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  • On the Causes of the Greatness and Magnificence of Cities by Giovanni Botero
  • Adam Woodhouse Mowl
Giovanni Botero, On the Causes of the Greatness and Magnificence of Cities, trans. and intro. Geoffrey Symcox (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 2012) xxxvii + 95 pp.

Niccolò Machiavelli continues to cast a long shadow over the intellectual history of early modern Europe. Whilst Machiavelli is studied as a canonical author in the history of western political thought from, say, Plato to Marx, the name of his compatriot Giovanni Botero (1544–1617) remains very much embedded in the peculiar historical context of Counter-Reformation Europe. Indeed, Botero’s most celebrated work, The Reason of State (Della ragion di Stato), has since its publication in 1589 been appreciated primarily as a Christian defense against Machiavelli’s perceived secularization of political life. As such, Botero, a Jesuit theologian and political theorist, is generally read today as a spokesman for the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church’s response to the works of Machiavelli and the “Machiavellianism” of his supposed followers. This is not surprising, as Botero served as a consultore on the Congregation of the Index of Prohibited Books, a body that expended considerable effort chasing Machiavelli and his ghosts around early modern print culture. However, in [End Page 234] publishing this new English translation of one of his lesser-known treatises, Geoffrey Symcox makes a case for engaging with Botero on his own terms.

As Symcox explains in his introduction to the text, On the Causes of the Greatness and Magnificence of Cities (Delle cause della grandezza e magnificenza della città) has long been a victim of the success of The Reason of State. On the Causes was published in a stand-alone edition by Botero in 1588, the year before the editio princeps of The Reason of State, but in virtually its entire subsequent publishing history this slim text has been attached as an appendix to Botero’s magnum opus. Symcox argues convincingly that “this ancillary placement of On the Causes as a companion piece to The Reason of State has meant that scholars have not paid it the attention it merits” (xi). It is his intention to introduce a new generation of English readers to Botero’s treatise on cities. So why should non-specialists be interested in On the Causes? Symcox begins by stressing the “precocious originality” of Botero’s text. As he points out, On the Causes cannot be said to belong to a utopian tradition of Renaissance political thought, represented chiefly by Thomas More and Tommaso Campanella, nor can it be absorbed into the genre of practical architectural treatises, re-established in the middle of the fifteenth century by Leon Battista Alberti with his revised Vitruvianism (xii–xiii). On the Causes, Symcox proposes, represents a new approach to studying the city: “Botero shifts the focus of enquiry from the forma urbis … to economics, demography, and the political factors that foster urban development, causing some cities to rise and prosper while others do not” (xiii). Symcox notes that these highly innovative features have led Botero’s treatise to be hailed by some scholars as the first socio-economic analysis of cities (xii). On the Causes should thus be of interest not only to historians, but also to historically-minded sociologists, economists and political theorists.

Yet it is not just its author’s status as a student of urban socio-economics avant la lettre that makes On the Causes an important text for studying the intellectual history of Europe; Botero is also the first European author to treat seriously a range of non-European evidence when discussing the city. As Symcox observes, this procedure allows him to view the development of cities from a “global perspective” (xiii). An insight into why Botero chose to embark on a work of comparative history can be gleaned from Symcox’s helpful summary of his life and career. After travelling the length of the Italian peninsula from his native Piedmont to Sicily, Botero spent time teaching in Jesuit colleges in France. Symcox suggests that “[his] exposure to a very different society and culture stimulated the interest in geography and the comparative study of political systems that would...


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