Italians Before Italy: Conflict and Competition in the Mediterranean

Course No. 8232
Professor Kenneth R. Bartlett, Ph.D.
University of Toronto
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Course No. 8232
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Course Overview

In 1260, the Italian city-states of Florence and Siena went to war. With wealth and power on its side, there was no question the Florentine force could easily overpower the underdog city-state of Siena. But that's not what happened. Against overwhelming odds, the Sienese won the crucial Battle of Montaperti, defeating their mighty enemy and preserving their independence.

That was nearly eight centuries ago, and yet, still today, whenever the team from Siena meets the Florentines on the soccer field, devoted Sienese fans chant "Montaperti! Montaperti!" in honor of that historic victory.

Throughout the Italian peninsula, you'll find the same thing: time-honored traditions, and ancient grudges. It seems there is not one Italy, but many—a mosaic of histories and culture that make up this dynamic nation.

Why do Italians remain so faithful to age-old rivalries and hometown traditions 150 years after the country's unification? What traces of this remarkable heritage do we see surviving in today's Italy?

In The Italians before Italy: Conflict and Competition in the Mediterranean, you'll find the answers to these and other fascinating questions. Esteemed Italian history professor Kenneth R. Bartlett takes you on a riveting tour of the peninsula, from the glittering canals of Venice to the lavish papal apartments and ancient ruins of Rome.

This course traces the development of the Italian city-states of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, showing how the modern nation of Italy was forged out of the rivalries, allegiances, and traditions of a vibrant and diverse people.

A More Complete Picture of Italian History

Professor Bartlett offers something unique with this course: a more comprehensive portrait of Italian history than you'll find nearly anywhere else. Those with no previous experience with Italian history and culture will find an exciting new world opening to them, and those who have visited Italy will be eager to return.

Through memorable stories and intriguing insights, Professor Bartlett shows how the particular circumstances of each independent state helped forge a distinct cultural character. Here's a sample of the many fascinating facts you'll learn:

  • Venice was so invested in its local glassmaking industry that its city fathers would send assassins after Venetian citizens who tried to leave the city-state and practice their craft elsewhere.
  • Merchants from Pisa used earth from Jerusalem as ballast on return voyages from the Crusades. They spread the soil in the city cemetery to ensure that Pisan citizens would be first in line to enter heaven on Judgment Day.
  • Birthplace to Virgil, the poet of ancient Rome, Mantua was home to the first opera, Monteverdi's Orfeo, as well as the amazing Mannerist palace, the Palazzo Te.

Intriguing stories like these create a rich, diverse portrait of Italy—a grand mosaic of lustrous and storied cultures as distinctive as the people who helped build them.

"Better a Death in the House than a Pisan at the Door"

As you come to know these many Italys, you'll see how the Italian states defined themselves against the others, competing for territory, trade, and artistic supremacy—and how the vestiges of these interactions are visible even today.

Consider the rivalry between the Genoese and the Pisans. Why do the Genoese of today prefer "a death in the house to a Pisan at the door," as the old adage says? It all stems from an ancient grudge, going back nearly eight centuries. In 1241, ongoing tensions boiled over into full-scale warfare as Pisa went to battle with Genoa. The Pisans won handily, destroying the Genoese fleet in the process. The sting of that defeat—and the resulting hatred of all Pisans—lives in the hearts and memories of many modern-day Genoese.

Throughout the course you'll see how rivalries like this one have played out, fuelling the artistic, political, and cultural innovations—from technology to fashion design—for which Italy is famous today.

Italy on the World Stage

But the stories of the Italian states are also inextricably linked with large world events of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Your first stop is the Near East, where you'll examine how the Crusades influenced the development of Genoa, Pisa, and Venice. Professor Bartlett explains how these burgeoning maritime states came to dominate seafaring trade by providing passage to knights and their retainers and importing luxury goods from the East.

Looking to the West, you'll explore Italy's troubled relationship with the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church. Professor Bartlett traces the ever-shifting role of the papacy and the emperor in Italian life and politics, including the famous struggle among three competing popes who simultaneously battled to rule the Western church.

And then there are the competing international powers that threatened Italian independence, such as the repeated incursions by the Turkish Empire. You'll see how the Italian city-states struggled to overcome their differences to face this powerful foe, and how time and again, regional competition within the Italian peninsula nearly destroyed their ability to keep outside threats at bay.

Tales of Intrigue and Inspiration

Throughout this course, you'll also get a glimpse into the lives of the powerful and influential, and see how far they were willing to go to reap the profits of power. You'll hear about:

  • Pope Paul IV, who championed the Roman inquisition and, in his zeal to root out heresy, was said to have hidden in the room of a dying priest so he could hear his last confession.
  • Luigi Gonzaga, who cut out the hearts of his enemies and nailed them to the doors of their palaces as a warning to others who might challenge his power.
  • Ugolino, the so-called Cannibal Count of Pisa, who was imprisoned with his sons and grandsons until they died of starvation, and is rumored to have feasted on his children's bodies to maintain his strength.

