Alison Williams Lewin

title.none: Coppi, Cronaca Fiorentina 1537-1555 (Alison Williams Lewin)

identifier.other: baj9928.0207.005 02.07.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

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

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Coppi, Enrico. Cronaca Fiorentina 1537-1555. Documenti di Storia Italiana, Vol. VII. Firenze: Leo S. Olschki, 2000. Pp. vi, 225. ISBN: 8-822-24899-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.07.05

Coppi, Enrico. Cronaca Fiorentina 1537-1555. Documenti di Storia Italiana, Vol. VII. Firenze: Leo S. Olschki, 2000. Pp. vi, 225. ISBN: 8-822-24899-6.

Reviewed by:

Alison Williams Lewin
St. Joseph's University

Many Italian chronicles begin with very matter-of-fact statements about some ceremony, or meteorological event, worthy enough of notice to inspire the author to pick up his pen, but hardly gripping to the modern reader. Not so for this anonymous chronicle! At the very outset we are plunged into a lively account of a plot, an assassination, rebellion, cardinals hastening to and fro, secrecy, succession--very gripping material indeed! Nor does the author limit himself to this one conflict; throughout the work are sprinkled crimes of violence, revenge, theft, jealousy, that almost always end with the gruesome death of the perpetrator at the hands of either his opponent or the official executioner. And yet the chronicle was kept privately and secretly, in no way exploiting its potential popularity, for reasons that become obvious as we progress through it.

For the author was, most clearly, an opponent of the Medici regime, one who probably adhered to Savonarola at the end of the preceding century, and who attests at various points to his own republican ideology. When the rebellion of 1537, following Duke Alessandro's assassination and Cosimo's accession, was put down, the anonymous author remarks that one of those executed for leading it was Baccio del Lanaiuolo, a very learned youth, who, "before he died, said these beautiful words, 'It is sweet to die for the fatherland.'" (9) When recording the imposition of a particularly onerous tax, the author opines, "[it] would never have been agreed to by the old Medici...." (147) Even more tellingly, the one person in this long tale of disasters, scarcity, and warfare who receives unqualified praise is Stefano da Palestina, who had fought for the last Florentine republic, and who "always championed Christian charity." (79).

His republican sympathies are only one level of his work, however. The tale he recounts unfolds on a much larger scale, causing him to see the political and economic crises of his day as part of a cosmic, apocalyptic confrontation between God and the author on one side, and Cosimo, his courtiers, the clergy, and the Lutherans on the other.

To begin with, this author constantly reassures "lettore mio" that he will write only the truth. His first declaration sets out the limits of his reporting: "What followed about them [imperial troops sent to Siena] is known, but because I have decided I won't speak of anything except what happens in our city and dominion, informing myself of the truth, about which I shall not fail to give information," (12) a limit he reminds himself and us of several other times. (21, 144)

He also wishes to separate himself from the common horde, many times saying "they say that" something has happened, or the emperor is dead, "about which I shall say nothing specific because nothing certain is said by the crowd; informing myself better of the truth, I won't fail in my usual habit." (92) [1] Pappolate, bugie--these are what the crowd say. Fellow writers err in another direction: the town of Vulpiano is ruled by one Ceseri da Napoli, a very commanding man but of a rigid constitution, although many fawning historiographers [storiografi] call him valorous; about this can be seen his true self in an assault on Florence that he never turned towards approaching our walls, but in the guise of a rapacious vulture went around our state daily robbing and destroying and burning, but writing today is completely reduced to adulation, I and I always say the truth." [2]

The author realizes that living up to his own claim will not be easy: after he has skipped from 1537 to 1543 "because nothing of great importance happened, except many great Spaniards ended up here" birth of two children to duke, and similarly, "by my slovenliness and laziness in writing" I left out earthquakes of June 1542. Still catching up on these lost years, he says, "whence, if by my negligence I have failed to put things in order, with the help of God I will begin to tell every little thing that is certain, and not lies, that happened in the city and district this 13th day of April, 1543." (13-4) [3] He says elsewhere he will contrive, even force himself to write the truth. [4]

I can think of two reasons for his insistence on writing the truth and the obvious effort it takes to do so. First is the very real fear that accompanies writing the truth in such troubled times: several times he says that although everyone knew of some event, "nothing was said in public that might make a person ready for the chopping block and the axe and the galleys...." (191, 189) At one point, after again stating that he is "resolved to speak the truth and then be quiet, lest it be said I have become a flatterer," (17) and criticizing a notary's writing as being nothing but lies and trifles (burle), he acknowledges that the man had omitted names and lords to be careful; "if some malicious person knew of my writing, I would not have had as much freedom as I have here in private; enough that what I will say will be the truth, otherwise I prefer now to be silent." [5]

The other reason, I believe, goes to the heart of how he sees himself and what sense he makes of his world. Whenever he says that God is chastising the Florentines, or sending them clear signs of His wrath and displeasure, he says that people take no notice, but go from bad to worse. Sometimes he uses the third person, sometimes "we"--but in either case, it is clear that he sees the signs and portents as God intends them.

