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Medici Florence: An Exchange

In response to:

The Medici Megalopolis from the January 21, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

Felix Gilbert’s review of my Public Life in Renaissance Florence [NYR, January 21] does not tell the reader what the book is about, and leaves the impression that in it, art transformed reality. I want to correct this.

Public Life studies the formal behavior of the Florentines from 1280 until 1530. It describes a classical Florentine ritual of celebration, diplomacy, and crisis response and, to show the relation between private and public ritual work, examines three private formal structures of friendship, father-son interaction, and male and female monastic behavior. It then describes a century-long ritual revolution in which the emergence of a charismatic center (the Medici leaders) proceeds in tandem with the rise of marginal groups as independent public actors. The book studies street forms as a politics of contract and conflict, meaning being actualized in those formal politics rather than being symbolically applied or symbolically comprehensible. Ritual in Florence was not mere expression, but identities in the process of formation and transformation. Underlying ritual performances, however, were Florence’s enduring problems of creating, through ritual, honor, trust, and credit (financial and moral) in the eyes of the gods, monarchical Europe, and among each other. These problems, I argued, were inherent in the constitution of the republic.

Readers may have understood that Gilbert’s stance is part of an ideological package; that a (bourgeois) republic is better than monarchy and age better than youth is a staple of what Anthony Molho has called the “monastic-prophetic tradition” in Florentine historiography.* They would not, however, know that the forty years of Florentine history Gilbert knows and commented upon represent only a fraction of the space and period covered by my book. Nor would they be able to judge Gilbert’s particular criticisms of its factual materials.

  1. Gilbert rightly says that the book is directed toward social scientists and uses their methods and conceptions. But his statement that the “essence” of the book is “obviously” to “see Florence in terms of the theater state in Bali described in the work of Clifford Geertz” is embarrassingly mistaken. I have conversed with and learned from Geertz, to be sure. But his work on that subject and mine appeared concurrently, so that neither author had the benefit of the other’s book or draft. What is embarrassing, however, is that we see rituals very differently, as my description above indicates. Anyone with a glimmer of anthropology would have known, and pointed out, the enormous differences.

  2. [Savonarola] gave both women and children a place in the processional order,” Gilbert paraphrases me. In fact, I spent pages showing how that preacher excluded women from processions. The first and only procession of women in Florence came in 1529, when women were the only card a dying male republic had to play to soothe the divine ire.

  3. Trexler sees Lorenzo Magnifico and Savonarola….as allies,” Gilbert continues, and finds this statement “absurd.” I never made it. Gilbert ridicules my comparison of the two not by citing my evidence, but by inventing.

  4. A historian would find misleading Trexler’s statement [p. 503] that ‘Lorenzo di Piero [Medici] late in life seriously considered giving up the civic office and trying to rule Florence by other means,’ because Lorenzo was not yet twenty-seven years old when he died and had nursed princely ambitions for several years.” In fact I gave Lorenzo’s age just ten pages before, regularly refer to him as “the young Lorenzo,” and describe his funeral. My whole narrative is based on the truism that Lorenzo always had princely ambitions: “not used to civility, and thus aspiring to arms and dominion” (p. 501).

  5. Gilbert quotes me on Savonarola’s retreat to San Marco from the main square:

For protection Savonarola now held over his head the host that he had earlier wanted his champions to carry into the [trial by] fire. The murderous crowd… found itself powerless before the real presence.

Gilbert omits the words “including one historian of these events.”

Gilbert says: “Trexler leaves out…the fact…that the government…had provided Savonarola with guards,” and he is almost right. First, I had already said that as a preacher Savonarola always had a guard—one of the similarities to Lorenzo the Magnificent—(p. 483), and second, I obviously underestimated one reader’s ability to imagine a civil war situation without the cops being out. Yet the point was to determine contemporaries’ explanations of events, and it so happens that the phrase Gilbert left out refers the reader to an eyewitness who says: “If it hadn’t been for that sacrament he would have been cut to pieces on his return to San Marco.” Whatever Professor Gilbert may want to believe, no historian says the cops prevented an attack, nor gives any other reason than what I cited. The actual text having been de-corrupted, perhaps readers will agree on who left what out.

This book has its share of mistakes. But when a hostile reviewer turns the one mistake he was able to find in a six-hundred page book into “Trexler revises the rules of Latin grammar” (salus publicus instead of publica), any reader knows the jig’s up. I just wanted to correct the errors of a careless reader.

In a scholarly environment, social history and Gilbert’s forte of political history meet and cross-fertilize; the “additions to existing knowledge” which he prefers and attempts at what he calls “breakthroughs” can supplement each other. Gilbert’s review didn’t seize the opportunity, and the lesson is clear. Once captive of their training and commitments, the most distinguished historians have enough trouble seeing straight.

