Chance in Renaissance Florence
Department of Sociology
Is it possible to describe an entire culture, or an entire historical epoch, in unitary terms? Undoubtedly such an endeavor is extremely risky. Movements generally spawn countermovements; ideologies engender counterideologies. The meaning of cultural symbols is constantly being subverted. The significance of these symbols is regularly upended. Even the more satisfactory understanding of culture as shared points of contention (rather than shared understandings, let alone shared values; see Laitin and Wildavsky 1988, or Bourdieu 1998:78) does inadequate justice to the diversity of streams of cultural meaning co-existing in any given time or place. ‘High culture’ and popular culture spin in different spheres. And human beings seem remarkably adept at swimming in multiple activity streams, without worrying about their confluence or their contradictions.
Nevertheless, viewing an entire cultural epoch through a unitary lens is precisely what I attempt to do in this paper. More specifically, I try to weave a thread through a variety of spheres of Renaissance Italian experience, and specifically Renaissance Florentine thought and experience. This thread is the idea of chance. The topic of chance arises in Florentine culture in a surprising variety of guises. We find it a key focus of attention of a handful of Florence’s most important Renaissance thinkers, most notably Petrarch in the mid-fourteenth century, Coluccio Salutati in the late-fourteenth century, Alberti in the 1430s, and Machiavelli in the 1510s. Indeed, some contemporary political theorists see these authors’ encounters with fortuna, or more precisely their meditations on the classically paired themes of virtue (virtus, virtù) and fortuna, at the root of modern, secular, historically informed political philosophy (Garin 1965, Pocock 1975, Skinner 1978).
Fortuna is seen as a pervasive, frequently anthropomorphized, cosmological factor fundamentally affecting (typically, adversely) the human condition. The ubiquitous play of chance wreaks havoc with the notion of providence, or destiny. Accordingly, in Alberti’s and Machiavelli’s writings especially we find two distinct but perhaps linked strands of the thread of chance. On the one hand, the topic of fortuna is introduced in different places and discussed in an ironic or satirical rhetorical mode. One might even say that precisely because the idea of chance debunks beliefs about the fundamental orderedness of the world, satire is an ideally suitable genre for invoking it. Here we find a kind of a cynical moral philosophy, a stance that seeks to undermine human hubris. Specifically with Machiavelli, thinking about the chancy quality of human activity gives rise to an historiography and political science that is simultaneously more humanistic and more ironic than other possible philosophies of history. Although there may be somewhat predictable patterns to political life, and although Machiavelli is optimistic in some passages about the power of man’s virtù to overcome fortuna, I believe it is fair to say that, for him, fortuna is ultimately unconquerably capricious.
On the other hand, in both of these authors we also find discussions of the requisite techniques for ‘managing’ chance. Both ordinary people and political leaders cannot determine their destiny, but they can cultivate more or less prepared attitudes for coping with this capriciousness of fortuna. Thus the encounter with chance simultaneously engendered a mode of speech and thought that tore down old certainties, and attempted to replace those certainties with something more like strategies for action. These ‘strategies’ were rather different from those propounded in the fourteenth century, as well as rather different from those that would come to be propounded in the later 1500s (Santoro 1967; Skinner 1978,I:186ff.).
These thoughts about chance are all well and good, but chance was also a deeply integral element of Florentine practical experience and popular culture. This fact is virtually completely neglected by political philosophers, Skinner’s historicism notwithstanding. For one thing, chance was worked directly into the Florentine electoral process through the principle of sortition. Here chance was not an abstract force, but a concrete technical tool—in Goffman’s terms (1967:156), a kind of “decision machine”—used to control participation in communal governance. For another, Florence was the crucible for the proliferation (if not the emergence) of financial capitalism (Padgett and McLean 2002: McLean and Padgett 2004), but Church usury laws forbade the charging of certain profit on loans, forcing merchants into elaborate and (at least formally) risky exchanges of currency to earn a living. Defaulted loans to foreign princes were fatal to the largest Florentine firms of the first half of the 1300s. International trade was no less risky a venture, with frequent losses of merchandise to storms at sea and piracy. The mentalité of the small-fry Florentine shopkeeper may well have involved cautious frugality, but that of the international merchant-banker—no matter how rationalized the technical instruments of his craft (Melis 1990, de Roover 1974)—was undoubtedly daring and entrepreneurial (Renouard 1949, Bec 1967, Pitti 1986, Dini 1995). Perhaps because of their experience in living with risk, Florentines were also remarkably precocious in the development of speculation—a practice taken perhaps to even greater (though perhaps more scurrilous) extremes by Venetians in the sixteenth century. Most importantly, then as now, a career in banking or trade hinged on the confidence (fidanza) of others.
I would go farther and argue that some idea of chance was integral, not only to the specific institutional spheres of politics and commerce, but more pervasively, to a great deal of social interaction in the Florentine, patronage-based social system of the fifteenth century. Here chance took on at least two distinct significations. First, social, and specifically patron-client, interaction was the essential vehicle by means of which individuals tried to establish bonds of friendship (amicizia), or love (amore), or loyalty (fede), or mutual advantage (utilità), with each other. But precisely because the stakes of such interaction were thought to be quite high, and trust could be just as useful when successfully feigned as when it was genuinely present, there was a good deal of uncertainty about just who one was dealing with. As a great twentieth century student of social interaction has commented, “Whatever it is that generates sureness is precisely what will be employed by those who want to mislead us” (Goffman 1974: 251). The gestures and practices of those who wish to deceive us or exploit us will be indistinguishable from the gestures and practices of those who wish to deal with us sincerely. Strategic interaction is thus “chancy indeed” (Goffman 1969:66). This kind of chanciness or uncertainty must have been particularly pronounced for patrons, like Cosimo and (later) Lorenzo de’ Medici, who were constantly trying to assess who was a genuinely loyal friend and who was not.
The second side of chance inherent in the Florentine patronage-based social system appears when one thinks about it from the client’s side, rather than the patron’s side. Strategic social interaction—seeking favors from powerful men, writing letters to express one’s loyalty, securing recommendations from others—had (and has) an element of “fatefulness” to it (Goffman 1967:156-65). That is to say, the particular actions one ought to take in a particular situation with a particular alter are not routine, but at least to some extent problematic; and there is some likelihood that the outcome of such interaction will be consequential. For the would-be client, something was laid on the line when he (and it was virtually always a ‘he’) expressed his devotion to, or faith in, a patron. In a word, what was at stake was his honor (onore), and the character and self-concept that flowed from his sense of honor. There is something inherently risky about honor. To be more precise, perhaps one need not risk anything if one is believed to be honorable; but when one’s honor is questioned, one must take action and be perceived to take action. Hence the connection between chance-taking and action-making chosen as a starting point by Goffman (1967) in his analysis of various kinds of gambles. In Florence, there was cognitive uncertainty about the motives of others, but equally a moral obligation to expose oneself to risks with and for others.
Thus, the problem of chance pervaded the entirety of Florentine social interaction, in addition to impinging upon and diverting the fate of individuals taken singly. This paper adumbrates some of the guises in which chance appeared in Florence, and poses the question as to whether or how these guises may be linked to one another across domains into a kind of Florentine ‘culture of chance’ writ large (cf. Witmore 2001). To do this, I will begin with literary and philosophical texts, then proceed to a discussion of ‘institutionalized chance’, and conclude with a number of documents in which more or less ordinary Florentines address the vicissitudes of chance and honor.
