sailed out of the Middle Ages and into early modern Atlantic modernity. Meanwhile, back in Italy, the death in that same 1492 of the Florentine Lorenzo de' Medici, "Il Magnifico," marked the end of an epoch as well, and the beginning of a period of severe political crisis. The Florentines had long occupied (especially since the rise of the Medici) the central and mediating position in the peninsula politically, culturally, and linguistically. Lorenzo was, as they called him, "the needle in the balance" (l'ago della bilancia) and had held things together politically during the roughly half-century of delicate equilibrium struck between the five principal Italian powers (Florence, Milan, Venice, the Papal States, and Naples) that had followed the Peace of Lodi (1435). It all began to unravel [End Page 17] with Il Magnifico's premature death at the age of 43. Successive waves of war, beginning with the descent of Charles VIII of France in 1494, who took Italy, as Machiavelli was to remark ruefully, "with chalk" (his troops simply marking with chalk the doors of the houses they would occupy) rolled down upon the peninsula over the next thirty years or so. The struggle between France and Spain for dominion over Italy eventually ended, following the infamous Sack of Rome in 1527 (by then the capital of an irreparably broken Christendom), with the victory of Charles V, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and king (as Charles I) of Spain. He would dominate Italy from around 1530 (following the Peace of Cambrai in 1529 and his papal coronation by the Medici Pope Clement in Bologna in 1530) and rule over an empire, including recent American conquests (Mexico in 1521, Peru during the 1530s) upon which "the sun never set."

The expansion of imperial Spanish power on a global scale during the High Renaissance corresponds from the perspective of spatial history in a contrapuntal relation to the collapse of Italy, its loss of political freedom, and its failure to achieve any form of national-political identity. In less than half a century, Italy abruptly lost its central position in the Western world, which up until that time had been essentially Mediterranean. In the middle of that sea, for many centuries, Italy stood at the crossroads of cultures, mediating between east and west, north and south. Now, in the transition between the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, it was abruptly "de-centered": in political and economic terms as a result of the Italian wars, in religious terms as a result of Luther's reform and, most importantly for the perspective of this discussion, geographically, as the result of the discoveries, explorations, and conquests that radically revised the map of the world beginning with Columbus and with the Portuguese Vasco da Gama, who circumnavigated Africa and reached the east in 1498 (immediately setting off bells of alarm in Venice as the chroniclers report).

It's from this crucible of crisis that what is generally known as the Italian High Renaissance emerges during the first decades of the new century—the "swan-song" of late-medieval Italian civilization. In literary terms, for instance, books that were to be fundamental for the early modern Europe that will dominate the new Atlantic and increasingly "globalized" world were [End Page 18] all published during the first decades of the sixteenth century: works like Niccolò Machiavelli's Prince, whose searing analysis—produced by the need to dominate, at least in intellectual and literary terms, the nature of the Italian political crisis—marked the birth of modern politics. 1 Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier became the classic courtesy book for the aspiring early modern courtly gentleman, 2 while Jacopo Sannazaro's Arcadia was the source for early modern pastoral literature. 3 Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso is...


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