Why Florence? What made this particular European city so important for the arts in the Renaissance? It’s a problem many historians have tried to solve. The latest is Professor Goldthwaite, an old Florentine hand who has moved from a study of the ways in which the Florentines made their money to a study of the ways in which they spent it.
‘Never show off your wealth,’ the Florentine citizen Giovanni Morelli anxiously advised his sons early in the 15th century, ‘but keep it hidden, and always by words and acts make people believe that you possess one half as much as you have.’ Goldthwaite’s story is essentially that of the shift from this attitude to its opposite, from a culture of thrift to a culture of display, or in contemporary Florentine terms, from masserizia to magnificenza. The renaissance of the arts, he writes, ‘occurred in an economy where immense wealth was spent in conspicuous consumption. Nothing was more conspicuous and more expensive than building.’
He goes on to analyse the building of Renaissance Florence in terms both of demand (the reasons for building and the distribution of wealth) and of supply – the organisation of construction, the production of materials, working conditions, and the role of the guild and of that new arrival on the building scene, the professional architect. His seven careful, lucid essays, based on the many surviving account-books of the period, are semi-independent of one another, and some (notably the one devoted to the mechanics of brick-production) will have a rather specialised appeal. But Goldthwaite’s central argument deserves a much wider audience.
The Florentines, so the argument goes, had accumulated wealth by export-led economic growth. This wealth was spread relatively widely. ‘The high level of total spending on the arts,’ we are told, ‘was the result of an aggregate of individuals each spending at a relatively low level.’ What did these individuals want? In the 14th century, they lived in modest houses, and the great building projects were public ones. In the 15th century, by contrast, not far short of a hundred private palazzi were built – ‘palatial’ by virtue of their size and of their grandiose stone façades. Palazzo Strozzi is a spectacular surviving example. There was no practical need for houses built on this scale, enclosing vast private spaces, underfurnished by later standards, in which the owner’s immediate family, together with a handful of servants, must have rattled like a shrunken nut in a large shell.
Why, then, build them? Goldthwaite’s conclusion is that the new type of house was an outward sign of the new values of wealthy Florentine families. The façade expressed the increasing emphasis on competitive display and the interior space expressed the increasing value of domestic privacy. He may well be right, but unfortunately he has little to say about the reasons for changes in values at this time, and his views on the importance of the nuclear family, as opposed to the extended family, among Florentine patricians are not shared by all his colleagues, as the skirmishes in the footnotes reveal. It is also unfortunate that little is known about the way all this space was used, the functions of the different rooms. The evidence does not seem to permit a study of the Florentine palace of the Renaissance along the lines of Mark Girouard’s Life in the English Country House.
However, Goldthwaite has put his finger on an important problem, all the more important because the example of the Florentines was followed all over Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries. In Genoa, for example, where the palaces of the financial aristocracy of the late Renaissance have now been taken over, appropriately enough, by the banks. In Naples, where the barons invaded the city and carried on their traditional internecine warfare by other means, building to outdo one another or even to spoil a rival’s view. In Milan, where one nouveau riche built a vast palace described in 1578 (not, as Goldthwaite asserts, by its former owner, but by a surveyor) as ‘extremely splendid’ but ‘not very practical’, because ‘loggias, porticos, hallways, staircases and other dignified parts take up most of the space and leave little to live in.’ These palaces were essentially status symbols. Italy was becoming a land of façades.
Professor Richard Trexler, another old Florentine hand, is interested in another kind of façade. His long-awaited book is a study of ritual and formal behaviour in Florence from the 14th century to the end of the last Republic in 1530. Historical studies of ritual have become more and more common in the last decade, but analyses as detailed as this one are still rare. The book is also unusual in being directed to an audience of sociologists and social anthropologists as much as to historians. Trexler’s purpose is to describe and interpret the major rituals of Renaissance Florence, notably the civic rituals, such as the annual celebration of the feast of San Giovanni, the city’s patron, in which the commune celebrated itself; the official welcomes extended to distinguished visitors, such as the Duke of Milan or the Pope; and the rituals of response to crisis, such as the cult of Santa Maria dell’Impruneta. If it did not rain, if it rained too much, or if their city was threatened by invasion or other dangers, the Florentines were accustomed to bring the miraculous image of the Virgin Mary into the city from its shrine in nearby Impruneta. The 16th-century historian Bernardo Segni seems to have been recording the general view when he remarked: ‘Our city has never, and I’m quite serious, publicly placed itself in the hands of this mother of God in any adverse situation without being answered.’
