Alison Lewin

title.none: Brucker, Florence, The Golden Age, 1138 - 1737 (Lewin)

identifier.other: baj9928.9905.004 99.05.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Alison Lewin, St. Joseph's University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Brucker, Gene. Florence, The Golden Age, 1138 - 1737. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Pp. 278. $29.95. ISBN: 0-520-21522-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.05.04

Brucker, Gene. Florence, The Golden Age, 1138 - 1737. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Pp. 278. $29.95. ISBN: 0-520-21522-2.

Reviewed by:

Alison Lewin
St. Joseph's University

An yone receiving Gene Brucker's Florence, The Golden Age, 1138-1737 would be delighted -- and appropriately so. Large, well-bound, and decorated with beautiful and unusual illustrations, the book as object is magnificent. For its list price ($29.95) it is a real bargain, with many full-page and smaller illustrations of excellent quality. As a book to pick up, open at random, and ingest in small chunks, Florence offers the reader a chance to share the intimate knowledge and love of Florence that has marked Brucker's illustrious career.

To review this work, I took as my first task identifying the audience for which Brucker intended it. This quest led to no easy answer; it rather revealed some problems with the book as a whole. Florence clearly does not aim to inform Florentine or even Italian historians of new developments in the field, or of specialized disputes (though the free use of Italian vocabulary might lead the reader to believe otherwise). The most useful (and they are wonderfully useful) parts of the book to the historian appear in the two-page inserts devoted to special topics scattered throughout. Those on pages 88-89, 103-104, and 153-154 stand out especially, offering as they do succinct verbal and visual summaries of Florence's population, industry, and finances, respectively.

Perhaps the book could serve as a text or supplementary reading for an introductory course to Florentine or Renaissance history. I would not use it thus, for the following reasons. First, Brucker's Florence is overall a lovely place; the great families receive a great deal of fond attention, while prostitutes, the marginal and the exploited, the foundlings, in fact the vast majority of the population, make only fleeting appearances. Given all the excellent scholarship of the past two decades devoted to this often miserable majority, it is puzzling that Brucker barely acknowledges their existence. Perhaps Brucker is unwilling to acknowledge the human suffering and great economic inequality that characterized his beloved city's history as profoundly as its wealth, ingenio, and beauty.

His love for the city and for the time also leads him to make some jarring statements, as for example that the Florentine merchant "was part of that tiny minority of Europeans who first developed a rational approach to human experience" (p. 85). Jacob Burckhardt would surely approve, but most Florentine as well as medieval scholars would take issue with the outdated picture of the rational individual of the Renaissance whom Brucker here presents. (Some indication of Brucker's orientation appears at the very beginning; the first sentence offers us the words of Burckhardt himself.)

Finally, missing from the work is any substantial presence of the Catholic Church, whose spiritual, financial, and political influence pervaded Florentine life in ways that often surprise present generations. Brucker acknowledges the presence of the friars and of the art and architecture of religious communities in the Florentine commune at the beginning of chapter 6, but this can hardly convey the constant and multiple manifestations of both religious sentiment and the institutional church. As a teaching text Brucker's earlier Renaissance Florence (Berkeley, 1983) easily surpasses its successor, both for depth and coherence. The last section of the new publication, with its chronology, family histories, and glossary of place-names could prove useful to students, though the bibliography is brief and far from current: apparently nothing has been added since this work first appeared in Italian in 1983.

I am therefore led to conclude that Gene Brucker intended Florence more as a work for the general public -- the kind of book that amateur historians or visitors to Florence might read to learn more about this unique city. For them, Florence provides a wonderful tour of the city's history, institutions, economy, and society. At times, however, the general reader will struggle. Some Italian words appear, at least initially, without an English translation ( sottoposti>, p. 72; contado p. 84, etc.), as do Latin sentences (p. 83) and even a caption (p. 109). Some specialized vocabulary remains unexplained, as for example "scrutinies" on p. 44, or "birth trays" in several places. Brucker's own familiarity with the Italian language and Florentine history sometimes leads to usages puzzling to the those not in the profession, as for example when he refers to "the adoption of an estimate" (p. 129), meaning an estimo, or direct tax. Though at times the narrative bogs down, again largely because of assumptions of knowledge absent in the general reader, it overall provides both excellent coverage and many specifics that make the history of Florence both lively and accessible.

The general reader must be aware of one further problem in reading this book, however: it is really two, or perhaps even three, books in one. At times the combination works brilliantly; the chapter entitled, "The Formation of the Florentine Dominion" exhibits the greatest coherence and synergy. We turn eagerly from text to illustration to caption, and find our understanding of each enriched by the presence of the other two. Similarly, "A Civic Culture" leads us from monastery to art to literature with illustrations that enable us to see the ways in which Florentines inhabited and embellished their city.

Too often, however, these entities do not intertwine to make one great whole, but rather compete with one another. Especially in the early chapters, little of substance links the three. Pictures occasionally complement the text, but more often either they or the captions do not. The illustrations on page 42 show the elegant fabric that the great families, subject of the chapter, would wear; but the caption strays from a discussion of luxury goods into one of guilds. Page 45 offers us illustrations of confraternal activity, but the caption makes no attempt to relate such activity to the text, which addresses the consolidation of aristocratic power. The reader wonders whether confraternities have anything to do with the great families, and if so, what? Bringing in yet another element, the two-page inset, surely pages 164-165 on fashion would fit this chapter better than they do a chapter which examines the Florentine dominion.

The text itself contains its own problems; curiosities and errors abound. The London rather than the California editors at the Berkeley presses seem to have had the last say on the orthography of this American writer, using British spellings of words throughout: honour (p. 55); saviour (p. 129); favours (p. 142), to name but a few instances. Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici first appears as Giovanni de Bicci de' Medici (p. 47), and the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII is transformed into Henry VIII (p. 122), an error confusing to the general reader and disconcerting to the specialist. The caption on p. 150 refers to two pictures of Savonarola, presumably below, but unless the lower frame itself contains two images of the friar portrayed through time, the caption serves only to create another moment of confusion for the reader. The text on the two-page inset (pp. 60-61) invites us to examine a lunette in illustration number 6, but no such illustration exists. Finally, the number of simple typographical errors is inexcusable: on the first page we find "sugested"; p. 40 offers "politcal," p. 86 "authorites"; "thesee" (for these) appears on p. 235, and so on.

Yet, for all its flaws both superficial and substantive, Brucker's Florence still delights. Each page offers so much beauty, so much information, that in the end we must be grateful to Gene Brucker for taking the time to share his vast knowledge with us. Unlike a regular book, designed to be read straight through, this offering more resembles a box of chocolates into which we dip. We may occasionally feel disappointment with a particular selection, yet the book, like the candy, is wonderful both to have and to share with others.