Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 2, 2009
Mark Jurdjevic Guardians of Republicanism: The Valori Family in the Florentine Renaissance Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 200 pp.; 2 b/w ills. Cloth $110.00 (9780199204489)

Guardians of Republicanism, a masterful examination of the political life of the Valori family of Florence as it was recounted in Florentine historiography, is as much a story of historiographic record as it is one of family memory. Mark Jurdjevic presents the Valori as at once emblematic of the complicated political negotiation pursued by Florentine oligarchic families and distinctive in their long-lived adherence to a “hybrid form of republicanism that insisted upon the compatibility” of the humanistic ideas of Marsilio Ficino with the Christian reforms of Girolamo Savonarola even into the seventeenth century (9). According to Jurdjevic, the Valori were unparalleled in their determination to use their collective memory for social and political reasons and to focus their considerable artistic and intellectual patronage upon this agenda.

Jurdjevic is among a new generation of scholars enriching our understanding of the concept of republicanism in Florence. While not dismissing Hans Baron, Quentin Skinner, and J. A. Pocock, Jurdjevic defines a nuanced republicanism that embraces oligarchic features. Florentine political life was characterized by the unresolved tension between republican, oligarchic, and princely government. The six-hundred-pound gorilla of the story is, of course, the role of the Medici family. From the consciously sub rosa control exercised by Cosimo il Vecchio in the mid-fifteenth-century republic to the overt display of ducal power pursued by Cosimo I, Duke of Tuscany, a century later, Medici authority or challenges to that power defined Florentine politics. Moreover, while much has been made of the role of the so-called “Medici faction” in Florentine politics, the reality was far more complicated. The Valori, for example, supported the Medici until they didn’t, and then switched sides yet again twice more. In fact, one of the virtues of this study is its demonstration of the labile nature of such political relationships.

Jurdjevic begins his study with an event immortalized by Giorgio Vasari’s painting Il trionfo di Cosimo a Montemurlo. In 1537, the army of Cosimo I de’ Medici defeated an exile Florentine army bent on preventing the resumption of Medici control of the city after a republican coup had routed the family from power a decade earlier. The painting illustrates an apollonian Cosimo de’ Medici admonishing the vanquished and humiliated leaders of the exile army, among whom is Bartolomeo Valori. Vasari executed the painting in the newly renamed Palazzo Ducale, signaling the end of the republican governments that had been housed in the former Palazzo della Signoria. Patently, the Medici were now in charge. For all its signal importance to the narrative, no illustration of the painting is included in the text; it appears only on the dust-jacket. The book does include a virtually unreadable reproduction of Scipione Ammirato’s family tree of the Valori.

In introductory pages, Jurdjevic establishes the close ties between Bartolomeo Valori and Cosimo de’ Medici. In fact, Bartolomeo actively assisted with Cosimo’s return from exile in 1434, and members of the Valori family were rewarded with political offices as Medici allies, a narrative that might be told of any number of Medici familiars. But the story changes in chapter 1, in which Jurdjevic examines the political history of Bartolomeo’s grandson, Francesco, the most controversial member of the Valori family. Loyal to Lorenzo de’ Medici until the latter’s death in 1492, Francesco participated in the expulsion of Piero de’ Medici two years later and became a close ally of the Dominican friar Savonarola. These actions established important precedents for future generations of Valori, many of whom maintained deep partisanship toward both republicanism and the legacy of Savonarola.

Francesco was the head of Savonarola’s political party and clearly exploited his connections with the friar, even while pursuing what Jurdjevic views as independent political goals. Jurdjevic examines Francesco’s motivations, the subject of much historiographic scrutiny, and concurs with Gucciardini that Francesco made a clear distinction between Savonarola’s moralizing and his politics; Valori supported the friar’s social conservatism, but rejected Savonarola’s efforts to refashion the republican government to be more inclusive. Rather, Francesco, like many ottimati, defined republicanism as oligarchical, with political power held in the hands of the few, ironically and tellingly not unlike the system promoted and exploited by the Medici.

