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From shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in 400 years.

Title: The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici, by Christopher Hibbert

Motivation: Annual leave for two weeks in and around Tuscany.

Completed: May 28, 2012 (#33)

Recommendation: Short on “edu-tainment,” long on focused biographical history.

A Superfluous Man recently had occasion to travel in Italy and thought reacquainting  himself with the Medici would be in order. As advertised by its cover, The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici chronicles the full sweep of the Medici family, initially focusing on the great Cosimo, Piero, and Lorenzo Il Magnifico, then on successive generations in which the family’s blood ran thin and its fortunes were gradually depleted.

Mr. Hibbert’s book is a dry if fascinating read for students of the Renaissance but is perhaps not the right book to take along on a trip to Tuscany. Mr. Hibbert’s focus is on the political and business machinations of the Medici Bank, and his biographical portraiture of the family’s leading lights is sound. On Cosimo:

He was not as learned as many other humanists in his circle, though Pope Pius II, who had a very low opinion of Florentines in general, condemning them as ‘traders, a sordid populace who can be persuaded to nothing noble’, allowed that Cosimo was a highly cultured, clever and knowledgeable man, ‘more lettered than merchants are wont to be’. Certainly there were few Florentine humanists with a wider knowledge of classical manuscripts which he began to collect at an early age, and there were scarcely any who were more intensely concerned with the importance of humanistic ideals in the conduct of public life. Although he himself never became a master of those arts and disciplines, such as rhetoric, which the humanist was taught to practise, he never questioned the right of those who did master them to occupy the most honoured positions in Florentine society. Most of them, after all, came from the same sort of background as himself. But in one important respect Cosimo was different, as his father had always urged him to be, from most of the humanists of Florence: he seemed anxious to remain, as far as possible, out of the public eye.

Mr. Hibbert’s book is not primarily a work of art history, and those looking for a thinking man’s guide to the monuments of Tuscany should look elsewhere. Happily, there are ample options for someone looking to gain more from a trip to Italy than weight. A few recommendations: