Saturday, April 12, 2008

BOOK: Leonardo Bruni, "History of the Florentine People" (Vol. 1)

Leonardo Bruni: History of the Florentine People. Vol. 1: Books I–IV. Edited and translated by James Hankins. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 3. Harvard University Press, 2001. 0674005066. xxiv + 520 pp.

This is a history of Florence, mostly covering the period 1250–1400 (Bruni wrote in the early 15th century). It consists of twelve books, of which this volume contains the first four.

Book I

For me, Book I was the most interesting part of this volume; it's about the history of Florence in the ancient times and in the early middle ages. Although he says that the city was only founded in the time of Sulla, who gave the area to his veterans to settle down in, the region was previously inhabited by Etruscans, and Bruni seems to be quite keen on the Etruscans — much of book I talks about them, their reputation for learning (“Livy says that he has sources to show that Roman boys, before the period when they were given instruction in Greek literature, were commonly taught Etruscan literature”, 1.20), their struggles against Rome, etc.

Unlike many Renaissance authors, who seem to have been quite fond of the Roman empire, Bruni seems to have preferred the republic: “If one considers the savagery of Tiberius [. . .] the fury of Caligula, the insanity of Claudius, and the crimes of Nero with his mad delight in fire and sword; if one adds Vitellius, Caracalla, Heliogabalus, Maximinus and other monsters like them who horrified the whole world, one cannot deny that the Roman empire began to collapse once the disastrous name of Caesar had begun to brood over the city.” (1.38) And later in the same paragraph, when enumerating the crimes of the emperors in yet more detail: “Caligula, the successor of Tiberius, killed just about everyone!” :))) “Nero [. . .] made such a slaughter of patricians [. . .] that when he died the artisan class was beginning to fear for their lives” because they saw that “the tradesmen were all that was left for him to rage at and ravage” (ibid.).

I'm definitely glad to see finally somebody agree with my belief that switching from republic to empire was a disastrous move for Rome. When reading Gibbon's history of the decline of Rome, I was positively impressed that the empire managed to survive as long as it did, given the abysmally poor qualities of most of its rulers.

Anyway, after these initial pages about the Etruscans, Bruni then practically skips over most of the period of the Roman empire and hurries into the late antiquity when the area was overran by a number of ‘barbarian’ invaders: Huns, Goths, Vandals, Langobards, Franks. He then skips a few centuries again and ends the book with the death of Emperor Frederick in 1250.

As I've already written in an earlier blog post, one thing that often annoys me in the work of Renaissance Italian authors is their tendency to refer to the ancient Romans as ‘we’, as if renaissance Italy and ancient Rome were one and the same thing. So from that point of view I was glad to see Bruni identify just as much with the Etruscans as with the Romans, but nevertheless there's an instance where he says “our forces” (1.48) referring to the Roman army under Stilicho (late 4th century AD).

Book II

The rest of this volume (and I suspect that volumes 2 and 3 will be much the same) proceeds at a much slower pace, and I didn't find it as interesting as the first book. But for Bruni, this latter period, the last two centuries before his own time, seems to be what he is the most interested in. After Frederick's death, the ‘people’ of Florence took over the government of their own city, and it's from that point onward that Bruni is really interested in their history — it isn't called “The History of the Florentine People” for nothing. I was somewhat disappointed to learn that he used the word ‘people’ much differently than we do nowadays — he really only means the middle classes, while the poor people should be kept away from political power at all costs (p. xix). So for him, when he says that the people took over the power, he really just means that it was no longer in the hands of a monarch or of the aristocracy.

(Now admittedly, this fact that the ‘people’ excluded the lower classes did have its good sides. For example, in the incessant party struggles between Guelphs and Ghibellines and the like, he frequently mentions that when one party gained control of the town, they would expel the members of the other party and typically also seized their assets. But it seems that these things mostly affected just the ‘people’, not the lower classes, for whom this change of masters didn't necessarily mean much. Bruno actually comments explicitly on this fact, saying that the lower classes cannot be relied upon in these party struggles because to them both parties are much the same (2.63) and “[t]hey considered the exiles their fellow-citizens no less than those who were staying inside the walls” (ib.).

