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The Memoir of Marco Parenti: A Life in Medici Florence

The Memoir of Marco Parenti: A Life in Medici Florence

by Mark Salber Phillips

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For this vivid description of the world of a Florentine patrician, Mark Phillips draws on Marco Parenti's private letters, ricordanze or diaries, and public history or memoir. When Cosimo de' Medici died in 1464, Parenti foresaw a return to liberty and began to write a history, but his political hopes and his literary ambitions foundered when the Medici party won a


For this vivid description of the world of a Florentine patrician, Mark Phillips draws on Marco Parenti's private letters, ricordanze or diaries, and public history or memoir. When Cosimo de' Medici died in 1464, Parenti foresaw a return to liberty and began to write a history, but his political hopes and his literary ambitions foundered when the Medici party won a decisive victory over their patrician enemies in 1466. Despite this setback, Parenti's historical Memoir, recently rediscovered by Mark Phillips, is our best witness to this major crisis in Florentine politics.

Originally published in 1987.

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The Memoir of Marco Parenti

A Life in Medici Florence

By Mark Salber Phillips


Copyright © 1987 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05502-2



* * *

IN A LETTER of August 24, 1447 — almost two decades before the events we have been discussing — we find our first description of Marco Parenti, already a young man of twenty-five. The letter announces the betrothal of Caterina Strozzi to the son of Parente Parenti. It was written by the young girl's mother, Alessandra Strozzi, the widow of a man exiled in 1434 by the Medici, and was addressed to her eldest son, Filippo, living in Naples. Eventually Filippo would become one of the richest men in Florence and the builder of the grandest private Florentine palazzo of his century. In 1447, however, all this was a distant dream, and Alessandra emphasized the pragmatic considerations that underlay her decision to accept Marco Parenti as her son-in-law.

Alessandra gave a succinct summary of his attractions. He was a "worthy and virtuous young man, and he is the only son, and rich, 25 years old, and keeps a silk workshop; and they have a little political standing — 'un poco di stato' — since only recently the father was in the Colleges." The dowry was to be one thousand florins, a substantial sum but not a brilliant one, and she readily admitted that for four or five hundred more she could have found her daughter a husband "in greater estate or more noble." Alessandra was more than willing to find justifications for a decision taken out of necessity. Marriage to a better-placed family — one with an older name and more frequently found in high communal posts — might only bring unhappiness for her daughter. After all, prestige aside, office "brings no return, and there are many expenses. And I decided, all things considered, to see the girl well established and to pay no attention to other things."

Her mother's rationalizations notwithstanding, Caterina clearly was marrying "down." In himself the young man seemed an attractive prospect. But marriage was more than a coupling of individuals; it was an alliance of families. Marco's father had only "un poco di stato." Taken as a whole, his family had even less. Even granting the twin disabilities of widowhood and exile, Alessandra obviously did not regard Marco's family as measuring up to her own.

There was no business more serious than marriage for Florentine families. In a dozen ways it not only measured but affected social status. A favorable match might signal advancing fortunes, open up a valuable commercial connection, or bring the protection of a political alliance. And for no one was this truer than for the widow of Matteo Strozzi, left alone to raise her family with few means and little room for maneuver. We can be sure that every item in Alessandra's description of her future son-in-law had been thoroughly gone over in her mind before she decided to accept him.

Giovanni Parenti, Marco's paternal grandfather, had in fact been a man of some political impact, though it was of a sort that only underlined the family's lack of social distinction. He was one of the leaders of the popular party in the 1370s, when the tensions between this faction and its aristocratic opponents in the Guelf party led the city into the upheaval of the Ciompi revolt. As a member of the armorers' guild, Giovanni Parenti was a minor guildsman, a representative of a large number of men, many of them "new citizens," who were struggling for political authority in a regime hitherto dominated by the major guilds and patricians. Florence in the period after the Black Death was a more open society than it would later become, and Giovanni sat six times on the Signoria, the highest council of the commune. This prominence was also his undoing. In 1371 he was able to win acquittal against a charge that he was a Ghibelline, a favorite weapon used by the Guelf party. Seven years later the Guelfs attacked him again and he lost all political rights.

