Saturday, May 10, 2008

BOOK: Leonardo Bruni, "History of the Florentine People" (Vol. 3)

Leonardo Bruni: History of the Florentine People. Vol. 3: Books V–VIII. Memoirs. Edited and translated by James Hankins with D. J. W. Bradley. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 27. Harvard University Press, 2007. 0674016823. xxv + 477 pp.

[Continued from Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.]

The preface contains a very interesting discussion about Bruni's use of his sources. “Bruni became the first historian in Western tradition to compose a history based extensively on sources in government archives.” (P. xviii.) His political position as the chancellor of Florence gave him wide access to the city archives. Another major source for his work were various late-medieval chronicles, especially that of Villani. “[M]any students of Western historiography [. . .] have written off Bruni's History as a mere reworking, in sub-Ciceronian Latin, of Villani's far more detailed, vivid and entertaining vernacular chronicle.” (P. xix.) So maybe that would be an interesting thing to read, but it seems that only parts of it have been translated into English.

Book IX

The first part of the book tells about the great civil discord that arose in Florence in 1378. It started among the more notable part of the citizenry, with one side abusing certain laws to prevent the other side from obtaining political office (9.1–3), but soon the lower classes got involved too: they “began to hold nocturnal meetings and to discuss how they might lay claim to offices for themselves; and in the end they agreed to seek a guild of their own in the city and a place on the priorate” (9.4). Apparently membership in a guild was necessary to participate in politics, and was beyond the reach of the poor. These demands of the poor seem entirely reasonable to me, but Bruni is of course consistent with his well-known pro-middle-class bias and shows no sympathy for them. Neither did the city authorities at the time, with the result that the “mob” rose in armed revolt and seized power for itself (9.4–5). Unsurprisingly, the rich found themselves targets of violence and plunder in the process, and Bruni just can't stop sympathizing with them and condemning those no-good plebeians: “This state of affairs can stand as an eternal example and warning for the city's leading citizens that they should not allow civil unrest and armed force to come down to the whims of the mob” (9.6). Sadly, the lower classes were pushed out of politics again a few years later, in 1381; “the two new [guilds] that had recently been added, comprised of the humbler sort of workers, were abolished” an an uprising of their members “was easily suppressed” (9.45).

In 9.23 Bruni mentions the leader of a group of German soldiers as “Guilielmus Filibachius”, which the English translation gives as “Guglielmo Filibach”. I wonder if he wasn't really a German himself, Wilhelm rather than Guglielmo?

A plague epidemic struck again 1383 (9.57). Everyone who could afford it tried to escape from the city, and the authorities started to fear that it would fall into the hand of the plebeians again, since only they would be left. “So a law was passed forbidding Florentine citizens from leaving their homes” but, unsurprisingly, it didn't really have much of an effect. But in principle, I like the idea, not because I'd be worried at the prospect of a city falling into the hands of the poor, but because by forcing the rich to share in the natural disaster that affects the rest of the population, you increase the chances that they will be willing to do more for the prevention and management of such disasters, and that would of course benefit everyone in the long run. For example, it is well-known that a few years ago, when the hurricane flooded New Orleans, the poor were stuck in the city while the middle and upper classes ran away in time. Perhaps they would have done more to make sure that the levees are maintained well if they had known that they would be prohibited from leaving the city in the event of such a disaster.

On the subject of foreign affairs, this book didn't interest me very much. There's a lot of bickering involving various Hungarian potentates, among others King Louis and a relative of his, one Charles, and also the Frenchman Louis of Anjou; both of the latter two claimed the kingdom of Naples from Queen Johanna. Towards the end of this book, a new villain arises, Duke Giangaleazzo of Milan, who goes to considerable length to pick a quarrel with Florence and a war between Florence and Milan finally breaks out at the end of the book.

An interesting note by the translator (note 3, p. 413): “It was illegal in Florence, as in other late medieval city-states, to discuss in private changes to the constitution; this was considered tantamount to sedition.”