Toward a Fortuna-based Cosmology
It was an important trope of classical thought that the human condition is best viewed as a struggle between our will (informed by virtue) and fortuna. Despite the powerful sway of fortuna, various Roman authors nonetheless argued that virtus could subdue or conquer it. This strand of argument was vehemently repudiated by Augustine for two reasons. First, the capriciousness of fortuna was an affront to the idea of an ordered universe. Fortuna must in fact be subsumed under providence, such that what appears to be arbitrary is in fact purposeful. Second, the classical idea of virtue gave too much power to humans to apparently alter their destiny, and too much opportunity to celebrate humans for their own accomplishments. Being virtuous should not be something chosen by the individual, but willed by God (Skinner 1978:95). The Augustinian view that fortuna, if it is to be given credence at all, must be an instrument of heaven, was hegemonic from Boethius through Brunetto Latini and on up to Dante. For Boethius in particular, fortuna is the the providential source of suffering that prompts the individual to exercise the Christian virtues. Along the same lines, Pocock (1975:41) argues that the relation of virtus to fortuna is one of form to matter: “civic action, carried out by virtus . . . seized upon the unshaped circumstance thrown up by fortune and shaped it, shaped Fortune herself, into the completed form of what human life should be: citizenship and the city it was lived in.” For Roman authors, this “city” was an earthly republic animated by civic virtue; for Augustine and his followers, it was the civitas dei, and/or the individual’s journey to redemption.
The Augustinian vision of fortuna is eroded with Petrarch. I say eroded, because Petrarch is complicated and speaks in many different voices. He takes away part of the Augustinian paradigm, namely the idea of fortuna as purely providential, yet he upholds and even strengthens the capacity of virtue—but seemingly Christian virtue in particular—to combat fortuna. Thus, after quoting Virgil, Sallust, and Cicero concerning the absolute dominion of Fortune in human affairs in his Invectiva contra quendam magni status hominem sed nullius scientie aut virtutis [Invective Against a Man of High Rank with No Knowledge or Virtue; 2003:195], Petrarch exclaimed
O Fortune, who are omnipotent if such men speak the truth, what are you doing? Does the power of your realm extend even here? It is too much. There is nothing omnipotence cannot accomplish, but God forbid that Fortune should be omnipotent. For there is only one who is omnipotent. Indeed, as soon as Fortune sees virtue approach, she surrenders, impotent and infirm.
“Fortune cannot grant good character, intelligence, virtue, or eloquence,” he continues (2003:197). And in another passage, he asserts that Fortune “has no power outside her own realm” (Invectiva contra medicum, or “Invectives Against a Physician”; 2003:15). All of this is to imply that something about fortuna really is capricious, really is distinct from Providence. However, capricious fortuna cannot touch what is essential, the highest form of human excellence. Here virtue—or a combination of classical and Christian virtues—seems no longer to be solely a gift of grace, but becomes a product of human effort. Thus begins the idea, as Skinner (1978,I:94) puts it, of the vir virtutis (man of virtue) as one “able to shape his own destiny and remake his social world to fit his own [we should insert: appropriate] desires.” Two styles of thinking emerge from this shift. On the one hand, emphasis upon humans’ capacity for virtue culminates in the writings of Giannozzo Manetti and Pico della Mirandola (c. 1487) in the later fifteenth century on the dignity of man, whereby human freedom of choice, not a preordained life of grace, is God’s true gift to humankind. On the other hand, increasing recognition of the autonomy of fortuna spawned a certain amount of pessimistic literature, such as Poggio Bracciolini’s The Misery of the Human Condition. Alberti and Machiavelli each vacillate in some way between these optimistic and pessimistic poles, as we shall see shortly.
It took some time for fortuna to be permanently detached from the notion of Providence. As a result, there was no lasting tendency yet to view fortune primarily in secular terms. The work of the great late-fourteenth century Florentine chancellor, Coluccio Salutati, is a case in point. The tension between fortune and virtue concerned Salutati throughout his life. In his early years he appears to have been a rather unabashed devotee of the ancients and specifically ancient ideas of virtue, notably in an important letter of 1369 (Skinner 1978,I:93). But later in life he experienced a turn towards a deeper Christian faith that was reflected in a work of his maturity, the De fato et fortuna [Of Fate and Fortune], written in 1396. As outlined by his biographer Ronald Witt (1983:316ff.), Salutati’s views in this work were plainly (even derivatively) Augustinian. Fate and fortune were manifestations of divine Providence—subordinate to the divine will, heavy with significance. Fortune specifically was identified with “the hidden and accidental cause of a rare, notable, and unexpected event happening in a way other than intended by the agents” (Witt 1983:324)—an unexpected outcome of nevertheless voluntary motions. He struggled to reconcile free will with necessity and even a doctrine of predestination of the sort theorized by a variety of medieval writers. He also suggested that we should see the least play of chance “where there is much wisdom” (Witt 1983:326). The result is a text that does not so much explain, as explain away, chance.
One should not discount the belief of these authors that Fortuna is capable of turning worldly affairs radically upside down. Nevertheless, the scope of fortune, and the concern with fortune, is radically expanded in the fifteenth century, in particular in the writings of Leon Battista Alberti. I will discuss a sample of Alberti’s thoughts on fortuna here, focussing on passages from his collection of “Dinner Pieces” (Intercenales) and his famous treatise on the family (Della famiglia).
According to David Marsh (1987:5), the Intercenales may have been inspired by Macrobius’s Saturnalia. The title suggests leisurely improvisation, and the pieces themselves are often imitative of satirical classical works. There is a playfulness here quite different in tone from the sobriety found in Salutati and perhaps even from the serious vituperation of Petrarch’s Invectives. For example, there are traces of Lucian-style Cynicism in Alberti’s biting commentary on the moral optimism and/or self-satisfaction of his contemporaries, most notably in the screed entitled “The Cynic,” a diatribe against priests, magistrates, philosophers, poets, rhetoricians, and merchants. Clearly Alberti (in this one respect, perhaps, not unlike Petrarch) debunks those who somehow believe they have conquered chance by their greatness, or that they can somehow dodge their proper fate.
The problem is that Fortune afflicts the virtuous as well as the vain. The character Philoponius—a transparently autobiographical character appearing in “The Orphan,” “Affliction,” and “Rings,”—finds his ideals and his integrity continually crushed by the folly of the world (1987:6). The first of these Philoponian pieces opens with the phrase, “They say that fortune is always hostile to just men” (1987:16). Note: not “sometimes,” but “always.” In the piece entitled “Virtue” (1987:21f.), Fortune is dubbed a god feared even by the Olympian gods. She lifted them up to heaven, but when she chooses, she will cast them down. “If you are wise,” the character Mercury says to the character Virtue, “hide yourself from Fortune.” Clearly the balance between fortune and virtue has tipped. In another piece (“Frugality”), the character Perifronus (meaning “most prudent”) advises Micrologus (“penurious”) not to pry too deeply into the ways of Fortune lest it give rise to paralyzing fears and suspicions, thereby “cheat[ing] oneself of present goods through fear of future harm” (1987:38). Pretty dreary dinner conversation!