Giovanni Parenti's career was not of the sort to recommend his memory in later, more oligarchic days. The echoes of his politics may be traceable in the republican sympathies of his grandson and great-grandson, but as the family climbed in social status they were probably more than happy to forget their recent past. Alessandra Strozzi, at least, seems to have had no notion of this grandfather whose name she mistakenly gave as Piero.

By the early part of the fifteenth century Giovanni's two sons, Stefano and Parente, were able to improve the family's economic and social position, though without any prospect of playing the sort of role in the upper class that their father had enjoyed in the lower. Matriculation in the silk guild raised them to the ranks of the major guildsmen, a decisive jump in status. Silk manufacturing also brought them a fair share of prosperity. In 1403 the Parenti were not among the 150 wealthiest households in the San Giovanni quarter, the area of the city that centered on the cathedral. A similar list for 1427, however, ranks Stefano's household — in which Parente was included — as eighty-seventh, and in a less wealthy quarter they would have ranked somewhat higher. Stefano's net capital of 3,739 florins was certainly not a great fortune, especially if divided between the two brothers. Compared to the 79,000 florins declared by the wealthiest man of the quarter, Giovanni de' Medici, it seems modest indeed. On the other hand, Stefano's net worth was not so far behind the 4,396 florins recorded by Matteo Strozzi, whose eldest daughter Marco would eventually marry.

In political terms as Alessandra acknowledged, Marco's father did not have a brilliant career. At the time of the betrothal in 1448 he had gone no further than a recent term in the Colleges, a respectable post, but second in dignity to the Gonfalomere and eight priors who made up the Signoria; and two years later, already over seventy, he was rewarded by being selected as a prior. As a merchant, on the other hand, Parente Parenti must have experienced steady prosperity, and Alessandra did not hesitate to pronounce his heir a rich man. Parente's tax return for 1446, made out in his name but clearly in the hand of Marco, gives a reasonably clear picture of the wealth he would pass on to his son. Following the prescribed form of such declarations, Parente first listed his house on the Via del Cocomero — the modern Via dei Ricasoli running north from the cathedral to Piazza San Marco — a nontaxable asset. In addition he owned four farms in the contado (the neighboring countryside) and a small house that was rented. Like most Florentines of his class, Parente had also invested in the Monte, the public debt, and the combined value of the shares he listed came to a little over 4,900 florins. From such assets the tax law allowed a personal deduction of two hundred florins for each dependent — or, to use the more expressive term of these documents, for each "mouth." Parente listed only three persons: himself, aged seventy; his wife Mona Tommaso, forty-eight; and Marco, then twenty-five. A younger daughter, Lessandra, for whose dowry a previous declaration listed a little over one thousand florins invested in the Monte, apparently was already married.

As the only son, Marco inherited Parente's house, business, and properties. His tax report of 1457 shows many continuities with his father's of a decade before — and with the whole series of declarations made by both Parente and Stefano going back to the first catasto, a new, more accurate form of tax assessment begun in 1427. Real estate was the most stable form of wealth. From time to time, property might be bought or sold, but most often families were either rounding out an existing holding or dividing one previously held in common. No wonder that when the boundaries of a property are described, a brother or cousin is often listed as one of the neighbors.

The house on the Via del Cocomero is a case in point. In the early catasti it is listed in the name of Stefano, Parente, and a nephew, Giovanni. Often such joint households were a temporary expedient following the death of the original owner; this was unlikely to have been the case here, however, since in 1433 Stefano gave his age as sixty-four, Parente's as fifty-five, and Giovanni's as thirty-one. Nonetheless, the house was eventually divided, for in 1457 Marco listed his cousins, the sons of Giovanni Parenti, as his immediate neighbors. On both sides of the household a new generation was coming into possession.

