The Medieval Review 16.09.33

Pirillo, Paolo. Forme e strutture del popolamento nel contado fieorentino, III. Gli insediamenti al tempo del primo catasto (1427-1429). Cultura e memoria, 51 . Firenze: Leo S. Olschki, 2015. pp. vii, 576. €59.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-88-222-6380-3 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Michael Bratchel
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

The present book forms part of a project to map human settlement from prehistoric times within the core territory ruled by the city of Florence (the dioceses of Florence and Fiesole). It is the last of three volumes compiled by Paolo Pirillo covering the period from the late thirteenth to the early fifteenth centuries. The first described buildings of every description identified by Pirillo from notarial sources of the first half of the fourteenth century. The second looked at fortified settlements 1280-1380. Drawing on the great Florentine tax return (catasto) of 1427-1429, this third volume lists every habitation (palace, house, cottage), every building (stable, dovecote, bake-house, threshing-floor) recorded in the taxation returns of 1427-1429, with passing reference to abutting features such as walls, ditches and roads. There is little by way of a substantive introduction by the author, and the volume under review is in the narrowest possible sense a research tool.

The project is not without its political undertones. In Italy, as in other parts of contemporary Europe, the recasting of administrative boundaries is obliterating territorial identities and resources with historical roots that date back more than a millennium. Both Pirillo and the organizers of the overall project are overtly conscious of their mission to preserve the memory and contours of the Florentine territorial state. But the true dynamic behind this volume and its two predecessors is the conviction--running throughout Pirillo's scholarly contributions over the past two decades--that Florence, from the early fourteenth century, was consciously striving for the creation of a coherent state based on a new conception of territoriality and on a rational allocation and redistribution of population. The end-product was a countryside dominated by small fortified towns and villages, acting as administrative, commercial and artisanal centres, with a peasant population scattered in isolated farmsteads as dictated by the classic image of Tuscan sharecropping (mezzadria classica). Areas within the walls were deliberately left vacant to accommodate temporary refugees from the countryside at time of war; new towns were founded as instruments of Florentine control; new centres in the valleys were advantaged at the expense of the hill-top strongholds of seigneurial lords. Pirillo is aware that demographic change might result from purely local factors. But the overall picture is one of gradual change in the interests of Florence, of citizen landowners and, in subordinate measure, those of the local population. The volumes of which this forms an integral part are designed to provide researchers with the information to measure, date and chart these changes. To speak of the project as a research tool was not intended pejoratively.

The publication of this third volume permits a comparison between settlement patterns in the first half of the fourteenth century and those in the early decades of the fifteenth. This will be its greatest value to researchers, and it is facilitated by the meticulous structural uniformity of entries. The first and third volumes both record buildings/infrastructure in about 12,000 separate localities. The dioceses of Florence and Fiesole are treated separately. Entries are grouped under 97 territorial divisions (pivieri): 61 for Florence, 36 for Fiesole. Within each piviere settlements are recorded alphabetically. Each settlement (commune or popolo) is assigned a number which, with a few exceptions, is the same across the entire project, permitting easy cross-reference. In consequence it should be possible to trace demographic change, perhaps determined by the developing and more programmatic ambitions of Florence, and certainly against a background of recurrent plagues, famines and military incursions. Here it might be noted that the lists include ruined and desolate buildings as well as those still habitable or in use. These volumes provide essential data for a study of settlements, particularly in the Apennines, desolated or completely abandoned in the post-plague years. Changing place-names in themselves might indicate territorial reorganization following the mid-fourteenth-century crisis, though, as Pirillo insists, the raw data itself contributes nothing towards its interpretation. We are on firmer ground when, as in the case of Figline Valdarno, we can trace the almost total abandonment of the hilltop fortifications (the old castello) and the growth of the newly fortified merchant settlement at its base. Or when, as in the case of Dicomano after it passed from seigneurial to Florentine rule, a settlement favoured by geography and its position within the Florentine state was able to flourish through all the vicissitudes of the late fourteenth century.

There are reservations. A database concerned with evidence of human structures inevitably excludes landed property without houses and farm buildings. It is an underlying presupposition of Florentine agrarian history that, by the fifteenth century, Florentine territory was neatly divided up into consolidated farms held on share-cropping leases by resident peasant families housed on the land (the podere mezzadrile). It is impossible to test the validity of this thesis for the whole of Florentine territory from the information provided in the volume under review. Volume three draws its material from the concentrated source of the great catasto of 1427-1429. Its two predecessors collect information from diffuse references in notarial and chronicle sources. Even the catasto has its limitations, outlined in some detail in Pirillo's introduction (12-14). There were, no doubt, deliberate omissions from what was after all a tax return. If not involving tax fraud, there was probably an understandable lack of precision in detailing the location and nature of non-taxable property. The returns are unsystematic, and--for fiscal reasons--there is likely to have been an inclination to overstate abandonment and the degree of dilapidation of the properties recorded. Many entries lack the geographical details necessary for inclusion in these lists. No historical source offers the completeness and objectivity that historians ideally might desire. Nevertheless this reviewer has some misgivings over the comparisons that can be drawn between a consolidated tax return and the data drawn in the preceding volumes from the surviving detritus of the early fourteenth century. It is the painstaking results of the earlier volumes that are likely to be of the greater value to researchers. It is easy to see how historians of fifteenth-century Florence will benefit from the lists collected by Pirillo for the period 1280-1380. They provide a basis for future research on the nature and pace of change. It is much more difficult to see how anyone will be using the limited data presented in volume three in isolation from the accompanying information of the full catasto entry regarding family size, wealth, occupation and possessions, not least since it is available online.

The present volume is described as the end of one phase of research ("si chiude una fase fondamentale di ricerca" [vi]). The project will help Florentine historians to chart changing settlement patterns, though Pirillo candidly concedes that, without detailed research, the data reveals little about the timing, motives and mechanics of change. I am unsure of the value of the present volume in isolation. The set of three volumes together provide the researcher with extensive data regarding settlement over time that is impeccably organized, rigorously researched, and easily compared.

Copyright (c) 2016 M. E. Bratchel

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