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Renaissance Civic Humanism: Reappraisals and Reflections. (Reviews).

James Hankins, ed., Renaissance Civic Humanism: Reappraisals and Reflections.

(Ideas in Context Series, 57.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. x + 314 pp. $59.95. ISBN: 0-521-78090.

This volume of the Cambridge series Ideas in Context examines the historical and intellectual context of classical republicanism from the late Middle Ages through Florentine Renaissance humanism to American republicanism (for the latter see especially William J. Connell's discussion, 20-24, 26-27 and Cary Nederman's, 268-69). The opinions of Quentin Skinner, the General Editor of the series, feature throughout the volume, especially in Paul A. Rahe's discussion of Machiavelli; Skinner himself has nor written a contribution. The whole is an assessment of the state of studies in the history of the Renaissance state and an evaluation of the concept of "civic humanism" in understanding it. The volume's editor, James Hankins' whose own works on its themes are well known, states that its aim, above all, is to challenge that complacency which historians of Renaissance political thought have exhibited in not challenging the views of civic humanism established by Hans Baron in 1955 and J.C.A. Pocock twenty years later : " stir up new debate on civic humanism among scholars of the Italian Renaissance, to take stock of where recent research has brought us, and to press further along the various paths of exploration and reappraisal that have opened up in the last two decades" (7-8).

Readers will be well versed in the Baron thesis and its aftermath, but will find constant reference to Baron's argument and his choice of sources. Baron's work stimulated historians in the post World War II period and particularly promoted the study of Renaissance historiography. Hankins describes Baron's "The crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance: Civic Humanism and Republican Liberty in an Age of Classicism and Tyranny as possibly the most important monograph in Renaissance history written since the Second World War" (1). In "The 'Baron thesis' after forty years and some recent studies of Leonardo Bruni" (Journal of the History of Ideas, 56 (1995), 309-38) he repeated John M. Najemy's claim for Baron's significance in the twentieth century as comparable with Burckhardt's in the nineteenth century. Did Baron design "civic humanism" to modify, if not replace, Burckhardr's concept of the Renaissance? as Harvey C. Mansfield has suggested (224). Najemy in the opening of his contribution, "Civic humanism and Fl orentine politics" (75), summarizes the Baron debate "in a completely transformed world of historiographical assumptions and practices." Indeed, it is more than time to remove twentieth and twenty first century standards of historiography from the evaluation of humanist history, as Hankins puts it, "Historians need only recognize that Bruni's culture tolerated greater latitude with truth in the interests (at least sometimes) of edification. This may save them from creating useless and anachronistic dichotomies between 'civic humanism' and 'rhetoric'" (169); a point reinforced by Mansfield's discussion of Bruni and Machiavelli (230). The challenge has been formulating through the 1990s and is reinforced by the diversity of opinion within the present collection where criticism or agreement in the debate, are conveniently cross-referenced between essays. Justice cannot here be done to the closely argued discussions often contributors; they deserve to be read closely.

Throughout the book, the concept of civic humanism is evaluated within the historical circumstances of the emerging Florentine oligarchy, in its relation to the imperialism of both the classical and the Renaissance state, "the aggressive imperialism pursued under the cloak of Florentine, Tuscan and Italian liberty" to quote Michael Hornqvist (142), and in the development of patronage and in the Medici ascendancy in Florence, when images of liberty were appropriated and then reappropriated as shown by Alison Brown's perceptive "de-masking" of Renaissance republicanism.

The first theme which emerges is the relation of Renaissance civic humanism to the medieval tradition, important in James M. Blythe's, Cary J. Nederman's, Najemy's, Hornqvest's and Hankin's discussions. A strong second theme is the relationship of Machiavelli to civic humanism and to the earlier generation of Florentine humanists, in fact "situating Machiavelli" as in the title of Paul A. Rahe's article. Connell explains how Baron made Machiavelli "a true republican" by siting The Prince well before The Discourses on Livy (17).

The relation of theory to practice in Florence is an underlying theme in many of the essays in this volume. Najemy guides us through his understanding of Florentine politics from the popular government of 1378-82 through the fifteenth century, backed by discussion of the relevant humanist texts. He concludes that Florentine politics were transformed during the fifteenth century but not in the way suggested by Baron. Moving beyond Baron in time as well as theory, Athanasios Moulakis shows how "realist constitutionalism" was given theoretical expression by Guicciardini, which follows from the work he published in 1998, Republican Realism in Renaissance Florence: Francesco Guicciardini's "Discorso di Logrogno" (review Renaissance Quarterly 53.3, 2000).

A welcome understanding of fifteenth-century humanists emerges in many of these discussions, liberating civic humanism and humanist historiography from over simplified categories: Blythe shows how republican and imperial interests were accommodated in the late Middle Ages and the relation of this thought to that of Florentine humanists is drawn out by Hornqvist (132). It is an advantage to know the texts discussed in order to understand the positions in the debate as it has developed in the 1990s. For example the genre of panegyric should be better understood, "History is one thing, panegyric another" as Leonardo Bruni put it in 1440 (Hankins, 161). There is an index of manuscripts and archival documents but not a bibliography for the whole volume, although the footnotes have detailed references to relevant publications. The general index gives names and key words but is not comprehensive.

This "revision" should convince historians and historians of political thought that it is time to move on from Hans Baron. Florence is necessarily the focus of these studies, but there are guidelines here for the study of humanism, its historiography and related genres in other Italian states, especially in Renaissance Venice.
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Author:Chavasse, Ruth
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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