Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Netherlandish Proverbs, 1559, oil on wood panel, Berlin State Museums, Germany, Photo Adobe stock

In libreria

The Renaissance on the Road. Mobility, Migration and Cultural Exchange

by Rosa Salzberg

24 novembre 2023
Versione stampabile

The Renaissance was a highly mobile, turbulent era in Europe, when war, poverty, and persecution pushed many people onto the roads in search of a living or a safe place to settle. In the same period, the expansion of European states overseas opened up new avenues of long-distance migration, while also fuelling the global traffic in slaves. The accelerating movement of people stimulated commercial, political, religious, and artistic exchanges, while also prompting the establishment of new structures of control and surveillance. This Element illuminates the material and social mechanisms that enacted mobility in the Renaissance and thereby offers a new way to understand the period's dynamism, creativity, and conflict. Spurred by recent 'mobilities' studies, it highlights the experiences of a wide range of mobile populations, paying particular attention to the concrete, practical dimensions of moving around at this time, whether on a local or a global scale.

Rosa Salzberg is professor at the Department of Sociology and Social Research of the University of Trento

From the Introduction (pagg. 1-3, 6-8)

The period circa 1450-1650 that we call the Renaissance was a highly mobile, turbulent era in Europe, when war, famine, land enclosures, and religious persecution pushed many onto the roads in search of a living or a safe place to settle. For numerous people, ‘stability was a privilege’, while being ‘unsettled’ was an increasingly common experience. Even if Medieval Europe was already ‘a world of unceasing movement’, factors such as commercialization, state formation, and globalization spurred a significant increase in the frequency, scale, and speed of mobility from the later fifteenth century and throughout the Renaissance and Early Modern period. From the sixteenth century in particular we can observe the further development of transport and hospitality infrastructures across the continent, helping to accelerate the movement of people and goods. While pilgrimage remained a popular practice throughout this period for both women and men, new forms of travel for pleasure, curiosity, or education also became more and more common. At the same time, the expansion of European states overseas opened up new avenues for settlers, soldiers, merchants, bureaucrats, and missionaries to move across the globe, as ‘oceans became bridges rather than barriers to continents’, while also fuelling the global traffic in slaves. Meanwhile, in Europe itself, new systems and technologies, from the postal service to the printing press, sped up the transmission of information, changing perceptions of distance and time. 

The ever-greater movement of people and goods stimulated the kinds of commercial, political, religious, and artistic encounters and exchanges that we have come to associate with the Renaissance period. Increasingly fast and multi-directional movement fostered prosperity, growth, and innovation. At the same time, however, accelerating mobility prompted the establishment of new structures of control and surveillance, expressing the ‘desire to establish boundaries, to demarcate and dominate’. Mobility connected and enabled but it also disrupted and threatened established systems, identities, and beliefs. States, regions, and cities worked hard to make the most of the opportunities afforded by allowing people and commodities to move to and through them, but simultaneously strove to limit, block, or at least to monitor some of these flows. They established mechanisms  some of them still in use today  to contain the spread of diseases, the diffusion of ‘dangerous’ ideas, the arrival of unwanted migrants who might strain local resources. The mobile poor, along with other itinerant groups such as gypsies, were increasingly criminalized and persecuted. The intersection and creative tension between these various crosscurrents fundamentally shaped the lives, itineraries, and experiences of mobile individuals in this period. They also left lasting traces on many other aspects of Renaissance life: on settled communities, on urban and rural landscapes, and on cultural formations.
This Element aims to give a sense of the many reasons for moving in this period and the role that mobility played in the daily lives of many people. It also hopes to offer new insight into the social and cultural life of the era, by illuminating some of the mechanisms that facilitated and shaped the trajectories of renowned figures as well as ‘ordinary’ people and brought them into contact with each other. Even as it concentrates on people in motion, and to a lesser extent on the movement of things, by doing so it hopes to unpack some of the ‘invisible baggage’ that travelled along with them: ideas, styles, knowledge, skills. While the principal zone of interest is continental Europe and Britain, the Element also casts an eye towards the escalating connections with the wider world, with the hope of understanding how European mobility in this period fitted into broader, global currents.
The Element is divided into three sections. The first, ‘Infrastructures’, explores the physical sites and social processes that enabled, obstructed, or channelled the movement of people in the Renaissance. Exploring spaces of transport (roads and water systems) and hospitality (inns, hostels, lodging houses), as well as sites of control (gates, customs points, quarantine stations), it suggests how the development of mobility infrastructure in the period shaped both urban and rural landscapes and provided focal points of interaction between people on the move and more settled communities. As contemporary mobilities scholars have argued, such infrastructures worked to ‘“channel” and select, offering privileged access for some and barriers for others, leading to a multiplication of borders and creating differential inclusion’. At the same time, in the Renaissance even more so than today, these infrastructures were not all planned, imposed, and regulated from above by powerful state, city, or regional authorities. In many cases, they were created and maintained by small communities and individual operators and actively engaged with by migrants and travellers themselves.

The second section, ‘Materialities,’ considers the physical, sensorial experience of moving bodies across distances, as well as the things that people carried with or on them, from clothes and luggage to guidebooks and travel documents. It argues that although there was a great range of levels of comfort or hardship and many kinds of reception offered to people on the move in the Renaissance (spanning from warm welcome to hostile rejection), there were similarly some common elements in the experience of mobility. It also considers how even temporary changes to one’s external appearance, habits, and customs while travelling could leave more enduring marks on a person’s body and identity. 

The final section, ‘Agents of Exchange,’ explores the work of some vital – but often neglected – brokers of mobility and cultural exchange, such as pedlars, itinerant performers, interpreters, innkeepers, and postmasters. These range from highly mobile to more sedentary figures who nonetheless operated as crucial mediators, supporting the movements of others as well as brokering interactions between mobile people and settled communities. While their personal experiences of migration and mobility allowed many of these individuals to act as effective enablers of a great array of cultural, economic, and social exchanges, it could also make them subject to suspicion and resentment. This in turn underlines the ambivalence and tension surrounding physical mobility in the Renaissance, as a practice that could lead to immensely profitable and creative outcomes but also engender new challenges and conflicts.

Courtesy by Cambridge University Press.