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The Italians before Italy: Conflict and Competition in the Mediterranean

Trace the development of the Italian city-states of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and discover how the modern nation of Italy was forged out of the rivalries, allegiances, and traditions of a vibrant and diverse people.
Italians Before Italy: Conflict and Competition in the Mediterranean is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 64.
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Rated 4 out of 5 by from Falls Short of Potential The course provides a tour of the major principalities on the Italian Peninsula in the Late Middle Ages. The first three lectures provide the political and geographic background from collapse of the Roman Empire through the Crusades. After that introduction, Dr. Bartlett looks at the major principalities one-by-one, usually devoting one to three lectures per principality. This has the advantage of seeing the development of a microculture (e.g., Milan) but it makes it difficult to see the integrated development across the peninsula as a whole. Perhaps that is his point because it does reflect the fragmentation of the Italian Peninsula in the Late Middle Ages. While each lecture is presented as a chronology, the course as a whole is not organized chronologically. This makes it difficult to make the connections when two principalities (e.g., Venice and Padua) interact. As suggested by the title, the course never gets to unification of Italy as a nation. Unfortunately, Dr. Bartlett seems to be reading rather than speaking to us. He presents as if he were summarizing things we should know without delving into the decisions people faced and the reasons they made the choices they did. He came across to me as trying to be patient with me, a kid with nowhere near his knowledge of the subject. One would think that a course focusing on Italians would be far more expressive. 😉 The course guide is generally below average by The Great Courses (TGC) standards. It is in outline form, which I consider less effective than narrative form. It has no maps nor other illustrations. (A map showing each of the principalities covered in the course would have been particularly useful.) However, the appendices are above average relative to TGC standards. There is a list of popes from 1417 (following the Great Schism) to 1555, a list of Holy Roman Emperors from 1046 to 1576, a timeline from 313 (the Edict of Milan) to 1571 (the Battle of Lepanto), a glossary, extensive biographical notes, and a bibliography with an explanation of what value each reference might bring to the reader. I used the audio-only version. It is also available in DVD. I suspect that the video version would be better than the audio-only version because the maps and illustrations, particularly of art, would be helpful. The course was published in 2007.
Date published: 2022-12-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Informative narrative Informative narrative of the medieval and renaissance histories of the various Italian polities. While I learned a lot from the course, there were some odd omissions in Professor Bartlett’s approach. For example, I do not recall any critical evaluation of the sources for his narratives. There was no mention of other scholars’ research and how they might differ from the standard interpretation of historical events.
Date published: 2022-04-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding As with every one of this professor's courses, this one is a winner in every respect. Material is clear and beautifully presented. It is pleasure to listen and watch Prof. Bartlett
Date published: 2022-01-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from No new insights I signed in to add a 5 star score for the course, but I have no new or different insights or comments from those already posted so I will not embellish. You can trash me as a not useful reviewer if you wish, but that doesn't really accomplish anything substantial
Date published: 2021-10-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Insightful, revelatory, but sad, too! Unlike most histories that assume a roughly chronological form, moving from the more distant past towards the present, Professor Bartlett has chosen -- wisely, I think -- to focus on chronological developments within several city-states and regions one by one, a process that while inevitably causing us to jump around from one place to another, as well as to one time or another, also gives us the chance to absorb those aspects of political, cultural and artistic developments that make those respective cities and states unique. Professor Bartlett works hard at conveying the "flavor" and history of each city and region in the peninsula of Italy, something which gives this course something of a "choppy" feel, and it can be difficult to keep track of exactly "where" we are "at" both in terms of place as well as time. The ongoing struggle between the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy throughout this period is related from slightly different perspectives as we learn how this played out in, say, Florence, and then also in Vienna, Rome and the other principal cities of the time. Some cities were republics, others aristocratic, and other oligarchic in structure and this, too, can get a little mind-blurring as we shift from one city and place to another. The papacy and the Church come off rather badly as well since the popes of the time were secular rulers of the Papal States and often quite corrupt as well. To see a so-called "spiritual leader" so often involved in poisonings, assassinations, and warfare is, to put it mildly, seriously off-putting. The mind-numbing, necessary relating of the seemingly constant struggles and warfare between feuding families, cities, regions, and foreign powers that characterized Italy through these years after the fall of Rome and before the unification of Italy is hard to absorb without feeling great sadness over how we humans seem wedded to using violence to achieve our ends. Further, while the Italian city-states covered in this course did achieve remarkable things in the areas of commerce, knowledge, and the arts -- for the Renaissance is part of this period of history, also -- it is clear that the lives of ordinary men and women, whether in the cities or the countrysides, would have been difficult, even harsh. In addition to the toll exacted by plagues, famines and natural disasters civilians had to repeatedly endure marauding bands of warring men as it seems that factions and sides kept changing depending upon the shifting political winds. All in all, a fascinating course presented in a manner that always kept my attention.
Date published: 2021-07-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent I got this course to provide context while I watched "Medici the magnificent" on Netflix. It is doing that very well.
Date published: 2021-07-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from worthwhile really enjoyed this course, & would have rated it a 5 were it not for what i perceive to be surprising omissions. There was little on Sicily; & nothing on San Marino or Puglia (with Bari). Besides those shortcomings, there was virtually nothing on the actual national formation in the 1800's. Since this course was specifically about Italy before it became a nation, you would expect at least 1 lecture (there were none) on that transformational event.
Date published: 2021-02-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Extremely Clear and Informative This is an excellent set of lectures for anyone seeking to get a handle on the extremely complicated political history of the Italian peninsula during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Professor Bartlett's lectures are well organized and extremely clear. He divides the many Italian states into sensible groupings (maritime states, principalities in the north, Tuscan republics, the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily, the Papacy) and explains how they were similar to and different from one another. Prof. Bartlett provides enough detail to give the course "meat," but not so much as to be overwhelming.
Date published: 2020-11-30
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Esteemed Italian history professor Kenneth R. Bartlett takes you on a riveting tour of the Italian peninsula


