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.”
According to Trexler the Florentine ritualistic order advances in triumphal progression, with a steadily growing number of followers, the leader in each stage preparing the way for the leader of the next stage. Thus Trexler sees Lorenzo Magnifico and Savonarola—dominant figures of the Florentine political scene in the second half of the fifteenth century who must be given a place in every authentic treatment of the Florentine past—as allies, fraternal spirits, fellow actors in the role of widening the ritual order. “Similarities between the two men abound.” “Lorenzo relied on the approbation of foreign princes for his authority in the city; Savonarola on his direct link to God and the Virgin.”
The triumphant progress of the ritual had its apogee in the last struggle of the republic against Medici domination:
In the twilight of a republican culture, the brilliant, frightful, and dangerous youth of Florence saved this city from its fate not through military exploits, but through parades, not by destroying the order of the besiegers, but by reinvigorating ritual order within the walls of Florence.
With this the Florentine youth achieved a “miracle of civil preservation.”
I must say frankly that I find these last two statements absurd. Lorenzo Magnifico and Savonarola were adversaries. Savonarola wrote a bitter attack against Lorenzo’s tyranny, contemporaries regarded the death of Lorenzo as the end of an epoch and the rise of Savonarola as the beginning of a new one. Historians can hardly find a greater contrast than that between Lorenzo’s cautious balance-of-power policy and Savonarola’s obstinate challenge to the papacy and to those who opposed him. There is no common element, no factual basis for comparing the two. Likewise, Trexler’s praise of the last stand of the Florentine republic loses glamour if you remember what actually happened: a brief campaign that was fought by mercenaries and lost; continuous bitter struggles within Florence between moderates and radicals; defection and treason ending in capitulation and in the establishment of a dukedom under a Medici ruler.
These passages reveal the vulnerability of Trexler’s interpretative method. Trexler calls his approach “thespo-religious,” and he characterizes all urban dwellers as “actors one way or the other in the ritual drama. The city is the theatre.” Trexler does not escape the danger which lies in this approach: rather than analyzing facts he has been writing a play in which he moves men and events around the stage to suit his story.
In his previous works Trexler studied Florentine ceremonies and youth organizations, the ecclesiastical organization of Florence, and the veneration of sacred images. His knowledge of these matters is certainly reflected in this book: he describes festivals and processions, reproduces lengthy passages from diaries and popular poetry, gives accounts of the reception and the sight-seeing tours of visiting dignitaries which produce a vivid picture of Florentine daily life. But the book is intended to be much more than descriptions and analyses of ceremonial aspects of Medicean Florence. It aims at a new interpretation of the whole of Renaissance Florence; but because of its restricted approach and the highly selective nature of source material it loses touch with reality. Despite—or perhaps because of—the specialized and even arcane knowledge which has gone into the making of this book, it is a scholarly aberration. How could this happen? This question is worth asking not because of the merits or demerits of a particular book or author but because it reflects the prevailing conditions in producing works of historical scholarship.
It seems to me clear that Trexler’s book has been shaped by the pressures that the economy of the book trade and the overcrowded academic profession have exerted on the publishing of scholarly books. Today scholarly books must be more than additions to existing knowledge; they must offer a new or revisionist interpretation: they must be a “breakthrough.” This requirement is obvious when its fulfillment is presented as having been suppressed in the past, and that the new interpretation has become possible because of the author’s sympathetic understanding for the radical movements of the present. No reader can miss Trexler’s intimation that the student revolts of the 1960s and the feminist movement have created the opportunity for a new understanding of Renaissance Florence.
The historian must be aware of the aids the social sciences can provide—that is another requirement of our time and certainly a justified one. The fields of social science to which historians have most frequently turned are psychology and anthropology. Trexler follows this trend, but his use of sexual psychology seems unsophisticated, especially in view of the scientific groundings which professional researchers have given it.
Trexler himself would probably claim as his main achievement the application of an anthropological approach to Florentine history. It is obvious that the essence of his book is to see Florence in terms of the “theatre state” in Bali described in the work of Clifford Geertz. The attraction of anthropology for historians is undeniable and understandable. Offered here is a great amount of material analyzing human behaviour—material which historians often have neglected or not even seen at all. In a period of historicism a demonstration of the existence of behaviour patterns which remain immune to the change of values enhances the importance of the study of the past; it shows that the past reaches into the present.
Recognition of the importance of anthropological discoveries for historical research and interpretations still leaves us with the question of the extent to which the anthropological model can be profitably applied in history. Many of the societies on which anthropology has shed new light are far removed—geographically and intellectually—from the Western world with its peculiar political and economic dynamism. As much as the application of an anthropological approach to the European past can be enriching and stimulating, it clearly has its limits. Between enthusiastic adoption and traditionalist rejection the question of the extent and the limits of the application of an anthropological approach to European history has generally not received the careful examination which it ought to have. I feel that Trexler’s book is a warning of what this enthusiasm might lead to if pursued without the most careful consideration not only of the similarities but also of the differences of the civilizations that are under investigation.
