Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Puzzlement of Reading History

I'm in the middle of re-reading, 20 years later, a major book on Italian Renaissance History, The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance by Hans Baron. I'm realizing as I reread it what a huge impact this book had on me, shaping of my view of early Renaissance Florence. Baron argues that the war between the Duke of Milan and the Republic of Florence, which Florence almost lost, and won by a bit of miraculous luck (an outbreak of plague killed the Duke) forged a new kind of civic humanism. Baron said that the near disaster of the war created a new humanist culture of political and civic engagement as Florence set itself up as a champion of "civic liberty" in the face of tyrants like Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan, seeking to unify Italy in the name of national identity and "peace."

The art historian Frederick Hartt later applied some of Baron's ideas to the understanding of early Quattrocento art in Florence.

Later historians like John Najemy point out that this new civic humanism may have been more directed at a domestic threat rather than the foreign threat of invasion from Milan. He reminds us of one of history's first labor uprisings, the Ciompi Revolt in Florence in 1378, when the underpaid and unrepresented textile workers, whose labor made the city's prosperity, briefly took over the city government and tried to break into the guild system. The city's guilds brutally suppressed the rebellion. The city became in its wake much more oligarchic with the wealthiest guilds (the bankers, naturally, the wool manufacturers, and textile merchants) taking more exclusive control of the city's politics paving the way for the Medici signory. Najemy argues that this new civic humanism was about legitimizing the claims of this rising oligarchy through appeals to patriotism and republicanism.

How to decide when I have a certain measure of sympathy for both points of view? And is this really some ivory tower problem? It strikes me that historians always bring their own experiences to the understanding of history. They can't help it. They can't step out of their own skins. No one can. Great historians understand this and hope that somehow they come close to the truth of the matter.

Hans Baron was a German Jewish scholar who fled Nazi Germany in 1938. That experience of the Second World War informed his outlook. He is even explicit about it, comparing the Florentine Republic facing down Milan to Britain facing down Napoleon and Hitler.

Najemy is much more recent. His view is naturally shaped by a world grown much more oligarchic with corporate interests dominating international and national politics. It is also a world where the alliances and consensus needed to face the threats of Nazism and Japanese imperialism have long since disintegrated. It is a world of competing and conflicting national and sectarian loyalties.

I think both men are on to something, despite their differences. I must confess to a deep emotional sympathy with Baron's book. However, I think Najemy is right about the ambitions of the oligarchy after the Ciompi Revolt. They were very frightened by the prospect of proletarian democracy. I also think Baron is right. I think those appeals to patriotism by leaders like Salutati and Bruni were heard with receptive ears, not just by the Florentine oligarchy, but by all of Florence's inhabitants. There's nothing like a threat of foreign conquest to really pull people together.

Another surprising tidbit from younger reading days, I remember reading Hannah Arendt's glowing praise of Niccolo Machiavelli as a pioneering political philosopher. I'm becoming more and more convinced that The Prince is satire. It is dedicated to Lorenzo de Medici, Duke of Urbino, who had Macchiavelli imprisoned and tortured when the Medici returned to power in Florence. The record of Macchiavelli's life is not that of a schemer, but of a Florentine patriot.

I remember reading about Napoleon ending the ancient Venetian Republic. The city's nobility, faced with the loss of their mainland estates, capitulated readily. The city's populace, however, resisted all the way to end, greeting Napoleon's army with shouts of "Viva San Marco!" Viva La Serenissima!" when they entered the city unopposed.

I think there might be a lot here that would speak to our own national experience.


June Butler said...

I remember reading Hannah Arendt's glowing praise of Niccolo Machiavelli as a pioneering political philosopher.

Dick Cheney liked him, too.

I'm becoming more and more convinced that The Prince is satire.

That's an interesting thought. I think I agree, but I'd need to reread The Prince to be sure.

Counterlight said...

I'm going to sit down and read The Prince myself. I've never read it all the way through. I'm preparing for a course on Florence in the spring. I'm wondering how distinct it will be from Machiavelli's other political writings.

June Butler said...

Doug, I can't tell you that, because that's the only work of Machiavelli that I have read. I did a wonderful university-sponsored study tour on the Medici family and Florentine history of the period some years ago. We were assigned The Prince, The Decameron, and Dante's Inferno to read before the tour, which although I did the reading, was much more of a tour than study for me, because I didn't do the course for credit. Still, in spite of that, I managed to learn quite a lot.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Since my days in History of Christianity at Lund University in the early 1990ies, I regard the History of Art as the far superior discipline in quality and insights.