Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Review of A History of Florence, 1200 - 1575

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.

On sodomy:

"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.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Movie "Boyhood"

I saw Richard Linklater's movie Boyhood over the weekend. It's realistic, well-intentioned and boring. The depiction of childhood was done better in Terence Malick's Tree of Life.

Even though I'm closer in age to Linklater than to Malick, my own boyhood was more like Malick's. This is because the 1960s only came to the USSR in the 1990s. I spent more time outdoors playing more dangerous games than Linklater's protagonist, but everything to do with sex came into my and my friends' lives much later. For related reasons my parents didn't split and I've never had to see my mom arrange dates with men. Even typing that last phrase felt sacrilegious and ewwey. I owe you so much, fate, for sparing me that.

When this movie came out the biggest criticism wasn't that it was boring but that everyone was white in it. Actually the protagonist's sister, supposedly a daughter of Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, looks Mexican. The Wikipedia reveals that she was born in Mexico and is a child of Linklater's - presumably adopted.

Linklater was obviously trying to do his own story here, so he needed to cast a 6-year old boy who'd later look realistic as an artsy teen. So he found a son of a musician, and 12 years later the plan totally worked. We are our parents.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Nerdy Martha Stewart, the Miscellaneous Edition

A few random consumer goods recommendations:

The Leatherman Squirt.


I've carried this thing on my keychain for about a decade. Every guy should have one. I've used its knife today to open an Amazon package. I've used its several screwdrivers many, many times, as well as its bottle opener, pliers and other tools. Obviously, the knife is the thing that you're going to use the most.

The quality is impressive. This thing has been in my pants pocket for all these years, bumping against my keys and change, with lint getting into its insides, yet it always opens smoothly.

This company is still run by its founder, Tim Leatherman, which probably helps explain why the product is so great. The only downside to carrying it is that if you're going for jury duty and the like, building security temporarily takes it away.

 Panasonic RP-HTX7 headphones.
I only use these because they look cool. I always have a black pair on my desktop and a white pair on my musical keyboard. All headphones sound good enough to me, so if I ever see a pair that looks better than this Panasonic model, I'll immediately buy it.

Edwin Jagger Gillette Mach 3 Razor

This is the best-looking razor I know of, but I'm not fully satisfied with it. The handle isn't heavy enough and too smooth, which makes it slippery when you're trying to hold it with a soapy hand. I'm willing to suffer a little for the aesthetics though. I use it with this stand.

Speaking of soap, this is where I put mine:
I love this sort of cutesiness. The guy who makes these is named Kelvin Chen. I have quite a few of his decorative kettles on windowsills and shelves around my apartment.

Speaking of cutesy stuff:

The Japanese are obsessed with it, so every time I see a Japanese novelty store in Manhattan, my hopes go up, only to be dashed 30 minutes later. They love the idea of cuteness, but something always goes wrong in the execution. I can't imagine them coming up with something as cute as this, for example.

Or this:

This guy looks even better in real life, but I'm feeling too lazy right not to get off my ass and take a proper picture of him. He's filled with sand and is quite heavy.

A while ago I wrote a post about the stuff that I have in my cubicle. Here's one of the things that I put there since then:

It's not as convenient to use as a normal staple remover, but it works. And here's my new stapler:
Continuing with the office theme, this is the chair I'm sitting on right now. Love it.
And finally, a letter opener I found on eBay. It came to me from Bulgaria, but there are no identifying signs on it, so I have no idea where and when it was made.  


Saturday, September 3, 2016

School, Part 1

A second installment in my autobiographical series:

The Soviet school year started on September 1st, unless that day fell on a Sunday. Our school had about a thousand students, all of whom stood grouped by class in front of the building on opening day, dressed in holiday uniforms and holding flowers.

Uplifting speeches were made out front, but instead of listening to them we told each other all the new jokes we'd heard over the summer. Before puberty these jokes, called anekdoty (anecdotes), were the most exciting things in my life.

The joy of hearing others laugh when I got to a punchline was overwhelming, and the kids who most often told jokes that I hadn't heard before seemed like the coolest ones in school to me.

I don't remember the vast majority of these "anecdotes" anymore, just their general types. There were ethnic ones, for which one would have probably been expelled from most Western schools of that time, but which everyone in the USSR told without fear and without anyone taking offense. There were jokes about Vasily Chapaev, a Civil War hero and the subject of a popular 1930s movie, jokes about Stierlitz, a Soviet spy from a 1970s TV series about the Great Patriotic War, jokes about Vovochka (little Vladdy), an extremely sexually precocious and inquisitive little boy, and many others.

Since there was no pornography anywhere, up until my late teens my entire stock of knowledge about sex came from these jokes. It was very hazy and incomplete.

When the speeches were over, we walked to our classroom, put the flowers in a great heap on the teacher's desk and took up our usual seats.

For the first three years all of our classes except for gym were taught by a single teacher - a tall, kindly, very proper middle-aged woman named Yevdokiya Gavrilovna. This name-patronymic combination sounds rustic and archaic to a Russian speaker's ear, but as I remember, there was nothing rustic about her as a person.