But the story of Italy's fabled past is also one of inspiration. You'll hear of great leaders—the Medicis, Borgias, and Estes—who wielded the tools of statecraft and fostered one of the greatest periods of cultural activity the world has ever known.

Italian Identity—Then and Now

As you get to know the distinctive personalities and events that define the peninsula, you'll gain fresh insights into the Italy of today.

You'll learn how the ancient guilds that dominated life and trade in medieval Italy helped forge the modern Italian sense of pride of place. From the revered guilds of the great shipbuilders of 14th-century Venice to the modern workshops of Prada and Ferragamo, there is a direct line of ancestry, one that speaks of a remarkable heritage of craftsmanship.

This course also sheds light on the tumultuous politics of today's Italy. As you examine the political highs and lows of Italy's great city-states, you'll gain a new understanding of civic life in Italy—a nation infamously difficult to rule.

Join Professor Bartlett for this illuminating view of the rich mosaic that is the Italian peninsula. Surprising, enriching, always engaging, The Italians before Italy offers a unique and comprehensive perspective on one of the most dynamic and creative cultures of the modern world.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Italy—A Geographical Expression
    Today we think of Italy as a unified nation, an ancient civilization with roots in the Roman Empire. But is the idea of Italian unity anything other than a myth? In this opening lecture, Professor Bartlett introduces the idea of Italy as a mosaic of distinct cultures and traditions, exemplified in its ancient city-states. x
  • 2
    The Question of Sovereignty
    After the collapse of the Roman Empire, power on the Italian peninsula was assumed by those who could assert it. Over time, this led to the development of two theories of political sovereignty and the two competing factions that supported them: the Guelfs, who gave supreme authority to the pope, and the Ghibellines, who allied themselves with the Holy Roman Emperor. x
  • 3
    The Crusades and Italian Wealth
    The crusade to win the Holy Land back from Islamic conquerors was more than a spiritual quest for medieval Christians; it also supplied a rallying cry to unify the disparate European states and provided occupation for the idle knightly class. For the Italian city-states, it served as a crucial impetus for the development of trade relationships, seamanship, and banking. x
  • 4
    Venice—A Maritime Republic
    The Crusades made the Italian maritime cities rich, but Venice benefited most. This lecture examines Venice's unique origins and circumstances, and explores the remarkable rise of the city's ruling class and prominence in international trade. x
  • 5
    The Terraferma Empire
    For the first part of its history, Venice remained aloof from politics on the Italian peninsula, retaining its ties to the Byzantine Empire in the east. But as the city expanded, it needed new territories to support its growing population. In this lecture, we explore Venice's expansion into a land-based empire through the conquest of its neighbors. x
  • 6
    Genoa, La Superba
    Remembered mostly as the city of Christopher Columbus, Genoa also boasts a rich and vibrant, if often chaotic, history. We delve into the city's early history as a maritime power that equaled the might of Venice and learn why it took the nickname of La Superba, "the proud." x
  • 7
    Bankers and Dukes
    Genoa initially built a maritime empire that rivaled even the greatest Italian cities of its day, but factional instability and internal political weakness led to its decline on the high seas. This lecture examines two key institutions that filled the void created by Genoa's political instability: the mighty Bank of St. George and a new political office, that of the Genovese Doge, or Duke. x
  • 8
    An ancient city, Pisa was also a major competitor with Venice and Genoa for the position of chief maritime empire on the peninsula. But repeated conflicts with neighboring city-states and a variety of strategic errors ultimately led to the loss of Pisan independence, first to Milan and then to Florence. x
  • 9
    Christians vs. Turks in the Mediterranean
    After the second half of the 15th century, the Mediterranean became the battleground between east and west, Christianity and Islam, Turks and Europeans. The increasing power of the Turkish empire led to a decline in Mediterranean trade, and with it, the decline of Italian wealth and independence. x
  • 10
    Rome—Papal Authority
    As headquarters for the pope, Rome served as a religious center for Europe. But it was also a secular state with political ambitions served by the earthly exercise of power. In this lecture, we explore the impact of the church's often chaotic history on the development of Rome as an Italian city-state. x
  • 11
    Papal Ambition
    As a papal state, Rome's identity as a city-state was deeply influenced by the ambitions of the various popes who took power over its long history. This lecture traces the careers of several popes who sought to expand papal power, sometimes through progressive civic and religious policies, and sometimes through conspiracy and conquest. x
