The Medieval Review 10.03.25

Hewlett, Cecilia. Rural Communities in Renaissance Tuscany: Religious Identities and Local Loyalties. Europa Sacra. Turnhout: Brepols, 2008. Pp. xii, 234. $87 ISBN 978-2-503-52337-8. .

Reviewed by:

Alison Williams Lewin,
St. Josephs University

This excellent, compact monograph in the Europa Sacra series published under the auspices of Monash University, Australia, closely analyzes three very different areas within the Florentine territorial state. Presented in two parts, the data and conclusions drawn from them further the trajectory of several recent studies examining the mechanisms and relations of Florentine suzerainty over 12,000 square kilometers of land containing 2100 separate communities. Hewlett openly challenges mainstream thought regarding the contado, writing that historians of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Florence refer to it "as if the entire area and its inhabitants somehow shared a common identity and experience" (1). She concedes that the tendency to refer to all rural inhabitants of the territory as crude peasants arises from the rhetoric of Florentine citizens themselves. "In reality, the division between the city and the countryside was much less profound than the documents would have us believe" (2). She supports both points convincingly enough, with sufficient (and often startling) evidence, to cause a reassessment, if not a full reconfiguration, of accepted views.

Rural Communities is divided in two parts: "The Communes and their Government" (chapters 1-4), and "Rural Parish Communities and Florentine Patrons" (chapters 5-7). The introduction makes clear that her focus in Part One is not contributing to the ongoing debate over the territorial v. regional nature of mechanisms of institutional control; rather, "this book privileges the rural experience of Florentine government," in three specific geographic areas, "their relationship with the central government," from the later years of Lorenzo the Magnificent's regime until the institution of the Duchy nearly a century later (9). Research into the specific contexts and histories of lived experience under Florence, and of a two-way dynamic between rulers and ruled allow Hewlett to produce a lively, extremely well constructed account of the political, social, and liturgical practices of country dwellers of all classes and of the distinct identity and role of each of her three chosen communities.

The first small area under examination includes several small towns high in the mountains of Pistoia, where factional loyalties and transhumance of domestic animals, as well as relative isolation, made for a unique political, social, and economic existence. The second, Gangalandi, to the south-west of Florence differs in all respects from the first; lying in very fertile land, prosperous and peaceful, the area attracted many Florentine landholders. The last, Scarperia in the Mugello, also differs from the others, being an artificial settlement deliberately designed and populated by Florence after the defeat of the former feudal lords of the region, the Ubaldini (10-11). Hewlett is aware of the dramatic differences separating each from the others; her choices allow her to examine extremes existing within the Florentine contado, but she makes no claim that these somehow represent either the larger areas around the three, nor that these are typologies for the contado generally.

The first chapter examines the range of political activity and relative independence different rural communes enjoyed under Florentine rule. The Florentines made no attempt to rule with comprehensive, centralized, consistent mechanisms; rather, they governed a loose federation, in which each area had a unique relationship with Florence based on its "economic resources, strategic locations, political affiliations, social composition, and ecclesiastical ties..." (17). Operating from Florence, the civic magistracies of the Cinque del Contado supervised the fiscal organization of the communes, the Otto di Guardia evolved from its peacekeeping origins into the most important criminal court, and the Ufficiali dell'estimo del contado handled the allocation and collection of taxes. Vicari, capitani, and podestà were sent out to the territories to administer justice, maintain order, and collect taxes (18-19). Also at play, however, were personal relations between patrons and clients, and a pattern of government favoring negotiation over domination, both of which took deep root and flourished under Lorenzo (20). This set of informal relations, coupled with the evident will of rural communes to maintain their own councils and to administer their internal affairs, meant that rural dwellers were not the apolitical or naïve recipients of Florentine orders, but rather active, even defiant, defenders of their own institutions and identities (21-23). Local statutes retained the force of law, and appeals and protests often resulted in lower tax assessments, even exemptions (22, 24, 40). Generally speaking, Florentine government tended "to accept, even perpetuate, regional individuality..." (26).

Following this view from the Florentine perspective comes a description of the structure of rural governance, usually embodied in a grand council of forty to seventy rural citizens, though smaller groups handled daily affairs (26 ff.). Different as individual subject communities may have been, certain characteristics prevailed in the vast majority, one of which is, sadly, the lack of redaction or adequate preservation of many records. It is thus impossible to make point-by-point comparisons, but quite feasible to view, with less or greater acuity, the outlines of territorial self-government and its relationship to Florence and its various citizens and officials. Though the relationship changed during the decades examined here, most often it did so in response to specific events or circumstances, and usually concerned a specific town or area; "[T]he relationship between city and country was continually negotiated by each community under Florentine rule..." (42).