Anyway, once the ‘people’ of Florence started to govern themselves, they were seized by an apparently insatiable appetite for glory and power, and embarked upon an endless series of wars against more or less every nearby town and city they could think of. A few times in the beginning part of book II, it really seemed almost as if they had directly asked themselves every year “whom are we going to wage war against this year?” Numerous conflicts also raged elsewhere in Italy at the same time, with the pope, one or two members of the Hohenstaufen imperial family, and the French king Charles (invited into the country by the pope) all trying to assert or reassert control over various bits of territory. The Florentines were mostly on the side of the guelphs, i.e. the opponents of the emperor's authority over Italy.

Book III

Most of the events described in Bruni's History aren't really momentous enough that they would be still widely remembered today or be considered as having a big influence on later periods. In book III, the only event there that had I heard of before reading Bruni's history are the Sicilian Vespers, i.e. the uprising of the Sicilians against the tyrannous rule of the French king Charles. They invited king Peter of Aragon (in Spain) to intervene, convincing him that he had a good claim on Sicily, owing to the fact that he was the son-in-law of the last German emperor who had controlled Sicily before Charles. Peter did manage to drive away the French, and Sicily then passed under Spanish control; but it's a sad thing when you have to invite one foreign master to drive away another one — I wonder how much happier the Sicilian people were after this change.

Anyway, Bruni doesn't use the term ‘vespers’ to refer to the uprising, nor does he imply that they started at that time of the day (3.64); but he does describe a curious sequence of events that directly precipitated the uprising, namely “the Palermitans were holding a festival outside the city when the French came up to check them for weapons, and on that pretext began fondling the breasts of their women”; a riot ensued and turned into a large-scale rebellion. It seems that people (well, men) will never learn — first Tarquin the Proud was driven out of Rome because his son raped a Roman noblewoman, and now the French lose Sicily because they just can't leave the local women alone.

Actually, there's another familiar event in book III — in the quarrels between Florence and Pisa, Bruni mentions Count Ugolino (who was a notable figure in Pisan politics) several times, and briefly describes how he was eventually imprisoned by his enemies and left to starve to death (3.88), an event which was the basis for the celebrated passage in Dante's Inferno (canto 33).

Book IV

This book talks more about internal affairs of Florence than the previous ones, and there's a bit less warfare, especially in areas far remote from Florence. There are a few interesting paragraphs about various institutional reforms carried out in Florence in the late 13th and early 14th century, with a view to curtailing the influence of the nobility and strengthening the position of the ‘people’ (4.26–34). The strength of the nobility was partly due to the fact that each noble family could rely on a large network of supporters, friends, clients, allies, who would defend its interests even by violence and thus enable it to defy even the public magistrates, to say nothing of being able to trample an individual commoner with impunity. An interesting measure was passed to deal with this situation: the commoners were organized into twenty companies, each person belonging to one of them; then, if he was threatened or abused by some member of the nobility, his entire company was required to come to his aid: thus “each commoner had many more allies to avenge his injuries than anyone from the great families” (4.80–82).

But most of this book deals with party strife in Florence, which I didn't find very interesting. The Guelph party disintegrates into two factions, the Whites and the Blacks, who promptly begin to regard each other with as much hatred as the Guelphs had previously shown for the Ghibellines (and vice versa).

An amusing strand of story that runs throughout this book are the popes' rather amusingly unsuccessful attempts to get these bickering politicians to calm down and stop quarrelling. A steady stream of papal legates trickles into Florence and other cities, all of whom, after accomplishing nothing, promptly leave in a huff and place the city under an interdict (4.53, 4.65, 4.85, 4.96). The poor legates just couldn't get anybody to take them seriously: when another legate threatened the city of Cesena with an interdict, he found that “the city had long since grown used to such measures and had contempt for them” (4.101).

