Friday, April 15, 2011

Florence: Some Commentary and Sources

Florence has become a hobby of mine. I once entertained the fantasy that I was writing that fully integrated history of the Florentine Republic that I had always wanted, but these are really just historical blog rants. They are not history. I simply do not have the language skills or the training for serious professional history. It would take me months just to properly footnote what I’ve written already. Far greater minds than mine with much more experience than myself deal with this subject daily. There are whole libraries on Florentine history in English, Italian, French, German, and Spanish.

Right now, I’m preparing to finish the Trecento, the 14th century. Soon, I will begin the Quattrocento. I plan to conclude these historical blog posts with the brutal end of the Florentine Republic in 1530. I have no interest in going any further with the Medici Grand Dukes of Tuscany.

What I hope to do with these blogs is to present Florence as the first truly modern city, the first city to fully experience early capitalism and its boom and bust cycles and social upheavals. The amazing creativity of this one city may well be due to the clash between early capitalism and a still strong medieval culture. Remarkable changes and accomplishments in political thought, in art, in economics, and in science and technology that are still with us today came out of the Florentine Republic. All of those enterprises were intimately bound up together, much more so than our very specialized age imagines. The construction of the Cathedral dome would transform architecture, building technology, and have effects on science and even on the exploration of the New World. Florence was remarkably creative in politics, from the apocalyptic radical egalitarianism of the late Medieval Fraticelli and Joachim del Fiore to the republicanism of Salutati and Bruni, to the pragmatic nationalism of Machiavelli. The Founding Fathers of the United States read the histories of these Italian city-states, especially Florence and Venice, very carefully and learned from the experiences of these republics. As we shall see in the Quattrocento, as art becomes less bound to traditional conventions, it becomes more directly involved in the political and religious controversies of the day from Brunelleschi to Botticelli to Michelangelo. Art itself will become controversial with Brunelleschi finding himself jailed on political charges, and Michelangelo seeing his recently completed David attacked and damaged by rioting Medici partisans.

Before I go any further with these, I should discuss some of the sources I’m using for research. My language skills are limited, so a vast amount of primary sources is unavailable to me, since they are almost all written in Latin or in very old Italian. The Renaissance Florentines wrote a lot about their city and its history. They were not (and are not) a modest or a shy people. They were deeply aware and very proud of the singularity of their city. There are histories of the city and its republic written by Salutati, Bruni, Machiavelli, and Guicciardini among others. Many of these are major landmarks in political thought and historiography. There is a wealth of other first hand sources by those talkative Florentines. Many Florentines kept diaries recording the events of the city. These can be fascinating reading. I used one of the most famous of those surviving diaries, that of Giovanni Villani, to illustrate the string of catastrophes that happened in the early 14th century. These diaries are fascinating first hand accounts, but they can also be unreliable history. Florentine politics were always notoriously factional, and people frequently editorialize in their accounts. And people in the thick of events usually see only one part of things happening. What they hear of events beyond their own location is usually rumor and gossip. Though sometimes what people see and what they think about it, and what they hear about events, can be very enlightening. There are also letters, and that very popular and entertaining form of public commentary from that time, verse scrawled on walls or sung in the street that could be scathing as well as lewd and crude.

I’m mostly limited to secondary sources. The following are some of the ones that I’m using:

Hans Baron,
The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1966.
I will be using this book much more in some future posts. This is a pioneering scholarly work about the rise of a kind of Florentine republican patriotism and self-consciousness in the wake of the wars with Milan at the end of the 14th century and at the beginning of the Quattrocento. Baron was a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, and saw Florence as a pioneer of the idea of republican liberty standing against tyranny. Some scholars criticize his focus, but Baron blazed the trail in this area of Florentine history.

Gene A. Brucker
Renaissance Florence, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1969 with several later editions.
This book is a standard text for Renaissance Florence, mostly concentrating on social history and description of the Renaissance city. It is not very strong on events and history.

J.R. Hale,
Florence and the Medici: The Pattern of Control, Thames & Hudson, New York, 1977.
Unfortunately, this book is out of print, but available in most libraries. Hale describes in detail the long Medici project to establish themselves as princes of Florence and of Tuscany. His book mostly concentrates on the Medici Grand Dukes.

Frederick Hartt,
Italian Renaissance Art, Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York, 1987 with later editions.
This is still the best general survey of the subject in my opinion. It was heavily influenced by Hans Baron’s ideas about a kind of Florentine political consciousness.

