Public Life in Renaissance Florence
The Laboring Classes in Renaissance Florence
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…
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