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The Creation of the Italian Commune: Architecture as a Tool of Politics

Out of the darkness of the Middle-Ages, helped by the extreme economic power of commerce, and taking advantage of the turbulence caused by the constant fight for control between the church and the Holy Roman Empire, there emerged in Italy an urban form forgotten since Antiquity: the city-state.

These states, also known as Communes, gained the rights and liberties that marked their independence between the late eleventh and the thirteenth century, and some of them obtained significant power and wealth. We could claim that their formation helped to open the way for the Italian Renaissance.

Panoramic view of Florence, where the emphasis in public buildings and squares is obvious,

In the realm of urban planning, the independent governance brought great change and development. Some of the most famous elements of the Italian cities, the squares, the cathedrals, the city halls, have their origins in this period, and mark different political decisions of the era. For example, the creation of the piazza marked the intention to create a safe environment for citizens, eliminating the dangers and unhealthiness of the dense medieval urban fabric. The construction of city halls meant the obvious need to house the local government centrally, to confirm their power. And the replacement of the old with new cathedrals was a symbolic way to compare the grandeur of the cities.

But apart from the addition of the above urban spaces, there was an occasion when governments ordered the elimination of a characteristic form of the Italian architecture: the tower. They realized that the rivalry between families, which found its spatial expression in their effort to construct the highest tower, would weaken the central power. Hence, in some cities all the towers were demolished; as in Siena, their marks on several buildings are still visible to an attentive observer.

The most rich and powerful among the many independent states were undoubtedly Venice and Florence, cities that continued to flourish commercially, as well as artistically and architecturally throughout the whole Renaissance period. But one of the best examples of a well-organized city-state is that of Siena. Its development ceased unexpectedly in the 1350s because of the Black Death, and the city remained since frozen in the period of the Commune creation.

The central square and the impressive city hall of Siena.

The urban and architectural development, due to a change in governance, is a common result throughout history. The formation of the city-state is a political change that not only created a large number of beautiful and worth-visiting cities in north Italy, but also influenced the architectural achievements of the whole European continent. It also marked a significant, still visible today, difference in the local spirit between the north and the south of the Italian peninsula, overstating the impact of the political scene to the city environment.

In what ways do you believe that the governance systems affect the cities of today?

Credits: Images by Marilena Mela. Data linked to sources.