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The Politics of Exile in Renaissance Italy.

Christine Shaw, The Politics of Exile in Renaissance Italy. (Cambridge Studies in Italian History and Culture.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. x + 257 pp. $64.95. ISBN: 0-521-66325-3.

Although exile was something of a speciality and an occupational hazard of politics in medieval and Renaissance Italy, it remains a fairly fugitive subject of research in the field. This is partly a function of the campanilismo, factionalism, and habits of murky intrigue that made exile an institution in the first place; partly too because exile had so many dimensions as the "contrary commonwealth" I wrote about nearly two decades ago (Contrary Commonwealth: The Theme of Exile in Medieval and Renaissance Italy, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982). Since then, the only studies on a large scale in comparative perspective are those by Jacques Heers and, now, Christine Shaw.

Shaw's book focuses on the second half of the fifteenth century and on Siena most particularly, but its overarching aims are as broad as the title suggests. The choice of period not only sets manageable limits and fills in gaps in the literature, my own among them; it also makes the case for the continuing incidence and importance of political exile in the time between its more notorious earlier and later history before 1450 and after 1494. Siena is the chosen base not only for sheer numbers and surviving records on nearly seven hundred cases of political exile between 1456 and 1500, but also as a model for comparisons drawn from many other towns and regions across the length and breadth of the Italian peninsula. The range of research is all the more impressive for having to contend with any number of quick shifts of fortune, tangled plots, and discreetly reticent or deliberately misleading sources.

The results make Machiavelli look simple. As the author says of political life in Renaissance Italy, "it can seem chaotic, and hard to find a thread to provide a guide through the maze" (234). She has other threads for exile besides her guiding choices of period and place. One is the arrangement of chapters by its phases and themes; another is the emphasis throughout on "practical realities" and "practical consequences" (2) for exiles, their families, their associates, and their enemies. The book concludes by tying some loose ends of the analysis to seemingly contradictory generalizations in which Italian history abounds. Thus the phenomenon of political exile in the fifteenth century testifies to the persistent fragmentation and particularism of Italian Renaissance politics and to the unity of a political culture linked for all its differences by overlapping institutions, assumptions, and mobilities; it is mostly a matter of internal quarrels among political elites except in the benchmark case of Siena wher e social and ideological differences still mattered; exiles were a nuisance and a political instrument their hosts and allies used for their own advantage; exiles were endemic but epidemic only during the 1450s and then again some twenty years later. Like the experience of exile itself, these propositions and the evidence for them cut clearly across boundaries. The one unequivocal generalization, that the literary trope of the solitary wanderer in exile hardly firs the reality in Renaissance Italy, is a straw horse and in any case unproven by exiling literature from reality.

The book is at its best as a guide when it does not pull the threads so tight or insist overmuch on continuities from medieval to Renaissance practices. It offers a systematic and detailed survey of myriad instances and outcomes of political exile. On the arcana of political and judicial procedures it is remarkably clear and incisive, and on the calculus of expectations for and against exiles the book is as tough-minded as any of its political actors. The probing questions and qualified answers about the comparative workings of exile lead not so much to easy conclusions as to a variable dossier of charges, sentences, assigned locations, family or factional responsibilities, alliances, and conditions of repatriation for exiles, the "starlings" of a Sienese ambassador's report in 1485. The close, hard look should bring home the large importance of exile in Renaissance Italy.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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