In a work of 195 carte, the anonymous Florentine mentions natural phenomena--eclipses, storms, earthquakes, floods--well over 50 times. Unlike the annalist, merely recording such catastrophes, this author usually has an explanation for these events. God is chastising us, is trying to warn us, is angry with us. He acknowledges that some believe there might be a natural explanation for these events, possibly reflecting some of the astronomical discoveries of his age; more often, however, he acknowledges this viewpoint only to condemn it. [6]

Overwhelmingly, the two main causes of God's wrath are the Christian princes who war against one another, and the hard- hearted Florentines, who refuse to amend their wicked ways. Following a night of storms, with very great winds and rains "so that many, seeing the discords that exist between Christian princes...say that God did this [raised the storm] to castigate his wicked people and I believe greatly in this opinion because neither faith nor justice can be seen." [7] When a flood kills 21 people, including several children, he says that it is "a thing to move a heart of stone to compassion and to recognize better the works of God, who sent these signs to soften the hardness of the Florentine heart." [8]

In the last quarter of the work, however, which covers the war against Siena, natural phenomena and the divine interpretation thereof drop off precipitously. As the chronicle unfolds the general ills of the age take on a specific focus--the role of humans in power, and particularly that of the duke--and in what increasingly comes to be a struggle between God and evil, the writer's own need to tell the truth makes him bear witness to this contest.

How then does our author see the duke, and what evils does he attribute to him? In 1543, his stance is one of wary neutrality tinged with negativity. In June, the duke needed 200,000 scudi to buy the two fortresses held by imperial troops, "which money," our author says, "was taken our of the hearts of his poor Florentines." (16) Yet when the duke falls ill that same month, the anonymous acknowledges that if Cosimo II were to die, "the city would come to total ruin, and we would come into the hands and government of our barbarous enemies." (24)

By the next year, however, Cosimo is definitely failing in our author's eyes. In March of 1544 he passes a law prohibiting fraud in the buying or selling of fats, "and woe betide anyone who disobeyed, as duke Cosimo was beginning to become a severe man and impoverishing his subjects."[9] Cosimo shows his true colors, however, in March of 1545, when he orders the construction of the great walls of San Piero Gattolini. Everything that stood in its path was to be destroyed, with the owners of buildings granted only the wood, roof, and hewn stone. The author compares the suffering of those who lost their houses to the "similar slaughter carried out by the impious Nero, tyrant of Rome. Nonetheless nothing had any effect on hardened Cosimo, nor could anyone say anything about it..." (48) The houses of poor artisans were ruined, with some being paid half [their value] and some nothing, and "Cosimo here began to go from being a lamb to a severe wolf [di agnello lupo rigido], and wouldn't look anyone in the face...." (62) [10] Another building required further demolition to residences and especially to pious places; nonetheless "they proceeded forcefully in this venture, especially to content the wife of the duke called Eleanor of Toledo, a proud woman and quite an enemy to the Florentine people." [11]

From this point on, Cosimo becomes irredeemably lost. [12] As he wages war and poor harvests follow one after another, the price of grain soars, despite his attempts to impose controls. At one point neither he nor his wife come out of the palace for eight days, "and as neither one nor the other cared for the people, she used to say that if they couldn't eat twice a day let them eat once," (166) a sentiment repeated at several points. (172)

Eleanor is not solely to blame, however; evil courtiers also lead the duke astray. The duke is persuaded by courtiers to destroy several holy buildings in his pursuit of security, (142, 148) which prompts the author to remark that he would be better served if his flatterers "had advised him to fear God; that is true security" (142) advice which the author then repeats in his own voice [del che questo a me pareva meglio che si fortificassi col timore di Dio et non con rovinar chiese....]. (143) Even worse, another courtier whispers in his ear that he could remake Lake Fucecchio, now ruined, if he were to impose a heavy tax on all livestock. (116)

