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The history of this region of Italy differs significantly from other areas in the country due to the Etruscan ancestry, Roman rule, and subsequent takeover by Western Europe for most of the last millennia.
The Etruscans were an ancient people who formed the first viable civilization in the area in which they settled. Where the Etruscans came from, however, is still a major issue of debate in academia; theories include that they came from Asia, or northern Europe. At any rate, Tuscany is derived from their name. Much of what is know about Etruscan civilization can be traced from the stunning, original artwork and the detailed necropolises that have come down through the ages.
By the third century B.C. the independent Etruscan civilization, with its many colonies around the Arno River and including cities such as Cortona, Arezzo, and Umbria, found itself more or less integrated into the Roman Empire, which, culturally speaking, benefited greatly from this merger. The fall of the Empire, however, saw what seemed to be neverending barbarian invasions for the next three to four hundred years.
The sack of Rome by Alaric in 410 A.D. marked the fall of the Italian peninsula. Subsequently the Italians slid further into poverty and away from the enlightened Roman era with each subsequent attack and by the repeated attempts at reconquest. In 568 A.D. the Lombards entered Italy from the Northeast quickly gaining control of modern day Tuscany, Liguria, Piedmont, Lombardy, and Venice. The south remained loosely in the hands of the Byzantines while Rome remained an ever important bishopric. In 751, the king of Lombardy captured the Byzantine capital of Ravenna and pushed his borders nearly to Rome. Fearing a loss of autonomy, Rome acted quickly calling on the French Carolingians to add Rome. Although Pepin was initially crowned by the pope, his son Charlemagne would bring the northern Italy under control eventually under the name of the Holy Roman Empire. This invasion proved to be the most lasting, dividing Italy into three distinct zones, one influenced by the Mediterranean Byzantine kingdom, one dominated by the papacy, and one influenced heavily by Western Europeans including Tuscany. The constant struggle to control the far flung reaches of each sphere of influence slowly led to political fragmentation that remained until the later half of the nineteenth century.
But despite the political struggles between Lombardy then Carolingian rule, Byzantine influence, and the bishopric of Rome, cities in Italy were allowed to maintain their rights to govern themselves, strengthened what would become the city-state model in much of Italy. With relative peace, trade flourished in both Northern and Southern Italy encouraging the development of tradesmen and skilled artisans. As the opportunity for trade grew and demands were made by crusading armies, the city-states of Italy became wealthier and as a result more independent. By the eleventh century, the new found wealth and feeble foreign rule allowed city-states to act autonomously with consulates albeit with heavy influence from the bishoprics. Indeed, Pisa's great cathedral was begun in 1063 just after the city-state's successful sack of Palermo in Sicily marking the true rise to wealth within Tuscany.
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, wealth and power continued to increased as city-states consolidated land and power nearby the main town centers. The city-state's sphere of influence included lesser settlements and farmland. With resources, wealth, and a burgeoning population, Northern city-states were able to push back against a series of kings looking to consolidate their power in the region. Discovering that Italy was not worth the expense of warfare nor the continual effort to subdue, the northern kings eventually allowed the city-states to govern virtually unchecked. Pisa, Lucca, Florence, Prato, and Siena were the most powerful of the northern city-states with over four hundred northern cities asserting their independence.
With the development of autonomy and wealth, the Renaissance was looming to end the Middles Ages, a term in fact coined by Florentine humanists in an effort to name the less than golden period between the fall of the Roman Empire and their own cultural "rebirth" nearly a thousand years later. By the fourteenth century, the communes had developed systems for executive and judicial functions to create laws, to monitor the bureaucracy, to defend the works of various guilds, and to define citizenship. Literacy increased within cities as the need for lawyers, bureaucrats, and orators did. The city relied heavily on the surrounding countryside for food, labor, and materials while offering those living in rural areas the protection of a larger state.
However, this period also gave rise to the signoria, a type of despotism that threatened to limit the seemingly democratic republics of Northern Italy. The role developed over time as elected officials began to assume more responsibility and began to become the symbolic leader of the town. Eventually the signore's influence over the city allowed his position to be passed to his son, one he had groomed to take on these additional responsibilities and increasing wealth.
No one exemplifies this in the same way as the Medici family of Florence. Initially from a small town several kilometers north of Florence, the family steadily grew their influence and wealth through their banking business. As great patrons of the cities of Florence and as members of the consulates, the Medicis found themselves in a position to slowly consolidate power. The role of the Medici family cannot be undermined here, and the Medici influence was dominant and felt throughout the region. This dynasty, though, came to an end in 1737 and Tuscany found itself part of a Grand Duchy; under Napoleon, the area was briefly part of the French Empire.
In 1860, Tuscany became part of the newly unified Italy. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Italy was experiencing growing pains in the forms of ongoing political turmoil--clashes among landowners, the mercantile class, and the laborers/workers--that resulted in violence and grew in part out of conflicting political ideologies, including communism, anarchism, and fascism. When Benito Mussolini became prime minister of Italy in 1922, Tuscany, like the rest of the country, fell under Fascist rule until 1943.
During World War II, Tuscany found itself on the frontlines of the war, and quite literally so: The Arno River was, at one time, considered the frontline. Many Tuscan cities, including Florence, Pisa, and Livorno, suffered great damage from bombs, not to mention lives lost. Despite this, Tuscany played a major role in the Resistance movement during the war, and in the postwar years spearheaded an energetic move toward reconstruction and promoting and reviving the cultural and artistic legacies that continue to thrive well into the twenty-first century.