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On Historical Distance

On Historical Distance

by Mark Salber Phillips

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Conceptions of distance are foundational to historical thought, but Mark Salber Phillips gives the idea new subtlety and meaning. He argues that distance is a matter not just of time and space but also of form, affect, ideology, and understanding. In this exceptionally wide-ranging study, Phillips examines Renaissance, Enlightenment, and contemporary histories, as


Conceptions of distance are foundational to historical thought, but Mark Salber Phillips gives the idea new subtlety and meaning. He argues that distance is a matter not just of time and space but also of form, affect, ideology, and understanding. In this exceptionally wide-ranging study, Phillips examines Renaissance, Enlightenment, and contemporary histories, as well as a broad spectrum of historical genres—including local history, literary history, counter-factual fiction, history painting, and museology.

On Historical Distance is a fascinating and very important book that should be read by all historians. Beautifully written in elegant, economical and engaging prose, the book wears its considerable learning very lightly. A deeply original, challenging and thought-provoking study of the evolving history of history by one of our leading historians of historiography, this book should provoke a lively debate among historians and should be assigned as essential reading for classes on historical methods and historiography.”—John Marshall, John Hopkins University

Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Lamb
"Phillips's work, particularly Society and Sentiment, is widely cited among cultural and literary historians; this book caries his ideas to a new level and will be even more influential."—Jonathan Lamb, Vanderbilt University 
John Marshall
"On Historical Distance is a fascinating and very important book that should be read by all historians. . . . A deeply original, challenging and thought-provoking study of the evolving history of history by one of our leading historians of historiography, this book should provoke a lively debate among historians and should be assigned as essential reading for classes on historical methods and historiography."—John Marshall, Johns Hopkins University
Peter Burke
 "Mark Phillips's perceptive analysis of the interplay between proximity and distance in representations of the past combines the skills of an intellectual historian with the trained sensibility of a critic of literature and art."—Peter Burke, Emmanuel College, Cambridge University
Michael McKeon
 "On Historical Distance throws into relief a feature of historical writing so fundamental that it has escaped sustained attention until now. Combining a heuristic analysis of kinds of distance with examples culled from three distinct periods, Mark Phillips also ventures into literary history and history painting. A thoughtful and original work."—Michael McKeon, Rutgers University 
Canadian Historical Association - Wallace K. Ferguson Prize
Winner of the 2014 Wallace K. Ferguson Prize the best scholarly book on non-Canadian history. This award is given by the Canadian Historical Association.
American Historical Review - Penelope J. Corfield
“A richly nuanced analysis of how historians cope with the ‘otherness’ of the past.”—Penelope J. Corfield, American Historical Review

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
The Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.30(d)

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On Historical Distance

By Mark Salber Phillips


Copyright © 2013 Yale University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-19525-5



Machiavelli Between History and Chronicle

Florentine historians can be divided into two broad categories. Most were native sons who wrote chronicle or history out of personal experience and civic commitment, but others, often newcomers to the city, were learned men whose narratives were composed against a background of bureaucratic service and quasi-official patronage. In this admittedly schematic division, Machiavelli occupies a mediating position. Though he came from an old Florentine family (albeit one that had come down in the world), he was also a secretary, a commissioned historian, and a man of letters. This set of employments brings him closer in some respects to professional rhetoricians like Leonardo Bruni (c. 1370–1444) than to citizen-historians like Giovanni Villani (c. 1276–1348). A further complication lies in the fact that his active career proved an obstacle rather than a help in securing literary patronage. For Machiavelli, the fall of Piero Soderini's anti-Medicean republic brought a period of exile, followed by a long campaign, never entirely successful, to find him a place in the new political order. Thus his 1520 commission from Cardinal Giulio de' Medici to write the history of Florence came as a late (and still partial) rehabilitation. In such circumstances, Medici sponsorship represented an important opportunity, but also one fraught with considerable difficulties, and Machiavelli had to choose his path with some care.

