Can Florence in the Quatrocento Help Shape Tax Policy Today?
By Hugh Calkins
The Tax Lawyer, Vol. 68 No. 1 (2014)
Introduction: During the entire month of April 1990, I was a resident of the Villa I Tatti, the Harvard University Center for the Study of the Renaissance in Italy. The Villa is a library located amid orchards and vineyards just outside of Florence. It serves as a working and socializing place for a dozen or more scholars pursuing studies in everything from Fra Angelico at San Marco to the Medici and Music. The temptation to try my hand at mini-scholarship—something I never had the opportunity to do before—was irresistible. I therefore decided to apply what I knew about tax policy—the only subject on which I was conversant and which seemed remotely relevant—to Florence in the days of the Medici, and see what happened.
Upon learning of my intention, several of the social scientist fellows of the Villa suggested that I focus my attention on the “catasto”; Florentine legislation adopted in 1427. They claimed that the catasto was a significant event in the economic history of Florence, and that it might be significant in tax history more generally. Moreover, having heard my halting efforts to speak Italian, they thought I would be assisted by the fact that there were three books quite precisely on point—one of which was in English. They suggested that I supplement these books by examining original documents in the Archivi di Stato. To facilitate that exploration, they referred me to Signor Gino Corti, an experienced and charming paleographer who demonstrated a wonderful enthusiasm for the quest.
Soon I was enchanted by my journey into the “Quatrocento.” Just as a faraway place becomes more interesting when one explores there a subject with which he has some familiarity, so does an inquiry into a period more than half a millennium ago gain interest when one examines there a subject about which he knows something in modern times. By the end of the first week, I was spending all the time my wife would allow me to spend away from more sybaritic activities, pouring over my books in the Villa I Tatti and exploring thirty pound, fourteen-inch thick, wooden-covered volumes with Signor Corti at the Archivi. These volumes bound heavy parchment pages on which a scribe in the 1420’s had recorded the enactments of the City Council and the deliberations of the agency charged with collecting the taxes. The introductory letters of initial words were elaborately and colorfully calligraphed. Occasionally the scribe, tiring of writing words, inserted cartoons in the margins.
This article is an account of what I learned during my journey into the Quatrocento. If it contains inaccuracies, as it may, that is because my ability to read French is imperfect, my skills at reading Italian are much worse, and the sybaritic activities which one’s spouse can organize in and around Florence are unlimited.