Article abstract: In his Chronicle, Villani conveys an empirical account of the Italian communes and lays the foundation for a historiography based on human will and action.
Giovanni Villani was born into a wealthy merchant family in Florence, Italy. It may be assumed that Villani, like most sons of merchants, went to a grammar school to learn Latin and then to another school to learn computation on the abacus. Thereafter, he likely apprenticed with a merchant firm, perhaps the Peruzzi company, with which his name was first associated. He served as an agent and partner in this great merchant banking house in Flanders off and on from 1300 to 1307. From his intimate knowledge of the affairs of Philip IV, it has been conjectured that he had contact with the French royal court. In Florence, international trade and banking were integrally linked, and at some point Villani entered the guild of bankers. He witnessed and contributed to Florence’s golden age of commerce when the city served as Europe’s banker and one of its chief centers of trade. After 1308, Villani continued to act as a representative of the Peruzzi, but he was no longer a formal partner. In 1322, Villani became a member of the rival merchant company of the Buonaccorsi. His participation in the Buonaccorsi firm reflects his independence, for he appears to have been one of the principal partners, which would have required a sizable investment.
In a manner similar to that of other Florentine merchants, Villani served abroad in his early adulthood and accumulated knowledge and wealth. He thus possessed the leisure and experience to participate in the Florentine Republic from 1316 to 1341. In addition to numerous minor offices, including responsibility for coining money and for the city walls, Villani held the position of prior, the most prestigious and powerful in the Florentine government, in 1316, 1321-1322, and 1328. Though he apparently never fathered children, he married twice, his second wife being from the wealthy family of the Pazzi. This marriage into the highest echelon of Florentine society and his political offices best indicate Villani’s social prominence in the city of Florence.
In 1338, Villani’s economic and social fortunes suffered a disastrous blow—one that affected the entire Florentine merchant community. In that year, the Buonaccorsi suffered bankruptcy, as did the Bardi and Peruzzi companies. Villani was sent to the infamous Florentine prison, the Stinche, for his debts, and he never recovered his wealth or prestige. From 1342 to 1343, the Florentines experimented with rule by a dictator, which led to a more popular government composed of new citizens, many of them from the Florentine countryside. Villani held no offices after 1341 and felt alienated from the rule of the new governors. In his history of Florence, he frequently criticized these newcomers for their presumption and political ineptitude. Villani died in 1348 from the plague while describing in his history the devastating power of that terrible disease.
The fame of Villani derives from his Croniche fiorentine (Chronicle, 1896). The Italian edition was completed by F.G. Dragomanni in four volumes dated 1844 to 1845, though it has never been fully translated into English. Villani informs the reader that he was stimulated to write his history of Florence while on a pilgrimage in Rome for the Great Jubilee of 1300. Excited by the ancient monuments and the great deeds of Roman heroes and stirred by the belief that Florence was the daughter of Rome, Villani determined to memorialize the numerous accomplishments of his native city. On the basis of internal evidence, critics have judged that he began to write in the 1320’s or even as late as the 1330’s. He probably did conceive of writing the history in 1300, beginning to accumulate materials then or soon thereafter. He also may have sketched the chief events of the period of Florentine political conflict from 1301 to 1304, which he knew at first hand. It was only in 1322, however, that he began to treat Florentine history fully. From that year until his death, Villani appears to have written contemporaneously with the events and to have recorded all the important occurrences that came into his purview. In the 1330’s or early 1340’s, he decided upon the overall form of the work, to which he added chronicles of the final years.
The Chronicle is composed of twelve books, with the first six dealing primarily with events prior to Villani’s lifetime. In the broadest analysis, Villani’s Chronicle remains in the tradition of medieval histories because it places the events of fourteenth century Florence within a universal history that begins with the Tower of Babel as a dispersal of Adam’s descendants. In the first book,...
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