  • 12
    Papal Reform
    The Council of Trent had profound effects on not just the Roman Church but on the city of Rome and the political office of the papacy itself. In addition to responding to a call for spiritual and moral regeneration, this effort at reform reaffirmed the idea of papal monarchy. x
  • 13
    Naples—A Matter of Wills
    Naples and its island territory of Sicily represent a completely different kind of government from that found in central and northern Italy: a feudal kingdom ruled almost exclusively by foreign monarchs. In this lecture, we trace the troubled reign of the houses of Anjou and Aragon as they attempted to rule this most unruly of regions. x
  • 14
    Naples and the Threat to Italian Liberty
    European rivalries continue to be played out in Naples through the competing foreign factions that claimed sovereignty over the kingdom, culminating in the Treaty of Blois in 1505, which transferred Neapolitan authority to the Spanish kingdom of Aragon. x
  • 15
    Milan and the Visconti
    A rich and ancient city, Milan eventually became a center for artistic innovation and a skilled producer of armaments. In this lecture, we explore the early success of Milan under the rule of a powerful family, the Visconti, including one of its most renowned members, Giangaleazzo, who dreamed of uniting all of Italy. x
  • 16
    The Sforza Dynasty
    The review of Milanese history continues with an examination of the powerful Sforza family and their influence on the city-state's development. The lecture highlights the reign of Lodovico il Moro who, with his wife Beatrice d'Este, transformed the court of Milan into a celebrated cultural center renowned for its elegance, learning, and intelligence. x
  • 17
    Mantua and the Gonzaga
    Under the rule of the powerful and ambitious Gonzaga family, the fertile region of Mantua was transformed into a center of art and culture, and Gonzaga rulers came to be known for their skill as condottieri, or mercenary captains. But maintaining the Gonzaga taste for art, music, and intellectual activity ultimately emptied the treasury. x
  • 18
    Urbino and the Montefeltro
    Like Mantua, Urbino was a small condottiere principality that achieved recognition for its military prowess and its patronage of art and culture. This small mountainous region experienced political ups and downs, and the glittering court of its ruling family, the Montefeltro, lives on in the one of the classics of Renaissance literature, Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier. x
  • 19
    Ferrara and the Este Family
    As a principality, Ferrara was a city-state whose history reflects the character and interests of its ruling dynasty. Ferrara's rulers, the Este, were professional military captains and patrons of the fine arts. Like the rulers of Urbino and Mantua, the Este of Ferrara sought to combine these two spheres, and as a result, produced some of the most notable princes of the Italian Renaissance. x
  • 20
    Siena and the Struggle for Liberty
    Although Florence is more often vaunted as the greatest Italian republic, Siena provided an earlier example of republican rule, one celebrated for its opulent art and wealth, but also known for its chronic instability. x
  • 21
    Florence and the Guild Republic
    Before slipping into monarchy in the 16th century, Florence stood as model of republican rule that would be a fundamental force in the creation of the Italian Renaissance. In this lecture, we examine the growth of this remarkable republic and determine how it managed to achieve success when so many of its fellow republics, as well as many of the other states of Italy, fell into despotism. x
  • 22
    Florence and the Medici
    In this lecture, we explore the influence of one of the most renowned families of the Italian Renaissance, the Medici. Through canny leadership, brilliant diplomacy, and the artful use of strategy, the cultivated Medici family built Florence into a glittering capital of culture and statesmanship. x
  • 23
    The Italian Mosaic—E Pluribus Gloria
    The most striking aspect of these independent states of Italy is their political, social, economic, and cultural variety. In this lecture, we step back to view this variety in the context of the Italian character and explore how the competition among states helped create the most illustrious period of cultural brilliance since the time of ancient Greece. x
  • 24
    Campanilismo—The Italian Sense of Place
    In this final lecture, Professor Bartlett summarizes the course by explaining campanilismo, the Italian sense of connection to one's homeland. It is this sense of pride of place that unifies the diverse cultural perspectives that make up the mosaic that is Italy. x

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  • Download 24 audio lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 192-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 192-page printed course guidebook
  • Chronology of Popes and Emperors
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

