The prince in the Renaissance

The prince in the Renaissance

The transition from the Middle Ages to the so-called "modern" era is generally referred to as the Renaissance. This term is however more attached to the artistic field than to the political one, and we know the debates it provokes, and not only on its chronological limits. What interests us here is to know if, between the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century, the notion of prince evolved, if there was really a rupture between the prince of the Middle Ages and that of the modern era. We will focus on the Italian "model", then on developments in France.

A definition of the prince

Defining the prince is the first difficulty, especially when dealing with a period of transition. If we stop at the definition of the Middle Ages, it is relatively simple for France since it obviously concerns the king, but also the blood princes. For Italy it is a bit more complex, because we can consider as prince all the lords like the Visconti of Milan, the Este de Ferrara, because they wield a temporal power, most often dynastic, including in republics (like the Medici in Florence). The same is true of the princes of the Church (the Pope himself has temporal power), but we will not deal with them here.

We can in fact define the prince from two angles: a society of princes, dynastic and political, with a hierarchical dimension; and the importance of sovereignty, especially territorial sovereignty at the end of the Middle Ages, a period when much thought was given to the nature of the prince and his power, through the literary genre of "mirrors of the princes".

In addition, we must not forget the importance of the image, and therefore consider as a prince the one who will ensure his social domination through the use of the arts and the exaltation of his power, the magnificence (inspired by Aristotle) . A specific characteristic of this period of transition, and even more of the next. This definition would go in the direction of that of Machiavelli who affirms that the prince is the one who convinces that he is ("to govern is to make believe").

A break with the Middle Ages?

Contemporaries, but also historians for a long time, have insisted on a rupture between the medieval prince and the Renaissance prince. The latter was presented, especially in Italy, as a cynical and selfish being, having contempt for the medieval conception of the prince legitimate by blood or the divine, but also wise and philosopher. The Renaissance prince, for his part, relying above all on his talents, rather than on a social hierarchy. There would therefore have been a break, a specificity of the “modern” prince. Is this really the case, or is the evolution more subtle? Take the example of Italy.

The Italian princes of the 15th and 16th centuries are regularly criticized for a rather unreasonable use of violence. A number of them are also former condottieres, like Federico da Montefeltro, Count of Urbino in 1444. The other famous example of the man who uses violence to establish his princely power is obviously that of César Borgia. The Renaissance prince therefore uses violence to gain power, but also to keep it. Contemporaries do not fail to note it, even to condemn it and to exaggerate it ... when it comes to rival princes. Because violence is not condemned as such: the main thing is that the prince is just; it is not respected and legitimate if it only uses force. Thus, a man like Federico da Montefeltro can be considered a good prince because he is also a protector of the arts and its subjects. Piety is also seen as a positive and even necessary thing. In this is he so different from the prince of the Middle Ages?

The quest for legitimacy is the same obsession for princes, especially in Italy. A legitimacy based on tradition, which can be described as medieval. Thus, we see Ludovico the More paying four hundred thousand ducats to Emperor Maximilian to make him duke in 1493. Another example, the portrait of Federico da Montefeltro by Juste de Gand and Pedro Berruguete, which shows the duke (since 1475) bearing the Order of the Ermine (received from Ferrante of Naples) and the Order of the Garter (received from Edward VI of England): a desire to be recognized as a prince by his peers. The princes are also collectors of illuminations and books of hours, or novels of chivalry as can be seen in the libraries of the Visconti or the Este. The Gonzaga of Mantua, for their part, had Pisanello painted scenes from the Arthurian cycle (1440). Obviously, when you get your legitimacy (by a title) from the Pope, the prestige is even greater.

As we can see, the break with the Middle Ages is not as striking as we often think, especially with regard to legitimacy. The evolution is perhaps more likely in how to govern.

The mode of government of the Italian prince

Let us stay in Italy, where the situation is the most complex. As we have mentioned, princely power in the peninsula is exercised over seigneuries, but also republics like Florence. The mode of government is therefore varied.

Historians have long believed that the Renaissance was marked by the effective authority of the prince's government, supported by professional armies and growing numbers, requiring heavier burdens and professionalization of the bureaucracy, to the detriment of the privileges of the Church. or nobility. Princes institute legislative rules, organize magistracies or exercise stronger control over the distribution of ecclesiastical benefits. They also support commercialism and stimulate the local economy, like the Sforzas in Milan. This observation must nevertheless be qualified, because the difficulties persist, for example in the fight against famine or epidemics, or in the economic field in the face of foreign competition. Likewise, many privileges remain and no prince manages to gain real control over the Church at the local level.