Chapter Two, "The Pistoian Mountains and Factional Conflict," is certainly the most wildly entertaining chapter, closely followed by the corresponding section on this area in chapter six, " Campanilismo and Religious Identities." A short review cannot adequately describe the effects in this region of the factionalism that had originated in Pistoia centuries earlier. The region's general dependence upon animal husbandry, requiring changes of pasture during the year, meant that most males cultivated wide-ranging, factionally based networks that would protect them and their charges over the journey to the plains of the Maremma (47, 51). Deep-rooted divisions among mountain dwellers meant that Florence did not consolidate its rule there for three centuries. Not surprisingly, administering this violent and generally impoverished area did not appeal to Florentine citizens, so salaries for serving there were relatively high (53). Within this violent society, Hewlett examined four separate towns, whose household counts in 1344 ranged from 918 to 91. Despite their different relative sizes, each was severely depopulated by 1536, falling to 113 to 17 households. Plague, a subsistence economy, murder and even massacre all contributed to this decline. Also distinguishing this area was the unusual involvement of the Medici, often more direct and personal than that of the Florentine officials posted there (72).

"Gangalandi and Sharecropping in the Traditional Florentine Contado is perhaps less gripping but historiographically highly significant, challenging as it does that Florentine presence in the countryside led to the degradation of the inhabitants of Gangalandi's four parishes into sharecroppers. Personal ties, most visibly through the Strozzi, Pucci, Adimari, and Pandolfini, created personal and visible ties between leading Florentines and rural parishioners, and the landowning and labor statistics drawn from tax assessments and records over decades suggest that the relationship between Florentine landowners and rural workers was, at least in this area, mutually beneficial rather than impersonally exploitative. Only 10% of those working sharecropping in the late 1400s were tied exclusively to the property of their landlords (meaning they had no separate house or land); for Scarperia, the total was even lower, 5.85%. This chapter also challenges the picture of all rural dwellers as agricultural laborers, showing statistically that nearly 60% engaged more a trade or craft as well (103).

The third locus of investigation, Scarperia, is significant for its nature as a new settlement created after Florentine conquest of the area, and for its location in the Mugello, the Medici ancestral home. The town initially served as an essential military stronghold, and was populated with those forcibly resettled from feudal villages, greatly diminishing the size and influence of the two most significant pre- existing communes, Sant'Agata and Santa Maria di Fagna (110-111). Walled off from surrounding lands and built as an idealized Florence with a grid of perpendicular streets and a miniature Palazzo Vecchio, Scarperia quickly dominated the area both politically and economically. Its inhabitants distanced themselves from the contadini outside the walls, as seems to have been common for all walled communities in the region (117). Differences between the town's four quarters also led to hostilities that turned violent on occasion (119). Scarperia identified strongly with Florentine values and followed the official channels of communication in negotiating taxes and court affairs. In return, Florentine officials, an illustrious and well-compensated group, showed flexibility and understanding in accommodating requests from the town. In contrast to Gangalandi, informal relationships between Florentines and locals were extremely limited despite significant Florentine landholdings in the region; most likely Scarperia's mercantile rather than agricultural economy precluded the ties that bound parishioners and neighbors together in the countryside (122-123). Privileged above all other merchants and tradesmen were the knife makers, who enjoyed wealth, strong representation in confraternal councils, and the status of a guild (124). This economically elite group soon became politically elite as well, focusing on a small number of ruling families (130).

Following these clear portraits of the three areas under examination, Hewlett turns in Part II to questions of local religious identity. Chapter five, "Religious Institutions in the Countryside," presents struggles over patronage, jurisdiction, ritual tribute, and ambivalence towards parish priests, often outsiders placed within the parish by a patron. Though unable to compete financially with wealthier Florentines over patronage rights, parish councils and lay confraternities managed to preserve an effective level of control over the daily operations of their parish churches (149). Nonetheless, concerns for the spiritual well-being of rural dwellers together with frequent associations in worship and administration could result in Florentine intervention in rural parish life (152). Far more independent from Florentine interference were the confraternities and parish opere. Confraternities engaged in singing laudese, practicing flagellation, guarded specific images or holy sites, distributed alms, and also oversaw the education of the faithful. For their part, parish opere organized religious festivals, coordinated liturgy, and commissioned visiting preachers (154). While these two types of association kept their distance from Florentines, hospitals and convents saw increased Florentine involvement during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (162).