In the Proemio to the Florentine Histories Machiavelli offers his reasons for taking his work back to the origins of the city rather than beginning with more recent events in the usual fashion. This enlargement is certainly strategic. By extending his scope, Machiavelli not only makes the period of Medici domination less central, he also places his own account in direct rivalry with his fifteenth-century humanist predecessors. His first plan, he admits, had been to begin with Cosimo's ascendancy in 1434, taking up the story where Bruni and Poggio Bracciolini left off. But on rereading their histories he had found them wanting in one crucial respect. Though they had been diligent in describing Florence's many wars, they had neglected her "civil strife and internal hostilities," with the result that readers lost much of the pleasure and instruction history provides. Either his predecessors had thought civic strife an unworthy subject, Machiavelli surmises, or else they glossed the material so briefly out of fear of offending the descendants of the rival parties. "These two causes (with all respect to them) appear to me wholly unworthy of great men, because if anything in history delights and teaches it is what is presented in full detail. If any reading is useful to citizens who govern republics, it is that which shows the causes of the hatreds and factional struggles within the city." What is more, "if the experiences of any republic are moving, those of a man's own city ... are much more moving and more useful." And if any republic has been notable for its divisions, Machiavelli concludes, it is surely the city of Florence, whose factions have been notabilissime. While other republics have generally rested content with a single factional division—Rome and Athens are the great examples cited—Florence uniquely has continued to foster division after division, to its great cost over the centuries.

These remarks suggest the outlines of what was at stake in Machiavelli's rewriting of the history of Florence. His goal was to challenge the timidity of his humanist predecessors by reintroducing a detailed and realistic portrayal of factional conflict: the central fact, as he saw it, of Florentine history. Accordingly, he rejected Bruni's decorous preoccupation with external affairs (the evasive middle distance of humanist narrative) in order to recover the sharp edge of violence that marked the city's internal conflicts. Like the humanists, Machiavelli aimed both to "instruct and delight," but political caution and the restraints of a learned idiom had robbed their work of its full impact. It was better, he believed, to marry the vividness of realistic detail with the sense of engagement that is unique to the history of one's own country. The result would be to heighten the emotions, so important to historical composition, and provide "those who govern republics" with much-needed lessons.

Machiavelli's plan for his history carried a related consequence that is easily overlooked. His decision to begin with the origins of the city not only represented a challenge to the humanists, but also required him to return to the chronicles on which they too had based their accounts. This unacknowledged debt to his vernacular predecessors has real historiographical interest, since the layering of texts affords a prime opportunity to assess Machiavelli's place in the evolution of Florentine historiography. Reciprocally, Machiavelli's dependency upon both earlier schools makes the Florentine Histories a valuable point of entry for examining the Florentine tradition as a whole.

Following Machiavelli's admonition about reinstating the importance of faction, I want to examine two outstanding occasions of violent conflict in Trecento Florence: the expulsion of the duke of Athens in 1342, and the revolt of the Ciompi a generation later in 1378. Each of these outbursts was described in detail by the most substantial chronicle of its day—Giovanni Villani for the earlier episode, Marchionne di Coppo Stefani (1336–1385?) for the later—and this in turn made it possible for both Bruni and Machiavelli to compose their own accounts. Their attention to the events of 1342 and 1378 reflects the continued hold of these episodes on Florentine memory, at the same time as it provides an opportunity to examine the two different directions marked out in the Proemio.

In his narrative of the expulsion of the duke of Athens, Machiavelli reaches back into Villani's account to retrieve the sharp note of violence Bruni had muffled. At the same time, Machiavelli sets his stamp on the account by transforming a moment the chronicler had represented as a moral exemplum into a frank drama of human passions, equally pathetic and brutal. Similar passages of cultivated vividness recur in Machiavelli's reworking of the Ciompi revolt, but here the idealizing rhetoric of humanism seems more central. What Machiavelli owes to Bruni is never more clear than in his portrayal of the Ciompi leader, Michele di Lando. In a history that is not rich in heroes, this barefoot plebeian provides the supreme example of a life framed by the idea that although every republic can offer examples, those belonging to the history of our own country move us more than any other.


Walter of Brienne—the curiously named duke of Athens—holds the dubious distinction of being the most unambiguous villain of Florentine history. A French nobleman and adventurer, he exploited civic divisions to raise himself from mercenary captain to tyrant, only to lose power again when resentment against his arbitrary justice and financial rapacity provoked a revolt that eventually spread across all ranks of Florentine society. Though Villani himself played no great part in these events, he underlines the fact that he writes with the authority of an eyewitness. All subsequent histories of this factional crisis depend on Villani's work, which becomes a base line for examining the reinterpretations introduced by Leonardo Bruni and Niccolò Machiavelli in subsequent centuries.

