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.
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.
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”
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
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).
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.
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
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
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).
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
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”
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
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”
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.]
Labels: books, history, I Tatti Renaissance Library