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The Medici Megalopolis

Public Life in Renaissance Florence

by Richard C. Trexler
Academic Press, 591 pp., $45.00

The Laboring Classes in Renaissance Florence

by Samuel Kline Cohn Jr
Academic Press, 296 pp., $55.00

Few ages have stimulated so much interest—and so much aroused the admiration of later generations—as the sixty years of Medicean hegemony in fifteenth-century Florence. Medicean Florence has been described and evoked in a vast literature of novels and plays, historical popularizations, and serious works of historical scholarship. Among historical scholars have been well-known, even great, names: Reumont and Ranke, Perrens, Sismondi, and Villari. Their writings have been translated into many languages and their interpretations have found their way into guidebooks and textbooks, popular histories, and popular biographies. The work on the task of reconstructing Medicean Florence seems to have no end; the scholarly study of Florentine history goes on and even intensifies. But in recent years a striking change has taken place. Historical scholarship of the Medicean period has been moving away from the interests of the general reader.

Of course the topics that were treated in past historical studies are still focal points of today’s research. But the detail is considerably greater and the terminology frequently more “scientific.” Why did the corporative society of fourteenth-century Florence change into an oligarchy? Did the maintenance of the republican form throughout the fifteenth century mean that the republic continued to exist and that the Medici were not rulers in Florence? Were the Medici primarily party leaders? How, in Florence, was a party formed, and by what means was it held together? Did the Monte, the state bank, and the dowry fund serve to create a community of interest which strengthened political cohesion? Did they contribute to the formation of a ruling group by facilitating the organization of clientele relationships?

Moreover, today’s historian of Medicean Florence brings with him into the archives the questions and the techniques of social history and thus asks basic questions about social organization and social structure: the changing family patterns from the extended to the nuclear family, age structure and marriage age, the guilds as instruments of social control, literacy and education, demographic change, crime and violence.

Just as the approaches have changed and the fields of research have widened, the surroundings in which archival research in Florence proceeds is altered—the relatively small, poorly lit reading room of former years has been transformed into a splendid large hall in the Uffizi in which between 100 and 200 students can work at their own desks each with a lamp. Even so the hall is crowded and those who arrive late in the morning have little chance of getting a seat, and, it seemed to me, are looked upon a little contemptuously by those who arrived at the archives as soon as the doors were opened.

The remarkable increase in the number of those who want to work in the archives has some obvious reasons beyond the increase in the numbers of students in Italy and of the foreign institutes in Florence. More important are the new possibilities which micro-technology offers for the study and analysis of archival documents. Today the student can quickly look through files of documents and indicate those which he wants to have microfilmed or photographed. Without spending much more time in the archives one can enlarge the span of one’s research or explore problems beyond the traditional ones of politics and institutions. Calculator and computer permit one to ask more sophisticated questions and get relatively quick, accurate answers. A superb example of the use to which the new technology is put is the analysis of the Florentine catasto (property tax) of 1427 by David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch, Les Toscans et leurs familles; it provides an enormous fund of new information about Florentine demography, social structure, and the habits and customs of everyday life.

Most of the scholarly work on Medicean Florence now being done is largely in social history, and with good reason: few Italian archives are so well preserved, so rich. But if the wealth of materials heightens the possibilities and attraction of studying Medicean Florence as a unique center of Italian Renaissance civilization, it also creates the opportunity of using fifteenth-century Florence as an example of urban development in early modern Europe. Thus those who work on Medicean Florence may well read and use the same—or similar—materials in the archives, but the object of their researches is often very different: so different the reader may wonder if the Florence one scholar writes about can possibly be the same city another scholar discusses. This is certainly the case of the recently published books by Trexler, Cohn, Jr., and Goldthwaite.


Whether Trexler’s book can be called a historical study is doubtful; he remarks in his introduction that he wants “to bring historical dimension to urban and behavioral studies,” “to modernize the discourse among Renaissance historians.” The book is concerned with the role of ritual in the urban culture of the medieval and early modern period and for such purpose “a vulgar functional analysis of public activities will not do.” We should not look therefore in Trexler’s book for a strict application of critical historical standards. For example, in his description of the hostility of the Florentine populace after Savonarola’s trial by fire to prove his sainthood had been canceled, Trexler writes that the people…

were ready to take the matter into their own hands, and as the friar headed up the route from the Piazza to San Marco, as if through the Red Sea, they prepared to stone him. They could not. For protection Savonarola now held over his head the host that he had earlier wanted his champions to carry into the fire. The murderous crowd…found itself powerless before the real presence.

