The Holy Roman Empire is one counter-example to a narrative that highlights the rise of centralized states in this era, and Italy is another. Especially in central and northern Italy, cities were as important politically as, and perhaps more important culturally and economically than, territories ruled by noble houses. Beginning in the twelfth century, growing urban communities throughout Europe had fought for, bought, or maneuvered their independence from local nobles. In Italy many of these nobles moved into the cities, intermarrying with urban merchant families, who became the most powerful social and political group, establishing legal codes, institutions of government, and taxation policies that favored their interests. In most cities they were able to defeat revolts by those lower on the social scale in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, so that even cities such as Venice or Florence, which had constitutions or charters of government, were in reality dominated by a few hundred (or even fewer) merchant families. Confl icts among elite families for power within a city could be very fi erce, and in the fourteenth and fi fteenth centuries many Italian cities were taken over by powerful individuals ( signori ) either subverting or ignoring the existing structure of government, and hiring mercenaries to enforce their aims. Many of these individuals, such as Giangaleazzo Visconti (ruled 1378–1402) in Milan, sought legitimacy from the pope or emperor, and transformed their takeover of government into a hereditary dynasty. Italian cities controlled some of the countryside outside the city walls (called the contado ) and many sought to expand their holdings, becoming city-states. This put them into confl ict with one another, giving the signori further opportunities to gain power, particularly those who were themselves captains of mercenary companies. (Such individuals are called condottieri .) In the fi fteenth century, the larger Italian city-states of Milan, Florence, and Venice sought to annex their smaller neighbors as they fought with each other, forming, breaking, and reforming alliances among themselves or with outside powers to achieve a balance of power whenever one city was perceived to be gaining too much strength. By the end of the fi fteenth century, Italian cities also sought to use states outside the peninsula as part of this balance of power, a policy that proved disastrous as Italy became a battleground for the aspirations of many of the rulers of Europe with the French invasion of 1494 and the decades of war that followed. The wars in Italy brought troops from all over Europe to the peninsula, wrecking the economy – and sometimes the physical structure – of many cities. When they returned home, these soldiers took with them syphilis, which the French labeled the “Italian disease” and most of the rest of Europe the “French pox.” Decisions by Italian city-states to ally with outside powers against one another increased hostilities among them, and Italy remained divided until 1870. The shifting system of alliances in Italy depended on obtaining accurate information about those who were alternately enemies and friends. The Italian city-states initially relied on merchants and bankers traveling or living in other cities to pass along information, but in the fi fteenth century they began to send out permanent representatives whose functions were to send back a constant stream of foreign news and win the loyalty of important people. These representatives created modern diplomacy: they established permanent embassies, which gradually came to be understood as islands of foreign sovereignty; they kept extensive records; they made both open and secret alliances. The larger Italian city-states soon had ambassadors throughout Italy, and by the 1490s at the major courts in the rest of western Europe. Ferdinand of Aragon was the fi rst monarch to set up Italian-style embassies – in Burgundy, England, and the papal court in Rome – and by the early sixteenth century other monarchs of western Europe had done the same, often employing Italians as diplomats. In offi cial statements discussing ambassadors, their duties were often described as preserving peace, particularly among Christians, but in reality ambassadors served the interests of one particular government. Far from helping to prevent war, Italian ambassadors at the French court and those of Spain at courts throughout Europe were instrumental in the French decision to invade, and continued to feature in the long series of wars that followed. The city-states are often seen as holding Italy back, preventing the development of a nation, but they can also be seen as models for the future. By the nineteenth century a balance of power among a system of multiple states was a key political goal for leaders in all of Europe, with diplomats as well as soldiers responsible for both maintaining it and furthering the ends of their home country.