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Power and Politics in Early Modern Italy

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A country divided, degenerate and in cultural decline? Robert Oresko examines the changing views historians are developing of Italy between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries and finds a society far more vibrant and complex than tradition suggests.

All English-speaking historians of Italy during the early modern period, roughly from the beginning of the sixteenth to the close of the eighteenth century, stand deeply indebted to the work of Eric Cochrane. In 1973, Cochrane published Florence in the Forgotten Centuries, 1527-1800 (University of Chicago Press), which, rather than providing a narrative account of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany under its Medici and Lorraine princes, grouped together a sequence of separate essays. Each essay focused on an individual selected by Cochrane as an emblem of his epoch. Some were as well known as Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici, for the 1540s or Galileo, for the 1630s, while others had attracted only a limited amount of research, at least in English, until Cochrane dragged them into the scholarly light. Some were attached to the political life of Florence, others to the worlds of natural science or to what we would now consider cultural history.

But Cochrane's achievement in this book was greater than the sum of its individual parts. A meticulous and original scholar, Eric Cochrane was also an iconoclast of deep scepticism and a polemicist. Florence in the Forgotten Centuries has a political purpose enshrined in its very title, for Cochrane was troubled, at times positively angry, about the notion of 'forgotten time' and the assumptions and ideology which spawned and encouraged the neglect of three centuries of Tuscan history.

For too many scholars, interest in Tuscan history, and by extension in Italian history, came to an end at some point during the passage from the fifteenth to the sixteenth centuries. For political historians, this could be fixed at 1492 with the death of Lorenzo de' Medici, 'il Magnifico', or possibly later, around 1531, with the collapse of the Florentine republic and the establishment of the Medici principate. In the realms of cultural and art history, the deaths of Leonardo (1519), Raphael (1520) and Machiavelli (1527) seemed complementarily decisive. This is the language of historians wedded to the concept of 'a golden age', and the Italian example finds equivalents in sixteenth-century Spain and in the United Provinces of the seventeenth century. Marriage to the concept of a golden age frequently brings with it entrapment in decline theories, for, obviously, once an epoch of political consolidation and cultural achievement is perceived as having passed, the period which succeeds it must be seen as a decline.

For Italy, the reasons for the collapse seemed obvious, so obvious, perhaps, that it was felt that they did not need further elaboration. The foreign invasions which began in the 1490s and which made Italy the battlefield of conflicting Habsburg and Valois ambitions, brought about the disintegration of the balance of power established between the primary Italian states, culminating in the calamitous Sack of Rome in 1527 and resulting in a long period of foreign, mainly Habsburg, domination. Such political weakness found, conveniently enough, its visual expression in the triumph of the, until recently, despised style called Mannerism.

Cochrane challenged all this. His discomfort with conventional orthodoxy was evident in his first book, Tradition and Enlightenment in the Tuscan Academies (University of Chicago Press, 1962), which underlined the continuing intellectual vitality of Florentine life into the eighteenth century, while his particular affinity with the humanist historical tradition was emphasised in Historians and Historiography in the Italian Renaissance (University of Chicago Press, 1981). Florence was not, he argued, a cultural backwater after the establishment of the Medici as hereditary princes, first as dukes of Florence and subsequently as grand dukes of Tuscany. He enlarged the area of debate in a collection of essays which he edited, The Late Italian Renaissance, 1525-1630 (Macmillan, 1970). In an attempt to re-evaluate the sixteenth century, this book brought together essays which were not only written by a range of scholars, intellectual historians, ecclesiastical historians, cultural historians and political historians, but which also addressed themselves to problems in Venice, Rome, Naples and Bologna. This last point was important, for, to some scholars of early modern Italy, Cochrane's notion of 'forgotten time' seemed to imply the possibility of reclaiming 'forgotten space' as well, to investigate sovereignties other than Florence and Venice, which, with Rome frequently a very poor third, had attracted overwhelmingly the attention of English-speaking historians.

