- Communes and Despots in Medieval and Renaissance Italy ed. by John E. Law and Bernadette Paton
The work of the late Philip Jones is well known to historians of medieval Italy, particularly those whose focus lies in political and economic realms. Communes and Despots in Medieval and Renaissance Italy demonstrates how Jones's careful analyses of government and civic institutions continue to resonate amongst his peers. This volume of essays takes a seminal thesis proposed by Jones as its starting point: namely, that republican and despotic governance in late medieval Italy were not so diametrically opposed as had previously been accepted by historians. Given that Jones first published his claim in an article of 1965, one cannot help but agree with the editors' claim that 'the challenge offered by Jones's article has never been fully answered enough' (p. xvii). [End Page 270] As a detailed collective contemplation by twenty scholars on communes and despots, and the extents and limits of considering them as distinctive entities, the essays cover a broad geographical and chronological scope that is not restricted to the political - essays on art, culture, and patronage are included. It is testimony to Jones's perceptive and rigorous scholarship that such a range of scholars have found much to contemplate in his thesis, more than a generation later.
The volume is subdivided according to the following headings: 'Power and Restraint', 'Political Thought: Theory and Practice', 'Communes and Despots: Some Case Studies', 'The Case of the Medici', and 'Culture, Art, Patronage'. It is in the latter section that the most innovative work is to be found. Peter Denley's discussion of the extent to which republican or despotic government was reflected in the burgeoning Italian universities is excellent, as is George Holmes's thoughtful analysis of the patronage of Bellini's painting Feast of the Gods, which he characterizes as 'the result of a republican reluctantly accepting a commission from a despot' (p. 293). Clearly, cultural interaction exemplifies how fluid categories of government were: communes and despots, for all their supposed differences, were hardly clear cut and distinctive, again pointing to the importance of Jones's thesis.
The 'Case Studies' section is especially thought provoking, and will surely initiate much debate and discussion amongst the current generation of socio-political historians. Included are essays on the following sites (in order of inclusion): Cremona, Mantua, Milan, Lucca, Naples, and Genoa. There are no easy conclusions to be drawn from this array of material, apart from showing that the flux between order and violence, liberty and despotism, highlight how the lines between republicanism and despotism cannot be easily drawn. No volume on these themes would be complete without some discussion of the Medici and Florence, and four contributions here focus on various hitherto unexamined aspects of the family's rule. A highlight in this section is the essay by Catherine Kovesi, in which negative characterizations of Alfonsina Orsini de Medici as a despot are revised in light of new research on Alfonsina's involvement in the drainage of Lake Fucecchio, revisionism that is executed with careful attention to contemporary sources, maps, and visuals. All the contributors are to be applauded for the rigor and thoroughness that they bring to these challenging, and in some instances, obscure case studies.
It is surprising that no biographies for the contributors have been included, and a concluding essay by the editors would have encouraged further reflection on this important theme and perhaps given greater cohesion to the proceedings. However, what is entirely commendable is that the editors have chosen to reprint the inspired source for this debate - Jones's original 1965 [End Page 271] article - as the first essay in the volume. Entitled 'Communes and Despots: The City State in Medieval Italy', Jones's essay still seems fresh and vigorous in its argumentation, and it is not surprising that subsequent historians continue to find its thesis worthy of investigation. Communes and Despots in Medieval and Renaissance Italy exemplifies how...