A combination of sharp observation and moral seriousness makes this one of the most unsparing and impressive narratives in all of the Nuova cronica. Nowhere, I think, does Villani demonstrate to greater advantage his ability to conduct a detailed and thoroughly grounded narrative against the background of the most expansive moral horizons. Every street or piazza seems to possess its own tangible reality; so too the names of individuals and families. Nor is Villani any less direct in identifying the stratagems of the duke or the schemes of the discontented grandi who helped him to plot his way from hired soldier to arbitrary ruler. This "gentleman," he writes, at the opening of the account, seeing the city divided, was moved by greed. "Like a wayfarer or pilgrim, he was a man in need of money, and even though he held the title of the duchy of Athens, he did not possess it." Walter's ambitions were stirred up by certain of the Florentine grandi—the aristocrats who had lost power to the popolo under Giano della Bella's Ordinances of Justice, the foundation of Florentine government since the last decade of the previous century. Day and night, these men betook themselves to Santa Croce where Walter resided, urging him on, so that "under the pretence of administering justice, he began to follow evil counsel and to act in cruel and tyrannical ways in order to make himself feared and to establish himself as the complete ruler of Florence." Medici, Altoviti, Ricci, Oricellai: members of each of these four great popolano families fell victim to the duke's arbitrary justice, bringing joy to their enemies among the grandi and the minuti (the aristocracy and the lowest class), and dismay to the popolo (the solid citizens in between). As the proverb of tyrants has it, "He who harms one, threatens many."

The members of the governing council (priors) did their best to resist the clamor to acclaim Walter signore for life—"something which our forefathers had never consented to" even in the most difficult times. But the duke seized full authority and put an end to the liberty of the city, suppressing the popolo of Florence, "which had lasted fifty years in great liberty, estate, and authority." And let it be noted, warns Villani, "how God for reasons of our own sins in a brief time inflicted on our city so many scourgings, including floods, shortages, hunger, disease, defeats, mercantile failures, financial losses, bankruptcies, loss of credit and, finally, liberty handed over to tyranny and servitude." All this, he concludes, addressing himself to Florence's "beloved citizens, present and future," is a sign that we must correct our defects and reinstate love and charity, "so that we might please the Most High and not bring down on ourselves the ultimate judgment of his anger."

Two centuries later, Remigio Fiorentino, the prolific editor of Renaissance and classical texts, singled out this passage for comment, saying that the author attributed the collapse of Florentine liberty to the sins of the people, but "more than anything else it was caused by the disunion and partisanship of the citizens." By contrast, Villani's providentialist view of history allowed no such separation between the political state of the commune and the moral disorders it was incubating. Luxury, greed, self-regard—these vices had given rise to the spirit of selfishness and division, bringing down on the city a comprehensive list of calamities: not just the loss of liberty, but natural disasters, disease, economic setbacks, and military defeat. But if the duke's seizure of power reflected God's judgment on the city, his own sins were subject to the same moral law. To underscore this message, Villani followed his account of Walter's usurpation by quoting at length a letter from King Robert of Naples, who admonished the duke to play the part of a good leader. If Walter failed to heal the divisions in the city, he would not long hold his position in safety.

For all the elevation of its moral horizon, Villani's chronicle stands very far from the other-worldly abstraction we sometimes associate with medieval chronicles. Like Dante, from whom he may have absorbed his providentialist faith, Villani saw earthly happenings as resembling the soft sealing wax on a letter—the visible sign of God's remote and invisible presence. Theologically, this simplified Augustinianism was a difficult position to hold (as Villani himself was aware) since it seemed to tie God's unknowable will to the limits of human understanding. But, naïve though it might have been, Villani's conviction that God is active in history makes every event potentially revelatory. In historiographical terms, the consequence is a narrative that is as closely observed as any to be found in his later, more secular successors—its human dramas all the more vivid for being enacted under the searchlight of Divine judgment.

The directness and intensity that Villani's narrative is capable of achieving is evidenced in the conclusion to this episode, when three separate groups of citizens (the leaders of each of which are enumerated by the chronicler) found themselves joined together again in a common purpose. Much to Villani's pride, the city reasserted its unity and demanded that justice be executed on the bodies of those who had oppressed them:

In the end the popolo refused any pact unless the duke gave them the conservadore, his son, and Messer Cerrettieri Visdomini to do justice to them. To this the duke would not agree. But the Burgundian [soldiers] who were besieged in the palace, banded together and told the duke that rather than die of hunger and in torment, they would hand the duke himself over to the popolo, as well as the said three.... The duke, seeing himself in such straits, consented. On Friday, the first day of August, at supper hour, the Burgundians took Messer Guglielmo d'Asciesi, the conservadore of the tyranny of the duke of Athens, and his eighteen-year-old son, Messer Gabriele. The latter had been recently knighted by the duke, but he was truly villainous in torturing the citizens. They pushed him out of the gate of the palace into the arms of the enraged popolo, especially the friends and relatives of those his father had executed: Altoviti, Medici, Oricellai, Bettoni Cini, and many others. To increase the father's pain, the son was shoved out in front, and they dismembered him and cut him into tiny pieces. This done, they pushed out the conservadore and did the same. Some carried a piece on a lance or sword throughout the city. And there were those so cruel and bestial in their fury that they ate the raw flesh. Such was the end of the traitor and persecutor of the popolo of Florence. And note, he who is cruel dies cruelly, saith the Lord. This furious revenge having been accomplished, the anger of the popolo was much quietened, which was the salvation of Messer Cerrettieri. He should have been the third, and well he deserved it.... But let us return to our subject of the affairs of the duke.

As will be seen in Machiavelli's reworking of this account six generations later, Villani's unblinking depiction of violence as the direct expression of justice will provide us with a touchstone by which the spirit of subsequent retellings can be assessed.


The final books of Villani's New Chronicle were shadowed by the mounting troubles of the city in the years leading up to the Black Death of 1348. In the decades following this calamity, the story of the duke's tyranny was taken up again by Marchionne di Coppo Stefani, the outstanding chronicler of the following generation. But though Stefani's work carried forward important elements of his predecessor's account, Villani's combination of localism and universality proved hard to sustain. In this context, the most striking change concerns the harsh moralistic language of the later chronicler, which at first glance seems to echo—even intensify—the moral commitments of the earlier period. Closer examination, however, suggests a hollowing out of moral certainties, leaving Stefani with a rhetorical biblicism that mimics the earlier writer, but conveys little of his faith in a universal moral order.

Characteristically, Stefani shifts the focus from the personal villainy of the duke to the ambitions of the grandi who had earlier lost power to the popolani. Where Villani had pointed to Walter's poverty and greed as motives for his cruelties, Stefani assigns more initiative to the grandi, who were able to win the duke over by promising rewards. Moreover the patricians possessed some strategic advantages, which enhanced their ability to stir trouble. Few in number and naturally respectful of the elders among them, they could organize themselves more effectively than the popolani, who were too numerous to be brought together in one place. Consequently, the popolani were credulous and easily led by a "tap on the shoulder" or a suggestion "whispered in the ear."

Vivid language and physical gestures of this sort color the moral vocabulary of the chronicle and animate its political observations. The goal of the nobility was to overturn the Ordinances of Justice as well as to avoid paying debts arising from recent bankruptcies. Accordingly (writes Stefani) they sought to aggrandize themselves over the "little sheep" and their shepherds. Like wolves, they wanted to kill the sheep and discard the skin and eat their flesh and make dice of their bones. They were the enemies of humankind (li nemici della humana spezie), the chronicler concludes, but things have always been so. The "vice is not just that of the Florentines, since the big fish have always eaten the smaller."

Similar mixings of high moral rhetoric and a late medieval version of real-politik recur a number of times in this account. Walter's downfall followed his decision to turn against the grandi and woo the minuti. The tyrant forgot that it was the people that crucified Christ, crying "Let Him die, let Him die." The duke should have considered that they would serve him no better than they had served Christ, who was a just Signore. Meanwhile the grandi, having been Walter's greatest supporters, thought they could say "touch me not" and "touch not my anointed." But they were wrong, since a tyrant usually oppresses those who gave him power.

Excerpted from On Historical Distance by Mark Salber Phillips. Copyright © 2013 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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What People are Saying About This

Jonathan Lamb
For some time Mark Phillips has been thinking about historical distance, publishing several important essays pointing towards ways of theorizing it. This work is an adventurous synthesis of his various historiographical experiments on the topic, and it makes a formidable and exciting narrative. . . . This book carries Phillips’s ideas to a new level and will be widely cited.—Jonathan Lamb, Vanderbilt University 
John Marshall
On Historical Distance is a fascinating and very important book that should be read by all historians. Beautifully written in elegant, economical and engaging prose, the book wears its considerable learning very lightly as it scintillatingly brings meta-historical and philosophical insights of Gadamer, Ricoeur, Collingwood, Nussbaum, Taylor and others to bear on its topics in remarkably crisp, clear and unpretentious prose. A deeply original, challenging and thought-provoking study of the evolving history of history by one of our leading historians of historiography, this book should provoke a lively debate among historians and should be assigned as essential reading for classes on historical methods and historiography.—John Marshall, John Hopkins University

Meet the Author

Mark Salber Phillips is professor of history at Carleton University, Ottawa.

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