In the multi-handed Italian Renaissance Courts (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1986), Sergio Bertelli, the editor, noted some of the drawbacks of 'the attention paid by scholars, in England and America particularly, to the civic humanism of the Florentine and Venetian republics'. Bertelli's book is not free of some grave problems, but he has rightly identified an Anglo-American nostalgia for a republican form of government which helps to explain not only the primacy of Florentine and Venetian studies but also the marked preference for Tuscan history before the establishment of the Medici principate.

Complementing this attitude were the political changes within Italy during the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, changes which had profound implications for the study of Ita1ian history by Italians. Proponents of the Risorgimento, the national awakening which led to Italy's experiment in unification between 1870 and 1946, had a vested interest in the decline theory, presented in terms which Cochrane described as 'the decadence myth'. To heighten the glory of the new nation-state of the united Italy, the preceding three centuries were frequently painted in the darkest tones possible. Political division and foreign domination became keystones in this view of history.

The eighteenth century caused special difficulties as the successor dynasties, those branches of the Houses of Bourbon and of Habsburg-Lorraine which ascended the thrones of Naples, Parma, Modena and Tuscany, while presented as 'invading interlopers' also provided some striking examples of enlightened despots whose reforming policies, with a strong flavour of anti-clericalism, had more than a passing resemblance to the secularising political programme of Risorgimento activists.

Such a political view also helped to shape the creation of a special role for the House of Savoy, under whose aegis the unification took place at the expense of the transplanted dynasties and the Pope. The successors of Charles III of Naples (1734-59) and Pietro Leopoldo of Tuscany (1765-90) could be chased from their thrones by the successors of Duke Emmanuel Filibert (1559-80) and Duke Charles Emmanuel I of Savoy (1580-1630) with moral justification because those dukes had 'italianised' their outlook and their policy and because their House had survived as the sole 'Italian' dynasty after the Medici, the Este, the Farnese, the Gonzaga and the Cybo had all died out in the course of the eighteenth century.

The force of this interpretation of early modern Italian history was strengthened by the coincidental explosion of documentary sources, a process penetratingly analysed for the Papacy by Owen Chadwick in Catholicism and History: the Opening of the Vatican Archives (Cambridge University Press, 1978). Dramatically increased accessibility of primary documents as European chanceries opened their doors to researchers meant that the resulting, articles and books, however clear their ideological bias appears to us now, carried an authority unmatched by the works of the preceding generations.

This is not to diminish the immense erudition of much historical research produced during this period, but it is to underline the often quite explicitly stated political structure – unificatory, nationalist and anti-clerical – in which the material was presented. Elements of Italian history in the early modern epoch which failed to fit into or which even seemed to contradict the ineluctable march to 1870 and the fall of Rome were either ignored or became the preserve of local scholarship. Thus, the conjecture of an Anglo-American disposition towards the humanist republics with the intellectual programme of the Risorgimento and its heirs played a major role in constructing the way many historians continue to think about Italian history between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, or, more to the point, how they manage not to think about it at all. Eric Cochrane set out, to use the currently fashionable term, 'to retrieve" at least the sixteenth century for the twentieth-century student.

Eric Cochrane died in November 1985 while at work on Italy, 15301630, published late in 1988 as a volume in the ambitious Longman History of Italy, a series covering a time-span during most of which Italy was not politically unified. As with many such series, the Longman History of Italy tries to be many things to many people, to present, on the one hand, the distillation of a lifetime of research and thought by an internationally recognised scholar, while, on the other, to fill the needs of undergraduates and graduate students for single-volume textbooks in English which summarise less easily accessible secondary work. According to Julius Kirshner, a close colleague of Cochrane who was entrusted with preparing the manuscript for publication, Cochrane was 'on the verge of completing a full draft' when he died, although the final chapters, including one on the Baroque which would have taken Cochrane's narrative up to 1690, seem never to have been written. The published text, as prepared by Kirshner, begins with the Sack of Rome in 1527, a prologue of high drama. Cochrane analyses the Sack of Rome both in terms of its immediate psychological impact, the notion of an 'era of calamities' voiced by many Italians, and of its long-term historiographical influence. The waves of murder and plunder and the flight of the Medici Pope Clement VII have seemed to mark a graphic and unquestionable end to the High Renaissance, one of those rare moments when the close of an age can be fixed precisely, a deeply comforting and reassuring episode for those historians concerned with notions of periodisation.

