- The Art of the Network: Strategic Interaction and Patronage in Renaissance Florence, and: Heirs, Kin, and Creditors in Renaissance Florence
Over the past generation historians of Renaissance Florence have explored and emphasized the essential triad of relations that underlay that city’s society: am-ici, parenti, vicini—friends, relatives, neighbors. The recent monographs by Paul McLean and Thomas Kuehn under review here address two of these three bonds. McLean examines friendship, a bond of a far more utilitarian than sentimental nature in fifteenth-century Italy, while Kuehn analyzes the legal and economic ties among family members. Both scholars also situate their analysis with regard [End Page 484] to the question of the individual in Renaissance Italy—a debate recently reinvigorated by John Jefferies Martin’s Myths of Renaissance Individualism (2004).
Paul McLean’s The Art of the Network examines the institution of writing patronage letters in fifteenth-century Florence, that is written requests directed to prominent and influential men for favors, acknowledgment, or assistance. Based on extensive archival research and weaving together theoretical and methodological strands adapted from Pierre Bourdieu, Erving Goffman, and Ann Swidler, McLean analyzes hundreds of letters to demonstrate how Renaissance Florentines formed and maintained social networks. Such networks, he argues, were (and are) never static or inherent in social relationships; rather they exist perpetually under construction “by means in part routine and in part improvised from the recombination of elements in [any] culture’s toolkit of practices” (xi). They were, in short, cultural products. He further contends that the creation of these networks served also to constitute identities, in particular, an emergent modern sense of self. The writing of such letters was formulaic, it required the deployment of established tropes and keywords, the following of certain models for presenting oneself and one’s request, but it also required a degree of improvisation in order stand out from the crowd of petitioners. The agency deployed in writing such epistles, using the tools and parameters of Florentine culture to distinguish oneself, McLean argues fostered the evolution of the modern sense of self: “we can see the beginning traces of ourselves in the techniques the letter writers employed to obtain advancement and recognition through their cultural agency in the domain of patronage seeking” (xiii).
McLean builds his argument on the basis of a sample of 1,100 letters from the first three-quarters of the fifteenth century drawn from the family papers of the Medici, Strozzi, Sacchetti, and Del Bene lineages preserved in the Archivio di Stato in Florence. He subjects the letters chosen to a battery of analysis: examining them in terms of the relationship between sender and recipient; the rhetorical presentation of this relationship in the letter; the purpose of the letter; the use of keywords such as honor, friendship, obligation, need, faith, and servitude; and the use of pronouns—such as the difference between the intimate (tu) and formal (voi) forms of “you,” but also the distinction between your friends (vostri amici) and our friends (nostri amici). The different chapters of the book study the influence of the medieval ars dictaminis (the art of letter writing) on the structure and rhetoric of Renaissance patronage requests; the incidence of different keywords in letter writing and changes in the use of these terms over the period under examination; the manner in which letters of recommendation built and maintained networks; the effect of network building and patronage on the development of the Florentine state; and the nature of the self created in patronage letters.
Many of the specifics of McLean’s analysis of how fifteenth-century Florentines created and maintained networks are not new. The themes, concepts, and issues that emerge from his examination relate to the trends in Florentine historiography over the past generation; and his discussion of the self bears obvious, and acknowledged, debts to John Martin’s recent work on this...