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  • Rural Communities in Renaissance Tuscany: Religious Identities and Local Loyalties
  • Kathleen Olive
Hewlett, Cecilia, Rural Communities in Renaissance Tuscany: Religious Identities and Local Loyalties (Europa Sacra, 1), Turnhout, Brepols, 2009; hardback; pp. xiv, 234; 13 b/w illustrations, 6 b/w tables; R.R.P. €60.00; ISBN 9782503523378.

Italian Renaissance scholarship can appear to privilege Florence, and while there are various reasons for this (e.g. the wealth of extant documentation), other cities and regions can seem peripheral. Cecilia Hewlett's study of rural Tuscany considers how the so-called fringe could force the urbs to adapt. Using rural parish records, communal letters of petition and local statutes, particularly from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Hewlett sets out three case studies: the mountain settlements above Pistoia; Gangalandi, in the fertile hills south-west of Florence; and Scarperia, a fourteenth-century Mugello 'New Town' constructed by Florence as a strategic bulwark. While they are clearly different, they are still, Hewlett argues, representative of the 'overlapping "geographies of power"' (p. 11, borrowing a phrase from Elena Guarini) that comprise Florence's extra-mural territory (contado).

The contado was neither uniform nor invariably peopled by the illiterate or unskilled. Rural inhabitants (contadini) in fact shared much with Florentine citizens (cittadini): professions, economies, networks and even notions of governance. Part I investigates Florentine attempts at control through communal politics, and their rural negotiation. Chapter 1 offers a useful articulation of the communities' administrative structures. Chapter 2 introduces the Pistoiese [End Page 216] mountains, traditionally considered the home of poor and violent people. Here geographical isolation enforced mobility and wide-ranging networks, as men moved livestock to pasture or market. Mountain knowledge, on which fortunes relied, was used to dodge Florentine tax officials and keen factional loyalties were nurtured. The posting was not popular with Florentine officials nor conflict entirely subdued, yet Hewlett shows that mountain-folk could evince stronger ties to Florence than other contadini.

Chapter 3 considers Gangalandi, arguing against the view that Florentine landowners there were necessarily 'agents of oppression in the countryside' (p. 77). Sharecropping (mezzadria) here could mean smaller tracts of land worked, to some extent, by urban landowners and local inhabitants. The latter did not necessarily live on the land they were employed to work, but often possessed and worked their own. They were respected enough in their communities to hold communal offices and it is not at all clear that the cittadini were their habitual exploiters.

Scarperia, the focus of Chapter 4, represents yet another case. Neighbouring villages were forcibly moved inside when the construction of this northern bastion was complete and Florence had to construct loyalty from scratch, but artificial creation did not account for the transference of prior political and social tensions. Inhabitants within Scarperia's walls enjoyed the status and wealth of a market town, and could demonstrate a perceived superiority to villagers just outside. Structures of government and taxation consciously reflected Florence's, and relative affluence saw the development of a political elite who tended to dominate communal offices.

Part II examines the spiritual communities of these contexts. Territorial borders could differ from those of diocese, potentially bringing Florence into conflict with local clergy. Chapter 5 examines approaches to this: church jurisdiction over lay moral crimes was restricted; a Florentine presence was established in local festivals; the contadini could be obliged to participate in urban celebrations. Rural clergy were important, as scribes, teachers, advocates and landlords, but locals also needed a delicate balance of urban patronage for building projects and charity. Hewlett makes the point by investigating the composition and role of rural confraternities, complementing numerous urban studies. In some settlements, cittadino membership was prohibited to ensure a space for contadini to sponsor charities, liturgy and religious instruction.

The case studies come together in Chapters 6–7 with respect to possible Florentine ramifications. Religious institutions in Scarperia tended to resemble [End Page 217] but exclude Florence, and ecclesiastical structures reflected political or social hierarchies. In Gangalandi, rural religious institutions could squabble amongst themselves but they continually engaged with prominent cittadini in significant ways, and posed no real threat to Florentine rule. Churches, the primary meeting places for Pistoia's mountainfolk, were...


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