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Back to the Renaissance? A New Perspective on America's Cities Research

Joel Kotkin


By the early years of the second millennium, a new and expansive era of cities was beginning, most particularly in Italy. Although a fraction of the size of classical Rome or Alexandria, the new urban centers thrived by seizing the ancient urban niches as marketplace, incubator of artisanal industries, and cross-cultural creativity.

These cities—Venice above all—consciously modeled themselves on their classical predecessors. They studied the records and monuments around them, and in so doing, Renaissance Italians rediscovered the knowledge of past urban glories. "What is history but the study of Rome?" asked the Italian lyric poet and scholar Petrarch.

But in rediscovering the urban riches of their own storied peninsula, the Renaissance Italians also opened their eyes to the extended vistas of the Rome world, extending even deeper into the civic past of ancient North Africa and Mesopotamia. Like their aspiring Renaissance-era descendants, these ancient centers also had thrived as commercial, artisanal, and cultural centers.

In ancient Mesopotamia, where the urban culture makes its earliest decisive appearance, temples also served as a "shopping center," offering in an open setting a vast array of goods ranging from oils and fats to reeds, asphalt, mats, and stones. Similarly, on the temple grounds of Ur or Sumer country people could hire tanners, spinners, weavers, millers as well as scribes capable of writing down documents and letters. This pattern was even further developed in the ancient Minoan civilization of Crete, as well as in the agoras of ancient mainland Greece, the temple-cities of Egypt, classical Rome, and Alexandria.

Beyond serving as centers of commerce, these early urban societies created a dynamic stage for interaction between various cultures. Ancient Sumer, for example, was described as "many tongued" for its diverse population. In the ancient world, this process reached its apotheosis in Alexandria—which classical historian Michael Grant has called "the first and greatest universal city." The Mediterranean port city, home to numerous artisans and traders, also produced a brilliant cultural life blending the influences of Egyptians, Jews, Greeks and other groups, while housing the ancient world's most extensive library.

Building on such models, the great Renaissance cities—Florence, Venice, Genoa, Bruges, and Antwerp—created what historian Martin Thom has called "the age of cities." Filled with pride in their accomplishments, these new urban centers vied with each other not only in commercial competition and armed conflict, but in fashioning the most arresting urban landscapes, such as those found along Venice's Grand Canal, at the Loggia, and on the Rialto. And each was built, as the Venetian saying went, "sparing no expense, as is appropriate to its beauty."

More than anything, the return of trans-national trade, primarily in the Levant, financed the new building frenzy. First the Italians, then other Europeans, seized the opportunities presented by the expansion of cross-cultural, intercontinental trade. Such activity decisively distinguished these urban economies from those within other advanced civilizations, notably China and Japan, which ultimately chose a more inward-looking perspective.

Although far smaller than its Asian counterparts, Venice by the fifteenth century had developed a vast commercial network extending from the shores of Britain to the Middle East, with links reaching to India and China. As the penultimate trading state, Venice became the richest city in Europe, the center of the nascent world economy. By the early sixteenth century, the tiny Republic's revenues were greater than those of all of France and equal to those of both Britain and Spain.

Venice also developed the second major pillar of urban economics—a highly evolved craft-based economy. Long before the notion of specialized "industrial districts" became a prime focus of economic theory, the Venetians broke up their neighborhoods along distinct functional lines, with specific residential and industrial communities for ship-building, munitions, and glass-making. By the fourteenth century, over 16,000 people worked in these various industries, making Venice not only the West's trader and banker, but its workshop as well.

Finally Venice, first among Europe's cities, benefited from the fostering of economic, technical, and cultural contacts with the outside world-particularly the highly evolved societies of the early Islamic Middle East, the most critical of the Italian city's trade partners. At a time when most cities were roiled by intolerance and lawlessness, Venice offered foreigners a "haven of comparative security." By the thirteenth century, merchants from Germany, Jews and Greek Christians from the Levant, and other outsiders crowded Venice's streets, bringing goods, ideas, and techniques to the city. As one French contemporary remarked:

If you are curious to see men from every part of the earth, each dressed in his own different way, go to Saint Mark's Square or the Rialto, and you will find all manner of persons.

This relative openness to outsiders was then, and remains today, one of the critical components of a successful urban economy. States that have been venomous towards foreign influences-such as Castillian Spain, which persecuted Protestants, Jews, and Muslims undermined their roles in the emerging global economy. Similarly, cities and states with comparatively open attitudes, such as Venice and eventually Amsterdam, tended to control the commercial cross-currents. "[T]he miracle of toleration was to be found," observed the great French historian Fernand Braudel, "wherever the community of trade convened."

The critical conjunction of tolerance and urban growth continued, even as the focus of global trade shifted decisively away from the Mediterranean and towards northern Europe and the Americas. By the time of its emergence in the sixteenth century, Amsterdam boasted fully functioning Catholic, Huguenot, Jewish, Lutheran, and Mennonite religious institutions, as well as the dominant Dutch Reformed church. Workers from Germany, dissenter craftspeople from Britain, exiled Iberian Jewish merchants all contributed to making the Dutch metropolis the center not only of the emerging global trading economy, but also a major contributor to the development of the arts and sciences.

By the early seventeenth century, Amsterdam and the surrounding Netherlands had evolved into a highly sophisticated, urbanized society, with half of the region's people located in towns and cities. Amsterdam itself swelled from fifty thousand people in 1600 to two hundred thousand a century later. The city and its allied towns, such as Leyden and Haarlem, developed highly complex craft-based economies that produced or processed textiles, silk and leather goods, jewelry, refined sugar, and chemicals.

Eventually Amsterdam declined, like Venice, because it lost control of the seas and access to primary markets. Backed by the power of England's growing empire, London soon emerged as the focus of urban economic, social, and cultural development. By the early nineteenth century, London emerged-and has since remained-the primary city of Europe.

Like Venice and Amsterdam, London benefited from its role at the center of international trade. With the possession of a vast empire stretching from the Americas and much of Africa to India and the coast of China, London assumed a central, even controlling role over the world economy, with specialized institutions employing tens of thousands of clerks, administering the world's trade in equities as well as commodities such as coal and wool. By the eve of the First World War, London-based financial institutions held two-fifths of the world's international debt and half of its cargo tonnage, while controlling three-fifths of all trade passing through the Panama Canal.

Although London long possessed a large artisan-based economy, much of its prominence came via its role as the broker, financial agent, and middle-man for the vast industrial complex that developed throughout Great Britain in the nineteenth century. By 1870, Britain accounted for roughly one-third of the world's industrial output, relying both on the long-developed skills of its artisans as well as on the latest in mass production techniques.

Finally, London's ascendancy rested on the city's increasingly cosmopolitan character. Of the seventeen leading London-based merchant banks to survive into the twentieth century, fifteen could trace their origins to a variety of immigrants from such diverse places as Germany, Ireland, and France. By the start of the twentieth century, London, once a relatively homogeneous city, had become, in the words of Henry James, "the greatest aggregation of human life, the most complete compendium in the world. The human race is better represented there than anywhere else."