The Medicean Succession: Monarchy and Sacral Politics in Duke Cosimo dei Medici's Florence.
Gregory Murry's The Medicean Succession is an important book that tackles a significant omission in the scholarship on Cosimo 1 de' Medici and the transition from republic to principality in sixteenth-century Florence: the role of the sacred and political theology in the creation of the Medici principato. As Giorgio Vasari's The Apotheosis of Cosimo 1 (painted in the mid-1560s and gracing the cover of the book) illustrates perfectly, by the last decade of the Medici duke's reign he had achieved a secure sacral identity as a divine prince. Murry demonstrates how this political apotheosis occurred persuasively and with a wealth of evidence. His central argument is that Cosimo succeeded because he engaged sensitively and perceptively with local religious understandings and values. He adapted and adopted "Florentines' preexisting assumptions about the nature of the sacred" (p. 10) and channeled them into the creation of a powerful image of sacral monarchy. In practice this meant that these same preexisting assumptions also demarcated the boundaries of Cosimo's terrestrial divinity. So that while the Medici duke had to import the entire idea of sacral monarchy to the former republic from ultramontane principalities, he could not copy everything used by the kings of France, Spain, and England. The Florentine duke, for instance, never advanced a claim to thaumaturgical powers or mythical ancestry. As Murry points out, these absences, and others, highlight in relief the constraints upon Cosimo's articulation of divine monarchy.
The book consists of six substantive chapters each of which considers one issue or concept. Murry first examines how "the familiarity of terrestrial divinity" smoothed the path for Cosimo's apotheosis. Similarly, beliefs about the action of providence in everyday life, in combination with the Latin Church's doctrine of free will, made claims to divine-right monarchy uncontroversial, even in a former republic. Murry also analyzes Cosimo's activity as an ecclesiastical patron, cultivating a network of powerful clients for the benefit of his statecraft. Two chapters proffer arguments about how Cosimo and his mythmakers engaged with the long shadows cast by Machiavelli and Savonarola, presenting the prince as an anti-Machiavellian defender of Christian virtues and a Savonarolan moral reformer. The final chapter addresses how Cosimo defended and attempted to control traditional, local religious practice, examining the use of space and ritual as well as the duke's promotion of indulgences and certain miraculous images.
Murry bases his argument on a cultural historical analysis of a wide-range of source material, both printed and manuscript. He uses sermons, encomia, and treatises written by Cosimo's myth makers as well as legislation to analyze the presentation and proliferation of ideas of about sacral monarchy. He also mines the riches of the Mediceo del Principato archive both to demonstrate how these ideas circulated in the Medici court in a more restricted or private context as well as to grapple with the thorny question of Cosimo's own religious sensibilities. Murry's careful reading of this variety of sources enables him to demonstrate his thesis thoroughly. He weaves the analysis and argument together with a lively--if sometimes a little too cliche-riddled--prose that occasionally belies the depth of critical perception and engagement that the book presents.
The Medicean Succession represents a significant intervention not only in the historiography of Florence but that of early modern political culture more broadly. At the Florentine level, Murry places religion and political theology firmly at the centre of the narrative of transition from republic to principality. In so doing, not only does he begin to correct a serious omission in the scholarly literature, but he also expands the horizons of the increasingly dominant argument about the continuities between the two political regimes. Cosimo I's use of local religious traditions, values, and assumptions adds a new dimension to the scholarly consideration of how the Medici principality succeeded because of, not in spite of, the preexisting republican culture of Florence. On the broader, European scale, Murry suggests that Cosimo's successful political apotheosis has two significant implications. First, the book's thesis provides an additional example of how apparently absolutist rule depended on consent and dialogue between ruler and ruled--in this case in the realm of traditional religion -and more importantly argues that historians need to break the axiomatic link between sacral monarchy and absolutism prevalent in historical analysis. Second, Murry engages explicitly with the scholarly trend that emphasizes the similarities between the Protestant and Catholic reformations in the sixteenth century. He argues that the evidence from Florence suggests that the worldviews engendered by the conflicting theologies were profoundly different. Florentine religion provided "the essential matrix" (p. 245) on which Cosimo could build his sacred monarchy because Catholic political theology remained steeped in ideas about the immanence of the holy in the material world.
This engagement with Reformation historiography highlights the one real weakness of the text: while religious reform remains a constant presence in Murry's analysis, he tends always to privilege the local, Florentine context over broader European trends. This might appear an unreasonable critique of an argument focused on the role of local religion, but on occasion Murry's advocacy of the particular seems over-determined in the face of the bigger picture. For example, his contention that Cosimo instituted a specifically "Savonarolan" reform program remains unconvincing given the traditional, widely shared moral concerns that the Florentine legislation addressed. Such soft points, however, do not detract from the persuasiveness of Murry's thesis as a whole. The Medicean Succession is an important book that makes a significant contribution not only to the historiography of Florence but that of pre-modern European political and religious cultures more broadly.
Nicholas Scott Baker
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|Author:||Baker, Nicholas Scott|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2014|
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