18.09.12, Bornstein et al., Languages of Power in Italy

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Hester Schadee

The Medieval Review 18.09.12

Bornstein, Daniel, Laura Gaffuri, and Brian Jeffrey Maxson, eds. Languagesof Power in Italy (1300-1600). Early European Research . Turnhout Belgium: 2018. pp. xvi, 245. ISBN: 978-2-503-54038-2 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Hester Schadee
University of Exeter

This edited volume evokes the experience of a large, parallel panel conference: an exhilarating ride along a variety of topics and approaches conducted at high speed, that leaves you wanting more and, occasionally, puzzled by what you have heard. This is fitting, since at the root of the book lies a series of panels organised by Daniel Bornstein and Laura Gaffuri at the Renaissance Society of America annual conference in 2010. In character with this origin, the editors have decided to keep the chapters short: I estimate on average 5000 words. While this naturally means that some stop before they really get started, the overall effect is refreshing, and the best contributions present well-defined case-studies that address larger issues. Another merit of the volume is the high proportion of Italian scholars, whose work it opens up to Anglophone audiences; as such a "List of Contributors" would have been welcome, in addition to the professional affiliations given on the first page of each chapter. The translations from the Italian, four of which were done by Brian Jeffrey Maxson, are exemplary.

The "languages" of the title have been interpreted in a broad sense, to include not only the spoken and written word but also artistic representations, ritual and ceremony, and indeed all forms of interaction that can fruitfully be studied through the lens of power differentials. Three sections, devoted to words, civic values, and religion, respectively, strain somewhat to contain this variety. Among the book's highlights, in the second section, are the chapters by Federica Cengarle and Guido Cariboni which address, from different perspectives, the creation and legitimation of Visconti power. Cariboni surveys the Visconti's mastery of three sources of authority--communal offices, the imperial vicariate, and the archbishopric--before examining their iconographic identification with the figure of St Ambrose, patron saint of Milan. The result is not only a modelling of the Visconti after St Ambrose, but also St Ambrose taking the form of the bishops Ottone (d. 1295) and Giovanni Visconti (d. 1354). Cengarle, in a fascinating study of the processes by which general and specific law (statutes) were made, analyses the seignorial arrogation of this communal power. She shows that, nevertheless, the Visconti territories remained legally disunited, evident in the fact that their lord had to issue the same statute to each city individually. This only changed when jurists such as Signorolo degli Omodei (d. 1371) began to conceive of the power to give law as bestowed onto the Visconti by the Emperor.

An outstanding contribution by Jessamyn Conrad analyses the varied understandings and representations of civic government in Siena through a juxtaposition of the Maestà of Duccio (1311) and Simone Martini (c. 1315). The format of the Virgin and Child Enthroned, she argues, was inherently political as it was associated with Siena's confraternities (more detail on this would be welcome); moreover, Duccio's unprecedented inclusion of the city's patron saints as donors and penitents to the Madonna cast her as ultimate, if remote, civic authority. By contrast, in Simone Martini's fresco, which oversees the council chamber of the Palazzo Pubblico, the Virgin actually participates in government by giving counsel, urging that the powerful not hurt the weak. This plea is spoken and in the vernacular--another first in an Italian painting--whereas baby Jesus holds a Latin text. Together with the colours of the Capitano del Popolo gracing the Virgin's baldachin, this is an argument, according to Conrad, for a popular interpretation of communal government. Elizabeth Horodowich's study, in section I, of Marin Sanudo's diaries shows the different realms of these languages enduring into the sixteenth century, with Sanudo describing the vernacular as more truthful and reflective of reality, while nonetheless relying on Latin phrases when the seriousness of the matter seems to require it. A neat case-study by Brian Jeffrey Maxson reconstructs the power of the non-written, non-spoken language of diplomacy that consists in the rank of the ambassador entrusted with a mission. In response to Jacopo Piccinino's seizing of Assisi (1458), the Florentine government first appointed a high-status diplomat, only to replace him with a lesser envoy when the Milanese sent word that they would employ a delegate of middling rank--meanwhile, the Pope had to wait for his allies to pledge military action.

