Are Contemporary Renaissance Florentine Histories Sociological?
by Daniel O'hEidhin
This is a relatively long one, but any opinions valued as always!
Question: Are contemporary Renaissance Florentine histories sociological?
Embedded within contemporary Renaissance Florentine histories are pronounced empirical sociological prototypes and observations. There are three main sociological trends that recur within the histories, and naturally, at times, they overlap with one another: firstly, contemporary Renaissance Florentine histories are histories of domination; secondly, the evolution and application of providence and fortune; and lastly, contemporary Renaissance Florentine histories are histories of decay and renewal. There have been assertions that the Quattrocento saw a dramatic evolution in art, with advances in style, technique and motivation, and a parallel change in political thought, historiography, new techniques in historical criticism and changed ideals in human and civic conduct. None, however, take note of the very definite application in historical practice of sociological observation.
The motives for writing these histories have been discussed at length. John R. Hale sees Francesco Guicciardini’s motives as a ‘psychological need to explain the causation of the tragedy of Italy as a whole,’ and Guicciardini’s interest in history was ‘sustained by the scope it offered for moral judgement and general reflection on human nature.’ Guicciardini concurs with this assessment of his motivation: ‘all men will be able to draw many useful lessons both for themselves and for the public good.’ He states his intentions clearly in his Ricordi: ‘past events throw light on the future, because the world has always been the same as it is now, or shall be hereafter… things accordingly repeat themselves, but under changed names and colours so that it is not everyone who can recognise them, but only he who is discerning and who notes and considers them dilligently.’ Louis Green sees similar motives in Goro Dati’s Istoria di Firenze, that ‘history was a source of moral edification, a means of inferring right and proper rules of conduct from a study of the past.’ Dati concurs with this profile by Green, feeling that history was ‘full of fine and useful examples for those to come.’ Many more identical accounts of contemporary Renaissance Florentine historians’ motives are littered throughout the numerous analyses of the works. However, none deal with the pressing matter of method. While all analyses acknowledge the motivation to write the histories as being to assemble a guidebook for future generations, as evidenced in the examples above in the case of Dati and Guicciardini, none mention the model which the historians followed while they attempted to construct a series of discernible patterns from history that could be applied to their present. In doing so, historians have overlooked a vitally important characteristic in the practice of contemporary Renaissance Florentine history.
Max Weber is the sociologist most frequently cited by historians. It can also be argued that the central theme of Weber’s sociology is domination. There are three strains of authority in Weber’s theory of domination that legitimises it: rational, traditional and charasmatic. We will pay attention to these three strains when analysing the theme of domination throughout the histories. Rational authority is the belief in the legality of the rule and the right of those in authority to issue commands. Traditional authority is based on an established belief in the sanctity of immemorial traditions. Authority through charisma rests on the devotion of followers to the exemplary character, heroism or special powers of leaders. Domination exists wherever subjects obey the commands of other subjects.
Niccólo Machiavelli notes early on in History of Florence how Urban II could call a crusade, where ‘many kings and people joined them, and contribute money; and many private persons fought under them for their own expense; so great was the influence of reigion in those days upon the minds of men.’ This is the first example of Machiavelli noting how influenced the masses were by their ‘principal ministers.’ This is evident again when two members of the Cancellieri, one of the most prominent families in Pistoia, started fighting over the cutting off of Lore Cancellieri’s hand as revenge for slightly wounding Geri Cancellieri whilst playing; the ‘whole city of Pistoia had become divided.’ These are examples of charisma based authority in the case of Urban II (who had other-worldly powers) and traditional authority in the case of the prominent Cancellieri family in Pistoia.
In Guicciardini’s History of Italy Lodovico Sforza attempts by using marriage to further legitimise and extend his traditional domination, by marrying his niece to ‘Maximillian who had lately succeeded to the Roman Empire through the death of his father Frederick.’ As a dowry Lodovico promised him ‘400,000 ducats in cash, and 40,000 ducats in jewels and other goods,’ and in return Maximillian gave Lodovico the investiture of the Duchy of Milan, ‘for himself, his children and descendants.’
Leonardo Bruni in his History of the Florentine People traces the beginnings of the republic in Florence: ‘It is wonderful how great the strength of the People grew… the People was now itself a lord and font of honour.’ This particular type of domination, the Florentine republic, is the most rational authority described by the Florentine historians. But it is considered entirely problematic by them. To Machiavelli the fundamental problem was reconciling the interests of the popular classes and that of the nobility, ‘the desire of the latter to command, and the disinclination of the former to obey,’ and he claims that this is the ‘cause of most of the troubles which take place in cities and from this diversity of purpose, all the other evils which disturb republics derive their origin. This kept Rome disunited; and this, if it be allowable to compare small things with great, held Florence in disunion.’ Clearly Machiavelli has identified a sociological trend. Guicciardini, too, held republics as being problematic, as explained by John R. Hale: ‘republics had their disadvantages – they came to decisions slowly, they encouraged faction.’