Cochrane too believed in the inherent worth of periodisation, but he argued that other historians had seriously misinterpreted the Sack of Rome. Terrible as it was, the Sack of Rome, if a prelude to anything, was a prelude to a protracted period of consolidation of the achievements of the High Renaissance, and Cochrane pursues this notion of consolidation systematically, one might say relentlessly, through his book. The form of vernacular language, the volgare of Pietro Bembo (1470-1547), gained widespread acceptance among the literate public. This linguistic uniformity asserted by Cochrane was mirrored in many other areas of endeavour. Significant paintings and buildings, subsequently accepted as masterpieces, continued to be commissioned and executed, and Mannerism is treated as another form of 'imitation', another concept dear to Bembo, who clearly ranks high in Cochrane's cultural pantheon. Experimentation with accepted norms, in literary expression or in the visual arts, ensured a continuity with the past before the Sack. Political harmony was guaranteed by the acceptance of Habsburg tutelage, and the consequent peace among the princes encouraged economic prosperity and demographic revival. Religious concord was achieved by the Council of Trent, which established the form of Catholicism recognised by most Italians.

These various 'monuments', as Cochrane calls them, were built upon and finally stabilised during the last decades of the century: 'war had ceased in Italy and the task of state building had been completed', with the result that Cochrane interprets as the 'achievement of pre-nationalist national unity'. 'Then just as this least imperfect world seemed to have approached sufficient perfection that it might reasonably considered to be exempt from the usual dangers of historical contingency' a series of crises menaced disruption of this new golden age. Caravaggio's realism or at least his own vision of pictorial rhetoric, the interdict imposed upon Venice in 1606 by Pope Paul V, the trial of Galileo and the eruption of dynastic' disputes and hostilities among princes in the north of Italy gnawed at the model of harmony, concord and internal consistency which Cochrane had laboured so strenuously to construct. Cochrane's pain at the crises of the early 1600s is palpable and even emotive, but, to quote Toscanini, 'at this point the master set down his pen' and death spared Cochrane the contractual necessity of writing about a period with which, as Kirshner acknowledges, he was deeply out of sympathy.

Reviewing posthumous books is a dangerous business, but reviewing posthumous books which aim at an over-arching synthesis of a hundred-year period is even more perilous. Kirshner records the difficulties of sorting out the various states and phases of the surviving text, and all indicate a manuscript not as close to a publishable state as Cochrane's friends and admirers would have wished.

A more fundamental flaw is the rigidity of the model into which Cochrane forces a narrative which homogenises most diversities. Few historians will be happy to accept a view of sixteenth-century Italian society, which is as harmoniously coherent as Cochrane presents, and it might, therefore be profitable to focus upon a few aspects of Cochrane's argument in order to evaluate, some twenty years after the appearance of his first books, how forgotten 'the forgotten centuries' of Italian history still are. Cochrane's antipathy to the Baroque of the seventeenth century is obvious. He does not question the validity of the construct of golden age and decline, only its particular application to the sixteenth century, his own area of speciality. The 'decadence myth' is not dismantled but merely transferred forward an epoch. Cochrane may have pushed the frontiers well beyond 1500 but, as will be evident, the barrier of 1600 seems to be still worrying]y intact. A second point touches another piece of chic jargon, the staffage, for this account is swamped by humanists, particularly by humanist historians, the subject of Cochrane's first book. Cochrane's humanists and their works are listed in such lovingly precise detail, a detail which he denies to any other inhabitant of sixteenth-century Italy, prince, priest or peasant, that his text reads more like a catalogue of books in print than a sustained analysis of a complex society.