Trexler himself does not go as far as Segni, but in case anyone is tempted to dismiss his subject as unimportant, he argues forcefully that there is no such thing as ‘mere’ form; that Renaissance rituals were not irrational, but helped to solve problems; that they were ‘creative’ (what they created was identity, solidarity and legitimacy); and that, contrary to what sociologists might have expected, they flourished in this relatively large city of some forty to seventy thousand people. These forms, the author suggests, were not insincere. On the contrary, they ‘created sincerity by committing their authors’. Convention ‘dictated the expression of feelings, and, to an extent greater than we would admit today, the actual feelings themselves’. He illustrates his point by a long discussion of the letters exchanged by two 14th-century ‘friends’, Francesco Datini, merchant of Prato, and Lapo Mazzei, notary of Florence, pointing out that the relationship was more instrumental, and the expressions of undying love more conventional, than historians had realised, but refusing to write off the letters – or the love – as insincere.
Trexler is not satisfied to describe the festivals of Renaissance Florence, like the antiquarians, or to analyse their iconography, like the art-historians. He is concerned, like a social anthropologist of the past, to decipher these festivals, to discover what messages were being communicated in this ritual idiom. Political messages, in particular. He makes it clear that the Florentine man in the piazza was competent to read ritual, to assess how far a cap was raised in salute, how far the Florentine government went to meet a particular visitor, how far away from the tribune in front of the Palazzo della Signoria the visitor dismounted – and would draw political conclusions accordingly. Contemporaries were quick to note that, in 1465, Don Federigo of Naples did not dismount but ‘came on horse right up to the Lion and in front of the Signoria’; that, in 1481, the Florentine welcoming party travelled eight miles out of the city to meet the Duke of Milan; that, in 1458, Luca Pitti, Gonfalonier of Justice, ‘took a place in the midst of the priors and not his customary place on the right’. These Florentines would have had little to learn from those Kremlinologists who note who stands next to whom at May Day parades, or how far away from the tribune the portrait of Brezhnev has been placed.
Trexler has one great advantage over Kremlinologists and anthropologists alike. He is able to study some two hundred years of change. Indeed, he identifies what he calls a ‘ritual revolution’ in this period, a long revolution associated with the decline of the Republic and the rise of the Medici. When Lorenzo the Magnificent was in power, expenditure on the civic festival of San Giovanni was drastically reduced. On the other hand, the Medici staged their own rituals, and made their family palace a rival to the Palazzo della Signoria. This point is obvious enough, but Trexler’s ritual revolution does not consist in this alone. It is his contention that the period of Medici rule from 1434 to 1494 saw three groups, formerly on the margin of civic ritual as of political life, move towards the centre of the stage: boys, youth and the plebs. In the case of the plebs, the journeymen who were excluded from the guilds, and so from political life, he focuses on the rise of the potenze, festive groups ruled by ‘kings’. In the case of the boys, he notes the increasing importance of their confraternities. The presence of boys as symbols of innocence in the processions organised by Savonarola in the 1490s is the climax of a long-term development. The ‘youth’ (giovani), actually men in their late twenties and early thirties, but still unmarried and ineligible for political office, also emerged as a festive group in the 15th century.
A book as bold as this one is bound to lay itself open to criticism on a number of counts. It is rather diffuse. Indeed, the reader sometimes has the impression that there are two books within the same covers: that a book on private life in Renaissance Florence is struggling to get out. Long chapters describe friendship and family relationships. On the other hand, some highly ritualised areas of public life are omitted. Trexler gives us the view from the street, but does not take us inside the law courts or into the Palazzo della Signoria. It is difficult to write for two audiences without giving both some grounds for dissatisfaction. Social anthropologists and sociologists are likely to complain that the conceptual framework of the book is not sufficiently explicit. The author is well acquainted with the ideas of Marx, Weber and Durkheim and also with recent work on ritual. He draws on them all, but does not make it clear how he fits them together. It is uncertain, for example, how far he sees Florentine public rituals as expressions of shared values, and how far as attempts by a ruling élite to ‘manage’ ordinary people.