Starting in the fourth grade we got separate teachers for every subject, with the entire class walking to a new classroom during most breaks. The class itself, as well as the seating arrangement, tended to persist. Sometimes a kid left because his or her family moved to a different neighborhood and sometimes new pupils came in, but quite a few of the kids with whom I started first grade were still in my class in the eleventh.

The only kind of education with which I can really compare the Soviet school system of those years is the American one, in which I was briefly enrolled at the age of 17. The difference in quality was stark.

We studied quadratic equations at the age of 11, calculus at 15 and series at 16. Starting at age 13 we had to memorize dozens of Euclidean proofs and were often required to prove things on our own.

Rote memorization, which largely disappeared from Western education during the 1960s, was still very much alive in the USSR of my youth. We had to learn hundreds of classical 19th-century Russian poems by heart, some of them quite long. Pacing my room late in the evening, trying to learn a new poem, anxious that I wasn't going to finish it on time - this is a very familiar to me image of my younger self.

Ironically in view of the nature of my blog, the thing that I hated the most in school was writing literature papers. This often had to be done in class, in 45 minutes, or over the span of two periods. In spite of great efforts I wrote some of the shortest papers of any of us, rarely more than a page and a half. I remember our literature teacher viciously showing a paper of mine to the entire class as an example of what not to do.

There was no corporal punishment, but it was definitely OK for teachers to call us idiots. Which we often were of course. Parents could be summoned to school for stern talks and in the early grades kids could be sent to a corner of the room as punishment. And yes, I've stood in that corner.

The grading system was numeric. A 5 was equivalent to an American A, a 4 to a B, a 3 to a C and a 2 to an F. The grade of 1 (colloquially a pole, the kind on which criminals were impaled in the Middle Ages) was very rare and indicated a truly extraordinary level of stupidity. I was mostly a 4 student.

Grades were usually given in two ways: for tests and as a result of being called to answer in front of the class. A period usually started with the teacher looking at the roster and picking one kid to come up to the blackboard.

I grew up without God, but not without prayer. "Don't pick me, no, please, not me, not today" - silently in my mind of course. Some teachers sadistically lingered with their pens hovering over certain portions of the roster. We all looked attentively, knowing how far up or down the alphabet each one of our last names was located.

When your name was called, you had to prove yesterday's theorem on the blackboard or recite the assigned poem by heart or analyze a sentence or answer questions about the historical period which we were then studying.

A bit about that sentence analysis:

Every part of speech - nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, etc. - had to be underlined in a specific way. For example, for some reason I still remember that adjectives required a wavy line. There were also ways to indicate the subject, the direct and indirect objects, modifiers and whatever else of that type that there might have been in a sentence chosen specifically for its ability to confuse an 11-year old. Even if you got all of that right, your grade might still have suffered because your handwriting wasn't good enough.

There was no multiple choice on tests. Math and science exams' problems were written in chalk by the teacher on the blackboard. Each desk seated two students, so to minimize cheating the teacher wrote two sets of questions, one for the right side of each desk and one for the left. We still sometimes managed to cheat by passing notes or looking over the shoulders of our smarter classmates.

One type of Russian language test was called a dictant. The teacher dictated a literary passage which we had to write down while trying to avoid spelling and punctuation mistakes.

Innumerable rules of punctuation were studied relentlessly. Sentences of immense complexity were invented to torture students and illustrate grammatical points. Of course now, as an adult, I punctuate entirely by feel both in Russian and English.

The only classes which boys attended separately from girls were shop and military preparedness. I know that girls were taught cooking and the like while we were in shop class, but where did they go when we were in military class? No idea.

Our military instructor, a retired officer and a very cool guy, explained the armed forces' command structure and equipment, taught us to assemble and disassemble an AK and supervised marksmanship tournaments. These involved airguns which looked like old hunting rifles and shot little lead pellets.

Together with our textbooks and notebooks each one of us carried a "diary" in his school bag. This was a thick booklet where we wrote each week's schedule of classes. Next to each class was a space where a teacher could put a grade if there was a test that day or if she had just called you to the blackboard.

Some kids altered these grades after the fact to fool their parents. There were kids crying after particularly hard tests. School mattered a lot to many. I never tried to alter a grade because my parents never asked to look at my diary. Of course they had a general idea of how well I was doing - neither badly nor very well. I take the fact that they didn't push me to study harder as evidence that my own lifelong lack of ambition was directly inherited from them.

Besides the diary, grades were entered into a "journal" - a tall, thin, classily-bound book which remained in the teacher's possession during a class. When we all walked to a new classroom, our journal was carried by a teacher's pet, almost always a girl.

The school year was divided into quarters. At the end of each one a teacher summed up your overall performance in his or her subject with a single grade. The same thing was done at the end of the year. There was one quarter sometime around 9th or 10th grade when I achieved an absolutely perfect level of mediocrity, getting a 4 in every one of 15 or so subjects.

Yet in spite of my inborn laziness and the famously demanding nature of Soviet education, I never hated going to school. In fact, I missed it all through the summers. I'll try to explain why in the next chapter.