And, more to our point, Cochrane's intellectual history is a particularly sterile brand of this discipline. Cochrane's humanists inhabit their closed, hermetic studies and are in touch with one another but not with the outside world. This approach is gravely misleading when applied to the thinkers and scholars of sixteenth-century Italy, so many of whom were directly engaged in public life as courtiers, clerics, administrators and diplomats. Such a bias leads Cochrane into some extraordinary statements. For instance, he discusses the praise accorded by Paolo Paruta (1540-98) to the Venetian system of government exclusively in terms of an internal dialogue with other humanist scholars aimed at revising some of Machiavelli's assertions, while ignoring any impact which Paruta's official posts within the very Venetian government he was lauding might have made upon his thought and his writing. Other intellectual historians are addressing themselves to these problems. Margaret King's Venetian Hurnanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance (Princeton University Press, 1986) analyses the preponderant role played by the ruling elites in the intellectual life of Venice and dissects the patterns of their careers. Jerry Bentley's Politics and Culture in Renaissance Naples (Princeton University Press, 1987) also explores the intersecting worlds of thought and power and, refreshingly, moves the discussion of humanism away from the traditional magnets of Florence and Venice. Both of these studies deal primarily with the fifteenth century, but there is no reason why such a method should not be applied to the sixteenth century and, indeed, beyond.

Cochrane's profoundly sympathetic identity with the humanists also encourages him to neglect some very important fields. Music is dealt with very cursorily indeed, presumably because, as Cochrane would have it, until after the Council of Trent music had not been admitted to the ranks of those activities sanctioned by the humanists and the philosophers, the true heroes of this book. People other than humanists and philosophers, however, valued music, as is attested by the explosion of research in music history, much of it presented in periodicals of which Early Music is but one example, and in such exemplary studies as Iain Fenlon's Music and Patronage in Sixteenth-century Mantua (Cambridge University Press, 1980). The great madrigalist Carlo Gesualdo is not mentioned once, and such references to 'one Luca Marenzio', despite a not inconsiderable body of recorded work and Denis Arnold's concise study published (Oxford University Press) in 1965, prompt the unhappy thought that Cochrane had absorbed rather too thoroughly the prejudices of his 'humanists and philosophers' to be an even-handed chronicler of sixteenth-century Italy.

The very word 'patronage', encased in the title of Fenlon's book, implies a world of money, influence, favour, clientage, advancement, networks, employment, in short, a world of power relations. Many historians of Cochrane's generation, when dealing with figures of the Renaissance and after, seem to have found this aspect distasteful, even rather sordid.

One of the most striking characteristics of Anglo-American scholarship on early modern Italy is the paucity of studies dedicated to power. On one immediately obvious level this situation is made clear by the absence of books belonging to some traditional genres of history writing, political and diplomatic history and biography. Melissa Meriam Bullard's Filippo Strozzi and the Medici (Cambridge University Press, 1980) is a rare example of an attempt to analyse, as expressed in the subtitle, 'favour and finance' in sixteenth-century circles at times opposed to and at other times in alliance with the Medici in Florence and in Rome. Biography, now enjoying a massive revival in France, has fared particularly poorly. A unique exception which proves the rule is Geoffrey Symcox's Victor Amadeus II (Thames and Hudson, 1983), a meticulously documented life of a prince who, during his long reign (1675-1730), transformed Savoy-Piedmont into a crucial element in international politics. It is easy enough to think of other princes or of such figures of European stature as the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria (d. 1560), Doge Francesco Morosini of Venice (1618-94) and the Neapolitan administrator Bernardo Tanucci (1698-1783), who merit closer attention.

But it is perhaps the neglect of the popes which is most startling. Christine Shaw's forthcoming biography of Julius II (Blackwell's) will be an important contribution to our understanding of the early sixteenth-century papacy, and the English version of Paolo Prodi's The Papal Prince (Cambridge University Press, 1987) has made a key work on the pope's temporal power accessible to those unable to read Italian. Yet, apart from Owen Chadwick's magisterial The Popes and the European Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1981), which, despite its title, is also a masterful history of the eighteenth-century papacy, there simply is no up-to-date account in English of a power of enormous force and influence in early modern Europe.

This lack of traditional political history, still necessary as a framework of reference, however unstylish it may be, has an additionally unfortunate 'knock-on' effect. The absence of secondary narrative histories of the Italian sovereignties has meant the exclusion of an Italian factor from larger synthetic histories. For instance, Geoffrey Parker's multi-handed The Thirty Years War (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), one of the most convincing accounts, despite some numbingly pedestrian contributions, of a most complex period, is strikingly weak on the important Italian theatre of the war, one suspects because of the lack of an English-speaking specialist of early seventeenth-century Italian history. Italy also plays a suspiciously shadowy role in another work of great merit and distinction, Derek McKay and Hamish Scott's The Rise of the Great Powers, 1648-1815 (Longman, 1983), perhaps because the authors did not have a sufficient body of secondary monographs to draw upon.