Historians, on the other hand, are likely to object to the amount of speculation, particularly in the chapters on the ritual revolution. Earlier chapters were nailed down with frequent references to the letters and journals of contemporaries. In the later chapters, the author is discussing patterns which contemporaries did not see, and he falls back on conjecture.
It might also be argued that, in his zeal to prevent the reader from dismissing ‘mere’ ritual, Trexler goes a little too far. Some contemporaries dismissed it themelves. One Florentine described a public meeting following the death of Piero de’ Medici as ‘a ceremony’, and ‘an act of little importance’. Lorenzo de’ Medici told his son on one occasion that his comments were genuine and not per cerimonie – as Italians say nowadays, senza complimenti. Contemporary attitudes to ritual were more complex than Trexler admits. It is one thing to consider, as Machiavelli did; that public rituals encourage public spirit: quite another to believe in the rain-making efficacy of the Virgin of Impruneta. In short, this is a flawed success, a rough diamond of a book. But it is adventurous, exciting, imaginative, richly detailed. It will make it difficult for future historians to consider ritual without politics, or indeed, to consider politics without ritual.
Professor Edward Muir is also concerned with the political uses of ritual and the political messages it carries. Like Trexler, he has been inspired by the approach to ritual of such anthropologists as Victor Turner and Clifford Geertz, and in any case he knows Trexler’s work. He, too, is interested in the Kremlinologists’ questions: ‘How far out in the lagoon must the senators (and how many senators) go to greet an arriving guest? Should the doge take off his crown, arise from his seat or descend from the dais in the Collegio to meet an ambassador?’ Muir has, however, written a rather different kind of book, largely because of the differences between Venice and Florence. Venetian stability made a striking contrast to the volatility of the Florentines, who were always tinkering with their political arrangements. Venetians saw themselves, and persuaded many visitors to see them, as a uniquely harmonious society with a nicely-balanced constitution.
If ever a society deserved a functional analysis, it was surely Venice, and Muir tells an essentially functionalist story of ‘government by ritual’, the regular enactment of the myths about the past which served to justify the political and social system. The Wedding of the Sea, for example, symbolised and sanctioned Venetian control of the Adriatic. The political function of the body of St Mark, a relic reportedly acquired – not to say stolen – from Alexandria in 827, was to legitimate Venetian independence from both Rome and Constantinople. Processions at once mirrored and supported the political and social hierarchy. Carnival licence was a brief period of role-reversal designed to make the system more tolerable to the majority. Long before Walter Bagehot, the Venetians had realised the importance of the separation between the ‘dignified’ and the ‘efficient’ parts of the political system, and the doge, that ‘sacred central symbol’ which the Florentines lacked, performed the function of resolving the conflicts which the system generated.
Muir is not an uncritical functionalist, however. He does not gloss over disorder, contradiction or change. He points out, for example, that the dignity of processions was sometimes marred by unseemly scrambles for precedence, that the Venetians did not stick to any one story about their own origins, and that some doges rebelled against the limitations placed upon them. He might have added that the relative powerlessness of that ‘paradoxical prince’, the doge, bred contempt for an official who was seen as no more than a ‘tavern sign’, a ‘painted king’, a ‘dumb figure’, a ‘King of China’, as contemporaries variously put it. This divorce between power and status may even have helped bring ritual itself into disrepute as ‘mere pageantry’, shadow without substance, form without content (a distinction which Geertz refuses to make for Bali, but one which is firmly built into the Western tradition).
Muir also shows that Venetian rituals, like Venetian institutions, were less stable than they appeared to be. The official celebration of the feasts of Santa Marina (who was given the credit for the recapture of Padua in 1509) and Santa Justina (to celebrate the victory of Lepanto) were new rituals, created in the 16th century. Old rituals were reformed. Doge Andrea Gritti put an end to the mock-execution of pigs in front of the Palazzo Ducale at Carnival because he thought it undignified and vulgar.
