Madison U. Sowell

title.none: Dameron, Florence and Its Church (Madison U. Sowell)

identifier.other: baj9928.0610.016 06.10.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Madison U. Sowell, Brigham Young University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Dameron, George W. Florence and Its Church in the Age of Dante. Series: The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. Pp. 392. $65.00 (hb) 0-8122-3283-0. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.10.16

Dameron, George W. Florence and Its Church in the Age of Dante. Series: The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. Pp. 392. $65.00 (hb) 0-8122-3283-0. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Madison U. Sowell
Brigham Young University

As a litterateur and, more specifically, a Dantean, I approached Florence and Its Church in the Age of Dante desirous to learn better how Florentine ecclesiastical culture contributed to or fostered the world's greatest Christian epic, the Divine Comedy. Even though as a graduate student at Harvard University I had frequented lectures by renowned historians Myron Gilmore and David Herlihy (both of whom specialized in things Florentine or Tuscan) and had even taken a class on Florence and Venice from the legendary Felix Gilbert (a visiting professor from Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study), I was not fully prepared for the plethora of insights historian George W. Dameron (GWD) provides for the person of letters who spends perhaps too much time immersed in literary theory and exegesis. In sum, I was surprised and pleased by what I learned from the extensive archival research adduced in this historical study. As will become evident, this is especially true as the research relates to Dante's second canticle, the Purgatorio.

GWD divides his well-organized and well-documented study into five straightforward chapters, each carrying one-word titles: "Institutions," "Vocations," "Economy," "Piety," and "Commune." This quintet of tightly focused chapters is preceded by a helpful introduction and followed by a succinct conclusion. Closing out the book are a list of abbreviations, five appendices, a useful "Chronology of Significant Events Mentioned in Text," copious and detailed notes, a superb bibliography of primary and secondary sources, and then the obligatory index and acknowledgments. The editing on the whole struck me as superb, with almost no typographical errors and only one forgivable lapsus: read "principal worship service" for "principle worship service" on page 174.

In the pithy introduction our fearless historian takes on not only Jacob Burckhardt (a common enough punching bag) but also the venerable Robert Davidsohn (1853-1937), "whose work on medieval Florence remains unparalleled in scope and comprehensiveness" (5). According to GWD, the bourgeois Davidsohn, echoing Burckhardt, emphasized that "the role of the church in Dante's Florence was divisive, corrupting, obstructionist, and negative" (ibid.). Our author, on the other hand, highlights how the church contributed to the positive transformation of Florence from backwater Tuscan town, prior to 1250, to one of the most affluent and politically potent cities on the European continent by 1330. Simply stated, "the goal is to account for the role of the church in the transformation of Florence during the lifetime of Dante" (8). GWD quickly clarifies that "church" refers not to any single entity but to a complex organization that included secular clergy ("the bishopric, the cathedral chapter, the rural and urban parish clergy" [ibid.]), mendicant clergy (the friars), and a variety of confraternities, hospitals, and female religious communities.

After briefly summarizing his primary sources--such as "episcopal, papal, and monastic records, as well as chronicles, notarial protocols, literary texts, lease books, saints' lives, descriptions of ritual processions and religious feast days, testaments, and painted images" (12)--the author speedily reviews the demographic and political context in Florence and Tuscany from 1250 to 1330. This period encompasses the lifetime of Dante Aligheri (1265-1321) and the internecine strife between the pro-imperial White Guelphs (headed by the Cerchi family) and the pro-papal Black Guelphs (lead by the Donati). As is well known, Dante, whose family followed the Whites, was betrothed for political reasons at a young age to Gemma Donati, whose family members were Blacks. When the latter party seized control of the Florentine government in 1302, the Whites (Dante included) were exiled. Gemma did not follow her husband into exile, where he spent the final two decades of his life. GWD concludes the introduction with a short discussion of the religious topography of medieval Florence, "a crowded and constricted place, where the stone towers of the urban aristocracy loomed over a dark maze of narrow streets" and the religious center, meaning the Baptistery of San Giovanni and the cathedral of Santa Reparata, "was densely packed with buildings and tombs" (19).

The first chapter showcases the medieval Florentine church's vast array of ecclesiastical institutions, revealing how they "provided leadership, charity, and social stability in both city and countryside, contributing to the transformation of Florence into one of the most powerful and influential cities of Europe" (25). GWD first analyzes the role of parish priests, who administered the sacraments and recited the Divine Office but also were involved, "as local managers in their peace pacts, economic transactions, and conflict resolutions" (32). They notarized documents, assisted in the drawing up of wills and testaments, and even represented their parishioners in urban court settings. Next comes a discussion of the "regular clergy" or monasteries with their various orders, including the Carmelites and the Servites, the Franciscans and the Dominicans. The mendicant orders in turn "attracted large numbers of lay females to the ideals of penitential living" (47): 66 female religious communities by GWD's count. Hospitals and confraternities also accounted for key ecclesiastical institutions in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Florence. They cared for the sick, as do hospitals today, but they also assisted travelers, immigrants, the needy, orphans and the elderly, and confraternity and guild members (51). Confraternities are later generally defined as "mutual aid societies among the laity whose purpose was to promote the spiritual well being of their members" (171).

GWD concludes his initial chapter with a review of elite institutions of the "secular clergy": the urban collegiate church of San Lorenzo, the cathedral chapter of Santa Reparata, the bishoprics of Florence and Fiesole, and the episcopal court system. The author's inevitable conclusion, after such a detailing of the Florentine "church," is that it constituted "a complex institutional picture" that eventually led to a strong increase in papal influence in the city's politics (77). Dante and the White Guelphs strongly objected to this papal intrusion, and the Black Guelphs responded by exiling the poet.