Power, of course, need no longer be defined exclusively as the evolution and implementation of high state policy. Such historians of seventeenth-century France as William Beik, Sharon Kettering and Roger Mettam, while questioning traditional notions of absolutism and the validity of the concept of the domination of Versailles, have drawn attention to the importance of clientage systems and family networks, the manipulation of offices and benefices, the role of etiquette and those bases of influence and patronage, distinct from that of the king, in Paris and in the provinces. There are signs that a parallel approach is beginning to attract Anglo-American students of Italian history.

As long ago as 1962, James Cushman Davis' The Decline of the Venetian Nobility as a Ruling Class (John Hopkins University Press) provided a stimulating model for exploring family strategies of marriage and patterns of money-holding in the eighteenth century. Francis William Kent's Household and Lineage in Renaissance Florence (Princeton University Press, 1977) presents three case studies of families as economic and political units in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, while for a later period of Tuscan history R. Burr Litchfield's Emergence of a Bureaucracy: The Florentine Patricians, 1530-1790 (Princeton University Press, 1986) charts the continuing control of state office by the traditional urban elite. The very title of Barbara McClung Hallman's Italian Cardinals, Reform and the Church as Property, 1492-1563 (University of California Press, 1985) shows a necessary and lively awareness of the princes of the Church as power brokers. Not unrelated to these is Edward Muir's Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice (Princeton University Press, 1981), which discusses how ceremony was shaped by and reflected the political realities or at least the political aspirations of the Venetian republic. None of these books is in traditional political history, yet each, in its own way, attempts to interpret early modern Italian society from the inside, laying bare the practical concerns which motivated and directed behaviour in the period.

Changes within Italy have also opened up other possibilities. The progressive de-centralisation and regional autonomy following the rejection of the monarchy in 1946 has helped to loosen the grip of the nationalist ideology on the structure of writing history, and the interest in centres other than Florence, Venice and Rome has been positively encouraged by the obligatory generosity of the public banks. The enormous support given by the Italian public banks in organising exhibitions devoted to the culture of the individual cities and provinces which are the seats of their financial activities and in publishing the exhibition catalogues and the proceedings of the supplementary scholarly conferences have been among the most dramatic developments in early modern Italian studies of the last two decades.

This trend has also been encouraged by the expansion of the art market as entire groups of artists, previously appreciated only locally, are critically revalued, almost always upwards and not infrequently in response to a need for more saleable product as the number of collectors increases. Parts of Italy which had seemed cultural deserts now appear, thanks to changes in 'taste', more rich and varied, and our view of the role of those political and spiritual authorities who commissioned or collected such objects is also correspondingly revised. Critical shifts therefore can help, despite tendencies of aesthetic subjectivity, to focus historical scholarship upon neglected areas and subjects.

Art history could well prove to be one of the most fruitful ways of approaching the analysis of power. The conditional voice must he adopted here, however, for in seeking out a successful cross-pollination of art history with political, social and economic history, it is necessary to confront directly the impact of the work of Francis Haskell. The publication in 1963 of Patrons and Pointers rightly caused a major sensation, although the importance of the role of the patron probably came as more of n surprise to art historians who were primarily concerned with problems of attribution and identification, those aspects of connoisseurship not unrelated to market value, than it did to political and social historians. Though by his book's very title, Haskell seemed to accept the hierarchical supremacy of painting over other forms of aesthetic expression, the willingness to investigate the activities of the patrons – popes, cardinals, princes as well as enlightened amateurs – seemed, at first glance, to offer both an approach to some of the most significant figures of early modern Italian society and a means of escape for those art historians who saw their discipline slipping further from documentary history and closer to literary criticism.

