Reviews and Short Notices
Urban Legends: Civil Identities and the Classical Past in Northern Italy, 1250–1350. By Carrie E. Beneš. Penn State University Press. 2011. xiv + 278pp. $79.95.
Version of Record online: 20 MAR 2013
© 2013 The Authors. Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature © 2013 The Historical Association
Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature
Volume 96, Issue 1, pages 59–60, December 2012
How to Cite
Bruschi, C. (2012), Urban Legends: Civil Identities and the Classical Past in Northern Italy, 1250–1350. By Carrie E. Beneš. Penn State University Press. 2011. xiv + 278pp. $79.95. Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature, 96: 59–60. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8314.2012.01261.x
- Issue online: 20 MAR 2013
- Version of Record online: 20 MAR 2013
Despite the long-standing historiographical tradition of studies on the foundation legends of late medieval Italian republics, no comprehensive work has recently been carried out on the links between these and their classical ancestors, that is, the classical myths or literary works that served as templates to medieval writers.
Carrie Beneš has been working on several aspects of the link between classical and medieval Italy, and this book collects and expands upon a topic which seems to be particularly dense in significance for an understanding of ideologies, the making of myths and the circulation of these within a restricted urban environment.
The first plus-point is that Beneš has chosen to tackle case studies which exceed the ‘traditional’ list of the most-studied Italian cities (especially by non-Italian scholars), and specifically Genoa, Siena, Padua and Perugia. Beneš reads well and with extreme clarity the connections between these cities' foundation legends and their classical past. Overall, Beneš's book is dense with suggestions for medievalists and classicists alike. First, as it encourages the establishment of trans-chronic links (ideological, practical and political) between the classical period and the medieval one; secondly, as it looks beyond the over-used bipolarity of power structures and the common people; and thirdly, as it raises important thoughts and problems related to the circulation of knowledge within these circumscribed micro-worlds (the cities and their so-called ‘cultural elites’), and between them and the outside communities.
By no means, in fact, does Beneš intend to consider each city as a world in itself. There is some recognition of the specificity of each situation, and of the variations occurring over time, so that inconsistencies are thoroughly accounted for. By repeating the same structure in each chapter (‘Growth and Civic Improvement’, a discussion of the myth itself, and finally ‘Intention and Agency’), the author applies a remarkably clear scheme, and suggests a methodology allowing for comparisons between case studies. However, by concentrating on the transferability, or ‘peripatetic nature’ of the Italian artists and intellectuals, Beneš transcends the boundaries of city walls. These men were in fact employed in turn by several civic authorities and councils as if following a very modern criterion of trend-spotting, but also according to the specific needs of the cities' memory-construction strategy.
People, their movements and the movements of ideas, transmitted by one individual to the other through schools, private meetings, public assemblies and the reading of each other's work, are the protagonists of this study. Chapter 6, pulling together the strings of the preceding analyses, represents the most mature section of this book.
But Beneš's highest achievement is the intellectual framework within which she operates: she has helped to dispel resilient assumptions about the relationships between power structures and subjects by showing that, at least in late medieval Italian cities, the boundaries between these categories were much more blurred than is commonly believed, and by no means guided by a top-down only discourse, centred on a supposed manipulation of identity. To different extents, all citizens contributed to mould or reshape their own past and present identity. By simply being exposed to the public advertisement of foundation legends, to civic rituals of remembrance, visual representations of the myths, to public speeches, open assemblies of the government bodies, or by being somehow related to those who took more active roles in the city's management, all citizens were active participants of this shared past and shared present. Beneš highlights the different degrees of literacy available to people (Latinate literacy as compatible with vernacular literacy, for instance), thus overruling the binomial ‘literate/illiterate’ and showing the impact that in-between categories had on to the common definition of the past and its remembrance (e.g. legal practitioners, notaries and those who obtained their education through a path other than university or cathedral school).
Analysis of these specific case studies through fine arts as well as civic traditions, rituals and written accounts has allowed a very exhaustive overview on the many facets of civic representation. Foundation legends and their representations, therefore, were the clear by-product of the active, multi-faceted cooperation of all citizens to create a common identity; and in turn this common identity was the foundation of a living (not theoretical only) cultural patrimony helping people deal with the present and its contradictions and inconsistencies.
Such a viewpoint permits a clearer understanding of the insistence displayed by medieval authors on the concept of unity, and its mirroring obsession with the breakdown of this unity – how selfishness, the prevailing of private interest over common good, and in general individual blame lie at the core of a city's fall in fortunes.
All in all, one has the perception that this book contributes to make odd pieces of a fuller puzzle fall into place. For this reviewer in particular the analysis of continuities between time periods is paramount for removing strong scholarly parameters – such as the one of manipulation, powerlessness and class – which so often still mar historical research on the medieval period (as if modern historians still fall prey of the definition of a ‘middle time’ lying in between classicism and Renaissance). Beneš's work demonstrates strongly that by concentrating on what ties generations together historical research will be able to detach itself from these self-imposed limits and constraints.