09.09.10, Najemy, A History of Florence

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Janine Peterson

The Medieval Review 09.09.10

Najemy, John M.. A History of Florence, 1200-1575. Malden, Massachusetts: Wiley & Sons, 2006. Pp. 515. ISBN: 9781405182423.

Reviewed by:
Janine Peterson
Marist College

= As John M. Najemy notes in his introduction, Florence has a legacy as the "cradle of civilization" (1). Both ancient and modern historians of the city, from Coluccio Salutati and Leonardo Bruni to Ferdinand Schevill and Gene Brucker, have idealized Florence's history and its purported civic virtues. It would be an overstatement to claim that Najemy poses an outright challenge the "golden age" myth of Florence. He does, however, provide much-needed nuances to this rose-colored view of Florentine history. Another book on the history of Florence might seem superfluous, since new works on aspects of medieval and Renaissance Florence are certainly not rare. The most notable contributions to the topic in the last twenty years have been provided by Roger Crum, George Dameron, Richard Goldthwaite, and Carol Lansing. A History of Florence, 1200-1575 differs in that Najemy's "long history" (3) of the city is in the tradition of Schevill and Brucker, providing the first new comprehensive narrative since Brucker's Renaissance Florence (Berkeley, reprint 1983) and Florence: The Golden Age, 1138-1737 (New York, 1984). A History of Florence, 1200-1575 does utilize many of the studies listed above (as well as those of other giants in the Italian historical tradition, like Marvin Becker), and thus much of the material may be familiar to specialists in the field. Both Italian scholars and non-specialists alike, however, should welcome it as a standard reference for its clear and concise narrative, written in elegant prose.

= The central focus of this book is the politics and economics of Florence, with the underlying theme of how changes in these areas led to altered social relationships between the classes. It is not a straight chronological history, for there are interspersed thematic chapters that delve deeper into issues of particular interest to social and cultural historians, such as chapter 8, "Family and State in the Age of Consensus" and chapter 11, "The Luxury Economy and Art Patronage." The overall structure of the book's fifteen chapters can be divided into smaller units, although Najemy did not choose to do so (the categorizations that follow are my own for ease of outlining its contents).

= Chapters 1-3 set the stage with a discussion of the relationship between social classes and political power. Chapter 1 looks at the elite: the creation of lineages; the growth of factionalism beginning with the famous conflict between Buondelmonte de' Buondelmonti and Oddo Arrighi, sparking the rift that is equated in Florentine legend with the division between Guelfs and Ghibellines; and how such families distinguished themselves from the popolo in the later Middle Ages, particularly through a court culture and literary forms like the poetry of the dolce stil nuovo. Chapter 2, in turn, discusses that hard-to-define group, the popolo. While the term suggests all non-elite citizens, Najemy rightly rejects this simplistic definition. Who constituted the popolo changed depending on the specific historical context. In this earlier period the term often denoted members of the major guilds who could hold office and were not of aristocratic lineage, although they may have had many dealings with the elite. Najemy's discussion in this chapter of the fluid boundaries between who was considered a member of the elite and the popolo in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries is one of the real strengths of this work. The third chapter continues to explore the relationship between these classes in an outline of the rise of communal or so-called "popular" rule, as citizens attempted to impose limits on the elite's political power.

= Chapters 4-6 delve into how economics shifted the balance of power between the elite and popolo to circa 1400. The expansion of the textile trade and subsequent influx of immigrants and wealth to the city led to an expanding population and a building boom in the first half of the fourteenth century. It also led to greater political authority for the new merchant association, the Mercanzia, as we learn in chapter 4. Florence's government, however, had to rely on the assessment of compulsory loans to finance its wars with rival cities like Lucca. Chapter 5 explores the economic dominance of the leading merchant and banking classes that led to their political dominance. The growth of the Mercanzia's control in the early third of the fourteenth century resulted in a subsequent backlash against the government in the 1340s after the fall of many of Florence's leading banks. Political turmoil and class conflict continued throughout the century, culminating in the 1378 revolt of the Ciompi, or the workers and artisans of the lesser guilds, described in chapter 6.

