Interview with Michael Bratchel

Dr. Michael Bratchel is a Lecturer in History at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa.  He works on Italian Renaissance History and focuses on the city of Lucca during the Later Middle Ages.  His latest book Medieval Lucca: And the Evolution of the Renaissance State, which is the first scholarly study to cover the history of the entire region from classical antiquity to the end of the fifteenth century.  We interviewed him by email:

This is your second book on medieval Lucca. What are the differences between Medieval Lucca and the Evolution of the Renaissance State and your earlier work Lucca 1430-1494: The Reconstruction of an Italian City-Republic?

The earlier book was a general history of Lucca from the restoration of the republic in 1430 to the first French invasion of Italy in 1494. Although the events set in motion by the first French expedition impacted rather less decisively on Lucca than on some other parts of the Italian peninsula, the period 1430-1494 seems to me to constitute a coherent chapter in the political history of Lucca – perhaps the last period when Lucca was truly able to pursue independent political and foreign policy initiatives. The earlier book offered a political narrative of a neglected period in the history of Lucca (against a background of debates around urban party formation that were then current in Italian historiography). It attempted a structural analysis of Lucchese politics, whilst also exploring the economic history of Lucca as an important manufacturing and banking centre, investment by the Lucchese patriciate in the countryside, and the role of the Lucchese Church. The first book probably attracted most attention for its chapter on relations between the hegemonic city and its subject communities. It is this theme that has been taken up in the second book. The new book is concerned with the evolution of the Lucchese state and the nature of Lucca’s rule over its subject territories. This project required a much broader perspective. The first book treats a few decades in the socio-political and socio-economic history of Lucca; the second book looks at the creation and organization of a city territory over one and a half millennia – from the foundation myths to the end of the fifteenth century.

Most scholarship on the development of Italian city-states has focused on some of the larger cities such as Florence and Venice. Why do you think it is important to look at a city like Lucca?

Certainly there is a deeply rooted assumption in Anglo-Saxon circles that Italianists must be working on Florence – or else that they should be. There is no doubt that in fifteenth-century Italy the future was to lie with a small number of regional powers: Milan, Venice, Florence; less fashionably with Genoa and Siena. An abiding Whiggism dictates that future success stories should determine those areas of the past most worthy of historical study. The preoccupation with Florence and Venice is legitimized in the recent profusion of studies on the emergence and defining qualities of the regional – or territorial – state (which Lucca was not). An infatuation with the elite culture of the Renaissance has not unreasonably focused attention on Florence (though too often at the expense of the minor princely courts, of Rome, and of the kingdom of Naples).

It is difficult to respond to the question why it is important “to look at a city like Lucca” – in part because there were very few Italian cities like Lucca. In Lucca the city-republic (characteristic of the medieval Italian political scene) survived until 1799 (and lingered on, radically transformed, until 1805); Lucca became part of the grand duchy of Tuscany only in 1847. For this reason alone, Lucca was a very distinctive – if not unique – political entity. I would feel more comfortable explaining why the Lucchese case-study was ideally suited to the purposes of the present study.

First, Lucca was a city of very considerable importance during the early middle ages – the period covered in the initial chapters of the book. Its archival sources for the early middle ages, and the weight of scholarship (Italian, Anglo-American, German) built on these resources, are very largely unrivalled. Without the foundations provided by early medievalists working on Lucca over more than a century the crafting of the book (in the shape that I wanted) would have been impossible. Secondly, Lucca survived as an independent city-republic into, and beyond, the period (from the fourteenth century) when Italian archival records become overwhelmingly, bewilderingly, dense. No other state would have enabled me to study in such depth a functioning, old-style, Italian city-republic – or to draw the distinctions that I have attempted between the traditional communal experience and the new regional states of the future. Thirdly, medieval Lucca controlled a relatively large city-territory; the later Lucchese state was small (though not insignificant) in comparison with later state formations. Working within a reasonably restricted geographical compass, I have been able to explore (under the microscope, so to speak) a whole range of issues relating to village structures and to relationships with the ruling city in ways that would have been difficult to execute on a larger canvas.

One theme I came across in reading your book is the role of the contado - the countryside ruled by Lucca. What are the kind of questions that historians should examine when looking at the relationship between city-states and the rural areas that surround them?

Medieval Lucca might be seen as a view of Lucchese history from the countryside. The approach has its dangers. In Lucca, as elsewhere, policies towards the countryside were affected by the great political upheavals of urban life. I have given attention – though perhaps insufficient prominence – to the impact of changing regimes (consular, podestral, popular), and to citizen responses to external challenges and threats. The balance has been determined by my own interest in rural life, and by the conviction that rivalries, conflicts, and initiatives within the countryside were often as important in shaping the course of events as were interventions from the city.

Studies of state-building have been much preoccupied by the measure and apparatus of control exercised from the centre. Regional differences in this regard explain the interest and importance of local studies like Medieval Lucca. Lucca by the fifteenth century was a very weak state, and typifies the mosaic of local autonomies and fiscal entities that historians have found elsewhere in Italy. At the same time, city-republics – ruled from a single urban centre – aimed at a degree of centralization, uniformity, and control much more pronounced than that attained by larger and later political formations. Historians might ask how far Lucca was typical of other medieval city-republics. Insofar as the new territorial states were amalgamations of city-republics, historians might well ask how far and in what ways the constituent units were transformed through subordination to an overweaning central power.