Jurdjevic argues that while Piero de’ Medici’s appeasement of Charles VIII was a blunder that undermined his support, the real reason for the erosion of his power and ultimate overthrow was his reliance on “new men” of a lower social class than the ottimati families who had thrived under earlier Medici leaders, but who now felt shut out of government. When the ottimati attempted to restore the governo streto, rulership by oligarchy, Savonarola interpreted the rising popular criticism of the ottimati as evidence that God wanted Florence ruled by “its people, not by tyranny” (33). Jurdjevic skillfully illustrates Francesco’s gradual embrace of popular government as the means to his end of personal political power, the pinnacle of which was his election as Standard-Bearer of Justice, the highest office in the Florentine government, in 1497. Yet, just a year later, Francesco was assassinated, in large measure over his heavy-handed treatment of the conspirators who had attempted to return Piero de’ Medici to power.

Francesco’s death would be interpreted by generations of Valori biographers as the first Savonarolan martyr of the ottimati class. But the Valori were also enthusiastic supporters of Marsilio Ficino, the neo-Platonic philosopher assailed by Savonarola; this embrace of seeming political opposites exemplifies and distinguishes Valori family patronage and is the subject of Jurdjevic’s second chapter. Francesco’s nephews, Filippo and Niccolò, were personal friends, generous patrons, and defenders of Ficino, whose Platonic view of government by an educated elite ruling class perfectly suited such ottimati leaders as the Valori. Jurdjevic emphasizes that the myth of the so-called Platonic academy patronized by the Medici was, in fact, based upon such ottimati patronage of Ficino well apart from any Medici support. Indeed, after the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478, the Valori replaced the Medici as Ficino’s most important patrons.

Niccolò Valori penned a biography of Lorenzo de’ Medici upon which modern biographers still depend. Beyond its role in flattering the Medici after Valori opposition to both their attempted return to power in 1498 and their successful return to power in 1512, Niccolò also used the biography as a defense of Ficino’s embrace of Plato as central toward an understanding of Christianity and more broadly to legitimate Platonic studies for the Florentine ruling elite.

In chapter 3, Jurdjevic examines Niccolò Valori’s patronage of Francesco Machiavelli, focusing on Machiavelli’s two opposing portraits of Francesco Valori. In his earlier Discorsi, Machiavelli was critical of Francesco, presenting him as “an ambitious politician whose quasi-princely power endangered dangerous factional violence” (66). In the 1520s, in a notebook draft of his Istorie Fiorentine, Machiavelli defends Francesco as a misunderstood republican patriot. Jurdjevic sees Machiavelli’s volte-face as both influenced by his friend Niccolò Valori and as a part of Machiavelli’s own political rehabilitation after his support of the anti-Medicean plot in 1512. This chapter includes redundant information about Francesco Valori’s political career, a subject already fully explored in chapter 1. Jurdjevic presents divergent contemporary accounts of Francesco to draw a contrast with Machiavelli’s newly minted, fabricated interpretation. Finally, Jurdjevic makes the case that by sanitizing Francesco’s anti-Medicean actions and recasting him as a patriotic political conservative, Machiavelli was able to obscure and reinvent his own troubled political history. This chapter and the book in general corroborate Felix Gilbert’s conclusion that historical biographies usually have a political agenda.

Luca della Robbia’s cinquecento biography of Bartolomeo (il Vecchio) Valori, who had been gonfaloniere of justice in Florence in 1402, is the subject of chapter 4. Like the Valori, the Della Robbia had been supporters of Savonarola, and Jurdjevic elucidates the Savonarolan influence that was still felt in early cinquecento Florence. According to Jurdjevic, Della Robbia’s biography of Bartolomeo served the same function as Niccolò’s of Francesco; both were a means of reconciling the Valori family with the restored Medici. Once again, as with Machiavelli’s text, we feel the heavy hand of Niccolò Valori affecting the narrative, the principal function of which, according to Jurdjevic, was to promote a Savonarolan vision of Florentine politics that emphasized “concord, sacrifice and piety.” While this argument seems sound, Jurdjevic does not explain how any Savonarolan conception of government might be attractive to the restored Medici, who would have had no reason to rehabilitate the friar’s memory.