Subdivision of the common household has sometimes been taken to signify the fragmentation of the family and the growth of individualism. Perhaps so, but since Marco and his cousins remained his closest neighbors, it would be surprising if the same family feelings — and family tensions — did not remain. It simplified matters that Marco was an only son. A more prolific family would have had to face the difficult choice of overcrowding itself in its old house or sending its sons out to find a new one. Even so, most sons chose to build, buy, or rent as close to home as possible, thus continuing to enjoy the sociability of the family and its ties to longtime neighbors.

In the countryside, where residence was not involved, arrangements were more flexible. Farms, if they were large enough, could be legally divided; more simply, the produce, already shared between the urban proprietor and the peasant who actually worked the land, could be divided once again among the common heirs. Marco listed three farms in the Mugello in his report of 1457, all of which had been in Stefano's name in the first catasto, and in one of these his cousins were joint owners. This left Marco the possessor of a quarter of this farm's production of grain and "corn of various types." Of the two pigs, one was his, plus "a sucking pig." But, he reported, "there is no wine to be gathered at all."

A large part of Marco's inheritance came in the form of shares in the Monte. He declared 8,869 florins listed in his father's name, of which some 2,170 florins had been converted to funds for the dowries of his daughters, Ginevra and Lisa. This left 6,694 florins, against which Marco pleaded for some reduction, since "there still remains Agnoletta, for whose dowry I have done nothing." Beyond this already substantial sum, Marco listed 4,765 florins inscribed in his own name and 1,000 "with stipulation" in that of Giovanni Parenti.

These were considerable holdings, even when one has taken into account the fact that the market value of the shares would have been far less than the nominal value. It is striking, too, that Marco's declared holdings on the Monte exceeded those his father had listed in 1446 and 1451. Where had this additional capital come from? The most likely explanation is that both Parente and Marco had withdrawn capital from their business and put it into the safer, less entrepreneurial form of shares in the public debt. This is suggested by another part of the declaration. "I rent," Marco wrote, "from the friars of the Charterhouse a workshop in the Por Sta. Maria for forty florins a year ... where we used to work in silk. Now it is approximately ten years I have retained it, although I no longer exercise the trade." Apparently he did not wish to cut himself off entirely from the silk business; he chose instead to keep up his rights to the shop in order "that I not lose the use of it." But Marco had effectively entered the class that the Florentines called scioperati — men who kept up their guild membership for social or political reasons rather than for trade. Since unearned wealth always carries with it a certain prestige, this in some ways represented a jump in status. By withdrawing from the occupation of his uncle and father, Marco had taken their efforts to raise the family into the upper class of Florentine society one step further.

It would be wrong, however, to think of Marco as rich and carefree; at least, he did not want the notaries of the catasto to think so, and he filled his declaration with lists of debts and responsibilities. In the first place there were the eight mouths he had to feed: himself, aged thirty-seven, Caterina, his wife, twenty-six; Piero, his first-born, now eight; Gostanza, aged five; Marietta, three and a half; Ginevra, two; Lisa, one; and Agnoletta, only a month old. At 200 florins apiece, these dependents amounted to a deduction of 1,600 florins.

As head of this rapidly growing family, Parenti no doubt had many expenses. He owed the banker, Bono Boni, 120 florins, but there is no indication of the purpose of the loan. A second item was the 230 florins it cost to buy a neighboring house to enlarge his own. There were smaller sums as well: 10 florins to a tailor, 5 to a workman, and 5 more to a wet nurse called Bionda di Bruno — Blonde, daughter of Brown. Finally, a deduction was allowed for properties both in the city and the countryside that had once been held in the family and had since been "alienated."

