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Sound and Memory in the Florentine Tradition of Merchant Memories

This project aims to write a new and comprehensive history of sound, memory and urban communities in Renaissance Florence from the 1430s to the early sixteenth century. In a period of tumultuous cultural, political and religious change, the allegiance between family and state seemed to vacillate. As a result, a variety of merchant writing poised between public and private spread in literary and historiographical works. By bringing together diaries and city chronicles along with humanist treatises and philosophical reflections, I will analyse the manifold circumstances in which Florentine communities could be mapped into neighboring, and often conflicting, sites of sound.

In the memoirs of the Florentine coppersmith Bartolomeo Masi (1480-1530), the stirring aftermath of the Pazzi conspiracy is strongly entwined with the sound of city bells. Masi’s Ricordanze offers a dense meditation on the subject of political chaos – ranging from the outbreak of the Italian Wars in 1494 to the death of Girolamo Savonarola in 1498 – within the framework of a republican ideology. A citizen is expected to make his way through a maze of forking acoustic paths, in a world full of danger in which artisanal knowledge and soundscapes often appear to be mutually reinforcing. My project seeks to understand whether – and to what extent – this phenomenological awareness can be thought of as peculiar to merchant writings in Florence. In doing so, I aim to analyse the themes of sound, memory, and urban communities from the mid-Quattrocento culture to the first two decades of the sixteenth century. In other words, I intend to shed light on how themes such as civic violence, artisanal autopsy of sound, haptic understanding, and the difficulty of locating communities in the premodern city, entered the literary and historiographical debates from Leon Battista Alberti to Francesco Guicciardini.

Scholarship has thoroughly investigated medieval guilds and other forms of fifteenth-century shared labor in Florence, focusing on the shifting realignment of family and state. Along with kinship and the idealized views of the Florentine family, however, the ideological ambivalence of the household, which included memories, family books, wills, ledgers, and double-entry bookkeping (in short, the type of sources that Giovanni Ciappelli calls “egodocuments”), becomes more visible toward the beginning of the sixteenth century, and certainly more deeply entangled with issues such as secrecy, accounting, sensorial epistemology, and the spread of print. The impact of embodiment and acoustic communities on the humanist project of writing history, moreover, is far more difficult to ascertain; at the moment, our research has concentrated only on the architectural aspects of city-building and the urban soundscape. Even James Amelang’s fascinating book, The Flight of Icarus, is almost entirely focused on artisan autobiographies as a private artifact and forerunners of European confessional narratives. My project intends to fill precisely this gap in scholarship by moving beyond patronage and self-fashioning and by proposing a novel juncture of two adjacent disciplinary branches – namely, history of the senses and the study of early modern forms of association.

The introductory part of my project investigates some of the main threads that connect the work of Florentine civic humanism to Machiavelli and Guicciardini, and beyond them to subsequent developments beyond the Alps and across the Atlantic, using sound communities as systematic ‘aggregators’ of social and political agency. In this section, I will maintain that commercial and private interests were thoroughly accommodated by Renaissance republicanism, but I am also arguing that the traditional demonstration of how such new Florentine attitudes to virtue and commerce anticipate subsequent expansions in America and England fundamentally overlook the physical fabric of sound and both the patrimonial and material typology of the city’s family books. The final part of the Introduction will undertake three tasks; first, I survey and compare recent work on acoustic worlds and historical phenomenology in the early modern period; second, I show how Burckhardt’s often-cited reference to the Florentine libri di ricordi as the “beginnings of autobiography” selectively read the primary and secondary sources on Renaissance Florence; third and most importantly, I analyze how the seminal argument on collective identity and urban images variously advanced by Michael Baxandall, Peter Burke, and Edward Muir, can be modified to help us to chart the discontinuity of public-making and the role of ephemeral voices in making up the urban polity.

The first chapter contains a thorough analysis of Leon Battista Alberti’s Libri della famiglia, which are briefly compared with some of his other writings, the Vita anonyma and the Apologi, and located in a category all its own within this project on grounds of their preeminence and of the contiguous, illuminating discussion of economics and family memory that they offer. My reading accepts Luca Boschetto’s thesis that Alberti’s critique of capitalism stems at least in part from a series of business crises encountered by his family line in the 1430s, and tries to detach the libri from both the manufacturing of oligarchic consensus and the urban patriciate at large: on the contrary, I will insist on a view of higher permeability, rather than conservation, of the model merchant and I will attempt to explain why and how Alberti’s Florence is particularly textured, tactile (or alert to senses as well), and useful to the study of professional communities, clustering, ritual practices and so forth. And, although full consideration of the marchands écrivains promoted by Bec, Branca, and Petrucci remains external to my scope, I will also rehearse the reasons why Alberti chose as a vehicle of his ambitious work one of the city’s most representative genre of memory and commentary.

