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  • The Art of the Network: Strategic Interaction and Patronage in Renaissance Florence
  • Edward Tabri
The Art of the Network: Strategic Interaction and Patronage in Renaissance Florence. By Paul D. McLean. Durham, N.CDuke University Press, 2007. 304 pp. $79.95 (cloth); $22.95 (paper).

Sociologist Paul McLean sees in Renaissance Florence “a generative ecology for the emergence of a quasi-modern, relational concept of the self ” (p. 3). Though specific social networks changed over time in Florence, “social capital” does not. This term signifies “a web of cooperative and trusting social relationships” (p. 7), which in Florence particularly rested on concepts of honor in the quest for patronage. Given [End Page 469] also the city’s unique level of literacy the result is thousands of surviving letters reflecting this ambition. Although it is unproveable that “intrinsically valued friendship without instrumentality was foreign to the Florentine consciousness” (p. 41), the author offers ample evidence that Florentines could rely on “codified behaviors by means of which to draw out those willing and able to be friends” (p. 43).

In addition to Florence’s high rate of literacy, a general familiarity in the city with notarial forms meant that there was a standard rhetoric of correspondence based on ideas such as fictive kinship and reassurances of loyalty and commitment. The result is that the leading patrons, such as the Medici, would promote different clients with similar enthusiasm for the same positions in the Florentine state.

How could supplicants therefore distinguish themselves? As the commerce and wealth of Florence increased during the early Renaissance, various commentators offered opinions on what constituted honor. Dante condemned its association with personal wealth and instead based his “virtue centered honor” on “obedience and a sense of shame in youth . . . temperance, courtesy and loyalty in maturity” and “prudence, generosity and affability in old age” (p. 69). The jurist Bartolus of Sassoferato, Dante’s contemporary, argued that legal definitions of nobility were flexible, based on de facto political conditions, which Coluccio Salutati saw as varying depending on whether the context was feudal or communal. The humanist politician Leonardo Bruni also condemned profit-driven motivations, locating honor in the defense of the community. But by the time of the Medici accession in the 1430s these considerations were being replaced by forms that stressed “magnificence, munificence and civic philanthropy” (p. 89). This is reflected in changes in the formulae employed by writers of letters seeking patronage.

Key terms would now include concepts such as service, obligation, generosity, benevolence, humanity, and mildness in letters seeking help with legal matters, tax assessment, or the pursuit of office. With the Medici monopolizing political power, writers would now replace terms such as “the honor of the commune” with “the state” or “your state.” There are limitations as to what these letters can reveal. As McLean notes, factors revealing other social connections—godparentage, guild or confraternity membership—are not necessarily discernible and “may well have been more important than the social structure measured in this study” (p. 119). Furthermore, historians may find frustrating the repeated use of sociological terminology such as “framing” and “laminating” employed to describe writers who are “discursively foregrounding useful aspects of their profiles and backgrounding their vulnerabilities” [End Page 470] (p. 123). Such theoretical terminology seems superfluous when the author himself notes that the letters often mentioned simple need (bisogno) and that, in his words, “Arguably the simplest way to request assistance in obtaining an office is to ask for it bluntly” (p. 130).

Nevertheless, this study offers some very intriguing implications for Florentine society, which this trove of letters helps reveal. The penultimate chapter discusses the “stalled transformation” of the Florentine state. Though here the author never really offers a specific conceptualization of the early modern state, he infers that its primary component was institutionalized tax assessment. The letters reveal that as fiscal pressures on Florence grew in the fifteenth century, so too did appeal for tax relief based on clientage. But to be eligible for communal office one had to contribute to the Monte Commune (the city’s public debt) and to have paid one’s taxes in full. This results in the ongoing consolidation of power in the...


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