The subsequent characteristics of Italian city-states have been often associated with the existence, power, or fragility of a rural nobility. Lucca’s distinctiveness has been attributed to the urbanity of the Lucchese nobility and to the weakness of private seigneurial power within all parts of the Lucchese state. In Medieval Lucca I have explored the alleged urban base of Lucca’s great families, and a range of issues normally treated under the label “the conquest of the contado“. I am not an early medievalist and hope that the conclusions that I have reached will prove a fruitful starting-point for future studies. Similarly with regard to the typology. The contrast between a lesser urban-based and a greater country-based aristocracy seems generally unhelpful in the case of Lucca; in other regions it arguably provides a sharper reflection of reality. But recently scholars have begun to question the intrinsic differences in aristocratic landed power traditionally posited – even within Tuscany between Florence, Siena, Lucca, Pisa, and Arezzo. Future studies of the relationship between cities and their subject territories will continue to clarify and refine the differences and the similarities.

I have tried to devote as much attention to the economy and society as to the governance and administration of the Lucchese state – though the two themes are only pursued in separate chapters for the fifteenth century (the area of my own expertise, and the period towards which the whole book is directed). I look (as I have done on other occasions) at citizen investment in the countryside – intense within the Lucchese plain and in the region of low hills surrounding the city; disappearing almost completely in the more distant vicariates. More generally I ask questions about market integration, and how far the Lucchese state constituted an economically functional region (which it did not). Throughout the book my main focus is on Lucca, and on the history of a city-territory that is of interest in its own right. But in treating relations between city and subordinate countryside (economically, politically, administratively), I have tried always to ask questions that place the Lucchese case-study within the current historiography of northern and central Italy.

Your extensive research has taken you into several archives in Lucca. Would you have any suggestions for other historians who want to work on medieval Lucca about what they might find in the city’s archives?

Lucca’s archives are immensely rich in political, administrative, court, and notarial records, particularly from the fourteenth century. They are less well endowed with mercantile records (excluding those of the court of merchants, but most definitely including merchant account books) and family diaries (memorie e note). In most fields of study the Lucchese archives would challenge the most determined and diligent of scholars – though they remain less deterring than the larger of the Italian state archives.

Students of Lucca are advantaged by the excellent inventory published by Salvatore Bongi (Inventario del Regio Archivio di Stato in Lucca, 4 vols. (Lucca, 1872-88) – reprinted in 1999 with the additions and corrections of Giorgio Tori). Manuscript inventories provide details of individual volumes within the various archival series. Further published inventories – relating primarily to acquired family archives (archivi gentilizi) – have appeared regularly since 1946. Perhaps more unique to Lucca are the labours of Claudio Ferri. In 1991 Ferri published an index of notarial acts relating to communes within the Lucchese state, the administrative divisions of Lucca itself, and to hospitals, monasteries, and churches of the entire territory between 1245 and 1499 (L’Archivio dei Notari di Lucca – Istituto Storico Lucchese, Strumenti per la ricerca ii). In 2004 Ferri published an index of notarial acts relating to artisanal, mercantile, financial, and professional activities in Lucca and throughout its territories, 1245-1499 (L’Archivio dei Notari di Lucca – Istituto Storico Lucchese, Strumenti per la ricerca vi). Anyone wishing to work on the communities, institutions, trades, crafts, or professions of medieval Lucca and its territories have at their disposal an index of the massive notarial archives that would be difficult to parallel in any other major state archive.

As important as the state archives is the Archivio Storico Diocesano di Lucca, most famous internationally for its collection of more than 1600 parchments that predate the year 1000 (almost 300 of which are pre-800). The parchments obviously become more plentiful for later centuries, but the earliest ones constitute an essential source for the study of the Lombard and Carolingian periods, not only in the histories of the diocese of Lucca itself but more generally for the history of the whole of northern and central Italy. The Archivio Storico Diocesano contains court records relating to the independent administrative and judicial powers of the Lucchese Church (both with regard to ecclesiastical discipline and to the governance of those parts of the Lucchese territory over which the Church exercised secular authority). It also houses notarial registers that significantly predate the earliest records preserved in the Archivio di Stato, and that provide an important source for anyone working on the social, political, economic, and ecclesiastical history of Tuscany in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

The third major repository within the city of Lucca itself is the Biblioteca Statale in Lucca, which has a rich collection of geneological material for anyone wishing to pursue the history of individual Lucchese families. The Biblioteca Statale also contains numerous copies of Lucchese chronicles (mostly unpublished). Beyond the city borders there are significant communal archives in Camaiore, Gallicano, and Pietrasanta (useful largely for the deliberations of local councils). And, of course, a great deal of material is preserved in neighbouring state archives – particularly relating to areas of the Lucchese state that passed out of Lucchese political control and fell under the rule of an adjoining state – notably Florence and Genoa.

Finally, what new research topics are you now working on?

I have been approached by an Italian publisher with a view to producing an Italian translation of Lucca 1430-1494: The Reconstruction of an Italian City-Republic. That book is now fifteen years old (if we exclude the reprint of 2004). I would not want it to reappear without the correction of (relatively few) mistakes, and without some significant rewriting to take account of publications and scholarship since the early 1990s. I have spent a considerable amount of time working on a revised edition – that now exists on my computer and in manuscript. The project has been delayed (perhaps even shelved) in the current economic climate. But a fully revised manuscript of Lucca 1430-1494 now exists – when and if it should be called for.

I have just completed an article requested for a Festschrift: an article entitled “The Countryside and Rural Life in the Fifteenth-Century Lucchesia”. The article, less tied to the theme of state-building, explores the direction of rural change in the decades after 1400 hinted at in Medieval Lucca. At the end of this year (2009) I will be returning to Lucca to work on a couple of villages situated in the eastern margins of the Lucchese plain. And I have continuing (though often thwarted) ambitions to prepare for publication work completed many years ago on Lucchese merchants in Constantinople and on fifteenth-century Lucchese silk manufacture.

We thank Dr. Bratchel for answering our questions.

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