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In Search of Florentine Civic Humanism
Essays on the Transition from Medieval to Modern Thought Volume I
By Hans Baron
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1988 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
The Background of the Early Florentine Renaissance
Our views of the Italian Renaissance are changing. The old conception of the fifteenth century was that of an age of unparalleled aristocratic patronage to which Renaissance Humanism and the new art owed their existence. Indeed, the early Renaissance was called the age of the Medici, after the Florentine family which contributed most to the encouragement of art and letters.
The truth is that Humanism and Renaissance art had flourished in Florence before the patronage of the Medici began; they were creations of pre-Medici Florence. Not only did they owe much more to the Middle Ages than scholars realized half a century ago but they bore the impress of a time when Florence had not yet become a Renaissance principality but was still a free city-state. What the Medici did for literature and art from the second half of the fifteenth century onward will never be forgotten. But we cannot maintain that Humanism was the culture of an age in which the political life of the Italian city-states was already at such low ebb that only the strong individual (the tyrant, the great artist, or the famous scholar) was esteemed. Actually, this was characteristic of Humanism in an advanced stage. Whoever wishes to understand its history as a whole must also study it in its youth, when Florence was still a free republic whose citizens were eager to absorb classical ideas about the state, society, and morals because they found a model for their own lives in the civic life of ancient Athens and Rome.
The contrast between the first and second halves of the fifteenth century can easily be perceived from the history of Florentine art. Individualism, so characteristic of the art of the Renaissance, had triumphed ever since the beginning of the century. But in the days of Donatello and Brunelleschi, the new art, steeped in the spirit of individualism, was for the most part not yet in the service of private patrons. The most commanding palaces of the Florentine Renaissance, erected by wealthy families as imperishable monuments to their own greatness, were not built, as we know today, until a much later time, when a principate of the Medici was already established. The new Medici palace (now known as the Palazzo Riccardi) was not constructed until 1444, ten years after Cosimo had risen to power. The palaces of the Rucellai, Pitti, Pazzi (now Quaratesi), and Strozzi followed even later.'
At the beginning of the fifteenth century architects and sculptors had still been working mainly in the service of the commune and the great guilds. The entire center of the city, between the cathedral and the Piazza Signoria, acquired at that time the impressive appearance it has retained to the present. From 1376 onward, the Loggia dei Signori (later called the Loggia dei Lanzi) provided a dignified background for the government (the "Signori") on public occasions. A generation later the bare walls of the little church of Or San Michele were gradually covered with their famous statues of saints, each the gift of one of the fourteen great guilds. Among them is the youthful, warlike figure of Donatello's Saint George (1416), whose feet are planted firmly on this earth like a very symbol of the early Florentine Renaissance. After 1419 the republic, with the help of the guilds, erected the new Foundlings' Hospital, the Spedale degli Innocenti, a public endowment on so lavish a scale that it became no less influential as a social institution than as a landmark in the history of art, thanks to Brunclleschi's building plan and Luca della Robbia's decorations. While the baptistry, some parts of the exterior of the cathedral, and the upper floors of the campanile were being adorned with the epoch-making sculpture that marked the great forward strides in the plastic arts, Brunelleschi rebuilt, in the west of the city, the Palazzo dei Capitani della Parte Guelfa, the headquarters of a political body that, like the guilds, cooperated with and confronted the government of the republic.
All these buildings were financed and supervised by the commune itself or by the great guilds. Citizens, not clerics, saw to the details of the buildings, chose the leading artists, even for the completion of the cathedral, and passionately discussed the plans for Brunelleschi's dome. When the consuls of a wool merchants' guild (the Arte della Calimala) entrusted Ghiberti with the work on the east doors of the baptistry in 1424, leading statesmen, such as Niccolo da Uzzano, served on the committee. The selection of biblical scenes to be represented on the doors was made by Leonardo Bruni, the most famous Florentine humanist and the city's first great historian, who a few years later became chancellor.
