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Power and Imagination: City-States in Renaissance Italy [Paperback]

Lauro Martines
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Product details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press; Johns Hopkins Paperbacks Ed edition (1 Mar 1988)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801836433
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801836435
  • Product Dimensions: 23 x 16 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 707,341 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


[A] brilliant study... of the extraordinary explosion of expression in art and scholarship which made Italy the model for Europe.

(Los Angeles Times)

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It is hard to summarize chaos, yet the narrative history of Italy in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries is a story of political wreckage and confused authority. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
This fascinating book picks apart the mechanisms which drove the Italian Renaissance. Surprise, surprise, it wasn't the product of a bunch of guys inspired by artistic beauty but of the money of patrons who saw art, and especially public art, as a means of political and social competition and legitimation. A core reading for understanding the Renaissance.
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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  10 reviews
25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An overview of Renaissance politics and culture intended for more advanced students and historians 16 Feb 2006
By D. Cloyce Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Originally published in 1979, Martines's study of the rise and fall of the city-states in Italy, especially of its cultural manifestations (literature, art, architecture, political theory, and the philosophy of humanism), has for the most part withstood the test of time. The volume is not really an introductory survey for lay readers, nor is it a scholarly monograph. (In fact, the usual scholarly apparatus--notes and so on--is astonishingly sparse.)

Instead, the volume will serve as an overview for advanced undergraduates and specialists, summarizing the scholarship to date, integrating Martines's views on the interactions between economic class and cultural production, and presenting a largely revisionist analysis that portrays the Italian republics not as beacons of democracy or humanism (in the modern sense of the words) but as oligarchic structures alternating between periods of chaos and political stability.

Martines does not even broach the Renaissance era for the first third of the book. Instead, he develops the rise of the city-states during the eleventh through fourteenth centuries. It's the weakest part of the book, largely because his discussion is so filled with series of vague generalizations and with laundry lists of the common characteristics (or distinctions) across a swath of cities. Only occasionally does he depart from abstraction to mention specific historical examples, and for the uninitiated this first hundred pages will make torpid reading.

The meat is in the later sections of the book. At the risk of oversimplification, Martines's basic points are (1) that the political and military forces driving the city-states were defined by and developed for competing oligarchies (e.g., nobles against merchants, or one city against another) and (2) that the flowering of humanism was entirely at the service of those oligarchies. In short, a "Renaissance man" was a member of the upper class. Among historians today, these are hardly controversial tenets, but Martines shows how the attitudes and prejudices of the upper classes pervaded every aspect of life and art, from the "grandeur and show, order and ample spaces, finesse and finished surfaces" of architectural design, to the pragmatic ("realist and utopian") political visions of Machiavelli and Guicciardini, to the "relaxed and civilized" idealism portrayed by Castiglione's handbook for courtiers.

Martines's work serves as a partial rejoinder to those generalists (for example, Jacques Barzun, Daniel Boorstin) who still see the Renaissance primarily for the flowering of republicanism and humanism. Italy's art, culture, philosophy, politics, and militarism--all were at the service of the wealthy, and all were formulated to insure the continuing domination by those elites. Only much later were artists, historians, and scholars able to sift through this heritage for its potential republican virtues.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Politics and Intellectual Culture 12 April 2008
By R. Albin - Published on Amazon.com
Martines devotes himself to 2 themes. The first is Power; the history of the distinctive political culture of Italian city states. The second is the relationship between political/social history of the city states and the flowering of Renaissance high culture. Martines' primary goal is to expose the social phenomena that led to the efflorescence of Renaissance high culture.
The first half of the book is a solid and well written history of the emergence of republican city states in Nothern Italy. Martines covers the Medieval background, the struggle of city based elites to establish control over the cities from the feudal nobility and other traditional actors, the emergence of more republican forms of government, and the eventual emergence of powerful oligarchies. This part is a generally well balanced combination of overview and specific examples which gives an idea of the diversity of events in different city states. Martines gives some idea of how the civic and republican oriented attitudes engendered by the city states generated something new in Western culture.
The second half of the book is primarily a social history of Renaissance high culture, examining its relationship to the status of elites in the city states. For example, he sees humanism as primarily a program for the oligarchic elites of the city states. Fifteenth century art, with its emphasis on realism and human activities is seen as an extension of the self-confidence and sense of mastery of city state elites. The political and social disaster that followed the French/Spanish invasions of the Italian peninsula are shown to provoke be reflected in a variety of intellectual changes. These include the flight to fantasy on the part of poets like Tasso and Ariosto, the emphasis on uncontrollable forces (fortuna) in the work of Machiavelli and Guicciardini, and the emergence of the Mannerist style in art. Martines is an astute critic and the social history of high culture is the best part of the book.
While this book is not really intended as a comprehensive overview of the Renaissance, there are a number of deficiencies. While Martines does mention the importance of changes in population and trade, there is little discussion of demographic or economic history per se. Addition of even a small amount of data would have been useful. There is really no discussion of the effect of the great 14th century Black Death and subsequent plagues. I find it hard to believe that this demographic catastrophe didn't have something to do with the emergence of seignorial rule in approximately the same period. Martines's discussion of high culture doesn't touch on science at all and an expanded discussion of political theory would have been appropriate.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Tendentious Argument 9 Jun 2006
By Collin Garbarino - Published on Amazon.com
In Power and Imagination, Lauro Martines argues that the Italian Renaissance had two stages with the second building upon the first. "In the first stage, social energies--economics, politics, a vibrant demography--were primary and foremost; in the second, the lead went to cultural energies" (332). Mirroring this thesis, his title refers to political authority (the power) and the "articulated ... consciousness of those who speak for the powerful" (the imagination) (xi). Martines also advocates that historians engage in "the sustained scrutiny and deep analysis of texts" (x). This approach is refreshing compared to number heavy history, but it does have its own particular dangers.

