In the indexes of these books we cannot find the name of Pico della Mirandola; Marsilio Ficino’s name appears only twice, not as the translator of Plato, but as a medical expert. Thus we hear nothing about the intellectual passions of Medicean Florence—about the enthusiasm for the writings and the monuments of the ancients, about the impact of Platonic philosophy on art and literature. All these books announce themselves as books on Renaissance Florence, but one is tempted to say that they are books on Florence without the Renaissance.

This does not mean that they are not interesting, and there are good reasons why the discoveries and insights that seem to us the significant features of Renaissance Florence are hardly considered. Lorenzo Magnifico, in whose time Florence was the center of Renaissance culture, lived in the second part of the fifteenth century and these books on Florence deal with earlier times, the one-hundred years preceding the era of Lorenzo Magnifico. The period from the middle of the fourteenth to the middle of the fifteenth century has been intensively studied in recent scholarship primarily because the work of Herlihy and Klapisch-Zuber, Tuscans and Their Families, originally published in French in 1978, opened up new possibilities for research.

The 404 pages of this book are an analysis of the Florentine catasto of 1427, a compilation of the tax declarations of the inhabitants of the city of Florence and of the areas of Tuscany under Florentine control that are preserved in the Florentine archives. The catasto of 1427 was an unusual undertaking. Traditionally the income of great city republics like Venice and Florence consisted of a real estate tax and of customs, and usually these revenues covered the daily needs of the governments. These sources of government income were never sufficient, however, in wartime, when condottieri and their armies had to be paid in cash. At the beginning of the fifteenth century Florence was involved in a bitter struggle with Milan for the economically important passes over the Apennine, and the war had brought about a financial crisis which the government wanted to overcome by a reorganization of the Florentine tax system. This was to be based on a survey of the financial resources of the area over which it ruled—reaching from Pisa to Cortona, from Pistoia to Volterra, with Florence in its center.

The catasto was this survey. Every head of a household had to register the number of people in his household, his real estate, his animals “worthy of value,” his merchandise, coins, and shares in the public debt. The result is that the economic resources of 60,000 households, of more than 260,000 people, are registered in more than 1000 volumes. These figures give some indication of the immensity of the task involved in the analysis of the catasto; it is no accident that a thorough scrutiny of these documents, although the existence was known to every historian working on Florentine history, has only now been undertaken. The computer has made this possible. Even so, the work of Herlihy and Klapisch-Zuber, an American-French collaboration, is a monumental achievement.

Their book came out in 1978 in France under the title Les Toscans et leurs familles, but the English edition is not a mere translation; certain documentary and statistical appendices and detailed explanations of the administrative structure of the Florentine government have been omitted in the English edition, which is half as long as the French. For this reason the conclusions to which the data of the catasto lead stand out more clearly in the English edition than in the French. The result is a unique insight into the daily life of a period of 550 years ago. The Florentine government never again attempted a similar survey of its manpower and its resources. We are not able, therefore, to construct a precise picture of demographic and social changes and developments in the following decades. But the authors, in combining the data of the catasto with what we can learn from other sources, have succeeded in throwing light on the decisive aspects of the social situation in Tuscany in the fifteenth century. The reasons for the dominating position of Florence in Tuscany but also for the vulnerability of its political structure become very clear.

War and plague have been called the great curses of earlier times. The exigencies of the war made the catasto necessary, and its figures show the terrifying and dominating impact of the plague. The first European bubonic plague (1347) killed two-thirds of the population of Florence, reducing it from 120,000 to 40,000 inhabitants. The population had slowly risen again to 60,000 when in 1400 another plague killed 12,000 people; throughout the fifteenth century the population of Florence remained more or less on the level of 40,000.

The plagues made Tuscany among the most urban areas of Europe. In consequence of the general decrease in population, agricultural products were less in demand and towns seemed to offer greater prospects for work and profit. The great center of attraction was Florence. The catasto reveals that in 1427, with its 38,000 inhabitants, it surpassed the number of inhabitants of the other ten towns of Tuscany added together. The movements from land to town, and particularly to Florence, had a further consequence. They steepened the economic and social differences within the city. Possession of a family name signified that you belonged to a family of some means, settled at the same place, for some time. In the country only one of ten among the heads of households registered with a family name, in the smaller and middle-sized towns one in five; in Florence it was one in three.


Although we always knew about the great difference in wealth and social standing in Renaissance Florence, the catasto reveals them in astonishing sharpness. First there was the contrast between Florence and the area over which it ruled with its numerous urban settlements. The authors of Tuscans and Their Families say very well that Florence was “a blazing sun of affluence surrounded by dim planets of smaller wealth in the smaller Tuscan cities—all of them set within a dark, nearly destitute rural space.” In Florence itself we find a similar pattern of a sharp contrast between a small wealthy ruling group and the rest of the Florentines. One-quarter of the entire Florentine wealth belonged to one thousand families, that means to 10 percent of the Florentine population, and more than one half of the wealth of the entire Tuscan population, Florence included, was in the hands of 5 percent of the population.