In the third section, Laura Gaffuri focuses on the multiple roles played by fifteenth-century mendicants--as preachers, counsellors, and hagiographers--in the political life of Savoy. Yet the wider argument of her chapter is that biblical hermeneutics constituted an all-encompassing language for theorising, legitimising and reforming the late medieval and early modern state, which she illustrates through a judicious survey with ample bibliography. Gaffuri's thesis is exemplified by Paolo Evangelisti's study of the political content of the Advent and Lent sermons (1493) of the Franciscan Bernardino da Feltre, which oddly enough is placed in section II, before Gaffuri's chapter. Evangelisti, however, frames the parallels he finds between the friar's thinking and that of the civic humanists as a criticism of Hans Baron, whose opposition of civic humanism's endorsement of commerce for the common good with the Franciscan vow of poverty is known to be misguided. A case-study of the potentially detrimental effect of religious justifications on secular government is provided by Nicholas Scott Baker, who studies the moment when Florence's last republican government elected Christ as king (1528). This implementation of Savonarola's vision for a divine and free common wealth, while imperial forces closed in on Florence, had the effect, Scott Baker argues, of stifling debate about the city's course of action: his study of the consulte e pratiche suggests that once bland avowals to "have recourse to God" (222) now became declarations for the current government, whereas proposals to negotiate were effectively sacrilegious. Naturally, terms such as "liberty" and "tyranny" were always manipulated to silence enemies, and one may wonder what the city's options realistically were. Yet as a study of the languages of power, and indeed the power of language, this contribution, like the book itself, is provocative.

A less happy note must unfortunately be added regarding the Latin cited in this volume. Corinne Wieben, in her study of the cult of St Verdiana of Castelfiorentino, quotes and translates the monk Biagio's fourteenth-century Life of St Verdiana as follows: "gaudiose recepta fuit, commune pietatis intuit sibi cellam construe faceret exoravit. Benigne assensum dedit et iuxta ecclesiunculam quondam extra castrum parumper, honore beati Antonii dedicatam, sibi fieri quam citius ordinavit (was received joyously. To the admiration of the community of the pious, she begged that a cell be built for her; they freely gave approval, and, next to a certain little church outside the castrum once dedicated to the honour of the Blessed Anthony, they quickly arranged to build it for her.)" (155). The Latin has fallen prey to the auto-correct, an indiscriminate nemesis, and should read "intuitu", "construi", and "quandam". But that does not resolve the English. There is no "'commune pietatis', the community of the pious", as Wiebens explains the phrase (155), for "pietatis" qualifies "intuitu", and in any case "communis" (genitive) is required for her translation. Nor does the commune decide quickly ("citius ordinavit"): rather they order it be built immediately ("fieri quam citius"). Two modern editions of this Vita exist, to wit Antonella Degl'Innocenti, Un leggendario fiorentino del XIV secolo (Florence: SISMEL – Edizioni del Galluzzo, 1999), 107-111, and Silvia Nocentini, ed. Verdiana di Castelfiorentino. Contesto storico, tradizione agiografica e iconografia (Florence: SISMEL – Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2011), 87-92. It is strange that neither is listed among the "Primary Sources" of Wieben's bibliography, where instead we find, under "Manuscript and Archival Sources", Biagio's Vita Sancte Viridiane, Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurentiana, MS Plut. 20.6 – even though Nocentini's volume is included under "Secondary Studies", and in the footnotes is referenced after the manuscript.