The second chapter deals specifically with a series of engaging chronicles and memoirs dedicated to the boundaries and limits of belonging to the Florentine body politic, whilst also trying to ascertain the legacy of Savonarola’s preaching in the aftermath of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s death. I will take into account works by three individual authors who are variously implicated in artisanal epistemology: Bartolomeo Masi’s Ricordanze (1478-1526), Bartolomeo Cerretani’s Ricordi (1500-24) and Storia fiorentina (1476-78; 1492-96), and Luca Landucci’s Diario fiorentino (1450-1516). In treating these works, roughly in chronological order, I will try to understand why environmental observations – ranging from climate change to anthropomorphized cityscapes, often with ominous meaning attached to them – and attention to how physical sound and concrete city districts were ‘tagged’ to various user-groups were held in such high esteem as historiographical tools. Finally, this chapter will also investigate the elusive figure of the charlatan-hawker and book-seller (or binder) not only in order to understand the diffusion (especially in the vernacular) of the ricordi, but also to provide a more complete analysis of Florentine street culture. Recently, Rosa Salzberg and Massimo Rospocher set forth a vigorous program in which traditional print culture is complemented by peddling and orality; such study is paricularly relevant to the violent upheaval of the 1490s described by these chroniclers and their artisanal voices.

The third chapter will leave Florence momentarily, looking at the topic of this project – sound and memory during different phases of Medicean rule – from the outside in and turning the central argument on its head. In doing so, my aim is to provide an alternative answer to a long-standing debate over which specific elements of its cultural context made the literature of the ricordi an almost exclusive Florentine offspring. I will anchor such exposition by focusing mainly on Rome, Urbino and Venice in increasing level of detail; in addition, to the extent in which it is based on theatrical and musical representation, such discussion will bring additional strength to the sources already used in chapter II, since Masi, Cerretani, and Landucci are well-known for their interest in pageants and have often been mined for practical information concerning Renaissance festivals. After a preliminary account of how the Spanish Celestina (1499) was revived in Rome in such a way as to use the buzz of the event to screen gender, foreignness, and social class, I will examine Castiglione’s staging of Bibbiena’s Calandra in Urbino (1513), trying to show how, even there, sonic policies were scripted to emphasize the sensorial understanding of the play. I will then back up this hypothesis through a survey of the Venetian tradition of public entertainment as it is recorded, by accretion, in Marino Sanudo’s Diaries. Sanudo has plenty of neglected details on early theatergoers and their disposition as spectators. Following Filippo de Vivo’s retrofitting of the literature on the coffeehouse to Venetian spaces, I will therefore analyse the connections between sound and memory, and contrast it with the documentation on the Florentine Republic.

The fourth chapter will use Francesco Guicciardini’s collection of Ricordi, extending for about three decades after 1512, as the culmination of a trend first discovered in Alberti’s Libri della famiglia and then validated by the urban memorialists of Savonarola’s age, which I will formulate in two points: 1) from 1430 to 1530, the material genre of the ‘ricordo’ (with its scribal openness to re-intervention) became a remarkably stable site of mediation between the domestic household and the wider community that participated in its policing of sound and memory; and 2), as a result, the ricordi did not simply operate at the intersection of otherwise separate groups but also facilitated a negotiation, displaying the set of skills that are typically predicated upon antiquarians. In this reconsideration of inclusion/exclusion, I will react to what has been an obsessive preoccupation, in my view, with the skeptical counter-effects of philosophical certainties, claiming instead that Guicciardini’s mobile notebooks make just as much sense against a humanist geneaology as they do once inscribed into, and calibrated in relation to, Florence’s sites of sound and their manipulative, managerial tradition of notarial books and urban record-keeping.

The objective of this project is the writing of new and comprehensive monograph on sound and memory in Renaissance Florence that does not prioritize sonic exchange solely as the building block of spatial topography but also as a privileged ground for legitimacy and political maneuvering in variety of humanist and historiographical projects. Given the highly interdisciplinary nature of this subject, such an ambitious project speaks with equal force to a variety of scholarly communities and readers: historians of the urban form and Italian literature, students of the sound’s cultural reproduction and of early modern traditions of political discourse, to name only a few.