Indeed, in a piece entitled “Fate and Fortune,” one character—a philosopher—recounts a dream that suggests that all of human life is governed by chance. He dreams of a river, “the swiftest and most turbulent river imaginable,” into which a vast number of shades step. They become swimmers in the river of life. Some glide down the river on floats with their heads held high; but they are in grave danger of wrecking on the jagged rocks hidden beneath the surface. Some are aided by large boats—metaphors for empires—but often these boats are vulnerable to crashing because of their great size. “A better lot is theirs who from the beginning rely on their own strength in swimming.” They know “when to pause briefly” and “when to use their great strength.” They are skillful, but also virtuous, vigilant, diligent, and prudent, and they deserve to be honored (24). A slightly different way of managing fortuna is offered in the Aesopian piece called “Stubbornness,” in which the wind stands for fortune. Fortuna is better withstood by pliant reeds that bend with the wind than by giant oaks that stubbornly resist it (171; also see Marsh 2003:12). This moral gets summarized in the phrase, “We must yield to the times.” These images of Fortune as water and as wind get combined into what appears its most distinctive and definitive guise in “Rings,” in the form of a storm at sea:
Like sailors tossed amid stormy events and rocky circumstances, we must be cautious argonauts. As the times dictate, we must change tack and seek safety with honor or chart a safe course through the waves. The sailors’ vane is not moved by itself; rather, driven by the winds and breeze, it yields and follows their movements willingly and without resistance. (Alberti 1987:215; also see Marsh 2003:16)
The phrase, “seek safety with honor,” and the positing of navigation as a metaphor for human conduct or agency, echoes Cicero’s comments on political prudence (Marsh 2003:17). It also curiously echoes a stock expression in Florentine requests for favors, namely salvando l’onore: for example, I ask that you do this favor for me ‘while retaining honor.’ And in a more general sense, it helps us to understand the nature of political interaction in general in Florence as somehow fraught with risk—a point I take up at greater length below. For the moment, though, note especially that the proper antidote to fortuna is no longer virtue per se, but virtue in conjunction with prudence, and even flexible adaptability:
I learned that Fate is merely the passage of things in human life, which is carried along by its own sequence and descent. I observed that Fortune is kinder to those who fall into the river where there chance to be whole planks or a boat. . . . Fortune is harsh to those of us who have plunged into the river at a time when we must continually overcome the waves by swimming. But we shall not be unaware that prudence and diligence are of great value in human affairs. (27)
Despite this concluding appreciation of prudence and diligence, there remains an abiding vexation with the vicissitudes of fortune, as is evident in a passage from the piece called “Affliction”:
Why do you persecute just men with such great hatred? Why do you thwart their well-being? Why do you subvert their virtuous actions by your injustices, and ruin their way of life? (85)
Again, not only are the vain brought low; so too are many undeserving of such an ill treatment. Philoponius is only roused from his frustration with the injustice of Fortune when he is asked for the name of any person with whom he would wish to switch places, any person “whose advantages and disadvantages you prefer to your own” (90). Philoponius can come up with no name, and his “anger” turns to “equanimity.”
If a man lives in dignity and eminence, his life is troubled and restless. If he excels in learning, he leads a squalid and maligned existence. If he is honest and holds high principles, he must expect perpetual strife with Fortune.
Given the perpetual strife visited upon him by fortune, the wise man must “choose to be himself” (Alberti 1987:90).
We find fortuna ubiquitously as well in Alberti’s more famous text, the Della Famiglia. Thanks to digital technology (www.intratext.com/IXT/ITA0733/), we now know the word fortuna appears 204 times in that work, thirty-two times in the brief (3200 word) prologue alone. Alongside it are numerous references to the key personal attribute that Fortuna attacks, namely honor (onore, onestà), and numerous references to the ‘remedies’ one may use against Fortuna, namely diligence (diligenza, industria, fatica) and virtue (virtù). I think it is fair to say Alberti is less cynical in the Della famiglia than in the Intercenales, but there are interesting subtexts here to his belief that we are able to manage in the face of fortuna.
At the very outset of the treatise, fortune is portrayed as iniquitous and malignant, fickle and imprudent. She has
actually seemed able to seize families rich in heroes, abounding in all that is precious, dear, and most desired by mortal men, endowed with honor, fame, high praise, authority, and public favor, and to cast them down into poverty, desolation, and misery (1969:25).
But in paragraph two he asks if Fortune really has such overweaning power? The Alberti have been able to throw off or endure their misfortunes. Others who “have fallen on evil days by their own folly have accused fortune,” but really they “threw themselves into the flood” (1969:26). The question begins to arise as to how much we are responsible for our own misfortunes, and how much fortune can dissolve our character if we resist it. Alberti does not echo the Christian tone of Petrarch, but his use of classical examples to show perseverance against cruel fortune echoes Petrarch’s belief that fortune can be conquered by virtue. “Fortuna prevails only against the man who submits to her,” and that is because she “is weak and powerless when it comes to taking away the least part of our character” (1969:29). “In political affairs and in human life generally reason is more powerful than fortune, planning more important than any chance event” (1969:30). So too is virtue, understood as “a perfect and well-developed nature” important (Skinner 1978,I:94). Then, using the same imagery of fortune as he uses in the Intercenales, Alberti argues that “fortune’s cruel floods” do not drown victims indiscriminately, but instead attack those who abandon restraint in prosperity or those who lack “a firm posture and a prudent self-control” (1969:30).
And because I have no doubt that good management, and careful and diligent fathers, good customs, the most upright habits, humanity, competence, and politeness can make families rich and most happy, I therefore have sought to investigate with all seriousness and diligence what instructions are apt for the conduct and education of fathers and the whole family, to come to supreme happiness, and never have at any time to succumb to cruel and strange fortune.
Nevertheless, a good deal of the rest of the text belies this message, including passages closely juxtaposed with the ones I have quoted. Alberti, supposedly an exemplary Renaissance man, ironically propounded his view of diligenza as a critical ‘self-making’ virtue in the face of fortuna in the course of a text written to ingratiate himself with fellow Alberti family members (Kuehn 1991; Grafton 2000:ch.1).
I have always realized that everyone of you far surpasses me in intelligence and in learning and in knowledge of great and high matters. . . . I should hope that even if this work were not to be as useful to the Alberti family as it will be, it would be my great honor to be frequently read by you. This would be my greatest possible reward. It would especially satisfy me if you understand what I am so eager to convey, that all my desire and expectation is aimed at nothing but making myself as well likes by you as I can. Indeed I hope to be much better liked and accepted by you. (1969:31)
And a passage appearing immediately after this one adopts much of the language used by would-be clients to express their loyalty to would-be patrons. Apparently Alberti saw his own fortune dependent somewhat less on his own merits and somewhat more on the reception he would receive from his relatives (and wider readership); or at least, virtue and wisdom depend more heavily on recognition than the preceding text seems to admit.
In short, although it seems at first that certain virtues and a certain amount of preparedness empower persons to beat back ill fortune, Alberti fancied himself as one who suffered misfortune despite his virtù and despite his preparations. Which of these forces predominates, then? Adversity can breed independence, self-sufficiency, and ingenuity, but are these enough? [CCACC: memories of Rochelle’s question as to what makes a work of art great and of enduring value. Is ‘greatness’ fundamentally contingent on complex social processes?]
