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Dependence in Context in Renaissance Florence.

Richard C. Trexler. Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1994. viii + 472 pp. $30.

The vintage "1994" will be memorable on account of two books from leading American historians. Both represent the fruit of many years' work, Richard Trexler's as a collection of his pat-breaking essays from the 1970s on Florentine culture and society, Tony Molho's as the long-awaited outcome of his work on the Dowry Fund in Florence. Both authors share much common ground: their work is based on a wide and long-standing familiarity with archival sources and is focused on the exercise of power by public institutions. But whereas Trexler was novel in using insights drawn from anthropological behaviorism to define power, especially in his 1980 Public Life in Renaissance Florence, Molho's 1971 Public Finances in Early Renaissance Florence was more traditional in method. His new study, however, combines the approach of Trexler (and of social historians like F.W. Kent and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber) with quantitative techniques to produce a novel computerized analysis of a unique Florentine institution, the Dowry Fund. Together these two books exemplify the best of current Florentine scholarship as well as some of its dangers.

Trexler's starting-point is the difficulty of relying on a society's official account of its actions, hence his recourse to anthropological models to discover its more fundamental though less accessible notions of sacrality, honor and shame. In the articles reprinted here, he forces us to transform our old view of Florence's confident superiority, based as it was on uncritical acceptance of the intelligentsia's own view of itself. He does this by showing the extent to which outsiders -- that is, those outside the city's honor elite -- were used to mediate power and establish the boundaries of authority in the city, providing its rulers with the sacrality they themselves lacked. The clergy were one such group that gave the city credit by virtue of their outsider status, playing an active role in the heart of the government as guardians of election boxes and tax assessments. Other groups included the ribalds, prostitutes and children used to secure the dangerous "marginal" spaces around city walls by running races and insulting the enemy. Yet because their activities posed a potential risk to the city precisely by being outside the control of normal sanctions, the same "marginals" were themselves paradoxically insulted in carnivals within the city walls.

Women and the shamed poor are equally external to the city's honor elite and are discussed here for the light they throw on the elite's treatment of its dependents -- another oblique approach to the problem of "understanding and gauging" its power. Indeed it was not primarily for motives of disinterested piety that charitable institutions like the Buonomini of San Martino, the Innocenti and the Orbatello were founded in Florence, but rather because the distressed gentlefolk and babies they catered to were a source of potential shame to the elite and hence to the city's honor. The same reasons account for the rapid growth of convents in the sixteenth century (as well as the growth of infanticide at about the same time). But whereas young girls of good families could be tidied away into these "warehouses" (and the less reputable into brothels), their brothers were more difficult to control in the dangerous years between innocence and manhood -- thus the growth of Savonarola's youth groups and new education programs to combat streetwise bands of adolescents.

Trexler's success in influencing the way we look at Florence can be seen in the extent to which his insights have been developed in full-length studies by younger scholars (some referred to in footnotes, others published too late for inclusion). Only in his discussion of women does he now seem somewhat old-fashioned in allowing women, and especially his nuns and holy women, a mainly passive role as dependents instead of investigating the way in which -- as Caroline Bynum and others have described -- they more actively mediated power. It is power and how it is exercised that really interests Trexler -- despite his emphasis on marginals -- as his book poses the question: how far does power lie with the innovative politicians and manipulators of ritual, like the self-created martyrs Lorenzo de' Medici and Savonarola, and how far with the traditionalist honor elite and its mediators?

The question is raised almost as acutely by Molho's new book on the marriages of this elite. Using the unique records of the Dowry Fund, which contain usable data on about 19,000 marriages, he argues for the elite's stability and strong homogeneity: it was "not a bourgeois world but . . . one which consistently and relentlessly subordinated individualistic desires to larger and deeper concerns" (347-48). Buttressed by extensive quotation from family chronicles and account-books, as well as by comparisons with non-Italian sources, the richness of this material and its comprehensive treatment in this book -- especially its numerous tables analyzing the Dowry Fund's depositors and beneficiaries -- makes it of interest not only to Florentinists but to all social historians interested in marriage, demography and the monasticization of women. The apparent paradox it presents is that, while the Fund should have encouraged, by inflating dowries, marrying down or "out-marriage," it served instead to encourage endogamy within an increasingly retardaire and inward-looking aristocracy.

There are two topics that invite discussion here . The first concerns the problem of defining the Fund's perceived function, the second the composition of the ruling elite. Molho has previously suggested, and intermittently repeats here, that the Fund's primary function was fiscal, as it sought initially to raise cash for the hard-pressed commune; after 1440 -- when payment had to be in Monte Commune credits to reduce the carrying charges on the public debt -- its social function of encouraging marriage in post-plague years became only a secondary and often contradictory objective, since as soon as the government had to start paying out dowries, it lost cash and had to re-issue interest-bearing bonds which defeated its initial purpose. The investors, for their part, had "other ideas": they refused to invest until the government offered more security (by returning the initial deposit without interest if daughters died or entered convents) and forced it to give up pegging credits to market-prices. The element of gamble for both government and investors suggests a third possibility, that it was less "an investment scheme than something akin to betting on people's life expectancy."

