THE WRITING of the history of Florence is in the hands of an international constituency of scholars -- East and West Europeans, Canadians and even Australians and Japanese. It happens that during the past 20 years some of the most exciting work in the field has come from eight or nine American historians, one of whom is Richard A. Goldthwaite of The John Hopkins University.
Essential historical work on Florence has emphasized politics, society, institutions, and the intellectual culture of humanism. More recently the accent has shifted to demography, social structure, economics, and the machinery of public finance. All the best of this work has been based upon strenuous research, sometimes years of it, in Florentine archives -- the single exception being Hans Baron's seminal The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance.
In The Building of Renaissance Florence (pun on "Building"), Professor Goldthwaite sets out to write an economic and social history of the city by concentrating on its construction industry -- a fresh, daring, and fertile line of approach.
He argues that the economy of Renaissance Florence was remarkabale vigorous and that much of the vigor lay in the far-flung, international activity and contacts of its merchants and bankers. The result was that Florence profited from a favorable balance of trade and enjoyed a large, continuing influx of gold coin. Whereas such wealth would have stuck to few hands almost everywhere else in Europe, in Florence, Goldthwaite claims, it was redistributed. The vehicles of this redistribution were the construction and decorative-arts industries, above all in the classic age of the Italian Renaissance, between about 1400 and 1560.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, rich Florentines came to feel an urgent need for larger and more imposing houses (palazzi) with magnificent facades and grand interior spaces. After 1400, this demand rapidly swelled to such proportions as to revive the building trades and all but revolutionize the scope and imaginative treatment of the decorative arts, from carving and furniture to wall hangings and glazed earthenware. Large sums of gold coin were channeled into building projects, thus passing into the pockets of unskilled workers, stonecutters, masons, carpenters, and other craftsmen. Of all workers and artisans, those in the building and allied trades, Goldthwaite contends, were the best off economically. Spurred on by decent wages, by great architectural undertakings, and by the promise of rising socially, artisans and workers were moved to create superior products which further whetted the acquisitive appetites of the rich. In effect, the Renaissance of the arts in Florence sprang from this vital give-and-take. To lend authority to his claims, the author has appended much material drawn from archives, including wage rates, estimated daily food rations, and tables of fluctuating meat and wheat prices.
Here, as if by a stroke, Professor Goldthwaite has renovated the tenacious old myth of a miraculous Florence: city of individual genius, of careers open to talent, of fluid political zest and brave artistic and intellectual horizons. No mean thing to have done in the face of a glowering and suspicious 20th century. But the international constituency of Goldthwaite's peers will want to question his conclusions and the lay public should know what the points of controversy are likely to be.
His optimistic assessment of the Florentine economy will certainly draw fire, as will his cozy picture of workers in the construction industry. If nothing else, wage rates -- reported here at higher than subsistence levels -- will be set off against irregular and uncertain employment cycles. So viewed, daily wages, calculated on a yearly basis, turn into the stakes for a hand-to-mouth existence. Again, some historians will contest the claim the Florence was unique. Others will wish to know precisely why upper-class Florentines, in a strongly conservative age, suddenly began seeking to transform their life style and living spaces. And others still returning to the matter of wealth redistribution, will point to Florence's confiscatory fiscal machine, which drew its major ordinary revenues from indirect taxes on food staples and succored powerful urgan patricians by inviting and favoring their investments in the Florentine public debt. Here was a constant rerouting back, into the building industry. In a labor-intensive economy, there was no way for labor ot to be cheap.
Let these anticipated queries, however, not dim the importance, originality, and value of this quietly polemical study. Renaissance Florence has had no more able defender in recent times than Professor Richard Goldthwaite.