Christopher Hibbert,
Florence, Biography of a City, Penguin, London, 2004.
This is a recent and very readable short history of Florence from its Roman beginnings to the present day. This book has some very vivid anecdotal passages in it, but as history, it can be unfocused and especially in later chapters, becomes preoccupied with gossip about goings on among the later Medici Grand Dukes, or about colorful English and American ex-pats in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Ross King,
Brunelleschi’s Dome, Walker & Company, New York, 2000.
This is a very well written short book that tells not only a lot about Brunelleschi and the project to build the dome of Florence Cathedral, but also a lot about the city at the opening of the Quattrocento. For those who are interested (like me), there is a lot of information on pre-modern building technology and working conditions. King presents the great Florentine dome as a brilliant and unlikely accomplishment that transformed building technology and changed architecture from a humble trade into a profession.

Lauro Martines,
Fire in the City: Savonarola and the Soul of Renaissance Florence, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
This is a recent book on Savonarola and a period of profound crisis for the Florentine republic. It is very well written and concentrates on Savonarola’s religious and political influence. The book takes a more sympathetic view of Savonarola than I think the author’s own account would warrant, but it is a very vivid and excellent account of a most exceptional period in Florentine history that I think anticipates a lot of today’s ideological politics.

Michael Rocke
Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996.
This book covers a topic that is still very controversial, but played a larger role in Florentine culture of the Renaissance than is usually acknowledged. Rocke researched in great detail the surviving court transcripts and police records from that time, and presents a very different picture of the city’s social life than most standard histories. He presents a very detailed account of the effects of the city’s periodic crackdowns on vice, especially in the time of Savonarola. I used Rocke’s book extensively in my account of the Florentine preachers, and their frequent campaigns against vice. I plan to use his book again in future posts.

Ferdinand Schevill,
Medieval and Renaissance Florence, Harcourt Brace & Company, New York, 1936.
In 2 volumes, this book is no longer in print, but available in most libraries.
This is a book that I’ve already used extensively in these posts. It is very well written, and so far as I know, remains the most complete account in English of the history of the Florentine Republic from beginning to end. Some aspects of it are very dated, such as Schevill’s claim that the Renaissance in Florence was a pagan revival (Ficino , Poliziano, and Lorenzo de Medici would be very surprised to find themselves described as “pagan;” Machiavelli would have been delighted). Other parts of the book remain remarkably prescient, such as Schevill’s detailed account of the impact of economic transformations and class conflicts on Florentine politics. I’m not sure that there are many writing today who could do as fine a job as Schevill did of showing in detail how the rise of early capitalism clashed with a still very medieval culture in Florence, dramatically transforming the city’s political and cultural life.

A. Richard Turner,
Renaissance Florence: The Invention of a New Art, Harry N. Abrams Inc. New York, 1997.
This is a short book about how the political and social life of Florence affected the revival of classical form in the city. It is mostly cultural and social history like Brucker’s book.

John White
Art and Architecture in Italy 1250 – 1400, Pelican History of Art, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, first published in 1966.
I’m using this book a lot for my accounts of Dugento and Trecento art in Florence. John White was the bete noir of at least one of my old grad school professors. His account of Italian art from this period is deeply rooted in the formalism that dominated art criticism in the 1960s and 1970s. And yet, as I read this book again after so many years, and use it to help me to understand the work from this period, I appreciate all over again how brilliant it is. Yes, it is very formalist, and White writes about form in these works so very well, especially when he writes about Duccio and Giotto. Unlike so much formalism of the 1960s, he does not ignore the historical context. In fact he beautifully integrates changes of form with changes in ideas and circumstances, as do all of the best art historians.


JCF said...

Heh. Doug, I like your subjective "takes" better than footnoted history anyway! [Believe me, I KNOW what a pain-in-the-@ss it is to do the latter. My dissertation, all told, ran to 500 pages w/ all the freakin' footnotes! }-X]

kishnevi said...

Have you encountered "The Artist, The Philosopher, and the Warrior" by Paul Strathern? It was published in 2009. I've read about half of it, and it's interesting at least. Deals with DaVinci, Machiavelli, and Cesare Borgia (I think you can sort out who is who in the title), taking for its narrative center an episode in which all three were involved, but branches out in all sorts of directions from that, some of them related to Florence, some not.