London: Oxford University Press, 1978, 427 pages
Left: Luccan merchant and political patrician Paolo Guinigi
The Tuscan city of Lucca, located between Pisa and Florence north of the Arno River, achieved a level of financial success during the Renaissance despite being dragged into wars between the aforementioned city-states. Meek’s book examines the period between its freeing from Pisan rule to the rise of the despotic Paolo Guinigi in 1400. The author argued that “the will and ambitions of the Guinigi themselves” were the decisive factors in the end of Lucca’s short-lived experiment in republican governance.
The book is an outgrowth of the author’s doctoral thesis, and Meek spent a commendable amount of time in the archives of, among other cities, Lucca, Florence, and Pisa. Thorough footnotes accompany the text, and the author provided detailed commentary on issues in many of these notes. Meek’s research, however, did not translate into a book that accomplished much more than providing an encyclopedic snapshot of 31 years of financial and governmental life in Lucca. The author, in a passage describing Lucchese territorial rights over lands also claimed by the commune of Florence, decided to delineate every entity, rather than a brief geographical summary:
They were mainly lands in the Valdinievole and Valdarno between Lucca and Florence and included Pescia, Uzzano, Buggiano, Stignano, Montecatini, Monsummano, Montevettolini, Pietrabuona, Fucecchio, S. Croce, Castelfranco, S. Maria a Monte, Montecalvoli, Montefalcone, Orentano, Galleno, Staffoli, and Montopoli.The text is almost evenly divided between economic and political history; readers should not be misled by the inclusion of the word “society” in the title that any significant social history is to be found in Meek’s work. While the author, for example, examined in great detail such issues as the struggles of the Lucchese to grow enough corn to meet the needs of both the commune and the contado, there is a decided lack of purpose to the work. While it may have filled a void on general works about the history of Lucca, Meek’s book does not provide scholars with any challenging analysis. In addition, the book has shortcomings as a book for general readers, since the text included frequent lengthy quotations of primary source documents in Italian and Latin, instead of the more customary English in text with original quotes footnoted.
Meek’s assertion that the 1400 end of republican government was due to the will of the Guinigi to seize power is puzzling; one wonders how many despotic rulers, in all of history, were reluctant in their assumption of power. What is even more frustrating, as a reader, is that Meek’s thorough research provided plenty of possible arguments to explain the rise of the Guinigi regime. For example, Meek debunked the belief that the Lucchese silk trade rebounded after the end of Pisan rule in 1369, and provided evidence that the economy of Lucca actually declined in the decades following the formation of the republic. An argument begging to be elucidated might look something like this: “The despotic regime of the Guinigi owed much to the declining fortunes of the Lucchese silk industry and the stagnant economy of the commune in the late 14th century.” Another thesis might be that Lucca’s geographical location – between warring Florence and Pisa, while without direct access to the Ligurian Sea – worked against the commune, and its economic decline could have a significant geographic component. Meek, however, settled for a sort of “great family” explanation for the rise of the Guinigi, and the book fails to integrate its impressive amount of detail into a compelling argument.