Guicciardini addresses this question of the ideal form of domination when Charles of France had left Florence and the Florentines were left to try and reorganise their city. Paoloantonio Soderini in his argument proclaimed that: ‘the city should be governed in the name and the consent of the people… truth obliges me to say this: that in our city always, a government organised such a way that a few citizens have excessive authority will be the government of a few tyrants.’ Guidantonio Vespucci offers the counter-argument that inexperienced men are incapable of governing. In this argument we see two threads of authority, traditional on the hand of Vespucci who feels that a select number of nobles should run the government, and rational on the side of Soderini. Yet Guicciardini pushes the question even further still by examining the influence of authority by charisma: the intervention of Girolamo Savonarola, whose influence was great as a result of his reputation as a prophet. He interceded in the debate by claiming that through divine revelation he learned that God’s will was ‘that an absolutely popular government should be set up, and in such a way that it should not be in the power of a few citizens.’ Machiavelli sums up the essential predicament and conflict by affirming that ‘tyranny cannot please the good, and license is offensive to the wise.’
While John R. Hale feels that Guicciardini in ‘his Florentine histories came out strongly against the rule of man’, it is a form of domination that is evaluated extensively in all of the Florentine histories. The histories seem to portray the masses as dependent on charismatic individuals. Urban II and Savonarola dominated because of their control over the spiritual nature of man. This is one of many traits that a man of authority by charisma may possess. Michael di Lando as Gonfalonier had to deal with a discontented popular class. He reassured the people, advised them to lay down their arms, and through his ‘courage, prudence and generosity’ quietened the discontented. Machiavelli claims he ‘kept them in awe by the influence of his authority.’
Another case of discontent soon followed, and once again the people gather around a charismatic leader, in this case Veri de’ Medici. Machiavelli claims that if he ‘had more ambition than integrity he might without impediment have become the prince of the city.’ In Guicciardini’s History of Florence he noted how the city ‘enjoyed perfect peace’ under the virtual tyranny of Lorenzo de’ Medici. He concludes his appraisal of Lorenzo’s rule by noting how ‘that under him the city was not free, although it would be impossible to find a better and more agreable tyrant. Through his natural goodness and inclinations he brought great benefits to the city.’ Giovanni de’ Medici is painted as being the figure who instilled in Lorenzo and Cosimo de’ Medici the guidelines for domination, and maintaining that domination. ‘If you pursue the same course that I have, you will live respected in Florence, and in favour with everyone.’ As we have already seen Lorenzo was praised, ruling with a mixture of charisma and traditional authority. Cosimo, when he died, was hailed as ‘father of his country,’ and he ruled using the same blend of charisma and traditional authority.
Piero de’ Medici, the successor of Lorenzo, ‘not satisifed with the power his father had obtained in the republic – although it was such that all magistrates were chosen according to his wishes,’ became enormously ambitious, desiring absolute power. He no longer spoke for the people, and violating Weber’s ‘stability is legitimacy’ rule of authority, and was soon ousted. Violence would have erupted if the authority of Savonarola had not interceded and ‘secured universal peace.’
While excessive ambition may be blamed for the Piero de’ Medici’s failings, it would be unfair to claim his predecessors were not. Lorenzo’s ambition was described as being ‘excessive’ by Guicciardini. It is entirely possible that Piero was the victim of the next sociological trend that is under investigation; that of decay and renewal. Guicciardini feels that men of wealth and power ‘should be content with that and not try for more, because in most cases they will suffer a heavy fall.’ Louis Green claims Goro Dati’s general theme in his history gives ‘the impression that decline is both a compensation for excess and a punishment of sin.’ Green claims Dati identifies ‘ambition with the fatal propensity of power to rise and decline.’ Dati observes the Duke of Milan in this light, where ‘the Milanese tyrant’s insistence on pursuing his goal reflected, in Dati’s view, the subordination of rational calculation to the dominance of an uncontrollable impulse that could not but bring disaster… and so paved the way for his own downfall.’ It is here that we see the first intersection of decay and renewal and the role of our third trend, that of providence and fortune. Dati notes that ‘fortune raises some very high to make them fall with greater impact.’ Fortune to Dati ‘operated through natural channels; yet at the same time conveyed the idea of a destined decline of earthly power.’ The influence of fortune is a ‘temptress,’ biding her time, making him ‘rise all the higher to give him a greater fall.’ The Duke of Milan’s success to Dati was no more than the crest of the wave, and the ‘fullness of fortune that signalled its impending decline.’ Fortune, therefore, has the ‘regularity of a force of nature… it dictates that decline shall follow rise with the inexorable certainty of law.’
While Dati may have connected the pattern of decay and renewal with providence and fortune when it came to rulers, other contemporary Renaissance historians, to a large extent, did not. While Guicciardini does suggest in his History of Italy that the ill-judged actions of rulers ‘forgetting how often fortune changes, and converting to other peoples harm the power vested in them fort he public good, they become through lack of prudence or excess in ambition the author of fresh upheaval,’ he fails to carry that connection he had made throughout his History.
