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19.04.10. Benes, ed., A Companion to Medieval Genoa

19.04.10. Benes, ed., A Companion to Medieval Genoa

On page one of chapter seventeen, entitled "Genoa and the Crusade," author Merav Mack argues that "Genoese history is a narrative not of one city but of distant but closely-linked parts of the Mediterranean" (471). Although this statement appears near the collection's end, it neatly encapsulates editor Carrie Benes's vision throughout A Companion to Medieval Genoa, a work that emphasizes connections between the Genoese local and remote, comprehensively fleshed out in the book's maps, figures, glossary, and eighteen essay-length chapters.

A Companion to Medieval Genoa skillfully explores the city's history in much the same way as a two-faced Janus (a symbol of the city from the early thirteenth-century), whose attention rests not on the city's future and the past, but on its co-existing and at times competing internal and external orientations (197). The careful juxtaposition of inward- and outward-facing chapters begins after Benes's informative introduction with a chapter on "The Written Sources" (those created in or about Genoa) by Sandra Macchiavello and Antonella Rovere, followed by Paola Guglielmotti's "Genoa and Liguria," which immediately shifts the outlook to the city's relationship with the surrounding region. The interplay between Genoa's domestic concerns and those further afield extends throughout the book's four thematic sections, entitled, respectively, "Orientations," (itself a meaningful term in a book that so often looks to the East from its western embeddedness), "Politics and Society," "Culture and Religion," and "Economy and Empire."

Each chapter approaches Genoa from different disciplines or sub-disciplines, including art history (with chapters on "Architecture and Urban Topography," by George L. Gorse, or "Visual Culture and Artisitc Exchange," by Rebecca Müller), religious and intellectual history (featuring essays on "Intellectual Life" by Giovanna Petti Balbi,"The Church and Religious Life" by Gervase Rosser, and Valeria Polonio's essay, below), economic history (with contributions on "The Genoese Economy," by Jeffrey Miner and Stefan Stantchev, and "Companies, Commerce, and Credit," by Carlo Taviani), political and social history (including "The Commune," by Luca Filangieri, "Political Alliance and Conflict," by Antonio Musarra, "Law and Society," by Roberta Braccia, and "Social Landscapes," by Denise Bezzina). The collection finishes with three excellent chapters on the Genoese presence abroad, including Thomas Kirk's "Mediterranean Rivalries," Sandra Origone's "Colonies and Colonization," and Merav Mack's essay on Genoese crusading efforts.

A few of the collection's authors look to the city's cathedral as the emblem of its inward and outward orientations, though others emerge along the way, such as the green glass cup that was brought back from the First Crusade and eventually celebrated as the Holy Grail (204). Bezzina's chapter on social history similarly underscores the dynamic of near and far, explaining that since status in Genoa depended largely on the fortunes of long-distance trade, Genoese inhabitants favored the alberghi system which united two or more kin-groups to mitigate the risks of travel abroad and, in turn, determined local urban settlement patterns according to these same family alliances (172-173). Finally, Origone's chapter on Genoese colonialism in Corsica, Sardinia, the Levant, and the Latin Empire documents the enduring history of Genoese families and officials who were in the business of displacement, thereby highlighting the relais between "here" and "there" that ultimately shaped governmental structures at home.

The collection's chapters probe and complicate each sub-topic, often challenging the received knowledge of local, city-based scholarship, as well as peninsular studies writ large. Ross Balzaretti's "Early Medieval Genoa," for example, works through the scarcity of sources noted in the book's earlier chapters to make an original argument for the increase--rather than previously argued-for decrease--in local episcopal power around the year 1000, due in part to conflicts among Ottonian and Arab outsiders and an attendant strengthening of local administrative structures (87). Likewise, Carrie Benes's chapter on "Civic Identity" nuances the accepted storyline of the medieval Italian city states' inevitable march towards a culture of civic humanism. By sidestepping the telos of the Renaissance state, Benes presents her readers with a medieval Genoa that offered its inhabitants multiple opposing yet contemporaneous options for Genoese civic identity based on one or a combination of symbols, artefacts, myths, or saintly narratives, all with their own semantic value. Her assertion that the "community's relationships with its chosen symbols, myths, and foundation narratives were therefore complex and dynamic rather than simplistic and unwavering," tasks everyone working in medieval historiography to confront their sources, whether textual, material, or otherwise, with a similar level of discernment (213). In a final example of many, Valeria Polonio's chapter on "The Religious Orders" surprises its readers by revealing that even the monasteries of Genoa played a part in the city's expansionist culture: the twelfth- and thirteenth-century women's monastery of San Tommaso, for instance, managed dependent churches located near the city, but also as far away as Corsica (374). There is much richness to be found here, and much to learn as one progresses through each successive essay.

Despite the specialized nature of the chapters, the text remains accessible throughout, aimed for an audience familiar with but not necessarily expert on the material at hand. That being said, the reading can at times be slow, with the separate contributions, full of detail and cross-reference, best considered one by one. Specialists may note absences from time to time: Balbi's excellent overview of the city's intellectual life, for example, contains no references to the substantial number of French-language texts copied in the city, including, among others, Rusticano da Pisa's retelling of Marco Polo's journey, supposedly composed while they were both confined to a Genoese prison. Likewise, there is little mention of the effects of the mid-fourteenth century plagues that decimated other northern Italian cities, which, if nothing else, had economic and social ramifications for Genoa's inhabitants and their Italian neighbors.

With these particular absences in mind, one critique of A Companion to Medieval Genoa may be that in its desire to foreground the local and remote ends of the Genoese spectrum, the middle ground of peninsular politics, in all its messiness, takes a back seat. Guelf and Ghibelline conflicts are addressed head-on in chapters four and five, and occasionally elsewhere, but the continued backdrop of that conflict does not factor into the exposition of other chapters as it might, particularly if one is familiar with the unrelenting nature of these struggles in the historiographies of rival towns such as Pisa or Lucca. Similarly, the Genoese-Venetian contest that dominated and determined Genoese-led actions both at home and abroad is well-documented in Kirk's essay, but a reader of Venetian contemporary sources would question how little the actions and inhabitants of la Serenissima figure into the Companion's assembled essays.

But no book can do it all, and the work that Benes and her contributors do with this collection is well worth the reader's attention. One last critique of the book--which is, in fact, praise--has to do with the insufficiency of book's title. A Companion to Medieval Genoa is no antiquarian's Baedeker, as the title might suggest. On the contrary, the collection pushes the reader to see the Genoa beyond its designated latitude and longitude, to understand, in this post-spatial-turn world, that the Genoa of the middle ages was conceptualized, exported, and even commoditized by its inhabitants and interlocutors throughout the medieval Mediterranean and beyond. Benes's collection does what few recent works of Italian medieval history dare to do, that is, to recognize and detail how the inhabitants of the peninsula were connected to each other and to the far-flung artistic, cultural, intellectual, and political environments in which they and their cities played significant roles. It is a model I hope other Italianists will follow, one that re-centers the peninsula, its inhabitants, and those who passed through it within the larger discussion of medieval history.