In addition, there is the problem of multivocality in the text. What sorts of action bring honor or honest success? What particular strategies or skills are best suited to deal with Fortuna? Whereas Lionardo the humanist says honor is most durable when based on the real possession of virtue, a property more durable than wealth (which of course is highly subject to the whims of fortuna), the old businessman and pragmatist Giannozzo stresses the importance of flexibility, adaptation, experience, and economic prudence, rather than virtue, in the face of fortune (1969:13). Later, Piero Alberti emerges in Book IV as a kind of political version of his contemporary Giannozzo: one must cleverly and flexibly apply rules of rather risk-laden social intercourse to obtain security and social mobility through the favor of others (1969:252ff.). How could we distill a single recipe for dealing with uncertainty, or how many competing views do we distill, out of this text?
My ultimate interpretation of Alberti is that diligence in action is the best shield against threats from fortuna. Diligence here is the application of energy or effort (often called fatica) and intellect or imagination (ingegno), through constant works (opere, esercitazioni), for the pursuit of honor. The Albertian understanding of honor in a sense consists in diligence itself. Many of these terms—which I must note appear frequently in Florentine patronage correspondence—appear together in Battista’s short laudatory remarks to Lionardo in Book II, after Lionardo has spoken in praise of honor and virtue over love:
Neither work nor diligence (diligenza) shall be lacking in us, Lionardo, on this and every other occasion, to be obedient to you and like you. And as you further assure us that even ordinary friendships may be most useful not only to us but to the whole family, we promise you, Carlo and I, always in every [matter touching its] honor and profit (onore e utile), you shall see us with all strength and cleverness (ingegno), wherever necessary, contriving to exercise ourselves (adoperarci) against whatever threat were a bother (fatica) or danger to it, most readily and preparedly. (1969i:119; my translation)
Chance is to be constantly fought, but one must tack back and forth between pressing ahead and going with the flow. In this way, fortuna is something to be managed, and something to be dealt with through interpersonal interaction, rather than something to be tamed.
This complicated multivocal strategy for dealing with chance brings us along to Machiavelli and various of his arguments that pertain to the theme of chance. As with Alberti, slightly different interpretations of the virtù-fortuna balance are offered by Machiavelli in different texts. Early in The Prince (vi, 6) Machiavelli claims the great political founders—essentially figures of legend—“owed nothing to fortune but the opportunity which gave them matter to be shaped into what form they thought fit” (1950:20). More vulnerable were those who rose to power by good luck (vii), although here too a man of great ability like Cesare Borgia could succeed but for “the most extraordinary malignity of fortune” (estrema malignità di fortuna). But Machiavelli’s evaluation of Borgia is mixed. On the one hand, he can “find nothing to blame” in his actions (1950:29; “non saprei riprenderlo”); on the other, he erred in letting Julius II be chosen pope upon the death of his father, Alexander VI, and this errant choice “was the cause of his ultimate ruin” (1950:30; “Errò, adunque, el duca in questa elezione; e fu cagione dell’ultima ruina sua”). Was he a victim of chance, or the author of his own demise? While Machiavelli claims to be sympathetic to those who see chance everywhere (“mi sono in qualche parte inclinato nella opinione loro;” xxv, 1), especially given the apparent unpredictability of events in his own day, he famously writes that
Nevertheless, that our freewill may not be altogether extinguished, I think it may be true that fortune is the ruler of half our actions, but that she allows the other half or thereabouts to be governed by us (Il principe, xxv, 1).
Invoking the same kind of image as Alberti used in Fatum et fortuna, Machiavelli likens fortune to a ruinous river: prone to destroy everything in its path, but manageable through the construction of dykes and banks that channel her progress. A good part of such preparation is flexibility, indeed an almost impossible degree of flexibility, an ability to accommodate oneself to the times (again, recalling Alberti in his essay “Stubbornness”) even to the point of changing one’s nature (xxv, 2). Given the impossibility of this degree of flexibility, perhaps the best boundedly rational strategy is to be impetuous. “Fortune (la fortuna) is a woman, and it is necessary, if you wish to master her, to conquer her by force” (xxv, 4). The man of virtù must learn how to be as impetuous as Fortuna herself if he is to conquer her (Spackman 1990:149). This is a rather far cry from the kind of virtues Alberti held up as a bulwark against fortuna—diligence, hard work, caution, integrity—and an even further cry from Petrarch’s faith in virtue. The important Machiavellian skills are timeliness (Pocock 1975, McCormick 1993), adaptability (even changeability), charisma, impetuosity—again, beating chance at its own game rather than setting up a defense against it.
As Spackman (1990) points out, through timeliness virtù and fortuna are brought together; the distinction between them is collapsed, in two different ways. Traditionally, i.e., classically, fortuna was seen as antithetical to virtù. It was an autonomous and unpredictable force that had little to do with the feats one accomplished with one’s own effort and skill. In certain places, Machiavelli (and Alberti before him) makes fortuna simply the absence of virtù—not an autonomous force. But in other passages, virtù and fortuna work in concert; the skillful man uses fortuna to his advantage. The gist of this notion, when universalized, is that people make their own luck when they seize opportunities.
Whereas at the end of The Prince Machiavelli says Fortuna controls half of all our actions, in the Florentine Histories he makes it out to be a more like an all-consuming force (“arbitra di tutte le cose umane”). Now, this does not mean that history is a purely chancy process. Salvatore di Maria (1992) suggests that Machiavelli’s view of history is, in the first place, one of ebb and flow. On the one hand, one could argue this is largely a predictable ebb and flow (Najemy 1993:ch.4), both because of the regularity (in the aggregate) with which different protagonists supplant each other on the political stage, and because of the emotional microfoundations of that cyclicality. By this, I mean that Machiavelli sees individual or group ambizione as the driving force of political action (see di Maria 1992:257). The practically inherent dynamic of ambition is overextension, competition, and collapse. One’s own ambition typically leads one to overstep the limits of one’s own capabilities; the ambition of others means that one’s holdings are never really safe from threat.
On the other hand, one could argue that this ebb and flow is hardly predictable at all, since both rises in one’s fortunes, as well as ruination, are brought as much by Fortuna as by virtù. The only thing ‘predictable’ about the story of various political actors is that they will ultimately fail (Discorsi III, 1). Political knowledge does not depend on knowledge of ‘essential properties’ of political life. Instead, it involves practical and historical study of particular cases, or how contingent events were properly (or improperly) managed by past actors. Thus McCormick (1993:889) notes, “Machiavelli made what was by definition external, extrinsic, and insubstantial into the very core of political thought”—namely, the accidente. Unexpected events, even dangerous ones, if sufficiently anticipated (no mean feat), are opportunities for learning, adaptation, and renewal—although it also seems necessary that the regime (or the individual?) facing them have sufficient autonomy/discretion to pursue the best possible solution.
In the Historie, human effort to change the world seems most futile. The particular actions political actors take to advance their cause often end up backfiring on them. Despite warnings about chaos and disorder in The Prince, here it seems the most effective form of political control may sometimes be to foment chaos. Defeat in battle may come at the hands of the weather rather than the enemy. It is these last few points that lead di Maria to characterize Machiavelli’s philosophy of history as fundamentally ironic. Indeed, he further asserts that Machiavelli “shows a distinct narrative preference for details that are potentially ironic,” and occasionally “will go so far as to invent the detail conferring irony to his narrative” (1992:266). Thus as the emphasis on Fortuna increases, we see (as in parts of Alberti) a parallel predominance of an ironic and even satiric narrative mode. Ultimately, all efforts at proceeding in an orderly fashion in politics without attention to fortuitous change—like all attempts at following a system in gambling houses—end in disaster.