Accordingly the size of the households for which the head of the household accounted in his declaration in the catasto varied widely. The statement was supposed to list his family, meaning persons related by blood or marriage and bound together by obligations of mutual support, and the employees living in the same house. It was assumed that when the head of the household died he would be succeeded by his eldest son and the family would continue to live together in the same house. This rarely happened in the case of poor families living in small houses; brothers left and established their own households containing perhaps four or five people. In the wealthy patrician families fathers and sons, brothers and cousins, remained bound together by common business interests and activities, and it was natural that they would remain living together under the same roof; in the great palaces of the Strozzi and Pitti, of the Rucellai and Capponi, twenty to thirty people were the rule.

The short book by Gene Brucker, Giovanni and Lusanna, provides a vivid illustration of this cleavage between a small Florentine upper group and the rest of the population. Giovanni della Casa was a member of a Florentine patrician family. When he married the daughter of another patrician family, a Rucellai, a woman from the artisan class, the widow of a clothes maker, claimed that this marriage was bigamous, because she was his wife. She brought the case before the courts. There was no doubt that for quite a while Giovanni and Lusanna had sexual relations. The question was whether a valid marriage had been contracted. In defending Giovanni his lawyer emphasized the height of the social barrier separating his client from Lusanna; marriage between two individuals of such unequal background was unthinkable; Giovanni was more noble, his family more distinguished, and he was younger.

The outcome of the story shows the practical consequences of the gap between the classes. The court of the Florentine archbishop found Lusanna right: a marriage had taken place between Lusanna and Giovanni. At that time the archbishop was Saint Antoninus, known for his sympathy for the poor and as defender of the helpless against the rich and powerful. The Casa, however, were a patrician family and they were able to bring the case before the papal court in Rome where they had enough influence to have the marriage of Giovanni and Lusanna declared invalid.

The great possibilities for understanding daily life in the Renaissance that the investigation of the catasto by Herlihy and Klapisch-Zuber has opened is shown in the books by Katharine Park and Ann Carmichael. They have both made full use of the results of the analysis of the catasto and by thorough and careful research have provided us with an astonishingly concrete and lively picture of the medical profession. A rather astonishing source is the Book of the Dead, which had been kept for reasons that are no longer clear in the Florentine grain office. It gives not only the name, gender, age of those who died but in the fifteenth century frequently indicates the cause of death. We are able, therefore, to see what the plague really did, which classes suffered most, and which parts of the town were particularly hard hit. At the center of Carmichael’s study is the social legislation enacted to counter the spread of epidemics and of the plague. From the thirteenth century on, the Florentine government gave attention to problems of sanitation and had taken measures to keep the city clean, and these orders remained in force and were carried out throughout the following centuries. The humanist Chancellor of Florence, Leonardo Bruni, wrote in the fifteenth century: “Surely this city is unique and singular in all the cities of the world because you will find here nothing that is disquieting to the eye, offensive to the nose, or filthy underfoot.”


Sanitary legislation extended into measures of social control when in the fifteenth century it was realized that the plague did not spread through the air but was a contagious disease. Those in hospitals suffering from the plague were isolated from the rest of the patients, and finally a particular lazaretto for those stricken by the plague was established. People tried to move away from houses in which people had died and from poorer, densely populated quarters like San Frediano where the danger of contagion was particularly great. The rich, as far as possible, left the city for the purer air of the country, and a special police force was employed to prevent stealing and looting of their empty houses. It is amusing to imagine that the ladies and gentlemen who in Boccaccio’s Decameron moved from one enchanting villa to the next, entertaining each other with pleasant amorous stories, had probably before leaving Florence used their influence on the government to have their houses well guarded. However, the poor and sick left alone in their rooms in the city were not entirely abandoned. St. Antoninus had made sure that they would be regularly attended by priests, doctors, and men and women willing to help.

Park’s book is concerned with the way illnesses were treated, and with the men who treated them, doctors. Park’s study shows that the Plague of 1347 was of crucial importance for the development of the medical profession. The inability to fight off the plague had brought discredit on medical men; it had become necessary to make a great effort to demonstrate their competence and their capacities. Doctors belonged to the guild of “doctors, apothecaries and grocers”; they were a small group with limited influence within the large guild. They emphasized, therefore, that they were a unit of a very special, particularly dignified and elevated character. Of all the members of their guild—they alone were expected to attend not only the funerals of their colleagues but also those of the wives of their colleagues. Their statutes contained the very exceptional rule that doctors were forbidden to speak ill of others publicly or privately, and in the case of a life-threatening illness they were ordered to get the advice of a colleague. Conditions for admission to the guild became rigid. The usual requirement for internists and surgeons was a doctoral degree acquired at universities with recognized medical schools like Bologna, Siena, Pisa, Perugia; if such a degree was lacking the person who wanted to be admitted as doctor to the guild had to pass an examination before the officials of the guild and a number of doctors. Gradually a college of doctors was established within the guild, charged with assuring the continued medical training of those who were admitted.

