- Medicean and Savonarolan Florence: The Interplay of Politics, Humanism, and Religion by Alison Brown
Medicean and Savonarolan Florence is the second published collection of Alison Brown's essays. It picks up where the previous volume The Medici in Florence (Olschki, 1992) left off, both conceptually and chronologically. This volume gathers together twelve articles and book chapters published between 1994 and 2010. As the title suggests, the essays all focus on the last two decades of the fifteenth century: the final years of Medici domination and the turbulence that followed the coup d'état of November 1494 which ended the family's regime in Florence. This period of political flux - a crucial moment in the long, slow transformation of the city on the Arno from a civic republic into a principality - Brown notes, remains contested territory in Florentine historiography. 'No single paradigm', she observes, has yet achieved consensus for describing these decades (p. xxi). [End Page 214]
Brown does not attempt to offer any such comprehensive, encompassing vision. Instead she adopts John Najemy's concept of 'the dialogue of power' in Florentine politics: the idea that power in Renaissance Florence existed in dialogic relationships, always contested and negotiated rather than simply exercised. It is a concept particularly suited to the protean political landscape of the 1480s and 1490s. Brown traces and uncovers the operation of this dialogue largely outside of the formal sphere of office holding, in private correspondence, diaries, and printed or manuscript treatises. Such sources are crucial for the analysis of Florentine political culture because the official records of the government rarely provide anything that resembles dialogue or debate. Brown is a skilful and careful reader of such sources: teasing out nuances and building perceptive arguments from her analysis.
Although the book consists of self-contained essays and (as a result) has no over-arching thesis, two clear contentions emerge from the volume. The first, that the events of November-December 1494 constituted a real revolution in Florentine politics. Brown eschews the predominant opinion that events in the 1490s represented little more than a rearranging of the deck chairs on the ship of state, instead maintaining that 'the Savonarolan republic turned out to be a period of innovation and change' (p. xxiv). The second argument is that one of the key changes of this period was the emergence of the sort of hard-nosed, pragmatic political values and decision-making that commonly bear the label 'Machiavellian'. She identifies such practices first among the Medicean secretaries of the late Laurentian period and then among a strategic coalition of moderates in the Savonarolan years.
The various essays are arranged into three parts. The first, addressing the late Medicean period, deals with individuals. The chapters here focus on the attitudes and lives of the Medici secretaries, on the ill-fated and much-maligned Piero di Lorenzo de' Medici (who, Brown suggests, was less to blame than his father for provoking the resentments that exploded in November 1494), and on voices of opposition to Medici rule prior to the revolution. The second part shifts focus to institutions and groups and considers the events of the 1494 revolution, its antecedents, and its effects. Brown analyses the changes that occurred in Florence, the significant place that access to remunerated offices had in provoking resentment toward the Medici and fostering political conflict in the 1490s, the nature of exile as a political punishment in these years, and the factional divisions of the Savonarolan republic. The final section extends its chronological gaze both back into the earlier fifteenth century and forward into the sixteenth, with a focus on ideas. The first two essays consider Florentine use of the language of liberty and of empire in a broad perspective stretching from the early fifteenth century to the beginning of the Medici [End Page 215] principate in 1532. The final two chapters consider the intersections between religion, politics, and learning in Giovanni Pico's controversial Conclusiones Nongentae and in reactions...