A generation that believed the new development of art to be primarily the concern of the Florentine community and felt a communal duty to promote and encourage it, cannot have been so far removed from the public spirit of medieval times as people usually imagine when they think of the Florence of the early Quattrocento. We are too easily tempted to contemplate the life and constitution of the city in the last period of her liberty from the viewpoint of the rising principate of the Medici. With regard to the city's constitutional evolution, it is true that the oligarchical tendency that marked the last pre-Medicean decades undermined some of the traditional institutions and indirectly paved the way for the predominance of a single family. Nevertheless, it is not enough to strive for an historical appreciation of pre-Medicean Florence merely by way of a knowledge of its later vicissitudes. The spirit of the age itself, the political mentality of the citizens before the end of the republic, is the essential clue to such an appreciation.
The changes in republican life had by no means yet transformed the old civic ideals. In a true oligarchy like Venice, the ruling families formed a closed circle of privileged patricians and monopolized the chief civic offices. In Florence at the beginning of the fifteenth century, however, the cultured classes and humanistic circles boasted that in the city on the Arno an able man could work his way up and share in the political life as well as the wealth of the city. "The liberty and equality of citizens" (this, of course, means those who enjoy full citizenship), not the rule of the few, is the basis of our constitution — this was Leonardo Bruni's highest praise for the Florence of his time. "Wherever men are given the hope of attaining honor in the state, they take courage and raise themselves to a higher plane; if this hope is lost, they grow lazy and stagnate." As an historian, Bruni had already found the key to history in this thought. In 1415, when he described the suppression of the individual life of the Italian provinces and towns by the universal empire of ancient Rome in his epoch-making Histories of the Florentine People, his judgment was rendered in almost the same words: "It is nature's gift to mortals that when a path to greatness and honor is open, men raise themselves more easily to a higher plane; when this hope is lost, they grow lazy and stagnate."
Two decades later, Matteo Palmieri, a member of the Arte dei Medici e Speziali (the guild of doctors and druggists), wrote his Vita Civile, adapting Bruni's humanism for the use of citizens ignorant of Latin. He, too, declared that it was "just" for the lowly born to depend on their personal virtu rather than defer to the power of wealth and noble descent. "He who seeks fame in the ability of past generations deprives himself of honor and merit. He who lives on the reputation of his ancestors is a pitiable creature. A man who deserves honor should offer himself, not his genealogy — though we ought always to prefer the nobility as long as their achievements are equally good." Contemporary documents and letters show that those who participated in government were not unaffected by such views. A modern English writer has said of Rinaldo degli Albizzi — who was a brilliant leader of the powerful oligarchic group for a short time — that he, too, sometimes "dreamed of a Florence in which all citizens were equal and offices were awarded according to merit alone." At any rate, he appealed to the feeling for liberty in the city. "Without freedom, Florence cannot survive," he once said, "and without Florence, freedom cannot survive, because many lands [in Italy] will be subservient to lords and tyrants in the future."
Another feature of the decades between 1394 and 1434 is also incompatible with the traditional picture. The constitutional development of Florence after 1390 cannot be explained merely as the result of the class warfare that shook the city to its foundations during the fourteenth century. It is true that the political influence of the lower levels of the population (above all of the workers in the wool industry), which was violently expressed in the revolt of the "Ciompi" in 1378, soon evaporated after this event. Perhaps this occurred because their temporary victory proved too great, or because the continuous decline of Florentine wool production and the increasing presence of foreign (especially German) clements among the native working population had weakened the latter's solidarity and energy. But the Arti Maggiori, which reorganized the state after the events of 1378, included the whole of the upper middle classes and cultured circles and were guided in the 1380s by leaders who were known as opponents both of oligarchic and of democratic extremes. For a long time afterwards, the middle sections of the population remained calm observers of the increasing restriction of the highest authority to a small circle, which retained remnants of the old nobility. Certainly the middle sections neither showed resentment nor refused to give the government both moral and financial support against the external dangers threatening Florence about 1400. Opposition did not arise till the very end of the period, when the leading group plunged the city into the unjust and fateful war against its sister city Lucca. It was only in the 1420s that the government began to fear the homines novi in the middle and lesser guilds, and not before the Lucca enterprise that a change took place in the attitude of the intellectual circles. Bruni, up to that time an adherent of the aristocratic regime, now joined the Medicean circle. Palmieri, in his Vita Ciuile, declared resignedly that small groups of experienced citizens ought to be the best rulers of the state, but that in point of fact their rule was sometimes inferior to a democracy in which all interests are represented, because the self-interest of small cliques — human nature being what it is — easily leads to abuse of power. If all citizens shared in government (this was the hope that was born when Cosimo de' Medici came to power, allegedly as the protector of a more democratic regime), their opposing interests would be adjusted and harmonized.