It would be unfair to single out Wieben. To give just a few other examples, Franco Motta, in an interesting article on papal authority over scriptural exegesis, transcribes and translates the Jesuit Diego de Ledesma's lecture De scriptura sacra et expresso verbo Dei from Rome, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, MS Ges. 1191 (the fondo is lacking from the bibliography) as: "Ipsa scriptura indiget interprete, qui eam legat, et intelligat, et inde sensum hauriat, et indicet hunc esse sensum eius, vel illum, verum, et illum alium erroneum asserat, et desiniat. (Scripture needs an interpreter who reads and understands it, and who brings out the sense of it, and who indicates that this or that is the true meaning and that other one is erroneous and abandons it.)" (234-235). It is clear that in the last word, "f" has been interpreted as "s longa": "definiat" makes better sense in terms of structure and meaning; moreover, the subjunctive of "desinere" would have been "desinat". In Evangelisti's chapter we find "Et ideo hoc cognoscentes antiqui sapientes et philosophi, inordinatis populis ceperunt leges dare" translated as "Thus, knowing this fact, ancient wise men and philosophers fastened upon giving law to the disordered populace" (103). Apparently, the main verb is taken to be the perfect tense of "capere", instead of the perfectly normal medieval spelling, without diphthong, of "coeperunt". Another translation of Bernardino's sermon De republica is completely jumbled: "Vanum est autem quod finem suum non attingit, quia non sufficit, ad habendum bravium, fortiter jacere cum arcu nisi attingat signum: et medicina dicitur vana que non inducit sanitatem, sic virtus est vana que non conduci [sic, HS] ad suum finem (It is therefore a waste if something doesn't attain its end because of some insufficiency. To gain the prize one must shoot strongly with a bow in order to reach the target; and medicine that does not give health is said to be useless. Thus, virtue is useless if it does not lead to its true end)" (98). This should be: "But that which does not attain its end is vain, since it does not suffice, for winning a prize, to shoot boldly with a bow unless one hits the target. A medicine, too, is said to be vain that does not lead to health. In the same way, virtue is vain which does not tend to its own end". Even Cengarle's otherwise fine chapter is marred by the non-sentence "This work of the statutes, as has been said, has been carried out with heavenly favour and always and in all things by the power, will, and authority of Lord Luchino in having it examined, corrected, emended, and completed, just as he pleased, so that these statutes do not in any way possess authority nor are they held as statutes, unless they have been approved by him in exactly the same way he wishes them to be" to render "Hoc igitur opus statutorum, ut dictum est, caelesti favore adimpletum est, salva semper in omnibus potestate, voluntate et auctoritate ipsius domini Luchini in faciendo ipsa examinari, corrigi, emendari et suppleri, prout sibi placuerit; ita quod ipsa Statuta in aliquo non teneant nec pro statutis habeantur, donec ab ipso, sicut ei placuerit, fuerint approbata" (120). This should be "…with heavenly favour, leaving intact always and in all things the power, will and authority of Lord Luchino for making that they be examined, corrected, emended, and completed, just as will please him; so that these Statutes do not in any aspect bind, nor are they held for statutes, until they will have been approved by him, as will please him". Such blemishes are a pity, since the book is in other respects carefully edited, and bristles with new insights.

DANIEL BORNSTEIN - Introduction. Section I: Words of Power and the Power of Words. ALICE BLYTHE RAVIOLA - Small States in Early Modern Italy: Definitions, Examples, and Interactions. ELIZABETH HORODOWICH - Speech and Power in the Diaries of Marin Sanudo (1496-1533). MARIA GRAZIA NICO - The Power of Words in Some Noblewomen's Letters. CARLO TAVIANI - A Privatized State: Discourses on the Casa di San Giorgio (1446-1562). Section II: Picturing Power: The Articulation and Display of Civic Values. GUIDO CARIBONI - Symbolic Communication and Civic Values in Milan under the Early Visconti. JESSAMYN CONRAD - Picturing Power in Trecento Siena: Duccio's and Simone's Maestàs. PAOLO EVANGELISTI - 'De bono yconomico et politico non habemus aliquam scientiam?' Civic Virtues and the Conception of the Res publica in Franciscan Sermons of the Fifteenth Century. FEDERICA CENGARLE - Potestas condendi leges: The Erosion of a Civic Prerogative under the Pressure of Princely Rule. BRIAN JEFFREY MAXSON - Expressions of Power in Diplomacy in Fifteenth-Century Florence. Section III: Religion, Power, and the State. CORINNE WIEBEN - Foster-Mother of Vipers: Episcopal Conflict and the Cult of Verdiana da Castelfiorentino. CECILIA IANNELLA - Pietro Gambacorta and the City of Pisa (1369-1392). LAURA GAFFURI - Christian Exegesis and Political Practice: A Case Study of the Medieval and Early Modern Savoy Region. PAOLO COZZO - Religious Dimensions of the Early Modern Savoy State: Sacred Spaces, Court, and Politics in Turin in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. NICHOLAS SCOTT BAKER - When Christ was King in Florence: Religious Language and Political Paralysis during the Siege of Florence, 1529-1530. FRANCO MOTTA - The Spoken Law: The Judicial Paradigm of Power in Catholic Theology between the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.

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