Wednesday, September 21, 2016
A History of Florence, 1200 - 1575, by John Najemy, 2008. Glossy's rating: 4.5/10.
This is mostly a book about the politics of Florence's golden age, with some discussion of its economics and family life.
In 1115, after the death of Matilda, the margravine of Tuscany, the cities of the region successfully repulsed her successors' attempts to establish control over them, setting up independent republics instead. During the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries Florence gradually rose in importance among these cities, eventually conquering most of Tuscany.
Throughout this period Florence's politics was dominated by a conflict between powerful aristocratic families called the grandi on the one hand, and the commercial and artisanal middle class called the popolo on the other hand. The popolo was a misleading term because there were lots of people below it - free manual laborers, slaves, indigents and others.
The grandi started as a military and landowning aristocracy, but as the textile industry, international trade and banking took off in the later Middle Ages, they went into business, competing with the lower-born popolo.
The popolo criticized the grandi for being an extremely fractious bunch addicted to blood feuds, which sometimes snowballed into wars which occasionally destroyed large parts of the city. No duels were mentioned in this book, but like the dueling aristocracies of other places and periods, this was clearly a people bred for war. I loved the description of one of their leaders, Corso Donati, given by an enemy of his, a contemporary historian of middle class background named Dino Compagni:
"His mind was always set on evildoing"... [He] "lived dangerously and died reprehensibly. He was a knight of great spirit and renown, noble in blood and behavior, and very handsome in appearance even in his old age, of fine form with delicate features and white skin. He was a charming, wise, and elegant speaker, and always undertook great things. He was accustomed to dealing familiarly with great lords and noble men, and had many friends, and was famous throughout all Italy. He was the enemy of the popolo and of popolani, and was loved by his soldiers; he was full of malicious thoughts, cruel and astute...."
All Florentine historians of that period were popolani, meaning middle class. The literary genre preferred by the grandi was courtly love poetry.
Popolani writers looked to the ancient Roman republic for models of civic virtue, personal moderation and rule of law. In fact, the similarities between the two societies were numerous. The grandi/popolani conflict recalls the struggle between Roman patricians and plebeians. As Florence became more and more successful, it, like Rome, gradually morphed from a republic into a monarchy, with its rulers denying this for a long time, until finally admitting the obvious and donning a crown. In both cases the first monarchy sprang from the old aristocracy and not from the middle class.
With time the Florentine grandi got tamer, with civil courts replacing blood feuds and mercenaries replacing the native elite as the city's cavalry. I'm guessing that their martial nature was gradually diluted by intermarriage with rich popolani, though Najemy gives a different explanation.
While Najemy never mentions Marx, he consistently interprets Florentine politics through the framework of class struggle, sympathizing with the popolo (middle class) against the grandi and with laborers against the popolo.
I think that politics has always been mostly about tribalism, with people favoring those genetically closer to them. I think that Marxism is as wrong as libertarianism, though it doesn't trigger me like libertarianism does because Marxism has long been on the defensive. Lies and misconceptions are much more annoying when they're winning.
I would guess that the medieval Italian aristocracy was genetically more Lombard, Gothic, etc. than the middle and lower classes, and that their distinctive culture as well as their solidarity against the popolani had something to do with that.
From the late 13th till the early 16th centuries Florence was pretty much the intellectual and artistic capital of the world. Why? This book does not deal with this question, but I can't resist musing about it.
For much of this period Florence was the chief city of Tuscany. Maybe language wasn't the only highly unusual thing about the ancient Etruscans. Maybe they had some unusual talents too.
Republicanism in northern Italy seems to have peaked in the 12th and 13th centuries, gradually declining afterwards. At first city states were tiny and numerous, but they soon began to gobble each other up. The emergent small empires enriched leading families, which increased their role in government.
Booming trade and finance created private fortunes which acted in the same way. The Medici got enormously rich through their bank. They used that money to create the largest patronage network in Florence, which later helped them seize power. Lots of people owed them favors.
Also, the city had to pay for its constant wars, and the Medici skillfully leveraged their lending ability to gain power over the government.
It should be said though that in Florence republicanism declined slower than in most of its regional rivals. It survived longer in Venice, but Florence's politics was more turbulent, with more revolutions, coups and civil wars and with larger swings between the extremes of democracy and despotism.
Florence is an obstacle for anyone trying to argue that political stability is important for civilizational progress. In spite of their intense patriotism several Florentine politicians and writers are quoted in this book admitting that Venice's political system was preferable because it was more stable.