I found Molho's exposition of this market element one of the most original parts of the book. While the government gambled on daughters dying before their investment matured, investors gambled on the price of the Monte credits in which they had to make their investment and later receive the dowry (devaluation initially improving interest rates for those who held them and then incurring at least a 5% loss in the value of the dowry when it was repaid). After 1440, these credits often had to be acquired from private brokers, and because husbands had to provide surety for the return of the dowry, they gambled again if they invested in Monte credits instead of obligating their estates. The extent to which both government and investors had to be adept at playing the market returns us to the question of cui bono, or how to explain Florentine citizens' interest in investing their wealth in the Dowry Fund (as Molho put it more directly several years ago in "L'amministrazione del debito pubblico," I ceti dirigenti nella Toscana del Quattrocento, Florence, 1987, 201). Indeed, why did they do so, when the returns were often worse than other investments (interestingly it seems from Table 3.1. that less than half of the elite in fact invested in the Dowry Fund in 1480), and how far were the interests of the investors identical with those of the government (and its Monte officials)?

Despite the wealth of information now in our hands, the book provides no convincing answer to these questions. Much depends on how we define the ruling elite and the relationship within it of policy-makers and investors. At the risk of being over-technical, it is important to know what we are talking about, since the paradox Molho describes largely depends on how he defines the elite. For the purpose of comparison with Dowry Fund marriages, this elite has to be defined in terms of lineages (justified by Molho as appropriate to late medieval Florentine society), but this involves serious distortions. Molho initially defines the elite as the richest 500 citizens in the catasti of 1427,1458 and 1480 -- a total of 1502 heads of households of whom 210 lacked family names. From these names he generates a list of 417 lineages, which he subdivides into an inner elite of 110 consisting of those represented by four or more names in the catasti (which includes nearly all the families who had been members of the priorate more than 25 times), and two lower elites distinguished by a reduced number of appearances in catasti and the priorate. The size and status of his elite based on lineages is determined by classifying the totality of households in the 1480 catasto, whatever their wealth, on the basis of whether they belonged to these 417 lineages.

The first distortion this encourages concerns his initial elite defined in terms of wealth in three tax returns Since the 1480 Catasto did not (like the earlier ones) list liquid assets or Monte Commune credits but only landed wealth, it is not easily comparable with the earlier ones and provides a doubtful basis for evaluating the "richest" families for his list of 1502 names, and even more so for gauging the social and political status of Dowry Fund contributors. According to this criterion, two-fifths of the 1480 Council of Seventy (which has been called "the pivot of the Medici regime") did not belong to the elite, nor did as many as eight of the Seventeen Reformers appointed in the following year, five of whom were Monte Officials. So Molho's claims are biased not only against liquid money but also against newer arrivals to power.

The second question concerns the criteria Molho employs when he moves on to define his elite in terms of lineage. The subdivision of his 417 lineages into three status groups is questionable, in that in a significant number of cases the appearance of the same name in the three catasti reflects the persistence of a nuclear family over time -- with the frequent recurrence of a single name -- rather than proliferating branches of a clan, which for Molho defines the importance of a lineage. More seriously, definition according to lineage greatly increases the size of the wider elite by admitting all the poorer members of these proliferating branches who do not qualify in terms of his initial criterion of wealth. In effect, its size is quintupled from 500 heads of families in 1480 to about 2612, representing about 14,000 individuals, or 30% of all Florentine taxpayers (table 5.1).

It is hardly surprising therefore to find, when Molho comes to discuss marriage patterns, that 47.8% of high-status males intermarried, while in the elite as a whole as many as 63% intermarried. Instead of being endogamous within a small hereditary elite (as Molho's comparison with England's similar nobility in the seventeenth century was intended to suggest, despite the proportionally much wider elite in Florence in terms of total population), Florentine marriages can equally well be said to have been remarkably exogamous, with over half of the inner elite and just under half of the wider elite marrying out, reflecting considerable movement up and down between status groups within the elite.

There is little disagreement among historians about the extent to which Florence's ruling class became gradually richer and more inbred in grandducal Florence, or about the growing number of women in Florence -- as elsewhere in Italy -- confined to convents. Molho's analysis of the Dowry Fund provides important supporting evidence of these trends and his appendices will be invaluable to us all. The disagreement concerns the nature of Florentine society in the "late medieval" "Renaissance" period. Leaving aside the question of Burckhardtian individualism, we now need to reconcile Trexler's and Molho's traditionalist Florence with the dynamic and entrepreneurial city documented in Richard Goldthwaite's new book, Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, 1300-1600 (1993). Some of the problems discussed above are inherent in the attempt to compare and computerize names in this period. If Molho is to be congratulated on his courageous attempt to do so, we must also be aware of the dangers involved that I referred to initially. The computer data-base will be useful when it is made available. However, other approaches will be needed to answer the still-unresolved matters that have been raised so pressingly by these important and stimulating books.
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Author:Brown, Alison
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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