To be a doctor was a remunerative profession. Because doctors were needed in the army, in prisons and monasteries, they had contracts with the government or ecclesiastical institutions. Although these contracts were not for large sums they provided a secure income. The important part of the income of a doctor, however, came from private practice. The earnings of doctors were above average; in the catasto of 1427, almost one third of the doctors belonged to the 10 percent in the highest income bracket. But none of the doctors had a part in government and politics. Many of them were immigrants from the country or from outside Florence territory and as such were excluded from political office, even from the rather minor role of a guild official. Those who were Florentines but from a rather low social class frequently became officials in their guild but hardly ever acquired political office. None of them became a person of influence. People of the “good old families” did not become doctors. If a doctor had acquired great wealth and enjoyed a good reputation his descendants might be able to move up into the ruling group by marrying into patrician families. The descendants of prosperous doctors, however, were not likely to take up the profession of their father but became businessmen or lawyers.

These two valuable scholarly investigations are not light reading. They contain many technical terms and some pages, half-filled with statistical tables, are not reading at all. I suspect that in previous years much of the contents of these books would have been presented as scholarly articles. Unfortunately, it now frequently takes more time to have an article published in a scholarly periodical than to have a book published, and we all know that to have a book published is considered to be of crucial importance for the career of a young scholar. The appearance of many books of very detailed but also very restricted contents conveys the impression that historical research is losing focus or center. We should probably keep in mind that history consists not only of the excavation of material but also of its presentation in a form that makes us aware of its bearing on the solution of the wider problems of the past.

There is no doubt that Edgerton’s book, Pictures and Punishment, has a great theme: the use which was made of art in enforcing legal judgments and the influence which this relationship of art to legal proceedings had on the development of art. Edgerton believes that this influence was very notable in stimulating and accelerating the trend toward artistic realism. I suppose art historians will debate for some time whether Edgerton is right in establishing such a close connection between art and law and whether, for instance, the drawings of executed criminals hanging from the gallows helped to develop anatomic studies.

Edgerton’s book is highly speculative but in an interesting and stimulating way. Some rather strange, for us almost incomprehensible, attitudes of the past emerge very clearly from his research. At present the walls of the Bargello, now one of Florence’s great museums but in the Renaissance the palace of the podesta, the highest judicial official, are empty. In the fourteenth and fifteenth century they were filled with portraits. Those who had committed crimes but had escaped from Florence and had remained unpunished were painted there in humiliating and satirized positions, dangling from the gallows by their left foot. Great painters—Castagno, Andrea del Sarto, Botticelli—were engaged by the government to depict the enemies of the state and transgressors of the law. The painting of these “effigies of shame” seems to have been a rather effective procedure because they were very much resented by those depicted in this manner. For instance, in the conflict between Florence and Milan, Florence had the portraits of its chief enemies painted on the Bargello walls. The peace treaty contained the clause that these portraits would have to be removed. However, this method of punishing criminals seems to have been interpreted in different ways; at least a decree by the Visconti duke ended the custom in Milan by stating that

though these images seem to be made to confound and defame falsifiers, nevertheless pictures of this time cause scandal and infamy not only to agents of such deception, but to the whole city, so that any people, foreigners especially, looking at these images imagine and quite firmly believe that the majority of citizens are hardly to be trusted and are involved in great deceptions.

Edgerton also shows that art not only became involved in the application of justice but also helped to mitigate its condemnations. Since the fourteenth century, a lay confraternity existed in Florence that served the special needs of prisoners under the sentence of death—a fraternity that, with interruptions, ended its existence only in the Second World War. This fraternity had its own chapel near the place of execution. Its members accompanied the condemned on the way to his execution holding before his eyes a small picture, admonishing penitence, depicting the sufferings of saints, and most of all showing Jesus on the cross and the deposition of His body, reminding the condemned man of the salvation which he might receive after his death. As the condemned man climbed up the ladder to the platform from which he was hanged, the lay brother accompanied him and held the picture before his eyes. The brothers then took down the body from the gallows, paid reverence to the dead, and interred him in their own special cemetery.

If the social history of Florence shows strongly, and most unpleasantly, a wide difference among social classes, and particularly the separation of the ruling patrician elite from the rest of the population, the work of the lay fraternity also seems to show that there was an element of cohesion beyond the divisions. Certainly, dependency of an economic character created a bond, but there was also the feeling of piety and sympathy with the hardships of human fate. There is some justification in the recent complaint that studies of Florentine social history have been concerned too exclusively with vertical social bonds and not given enough attention to horizontal relationships. The studies under review show that the richness and comprehensiveness of the Florentine archives allow insight into many different concrete issues of social history. One must wish, however, it will not be entirely forgotten that what originally brought scholars into the Florentine archives was the quest for an explanation and understanding of the unique achievements of Florence’s culture.

This Issue

October 9, 1986