THE TRANSFORMATION OF SOCIAL LIFE FROM THE MIDDLE OF THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY
The fact is that the traditional authorities which dominated both social and intellectual life declined or disappeared far earlier in Italy than in the rest of Europe. And this was largely a consequence of the extraordinary development of urban life. Just at first the nobles inhabiting the cities were involved in incessant conflicts with the bourgeoisie, but gradually, insensibly, they began to engage in commerce, so that the very clear line of demarcation which elsewhere divided the noble from the non-noble was slowly effaced, the descendants of knights and the offspring of enriched merchants intermingling in a community of manners and interests, independently of birth. The social status became more important than the juridical status; moreover, in the course of the 14th century the Italian nobility abandoned the profession of arms, thereby losing the raison d’être of its constitution as a distinct and privileged class. War became a profession which was left to specialists, the condottieri, men of the most various origins, the majority being successful parvenus; men in whom there was no trace of the old feudal loyalty. And while the noble was divesting himself of his specific class characteristics a similar transformation was proceeding in the ranks of the wealthy bourgeoisie. The progress of economic organization, the development of commercial society, and the improvement of instruments of credit had the consequence, from the very first, of requiring in the banker or the man of affairs an intellectual ability and culture which were not found in the same degree among the merchants of the North, and far less than the latter was he “subdued to what he worked in.” While giving due attention to his business, he allowed himself some hours of leisure, so that he was able to distract himself by intellectual interests, embellish his house with works of art, and acquire a refinement which made him singularly unlike the “patricians” of Germariy, Flanders or France. And so, recruited at once from the nobility and the
bourgeoisie, a sort of mundane aristocracy came into existence, comprising all those who lived the same kind of life, enjoyed the same degree of education, had the same tastes, and indulged in the same pleasures; and this kind of aristocracy had not its like in any other country. The old society was disintegrating. New groups were in process of formation, no longer determined by convention and prejudice, but coming into existence freely, by virtue of affinities; and in these groups one may say that the spirit of class was replaced by the spirit of humanity.