Incidentally, Dante is mentioned several times in this book; Bruni always refers to him as “the poet Dante”, but otherwise doesn't say anything about his literary work; all these mentions of Dante are due to his involvement in political activities. Bruni also mentions Petrarca's father in 4.83.


I'm afraid this is mostly history of the sort that I'm not terribly interested in — the sort that gives history its bad reputation as a boring topic. What Bruni describes consists almost entirely of war and diplomacy (but mostly war) with a bit of politics thrown in occasionally as well. He hardly ever mentions anything outside these areas (for example, he mentions a comet in 2.84, seen for three months in 1264; but Bruni promptly connects it with his preferred topics by describing the important political and military events which the comet apparently foretold). There's another comet in September 1301 (4.62). He also mentions floods several times (3.19, 3.60, 3.86), and the collapse of a wooden bridge “under the weight of a crowd that had gathered there to watch a spectacle” (in 1303; 4.86).

Of course one shouldn't blame Bruni for his focus on war, diplomacy and politics; in his time, historians weren't interested in such a wide range of things as now. He even says explicitly (4.16): “history has two parts or limbs, as is were—foreign and domestic affairs—and it should be understood that domestic conditions are as important to comprehend as foreign wars”.

And as far as war-and-diplomacy type of histories go, I don't see any good reason to complain against his. He tells the story coherently enough, he has clearly studied lots of sources, and he even tries to enliven his narrative by including bits of speeches every now and then. And partly his choice of topics may be influenced by the fact that his work was also intended to be as a kind of official history of Florence, sponsored by the city authorities (p. xi), so it would be natural that he would focus on the sort of things that politicians are interested in and like to brag about.


In 1.14 Bruni mentions that the Adriatic sea is named after the town of Atria.

He says of the time of pope Leo, mid-5th century AD: “in those days popes presided with humility and holiness, not with the intolerable arrogance that has crept into the pontificate today” (1.58).

A curious phrase in 2.13: “The Florentines (they said) had conquered the city [of Volterra] by the will of the gods”. This war took place in 1254 — I was surprised that neither the Volterrans nor Bruni thought the mention of the plural gods a bit blasphemous.

At some point (in 1261), the Ghibellines were, by dint of luck in war, in a position to seriously contemplate the idea of completely destroying Florence (traditionally a Guelph stronghold). A certain Farinata, a Ghibelline from Florence, was outraged at this idea and shot it down in a good speech (reported by Bruni), but what I found particularly amusing was this passage (2.71): “ ‘But let me ask you what it is that you hate. The city itself? But what wicked acts have walls and houses ever done? [. . .]’ ” So I was inspired to draw an example of a house involved in the indisputably wicked act of street mugging:


At some point (in 1266), the Florentine state tried to mend the quarrels between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines by encouraging marriages between people from two different parties (2.110). On the one hand, this approach seems charming in its naiveness; but at the same time, one cannot help being horrified at the idea — how could anybody have seriously expected such marriages to be stable and well-functioning? I'm afraid they did this by assuming that the wife either has no political ideas of her own (thus doesn't mind being married to a husband from the opposite party), or that she's little better than a piece of furniture anyway and her political opinions can be completely ignored. Anyway, I guess nobody will be surprised to hear that this policy did not succeed in bringing the two parties closer together.

There's a charming story in 4.11 about how news of the Florentine victory in the battle of Campaldino (11 June 1289) reached Florence miraculously: “there came a great pounding on the doors and a messenger's voice was heard [. . .] But when the author of the tale was sought for, no one came forward, so the story collapsed as an empty and unproven rumor. Yet on the following night when the true report at last arrived from the army [. . .] it was discovered that victory was achieved in the very same hour it was announced to the sleeping priors. This seems marvellous, but we have read of this happening in other places, too.”

Translator's note 59 to book 4 (p. 502): “The word expeditio used by Bruni here is a common humanist equivalent of passagium, the barbaric medieval word for crusade.”

[To be continued with Vol. 2 and Vol. 3.]

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