But in Trexler’s defense it might be added that the richness of the Florentine archives seems almost an invitation to the presentation of new theories and interpretations.
Samuel Kline Cohn, Jr., in his book, The Laboring Classes in Renaissance Florence, does not propose a new theory; on the contrary, he returns to an old theory, the Marxist theory.
The central subject of his book is the so-called Revolt of the Ciompi, the uprising of the workers employed in the cloth industry against the masters in their guild and their influence in the government. For a few years, from 1378 to 1382, the revolt seemed successful. New guilds composed of workers were formed and were given a share in the government. But then reaction set in and the workers’ guilds were again excluded from the government and then dissolved.
By contemporaries and by later Florentine historians these events have been extensively and dramatically described. Their treatment by Machiavelli forms one of the best-known sections of his Florentine History. It is natural that in modern times the Revolt of the Ciompi has attracted the attention of Marxist historians who saw it as a class conflict, as a “first proletarian revolt.” But in more recent years the appropriateness of such a Marxist interpretation has been disputed.
It has been argued that the Revolt of the Ciompi was symptomatic of the weakening of the corporate structure of society in the second half of the fourteenth century and was set off by dissensions in the Florentine ruling group, some of whose members wanted to use the Ciompi against their rivals. Cohn disagrees with this interpretation of the event and seeks to buttress the Marxist explanation: that the Revolt of the Ciompi was the result of a class struggle between workers and employers.
What is new and interesting about Cohn’s book is that in order to prove his thesis he makes use of the most modern techniques of research. He sees his task as twofold: to show that a class struggle existed in Florence in the fourteenth century, and to explain why such revolutionary eruptions ceased in the fifteenth century. According to Cohn the social climate of the fifteenth century was importantly different from that of the fourteenth century because of a change in the demographic structure of Florence. In the fourteenth century people widely different in economic situation, in profession, and in social position lived close together, residing in the same parish or gonfalone.
In the fifteenth century this situation changed. The lower classes, particularly the working classes, moved into a number of parishes and gonfaloni at the periphery of the city. Briefly, workers’ districts grew up around Florence and some of them, like San Frediano, have remained workers’ districts up to the present. Two different and separate developments contributed to this movement: the addition of a silk industry to the traditional wool industry brought an influx of foreign workers into the city, partly from other sections of Italy but also from Northern Europe, particularly Germany. And because they found no space in the inner city and preferred to live together with their fellow nationals, they settled on the outer fringes of Florence. Moreover, housing in the central parts of Florence became scarce because the rich Florentines began to build their great palaces for which space had to be created by buying up and tearing down the smaller houses of the poorer people.
According to Cohn these changed housing patterns altered the social habits of workers and patricians alike. The Florentine patricians, increasingly isolated in their districts, came to associate more closely with the patrician families of other districts in the inner city. In the fourteenth century the workers had to move throughout the city in order to be together with workers of similar economic standing and interests. “It was the tavern where the laboring classes could forge their own plebeian culture.” There the cloth workers from all over the city assembled and were able to discuss common problems and to work out common action. This had been an important precondition for the proletarian revolt of the workers against employers. In the fifteenth century this situation no longer existed. Workers could find the company of equals within their residential district, and thus they became more closely tied to the life and the interests of the small urban unit in which they lived, and remote from those in other districts.
According to Cohn the Marxist character of the Revolt of the Ciompi is demonstrated not only by its being a class struggle but also by the demands that the workers made and the measures that they took to realize them when they were in the government. This point will certainly be disputed because arguments used by those denying the Marxist character of the Ciompi Revolt have emphasized the moderate character of these demands and the willingness of the workers to look for some improvement of their legal position and for means to lighten the burden of their debts within the existing government system. Although Cohn’s book will certainly stimulate interest in the nature of class conflict in the Ciompi Revolt, it is likely that the validity of the Marxist argument will remain a subject of dispute.
Cohn’s most interesting and important contribution is his discussion of the changes which took place in Florence from the fourteenth to the fifteenth century. Every student of Florentine history has been aware that a change occurred in the social and political climate. Although hints and indications can be found in the usual historical sources, Cohn looks for changes in the circumstances of urban life, and he provides documentary proof that such change took place.
His two main sources are documents of notaries and legal documents on criminal procedures. In Florence marriages had to be notarized; these official documents contained data about the dowry which the husband received. We learn therefore about the economic status of the marriage partners and the quarters and parishes of Florence from which they came. We can find out whether people with approximately the same economic status took their marriage partners from the district in which they lived or from other districts of Florence. Cohn’s statement that in the fifteenth century workers’ districts emerged at the periphery of Florence is based on these notarial documents. The legal sources point in the same direction: the documents about criminal procedure in the fourteenth century suggest collaboration among workers, i.e., reports, for example, about proceedings against men who had joined in common action in order to effect the release of an imprisoned colleague. In the fifteenth century crimes that came before the judges were less inspired by common complaints than by individual behavior: street brawls or acts of personal revenge.