Throughout the book, Martines focuses on the communal nature of the city-state. He seems to argue that everything good in the Italian Renaissance sprang from this tentative egalitarian civic nature. In the first half of the book Martines takes the reader on a tour of his first stage of the Renaissance, describing the development of the communes and their further development into republics or signories. Then in the second half of the book he focuses more on the cultural development of these city-states, but he argues that this creativity was the city-states' spending the intellectual and moral capital from their commune days. However, many of Martines's assertions regarding the civic source for the "imaginings" of the Renaissance are shaky or truncated interpretations.

Martines's description of the humanists has certain problems. He admits that he had to deemphasize the role of the university in the humanists' origins in order to make his point that they were an extension of civic culture (203). He points to the lawyers and notaries as being the "critical figures in the origins of humanism." Not only does he fail to give the doctors of the Church the credit due them, he also attributes "new" forms of learning and inquiry to the humanists that were not new at all. He claims that the humanists developed the strategies of putting texts in context, and that medieval thinkers were atemporal. However, medieval commentaries on both ecclesiastical and classical texts contain accessi by which students would learn about a work's context. He also attributes the development of textual criticism to the humanists. However, the Greeks at the Library of Alexandria, in trying to purify the text of Homer, essentially used the same canons of criticism that scholars use today. Additionally, Origen did textual criticism on the Septuagint, and scholastics used the same canons in order to preserve Jerome's Vulgate from accretions with the Old Latin texts. Though the humanist emphasis was different from that of the scholastic, humanism should not be viewed as the sharp break with the past that Martines presents.

Martines also views the Renaissance's idea of "the dignity of man" as originating in the dignity of the urban elites (214-217). This interpretation seems a bit tendentious, and fits too well with his broader argument. That "the dignity of man" ideal is located in the imago dei seems much more plausible. Martines thinks that because many texts speak of man's domineering others that the dignity must be a fiction. However, equating egalitarianism with dignity is Martines imputing a contemporary value on the texts. He warns his readers of this danger elsewhere but succumbs to it here.

I found Martines's description of the "power" engaging and persuasive (though I have little background in Renaissance Italy's politics). However, the strength with which he binds the imagination to the power leaves me with strong doubts. His thesis needs room to breath. Perhaps I demonstrate my naivety, but I refuse to believe that power is everything.
16 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars genious 3 Feb 2000
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
This book is perhaps the definitive intellectual work on power relationships within Renaissance Italy. Power and imagination in the City-States formed in a reciprocal relationship. Artistry oft relected what patrons desired more than anything else. Patronage kept the purse and told painters exactly what to paint and even allocated how much of what paint to use. Thus great works of art and intellect not so much reflected the imaginative genious of individuals as the pull from strings of power. The irony is that this gave birth to intellectual freedom. Martinez is a true genious in telling the theoretical as well as practical implications of this.
4.0 out of 5 stars A Flawed Classic 27 July 2014
By Simple Scholar - Published on Amazon.com
Lauro Martines’ “Power and Imagination” is a provocative work that explores the development of the Italian city-states from the late tenth century to the sixteenth century. Martines states, in the preface of his work, that instead of the traditional distinction between society and culture, his monograph focuses on the themes of power and imagination. Martines argues that the Italian city-states rose to power as a result of two-fold process. First, from the late tenth century to 1300, the city-states developed a reinvigorated economy based upon trade, created a stratified society of aristocrats, educated middle-class workers, and peasants, and fostered a civic code that revolved around urban virtues. The second phase, which occurred from 1300 to 1600, centered on the predominance of ethical humanism and territorial power. Martines develops his thesis meticulously over the course of sixteen thematic chapters.

Martines’ book is an impressive work. He draws heavily on a variety of primary sources and he has an impressive command of the canon law, poetry, literature, and art of Renaissance Italy. He cites several secondary works, most of which are in Italian. The problem of his book, then, is not factual; it is theoretical. By limiting his book to discussions on power and imagination rather than culture and society, Martines’ book rests upon a dark view of human nature that emphasizes conflict theory, power politics, selfishness, and Nietzchean acts of the will. As a result of his theoretical assumption, Martines neither explores the positive role of religion in Italian city life nor provides a less ideologically-driven understanding of humanism.
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