Brief Review of ‘The Rise and Fall of The House of Medici’ by Christopher Hibbert

The Medici are one of those families of which a reputation centred around ostensible luxury has arisen over the centuries: vaunted for their sophistication and prosperousness and vilified for their ‘usury’ and corruption. What cannot be denied is their effect on Florentine, and Italian, history as well as their effects on all cultural developments that ensconce the renaissance.

This book is one I bought a long time ago and has subsequently been sitting on my bookshelf, content to be left alone. And so, with some anticipation, now that I have widened the scope of what I read, I picked it up and was instantly absorbed. A fairly small book, given it covers several centuries, it is over 300 pages long. Hibbert, a popular writer, is a perpetual biographer of the past; the temporal range of his writings cover well above a Millenia of human history.

It would be a gross mischaracterisation to portray this book as one one written in the vein of a ‘grand narrative’ or ‘diplomatic history’ of many history books even if the Medici were at the forefront of Florentine political life for several centuries. Rather, Hibbert organises his book as essentially a series of separate but interlinked biographies of the most popular member of the Medici family. This is punctuated especially by a constant focus on renaissance culture; various sculptors and artists make their way into Hibbert’s prose and there is an occasional whiff of the classical cultures of Greece and Rome hanging over his descriptions:

 

“Yet for Florence, as Cosimo had foreseen, the Council had far happier consequences. As well as profiting the trade of the city, it was an important influence on what was already being spoken of as the Rinascimento. The presence of so many Greek scholars in Florence provided an incalculable stimulus to the quickening interest in classical texts and classical history, in classical art and philosophy, and particularly in the study of Plato, that great hero of the humanists, for so long overshadowed by his pupil, Aristotle. (Hibbert; p.164)

The sensitivity Hibbert shows to the wider cultural influence of the Medici is interspersed throughout, and it is thoroughly delectable to read; his descriptions of the patronage of Michelangelo by Lorenzo is heavily touched upon as well as Cosimo’s interactions with Brunelleschi. Hibbert naturally focuses on the earlier years of the Medici: their nascence, fantastic rise, and stay at the apex of Italian city-state politics for two-three centuries. The later years of the Medici (16-18thC) occupy a smaller proportion of the book which is no great tragedy as the earlier Medici were certainly the more interesting to read about as opposed to the Tuscan rulers of the later Medici family.

Of course, Hibbert is attentive to religious matters, particularly the two Medici Popes and especially Leo X. What is at the fore of Hibbert’s re-telling of the fortunes of the Medici is his succinct but bountiful prose; he has clearly inquired into every facet of the Medici’s history and brought out the best and most alluring stories. Granted, there is a deficit of social history but that is to be expected in a popular book of this kind, whose primary readership are perhaps less interested in the conditions of the lower Italian classes in 14th Century Florence than the opulence and refinement of the Medici and other noble families in Florence.

There is little in the way of negativity that I can write about the book save that I dislike that many plates and illustrations, like with this book, are placed in the centre of the book. This, I actively dislike yet I can imagine it being a practical publishing issue but it would be good to not have to constantly flick through a book to see an illustration of what an author is describing.

Nevertheless, the extensive bibliography, notes on artworks; portraits; sculptures and buildings are to be commended, if only for the opportunity it provides for readers to find more books based on the notes. The book is a fantastic introduction to the Medici family and by extension, some elements of the Rinascimento.

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Regarding Translation of Plato’s Imagined Republic.

“The title Republic is a bad translation of the Greek politeia. The Greek word does occur a number of times in the book, as well as forming the title, and in this translation it has invariably been rendered as ‘political system’. Politeia is the public and political life of a community; in Latin this is res publica, ‘public business’; Greek words used to be referred to by their Latin or Latinized titles: hence Republic. The book, however, is not by any stretch of the imagination a treatise on republicanism or Republicanism. Nevertheless, the title is immovable.”

Introduction to Republic, translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford World Classics.

It is because of information like this that I do prefer Oxford World Classics (OWC) over Penguin Classics. The bibliography, notes and introduction in OWC make them, I think, the best popular series of world literature.