Florence isn't located on a coast, and its imperial endeavors were entirely land-based, directed towards other Tuscan cities. Venice and Genoa had far-flung overseas empires, but made a much smaller intellectual impact. There may not be any relationship between these facts, but if you want to think about the causes of the Florentine miracle, you have to start with listing the most important ways in which Florence differed from its neighbors and rivals.
"If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" is a question that's sometimes asked in life. Well, while prominent, Florence was never the most powerful Italian state. And Italy as a whole was often invaded by Germans, Spaniards and the French during this period.
The gap in civilizational progress, in innovation, between Florence and everywhere else was largest in the late 15th century. This was a time when the republican tradition was dying in the city, but when the ruling family, the Medici, still denied this, still feeling the need to pretend to be regular citizens.
Najemy says that by 1300 a large majority of Florence's men and a sizable minority of its women could read and write. In 1330, when the city's population was about 90,000, 68% to 75% of the children were in school. I don't know how this compared to other Italian cities of that time though.
Like most cities throughout history medieval and renaissance Florence was a population sink. Infections in the densely-packed town were common and the death rate was high. The birth rate was low, and to maintain its size the city needed a continuing flow of newcomers from the countryside.
The upper crust had more children than the lower and middle classes though. First, they could afford to feed as many kids as they wanted. Second, their women could be pregnant more often because they hired wet nurses.
Marriages within the elite were arranged in the most business-like way imaginable. Najemy quotes a letter in which one man asked someone belonging to a family with which he wanted to acquire connections to pick a bride for him from among his relatives. Dowries were negotiated for months.
Florentine women married around the age of 17, men around 30. This seems eugenic because the share of men who died before 30 must have been considerable in those centuries.
"Long-term relationships were rare, occasional encounters the norm. Those who engaged in homosexual acts generally divided into two distinct age groups with different sexual roles. Young men between the ages of roughly eighteen and thirty took the dominant, or active, role in encounters in which they penetrated, but were not penetrated by, passive partners who were largely adolescents and teenaged boys. Among those accused of sodomy, 90% of passive partners were eighteen or younger and 83% of active partners nineteen or older.
As boys passed the threshold of their eighteenth or nineteenth year, most gave up the passive role and became active partners with younger boys. And as young men went past the age of thirty, and especially if they married, most abandoned the homosexual practices of their youth. Homosexual relations between adult men were less common, but not exactly rare.
Homosexual practices were not an alternative, and certainly not a permanent, sexual preference: the vast majority of those who engaged in them did not do so to the exclusion of sex with women or for their whole lives."
Sodomy was condemned by the church and sometimes punished by the state, but the penalties weren't heavy, so its practice continued. It's unclear to me how common it was. Najemy says that about 200 people a year were accused of it in Florence, but what percentage of the sodomites were ever accused?
The whole thing seems similar to the ancient Greco-Roman situation though. Richard Burton included Italy in his Sotadic Zone, but was pederasty really still common there in his time? It isn't now. When exactly did it stop being common in Italy?
In the Middle East and around the Mediterranean women have for a long time been less available for casual relationships than in most of Europe or in Africa. Families guarded them for arranged marriages instead. One might think that this was why men looked for casual sex with boys, and that 19th and 20th century women's lib, more than Christianity, put an end to widespread pederasty in southern Europe by freeing up young women.
However, there were lots of slave girls and prostitutes in ancient Rome. And according to this book, there were some in medieval Florence too. So causation is, as usual, unclear.
Both of Florence's most famous artists, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, are presumed to have been life-long homosexuals. By the way, they're barely mentioned in this book. Dante and Machiavelli get more space, but only because they had some involvement in the city's politics.
I don't blame the author for that - Florentine politics is very interesting - but his pomo-like writing style typical of modern social science clashes rudely with the beauty that most people associate with Florence. I'll give you an example:
"Artistic production reflected the social, economic, and contractual contexts of interactions between producers and consumers, who came from different classes, as well as the religious and aesthetic dimensions of consumer demand."
There's no good reason for history, not even for the economic kind, to be written like that.
Forget the Renaissance, the Middle Ages were beautiful too. The look of medieval cities with their narrow cobbled streets and shingled roofs, the cathedrals, the castles and towers, the weapons and armor, the guilds, the music - all of this is highly romantic to me and to millions of others. You get some glimpses of that world from reading this book, but only through a layer of colorless social-science gibberish.