With the years, it became clear, at least to some observers, that Haskell had identified a problem, but had failed to solve it. His tendency to frame questions around defining and validating the taste of the patron rather than around the exercise of power, which is, after all, what patronage was and, indeed, remains, was in danger of leading to a dead end. The inquiry began with the artist, not with the patron; art patronage and social clientage remained distinct and, thus, the very word 'patronage' came, artificially, to acquire separate meanings for art historians and political historians; and the failure to analyse meticulously the political, social and financial capacities and aspirations of the patrons and to fit their activities of commissioning or collecting works of art within this structure has marred much subsequent work on patronage. But here too there are some encouraging signs. Edward Goldberg's Patterns in Late Medici Art Patronage (Princeton University Press, 1983) centres upon a minutely researched study of how objects were made and how they were used; real historical questions, rather than an investigation of whether the taste of a patron was advanced or conservative, good or bad. Janet Southorn's Power and Display in the Seventeenth Century: the Arts and their Patrons in Modena and Ferrara (Cambridge University Press, 1988) is one of the most convincing portraits of court societies and the artists' roles within them. It is striking that for the most coherent discussion of the political structure of Modena and Ferrara in the seventeenth century in English we now turn to a study ostensibly devoted to the artistic patronage of the Este dukes, the papal legates and the Bentivoglio family. This is the sort of fusion of art history and political history which is frequently hoped for but rarely achieved.

Southorn's work is also important because it emphasises the diversity of political structure and cultural achievement between two centres of activity as geographically close as Modena and Ferrara. A similar achievement added to the acclaim which greeted Domenico Sella's Crisis and Continuity: the Economy of Spanish Lombardy in the Seventeenth Century (Harvard University Press, 1979). Sella brilliantly dissects the distinctions between the urban and rural aspects of the so-called crisis of the Lombard economy and poses another challenge to the decline theory by investigating the economic resilience of the countryside. It is good news indeed that, given Cochrane's premature death, Sella has now been commissioned by Longman to write an additional volume, Italy in the Seventeenth Century, for its series.

Sella's work, moreover, implies a second challenge to the traditional version of Italian history, for if the view of seventeenth-century Spanish Lombardy as 'an age of unrelieved gloom' has to be abandoned, so too may the belief that 'foreign' domination automatically brought misery and exploitation. Cochrane wisely questioned this assumption for the sixteenth century, and a massive revision of the roles of the imported dynasties in the eighteenth century, now viewed more as conscientious reformers than as predatory privateers, is being undertaken by Italian, Austrian and German historians. Little of this, however, seems to have been absorbed into the literature in English, although the Longman volume devoted to Italy in the Age of Reason: 1685-1789 by Dino Carpenetto and Giuseppe Ricuperati (1987) provides a concise synthesis of research on the Italian Enlightenment.

I have concentrated upon power and politics in this article because l feel that they have been accorded grossly inadequate weight in Eric Cochrane's account of sixteenth-century Italy. His treatment of social and economic history is equally weak, and for the negligible amount of space he devotes to such fields as demographic history, dietary history and the history of marginalities, Annales might as well never have existed. The picture I have painted of some of the current research by English-speaking scholars on early modern Italian history is a good deal rosier than I believe the reality to be. The Anglo-American preference remains for the period before 1500, and, as will have been clear from the books discussed, the seventeenth and, especially, the eighteenth centuries can scarcely be considered over-populated fields of activity. This contrasts sharply with the situation among Italian historians, where many aspects of what had previously been considered local history have, in the last few decades, been absorbed by the universities and where indigenous research is buttressed by an impressive array of studies in French and German. Very little of this finds its way into English translation, and the process of percolation, given the many misconceptions about early modern Italy in Britain and America, seems sadly slow.

Had Cochrane lived he might have written a more successful synthesis, but my hunch is that defeat was inevitable because of the very richness and diversity of the material for a period when, whatever was meant by the word 'Italy' was, although politically disunited, nevertheless blessed with a profusion of foci. I am not alone among historians in believing that it is high time for the death blow to be given to the 'one man-one century' series of national histories. Collaborative undertakings on a much greater scale might help to reduce the dangers of entrusting an entire century of the histories of what were really a good dozen separate sovereignties to a single scholar, but such proposals rarely find a welcome from minds geared to marketing.

Historical dictionary: Renaissance


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