His mother's death had left Marco with responsibilities of a different sort. By her will he was charged with a series of small charitable expenses. Simona, her niece, was to have clothing to a value of 15 florins. Several convents, the prisons, and a hospital had to have 10 florins apiece, and the canons of the cathedral, the friars of Santa Croce, and the seven friars who had witnessed the will received smaller sums. Finally, the friars of San Francisco in Fiesole were endowed with 4 florins per annum so that every year in perpetuity they could say an office for the soul of the departed.

Viewed from the distance of so many years, the exact size of sums spent in honoring the dead or in enlarging a house for a growing family is not critical. These details provide a focus for the imagination and a reminder of the reassuring ordinariness of life in any period. The catasto officials, on the other hand, took a less detached view of these matters, and they filled the margins with figuring and cross-references to other declarations where Marco's might be corroborated.

When all was added in, they figured Parenti's total wealth as 3,689 florins, against which they allowed deductions of 1,837 florins, leaving a taxable "surplus" of 1,852 florins. Florentines paid a standard rate of .5 percent, a figure that seems remarkably low until one remembers that it is based on total wealth, not yearly income, and that it could be levied as often as the government saw the need. In all, including a small head tax, Marco was assessed fi.9 s.11 d.3.

By itself the figure is not very helpful, but fortunately, the records for 1457 are unusually complete and a table showing the distribution of tax assessments has been worked out that allows us a reasonably accurate guide to Parenti's economic status. In that year there were 317 households that were assessed between 5 and 10 florins, representing approximately 4 percent of the 7,636 households paying taxes. In all, 97 percent of Florentine households paid 10 florins or less; only 227 households paid more. In short, Marco, with his assessment of a little over 9½ florins, probably stood just outside of the top 3 percent of taxpayers.

Backed by these statistics, our estimate of Marco's economic status seems fairly secure. In 1457, however, Marco was still a young man and his responsibilities were considerable. It would be a reasonable guess that his income at that time was relatively low, a suspicion that can be confirmed by checking figures for other years. Marco listed his own and his father's previous assessments at the beginning of his 1469 declaration:

Stefano and
Parenti di Giovanni Parenti fi. 19 s.11 d. 10
ParentediGiovanmParenti     23
5 —
Marco di Parente Parenti 9 11 3
Marco     17
1 9

To this list we can also add the assessment found at the end of the 1469 declaration itself — fi.19 s.7 d.3 — and the much reduced figure for 1480 of fi.9 s.2 d.6.10

Parenti's declaration for 1457 provides a rather low estimate of his financial status when compared to the figures for subsequent years. It seems clear that although Marco never equaled Parente's highest assessment, over the course of a lifetime he did not lag too far behind his father. There had been some fluctuations, but these were natural to the life cycle of families. Marco was able to maintain the family fortune and see a new generation safely launched.

By mid-century — the years of Marco's early manhood — the Parenti had found a place in the Florentine upper class. In two generations they had risen out of the ranks of the artisans and "new citizens" for whom Giovanni Parenti had been a spokesman, into the class Giovanni and his companions had opposed. In this new status the Parenti never achieved real prominence or power, but at least they had arrived. Thus in 1472, when Benedetto Dei, the crankiest of Florentine private chroniclers, compiled a list of leading Florentine families, whose presence was an ornament to the city and a "confusion to our enemies," the Parenti found a place.

The commercial energies of his uncle and father had lifted the family into this new niche, but it was Marco who inherited the benefits. First among them was the marriage to Caterina Strozzi. Marco's letters of the time show his pride in being connected to this old and prominent house, and in later years, as the Strozzi brothers rebuilt their fortunes, the connection became more prestigious. Equally, Marco was still a young man in 1454 when he was selected to the Signona, an honor for which his father had waited until the end of his life. In education, too, Marco seems to have been privileged beyond his parents, and he became part of a circle of well-educated and socially prominent young men.


Excerpted from The Memoir of Marco Parenti by Mark Salber Phillips. Copyright © 1987 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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