The Art of the Network: Strategic Interaction and Patronage in Renaissance Florence

The Art of the Network: Strategic Interaction and Patronage in Renaissance Florence

by Paul D. McLean

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Writing letters to powerful people to win their favor and garner rewards such as political office, tax relief, and recommendations was an institution in Renaissance Florence; the practice was an important tool for those seeking social mobility, security, and recognition by others. In this detailed study of political and social patronage in fifteenth-century Florence,


Writing letters to powerful people to win their favor and garner rewards such as political office, tax relief, and recommendations was an institution in Renaissance Florence; the practice was an important tool for those seeking social mobility, security, and recognition by others. In this detailed study of political and social patronage in fifteenth-century Florence, Paul D. McLean shows that patronage was much more than a pursuit of specific rewards. It was also a pursuit of relationships and of a self defined in relation to others. To become independent in Renaissance Florence, one first had to become connected. With The Art of the Network, McLean fills a gap in sociological scholarship by tracing the historical antecedents of networking and examining the concept of self that accompanies it. His analysis of patronage opens into a critique of contemporary theories about social networks and social capital, and an exploration of the sociological meaning of “culture.”

McLean scrutinized thousands of letters to and from Renaissance Florentines. He describes the social protocols the letters reveal, paying particular attention to the means by which Florentines crafted credible presentations of themselves. The letters, McLean contends, testify to the development not only of new forms of self-presentation but also of a new kind of self to be presented: an emergent, “modern” conception of self as an autonomous agent. They also bring to the fore the importance that their writers attached to concepts of honor, and the ways that they perceived themselves in relation to the Florentine state.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The Art of the Network is a magnificent contribution to the social history of Renaissance Florence and the sociological study of how networks manifest themselves in complex societies. Paul D. McLean addresses with gusto such fundamental issues as the nature of social capital, the preservation of self, and the development of the ‘individual’ in European history. This will be a controversial book for all the right reasons.”—William J. Connell, Seton Hall University, editor of Society and Individual in Renaissance Florence

“Paul D. McLean weaves slants from Bourdieu and Swidler and Goffman together into his own trenchant vision of networking as identity process. You get analytic power along with rich historical understanding wrung from recalcitrant handwriting and ambiguous pronouncements in hundreds of letters across two centuries. Yet McLean is also witty and playful. His brief conclusion is an account of agency and culture so lucid as to be transposable to studies of your own.”—Harrison C. White, Columbia University, author of Identity and Control: A Structural Theory of Social Action

Richard Lachmann
The Art of the Network is more than a tour de force of textual analysis and historical explanation. McLean has written a significant work of sociological theory that makes new contributions to ongoing debates on the nature of social identity and the relationship between agency and structure. . . . This innovative book, as exemplar and prescription, deserves serious attention from cultural and historical sociologists as well as from theorists.”
Hrag Balian
“By providing a lucid and plausible account of how interaction is constituted by cultural work, he does a great service for those who wish to be analytical about culture in social networks. McLean’s rich description of rhetorical devices with which interactions are expressed provides a useful taxonomy for further explanatory analysis of culture and interaction.”
Dale Kent
“McLean’s study of the material and the process is the most systematic study ever undertaken, and for patronage letter junkies like myself it makes compulsive reading. . . . Historians can lean much from this book.”

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Duke University Press
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Politics, History, and Culture
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The Art of the Network

Strategic Interaction and Patronage in Renaissance Florence
By Paul D. McLean

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4100-0

Chapter One

The Principles of Networking as a Social Process

Honored like a most singular father, in the past few days, having confidence in your fatherly assistance, as I know I can, I wrote to you that it be pleasing to you to be with Cosimo, that he condescend to write to Rome, that I should have a reappointment to this office, and from you I have had no reply, such that I think my letter will have suffered from a bad service in the mail. Thus, again I pray and beg of you, my Averardo, that you would want to be the means (operatore) by which I had this reappointment, or some other office, so that I were able to return here. It would give me the heart to be a man like the others (darebbemi il cuore dessere uno huomo come gli altri). You understand my meaning. Francesco Nardi to Averardo de' Medici, September 20, 1429

