Joyce de Vries

title.none: Brucker, Living on the Edge in Leonardo's Florence (Joyce de Vries)

identifier.other: baj9928.0601.003 06.01.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Joyce de Vries, Auburn University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Brucker, Gene. Living on the Edge in Leonardo's Florence: Selected Essays. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Pp. xxvi, 211. $34.95 (hb). ISBN: 0-520-24134-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.01.03

Brucker, Gene. Living on the Edge in Leonardo's Florence: Selected Essays. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Pp. xxvi, 211. $34.95 (hb). ISBN: 0-520-24134-7.

Reviewed by:

Joyce de Vries
Auburn University

In Living on the Edge in Leonardo's Florence; selected essays , Gene Brucker presents some of his latest scholarship on Italian society in the Renaissance period. One of the most prominent social historians of the city of Florence, Brucker focuses in this volume on life in that city during the 15th and 16th centuries, although in several essays he extends his analysis to incorporate comparative situations elsewhere in Italy or to address issues in more recent history. Of the ten essays included, seven were previously published (between 1994 and 2003) and three were newly penned for this volume. This is an important book that brings together the history of the Italian Renaissance with larger questions about Italian and European history, the emergence of modern nationalism, and the role of theory and methods in historical interpretation.

Brucker begins with an autobiographical introduction in which he describes his life and the development of his research interests. In particular, he discusses how the range of archival information he has collected led him to shift his focus from Florentine politics to a broader social sphere. Indeed, all the essays here stem from his archival research, and several showcase material he once classified as "miscellaneous," that is, elucidating individual or anecdotal responses to social, economic, political, and environmental situations (xxiii-xxiv). His championing of archival research and positivism in the introduction implies an underlying theme of the book.

In a short review, it is difficult to give a full summary of each of the ten essays, but they can be divided into two general topical groups: one concerns the changing perceptions of the Renaissance era and issues largely related to Italian nationalism and identity and the other presents case studies of the social realities of individuals and groups in Renaissance Florence. In the first six essays, Brucker examines modern notions and manipulations of the Italian past and focuses on questions concerning the rise of Italian identity, nationalism, and unification. He employs his expertise in the Renaissance era to reexamine historical trends and issues, and to explore just how much continuity there was between late medieval/early modern and modern Italian society. He convincingly argues that the Renaissance period has often been misrepresented or even idealized for nationalist and other purposes, an example of the present informing the past. In chapter one, for example, Brucker critiques the work of the influential nineteenth-century historian Jacob Burckhardt to explain how the broadening of source material and analytical questions in the twentieth century allowed scholars to refute several of his assertions about the status of Christianity, the individual, and women in the Renaissance. On a similar note in chapter two, Brucker calls for current historians to search out the complexities of the past and not just draw easy connections to the present. Here, he considers whether the democratic values of the communal age in late medieval Italy carried into the modern period and influenced the drive toward unification. While those values seemed to resurface during the revolution, he argues that they had been effectively squelched by centuries of absolutist rule and that modern ideas of civil society are not directly linked to those from the past.

Questions about continuity and the emergence of Italian nationalism inform much of the book. Brucker repeatedly argues that foreign invasion and despotic rule were two of the biggest factors that prevented unification for so long. A strong sense of regionalism, continual domination by foreign powers, and other factors further hindered Italy from forging a lasting national identity before the nineteenth century. In chapter four, Brucker interestingly shifts his methodology to adopt a "what if" approach to see whether unification might have occurred sooner if key events of the Renaissance had never happened. Referring to milestones in papal, diplomatic, and military history, he explores a range of possible alternate outcomes but ultimately states that, in any case, "Italy was destined to lose its independence in the sixteenth-century" (82).

Two chapters that explore issues of Italian identity round out the initial group of essays. First is a comparison of the use and abuse of oaths in economic and political traditions in the Renaissance period. Brucker concludes that oaths meant little in the political and military realm, a practice that encouraged the constant wars and invasions of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and so significantly limited the development of a trans-regional identity. Thus far in the book, Brucker has drawn mainly from Florentine evidence, but here he expands his sources to include Venice and Genoa as well. In chapter six Brucker returns to his Florentine focus as he argues that the city's central position in Italian studies stems from its exceptionally rich archival resources, which have understandably occupied scholars for decades. Although Brucker maintains that Florence largely deserves its hegemonic position within Italian studies, he explains some of the disparities in method and theory that have informed the ever-broadening range of recent scholarship, which is beginning to place the city into a larger context. Thus, this essay brings the reader back to the same methodological and historiographical issues raised in the introduction and the first chapter.

The final four essays outline the harsh realities of life and society in Renaissance-era Florence and they contain some of the "miscellaneous" evidence that Brucker referred to in his introduction. The chapter from which the book derives its name highlights the basic hardships that made life so precarious in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, from natural disasters such as plague and famine to man- made events of invasion, war, and political rebellion. This chapter provides a basis for the following essays, which are more focused case studies of the social situations of specific groups. For instance, Brucker examines the careers of Florentine cathedral chaplains from their social backgrounds, training, duties, benefits, and expenses to the perils of the job and the ways they could network to advance beyond local chaplaincy. Church affairs appear again in chapter nine, a brief study of the Pandolfini family's efforts to control a local priory for social and economic gain and the opposition they faced. Finally, the last essay tells the story of Alessandra Strozzi, a widowed matriarch who maintained the Florentine holdings as well as the social position of her exiled family. Brucker's selection of Strozzi's letters reveals her to have been a cunning noblewoman and loving mother who dealt well with the adversities she continually faced.

In an interesting and revealing move, Brucker offers readers his position on some of the criticisms he has received over his long career in the book's introduction. Here he dismisses the validity of theoretical frameworks for composing history, but his reliance on positivist methods and his focus on Florence as the paradigm for Italian history is a theoretical model in itself and will strike some readers as overly cautious and even conservative. Nonetheless these essays highlight the scholarship of a distinguished social historian and are an excellent introduction to some of the latest issues in Italian social history, from the continuities between past and present in historical and historiographical situations to the questioning of a Florentine-centric history of Italy as well as the expansion of the field to include women and Florentines of lower states and not just the most elite members of society.