Cohn’s book demands careful study. Of its 280 pages more than 100 are complicated figures and tables. There are also difficulties in the nature of the archival material. The notarial files are much too voluminous to be examined in their entirety. Cohn has selected certain decades in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries which he regards as particularly suited for comparison and within these decades the selection had to be narrowed down to years in which nothing extraordinary happened and which could be considered as having a typical character. Within these years only a few districts could be exhaustively analyzed. Moreover, documents were not formalized; facts were stated in many different ways, for example, insofar as the names of people are concerned some were mentioned by their family names, others were characterized by their father’s names, in other cases only Christian names were indicated.
Cohn opens every chapter with a discussion of the methods he used and the means by which, despite the fragmentary and perplexing nature of the source material, he will be able to limit the number of errors and to arrive at valid results.
I followed Cohn’s presentation with excitement and pleasure—the pleasure inherent in hearing a logical argument. But I ought to add that from Cohn’s book we don’t acquire a heightened awareness of the life of the past, of the mentality of a former period, of the thought and action of those who lived in it. And this is not Cohn’s intention. To him the period of the Revolt of the Ciompi is a revolutionary urban movement. His points of comparison are similar movements in other places and other times. He refers frequently to the French Revolution; he is concerned with the establishment of features common to the origin and development of revolutionary movements in urban Europe.
The next step in the working out of such a general theory would be the investigation of revolutionary movements of other towns in early modern European history; Florence is an appropriate and important point of departure because of the wealth of its archival resources. It is not the historical uniqueness of Renaissance Florence which Cohn wants to investigate and explain.
Search for an explanation of the unique character of fifteenth-century Florence is at the center of Richard Goldthwaite’s The Building of Renaissance Florence. Despite these differing aims, one of the pivotal issues in Cohn’s book—the transformation of the Florentine urban environment through the construction of the great family palaces—is also the central theme for Goldthwaite.
At the end of a lecture on Florentine architecture of the fifteenth century, the art historian Heinrich Wölfflin discussed the Rucellai Palace built by Leon Battista Alberti. The slide showing the façade of the palace was still visible and the lecture hall was still dark when Wölfflin left the podium and walked slowly toward the door at the end of the lecture hall. Suddenly he turned around and, looking back to the slide of the façade of the Rucellai Palace, he said: “Man kann den Blick nicht von ihm wenden, immer und immer wieder kehrt man bewundernd zu ihm zurück.” (“You cannot take your eyes off it; again and again you turn back and admire.”) If one is accustomed to seeing the towering palaces which the Florentine patricians built in the fifteenth century as an application of classical rules of architecture, as creative expression, as works of art, Goldthwaite’s manner of viewing Florentine building activities of the Medicean age comes as a kind of shock: he sees them as products of industrial activity. This is an enlightening change of perspective which reveals in particular three aspects of Florentine palace construction. It offers explanations why the wealthy Florentines became eager to transform their houses into palaces; it throws light on the nature of the Medicean position and Medicean leadership in Florence; it defines the relationship between proprietor and architect.
Goldthwaite states that “by the fifteenth century extraordinary amounts of wealth were accumulated in the hands of a relatively large number of Florentines.” The Florentines continued to earn money by their wool and silk industry, by trade and banking, as they had in the preceding century. But they were not able to enlarge their markets further, and investment of money in other kinds of industrial undertakings was not expected to be profitable. Building, however, offered an opportunity for investments; and it stimulated the entire Florentine economy, providing employment for the members of the guilds of the masons, stoneworkers, carpenters, etc. Capital investment in building activities was possible only for families of great wealth, and the famous palaces which arose in the fifteenth century were those of the great Florentine banking and merchant families: the Medici, Strozzi, Pazzi, Rucellai, Gondi, Pitti, Tornabuoni, Antinori.
The Medici, of course, were outstanding among the Florentine particians engaged in building enterprises. Cosimo spent much more money on building than on his other cultural activities; throughout his life he took a lively and active part in the construction of churches, monasteries, and villas, which he financed—in addition to the great Medici Palace in the Via Larga. His descendants followed his path. They were aware of the advantages gained by their support of building activities. By providing employment they enlarged the numbers of the adherents. Their enrichment of the monastery of San Marco gained them the favor of the Dominicans whose preaching influenced the populace, and, most of all, these buildings embellished the city and showed the devotion of the Medici to the well-being and the fame of Florence.