Richard C. Trexler

State University of New York

Binghamton, New York

Felix Gilbert replies:

I limit my reply to Trexler’s letter to those five points which in his opinion demonstrate that I misrepresented his views or misstated the facts.

  1. Trexler’s assertion that he cannot have been influenced by Geertz’s view of the “theatre state” in Bali because he was not acquainted with Geertz’s Negara when he wrote his book is beside the point. I did not say that this particular book had something to do with Trexler’s view that “the city is the theatre.” Geertz has expressed: the same or similar ideas as in Negara in other places; I might mention the essay “Politics Past, Politics Present,” first published in 1967, now reprinted in Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973. This book is listed in Trexler’s bibliography.

  2. On the basis of the index of Trexler’s book I have looked up every page on which the name of Savonarola occurs. There is not one passage which says that Savonarola excluded women from processions. On the contrary, on pp. 478-479 Trexler described the Palm Sunday procession of 1496 which Savonarola had arranged: first came the boys, then the girls, at the end the matrons.

  3. I quoted in my review the passage in which Trexler says that “similarities between the two (Lorenzo Magnifico and Savonarola) abound,” and I quoted one of Trexler’s examples of this similarity. There are others on the same p. 421 and additional ones can be found on p. 483, where Trexler discusses at some length “Savonarola’s assumption of the Lorenzan heritage.” It is not unreasonable to call people allies who are presented as having the same aims, methods, and also the same adversaries. I still think that to link Lorenzo and Savonarola is absurd.

  4. Trexler’s remarks confirm rather than refute what I had been saying. Trexler now emphasizes that he stated “that Lorenzo always had princely ambitions”; “not used to civility and thus aspiring to arms and dominion” (p. 501). This is precisely the point which I had made (that “Lorenzo had nursed his princely ambitions for several years”). But it is then quite meaningless to say that “late in life” Lorenzo planned a change in policy toward ruling Florence by force. The reader is left unaware of this contradiction because “late in life” seems to suggest a considerable life span; the reader is not told that Lorenzo was only twenty-seven when he died. His age at the time of his death is made clear neither by Trexler’s statement ten pages earlier that he was twenty-one in 1512, nor by calling him “Young Lorenzo.” Lorenzo is frequently, almost regularly, called “Young Lorenzo” in historical works in order to distinguish him from the elder Lorenzo, his grandfather Lorenzo Magnifico.

  5. In order to show the levity and arbitrariness with which Trexler treats the story of Savonarola’s return to the monastery of San Marco after the trial by fire it might be simplest to quote the description of this episode in Joseph Schnitzer’s Savonarola, which is a relatively old book published in 1924 but which is still authoritative. Trexler lists in his bibliography not only this book but also other studies by Schnitzer; I might add that, like Trexler, Schnitzer was a champion of Savonarola. He writes (in the German edition, Vol. I, p. 520; in the Italian edition, Vol. II, p. 74; my translation into English is from the German edition): the Compagnacci (the name of the group hostile to Savonarola) “were ready to undertake an attempt on the life of the Frate [Savonarola] and of his principal adherents as they had planned before the trial by fire, but they abandoned this plan, certainly not as they pretended, in pious awe of the host which Savonarola carried in his hands, but in cowardly fear of the superior military power under Joachim della Vecchia and Marcuccio Salviati who protected the Frate and his loyal followers with swords.” The guard protecting Savonarola was not “the large retinue of armed men” (p. 483) which accompanied him when he went to preach, but troops protecting the Palazzo della Signoria who were ordered to accompany him when, after the abortive trial by fire, the mood of the crowd became ugly.

Jacopo Nardi, who was then twenty-two years old, was present at these events and described them in his History of Florence which he wrote forty years later. He had played a leading role in the overthrow of the Medici regime in 1527 and after the return of the Medici he was exiled. Throughout his life he remained a republican devoted to the constitution that Savonarola had introduced; he was a very religious man and considered Savonarola as a saintly figure. It is not astonishing that his History of Florence contains the report that the crowds shied away from attacking Savonarola because he held the host in his hand. It is significant, however, that Schnitzer (among whose writings is a short book Savonarola and the Trial by Fire evaluating all the sources) rejected the story of Savonarola being saved from his enemies by holding the host in his hand and considered it as an apology presented by those who had failed in their assassination attempt. Perhaps a few of Savonarola’s adherents then began to believe in this story. It is not clear whether Trexler, in giving his version of the story, wanted to report what actually happened, or whether he only wanted to report what the contemporaries believed to have happened. In any case his account is utterly misleading.

  1. *

    In the conference volume Italia e Stati Uniti. Concordanze e Dissonanze (Il Veltro Editrice, Rome, 1981), p. 125.

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