Front Page Titles (by Subject) 89.: Italy in the Seventeenth Century - Judgments on History and Historians
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89.: Italy in the Seventeenth Century - Jacob Burckhardt, Judgments on History and Historians 
Judgments on History and Historians, ed. Alberto R. Coll (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999).
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Italy in the Seventeenth Century
Italy was Hispanicized and immobilized. Its sterility manifested itself in its political death and intellectual decline (the latter, however, must be taken with a grain of salt). Economically it decayed while its needs increased. Sismondi (History of the Italian Republics in the Middle Ages) breaks out in especially great lamentations over the general practice of married women having a lover (cicisbeo). This practice had emanated from the court and come into being as a contrast to Spanish jealousy; it was a reaction to it. In the end, no one any longer knew in any respected Italian family whose son, father, or brother he was. At the same time, it was an excellent remedy for the general depression of spirits.
But Hispanicization also took the guise of “noble leisure.” The bankers and businessmen invested their fortunes in real property with entail (I am not shedding any tears over the banking houses that went out of business). People generally were doomed to become idle—the earlier ones because they were arrogant, those born later because they could do nothing about it. For the latter, the cicisbeo practice came to be their chief amusement.
Two rules were in force here: No lady may appear in public unescorted; no man may escort his wife. Morals had been no better before this, but only now was adultery declared harmless. (Who said so, anyway?) For the most part, incidentally, this practice was innocuously boring. To what extent did the practice spread to the people? Sismondi says: “Ces moeurs nouvelles … imitées par la masse entière du peuple” [These new customs … imitated by the entire mass of the people].
In any case, the ruin of commerce was caused by the disappearance of the industrialists and the withdrawal of capital. On top of this, Hispanicized Italy was steered in this direction by the monopolies and the absurd trade taxes which smacked of Alcavala.
Something else that can be traced back to Spanish influence was the increase of pomp as a matter of social position, at the expense of real needs and the comforts of life. People began to live purely for display.
This is true also of titles and ceremony, beginning with the wrangles over precedence at the courts (Este, Medici, Savoy, Farnese, and others), which, after all, were all in the pockets of Spain or France, and of the cardinals who only now (1630) became Eminences. This reached so far down that people wound up addressing their cobblers in writing as “molto illustre” [very illustrious]. Everyone simply became more and more discontented about the titles that were still denied him.
The father of a family, who had originally been married off without his own consent, was not honored by his own (or other men’s) children. Half of his brothers and sisters were in convents, the other half were enjoying free board at his table. He was considered only the administrator of the family estate, while all the others were secretly bent on their own pleasure. He could no longer augment the property; on the contrary, it was decreasing through taxes, misfortune, and extravagance. (? Then there would long since have been nothing left!) He could neither mortgage nor sell it; creditors could reach only his income, not his property. (Am I not right, citoyen Sismondi? Everything should have got into the hands of the speculators even then. For it would not have got into the hands of the peasants.)
“Pour chaque besoin imprévu il prenait sur le fonds déstiné à la culture” [For each unforeseen need he drew upon the funds earmarked for farming], which he should have spared; “il ruinait ses terres, parce qu’ il n’avait pas droit de les vendre” [he ruined his lands because he had no right to sell them]; the tenants suffered along with him.
Added to this were the indolent or venal judiciary, the secret enemies and informers, the tribunaux arbitraires [arbitrary tribunals].
People let themselves go and had as much fun as they could.
This description of “Hispanicized” life actually applies also to most other European peoples of the time.
Yet Italy lived on in its fashion without declining further. Sismondi is the mouthpiece of utilitarianism. The race did not degenerate.
To be sure, in those days people were a long way from the present- day utilization of manpower and of the earth. Periods of so-called lying fallow, materially speaking, have a value of their own.