It was thus not civil strife or any fresh conflict between classes that occasioned the strengthening of oligarchic trends within the Arti Maggiori from the I390s onward. Rather, changes in the Florentine constitution were brought about by the stress of foreign politics.
From the end of the 1380s until well into the first half of Cosima de' Medici's principate, the Florentines lived in extreme peril. The Visconti of Milan had established a powerful monarchy in Lombardy, which had already put an end to the independence of most of the northern and many of the central Italian cities. This new Renaissance tyranny made alluring propaganda for itself by promising to unite a large part of Italy under the Duke of Milan. Florence was in the utmost danger of becoming a dependent town in Viscontean territory, like Pisa and Siena, Perugia and Bologna, and of forfeiting with the loss of its autonomy the free development of the moral and intellectual resources on which its cultural preeminence during the Renaissance was based. With the economic power derived from its great industries and flourishing trade, Florence was no negligible opponent of the Visconti monarchy. But with authority vested in a large number of citizens, it was at a disadvantage against a tyranny imbued with the warlike desire for expansion. In Leonardo Bruni's Histories of the Florentine People, it is Rinaldo dei Gianfigliazzi, one of the moderate leaders of the Arti Maggiori after 1382, who realizes the extent of this danger and advocates a modification of the constitution to ensure prompter political action on the part of the republic. He attributes the inferiority of Florence to the fact that by their participation in all government measures, the people, unable to foresee future dangers, render the immediate prevention of hostile encroachments impossible. The leading men of Florence, he says, do not take the necessary steps in time, for fear of being accused of desiring war. So the initiative is always with the tyrant of Milan, whose plans are not known to anyone until they have been carried out. To defend itself against such an enemy, Florence must modify its constitution if there is no other way of preserving liberty. Decisions must be the responsibility of a few people who are independent of public discussion. "Promptitude and secrecy," says Bruni, are what the day demands, and "decisions made by the many are their deadly enemy." Such demands, he continues, did not fail in their effect. The records of the time confirm this interpretation by a contemporary historian. As early as 1384 the spokesmen of the oligarchic group had demanded the formation of a small committee that could take quick advantage of the political situation. After 1393 executive power was in fact often vested in a board of ten, elected for a short, fixed period, specifically as a central authority capable of acting quickly against the Viscontean tyranny.
If the Florentine constitution veered toward oligarchy during the time of the great wars with Milan, this did not necessarily mean that political and patriotic willpower among the middle classes had weakened. Rather, it revealed the citizens' determination to defend the liberty of the republic against the concentrated power of the Milanese tyranny by every means at their disposal. Along with the transformation of the constitution, a change took place in the intellectual sphere. In the stormy years when Florence was defending its heritage of liberty, its intellectual life, too, took a new direction. A conception of education arose, whose object was not only to train learned men but to produce good citizens; an education that inspired men to take part in daily life and in the public affairs of the community. At this point the citizens' ideas merged with the humanistic mode of thought. The classical conviction that the personality of the individual grows toward maturity — both intellectually and morally — through participation in the life of the polis and respublica could be found in the works of Aristotle and Cicero. The Humanism of the fourteenth century, which had retained the characteristics of medieval aloofness from the world, was now transformed into a civic Humanism. The reawakening of the ancient civic spirit became a parallel in the intellectual sphere to Donatello's and Brunelleschi's rediscovery of Antiquity in the domain of art.
Excerpted from In Search of Florentine Civic Humanism by Hans Baron. Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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