From an economic standpoint, we typically imagine that careers are constructed out of a series of jobs, or even more restrictively out of a durable association with some particular organization. On the face of it, that is what is being constructed in the letter of Francesco Nardi, written to Averardo de' Medici, that begins this chapter (see figure 1 for a photograph of the document). Indeed this material benefit is a key part of what is being requested here. But something deeper and more lasting than an appointment to office is being sought after and constructed here as well: a relationship with another person that is deeply constitutive of oneself. Nardi is undoubtedly self-interested in his pursuit of office, but he rhetorically acknowledges, and in effect promises to enact, the transformative power of connections to powerful others ("give me the heart to be a man like the others"). He projects himself into an identity. Thus "career," from a sociological standpoint, can be construed more broadly than as activity: each of us constructs a career in the course of our lives constituted by the portfolio of ties to others with whom we are associated. Our careers are made-and we are made-through our interactions with others, as well as through the performance of those tasks to which we have access by virtue of our connections to others. We become more fully the persons we are through interaction, our personhood being constructed out of a number of different identities we adopt, singly or in combination, in different interactional settings (Simmel 1955; Emirbayer and Mische 1998, 1007). We may achieve autonomy, and achieve a private conception of self independent of attributions of identity put upon us by others, through the accumulation of multiple network ties and participation in social interaction coursing across multiple networks and diverse cultural domains.

Implicitly, this is what the fashionable idea of "networking" for success is all about. But networking is paradoxical. We want autonomy, but the only way to get it is by becoming connected. Freedom must be relationally achieved; autonomy without connection is isolation. Compounding the paradox is the fact that during the early stages of the networking game, we are in danger of being channeled into the same narrow identities and associations over and over again. We get "typecast" (Faulkner 1983). Networking is not only about getting in, but also branching out, moving up, and attaining control. This is no easy task.

Completely of a piece with the paradox of networking is our modern self-conception. We imagine ourselves disconnected from others, genuinely thinking, feeling, and speaking as if we had an "inner" self divided by an invisible wall from the outside (Elias 1978, 213). Yet this vision of self is relationally constructed and expressed through interaction. Or seen from the other direction, we might well understand that networking is a relational process. Nonetheless, we embark upon it with a genuine private sense of our aims and objectives, and we pause repeatedly to think about and articulate what these particular connections mean for us. Again, Nardi asks for an appointment in order "to be a man like the others." This claim is more complex than it appears. To be "like the others" undoubtedly alludes to other Medici partisans; consequently he is projecting himself into the particular role of partisan. Simultaneously, "to be a man" conjures up an image of responsibility and autonomy. One could even argue that his promise of partisan loyalty is enhanced because it comes from someone who makes an implicit claim to autonomy.

The importance of networks and the value of networking seem never to have been so widely appreciated as they are today, both outside (Gladwell 2000) and inside (Barabási 2002, Watts 2003) the academy, and sometimes at the intersection of the two. But lay appreciation of networking, and enthusiasm for it in much of mainstream sociology, remains weak in two fundamental ways. First, the historical antecedents of contemporary networking and the concept of self that accompanies it remain largely unexamined. This book provides a detailed examination of the constitutive importance of social networks and the rhetorical techniques individuals used interactionally to forge ties with each other in fifteenth-century Florence. Florence represents a case in a multitude of ways-political, economic, artistic, psychological-at the dawn of modernity. The city was an exemplar of civic republicanism, a kind of participatory self-government that we admire to this day. It was arguably the most important commercial engine of late medieval Europe, the home of energetic merchant-bankers and cloth manufacturers who together crafted organizational forms and credit devices essential for the spread of capitalism (Padgett and McLean, 2006). It was the cradle of the Renaissance, the birthplace of perspective painting, home to Donatello, Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Michelangelo, and a host of others. And, as I will argue, Florentine social networks provided a generative ecology for the emergence of a quasi-modern, relational conception of the self-a place in which personal connections mattered intensely, and individuals reflected upon the consequences of networking for themselves.

