This rich and stimulating study is the second monograph by the author, following in the wake of his well-received Ai margini dei giganti. La vita intellettuale dei romani nel Trecento (2016), examining the rich intellectual and literary life of fourteenth-century Romans. Building upon the work of Chris Wickham on the origins of the Italian commune, the author now turns his gaze on an earlier period in order to examine the cultural genesis of the communal movement in Rome in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. His study also fits into a renewed interest in the role and functioning of written culture within the history of communal Italy. Inspired by Ronald G. Witt’s concept of “documentary culture”, he does not only look into the literary or book culture of communal Rome, but also investigates archival documents and practices in this period. In fact, faced with the lack of internal documentation for the Roman commune – as the communal archive was already almost entirely lost by the end of the Middle Ages – the author does not limit his examination to the few surviving communal documents preserved by their recipients, but extends it to book manuscripts produced in Rome, city annals and chronicles, and other documents held by the archives of Roman churches, monasteries and families.
The book is divided into five parts. The first chapter establishes the general framework. It talks about Rome in general terms and provides an overview of the main historical developments, again with a particular focus on the book and archival culture of the city in the examined period. Having established this general background, the second and third chapter look into the politico-institutional history of Rome, focusing on the run-up to and the actual formation of the commune. Building upon research that has downplayed the importance of the so-called renovatio Senatus (1143–1144) and that has pushed back the birth of the Roman commune to an earlier date (c. 1084), the author distinguishes and discusses the following stages: a period of pre-communal experiments in times of crisis of the traditional political powers, the papacy and the empire (1080–1120), the stage of the proto-commune (1120–1138), a failed incorporation attempt by pope Innocent II (1138–1143), the renovatio Senatus (1143–1148), and, finally, the phase of a fully functioning commune after 1148.
In the fourth and fifth chapters the author enters into the heart of the matter, namely his attempt to establish the dynamic interplay between these communal institutional developments and their intellectual foundations. These two chapters contain the author’s most important contributions, presenting a kind of political intellectual history “in action”. To this end, he starts the fourth chapter with an analysis of what he identifies as a constant factor in the ruling elite, namely the presence of judges and notaries. He traces the long history of these learned protagonists, going back to the seventh to ninth centuries when a papal bureaucracy had developed that largely followed a Byzantine model and shared a hellenistic culture. These papal judges and notaries eventually migrated to the new communal institutions, transforming and redefining themselves as urban professionals when faced with the new political realities and legal needs of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. As a result, both groups were deeply immersed in the book culture of the papacy (thus also justifying, according to the author, its inclusion in a series entitled La corte dei papi).
This book culture encompassed ancient and early medieval histories, texts on grammar and rhetoric, Latin classics, and catalogues of Roman monuments. The author also argues that this cultural influence continued after the official link of these figures to the papacy was severed, thus stressing the permeability between the papal and communal city. For judges, this intellectual basis was complemented by a Justinianic legal culture, while notaries benefited from local documentary traditions. Finally, it was supplemented by the Bible, patristic literature, formularies of the papal chancery, and a text like the Variae of Cassiodorus. This detailed description of the cultural background of these legal practitioners forms the basis for the fifth and final chapter in which the author rightly stresses the transformative force of these “textual compasses” or “intellectual reservoirs”. They are not merely a static reflection of a socio-political structure (the commune), but rather a constitutive element thereof. More precisely, the author establishes a dynamic link between this intellectual environment and the institutional framework – and its evolution over time – in three specific areas: documentary practice, the administration of justice, and urban planning.
The author also deserves credit for considering Rome within the wider context of communal Italy, downplaying the traditional exceptionalism of Rome (due to its unique status as papal city) and confirming the presence of legal practitioners among the protagonists of the communal movement, while he also deals with another thorny issue that has generated scholarly debate recently, namely the existence, chronology, and content of communal political planning. According to the author, traces of an actual political project are only visible in Rome from the 1120s forward. This project, consisting inter alia of demands for wider political participation, a stop to violent factionalism, and a more equitable taxation and justice, is, in his view, the product of political imitation and emulation, inspired by the models of higher authorities and other cities, and the intellectual contributions of judges and notaries.
Overall, this is an excellent case study into the crucial nexus between politico-institutional developments and their intellectual foundations. The author is not only well-versed in the relevant historiography, but he is also willing to enter into an actual dialogue with this scholarship (both Italian and international), presenting his own position in some of the most pressing debates in a transparant and lucid manner. In addition, he clearly masters a wide range of sources (both edited and unedited), dealing with both their textuality (including marginal notes) and materiality, and he does not hesitate to suggest new interpretations for some well-studied texts and documents, thus combining commendable skills of synthesis with original research.
Naturally, more work is still to be done to test and fine-tune this model of cultural genesis, for instance by comparing it to other cities. Even for Rome, it will be necessary to fill in the precise details of this dynamic process, looking into other areas of communal government now explicitly excluded from the investigation, looking for more final answers to the still tentatively formulated intuitions about the late antique / early medieval flavour of the written culture of the judges and notaries, or trying to understand the actual mechanisms of interplay between this intellectual elite, having a sense of a shared identity determined above all by their readings, and the other leading groups in the communal movement, an interplay that was capable of turning a learned culture into a more widely shared civic culture. However, the fact that this book already suggests these avenues for future research and evokes such questions from this reviewer is actually the best possible compliment for this fine piece of scholarly work.