Muir himself reveals rather than resolves the contradictions between this sort of evidence and the functionalist paradigm. In cases of disputed interpretation, he tends to give a lucid summary of opposing views, efface himself and leave the reader to decide. Despite this inconclusiveness (mitigated by many perceptive comments), some minor slips and an intolerable number of misprints, Civil Ritual in Renaissance Venice is an elegant and distinguished first book.
Like its predecessor The Rise to Empire, John Julius Norwich’s The Greatness and the Fall has the modest aim of providing ‘a straightforward record of the main political events of Venetian history, for the general non-academic reader’. This second volume takes the story from 1405 to 1797, from the acquisition of a mainland empire to the end of the Republic. It is a book somewhat old-fashioned in its virtues as in its faults. It is generally accurate on points of detail, despite the confusion between two Peter Martyrs and the erroneous assumption that there was only one Compagnia della Calza – there were, in fact, scores of these noble dramatic societies. Lord Norwich writes a vigorous and fluent prose. He is unafraid of moral judgments and even personification (‘Venice was utterly demoralised ... She was old and tired’). He cannot resist the familiar anecdotes, but he tells them well. He is strong on geography, logistics, the tombs of the doges, and the present whereabouts of the dagger with which Sarpi was stabbed and of the embalmed corpse of Captain-General Morosini’s favourite cat. Yet I found the book as a whole rather thin and flat, largely because events are narrated without much sense of their cultural and social context. It is also rather disappointing to find the author repeating the old, simplistic account of the decline and fall of Venice, as if unaware of the last thirty years of research, some of it cited in his bibliography.
It is a pity that general histories of Venice usually end in 1797, as if the city disappeared with the Republic. A narrative history of 19th-century Venice might not have many high points, apart from the siege of 1848 and the vote – implausibly unanimous – for unification. On the other hand, an urban historian would not be short of themes. There was, for instance, the attempt to modernise Venice, symbolised by the railway (which was nearly extended as far as S. Giorgio Maggiore) and by the conversion of the church of S. Girolamo in Cannareggio into a steam mill, with smoke pouring from the belfry. There was the attempt to restore Venice, in the style of Viollet-le-Duc; and there was the attempt to develop it for tourism. Among the visitors who were horrified by these developments was Ruskin, who wrote bitterly that the railway bridge made Venice ‘as nearly as possible like Liverpool’, that the new gas lamps were ‘of the last Birmingham fashion’, and that the restorers were removing all ‘the glorious old weather stains’ from St Mark’s. The sense of the need to save all he could of the city’s heritage, like ‘a fireman from a smouldering ruin’, was the main impulse behind The Stones of Venice. Jeanne Clegg’s careful and unpretentious study describes Ruskin’s 11 visits to Venice between 1835 and 1888 in chronological order. She shows how his interests changed, how he shifted from enthusiasm for ‘Tintoret’ to devotion to Carpaccio, and from measuring the mouldings on Venetian palaces to recommending the traditional social system. He told Sheffield it needed a doge to regulate private enterprise, and modelled the Guild of St George on the Scuola di S. Todoro. Dr Clegg’s account of Ruskin’s extraordinary mixture of clear-sightedness and confusion is balanced and perceptive, if a little inconclusive. She notes that he was ‘historically ingenuous’, prepared to dip into Sismondi’s history of the Italian republics but unable to face the task – which he tried to delegate to Effie – of reading it through, let alone of taking the advice of his friend Rawdon Brown and looking at the documents. Yet Ruskin did understand that buildings, too, were documents, that they could be read as ‘the embodiment of the Polity, Life, History and Religious Faith of Nations’.
For that insight alone, The Stones of Venice would still be worth our attention. Anyone who has struggled with the three heavy volumes of the 1886 edition – almost as massive as Sismondi – will be grateful for the new abridgment, however sorry to lose the digressions, the quirky appendices, and the fulminations against what Ruskin called ‘grotesque Renaissance’ and we call ‘baroque’.