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  • Living on the Edge in Leonardo's Florence: Selected Essays
  • John A. Marino
Living on the Edge in Leonardo's Florence: Selected Essays. By Gene Brucker (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2005) 211 pp. $31.95

Brucker has collected ten recent papers and lectures (three previously unpublished) with a short introductory autobiography. His autobiography of an Illinois farm boy qua acclaimed scholar highlights the main ideas and methods of this collection as much as the author's historical essays. For Brucker, as he reflects on history, fortune rules. He remains a devoted, close reader of Niccolò Machiavelli, while following "only two valid historical 'laws': (1) everything pertaining to our species is in constant flux and (2) accident and contingency play as important a role in history as does human design" (xxv). He unapologetically accepts criticism for his "theoretical poverty" and values his life's work for its fascination and foundation in archival research. He remains critical "of a serious defect in Florentine history: the failure to summarize and integrate recent scholarship" (108), which is the real object of these essays on medieval and Renaissance Italy in general (Chapters 1–5) and Florentine history in particular (Chapters 6–10). Throughout, Brucker's masterful eye for detail, his imaginative weighing of primary sources, his generous praise for the contributions and correctives of fellow scholars, and his incisive powers of synthesis and generalization give this book the unobtrusive authority and quiet dignity of its author, who sees himself, above all, as one among many in an international community of scholars.

Brucker begins with a historiographical essay that traces the Renaissance in Italy according to the nineteenth-century "vision" of Burckhardt, by debunking its now, oft-repeated, textbook myths.1 Instead, the complex context of demographic, economic, and social patterns undergird historical continuities punctuated by endemic conflict from war, famine, and plague; powered by the essential material foundation of an extraordinary concentration of capital in the hands of urban elites; and rationalized by the new ruling class' adaptations of the humanist cultural revolution. The thrust of the first five peninsula-wide essays, however, is to engage Putnam's thesis about civic traditions and horizontal social bonds, which Brucker finds as wrong-headed as Burckhardt's view.2 Putnam's overly idealized Italian commune distorts the historical tensions between "civic" and "feudal" forces, campanilismo (local particularism) and national civil society, rich and poor, town and country, and Church and state. "The crucial importance of contingency . . . [with] chance and accident [of births, marriages, deaths, inheritances, battles, and events from Frederick II to the Sack of Rome] . . . as important . . . [End Page 287] as . . . structure" (62) explains much about the political fragmentation of Italy, and sets the stage for its conquest. Machiavelli is Brucker's guide in emphasizing that "the spirit of particularism and of pervasive distrust [was] so deeply rooted in the mentalité of this society" that the faith engendered in economic relationships could not carry over to politics, where "trust was a shrinking commodity" (82, 103).

The five Florentine-focused essays are a paean to "a body of scholarship that has no equal in European urban history before the French Revolution" and restates the case "for Florence's 'exceptionalism'" (105, 113). The book's title chapter emphasizes "that sense of vulnerability, the awareness of grave perils that threatened Florence's security and prosperity during Leonardo's lifetime" (116). An archivally researched essay examines chaplains servicing cathedral chapels; another draws a portrait of the Pandolfini family in their parish; and the collection concludes with "The Eventful Life of a Florentine Matron," Alessandra Strozzi.

Brucker's essays are not afraid to make strong judgments (pace Burckhardt and Putnam) and sharp insights (on faith and trust). They offer a grand overview of the period's problematical claims to "modernity" and of the current state of the field of Renaissance Italian and Florentine studies from one of its most important students in the second half of the twentieth century.

John A. Marino
University of California, San Diego


1. Jacob Burckhardt (trans. S. G. C. Middlemore), The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (Harmondsworth, 1990).

2. Robert Putnam, with Roberto Leonardi and Raffaella Y. Nanetti, Making Democracy Work...


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pp. 287-288
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