In the second chapter, GWD focuses on the concept of ecclesiastical callings or "vocations." The author outlines three main social groups within the Florentine elite at the end of the Duecento: "the older elite families [who were]...members of the knighted consular aristocracy"; "the upwardly mobile nonnoble...banking and mercantile families"; and guild members (80-81). What distinguished Florence's church from that in other Italian cities was the degree to which all three groups were represented in the elite church: "A broad segment of the diverse groups among the elite within the commune were represented in all the major institutions, including the friaries, the bishopric, and the cathedral" (84). This fact, in turn, helped "forge a diverse and integrated elite that by the 1320s could rule Florence for a generation before the Black Death in a spirit of consensus and agreement" (ibid.).

The third chapter, emphasizing the church's positive role in Florence's medieval economy, puts forth "a different [view] from the negative assessment presented by Robert Davidsohn over a century ago" (108). The assets of and income from the church's communities encompassed land and property (the wealthiest ecclesiastical landlord being the bishopric), tithes, parish church income, mortuary income, testamentary legacies, altar offerings, and burial fees. With so much income "the principal ecclesiastical institutions naturally became attractive sources of revenue for the communal treasury and the papacy, primarily to meet their military expenses" (147). Through taxes these institutions subsidized "the military costs of a commune determined to protect its access to vital road arteries, food resources (grain), water (for industry), supplies of labor, and sources of revenue" (ibid.). GWD specifies the various types of taxes paid, whether imposed by the commune or by the papacy, and shows how these supported "developments in the economy and the history of piety" (163).

The penultimate chapter, devoted to the complex issue of piety, addresses a two-fold question: "what roles did Florentine religious traditions play in the transition of Florence from minor to dominant commune in Tuscany, and how did that transformation shape those traditions in turn?" (166). While this part of the book explains the liturgical calendar and Florentine religious feasts, the cults of saints, and various forms of preaching and charity, the focus repeatedly highlights the centrality of the doctrine of purgatory to mercantile practices of almsgiving and testamentary legacies. The author argues persuasively that "no aspect of Florentine piety was more important than the belief in purgatory...[for it] helped sustain a culture and practice of moneymaking" (167). GWD goes on to assert that, for Florentines, "the proper uses of worldly possessions acquired from a prosperous economy were two-fold: to aid the souls of the dead in purgatory, and to benefit the souls of the living through charitable giving and the invocation of saints" (171). Florentine testaments of the period often contain richly funded provisions for the celebration of post-mortem masses in order to shorten the time the deceased will spend in purgatory. Always with the hope of shortening one's time in the purgatorial realm, these testaments often provided additionally for the creation of "commemorative chapels, monumental graves, and altars with [the testators'] names inscribed on them" (193). This was true especially for the men, while "women tended to prefer devotional images of the Virgin Mary and the Passion" (ibid.). Once one fathoms the cultural significance of purgatory, both in terms of piety and in terms of economic realities and the promotion of the arts, it becomes clearer why Dante placed the Purgatorio so prominently at the Commedia's center and why the poem's second cantica appears so concerned with the visual arts on its seven purgatorial terraces.

The final chapter deals with the Florentine commune as both reality and myth and details how the church contributed to the formation of both. The mythic notion emerges in contemporary religious views that Florence was a New Jerusalem, "a chosen city of God" (218). One pertinent example of this bipartite emphasis lies in the creation of the cathedral complex, the so-called "architectural center of ecclesiastical Florence" (227). The commune's leaders justified the construction of the cathedral and other churches--such as Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce--in terms not only of religious piety but also of "civic pride and solidarity" (ibid.).

Given the foregoing review of GWD's five chapters, I do not believe that his conclusion will surprise many readers: "Between 1250 and 1330 ecclesiastical institutions, personnel, and traditions promoted and facilitated the rapid ascent of Florence to supremacy, while, at the same time, they also provided economic and social support to many of those who had been adversely affected by that transformation" (241). The most obvious implication of this conclusion is to correct the modus operandi of many Florentine historians. It is to suggest what would have been perhaps unthinkable to Burckhardt and Davidsohn: "church history belongs at the center of the history of the Italian commune, not as an obstructionist and corrupting force, but as a collaborative and even critical partner in the process of the development of the Italian city-state" (243).

To my mind, GWD clearly demonstrates the value of balance in approaching the crucial issue of how church and commune interacted and benefited each other in Dante's Florence. He provides a much-needed corrective to nineteenth- and twentieth-century notions that disparaged or underplayed the church's contribution to the rise of Florence prior to the outbreak of the Black Death. He also underscores the importance of viewing the church not as a single monolithic organization but rather as a host of interdependent institutions. While he may err at times in not giving enough emphasis to the fact that Florentines also "wanted the chapels and tombs they built to remind future generations of the renown and prosperity they had acquired for themselves and their lineages in this life" (188), he at least acknowledges that very real and understandably human possibility. Similarly, while some scholars may find problematic the citation of parallels between Edith Wharton's New York and Dante's Florence (chapter 2), not to mention the parallels suggested between John Updike's view of Florence and Dante's own (Conclusion), I personally found these musings highly suggestive of an active and engaging mind that is not afraid to make connections across the centuries.

In conclusion and in one of the highest compliments I could pay, I recommend this book not only to historians of medieval Florence and Tuscany but also to fellow Danteans.