Chance as a Principle of Republican Government
So far, I have tried to synthesize an enormous literature in political and moral philosophy that discusses the new ways of thinking about fortuna in relation to moral virtue, human autonomy, the idea of posterity, and political history in Renaissance Florence. But what connection can this rarefied discourse have to the conduct of everyday life in that society? Even though the literacy rate in Florence in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was remarkably high, how likely is it that these ideas percolated into the general populaton? Arguing for a causal connection between philosophical discourse and everyday life seems dubious. Nevertheless, for ordinary Florentines, individual and familial destinies were routinely dependent on chance in a very particular way. As I noted briefly above, chance was a constitutive element of government in republican city-states like Florence. There the officials of the highest governing body of the city were selected by sortition, or lot, every two months; that is, the names of the lucky ones were drawn at random from bags containing slips of paper on which were written the names of eligible office-holders. Individual and familial status was very much based on having held one of these offices, and the earlier in the Florentine commune’s history this happened, the better. Every six years or so, or more precisely, whenever the bags were running low on names or the names in there were considered likely to be unusually unsympathetic to the regime, the city would hold a scrutiny (squittinio) to assess which citizens would be worthy of inclusion in the pool of potential office-holders. A lot of politicking and personal patronage-seeking went into deciding just whose names would be placed in these bags (a process known as imborsazione). Regime leaders could have a good deal of influence in shaping the composition of the group whose names were in the bags, but they could little determine the outcome of any particular election (at least until the mid-15th century, when the Medici began to tinker with the selection procedure; Rubinstein 1966 provides a comprehensive account). This is why Florentine political history could take such abrupt turns, for example, in 1378, in 1433, and in 1434. The sudden selection of an ideologically skewed slate of priors could dramatically re-orient the politics of the commune.
It is worth noting further that Florence had rules in place that prohibited offices being assigned, even by chance, to the same individual or members of the same family repeatedly—the so-called divieto rule. One might certainly see the divieto principle as an arbitrary imposition of a limit on the randomness of outcomes, like ruling out the possibility of the roulette wheel landing on the same number twice in a row. On the other hand, it resulted in real-world outcomes far less predictable than occur routinely in election-based systems of political representation. In effect, the usual benefits accruing from incumbency were nullified.
I do not wish to take up much space here on this particular domain of chance, although it played a substantial role motivating much of the patronage correspondence I will discuss below. I will, however, briefly adumbrate a defense of sortition. Despite the potential for periodic instability with such an electoral procedure—a potential of which politically seasoned Florentine citizens were keenly aware—the use of sortition was by no means without rational political justification (Manin 1997). First, it was a check on the domination of the city-state by cliques, who would be interested in controlling the process of selecting governing officials (Waley 1988). Sortition was one of the most important devices (regular civic meetings—the so-called Consulte e pratiche meetings, in which key political decisions were debated—were another) that kept the city fathers from drifting too far in any one policy direction. Hence it was desirable in its consequences. Furthermore, self-interested actors in office might curb their own political ambitions somewhat in the absence of guarantees that their policies would be continued by the next administration. But sortition was also desirable in the way it contributed to the legitimation of the regime. Sortition was at root characterized by, in Manin’s felicitous expression, “conspicuous impartiality” (1997:53)—or as later thinkers about chance might have said, “indifference.” As a result, it could be seen to be more fair than systems in which incumbents or social notables gain an unfair advantage from their incumbency, or from their political, economic, or social capital. And so the Florentines explicitly regarded it in 1328 when they instituted the system (Najemy 1982, Manin 1997:57). The ideology of republican equality required that political participation and responsibility be rather widely distributed. The guild system of governance in place throughout most of the fourteenth century stuck to this ideal (Najemy 1982), and Leonardo Bruni portrayed it as a constitutive element of Florentine political life (Baron 1955).
One of the attendant problems with using chance to determine political outcomes (I could say electoral outcomes, except they weren’t technically elections) besides the erraticness it periodically fostered was that it became a matter of keen interest, and eventually speculation, as to which names would get drawn for the bags on any given occasion. Thus, it is interesting that in sixteenth century Venice (but not in fifteenth century Florence, so far as I know) gamblers bet on whether or not particular nobles would be elected to particular offices. Jonathan Walker (1999) claims this form of gambling was quite popular, especially among the noble population.
Risk and Opportunity in the Florentine Economy
[CCACC: This section not written, but I have a co-authored piece that touches on these themes. Whether or not there ultimately will be room for it here I don’t know.]
The ‘Chanciness’ of Everyday Life
Chance was an important force to reckon with in Florentine moral and political philosophy. But, again, what about everyday life? There is some evidence of an interest in dice-throwing and card-playing in the late-fourteenth and early fifteenth-centuries. According to one (very bizarre) website (http://trionfi.com/0/el/05/t.htm), it seems that dice-throwing was generally outlawed, but card-playing only came to be condemned in various municipal statutes in the 1410s and 1420s. Similarly, Giovanni di Pagolo Morelli’s now-famous late-fourteenth century ricordanze (family memoirs) counsel strongly against dice-playing, but not against card-playing. It is possible cards were more associated with divination (forerunners of Tarot), and thus seen as less threatening to public order and safety than the gambling and ensuing disputes associated with throwing dice. Florentines were also inveterate consumers of advice books that taught them how to conceive a male rather than a female child (Bell 1999), or how to pray (Hood 1990), or how to write a letter that would earn a recipient’s goodwill (Grendler 1989, McLean 1998). In other words, they sought to manage chance through standardized, formal procedures.
Explicit talk about fortuna, however, is rather scarce in the personal documents I have examined: ricordanze, business partnership contracts, and patronage letters. Morelli invokes Fortuna in an apocryphal reference to Aesop’s fables in his ricordanze (Branca 1986:203), but he does not attribute the death of his loved ones, or even his own political successes, to Fortuna. He is agnostic as to whether the “great damages and persecutions” his family suffered, including the premature death of his own father, happened “by dint of fortune, or from the malice of the one who was supposed to take care of us, or from our own foolishness” (1986:165). “Things continually change,” he says—a rather Machiavellian assertion (ibid.). Nevertheless, he also tells his readers that “if you will be good, God will give you grace” (ibid.). And later Morelli tries hard to find purpose in what seems to be deadly caprice. “Everything proceeded according to God’s will” (Tutto è proceduto dalla sua volontà; 1986:297).
Occasionally, but only occasionally, is fortuna mentioned in interpersonal correspondence. For example, a letter from Cristofano Bagnesi to Forese Sacchetti of July 16, 1411 [Conventi Soppressi 78, 324:143] expresses the idea that fortuna is not something that can be easily challenged.
I had gotten ready to come there. Fortune (la mia fortuna) has been on virtually every occasion favorable for me in some way, except now: Lapo Ciacchi is dying, who was one of the Twelve [one of the highest administrative bodies of the commune, with officials assigned to it by lot], and my name was drawn in his place, and so here I am, and you can see how possible it is for me to come there. Let everything be for the best. I can do no more than Fortune is willing to allow (Non posso più che la fortuna voglia disporre). Of all this may you be advised, and may Christ in his grace ever preserve you and me.