Kenneth R. Bartlett

In short, and in almost every way that matters, historical Europe was the laboratory in which the world you now live in was conceived and tested. And you'll be living with the consequences of those experiments for the rest of your life.


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 the culture of European history into undergraduate and graduate classrooms. He has taught regularly in the University of Toronto Summer Abroad programs in Europe. He has been the recipient of numerous teaching awards, most notably, the 3M National Teaching Fellowship, awarded by the Canadian Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, and the inaugural President’s Teaching Award from the University of Toronto. In 2007, Professor Bartlett was one of the 10 finalists in TVOntario’s Best Lecturer Competition, which pits students’ favorite instructors against one another in a battle of charisma, clarity, passion, and conviction. That same year, the professor was recognized with an inaugural Leadership in Faculty Teaching Award by the government of Ontario.


Professor Bartlett is the author of The English in Italy, 1525–1558: A Study in Culture and Politics; The Civilization of the Italian Renaissance: A Sourcebook; and most recently, A Short History of the Italian Renaissance. He is also coeditor or translator of five other books, including Humanism and the Northern Renaissance (with M. McGlynn), and author of more than 35 articles and chapters on European history and culture. He has been the academic consultant and occasional on-camera commentator for the Illuminated Filmworks videos about the Vatican Library and for such television series as The Naked Archaeologist and Museum Secrets.


Together with his wife, Gillian, who herself holds a Ph.D. and is the author of seven books, Professor Bartlett regularly leads tours to Europe for major museums, universities, and cultural organizations.


Professor Bartlett’s other Great Courses include The Development of European Civilization, The Italian Renaissance, and The Italians before Italy: Conflict and Competition in the Mediterranean

By This Professor

The Great Tours: Experiencing Medieval Europe
The Development of European Civilization
Italy—A Geographical Expression

01: 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.

34 min
The Question of Sovereignty

02: 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.

30 min
The Crusades and Italian Wealth

03: 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.

30 min
Venice—A Maritime Republic

04: 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.

30 min

05: 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.

30 min

06: 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."

30 min
Bankers and Dukes

07: 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.

30 min

08: Pisa

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.

30 min
Christians vs. Turks in the Mediterranean

09: 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.

30 min
Rome—Papal Authority

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.

30 min
Papal Ambition

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.

30 min
Papal Reform

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.

30 min
Naples—A Matter of Wills

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.

30 min
Naples and the Threat to Italian Liberty

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.

30 min
Milan and the Visconti

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.

30 min
The Sforza Dynasty

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.

30 min
Mantua and the Gonzaga

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.

30 min
Urbino and the Montefeltro

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 "he Book of the Courtier."

30 min
Ferrara and the Este Family

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.

30 min
Siena and the Struggle for Liberty

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.

30 min
Florence and the Guild Republic

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.

30 min
Florence and the Medici

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.

30 min
The Italian Mosaic—

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.

30 min

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.

31 min