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  • The Art of the Network: Strategic Interaction and Patronage in Renaissance Florence
  • Ronald Rainey
Paul D. McLean . The Art of the Network: Strategic Interaction and Patronage in Renaissance Florence.Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. xvi + 288 pp. index. illus. tbls. bibl. $22.95. ISBN: 978–08223–4117–8.

Historians might find it difficult getting into this sociological study of networking, and especially so through the first chapter, which catalogs recent work by sociologists on the topics of interpersonal relationships and network formation. There are rewards, however, for those who persevere. The concept of applying contemporary sociological theory to an examination of historical documents —in this case about 1,100 letters written by Florentines of the Trecento and Quattrocento to current or prospective patrons asking for favors, jobs or tax relief —is certainly of interest to any historian open to the learning opportunities provided by interdisciplinarity. Historians have some reason, however, to be skeptical about the historical relevance of some of the findings. To discover, for example, that Renaissance Florentine letter writers of low status sometimes wrote in "intimate terms" to higher-status addressees when seeking favors (128) is rather counterintuitive, and an abundance of evidence is provided to assure us that such intimacy in letter construction generally required a greater degree of "social structural proximity." But to assert that "this intimacy across social distance is endemic to the performative part of clientelism" based on similar findings of sociologists who studied patronage systems in contemporary Peru (Stokes) and Argentina (Auyero) seems to require a greater faith in the ability of social scientists to identify "universals" than some readers may be willing to accept. Tables are provided to indicate the frequency of particular words used in these letters to patrons (such as onore and amicizia), and the extensive commentary on the use of such words is entertaining to read and often enlightening, but the mass of detail sometimes gets in the way of common sense: for example, when the author asserts that many petitioners framed their requests for help from patrons "in terms of amicizia" but also found it necessary at times "to offer some objective reasons that favor should be extended" (161), he seems to be pointing out a decidedly obvious recipe for success.

The most valuable aspect of this book is the presentation of the letters themselves and the author's meticulous analysis of them, creating in the collectivity of his analyses something of a Renaissance how-to manual for the writing of letters begging for consideration and advancement. A reader with more antiquarian interests (like myself) enjoyed reading the letters and would have welcomed the presentation of even more letters and fewer tables, for the great value of this study [End Page 936] is in reading the words rather than counting them. But the author had another purpose in mind and found it useful to discover how often certain words were used in the letters, since "no previous study has made a substantial effort to document the language and codes of this 'epistolary production'" (91) and to pose the question (which is the title of chapter 4) "what gets said when in patronage letters?"

All the counting allowed for the creation of charts and so table 3, for example, demonstrates that words such as onore and servidore appear rather often in letters seeking offices, while words such as virtù and affezione rarely occur in such contexts. Table 4 shows the average incidence of selected keywords by decade for all types of letters, and here we see that the word onore appears in more than half of all letters written during the decade 1400–09 but in only 21% of all letters written during the decade 1480–89, leading the author to conclude that the term onore "was clearly used less frequently by favor seekers over time" and, instead, the authors of letters in the later period stressed their affection, service, obligation, and loyalty to their patrons (106–07). The word virtù, that hallmark of Renaissance humanism, apparently appeared so seldom that it is not even one of the selected keywords included in table 4, although a spectacular letter of 1421 uses the word virtù twice, in just...


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pp. 936-938
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Archived 2009
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