The history of medieval Italy is one of vivid contrasts: of beauty and brutality, freedom and tyranny, piety and blasphemy. The great poet of the Inferno summons us to consider such contrasts in nearly every canto: how can such stunningly beautiful language conjure images of such horrendous violence? This course explores the world that produced Dante, Giotto, and Saint Francis. It first traces the emergence of independent city-states in northern and central Italy after the millennium, emphasizing the particular conditions and experiences that created this distinctive medieval civilization. We will then focus on the culture of these vibrant urban centers using the artifacts they produced to discover the economic, social, religious, and political tensions underpinning them. Were the divisions and inequities of this society central to its creativity? We will explore with particular intensity the relationship between religion and society. Special emphasis will also be placed on analyzing material and visual sources: do they tell a different story than the written sources? Requirements include midterm and final examinations in addition to two short essays based on primary sources.