The long boot of Italy, where the Renaissance would be born at the end of the fifteenth century, consisted of five principal parts: the kingdom of Naples, the republic of Florence, the dukedom of Milan, the Papal States, and Venice. A hodgepodge of minor city-states--like the Ligurian republic of Genoa--completed the scene. Each of the realms was obstinate, noisy, and vain about its storied ancestry but only Venice actually remained a great power--run by an austere, iron-fisted, and farsighted oligarchy, with overseas possessions along the Adriatic and throughout the Agean. Italy for the most part remained only a shell of its former Roman Imperial self.
But the decline and ultimately the fall of Byzantium brought a flood of learned exiles to the West--with their uninterrupted access to the ancient and patristic classics--suddenly enriching nascent intellectual endeavors with a volatile mixture of ideas, philosophies, and theologies. In the same way that Greek knowledge had given life to the Arab world during the Great Captivity, so it now catalyzed the Latins.
Thus, a large group of Italian geniuses, heirs of that classical legacy, stretched the limits in the fields of geography, philosophy, politics, science, the arts, and music. Christopher Columbus was born on this day in 1451. Botticelli was born six years earlier. Two years before that saw the birth of Lorenzo de Medici and Domenico Ghirlandaio. A year later came the birth of Leonardo da Vinci. Two years later Giuliano de Medici was born. And three years later still, Amerigo Vespucci, Pinturicchio, and Politian were all born. When Columbus was undertaking his first seafaring experiences in the Ligurian and Tyrrhenian Seas, Pico della Mirandola and Machiaavelli were born--in 1463 and 1469 respectively. In the years in which he was thinking up the idea of going west to reach the East, Ariosto in 1474, Michelangelo in 1475, and Titian in 1477, were born. Piero della Francesca died in the same year that the navigator discovered San Salvador. In 1500, when Columbus was seeking the Western Passage in order to circumnavigate the globe, Benvenuto Cellini was born. A year before Columbus' death, Raphael was born. Mantegna and Columbus died in the same year.
If these names were erased from existence, the Renaissance--and all that ultimately produced the modern world of Western Civilization--would vanish into thin air and all of history would be radically and irretrievably altered.