The difficulties of the Italian princes are also noticeable in the control of finances. The needs are growing, as are the problems in collecting taxes. Exceptional levies, even pledges of their assets, are not uncommon. The administration, as we have seen, is becoming more professional and skills are improving among civil servants, among whom we find more and more humanists. The prince surrounds himself with these at court, which he stages through the arts. However, here again, we must put a caveat to the control exercised by the Italian prince: the administration is often confused, the charges multiply and favor clientelism, the scope of propaganda at court - and even more outside - is relative.

We must therefore qualify the Italian "model", even if it brought some changes in the economic and fiscal field, the organization of the army, the role of the prince in the life of the arts, or in the bureaucracy. We should not be fooled by the abundance of sources, focusing only on public records. The political thought of the time in Italy remained relatively conservative and traditionalist, despite Machiavelli. And the definition of the state remains ambiguous and closely linked to the very personality of the prince. What then in France, where power seems much more centralized around a prince dominating the others?

The end of the principalities in France

The influence of the princes in France was at its height during the reign of Charles VI (1380-1422), with the struggle between Armagnacs and Burgundians which nearly led the kingdom to collapse. The end of the Hundred Years War changed the situation, and soon there were only two great principalities that threatened royal authority: Brittany and Burgundy. The action of Louis XI against Charles the Bold (defeated in Nancy in 1477) settles the Burgundian problem, then the marriage of Charles VIII with Anne of Brittany allows the beginning of the integration of this province into the kingdom of France, even if it is only really effective under Francis I. At the beginning of the 16th century, the great principalities were therefore swallowed up by the royal domain, only Bourbonnais remained, finally integrated as well in 1527 after the betrayal of the Constable Charles de Bourbon.

The King of France therefore finds himself as a prince with a real preeminence over the other princes, a situation very different from that of Italy. This undoubtedly explains in part the ease with which the kings of France conquered the north of the peninsula from Charles VIII.

The king of France, prince of the arts

Even if patronage and interest in the arts were already present among princes at the end of the Middle Ages, from Charles V to Jean de Berry, not to mention the Dukes of Burgundy, what is called magnificence becomes a central characteristic. of the Renaissance prince, the King of France at the head. By magnificence is meant "the prince's ability to demonstrate his right to rule by his wealth and by the magnanimous actions and gestures that flow from it." The ideal setting for magnificence is obviously the arts.

The patronage policy (later term) of François Ier has two inspirations: that of his predecessors Charles VIII and Louis XII, and even more that of the Italian princes, whether through the wars in Italy or through dynastic ties (François Ier claims a kinship with the Visconti). The King of France therefore surrounded himself with artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci or Jean Clouet, and recruited the most famous to stage his image and his power, such as Rosso for the François I gallery in Fontainebleau, intended to magnify the sovereign. . This patronage also serves as a model for other princes, such as Anne de Montmorency.

The prince and his subjects

If, in Italy, popular support is not really the priority of the princes, what about in France? What relationship does the Renaissance prince, King Francis I (and his son and successor Henry II) have with his subjects?

Medieval heritage still mattered a great deal in the early Renaissance, but rulers increasingly relied on their relationship with their subjects. The context of the end of the Hundred Years War and of the great principalities brings together the subjects behind the person of the king, in a movement that can certainly be started with Philippe le Bel, but which becomes a reality with Louis XI and Charles VIII , not to mention the popular Louis XII. François Ier is an heir.

The king’s subjects are brought together in communities of inhabitants, trades, companies of officers, etc. Corporate identity is thus essential in the relationship between the prince and his subjects. Is there then a dialogue between them? It should be put into perspective and focus mainly on the request for favors and complaints. In addition, this dialogue hardens with François Ier, who prohibits collective approaches, unlike Charles VIII or Louis XII, which does not prevent petitions from emerging, in particular in the cities, sometimes leading to royal ordinances. . The subjects are not, however, full partners.

The transition between the prince of the Middle Ages and that of the Renaissance is therefore gradual, both in his way of coming to power, of seeking legitimacy, of governing, or of exalting his image. There is indeed a medieval influence in the behavior of the princes of the Renaissance, yet supposed to wipe out the past.

However, differences are visible if we compare Italy and France, the latter seeing the authority of a single prince, the king, take precedence over the others, unlike the Italians. We can therefore wonder if the monarchy also evolved, and if the Renaissance monarchy was already marked by the absolutist temptation that the French sovereigns would embody from the 17th century.


- P. Hamon, Les Renaissances (1453-1559), Histoire de France collection, dir. by Joël Cornette, Belin, 2010.

- A. Jouanna, La France au XVIe siècle (1483-1598), PUF, 2006.

- E. Garin (dir), L’homme de la Renaissance, Seuil, 1990.

- P. Burke, The European Renaissance, Points Histoire, 2000.

- A. Chastel, L’art français. Modern times, 1430-1620, Flammarion, 2000.

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