Machiavelli opens his history with a short observation of decay and renewal, giving on account of the ruined, or decayed, cities of ‘Aquileia, Luni, Chiusi, Popolonia, Fiesole and many others,’ and the emergence of the new cities, ‘Venice, Siena, Ferrara, Aquila.’ Bruni takes notice of how settlers in new cities attempted to ‘out of nostalgia or love for their old home… imitated Rome in their planning of the city.’ Bruni fails to recognise their desire to emulate ‘that greatness to which (Rome) had risen with marvellous virtue and good fortune,’ and that the general consensus was that it ‘had decayed under imperial monarchy,’ and how most felt that while Rome was ‘weakened by the decay of her ancient customs’ it was still the pinnacle to which all new socities must strive to emulate when the opportunity of renewal presented itself.
Florence is an extraordinary example of constant renewal. Machiavelli argues that ‘republican governments, more especially those imperfectly organised, frequently change their rulers and the form of their institutions.’ They debated the form of government extensively, as witnessed in the Vespucci and Soderini debates, or desired a strong leader when they were disconted as evidenced with Michael di Lando and Veri de’ Medici so that ‘with a comprehensive mind at the head of affairs she would easily have been made to take any form that he might have been disposed to give her.’
Machiavelli attempts to explain this constant decay and renewal by noting how ‘as soon as they have arrived at their greatest perfection, they soon begin to decline. In the same manner, having been reduced by disorder, and sunk to their utmost state of depression, unable to descend lower, they, of necessity, reascend.’ Guicciardini concurs asserting ‘all cities, states nd kingdoms are mortal, since either by nature or accident everything in this world must sometimes have an end.’
There is a very definite acknowledgement of the existence of the pattern of renewal and decay of society, rulers and its institutions in contemporary Renaissance histories. And many accounts of this decay are combined with providence and fortune. Another example of providence in the form of portents being the ‘ancient reputation of comets as changers of kingdoms. For after the comet things changed immediately, and the condition of Italy was entirely renewed.’ ‘The heavens and mankind joined in proclaiming the future calamities of Italy.’ There were many ‘unnatural things’ occuring, sacred statues sweating, monsters were born and ‘in the Arezzo district a vast number of armed men on enormous horses were seen passing through the air’ in forewarning of the French invasion. And ‘the highest pinnacle of the church of Santa Reparate was struck with lightning, and great part of it thrown down, to the terror and amazement of everyone,’ in anticipation of Lorenzo the Magnificent’s demise.
While Guicciardini only invokes fortune as a ‘last resort, and never without reason as escort,’ he certainly flirts with the idea of fortune and providence in the form of portents, along with Bruni and Machiavelli. Guicciardini also sees in Fra Girolama Savonarola someone who ‘possessed more than human power.’ When Piero de’ Medici ran to Charles VIII of France ‘he thought he was following his father’s example, who in 1479 finding himself in grave danger through war waged on Florentines by Pope Sixtus and Ferdinand King of Naples went to see Ferdinand in Naples and brought back to Florence peace.’ Guicciardini condemns Piero’s actions as naïve and ‘if the same conditions do not apply not in general but in every particular, if the matter is not managed with equal prudence and if in addition to everything else the same good fortune does not play its part.’ Here, Guicciardini places an equal importance on fortune as conditions and planning. To him, God’s purpose existed but it was entirely inscrutable. Fortune operated somewhere between God’s purpose and man’s own decisions, but it was capricious. This is congruent to Dati’s own interpretation of fortune and providence, and he attempted through his history to analyse the ‘operation of fortune… to discer a quality or tendency of action, the knowledge of which would be of advantage to his readers or hearers.
There is no doubt that contemporary Renaissance Florentine histories exhibit these three sociological trend prototypes and observations, which would be discovered and defined much later on in the field of sociology. They are histories of domination; they are histories of decay and renewal; and they are histories of providence and fortune. This aspect was of utmost importance in the practice of history, as they attempted to rationalise the world they lived in by using empirical research, the history of their ancients, to establish definite trends. This discussion warrants an enormous amount of further research, looking at pre-Renaissance Florentine historians, and indeed post-Renaissance Florentine historians, to collate their method of sociological analysis to that of our contemporary Renaissance Florentine historians. Another possible further field of research would be are these trends apparent in non-Florentine Renaissance histories? While Pietro Bembo’s History of Venice exhibits none of the trends in our Florentine histories based on some investigtions made for this essay, a more extensive analysis of contemporary Renaissance histories and their sociological method would be fascinating, and advantageous to understanding the evolution of historical practice during the Renaissance.
Jon Elster insists that there ‘is no presumption that a society is well ordered. The interaction that defines a society can be destructive – the war of all against all – as well as cooperative.’ Contemporary Renaissance historians certainly attempted to address, if not order, this chaos by analysing sociological trends, which were treated by them like the ‘cycle of night and day, the seasons, the tides, the orbits of the planets, to life and history.’ Every domination will decay. This decay will be the result of fortune or providence. And from this state of decay will come renewal, and new domination will begin. ‘From good they gradually decline to evil, and from evil again return to good. The reason is, that valour produces peace; peace, repose; repose, disorder; disorder, ruin; so from disorder order springs; from order virtue, and from this, glory and good fortune.’