However, the Medici were not the only participants in the architectural renewal which took place in fifteenth-century Florence. Goldthwaite rightly emphasizes that, although during a good part of the fifteenth century the Medici were the wealthiest of the Florentine families, they neither dominated nor controlled Florentine economic life. They had competitors of almost equal wealth who also wanted to demonstrate their financial strength and to impress the Florentines with their concern for the greatness of their city. In Goldthwaite’s view the element of rivalry and competition provided a significant spur to the building activities of the fifteenth century. Goldthwaite suggests that the propagandistic feature of these building activities is indicated by the sculpted shields of the families of the donors, over the chapels and the church façades which they had endowed, over the gates or in the courtyards of the palaces in which they lived.
Still there were impulses to the Florentine building activities other than material ones. It had always been hoped that the erection of chapels, of churches, and of monasteries might serve to expiate sins of the donors, and although the development of trade and banking in Europe’s urban centers had undermined the laws against usury, there remained some lingering guilt about the accumulation of great wealth through the taking of interest. Moreover, the renewed study of the classics had moderated the suspicion against unnecessary expenditures and the display of wealth; in the ancient world “magnificence” had been a virtue, at least when it was not used for personal glorification but rather to raise the prestige of one’s city and to serve the common good. Economic opportunity, political ambition, religious beliefs, and new intellectual interests came together to give the Florentine cityscape a new aspect, the one which still exists today.
In the second part of his book Goldthwaite investigates the technical and administrative aspects involved in the construction of a palace, or a church, or a monastery. He uses in great detail the building accounts preserved in the state archives and in the ecclesiastical archives of the main churches and hospitals as well as the archives of families like the Strozzi, Guicciardini, and Salviati. Building proceeded by relying on the usages of the past, and Goldthwaite goes far back into the Middle Ages to explain the techniques and the organization which patterned architectural activities in the fifteenth century. Unavoidably the book goes beyond the confines of Florence; it is a most valuable source of information about the development of European architecture: we learn about the administration of building activities, the various materials that could be used in the fifteenth century, the guilds that were involved, and the various kinds of workers, about their wages and the forms of payment, which varied considerably. Some workers were paid according to the time they had worked, and others according to the work which they were obligated to complete. Despite an almost overwhelming wealth of detail the information is always fascinating.
Goldthwaite’s book is an important contribution to the much-discussed question of the evolution of the architect from a master builder who carries out plans and instructions given him by the owner to an independent artist who takes upon himself the responsibility for the planning and building in entirety. Goldthwaite makes clear that at least up to the middle of the fifteenth century the wealthy Florentines who paid for the building of a palace or a church had precise ideas about the building they wanted to have. They made the contracts with the foreman and the workers, and they supervised the building process. Brunelleschi and Michelozzo—and, of course, Alberti—if they were engaged, were certainly heard. Nevertheless, the views of the owners were decisive. And they were experts enough to supervise the carrying out of their plans. From the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries on, it was customary that the building of a hospital, of a church, or even of the Duomo, was placed in the hands of a guild; a committee of the guild, to which usually its more influential and wealthier members belonged, became responsible for the task. The committee got cost estimates, consulted with builders, masons, and workers.
Goldthwaite reports that the committee entrusted with the building of the Church of Santo Spirito faced a major problem when it had to decide whether the principal entrance ought to have three or four doors.
In 1482, after consulting with four masons, the committee voted for three doors, although two of the five members felt so strongly against this solution that they refused to attend, sending their sons instead so the vote could be unanimous. Although the decision was reconfirmed the next year and a model ordered, doubts lingered; in 1485 the committee sought the outside opinion of five or six citizens on the matter. The problem was not finally resolved, however, until a year later, when the whole question was thrown open to a general assembly of forty-two interested citizens. After listening to arguments on the matter by several leading masons and architects, each guest spoke his own opinion, and then they voted along with the committee, thirty to seventeen, in favor of three doors, although twenty would have preferred to delay a decision until they could see models of each solution.
As this story shows, wide circles of the population were involved in the building process, as entrepreneurs, as critics, and as judges. Certainly the building of a palace owed its origin to individual enterprise, but it was also based on tradition and experience acquired through participation in the building process and in this sense was a common achievement. The artistic attainments of fifteenth-century Florence were closely bound to the traditions and institutions of its political, economic, and social life, and the reader will get from Goldthwaite’s book on the economics of architecture a more lively and more authentic impression of life in Renaissance Florence than from many more general descriptions of Florentine culture.
Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy is an incomplete work—incomplete in the sense that it was intended to provide the foundation on which Burckhardt’s history of the art of the Renaissance could be based. That work was never undertaken. The establishment of the relationship between the political, economic, and social life and the cultural achievements of Renaissance Italy has remained an unfinished task. Nothing better can be said about Goldthwaite’s book than that he has resumed this task, and his book, though new in approach and method, is a work in the great tradition.
January 21, 1982