The Historical Venice of Assassin's Creed 2
The first Assassin's Creed game was a history student's dream come true. Here was a game that brought the political intrigue and daily life of the crusades period to life, and let players have a role in shaping events that actually happened. Sure, we have to forget all of that science fiction stuff, as well as the fact that Jerusalem, Acre and Damascus are more than a 5-minute horse ride apart from each other. There have to be some concessions made to gameplay, after all. But for the attention paid to its atmosphere, storyline, and characters, the team at Ubisoft should be commended for bringing historical realism into gaming like never before.
That is why we were so excited to hear that the next Assassin’s Creed game will take place in fifteenth century Venice. This was a period that – like the crusades -- contained ample amounts of political strife and social upheaval, the perfect backdrop for a game about assassination. To give players a bit of a heads up about what to expect, we have dusted off our library cards and done a bit of research into what life was actually like in Italy, circa 1476.
The game opens right smack in the middle of the Italian Renaissance, one of the most important places and periods in human history. Sure, we all know the time for the works of art that it inspired: lots of religious parables and nude angels cavorting around the ceiling. Michelangelo and Raphael (not the ninja turtles) were from this period. While the art seems staid and boring by today’s standards, it was actually revolutionary, compared to what had gone only a short time before. Behind the smiling angels and biblical allegories there was a massive social transformation rocking Europe.
The renaissance sits right on the cusp between medieval Europe and early modernity. Ideas that now seem basic but continue to rule our daily lives, such as banking, the printing press, and 3D perspective drawing, have their roots in this period. On one side of renaissance Italy lies the dreary slavery and absolute royal power of the medieval period. On the other side lies the enlightenment, the formation of the mercantile middle class and eventually, constitutional democracy.
In the hundreds of years since the fall of the Roman Empire, the city of Rome had lost its clout compared to more prosperous regions in the north. By 1450, the most important cities of this period were Florence, Siena, and Venice. These places, which are expected to figure heavily in Assassin’s Creed 2, concentrated most of the knowledge, wealth and political power that erupted during the Italian renaissance. By accident of their geographic location, these three cities found themselves at the center of a vast trade route stretching from Egypt and the Middle East into Western and Northern Europe. Traders and merchants flourished, bringing goods like spices, exotic dyes and weaving techniques from the Arab kingdoms in the East and combining them with European wool to craft textiles. Even today, Italy is renowned for its high-quality leather and textile industry.
Leonardo da Vinci was a talented and prolific artist, scientist and engineer, whose exploits earned him the title of the first “Renaissance Man”. He is credited with many significant modern inventions, including the helicopter, tank, and even a self-powered glider that will serve as your transport around Venice in Assassin’s Creed 2. His most famous artistic works are the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. Believed by many scholars to have been homosexual, da Vinci’s lifestyle and ideas would have brought him into conflict with prevailing religious order. Nevertheless in the permissive and anarchic milieu of Renaissance Italy, da Vinci thrived. He had friends among princes and kings, and even served as a political emissary for Lorenzo de Medici. When he died (of old age) in 1519, he was mourned by hundreds of his countrymen.
All of this money and travel brought with it social upheaval. The importance of artisans and artists in the creation of goods, as well as the increasing concentration of wealth in the primitive banking system, meant that people who had never possessed any real power in European society were now able to rise up the ranks. Bloodline was no longer the sole determining factor in a person’s life. Social mobility came to threaten the established nobility and the church, which had ruled unchallenged for hundreds of years. Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice explores this theme when a young nobleman named Antonio becomes indebted to a Jewish banker named Shylock. While Jews and other religious minorities lived on the outside of Italian society during this period, the unusual proximity of the most densely populated urban landscape in Europe was the closest thing we would get to a melting pot for the next two hundred years or so.
Being an assassin would have been a viable career option in 15th century Tuscany. Powerful families of merchants like the Medici clan in Florence battled others for supremacy in commercial and political life. Italy was divided into relatively small city states, so these families enjoyed a disproportionate amount of power compared to traditional authorities.
Lorenzo de Medici, who evidently plays an important role in Assassin’s Creed 2, was a young member of the Medici family who became the ruler of Florence at the age of only 20 years old, when his father died in 1469. Lorenzo was no businessman like his banker father, but he was adept at politics. He ruled the republic of Florence through bribery, corruption and strategic marriages. Other families tried to capitalize on Lorenzo’s relative inexperience and youth, eventually leading to an assassination attempt which failed in 1478. In return, the wounded Lorenzo had the entire rival Pazzi family put to death. That’s just how princes were expected to roll in the 15th century.
Caterina Sforza was the illegitimate daughter born to the Duke of Milan and his best friend’s wife. But you wouldn’t dare say it to her face, because Caterina would kill you just for looking at her sideways. Another product of social upheaval during the Renaissance, the Countess was more aggressive and much more adventurous than most women of her time. She reportedly enjoyed scientific experiments in Alchemy, as well as hunting (which probably suited her personality well). She lost her virginity at the age of 14, and by the age of 20 she was riding a horse (while pregnant) on the battlefield. After her husband was killed and the rest of her family was captured by the rival Orsi family, she somehow convinced them to let her leave captivity as a political emissary. Despite threats by the Orsis to kill her children if she disobeyed, she decided to raise an army and have them all imprisoned or slaughtered instead.
Renaissance Italy was a period in which some of the greatest works of art and culture ever known were created. It was also a time in which material excess masked a dark and sordid reality: the politically calculating heart of man. One of the greatest social observers of the time was Machiavelli, who wrote, “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.”
Renaissance architecture was famously ornate, so there will be lots of things to climb on in Assassin's Creed 2.
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