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16.11.34, Ricciardelli, The Myth of Republicanism in Renaissance Italy

16.11.34, Ricciardelli, The Myth of Republicanism in Renaissance Italy

At the core of this noteworthy new book on medieval and Renaissance Italy are several valuable chapters devoted to political culture; in particular, political discourse (chap. 2), public architecture (chap. 3) and religious rituals (chap. 4) in the city states of central and northern Italy. The book admirably expands the analysis of political culture beyond the familiar case of Florence to include other republics and signorie, such as Lucca, Siena, Venice, Milan, and Genoa, among many others. Ricciardelli explicates the manner in which philosophical and literary treatises, public building projects and celebratory civic and religious displays functioned as forms of political communication directed by various kinds of governors toward myriad types of governed (e.g., magistrates towards citizens, victorious versus vanquished classes or parties, the city toward the countryside, and imperial hegemons toward subject cities).

However, The Myth of Republicanism in Renaissance Italy is framed in a frustratingly misleading and fundamentally ill-conceived way. The book's title, and its introductory and concluding chapters, champion a thesis that is at best trivial and at worst under-substantiated, namely: "the Italian republics of the thirteenth up to the fifteenth centuries never became true republics" (4). Because Italian republics never adopted universal suffrage, because their political actors used public institutions to persecute partisan rivals, because these cities employed torture and execution to punish criminals and deviants, and because they all pursued imperial conquest of surrounding provinces and towns (6, 22, 44-45, 93, 107, 120, 138-139, 152-154, 158-160), Ricciardelli insists, there is little substantively republican or "proto-democratic" about medieval and Renaissance republics. In fact, virtually nothing at all separates these self-professed republics from the princely signorie against which they ideologically opposed themselves, because both sets of regimes--throughout various eras and notwithstanding changing institutional arrangements--were, fundamentally, "oligarchies" (178-179).

It is an oft-espoused truism that "all governments are oligarchies"; but this assertion illuminates little of importance regarding political life. From such a high level of abstraction ancient Athens appears to be identical to Sparta, the Roman republic is the same as the Rome of the emperors, etc. To be sure, Ricciardelli does not wish to argue that all political regimes, throughout time and space, are the same. He desires to hold the Italian republics to a standard that distinguishes them from truly egalitarian and participatory republics that have presumably existed in historical reality. The problem is that the standards he employs, mentioned above, to disqualify Florence, Siena and Lucca (even in their most widely inclusive moments) as genuine republics, also disqualify regimes such as ancient Athens, republican Rome and the post-war United States from being considered "true" republics or democracies. Ricciardelli faults the Italian republics for only barely adhering to "the Ciceronian concept of res publica" (3); to what extent does he think that Cicero's Rome actually lived up to that concept? He needs to explain this, and identify what specific regimes constitute "true" republics, if readers are to remotely fathom the normative standards he uses to evaluate and judge the Italian republics.

Ricciardelli rightfully criticizes scholars such as Quentin Skinner, John Pocock, and Philip Pettit (5) for drawing on, with no qualification, an overly idealized version of the Italian republics in their formulation of (ostensibly more) egalitarian and participatory models of republican liberty and the common good. However, Ricciardelli may be guilty of a reverse kind of idealization when he asserts in such an undifferentiated manner that the politics of Italian republics, even under the government of the popolo, was inherently oligarchic. Quite notably, Ricciardelli never engages John Najemy's landmark scholarship on the "corporatist" guild tradition in Florence, whose adherents consciously understood themselves to be resisting the oligarchic encroachments of the "consensus" oriented upper guildsmen of their city. (In point of fact, shockingly, only one work of Najemy's--on architectural politics--is cited in Ricciardelli's book.)

According to Najemy's well-known account, lower and even middling guildsmen, at various juncture of Florence's history, forged alliances with workers who were excluded from the Guild structure in the hopes of forming a more widely exclusive guild community; one that would actually approximate universal suffrage and realize full representation in government for all classes of society. These aspirations were, of course, largely dashed at the conclusion of the Ciompi Revolt, and then finally, quite decisively, with the destruction of the governo largo that succeeded the Revolt three years later. Nevertheless, where does such an example fit in Ricciardelli's story? As with the example of Cicero above, the relationship of political ideals to political reality is ambiguous in Ricciardelli's analysis. In the medieval Italian context, ideas only seem to serve the interests of prevailing elites; they never seem to reflect the aspirations of those they subordinate. Perhaps the latter advance a republicanism all their own.

In this spirit, one must ask: is Italian "republicanism" really the "myth" that Ricciardelli considers it to be? Or is he just looking for it in the wrong places--namely in the high politics of the wealthy elites of Italian city-states? Is it the politics of Italian republics that was inveterately oligarchic or merely the lens through which Ricciardelli views it that is? Machiavelli's intellectual efforts are relevant here. Despite ostensible criticisms of the Florentine plebs in his account of the Ciompi Revolt, Machiavelli communicates a serious affinity for their civic-military desires in the Istorie Fiorentine: he astutely discerned their aspirations for a fully armed citizenry comprised of the traditional guilds, as well as the ciompi, who had previously been excluded from the former. This is a democratic republicanism--egalitarian, participatory and martial--that might have rivaled the governo largo of ancient Rome, which, no doubt, Machiavelli idealized in the Discorsi. Why shouldn't this vision--whether shouted in the Piazza della Signoria by the ciompi, or articulated by the pen of Machiavelli--count, for Ricciardelli, as "true" republicanism?