11.06.14, Law, Communes and Despots in Medieval and Renaissance Italy

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Maureen C. Miller

The Medieval Review 11.06.14

Law, John E. and Bernadette Paton. Communes and Despots in Medieval and Renaissance Italy. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010. Pp. 354. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6508-3.

Reviewed by:
Maureen C. Miller
University of Calfornia, Berkeley

This volume originated in a conference organized as a memorial to Philip Jones, who died on March 28, 2006 at the age of 84. Jones was a leading figure in a formidable generation of Anglophone historians of medieval and renaissance Italy that included David Herlihy, Gene Brucker, Marvin Becker, Bob Brentano, and others. His most influential essay, "Communes and Despots: The City State in Late- Medieval Italy," is republished here and most of the assembled essays address it directly. The volume's strength is that it provides a good sampling of current Anglophone work on late medieval and renaissance politics (with a few essays on culture). As in all collections seeking to memorialize a scholar, the contributions are highly deferential as they engage Jones's work. But there are a number of excellent essays that deserve notice, and the volume as a whole constitutes a fine tribute to a great historian.

The most stimulating contribution is John E. Law's analysis of the usefulness of the term 'diarchy,' adopted by Francesco Ercole (1879- 1945) to describe the legal and constitutional relationship between the communes and signori of northeastern Italy in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Drawing on Jones's work on the Malatesta in Rimini, Ian Robertson's on Malatesta rule in Cesena, and his own work on the Da Varano in Camerino, Law explores the phenomenon of the surviving participation of the commune in "despotic" regimes. With the important caveat that relations between communes and signori were not stable, he finds some merit in "diarchy" as capturing the considerable administrative role of the commune in important areas and the survival of a sense of communal identity.

Other excellent essays on the politics of the Italian cities consider magnate violence, the meaning of libertà, and the use of sortition in the appointment of officials. Carol Lansing offers a wonderfully incisive overview and analysis of recent historiography on the magnates, and then argues that "magnate violence could be a way to reinforce informal lordship" (40) in the countryside. Her evidence of chilling cases of elite intimidation of peasants through assault, torture, imprisonment, and rape--all gleaned from the denunciations to the Florentine Executor of the Ordinances of Justice--is highly persuasive. An insightful analysis of Genoese understandings of libertà is contributed by Christine Shaw. As the republic submitted repeatedly to the dominion of other powers across the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the Genoese came to value how the libertà of political independence was the only sure guarantor of the libertà of self-government. Daniel Waley provides an analytically precise and richly illustrated consideration of the use of sortition in the appointment of officials in communes throughout northern Italy. He ably demonstrates that the practice was an important constitutional technique, deployed chiefly for offices involving financial temptations and for those considered particularly onerous. The array of methods attests to the immense creativity of the communes, and the Piacentine strategy of confining electors without food may appeal to state governors today faced with dysfunctional legislatures.

The salutary inclusion of a selection of essays on Medicean Florence brings the legendary documentation of its archives and the rich tradition of the city's scholarship to bear on the problem of the signori. Most notable in this section are Suzanne B. Butters's essay on forced labor in renaissance Florence and Catherine Kovesi's on the Lake of Fucecchio. Using documentation from the Capitani di Parte Guelfa and the Nove Conservatori del Dominio e Giurisdizione Toscana, Butters demonstrates that both the republican commune and Florence's Medici signori made regular use of the forced labor of Tuscan peasants. While the city's earlier government deployed commandati for the maintenance of rivers and roads, purposes more clearly for the public good, the Medici called them up to build country residences such as Pratolino. The article offers rich illustrations of how the use of forced labor was organized and administered. Kovesi's contribution brilliantly shows how untrustworthy the opinions of the city's chattering classes could be. She looks behind the dismal appraisals of Alfonsina Orsini de' Medici generally and, in particular, at republican allegations of the damages she caused by draining the Lake of Fucecchio. Kovesi narrates an amazing environmental and political history of the failed creation of the lake out of a marshy swamp and demonstrates the ecological, social, and economic damage it had caused. Alfonsina's drainage project turns out to have restored farmland, improved fishing, and ameliorated a horrific rate of mortality from malaria. Besides vindicating Alfonsina, Kovaresi's study of the lake reveals how local communities suffered from quixotic urban interventions in the countryside.

The volume also includes substantial contributions on individual cities by Marco Gentile on fourteenth-century Cremona; David S. Chambers on the Gonzaga lordship in Mantua; Christine Meeks on Paolo Guinigi, signore of Lucca; Jane Black on how Giangaleazzo Visconti of Milan got his ducal title; and David Abulafia on the tiny lordship of Piombino and how it survived among the much larger and more powerful territorial states dominating fifteenth-century Italy. These will be of greatest interest to scholars working on these cities. And for Machiavelli specialists, Humphrey C. Butters offers a thoughtful engagement with Sydney Anglo's Machiavelli – the First Century by more broadly considering the problem of how one gauges intellectual influence.

Although the volume concentrates on the political history of the Italian cities, two contributions on their culture stand out. Peter Denley provides a rich overview of the history of Italian universities in the period, analyzing the characteristics that contributed to their "aristocratization" by the fifteenth century. It's impossible to do justice to the complexity of the portrait he draws in this brief review, but anyone with an interest in the history of education and in the spread of humanism will find a great deal in this essay. Finally, the contribution by George Holmes uses an analysis of Giovanni Bellini's Feast of the Gods to make the interesting suggestion that the coexistence of republican and despotic regimes in close geographical proximity fostered artistic innovation in the high renaissance. He situates this important painting as the product of collaboration between an expert in the rich visual traditions of republican Venice and an expert classicist, Mario Equicola, working in a courtly milieu under the d'Este. Although how the society and politics of these different regimes influenced that collaboration remains underdeveloped, the essay makes some stimulating connections between the political and artistic cultures of renaissance Italy.

In sum, this collection is both interesting and wide-ranging, reflecting not only the breadth of the scholar it honors but also the continuing vivacity of medieval and renaissance Italian history.

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Author Biography

Maureen C. Miller

University of Calfornia, Berkeley