Contributed by Niamh Cullen
It feels a little strange being a twentieth-century historian in Florence, when the city is imbued everywhere with such a strong sense of a much older past. Walking around the centro storico, everywhere you look you see medieval towers, Renaissance palazzi, piazzas, cathedrals, all crowding around churches, statues… you get the idea. And so, even though I’m spending some time in Florence to do research for a project on 1950s and 1960s Italian history, I realised pretty soon that I was going to have to go a little farther back to really understand the city I was staying in.
As part of this ongoing side-project, I came across a small, slim book in the Uffizi Gallery shop called Giovanni and Lusanna. Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence, by American historian Gene Brucker (Berkeley, 2003). First published in 1986, when micro-history was beginning to come into vogue in historical writing – Carlo Ginzburg’s classic study of a sixteenth century miller and his world, The Cheese and the Worms was published in 1976 – the book is a study of a case brought by Lusanna, a widow from a modest background against wealthy banker Giovanni della Casa. According to Lusanna, Giovanni married her in secret. She brought a case against him after learning that he had contracted another marriage with a noblewoman, alleging that his marriage to her made him a bigamist.
Brucker trawled through the extensive court record that still exist on the case to reconstruct a fascinating and richly textured account of the world that both Giovanni and Lusanna inhabited in fifteenth century Florence. The two lovers lived close to each other in the centre of Florence, but inhabited dramatically different social milieus. Lusanna came from a family of respectable, but lower class artisans – her father was a tailor and her late husband a textile worker – while Giovanni, as a wealthy banker, would have moved in the same circles as the most powerful Florentine families and was even connected with the Medici. While it wasn’t uncommon for such wealthy and powerful men to have affairs with lower class women as bachelors, a marriage such as that between Giovanni and Lusanna would have been highly unusual. Lusanna’s story was that Giovanni had married her in secret, fearing disinheritance if the wedding became public knowledge, while Giovanni denied, of course, that the ceremony had ever taken place.
We never find out for certain what happened between the two (though the evidence suggests they were married), and Brucker declines to speculate either, letting the detail he has amassed speak for itself. While it would be very easy to sensationalise such a story, or to play up the emotions involved, he never falls prey to this temptation. He doesn’t dramatise the main characters, or speculate about their feelings. However, the book remains gripping throughout, and it is through the constant layering of details – about their social backgrounds, neighbourhoods, cultural milieu, and the case itself – that we do gradually get a real sense of Giovanni and Lusanna.
However, as with the best microhistories, Brucker doesn’t get too caught up in the importance of this one case, or the main characters involved – who, after all, were not typical or terribly important in their own right – but uses the story to give us a fascinating glimpse into the customs and values of Florentine Renaissance society. Far from it being just a love story-gone-wrong, the story of the lovers, and of how their case was conducted tells us much about the power structure of fifteenth century Florence and the complex and contradictory place of religion in that society, as well as giving us fascinating detail about the customs and values surrounding marriage, love and relationships. Giovanni and Lusanna makes for an informative and entertaining introduction to the world of Renaissance Florence, where, ordered and hierarchical as it was, a woman like Lusanna was still allowed to make her case, and her voice heard, for a brief moment in history.
Niamh Cullen is an IRCHSS postdoctoral fellow at the School of History and Archives, UCD. She specialises in modern Italian history and her current research project focuses on the relationship between dress, popular culture and social change in 1950s and 60s Italy.