Leonardo Bruni and Traditional Italian Republicanism

Written by on July 2nd, 2013. Subject: History. Filed in Politics, about Leonardi Bruni Italian

|||Leonardo Bruni, Panegyric on the City of Florence, from Kohl and Witt, The Earthly Republic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1978.|||

A Portrait of Leonardo Bruni Would that God immortal give me eloquence worthy of the city of Florence, about which I am to speak, or at least equal to my zeal and desire on her behalf; for either on degree or the other would, I think, abundantly demonstrate the city’s magnificence and splendor…Indeed, the city is of such admirable excellence that no one can match his eloquence with it…Just as these citizens surpass all other men by a great deal in their natural genius, prudence, elegance, and magnificence, so the city of Florence has surpassed all other cities in its prudent site and its splendor, architecture and cleanliness…the men of Florence especially enjoy perfect freedom and are the greatest enemies of tyrants. p. 135, ff. So I believe that from its very founding Florence conceived such a hatred for the destroyers of the Roman state and underminers of the Roman Republic that it has never forgotten to this very day. p. 151.

The debate between liberty and tyranny is one that is still being waged today. Unfortunately, since the Enlightenment, much of our traditional understanding of liberty has been lost. Today, liberty is license, and is at its core individualistic and thus completely anti-community. When reading about liberty in the Panegyric we must be careful not to confuse our terms. Our notion of liberty would be unrecognizable to the author of the Panegyric. Furthermore, our terms of republic and republicanism are somewhat misnomers, for there have been many governments, past and present which claimed to be republican but few that could truly be called a Republic. Bruni’s Panegyric, however, describes one such republic. For purposes of this essay, I shall only concern myself with republicanism as understood by Bruni, as a representative system of governing perfected in the ancient Roman world, which at its heart relied on nobility, aristocracy, and virtue, along with hierarchy and participation, to succeed.

Sandwiched between the Holy Roman Empire to the north and the papal-states to the south, the Italian city-states were revolutionary in their approach to governing. Representative government is not something we generally think of when discussing the late middle-ages and early Renaissance, yet by the early fourteenth century the cities of Genoa, Florence, Naples, and Venice had developed into powerful republican states. These political communities were produced organically, i.e., locally, from which they grew as the result of trade and mercantilism. At the heart of their republicanism was a very strict system of hierarchy, an aristocracy if you will, of governing. With the birth of trade in these cities, small medieval villages began to thrive. By the time of Bruni, these states had become both powerful and rich, allowing for a degree of economic, political and military freedom. Their understanding of liberty was always supplanted to their understanding of hierarchy and participation so common in the middle ages yet so radically different from our modern notion of government for the people, by the people, and of the people. Unlike post-Enlightenment political philosophy, neither Florentine republicanism nor Bruni himself rejects the hierarchy of nature. Men are noble precisely because they are made in the image and likeness of God. Earthly governments should have degrees, i.e., a head and a body. There should be both leaders and followers. He presents a very clear and true sense of what constitutes “good” government—a good government is one that embraces ancient Roman principles and virtues and perfects them in an economically vibrant Christian community. People have a say in the government precisely to avoid tyranny. Virtue is absolutely necessary for good ruling and good citizenship; in fact, without virtue, a government and its people are doomed to failure. One would not rely on an idiot to draft laws for the masses, unless one himself was an idiot. Thus it is imperative in any government that hierarchy exists and that it is able to do what it should and must do. For instance, rulers were expected to obey the commandments, attend Mass, and frequent the Sacraments. Citizens were required to participate regardless of their social or economic position.

The problem with the work, however, is its hubris. Bruni arrogates to the citizens of Florence the “hereditary right dominion over the entire world,” (Panegyric 2.150). His rhetoric makes it difficult for us to follow. Is what makes Florence great her embracing of republicanism, or is it something more? I argue that Bruni is operating from a particular type of nationalism which undoubtedly made Florence great, yet made it difficult for anyone, including us, to take his writing as a serious piece of political philosophy. That nationalism also was unsustainable, as history has proven.

Undoubtedly, Bruni’s purpose is two-fold, to praise the city he sees as continuing the greatness of Rome, and to get others to recognize her greatness throughout the land. Perhaps it is foolish of me read a fourteenth-century text with the hope of understanding anything other than the period in which it was written. Yet, I don’t think it is. Although I am critical of the deficiencies of Bruni’s work, especially as a working model for us today, the principles and virtues he embraces and his understanding of nobility and hierarchy are more relevant now than ever. At least he had the courage to write so lovingly about the state of political affairs of his time. Even as a good modern, I don’t think I could do the same.

About John Heitzenrater

John W. Heitzenrater is a teacher of history at St. Peter’s Classical School, is a visiting lecturer at the Walsingham Society for Christian Culture, and a guest instructor for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth. He graduated from the College of Saint Thomas More and is currently finishing his Masters degree with the University of Dallas where his thesis will explore Individualism and Personalism in Catholic Social Thought. He can be reached at [email protected].

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