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  • Florence and Its Church in the Age of Dante
  • Ronald G. Musto
George W. Dameron . Florence and Its Church in the Age of Dante. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. 374 pp. index. append. illus. tbls. maps. chron. bibl. $65. ISBN: 0–8122–3823–0.

Dameron's central theme is the role of the Florentine church in the commune's rise to political and economic dominance in the early Trecento. His methodology relies on a detailed investigation — literally from the ground up — of this church's organization, its property holdings and income sources, its jurisdictions (and conflicts over them), and its political standing within the commune. One of the great strengths of this book is its mastery of the archives and Dameron's long familiarity with the structures of Florentine material, spiritual, and political life.

Dameron's most interesting contribution is his careful study of the interrelationship of the city and its contado — both in terms of property holdings, taxation, and income, and of liturgy, the cult of the saints, and doctrinal normalization. These, Dameron argues, preceded and largely enabled the eventual expansion of communal authority throughout the Florentine countryside. This in itself makes for a serviceable monograph of enduring scholarly value. But Dameron's solidly based enterprise may have been sidelined by the desire to reshape his material into a monograph with a grander thesis, and here the book is on somewhat shakier ground.

The chief focus of Dameron's argument is Robert Davidsohn's thesis of the [End Page 851] corruption and self-centered careerism of Florence's clergy. Dameron offers the antithesis: a clergy consciously and unconsciously (structurally?) contributing to the material and political expansion of Florence, providing the ideological underpinning to its success with the "idea of purgatory" (166–68).

In claiming his theoretical territory, Dameron sweeps away the middle ground: the concept of "civic religion" implied by his title and invoked by his claim that Florentines shared a sense of being "a chosen instrument of God's will on earth" (217). Yet despite its continuing — if qualified — utility among scholars (Peterson, Renaissance Quarterly 53, no. 3 [2000]: 835–79), there is no appearance of "civic religion" in the book. Instead, Dameron emphasizes religion as a private concern that controls life through the forms and rituals of individualistic piety. Dameron implies that Florentine religion was largely internalized, despite the commune's commanding role in religious life, the prevalence of confraternities and public ritual, and its civic nature in Dameron's most salient examples of mentality: Dante, Remigio dei Girolami, and Olivi.

Dameron's ventures into cultural and intellectual history are less successful than his administrative and institutional approach to the sources. His analysis of the Florentine "idea" of purgatory is central. Taking his cue from a remark by Le Goff (Birth of Purgatory [1984], 305), Dameron projects the evolution of purgatory as a particularly Florentine ideology, a spiritual palliative that allowed citizens and institutions to hope for salvation amid their new "Capitalism" (167). Dameron cites numerous notarial documents — testaments for the most part — that he contends demonstrate a widespread and particular obsession among Florentines to avoid the pains of hell brought on by their new economy. Can Le Goff support Dameron's exceptionalist interpretation? Italy, much less Florence, was far from central in the evolution of the doctrine. Few Italian purgatory texts exist; and its "social victory," according to Le Goff (331–33), counted Italians among its staunchest discontents. Contrary to Dameron's assertions, were any of the opponents Le Goff cites really heretics? Far from being deeply rooted in the Florentine mentality, Dante's adoption of purgatory was, according to Le Goff, "an extraordinary stroke of luck" (334).

But what of the notarial evidence for this Florentine ideology? Even an unconscious acceptance (Barthes's "myth") can hardly be assumed from the mostly formulaic expressions of the notary's protocol books, which focus on the bequests themselves. They do not seem to reflect any deep doctrinal awareness among the individuals who hired these notaries; and Dameron fails to muster enough evidence that might support a "mythic" (ideological) connection. Most of Dameron's evidence for this ideology, in fact, appears in...


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