Kenneth R. Bartlett

About Your Professor

Kenneth R. Bartlett, Ph.D.
University of Toronto
Professor Kenneth R. Bartlett is a Professor of History at the University of Toronto. He received his Ph.D. from the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto in 1978. He was the first director of the University of Toronto Art Centre and founding director of the Office of Teaching Advancement at the university, a position he held until 2009. Much of Professor Bartlett’s career has been devoted to bringing...
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Italians Before Italy: Conflict and Competition in the Mediterranean is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 56.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Professor Can't Keep Things Simple Primarily due to the professor's teaching style, unfortunately, this course did not do it for me. Which is a shame considering there are no other dedicated courses in the TGC library that covers the political events of this period of Italian history (non-renaissance). Can we get a redo from someone else? While I am on the topic of gaps in the TGC library could we please PLEASE get a course on the History of the Holy Roman Empire? Heck, alternatively create a course dedicated to German history and devote a few lectures to the HRE. I find it a glaring hole that we have to learn about these subjects piecemeal as part of other courses. Sorry one last "ask": how about a course on the history of the Normans (not just the 1066 conquering of England)? The best summation I can give concerning "it not working for me" is that Professor Bartlett had a hard time keeping things simple from sentence construction to the relating of events. Beyond the summation.... Professor Bartlett tends to deliver his lectures in a style that was best described by another reviewer as “grand”: has an air of superiority at times, uses high-falutin vocabulary, difficult to understand words, and his sentences at times are long expositions on grand themes that don’t seem to end and leave you wondering exactly what point he was trying to convey. This was made apparent by the end of lecture 1 in which I was left wondering what points was he actually trying to make? The second lecture was a warning sign to me that his style of presenting history was going to conflict with the way I like to learn. I prefer the chronological approach focusing on specific events of a specific time period and moving to the next. Instead he primarily discussed “big picture” themes that canvased long periods of time sacrificing important specific events. Specifically, this lecture was supposed to be on the state of Italy post the fall of the Roman Empire so I expected perhaps a few hundred years to be covered and it to focus on the 8th century Lombards (the next major ruling people of the Italian peninsula post Rome) but instead there was no mention of them at all and he jumped to Henry IV’s battle with the Pope in the late 11th century all the way to the onset of the Crusades! Which would have been fine if he covered in adequate detail the important specific events of those 6 centuries but instead he barely touched on events and spoke in grand themes. Then I realized he was more covering the general theme of authority: Pope or Holy Roman Empire. Foreign involvement in the Italian city-states and their frequent overthrows of each other is dizzying but the professor doesn’t do a very good job of clarifying that confusion. He hops from one dynasty to another, one military battle after another without much pause to take stock/remind his listeners of where we now stand (for example Aragon and France flip flopped rule over Naples so many times it was hard to tell at certain times in lectures 13 and 14 who was in charge and who all the major individual players were so I had to re-listen a few times). I was hoping he would recognize that most of his listeners would be beyond confused and whiplashed from all of the twists and turns and at times slow down to reiterate certain points to keep his audience with him. Still, there is historical narrative here that cannot be found in other courses: the story of Italy’s most famous city-states prior to Italian unification focusing primarily on the period of the mid 1100s-late 1500 chronicling the never-ending struggle of the Italians to independently rule their homelands in the face of repeated foreign invasion and domination (French, Spanish, Pope, and Holy Roman Empire). For that reason I will give it three stars and will retain this course. Maybe you will take more away from this than me so I won't say don't buy this. But I do think you'll enjoy Professor Noble's "Popes and the Papacy: A History" more---at least as it relates to that part of the story.
Date published: 2020-08-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Overview of Italy Before Unification I wanted to know more about the history of Italy before it was unified. Being young "country", the independent states operated independently far longer than they have as one. This course was informative and easy to listen to. I actually listened as I painted my porch during COVID-19. Of course, it made me want to get on a plane and go to Italy, but that will have to wait until the world lets us in again.
Date published: 2020-07-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well designed. Professor Bartlett is an excellent lecturer. His design for the course was well structured, focused and appropriate for a general audience. I particularly enjoyed his summary reflections on how this history informs the current Italian culture.
Date published: 2018-05-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very interesting A lot happened on the Italian peninsula, of course, between the latter years of the Roman Empire and the unification of Italy. Kenneth Bartlett does an excellent job of summarizing the themes and events of the history.
Date published: 2018-04-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Complete in depth review of the time period. I really enjoyed the presenter. I have another one of his courses and appreciated his delivery. The few pictures added a better understanding of the time period. Although it wasn't what I originally thought the course would be, I thoroughly enjoyed the material.
Date published: 2018-03-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Title clearly describes the main reason for the co As an American who was blessed with strong Sicilian parents, the course clearly clarifies the truths and contradictons that has made my life so adventurous.
Date published: 2017-07-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from GREAT INSTRUCTOR! The instructor is better than excellent. This is the third Great Courses course of his that we have had and all are very well done. He has superb knowledge and is an outstanding speaker.
Date published: 2017-06-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Italy back when my wife and I watched this course about 1 year after visiting northern Italy with our daughter's in laws who live in Milan. We had seen some but not most of the cities that are covered in the course so there was a mixture of recognition and discovery. Most of the history was new, the conflict between Genoa and Venice, roles of the cities in the Crusades. We approached this from a broad perspective and the major themes of the diversity of government in northern Italy inability to sustain power for long periods of time, problems in the transfer of power from one generation to the next were well illustrated. The professor was enjoyable to listen to and watch on the DVD. The DVD was helpful because of the illustrations and maps.
Date published: 2017-06-07
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