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By the third decade of the 16th century, the broad-minded curiosity of the Renaissance had begun to give way to the intolerance of the Counter-Reformation. This was the response of the Church to the Reformation, a collective term for the movement led by Germany's Martin Luther that aimed to reform the Church (and which led to the rise of Protestantism in its forms).

The transition was epitomised by the reign of Pope Paul III (1534-49), who - in best Renaissance style - promoted the building of the classically elegant Palazzo Farnese in Rome but who also allowed the establishment of Ignatius Loyola's order of the Jesuits in 1540 and the organisation in 1542 of the Holy Office. The Holy Office was the final (and ruthless) court of appeal in the trials of suspected heretics and part of the Inquisition (1232-1820), the notorious judical arm of the Church whose aim was to suppress heresy.

Pope Paul III's fanatical opposition to Protestantism and his purging of the clerical abuse, as he saw it, resulted in a widespread campaign of torture and fear. In 1559 the Church published the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Proibited Books) and the persecution of intellectuals and free-thinkers intensified as part of the Roman Church's strategy to regain papal supremacy over the Protestant churches.

Two of the great Italian intellectuals to suffer during the Counter-Reformation were Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Bruno, a Dominican monk, was forced to flee Italy for Calvinist Geneva, from where he travelled extensively throughout Europe before being arrested by the inquisition in Venice in 1592. In 1870 the Kingdom of Italy erected a statue of Bruno in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, where he had been burned at the stake.

An advocate of Aristotelian science, Galileo was forced by the Church to renounce his approval of the Copernican astronomical system, which held that the earth moved around the sun rather than the reverse. But where Bruno had rejected the Catholic Church, Galileo never deviated from the faith that rejected him.

The latter years of the 16th century were not all counterproductive. Pope Gregory XIII (1572-85) replaced the Julian calendar with the Gregorian one in 1582, fixing the start of the year in 1 January and adjusting the system of leap years to align the 365-day year with the seasons. In addition, the city of Rome was greatly embellished by the architectural and sculptural achievements of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680).

However, despite these exceptions, Italy no longer determined European cultural expression. The Age of Exploration that had opened up the Americas and other markets to the Atlantic maritime powers of Spain and Portugal ( and later Britain and Holland) meant the decline of Italian ports and trade. Epidemics and wars left Italy divided and dominated by foreign powers, especially Spain and, to a lesser extent, France. Spain’s hold was wrenched loose in the wake of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14). France’s ambitions were also held in check. Instead the Austrians moved in to control Lombardy and much of the north (but not Venice and the Veneto). Tuscany was under the control of the Lorraine dynasty (and closely linked to Austria). The Bourbon dynasty installed in Naples meant the southern kingdom, or what was now known as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, had become independent.


The Italy of the 18th century, although mainly ruled from abroad, was set to play its part in an era that broke down many of the national barriers of Europe - a development as much due to the intermarriage of its monarchies as to new trading laws necessitated by bad harvests in many areas of the continent. The papacy became less influential, particularly following the expulsion of the Jesuits from Portugal, France and Spain.

The enlightenment swept away the dark days of the Counter-Reformation, producing great philosophers and writers such as Cesare Beccaria (1738-94), whose masterpiece Of Crimes & Punishments attacked torture and capital punishment as barbarism and advocated reform of the criminal code, a proposal taken up by Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany, who abolished the death sentence.

In the field of economics, ideas advocating the liberalisation of trade laws were put forward by the influential writer Pietro Verri (1728-97) who, along with his brother Alessandro, introduced reforms in schools and universities as well as in the government of Lombardy.


Italy had been the source of many enlightened political ideas but the concept of national sovereignty had not been one of them. However, when the French general 27-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Italy in 1796 and unilaterally declared himself its dictator, a nationalist movement began in earnest. Inspired by the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French leftist Jacobin movement gained significant support in Italy, when, in his first year of occupation, Napoleon used Italy as the base for his expedition into Egypt.

The Jacobin movement established a republic in Rome, renewing the debate about Italy as a nation and the sovereign rights of its people. This movement was dubbed the Risorgimento (Revival) by Italian dramatist Vittorio Alfieri (1749-1803). However, the mainly middle-class movement found itself unable to bring about social reforms quickly enough for the peasants, particularly the very poor of Naples. A peasant army sacked the city, littering its streets with dead Jacobins.

Although he had declared himself first consul of Italy in 1799, Napoleon acceded to the calls of Italian deputies in the north to proclaim a republic. For the first time in history, the political entity known as Italy came into being, albeit with Napoleon as its first, self-elected president.

When Napoleon made himself emperor of France in 1804 he established the Kingdom of Italy and made himself its first sovereign, inviting Pope Pius VII to crown him king in Paris. Pius delayed his visit, reluctant to give his endorsement to the power brokers of the French Revolution (which had greatly curtailed the power of the Catholic Church). He was also loath to endorse the marriage of Napoleon to the divorcee Josephine. When the pope finally arrived several days late, Napoleon was not amused. As the pope raised the emperor’s crown to his head, Napoleon took it and crowned himself.

Napoleon Bonaparte - small man, big ideas

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