The ending of imperial authority, quickly followed by the papal crisis
involving its transfer to France from 1309 to 1377, was accompanied by a
strengthening in the independence of the Northern and Central Italian communes.
There was also a notable economic improvement for the majority of towns in the
Po Valley and Tuscany.
In particular, while the maritime cities (Venice, Genoa etc.) retained control of the spice trade and other oriental products, industrial and commercial activities (especially the working of wool and the dyeing of textiles) flourished in the cities of the interior, like Florence and Milan, favouring the accumulation of capital and therefore the growth of financial dealings. It is of significance that it was in Tuscany that Francesco Datini of Prato introduced the promissory note that was so useful for banking transactions. Tuscan, Lombard and even Venetian and Roman bankers financed the military undertakings of European sovereigns and the papacy, thus increasing their own prestige and political influence.
The scarse inclination of the newly-formed urban middle-class for military
activities led to a search for the protection and support of their interests by
the powerful feudal families. In a short time, although in the name of the
people, they acquired the signoria or lordship of the old communes. Their sphere
of interest then often spread considerably beyond the original town and its
surrounding district, forming a much more extensive territory. In practice, the
change from commune to new signoria also signified the transformation of
the first city-states into true and proper States, whose political force was
therefore directly connected to their economic power.
In this atmosphere of renewed vitality, culture also prospered with a new enthusiasm for the study of the classical world and a revaluation of interest in nature and man (humanism). The arts (from literature to the expressive and figurative) had one of their finest moments. The appearance of towns was transformed with the introduction of new styles of architecture. During this period Italy indeed became the cultural centre of Europe.
Among the great signorial families emerged the Este at Ferrara, Gonzaga at Mantua, Scaligeri at Verona, Malatesta at Rimini, Montefeltro at Urbino, Carraresi at Padua and Torriani at Milan. At Florence there survived, althought with considerable dif ficulty (as the Ciompi Revolt of the woolworkers in 1378), the free republican institutions, and at Rome the absence of the papacy resulted in the brief, impossible, revolutionary dream of Cola di Rienzo (1347-54).
Among the young Italian signorie in the second half of the 14C, the most ambitious proved to be the Visconti, who had succeeded the Torriani in governing Milan (1350). Their founder, Gian Galeazzo, pursued a policy of expansion (not without the support of well-organized mercenary armies and their condottieri) throughout a large part of the Po Valley and even as far as Genoa, Umbria and Tuscany but came up against the firm resistance of the pope and Florence. On the death of Gian Galeazzo in 1402, the ambitions of the Duchy of Milan were reduced and Venice, having subdued the other Venetian signorie, succeeded in advancing as far as the banks of the Adda. In the meantime also the Florentine republic was drawing to an end. In 1382 the last corporations represented in the city's government were removed and an oligarchic regime installed that would later lead to the signoria of Cosimo de' Medici (1434). While several years later the king of Sicily, Alfonso d'Aragona, seized the throne of Naples (1442) and the Visconti of Milan were replaced by the Sforza (1448), after the brief interlude of the Repubblica Ambrosiana.
A period of calm, in the agitated political panorama of Renaissance Italy, seemed to be heralded by the Peace of Lodi (1454). The great Italian states of Milan, Florence, Venice, Rome and Naples agreed to guarantee through the Lega Italica at least forty years of peace and stability.