If early cinquecento opponents of the Medici found making up hard to do, the Valori under the Medici grand dukes of Tuscany had an even more difficult task. This must have been especially challenging for Baccio Valori, whose father and uncle were put to death by the Medici after the Battle of Montemurlo in 1537. In order to fashion an identity that accommodated the new ducal culture, Baccio crafted an image of a family devoted to public service and humanist patronage. Baccio found favor with the Medici through his grandfather Niccolò’s laudatory biography of Lorenzo de’ Medici and challenged the writers who maintained that the Valori had been enemies of the Medici, emphasizing instead the long periods of devoted service to the Medici, who are associated with the common good. Even Francesco Valori’s role in the Savonarolan years is reinterpreted as that of a humble public servant doing the will of the republic. Baccio evidently succeeded in mollifying the Medici, since he became an important political and cultural figure at the Medici court.

The final chapter is devoted to a study of early seicento Valori biographies by Scipione Ammirato and Don Silvano Razzi. Both make liberal use of the earlier biographies, both were written with the cooperation and likely patronage of Baccio Valori, and Savonarolan and Ficinian elements are common to both; but here the similarities end. Ammirato served as court historian to Grand Duke Ferdinand and thus presented the Savonarolan years as evidence of the danger of populist politics. Bartolomeo and Filippo Valori’s decision to oppose the Medici in 1537 are vehicles for Ammirato’s defense of absolutist political theory.

In contrast, the Dominican Razzi’s biography of Francesco Valori is unequivocal in its defense of Savonarola and of republicanism. Yet Razzi is also careful to portray the friendship of Francesco Valori and Lorenzo de’ Medici as being torn between “republican liberty and tyrannical absolutism” (157), with Piero de’ Medici as the tyrant in question. The five conspirators who tried to reinstate Piero get little sympathy from Razzi, who says that had they succeeded in overthrowing the republican regime, they would have made themselves kings, thus justifying Francesco’s harsh treatment of them. Francesco returns to his status as Savonarolan martyr to the cause of the popular republic. Jurdjevic maintains that Baccio Valori’s patronage of both histories illustrates the fundamental tension within the family that on the one hand sought accommodation with the contemporary reality of ducal Florence and on the other hand celebrated and treasured its Savonarolan and Ficinian republican past.

In his conclusion, Jurdjevic attempts to situate the Valori story in the larger context of Renaissance historiography. He dismisses arguments in favor of “a politically and ideologically static republicanism” advanced by recent scholars and prefers to define republicanism as something “more complex and polyvalent” (173). Jurdjevic critiques Hans Baron and Eugenio Garin’s assumptions that Ficinian philosophy promoted an apolitical withdrawal into a contemplative life, instead finding that “Ficinian humanism never lost its political and cultural relevance” (173). Finally, he argues that the hybrid republicanism embraced by the Valori gave them a “linguistic and ideological structure” (174) upon which to graft ideas about the state and the citizen’s role in it drawn from such diverse figures as Savonarola, Ficino, and Machiavelli.

While this book might appear tangential to art historians, we ignore such studies at our peril. As Jurdjevic makes clear, assumptions regarding Florentine republicanism and politics have been reductive. Families such as the Valori were engaged in a continuously shifting relationship with both the Florentine state and the Medici family. As we tease out the story of Renaissance and early modern patronage, we would be well-served to consider the many permutations of republicanism and the dynamic relationship that families such as the Valori had with the Medici.

Sharon Dale
Associate Professor of Art History, Penn State Erie, The Behrend College

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