The second weakness I see in thinking about networking is that the relationship between social networks and individual action is little theorized and relatively unexplored. How do individuals network? What techniques do they use? What makes it possible for people to find each other and connect with each other across large distances? To address these questions requires systematic and up-to-date attention to the enormous question of culture (cf. Emirbayer and Goodwin 1994), as I will argue in detail throughout much of the rest of this chapter.

The Renaissance Art of Networking

Scholars have imagined the Italian Renaissance as an epochal time when making social connections became something of an art (Castiglione 1959, Greenblatt 1980, Biagioli 1993) and the concept of the self-made man as the autonomous builder of a career rose to unusual prominence (Burckhardt 1960). Despite sustained and cogent criticism of the latter claim, considerable truth doggedly remains in it. Florentine social interaction was intensely competitive. Florentines sought upward mobility, honor, and protection from shame and isolation through patronage. The private patronage-seeking letters of Florentines looking to build or protect their careers, while informed by values (such as honor) and collective representations distinct from our own, remain recognizable to us in form and thrust. And many of the features of modern life deriving from embeddedness in multiple social networks are markedly evident there, such as the desire for individual autonomy, the tension between diverse roles and identities, and the quest for friendship.

Florentines sought each other out, face-to-face or through letters, to perform a multitude of favors. Such favor seeking was fraught with anxiety, ambiguity, and dissimulation on the part of both petitioners and patrons. Petitioners asked for favorable tax assessments, offices for themselves or their friends and relatives, recommendations, marriage brokerage, rights to free passage through hostile territory, merciful treatment of their friends in prison, support in judicial disputes over property, and a host of other benefits. To a varying degree, the pursuit of each of these benefits was simultaneously a pursuit of relationships and of a relationally defined self. Petitioners moved, like rock climbers, from previously achieved network positional footholds to new positions and relations by means of accumulated resources and identities. Letters were a critical instrument for this tortuous mobility. Patronage letters contain many seemingly idiosyncratic petitions for assistance in fixing seemingly personal and unique problems. But when we examine letters in the aggregate, we find patterns: many practical cultural building blocks were available for use, institutionalized (Jepperson 1991) as rhetorical tropes and ideal typical roles by means of which individuals imitatively constructed and prosecuted their idiosyncratic preferences. Florentine petitioners' agency lay not in idiosyncratic self-expression, nor in purely formal practice, but in the recombination, adaptation, and occasional violation of these exemplary practices.

Thus, to understand how culture works in interaction, and to see both the strategic and constitutive faces of networking, a study of patronage-related interaction in Renaissance Florence is particularly apt. Clients self-consciously sought opportunities for building careers and obtaining prestige through their connections to powerful patrons, transforming themselves in the process. Networking, particularly in the form of patronage, was essential to the development of Renaissance art, but it was also essential to the process of social climbing and the operations of the Renaissance church, the Renaissance state, and the Renaissance economy. Florentines intuitively (and sometimes explicitly) understood that people could "make" each other-through marriage, through credit, through accounts, through careers, through patronage. They arguably had a deeper understanding of networking as a social process than we do.

The study of the Florentine case also reveals the inadequacy of simple dichotomous treatments of "traditional" versus "modern" styles of interaction. Both putatively modern and putatively traditional cultural elements co-existed in fifteenth-century Florence. Although no one in the social sciences seriously espouses a crude "traditional versus modern" distinction any longer, it remains an all too readily invoked assumption in even the best analyses of trust and culture in interaction. Rich historical analysis is needed to put that crude analytical construct to rest.

