restricted access Urban Legends: Civic Identity and the Classical Past in Northern Italy, 1250–1350 (review)
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Reviewed by
Carrie E. Beneš, Urban Legends: Civic Identity and the Classical Past in Northern Italy, 1250–1350 (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press 2011) 232 pp.

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In this study of the creation, spread, and use of classical foundation legends in late medieval Italian cities, Carrie E. Beneš argues that during the zenith of the independent civic governments or communes, cities, both large and small, poured time and money into creating, solidifying, and spreading stories of their ancient origins. These histories invariably painted the cities to be either the predecessors or heirs of a glorious Roman (and sometimes Greek) past. Mining both written and visual evidence, Beneš traces how communes such as Padua, Genoa, Siena, and Perugia saw the promulgation of ancient foundation legends as one part of broader civic improvement and glorification projects. As historians of the Italian communes have long noted, the independent city-states of the northern and central Italian peninsula were intensely committed to using the expansion and beautification of their civic environment as a means not only to expresstheir particular civic identity but also to demonstrate the inherent strength and prestige of their urban community. Beneš expands our understanding of those campaigns by making clear that alongside the building of new fountains, administrative buildings, and public art projects, the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century communes were as committed to articulating (in both physical and rhetorical form) stories of their ancient origins. In short, Beneš argues that the “appropriations of the classical past in the Italian city-states attest to a broader interest in classical antiquity than has traditionally been credited to late medieval Italy,” and that such an interest “indicates a diverse and widespread engagement with the classical past, one fostered by the relatively sophisticated lay urban culture of the late medieval Italian cities” (4).

Before launching into an investigation of four cities—Padua, Genoa, Siena, and Perugia—and the creation, use, and spread in each of a classicizing foundation story, Beneš uses her first chapter, “Appropriating a Roman Past,” to identify the three primary ways in which urban magistrates and scholars articulated a relationship between their cities and the past: “by championing a civic foundation related to or modeled on that of Rome; by integrating the early history of their city with the better-known history of Rome; and by appropriating celebrated features of Roman culture as their own” (14). As Beneš makes clear, whether or not the foundation legend of these Italian cities directly engaged the history of Rome, all of the origin stories were, in effect, “Romanizing” (22), and were created in an effort to respond to and ultimately outdo the “historical prestige” of Rome (21). The history of Rome functioned so powerfully as “a yardstick by which every medieval city judged itself and was judged by others” (35), that communal governments relied on Roman titles to describe their new political system. Thus, as Beneš points out, communal governments were ruled by “consuls,” city councils were often referred to as a “senatus,” and we see the appearance of “magistratus, praetor and tribunus” in communal records (32).

Beneš’s four case studies make up the heart of her book. In them the reader finds a wealth of information about the origins, spread, and particular political and cultural meaning of these classicizing foundation stories. In chapter two, “Padua: Rehousing the Relics of Antenor,” we learn how the ca. 1283 rediscovery of the bones of Antenor, the other fleeing Trojan, came on the heels of Padua earning its independence and served as an opportune moment to recast this Trojan’s reputation from traitor to noble founder. In chapter three, “Genoa: [End Page 159] Many Januses for Civic Unity,” Beneš explores how the Genoese adopted the mythical figure in the hopes that the articulation of “a long-distant but unspoiled past” might quiet internal divisions within the city (64). In chapter four, “Siena: Romulus and Remus Revisited,” Beneš looks at how this Tuscan commune adopted a Romanizing foundation legend mainly in visual form in the late thirteenth century not only to replace John of Salisbury’s French origin legend for the city but also to identify “a historical...