The Catholic Historical Review 90.3 (2004) 537-539
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This book makes a solid contribution to understanding political realities that have long intrigued historians of late medieval Italy. Its focus is on Bologna, the second city in the Papal States, during a particularly intricate phase of the city's relationship with its distant overlord. In a less direct way Robertson also sheds light on problems faced by many other communes, beset as they were by conflict between families, factions, and sometimes individuals, all aspiring to power beyond that of their rivals. He also adds valuable insights into the nature, and the limits, of the papacy's secular power in governing a modestly sized but intractable territorial state. [End Page 537]
While the book has more general implications, Robertson never strays far from the topic to which his title makes reference, Paul II's refusal to see "tyrannies" flourish "under the mantle of St. Peter." In the case of Bologna, Robertson argues, the tyranny in question was not that of the Bentivoglio, but of the oligarchic Council of Sixteen, of which the Bentivoglio were members, but which they did not necessarily control. The first half of the book at times reads as a sustained explication du texte, based on the report of a Milanese ambassador to whom the pope had expressed his reservations about how the Sixteen exploited their position of power. Membership in the Council was reserved for an exclusive group and had come to be for life, even hereditary; members used public funds for their private purposes, and they abused the power of the Council by securing lucrative appointments for their relatives and friends. Robertson here quotes from the documents which he takes to express the Pope's views and then goes on to assess their justification by drawing on a very broad range of evidence (archival records, manuscript sources, and an extensive bibliography of published works). He concludes, on balance, that Paul's objections were generally well founded and, perhaps surprisingly, given the number of disaffected informants, based on accurate intelligence.
The second half of the volume focuses on a drawn-out tug-of-war between PaulII and Bologna, ostensibly over the renewal of chapters (capitula) in which Nicholas V had guaranteed the city's privileges. Pope and city clashed over a small number of issues concerning taxation, and most important, the composition of the Sixteen and the term for which its members held office. Robertson extends his analysis of these issues into a discussion of related subjects, such as factionalism within the Sixteen, or the actual power of factional leaders, or the involvement of outside powers (especially Milan) in the negotiations between Bologna and its nominal ruler. Pope Paul eventually achieved his rather limited aims, but, Robertson suggests, this may have been a Pyrrhic victory in that the new arrangements induced Giovanni Bentivoglio to abandon the collegial mode in which he carried himself within the Sixteen in favor of adopting a "signorial" stance.
Robertson's book is rich in detail and shrewd analysis. It provides new insights into a particularly intricate phase in Bologna's relationship with Pope Paul II. Beyond its immediate contribution, it paints a vivid picture of the nature and limits of political power in late medieval Italy—in this case, the respective powers of a local oligarchy, a would-be signore, and an energetic pope intent on securing stable governance. None of the more general insights Robertson provides are revolutionary or run counter to notions which have been accepted for some time. Even Cecilia Ady's "Study in Despotism" does not come in for a radical challenge, even though her book was published well over a half-century ago.* But concreteness, specificity and abundance of detail provide their own kind of novelty and lend more than ephemeral...