= The "realignment" (188) of classes following the Ciompi revolt, and the consequent new political ideology of consensus rule by the elite that emerged in the war-torn 1380s and which continued to the 1440s, is the topic of chapters 7-9. Florence attempted to expand its control over the countryside, or contado, in the late fourteenth century. Wars with the Visconti rulers of Milan and with Pisa (conquered in 1406) coincided with the literary expression of the virtues of Florence based in its legacy of republicanism, the so- called "civic humanism." Najemy addresses the issue of how the territorial wars perhaps created the need for such a romanticized vision of Florence as a unified community in chapter 7. Chapter 8 explores the social history of fifteenth-century citizens, looking at marriage, reproductive, and inheritance patterns in the city and contado. Charitable institutions like foundling hospitals increased in this period, but so too did laws regulating the private life of citizens (such as those against sodomy and prostitution) as the elite government in charge appropriated the idea of the patria potestatis, policing the morals of the citizens as fathers were to do to those within their household. Chapter 9 returns to the history of the elite governance of the city in its discussion of the appearance of the Medici family. Rather than promoting the view that the emergence of the Medici as the most powerful family in Florence was inevitable, Najemy skillfully demonstrates that while political propaganda and the changing balance of power may have "paved the way" for a family like the Medici to become dominant, it was in fact Florence's economic crisis of the 1420s that produced the need for cash which only Cosimo Medici could provide, thanks to his recent financial relationship with the papal curia.

= Chapters 10-12 focus on the Medici dynasty and the creation of what has been called a "Renaissance identity." Sandwiched in between chapters on the growth of Medici dominance under Cosimo (chapter 10) and the solidifying of hegemonic rule under Lorenzo (chapter 12) is a chapter on elite patronage and self-fashioning. Chapter 11 is central to the idea of a Renaissance identity, a concept that was integral to Renaissance historiography for many years but which has recently been challenged, especially in the debate over whether the artist was merely considered an artisan, rather than a valued craftsman, until the fifteenth century. Najemy does not engage directly with this issue; instead he shifts the focus from the artist to the patron, arguing that the true shift innovation was in art being produced for private homes, rather than being paid for by private citizens but displayed in public settings. Finally, chapters 13-15 present a more classic political history of the waxing and waning of Medici power as it was challenged by the French, a revival of republican ideals, and revolution in the sixteenth century.

= This overview is by necessity just that: a simplistic overview of the 500 or so pages of Najemy's thorough research. The greatest strength of this work is Najemy's command of the primary sources. Not only did he consult seemingly all the chronicles and histories (a vast amount of material in itself) but he also utilizes other types of evidence, such as re-examining the catasti (or tax surveys) and the surviving bal├Če (or records of civic office nominations). A meticulous scrutiny of a wide variety of sources allowed Najemy to produce a persuasive re-assessment of the relation between social classes in Florence during this period and how it changed. Najemy clearly articulates the fragmentation that occurred within and amongst families bound by political and economic alliances, and difficulty in distinguishing what has generally been considered distinct classes (the elites and the popolani). The ultimate contribution of A History of Florence, 1200-1575 is as a moderating corrective to the Marxist interpretation of Florence's republican struggles.

= There is nothing to find fault with what is included in this work; the only critique is what is excluded. The student or interested non- specialist of Florentine history might be frustrated at the footnotes, which are minimal. Najemy opted to curtail the citations, as he notes in his introduction, to those works specifically mentioned or from which he extracted evidence, and "to particularly significant items," primarily in English (4). This decision is understandable for a lengthy narrative on a popular topic, but should be noted nonetheless. In addition, for all of the promise of the early chapters that describe the popolo and how economic crises affected the life of the majority of citizens, much of the later chapters focus (with the exclusion of chapter 8) on the elite. It has been noted above that the book contributes to an understanding of Florence's social history, but overall this is a history of Florence as a civic institution, and how its citizens participated in its government. More sustained discussions on religious and cultural aspects of Florence, for instance, could certainly be integrated into the narrative: on the public aspect of religious ritual and the divisive elements of late medieval religious devotion; the ramifications of humanism and the printing press on the public at large; and non-elite attitudes towards prevailing cultural norms (such as prostitution, mentioned briefly in chapter 8). Augmenting these topics would help to flesh out Florentine life and perhaps provide further insight into the concerns and conditions of its citizens. To do so while maintaining the attention to detail and thorough analysis that Najemy otherwise provides, however, would undoubtedly add another 500 pages. If readers approach this book with the understanding that it is a history of Florence in its civic persona, few would be disappointed.

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Janine Peterson

Marist College