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Reviewed by:
  • La Città e il Fiume: Secoli XIII–XIX
  • Paul Sonnino
La Città e il Fiume: Secoli XIII–XIX. Edited by Carlo Travaglini (Rome, Ecole française de Rome, 2008) 382 pp. N.P.

That antiquarianism is out of fashion these days may explain why Travaglini introduces this group of essays on cities and rivers with just about every catchword in the Annaliste vocabulary. Twenty-four articles follow (one in English, seventeen in Italian, five in French, and one Spanish), covering various European cities and rivers (some more than once) from the thirteenth until the nineteenth century. There is no connection between the articles; the sequence goes from London, to Bologna, to Florence, to Rome, etc.—with the topics constantly shifting—until finally reaching Madrid. The contributors are extremely knowledgeable, but the articles all adhere to the Annaliste style, which is to say that they do not make the slightest effort to be entertaining.

It would take a local taxi driver to keep up with the fecundity of place names, which the occasional maps and illustrations do not suffice to identify. Nor do the authors expend much effort to explain the functioning of the technology to the hydraulically challenged. Here and there, one runs across a fascinating tidbit—the fact that hithe (head) endings refer to landings on the Thames, the thoroughness of thirteenth-century Bolognese contracts, and the exact dating of the bridges across the Arno. But one is frustrated by the repeatedly missed opportunity to relate the plague of the fourteenth century to the life on the rivers, and the fifteenth century, which may at some point have witnessed an increase in population, is largely treated as an undifferentiated unit. Then again, it is interesting to note how a political institution like the Captains of the Parte Guelfa in Florence was gradually transformed by Grand Duke Cosimo I (1537–1574) into his administrators of the flood control.

In terms of vindicating the Annaliste methodology, one of the best-conceived articles is the one by Paolo Buonora and Manuel Piñero on the systems of Rome, which also provides an element of chronological flow. Edging into more recent times, an excellent piece by Denis Bocquet discusses the intricacies of decision making regarding the Tiber in the aftermath of Italian unification But, for the most part, whether looking at this collection from a narrative or from a social science perspective, one cannot help but wonder about the aesthetic or scientific value of so much disparate and largely depersonalized information. Little of it is new, and the most common interpretive device revolves around such terms as “rationalization,” “systemization,” or “modernization,” all of which suggest that, after eighty years of trying, the Annaliste school has not come any closer than the imperious Max Weber to setting up a less sententious standard for historical development. A useful part of the essays are the footnotes, which in many cases guide the researcher to a more coherent and detailed treatment of any given topic than can be found in the essays themselves. [End Page 437]

Paul Sonnino
University of California, Santa Barbara


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