Similarly, two letters written between members of the Strozzi family identify fortuna as something that may befall a person. But here talk of fortuna is a device for engendering sympathy. Barla Strozzi wrote to his kinsman Simone Strozzi probably in the late 1420s, to ask him for help in getting out of prison, where he had been placed based on the accusations of four brothers who were his creditors. Barla sent his nine children to beg for help at the feet of the signori in Florence,
To see if by your help, together with them, one might contrive that it not be this way. You and every other relative of mine must desire that I get out of this place in such a way that I not do any harm nor cast any shame on any of you. I will wait for you to respond to my wife and nine children … and you will be able to understand that they have need of their father . . . I am certain that this is a nuisance and a burden for you, especially because of the new office you have. But I am certain that you will excuse me, considering my misfortune (la mia fortuna) and my plight (la mia disaventura). I can do no less [than plead for your help].
On August 30, 1450, Lorenzo di Messer Palla Strozzi wrote to Filippo di Matteo Strozzi [Carte Strozziane III, 131:53] about a business matter he wanted to have settled, but he prefaced his request in the following way:
Dearest son, beyond kinship, the intimate friendship your father and I shared persuades me that you must have a concern for my affairs as for your own. And we are further joined in that at the same time our fathers were sent into exile, and we find ourselves in the same situation (in una medesima fortuna), and little can one obtain much good without the other.
Lorenzo constructs the idea of a common, unexpected fate here to engage Filippo in a business matter to his own benefit. This both reflects a belief about fortuna and reveals strategic employment of that belief. It also indicates the way in which fortuna was intimately linked to the realm of politics, especially citizenship. For no misfortune could be greater for a Florentine than exile from his homeland (Starn 1982, Brown 2002). This was precisely the misfortune the Alberti family suffered, a misfortune that at least superficially motivated the writing of the Della famiglia.
There is a little evidence that the pairing of the notions of virtù and fortuna percolated into everyday thinking. In a letter of July 1, 1435 [Mediceo Avanti il Principato XII, 7], not long after the Medici were returned to Florence from their brief exile, Guasparre Bonciani wrote to Cosimo de’ Medici about an unspecified concern:
And although I were most certain you have many and great affairs in your hands and a mind full of various and grave matters (varie e grave cose), I pray of you that it be pleasing to you to devote a place to this matter, which I believe, by means of your virtues (mediante le vostre virtù), will bring good luck (piglierà buona fortuna), and will be a useful thing for our homeland (patria). And among all your other business, I consider this one that I hope will yield you honor (honore) and consolation.
Using remarkably similar language, Lottieri di Nigi Dietisalvi Neroni began a letter forty-three years later to Lorenzo the Magnificent on August 21, 1478, only four months after Lorenzo had survived the Pazzi conspiracy [Mediceo Avanti il Principato XXXI, 134].
I often consider, Magnificent Lorenzo, the quality of the present times fortunate (fortunosa). Considering your age, and the various and grave burdens (varii et gravi pesi) that you have for many years borne, and now more than ever bear, as in the past on more than one occasion I have been astonished at your own excellence (virtù), and I have recognized in you the singular grace of God (grazia di dio). Now I know it much more than ever.
Lottieri’s family may have fallen somewhat out of favor after 1466, so this letter may have functioned as a kind of assurance of his good intentions towards the Medici. For present purposes, the interesting thing here is a slight conceptual conflation of the terms virtù, fortuna, and grace: rather than being counterposed to fortuna, virtù brings about good luck; nevertheless, it is itself a gift of God. A few other letters also refer to “fortunate times” (tempi fortunosi) [Mediceo Avanti il Principato XII, 26, September 1, 1435; Conventi Soppressi 78, 322:25; January 22, 1456], but there is nothing in the way of discussion of what fortuna means or how it should be handled.
The ‘Chanciness’ of Patronage Interaction
Whether or not talk about fortuna is explicit, chance and uncertainty played an important role in Florentine social interaction. Formally ‘chance events’ in the form of name tags drawn from little bags were critical factors in establishing social status rankings for both individuals and families. But Florentines also undertook action to improve their chances in the political arena. They undertook chances in the political arena because, also, that is simply what Florentine citizens were supposed to do. This is where the action was (Goffman 1967). It was the arena in which public reputations, and individual character, were formed. In Goffman’s (1967:237) formulation,
Given the belief that character can be dramatically acquired and lost, the individual will plainly have reason for going through a chancy situation no matter what the likely material or physical cost to himself . . . Plainly, it is during moments of action that the individual has the risk and opportunity of displaying to himself and sometimes to others his style of conduct when the chips are down. Character is gambled . . . To display or express character, weak or strong, is to generate character. The self can be voluntarily subjected to re-creation.
Florentine society was intensely agonistic (Weissman 1982), and personal honor was in large part a function of the esteem in which one was held by others. This esteem in turn was a function of one’s political career, one’s role in the neighborhood, one’s wealth, one’s social status and the status of one’s inlaws (parenti), as well as any number of other factors. Each of these elements was assiduously pursued, typically through the assistance of, or connections to, others. Interaction was terribly consequential, not only in terms of affecting one’s career trajectory, but also in terms of locking oneself into a subordinate role with respect to a patron, or closing off connections to other possible patrons, or establishing character traits that would be hard to shake. A number of important practical questions would naturally arise: Which overtures and which gestures towards others will be successful? How can we convey our sincerity? When is ambiguity desirable? How do we permit others to decline our requests graciously? How can we get others to commit themselves to us, and how can we evade commitments that are burdensome?
Patronage letters were commitments: they committed one to be whom he said he was, in that fateful moment. In that moment, the fiction is created that what he says or does now is really him; it is his true character, even though it may be in fact more a product of the moment than a representation of an abiding identity (Goffman 1967: 238). What is gambled in at least certain kinds of gambling is one’s character. Perhaps even more precise would be to say that one’s character itself is constituted through play; hence arises the notion of a self with enough agency to re-make itself through play, yet not so much autonomy as to have character independent of the game itself. Hence the following letter of Francesco Nardi to Averardo de’ Medici on September 20, 1429 (Mediceo Avanti il Principato II, 292):
Honored like a most singular father, In the past few days, having confidence in your fatherly assistance, as I know I can, I wrote to you that it be pleasing to you to be with Cosimo, that he condescend to write to Rome, that I should have a reappointment to this office, and from you I have had no reply, such that I think my letter will have suffered from a bad service in the mail. Thus, again I pray and beg of you, my Averardo, that you would want to be the means [operatore] by which I had this reappointment, or some other office, so that I were able to return here. It would give me the heart to be a man like the others [darebbemi il cuore dessere uno huomo come gli altri].
Because asking for favors is risky, many patronage letters begin by framing one’s request for favor as “presumptuous” or “audacious.” A simple example is a letter from Luca Carducci to Giovanni di Cosimo de’ Medici written February 3, 1454 (Mediceo Avanti il Principato I, 252):
considering the virtues and kindness of your Lordship I presume with great confidence (fidanza) to ask Your Lordship that Matteo Carducci my brother, at present podestà of Piccioli, be reconfirmed [in this position] for one year or six months.