Book X

This book is entirely about the war with Milan, which took place in the years 1390–1. As usually, the details of campaigns, sieges etc. didn't interest me very much. The Florentines try to engage all sorts of mercenaries — the Englishman John Hawkwood is the commander of their forces (10.6), but they also hire Germans (10.12) and Frenchmen (10.31). The mercenaries (unsurprisingly) don't always turn out to be entirely reliable, and may e.g. simply decide one fine day to return home since they aren't getting paid as much as they think they should be getting.

There are a couple of nice speeches in 10.21–27, with the ambassadors from Bologna, unable to bear the costs of the war any longer, asking their Florentine allies to let them conclude a separate peace with Milan. Florence didn't reply very kindly, and apparently Bologna not only stayed in the war but pursued it more vigorously thereafter (10.28).

Books XI and XII

Nothing terribly interesting here either, I'm afraid. A bewildering amount of fighting is still going on, as usually, with much of it still involving Giangaleazzo, the Duke of Milan. Towards the end of the book he starts feeling that he's about to die and, since his children are still very young and it would be several years before they can really lead a country on their own, Giangaleazzo tries to hastily secure a peace so that his heirs would find themselves in stable enough conditions and could somehow manage to weather the rest of their minority. However, he died before a peace treaty could actually be concluded, and the resulting situation was a great reversal of fortune for the Milanese (12.45–7).

One of the problems of using mercenaries in war is that during periods of peace, they aren't getting paid and might therefore turn into robbers. This has already been mentioned in book VIII. Here in 11.1 Bruni describes how the Florentines and the Milanese, when signing a peace treaty, explicitly made provisions that the mercenaries should be discharged in small groups, so that they wouldn't form robber bands. Unsurprisingly, this did not altogether prevent the occurrence of mercenaries-turned-robbers (11.7, 11.17).

There's an interesting description of the splendid games that were organized in Florence in 1392 to celebrate the birth of the French king's first son (11.5). The event featured “an equestrian battle with arms and equipment, representing a real battle in the form of a contest.” Bruni is clearly very proud that his city set up such an event and his enthusiasm is infectious: “Particolored vestments gleaming with purple and gold covered their armor. The only thing that distinguished the contest from true battle was that they fought with blunt swords” (11.5).

An amusing if undiplomatic statement, said by the condottiere Giovanni da Barbiano to a Florentine ambassador in 1395: “ ‘How arrogant you are, you Florentines! Nowadays nobody in all of Italy can fart without you sticking your noses in. [. . .]’ ” (11.28.) I suspect there was a grain of truth in that. But then this is often the case for great powers.

Bruni describes a touching religious phenomenon which occurred in the year 1399: “The entire population everywhere put on white clothing and, after performing certain pious rites, long columns of people dressed in white made their way, with incredibly fervid devotion, to neighboring cities, praying with suppliant cries for peace and mercy. [. . .] A pilgrimage would last around ten days, and the food was generally bread and water. [. . .] Access to foreign towns was free [. . ..] There was a tacit truce between enemies. This movement lasted nearly two months, during which city populations would set out for foreign cities and other populations would come into theirs. There were marvelous expressions of hospitality everywhere and kind welcome.” (12.1.) He also mentions this movement in his Memoirs, ¶23. Of course, it is not hard to guess how the whole thing ended: “So long as religion occupied peoples' minds, no one gave a thought to the perils of war, but one the fervor of the Bianchi movement had passed, those minds returned one more to their earlier concerns.” (12.3.) And so war continued.

Memoirs

This is not a part of The History of the Florentine People, but a separate work. As the title suggests, it covers the period that Bruni experienced personally, and it is also focused a bit more towards things in which he was directly involved, e.g. during his career as the pope's secretary, and later as a politician in Florence, where he held various important positions in bodies such as the priorate and the ‘Ten of War’. The memoir begins in the late 14th century (so there is a bit of overlap with the History) and ends in the year 1440 or so.

