Feb 22, 2006

Review: Marriage Alliance in Late Medieval Florence

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Left: Woman with a Veil (La Donna Velata), 1516 - Raffaelo Sanzio

Anthony Molho. Princeton, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994

Molho’s book examines the evolution of a Florentine patrician class that used marriage as a means to maintain social positionality. Drawing mainly from two sources – the catasto of 1480 and the records of the monte delle doti (a Florentine dowry fund akin to a modern 529 Plan for college tuition) – Molho developed a sort of Florentine “Who’s Who” list of the 417 families in the commune’s ruling class.

It was Molho who first noted the importance of the dowry fund, and this book is a continuation of the process of bringing the results of the author’s archival research to a wider audience. Mohlo argued that Florentine patricians labored to confine the marriages of their children to a small circle of social equals, and these efforts – along with strategic investments in the dowry fund, which then kept wealth circulating in that same circle - ensured the continued stability and dominance of the commune’s elite class. A family’s social positionality in Renaissance Florence was of the utmost importance; individuals and families rarely failed to take into account the hierarchical considerations of their political, social, and economic actions.

On the surface, the research is standard economic history; Molho organized the data into several dozen tables that examine wealthy Florentines from a wide range of statistical perspectives. In addition, the author provided for scholars nearly 100 pages of appendices that summarize the findings of his archival research. The data collection project itself was groundbreaking, as Molho and his assistants entered the information from over 20,000 Florentine marriages into a computer database.

However, to dismiss the book as mere quantitative gymnastics is to miss the importance of Molho’s findings and his interpretation of the data. Where possible, the author compared monte records with family ricordanze to illustrate the mentalité of the account holders; the simple maxim written down by Alessandra Strozzi – “He who wants to eat dinner on time, better plan dinner ahead of time” - provides valuable insight into the motives of the Florentine elites. The very acts of controlling marriages and funding dowries were, according to Molho, methods by which elites could perpetuate their continued power:
Property that left one house could be expected, rarely in direct ways but almost certainly through indirect and circuitous paths, to return to its place of origin, from where it would once again depart in generally predictable directions.
The very title of Molho’s work suggests a particular direction in which the book travels. Choosing the phrase “late medieval” instead of alternatives such as “Renaissance” or “early modern” was a deliberate signal to the reader that the author was reluctant to ascribe characteristics of modernity to quattrocento and cinquecento Florentine society; given its place at the center of nascent merchant capitalism, historians – including Burckhardt - are sometimes too prone to periodization and foist the label “modern” upon the commune.

Throughout the book, Molho avoided this temptation, and argued that Renaissance Florence was “an uncompromisingly nonmodern [emphasis added] world.” The commune had more in common with medieval feudalism than more modern social organization, and individual mercantile exploits garnered more glory for the family as opposed to the merchant. Molho’s work provides both quantitative data and reasoned analysis on the monte delle doti, as well as insights into the ways in which Florentines sought to adapt to and modify the existing social hierarchy.

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

Now see, this is what I'm talking about (or have talked about in the past, to be absolutely accurate)...

History profiding story fodder. Dowry trust funds make good story material, raunchy reality, but good story material!

Thank you.