In this book I will examine the strategic, career-making activity of the writers of Florentine patronage letters, showing how they actively constructed their social networks and presented credible portraits of themselves through a host of conversational and discursive techniques that appear with marked regularity in thousands of letters. I will illustrate the importance of discursive strategies in a specific setting of strategic interaction to make an argument about the importance of such strategies in general for the construction and maintenance of social networks. I will document variation in that strategic cultural work based in part (but only in part) on the relative social-structural position of those who ask for favors and those who receive requests. In so doing, I aim to provide sociologists of culture and students of social networks with a toolbox of concepts for analyzing how culture is deployed in interaction.

Where Is the Culture in Networks?

A second shortcoming in thinking about social networks has been the dearth of attention paid to the relationship between individuals and networks, and particularly to the cultural agency by means of which networks are constituted and maintained. The strategic and relation-building work of networking is quintessentially cultural. This cultural work simultaneously seeks resources and constructs identities. Crucially, both elements filter through the practical cultural tools upon and out of which social interaction is constructed, making a study of these tools and their assembly imperative. The very importance of strategizing to achieve goals induces, in the first instance, careful self-presentation through culturally "safe" practices. Strategy tends to push people toward culturally proven means. One tends not to experiment when seeking success; often it is better to use proven strategies. There are, then, definable rules for how one should go about currying favor to get ahead, and in this book (notably in chapter 2) I outline the rules Florentines understood to operate.

But such "rule following" is not enough. How can we distinguish ourselves from others if we merely follow the rules? That we do try to distinguish ourselves is indisputable. We do so by interpreting and implementing cultural practices improvisationally. When we seek distinction, we must assemble gestures, symbols, and other practical cultural elements-perhaps even transgressing the usual bounds of decorum in the process, and calling attention to such transgressions-in a way that separates us from the crowd and establishes our distinctive identity or "worthiness" (Lamont 1992; Lamont, Kaufman, and Moody 2000). So, for example, with the insertion of "my Averardo" into his letter, Nardi adds to the urgency of his request and purports to bind himself in a special way to his targeted patron (or more accurately, broker). Conversely, receivers of cultural signals have to interpret the assemblage of pieces with which they are presented, reading character from the form and beauty of the execution of the practices, or locating identity precisely where the veneer of rules is punctured and identity peeks through. Their task is to infer the nature of the "author" behind the construction (Goffman 1974, chap. 8). Receivers of cultural signals bring culture to bear as an exercise in classifying daily interactions or experience precisely in order to secure the trust necessary to the pursuit of interests. And all of this happens amid great uncertainty. As Giannozzo Alberti, a worldly-wise character in Leon Battista Alberti's I libri della famiglia ([~1430] 1969, 263) comments concerning favor-seeking interactions in particular, "We know well how to simulate good will or how to avoid friendship in order to suit our situation."

Consequently, strategizing induces convergence on proven practical culture, yet this convergence in turn motivates rule breakage on one side and active interpretation on the other-both vital forms of agency-as a means of establishing the particular identity, and therefore the interests, of interacting participants. This is the layer of motivation upon which trust is founded. Identities are part and parcel of the texturing of frames put into play by networkers and likewise invoked by receivers of messages to understand what each other wants and what each other can do. Recipients of cultural signals try to read identities off of actors' embeddedness in social structures; but senders also actively represent that embeddedness in their messages.

The relationships that in the aggregate constitute networks are built, rebuilt, sustained, and transformed across time. Thus we have to think about social networks and networking dynamically-something that until recently network analysts have had a hard time doing. And each successive effort at networking takes place from a newly achieved position in a network. Consequently, agency within networks is ever adapting to an unfolding social structure as well as an evolving repertoire of discursive gestures. Understanding the nexus of culture, structure, and agency in this way leads us toward an interactionist theory of culture in general, and toward a deeper understanding of networking in particular.


Excerpted from The Art of the Network by Paul D. McLean Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Paul D. McLean is Associate Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University.

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