Or consider this one, a letter from Stagio Barducci to Pierfrancesco di Lorenzo Medici written August 12, 1459 (Mediceo Avanti il Principato V, 748):
Dear like an elder brother, I know that one could ascribe it to presumption, requesting this of you so informally . . . but it seems, considering your nature and customs that you are a great and generous giver of every benefit you can, so I will be confident (pigliero sicurtà), not because of my merits as I said, but because of your gentleness: to pray of you that it please you for my love to be the cause that the bearer of this who will be Bruno di Lorenzo di Panutio, my good friend, that he be by means of you well served . . . And again I put my trust in you who are my hope, and thus I ask this obligating myself to you and as you will see to satisfy you in any way, as you must believe I am most attuned to your desires
Now, how are we to take these expressions of presumption? Especially in the latter case, the writer introduces the notion of presumption in some way in order to discount the risk of asking for something—to undercut the possible indignation of the patron. It is a kind of preventive rhetorical measure. Note here also the way in which Stagio puts himself at stake with this request. This placing of oneself at stake could be taken to seemingly outrageous rheotrical extremes, as in this letter of November 23, 1472 from Giovanni Altoviti to Lorenzo de’ Medici (Mediceo Avanti il Principato XXVIII, 689):
We have heard from Messer Piero Minerbetti how graciously you responded concerning the marriage connection (parentado) we have made with the Pucci, and the goodwill you have shown towards us, which gratifies us[?], and continually, concerning the previously received promises [or fiancées?: promesse], more and more to hope in your humanity and kindness, so that at present we are, and eternally we want to be, your slaves.
A willingness to commit oneself to the Medici not merely as their “friend,” but as their servant, or even slave, is evident with more and more frequency as the fifteenth century progressed. So, too, were these designations of self used in conjunction with each other, such as when Maso degli Albizzi identified himself and his sons to Lorenzo de’ Medici on November 18, 1471, as “your most faithful friends, servants, and slaves in everything and for everything” (Mediceo Avanti il Principato XXVII, 517).
But of course, as the rhetorical stakes offered by would-be clients increased, patrons would want better guarantees of their investment in them. Consequently, the value of words alone as proof of one’s loyalty declines over time. In the 1420s and 1430s, “words” (parole) appear to be regarded either as adequate to discern intentions, or as unnecessary to confirm previously discerned intentions. Thus for example, Bartolo Corsi recommended a certain ser Gherardino to Averardo de’ Medici in 1427, saying “he will demonstrate in words that he is your good friend” (Mediceo Avanti il Principato II, 76). In the same year Bartolomeo di Tommaso Sertini wrote to Filippo di Lionardo Strozzi (C.S. III, 145:2) that “because you know for a long time there has been between us a love as between brothers, it appears to me unnecessary to use those words one would perhaps use with others” (perche tu sai egli piu tempo che trannoi fu amore quanto tra fratelli mi pare con teco non dovere essere quelle parole usi forse tra altri). And in a letter from 1439, Giovanni Cappelli wrote to Agnolo di Palla Strozzi, recommending a certain “noble and worthy” doctor who “with few words [shows himself to be] a lover of his own honor and that of his superior” (C.S. III, 128:130). In each of these cases, words are taken to be revelatory of inner intentions, with few words often being preferred to many.
By the 1470s, the concern for deeds in addition to words becomes evident. Alessandro di ser Antonio Pucci wrote to Lorenzo de’ Medici to claim that “in deeds and words” (in fatti e in parole) he had shown himself to be a dedicated employee of the Medici bank (Mediceo Avanti il Principato XXIX, 1). And on July 8, 1472, Giovanni Tornabuoni wrote to Lorenzo (Mediceo Avanti il Principato XXV, 179) recommending to him a group of brothers who had been exiled from Arezzo in 1431. One of them, he says,
I have tried out (provato) in our bank and in our affairs, and I have found and still find him to be completely faithful and loving [towards us], and never from his mouth have I heard him say anything less than good and respectful. . . . Never have they spoken ill of our magnificent Signorìa, and towards us in the bank they have always served with great loyalty and diligence.
This belief that one would need to offer proof of one’s intentions is expressed also in a letter of July 22, 1472 to Lorenzo de’ Medici (Mediceo Avanti il Principato XXVIII, 321), a recommendation letter in support of a certain Baldo:
for as much as he has expressed himself always in favor of you and Giovanni, I recommend him to you, because he has done work on this, and is of such a will that once again he would hold it dear to offer proof of himself (pruova di se). You can thus place him among your other faithful servants.
Receipt of a favor was an opportunity to demonstrate who one really was. As Goffman notes, this made the patronage moment a “fateful” one. Something of this sense of condensing one’s life into one moment, or one act, is expressed by Filippo Magli in a letter of August 21, 1471 (Mediceo Avanti il Principato XXV, 105):
Lorenzo, I am and always have been happy with your judgment, such that I do not desire from God any other grace besides being able to demonstrate to you just one time [emphasis mine] my heart (l’animo mio), and how much it is affectionate towards you and your affairs, because of the release I gained, through you, from the troubles I was facing. So you may dispose of me as you wish .. . and always you will find most faithful to you and your affairs.
Presenting oneself to a patron was risky and fateful. It perhaps could even seem like the patron’s will was arbitrary, although one would like to believe that there was a higher meaning in it: a recognition of one’s merit, a genuine love, an acceptance of the norm of reciprocity. Thus it may be more accurate to say that the would-be client embarked on the search for favor with the notion of “grace” or Providence in mind, rather than fortuna. This interpretation seems especially warranted given that the word grazia can mean grace, or favor, or mercy. Would-be clients certainly played on the multiple meanings of this term, juxtaposing the grace of God with the grace/favor of the patron, thus assimilating the two:
My honorable elder, Since I was appointed to this place I have not written for not having had any reason. Now I have been moved to send you these little verses to pay one of my debts, which is that Antonio di Lorenzo Spinelli, my most intimate relative would desire, and I together with him, this time concerning the gonfalonier of justice, to be seen for it in Santa Croce quarter, and for that reason I pray of Your Reverence that you be content to exercise your grace (or favor: aoperare la vostra grazia), without which not one of us can produce any fruit. He is a very good man and most friendly towards the regime (amicissimo dello stato) and worthy and good. I recommend this matter to you as much as I can exert myself, that you grant him every favor of yours, and whatever honor will follow for him, I will consider it also to my own self, remaining totally obliged to you (restandovi sommamente obligatissimo).
We have spoken of proof. We have discussed the stakes imagined in patronage letters. We have seen that patronage-related interaction was regarded as fateful. We have seen how the bestowal of favor is likened to a providential gift from God. All of these strands come together in the following letter from Vanni de’ Medici to Lorenzo de’ Medici on August 22, 1471 (Mediceo Avanti il Principato XXV, 107):
I began with old Giovanni [di Bicci de’ Medici] your great-grandfather to be of your bloodline, and partisan and son and servant of them, and in many ways I was able to prove it to them[?]. Now by the grace of God, and similarly that of you and your brother—I hope by the grace of God you will each gain on account of your good manners and ways of living well, and God knows I seek these continually, being more desirous than any man alive, so much am I, that I recommend myself to you, advising you that there is no man in Florence of whom you could speak with more abandon than I, proving it in many ways and desiring also to exert myself one or two years in some place and afterwards in Florence. I cannot be approved (? provato) on account of the specchio, so I run to you, that it be pleasing to you to deal the cards (farli carti) with this new pope so that I become podestà of Bologna for one year . . . because I am older than ever, and I would like to leave my son with as much honor as one can . . .
Vanni even explicitly likens Lorenzo here to a dealer. The sense of favor-seeking as a gamble could hardly be expressed with a clearer metaphor.