What Trexler leaves out of his dramatic account is the fact that the government, fearing violence from a disappointed and unruly crowd, had provided Savonarola with guards to ensure his safety on his return to his monastery. Briefly, Trexler is not so much interested in presenting what has happened as in showing the power that the ritualistic veneration of sacred symbols had over the people. Similarly, a historian would find misleading Trexler’s statement 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 his princely ambitions for several years. But Trexler wants to show that in fulfilling a civic function one enters into and becomes integrated with a ritualistic order, and this makes it impossible simultaneously to plan the overthrow of this order.

These two examples—and they could be multiplied many times—show the peculiar manner in which Trexler is concerned with the facts of the past. The aim of his book is to show that “Ritual lives,” and that it is “an integral part of established urban life.” In Trexler’s view private and public life proceed in a ritualistic behavioral pattern which not only determines the forms and gives them particular weight and sanctity, but also shapes the meanings of actions. Ritual directs, limits, and channels one’s relations to family and friends, dealings and contracts in the marketplace, and even measures taken in politics and government. Thus Florence as a living organism comes alive only in its processions and fraternities, its ceremonies and festivals; they are “the political process at work.”

The difference between Trexler’s treatment of the role of ritual in Florence and studies of a historical character becomes clear in Trexler’s approach to a crucial issue in an investigation of ritualistic behavior: what are the criteria for participation in rituals? From an analysis of this problem the historian would hope to gain insight into social and professional differences and hierarchy. It might also help him to determine the differences between popular and high culture, the basis for the existence of a distinct popular religion, and the role of factors like local competitiveness in increasing internal tension.

In Trexler’s book such questions are not investigated. Rather Florence comes fully to life only if one sees its entire population organized in ritualistic forms. The trend that underlies the development of Renaissance Florence according to Trexler is ritualistic integration of the entire population. Florentine history is a “march toward festive incorporation” of “the non-political marginal segments of Florentine society.” This attitude eliminates the notion that participation in ritualistic activities requires special training, distinct qualities, or particular knowledge. The widening of participation is not bound to disputes or class distinctions and class structure, but to the removal of qualifications of age and sex to take part in rituals.

Trexler focuses attention on the various stages in this process of eliminating the barriers which stood in the way of full participation of the entire Florentine population in ritual. According to Trexler, originally the organizers and custodians of the ritual were old men—“grave, sexless males,” as Trexler calls them. Of course, they wanted to maintain their exclusive powers and tried to conceal their weaknesses. They refused to consult priests because “it was unseemly for virile males to admit impotence and consult virginal clerks” (Trexler’s expression for priests). Nevertheless, it was unavoidable that more space and a greater role in the processional order had to be accorded to a younger generation.

In this, according to Trexler, a member of the Medici family, Lorenzo Magnifico, was the crucial figure: he broke the rule of the “grave, sexless males” by claiming and gaining for the virility of young males a place in the ritualistic order. Lorenzo was the wild youth “linked with the margins of society,” “androgynously embodying both growth and structure, passion and judgment.” But in him the element of manly virility was predominant so that he appears as “the charismatic republican citizen.” In his enthusiasm for Lorenzo, Trexler even revises the rules of Latin grammar and names him the “salus publicus.” Nevertheless, the extension of ritualistic behavior to a younger generation of males did not lift the bars that excluded women. “Women were so many mannequins whom Florentine men fantasized not undressed, but as paste for cloth and jewels.” Women remained outside spectators. “The females who had given birth to all these contracting males witnessed the generative power of males in groups.”

Therefore the most decisive and final steps in widening the participation in the rituals were still to come. And that was the work of Savonarola. Because women and children courageously came to hear him preaching when this was forbidden and dangerous, he called them “virile spirits.” He gave to both women and children a place in the processional order. Children formed their own processions and became a “major new force in Florentine society”; women participated in rituals, marching in prayer as a special group. An especially prominent place in the ritualistic order was assigned to youth organizations. In the last crisis of the republic of 1527-1530 they were even in absolute control of the situation. The final result, as Trexler states with evident satisfaction, was “the glory of the young and the humiliation of the old.”

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