The picture grows grimmer as war looms near Siena in 1552, and the connections among the various threads of God, truth, courtiers, and the writer grow clearer. At moment of relative quiet in 1552, when prices have fallen to livable levels, the author states, "since the devil [hates] the common public peace, he never ceases to sow trials and discord in the hearts of his followers and as this is true there was next to his Excellency one courtier, a Pratese, called Polverino...." Having introduced the devil as an actor in court politics, the author follows up; in September, the duke chases the monks out of San Miniato, "an evil thing in contempt and dishonor of God and to the ruin of our prince." He furthermore continues building the walls of San Piero Gattolini with respect for no one, especially ruining churches and other houses of the poor. "Thus, while the devil drove his Excellency to ruin," the hardships of war continue to afflict the people. (148)

Though the devil makes no further explicit appearances, Cosimo's actions continue to earn the author's condemnation. The duke is jealous (150), greedy (164), increasingly cruel towards both the obdurate Sienese and the long-suffering Florentines (165-6), who hear only of tribulations and statues and new laws, all damaging to the poor. (170) At this point, on November 26, 1554, the author draws the lines quite clearly: "God, striking from on high, showed whose was the greater power, his or Cosimo's, and commanded thus to his angels that they shock Florence and the contado as if to ruin them" with great earthquakes. (170-1)

The duke continues unchanged in his course, however, with his heart turned to stone (177), even going so far as to chase the poor out of churches when they find refuge there. (190) The chronicle ends abruptly, I imagine with its author's death, but it seems altogether fitting that the very last words are: "duke Cosimo, not yet sated with the anguish of his subjects, had on the 23rd of that month [September 1555] three youths beheaded...." (204) Yet in writing this wrenching tale, the author has, in his own mind I believe, written his own salvation, heeding as he does God's warning, and allying himself firmly against those lacking in Christian charity.

In presenting this drama, the publishing house of Leo Olschki has produced its usual high-quality volume, with signatures of creamy paper (presumably acid-free) and a clear font, pleasing to the eye. It is good that the physical attributes of the book are so appealing, because the contents are challenging. The editor, Enrico Coppi, assists the reader to some extent with a glossary of unusual words (207-10) and a comprehensive index of names. Footnotes, running in two concurrent sets, inform us either of the glosses added by the copyist and collector, Antonio di Sangallo (in italics), or alert us to minor irregularities in the text, such as repetition of a word or phrase (in Roman type).

Coppi does warn us in the introduction, however, that despite the clarity of the copyist's hand, "some passages remain difficult to understand, especially from a syntactical point of view." (xv) The decision to present the text as starkly and purely as possible is understandable, even admirable, in its desire to avoid influencing readers as they confront the text. This purity can feel like deprivation, however, if you find yourself struggling to untie one of these syntactical knots. I will pass along the brilliant insight of one of my colleagues, Dr. Paola Giuli, in hopes that it aids someone else. She noted that if we read it mindful of Latin syntax, as the author most probably was when he wrote it, we could supply missing words or phrases and then see how the sentence was constructed much more clearly. In most cases, though, the author's meaning (or at least one understandable meaning) comes through despite his syntax.

Given the paucity of private sources for this crucial period in Florentine history, we can all thank the author, Sangallo, and Coppi for making this rich and compelling narrative available to a wider audience.


[1] See also pp. 17, 19,31, 32, 37, 39.

[2] Also p. 17, "and they say other things, but I'll be quiet about them because I want to inform myself of the truth as much as I am able, otherwise not claiming ever to write and writing flattery."

[3] The author asks for help of God to write truth pp. 37, 71.

[4] "ingengnandomi sempre scrivere il vero," p. 175; "in tutto mi voglio sforzare di scrivere il vero," p. 120.

[5] On p. 195, he also alludes to the sonnets and placards that go up every night because of the malevolence generated in the people "which, if he could have had them in his hands, Cosimo would have castigated me for."--which might imply that he is the author of at least some of them, and indeed a long poem follows this remark.

[6] As in this particularly explicit passage concerning earthquakes: "they say it is nothing new, but usual and ordinary, and especially a friar of the Carmine, who makes a profession of philosophy and astrology; if he had made such a profession of being a good Christian he would have benefited the whole world very greatly....", p. 171.

[7] See also pp. 30, 32, 35, 41, 81, 137, 171, 172.

[8] See also pp. 40, 116, 122, 127, 171.

[9] P. 23 also refers to the duke's increasing harshness.

[10] At a later point the author suggests that the Sienese would rather fall to the Turks than to Cosimo, "because in truth his Excellency has changed from being a lamb to an asp and he doesn't recognize anyone and the reason is his wife who is Spanish," p. 175.

[11] See also p. 118: "E la republica fiorentina haveva in odio la moglie..."

[12] I differ here from the editor, who claims the author judges Cosimo somewhat favorably. The example he gives, however, contain the only words of praise for the duke in the entire chronicle; see pp. vi, 128.