Although Bruni says several times (¶107, 114) that he isn't going to go into too much detail because this is a memoir and not a history, he still provides quite a bit of detail about warfare and the like — the same things that had already failed to interest me while reading his History. But the proportion of other, more interesting things is greater here than it was in the History. In the History, you of course can't help noticing what a turbulent era it was, with wars going on practically all the time; but from the way they were presented there, it was easy to feel somehow detached from them and forget that in the end each war makes a mess out of the lives of a huge number of individual people. Here in the Memoirs we see a few glimpses of how Bruni was affected by the various commotions that he had lived through. For example, during one of the wars in the late 14th century, Bruni and his father were captured and imprisoned by the Florentine exiles: “Because I was a child I was not kept with the other prisoners but was kept secure more appropriately in one of the bedrooms. In that bedroom there was a picture of Francesco Petrarch, the daily spectacle of which kindled in me a passionate enthusiasm for his literary pursuits.” (¶16.) He also found himself in personal danger during certain commotions in Rome, at the time when he was employed by the pope (¶34).

He mentions an interesting change in Italian warfare that occurred during his lifetime: “the Italians had completely recovered the use of arms” (¶22), i.e. enough good Italian mercenaries were available that they didn't have to hire foreigners as they had been used to do in the past. But to me it seems more problematic that you are hiring mercenaries, not that the mercenaries in question are foreigners. That they are foreigners is a problem only if they aren't really ordinary mercenaries but are actually the soldiers of some strong foreign ruler that may use this as an excuse to start interfering in your affairs (and this certainly was a problem in renaissance Italy).

As a welcome change from war, politics and diplomacy, the memoir also contains a few paragraphs about Bruni's studies, especially his enthusiasm to learn Greek (from Manuel Chrysoloras, a refugee from Byzantium and one of the first Greeks who started teaching Greek in Italy; ¶24–6). He also mentions a plague epidemic which struck Florence in the year 1400 (¶27).

Another interesting thing that Bruni mentions were the efforts to reconciliate Western and Eastern christianity — a big delegation came from Greece, including even the Byzantine emperor, and after several months of negotiations with the pope the two sides finally came to terms and agreed on a union of the two churches (¶105). However, I guess that not much came of these efforts in the long term, as the catholics and the orthodox are still quite firmly separate rather than united.

Conclusion

Although I found a reasonable number of interesting passages and factoids in these three volumes (as my posts above show), yet I cannot deny that I found the work as a whole quite a boring read. This is the sort of low-level history that I'm just not interested in — there's too much detail, too many things that don't really have any long-term importance, and it's written in such a way that it's too difficult to follow the big picture as you read (assuming there even is a big picture in the mess that is Italian renaissance history).

Now, before you dash off that comment telling me that I'm stupid for not recognizing the immense and obvious importance of Bruni's History — please, spare yourself the trouble of doing that, as I already know all this quite well. I know that I'm not really the target audience for this book, I know that I'm missing the point, I know that the fact that I found the book boring is as unsurprising as it is irrelevant, and I don't for a moment entertain any illusions that my impressions of this book (and that is all that these blog posts really are) should have any weight whatsoever. And I certainly don't hold the fact that I was bored by this book against Bruni, or anyone else involved in producing it. In fact, as far as I understand the translator's prefaces, Bruni was in fact at the forefront of the historiography of his time, and his ability to use and synthesize a large and diverse amount of written sources is a step forward in comparison with the work of earlier historians, chroniclers and the like. There's nothing wrong with Bruni's History, I'm just not the right reader for it.

P.S. The ITRL is like a goddamned hydra. Just as I finally manage to read one three-volume history of an Italian town, they promptly being publishing another one: Pietro Bembo's History of Venice (Vol. 1, Vol. 2 — with Vol. 3 to follow before long, I guess). Who knows, maybe I'll enjoy it better than I did Bruni? Hope dies last :)

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