In chapter six, the application of these generalities to Gangalandi, Scarperia, and the Pistoian mountains reveals great differences among them. Beginning with the terrifying nightmare of the 1542 earthquake in the Mugello, Hewlett examines religious identity and activity in these areas and in Florence itself. As with the devastating outbreak of plague in 1527, this crisis drew Florentines and contadini together "in a rare moment of spiritual unity" (164). More commonly, control over ecclesiastical institutions and individual spirituality had constantly to be negotiated, and varied widely from one place in the territory to another. As with her attack on stereotypes of rustics perpetuated by Florentines, Hewlett questions and generally undermines the prevailing image "of a rural Christianity steeped in superstition, folklore, and ignorance..." (165).

Among the complications of spiritual life in the contado were competition and resentment among local parishes for revenues and favors, restrictions on confraternal memberships, the presence or absence of Florentine godparents for rural parishioners, and of course, competition for patronage rights. While Scarperia suffered Florentine interference in parish elections, few inroads were made regarding the communal council's patronage rights over the church and no Florentines acted as godparents for its inhabitants; the relatively small and poor nearby parishes of Fagna and Sant'Agata experienced little to no Florentine intrusion into their affairs (174-177). By contrast, the long-standing presence of several major Florentine families in Gangalandi resulted in close and active relationships between those of the city and those of the contado. Relations were generally peaceful, though the several moves by the local community to buy back control over the richest parish, San Martino, from the Alberti in mid-fifteenth century indicate a desire "to have more say in the choice of who was to minister to their spiritual needs" (179). Of greater overall concern was the challenge of preserving the balance of four distinct parish communities, while simultaneously maintaining a unified administrative body (181). Demands for ritual tribute from the three lesser non-baptismal parishes to San Martino led in 1537 in outright refusal, which San Martino had eventually to accept (183). Nonetheless, San Martino retained the lion's share of control over communal ecclesiastical institutions (184).

Most intriguing, once again, are aspects of religious identity and activity in the mountains of Pistoia. Records were few and badly maintained; those that have survived "present the seemingly contradictory picture of a series of intensely inward-looking communities, which were at the same time highly mobile and motivated by wider loyalties and solidarities" (189). Hewlett lucidly explains this seeming contradiction by examining it through the lens of gender. Women, left behind for months on end, identified more closely with the parish than men, who were not above betraying members of their own parishes "in order to win the favour of their partisan brothers..." Factionalism so infected sacred spaces that "hundreds of men, women, and children were burnt alive while sheltering within the walls of their parish church." Such destruction was seen not as a blow to the community but to the rival faction. Concerns over parish churches centered not so much on the spiritual community as on the social and economic unit of the parish (190-191). Confraternities played a similarly marginal role in developing local identity. Not surprisingly, mountain women could not only join confraternities, but often outnumbered the men; these associations served as mechanisms of support and protection for women, especially the large percentage of widows (192-194). The only institutions that provided some degree of spiritual guidance were the religious communities, particularly the Dominicans.

Hewlett ends with another focused vignette, this time of the different areas' responses to the miraculous changes in the Madonna della Carceri in Prato. Close examination of the groups making a pilgrimage to the holy site and of their offerings reveals further the nature of spiritual relations and associations of various communities. The analysis of the wide range of various groups' size, the worth of their offerings, and the role of parish priests and members of confraternities enhances the complex picture of rural religious activity and identity Hewlett has rigorously and painstakingly constructed throughout the book.

The thirteen small black-and-white images scattered throughout the text give some sense of each subject, as do the half-dozen tables compiled where records permitted. While some of the longer chapters are helpfully divided into sections labeled I, II, III, etc., no indication of this subdivision or subtitle appears in the table of contents. More disappointing is the lack of a map, which ideally would present both topography and distances to those not intimately acquainted with the 1200 communities or various regions contained within the borders of the contado

As the large number of particular page references in this review suggests, Rural Communities requires careful close reading and makes many noteworthy and fine distinctions, overall with great clarity. Some repetition of specific events or circumstances occur, but with the exception of excessive reliance on the grating phrase, "impacted on," Rural Communities is elegantly written and generally well edited. Clearly, Hewlett aims to inspire others to pursue the same careful, insightful studies for other towns or regions under Florentine rule. If we are fortunate, they will do so as well as she.