Beyond The Neighbourhood: The Urban Histories Of Sociability And Community In Renaissance Florence, 1400-1500

People Involved

Dr Nicholas A. Eckstein

Project overview

This project is a revisionist ethnographic study of the myriad, constantly-evolving personal relationships that defined the lives of all Renaissance Florentines. It will identify urban sociability as a dynamic process that continually reshaped the diverse micro-communities from which Florence’s densely-woven social fabric was formed.

By doing this the project shifts attention away from geographical neighbourhoods dominated by the Florentine ruling group, and recognises the role of non-elites otherwise stereotyped or excluded from analysis. By giving a history to social interaction, hitherto treated as a static category, the project will advance and reorient the fundamental study of Renaissance Italian social relations.

Project Details

Scholarship on Florentine neighbourhood transformed social history of the Italian Renaissance in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and has powerfully influenced inquiry into late-medieval and early-modern Europe ever since. It replaced the traditional, heroic vision of Renaissance Italy as birthplace of modern secular democracy and individualism with the more complex and subtle portrait of a population enveloped in 'medieval' webs of kin, friends and neighbours. These people relied everywhere on local networks of favours and service – what specialists term social patronage - to negotiate the dense thicket of their competing interests.

The history of Renaissance neighbourhood has had a revolutionary impact, but it is compromised by weaknesses that prevent it from leading the field as it once did and even function as conceptual barriers to further research.

The most serious problem is that neighbourhood history has focussed too much on strategies by which upper classes sought to control their own residential neighbourhoods. This means that in a quite fundamental way Florentine community life has been subsumed under aristocratic experience. This has produced a serious negative consequence: despite advances in knowledge, we remain comparatively ignorant of basic patterns of community which, like that involving the artists, structured and conditioned the everyday lives of the population as a whole in Europe’s most important Renaissance city.

This project aims to provide the first systematic study of the large expanse of everyday Florentine experience that remains uncharted. In doing so it will do more than simply advance knowledge, though this objective alone would justify the project. The more ambitious aims here are to develop new criteria for defining urban community, to reconceptualise existing knowledge of the way the city worked in the everyday sphere, to learn how contemporaries saw that process, and how it shaped their lives.

In short, this project will reinvigorate the entire study of urban social relations in Florence and by extension, Renaissance and early-modern Italy. It will do this in two broad ways:

  1. by exploiting rich and previously-unused sources that avoid the bias towards geographically-focussed neighbourhood;
  2. by applying the forensic approach of the micro-historian to these sources to track, map and reconstruct previously hidden forms of community, rather than accepting the ‘neighbourhood’ a priori as a starting-point for investigation.

Collaboration

  • ARC Discovery Grant, 2005-2006

Brief Profile

  • Dr Nicholas A Eckstein
    Since 2000, Nick Eckstein has been the Cassamarca Lecturer in the Department of History, University of Sydney. He specialises in the cultural and social history of Renaissance Italy, especially Florence. Nick Eckstein previously held an ARC Large Grant (2001-2003).
    Full profile