I would like to suggest, having examined this handful of letters, that Machiavelli’s grandiose claims about the importance of impetuosity in politics, or the balance of impetuosity and caution, may be more readily transposed to the level of micropolitics than one might have previously assumed. Day to day politics was more about obtaining office than about world conquest, but the offices dealt out through the sortition process described in an earlier section of this paper were a key means of acquiring honor in Florence. Witness the etymological link between “offices” (onori) and honor (onore). The imborsazione was a fateful event, as were each of the drawings of names from the bags. Accordingly the backrom efforts to partake of this fate became themselves fateful. One had to work to get a spot at the table, and this is where patronage came in. [CCACC: for the moment I will simply offer three examples of letters pertaining to imborsazione for the scrutiny. Note especially the Minerbetti letter, where he explicitly fears how his reputation would suffer or his character be impugned should he not be granted favor]
It has been a while since I wrote, praying of you that, in the imborsazione for the gonfalonier of justice [the preeminent elective office in the commune], I be recommended to you. . . . Once again I recommend myself to you, praying of you that it be pleasing to you to wish to give this beginning to my family, advising you that you will find many more learned and more [..], but more faithful to you and to your affairs? no. And although I were not worthy for such a sign, I would desire to be seen for this office, as are many others, to be able to find myself in that place where I would be able to please you and your friends. [Matteo Buonaguisi to Lorenzo de’ Medici, July 25, 1472 (Mediceo Avanti il Principato XXVIII, 329)]
Respected sir and honorable elder brother, As the time of the imborsazione is approaching, I pray of you, my Lorenzo, that it be pleasing to you to have me seen for gonfalonier of justice. You know how much I have desired it, and I am most certain that for you it is not [difficult?], but I know that in your kindness (tua humanità) you have always honored me. Now on this occasion do not abandon me, and let it please you to give me this happiness, for never will I forget it. [Fruosino di Lodovico da Verrazzano to Lorenzo de’ Medici, August 21, 1472 (Mediceo Avanti il Principato XXIII, 488)]
And so, dearest confrere of mine, I am sending you these little verses to recommend myself to you, praying of you that my honor be favored by you, and that if you had not written to me that I should give an account of myself, I would desire death more readily than life, because, being left behind, each would speculate that it were on account of some defect of mine. . . . And so, once again as much as I can I recommend my honor to you, such that having the scrutiny to do, you not abandon me. [Tommaso Minerbetti to Lorenzo de’ Medici, July 30, 1471; Mediceo Avanti il Principato XXIII, 375]
Totally Off-the-Cuff Conclusion
I have done for [Albertaccio del Bene] nothing less than I would have done were he my brother, and in a way that his debtor is in my power. This was nearly impossible to do; nevertheless, I contrived to make the nearly impossible possible, and I have done it for many reasons, but especially to demonstrate to Your Magnificence that your prayers [requests] are like commands to me, which I have been and will always be willing to put into execution, because always I desire to do something gratifying to Your Magnificence . . . [Bernardo Lippi to Lorenzo de’ Medici, July 31, 1471; Mediceo Avanti il Principato XXVII, 428]
Making the impossible possible: this is what patronage ultimately was about. It was to some extent a secularized form of grace. It was an encounter with fate. It was also an encounter fraught with uncertainty, an uncertainty that could be to some extent combatted by means of certain kinds of rhetorical strategies. Interpretations of what patronage was about and what was at stake in it no doubt drew on a variety of cultural influences in the air in Florence at the time, just as the experience of this kind of politics in a broadly participatory political regime must have had a strong influence on how people thought and conducted themselves in other spheres of life.
The goal of this paper has been synthetic: to draw together various streams of thought and activity in Renaissance Florence and ponder their connectedness. On the one hand, I want to say in conclusion that as a matter of fact, these streams did not cross or converge. The language of political philosophers makes hardly any appearance in the everyday discourse I have examined (although I hold open the possibility more overlap could be found with further study, and with study of slightly different kinds of letters). In some sense this justifies political theorists’ neglect of the Florentine world beyond the circle of humanists reading each other’s work. At the same time, it should make us wary of drawing too many conclusions about the implications political theory had for other aspects of the social world.
On the other hand, though, I would agree that political philosophical writings about chance and the management of it are linked to everyday conduct, in the sense that both may derive, albeit somewhat independently, from the same Florentine social ecology.
Alberti, Leon Battista. 1969. The Family in Renaissance Florence. [I Libri della famiglia.] Translated by Renee Neu Watkins. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.
Branca, Vittore, ed. 1986. Mercanti scrittori: Ricordi nella Firenze tra Medioevo e Rinascimento [Paolo da Certaldo, Giovanni Morelli, Bonaccorso Pitti e Domenico Lenzi, Donato Velluti, Goro Dati, Francesco Datini, Lapo Niccolini, e Bernardo Machiavelli]. Milano: Rusconi.
De Roover, Raymond.  1974. “The Development of Accounting prior to Luca Pacioli according to the Account Books of Medieval Merchants.” Pp. 119-79 in Business, Banking, and Economic Thought in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe by Raymond de Roover, edited by Julius Kirshner. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Di Maria, Salvatore. 1992. “Machiavelli’s Ironic View of History: The Istorie fiorentine.” Renaissance Quarterly 45,2: 248-270.
Dini, Bruno. 1995.
Dini, Bruno. 2001. “Le forme e le tecniche del prestito nel tardo Medioevo,” in his Manifattura, commercio e banca nella Firenze medievale. Florence: Nardini Editore.
Green, Louis. 1972. “Historical Interpretation in Fourteenth-Century Florentine Chronicles.” Journal of the History of Ideas 28, 2:161-78.
Najemy, John M. 1993. Between Friends: Discourses of Power and Desire in the Machiavelli-Vettori Letters of 1513-1515. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Renouard, Yves. 1949.
Witt., Ronald G. 1983. Hercules at the Crossroads: The Life, Works, and Thought of Coluccio Salutati. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
 In this way, Alberti in particular does not seem as thoroughly anti-Augustinian as Skinner makes him out to be.
 Certainly at the level of popular culture and religion, some belief in fortune may have been “almost universal” (Witt 1983:63). CCACC: Exploring the idea of fortuna and heresy in Florentine religious practice is something I couldn’t get to yet for this draft.
 For example, in contrast to the texts cited here, the Secretum is thoroughly Augustinian in its sensibilities.
 Apparently Salutati distinguished between fortune, the momentous but unexpected outcome of voluntary actions, and chance, the occurrence of unusual or unexpected natural events (Witt 1983:324). But he offered no extensive discussion of the implications of this distinction, certainly not on the chance side.
 I will note in passing how a reading of the Intercenales yields a vastly different picture of Alberti’s views on fortuna than one gets from the Della famiglia, and hence from Skinner’s (1978) reading of Alberti.
 I cannot say if this title deliberately echoes Salutati’s title in particular, or if it merely borrows a widely available stock phrase.
 Similarly, a number of foolish pebbles in the piece called “Stones” are chided for failing to realize that their “brief success” in moving downstream is a product of the force of the waves and their own recklessness in jumping into the water, rather than a product of their “own effort” (Alberti 1987:61).
 David Marsh (2003:13) notes that this phrase echoes a passage from Cicero’s Epistulae ad familiares—but with a noteworthy difference. Whereas Cicero claims that “to yield to the pressures of the time, that is, to obey necessity, has always been considered a wise man’s part” (my emphasis), Alberti seems not to equate present circumstances with necessity, but with caprice. Fortune is, in Marsh’s suggestive words (2003:18), much more “randomly tempestuous” to Alberti than it appears to have been to Cicero.
 In modern Italian the word for storm or tempest is “fortunale,” but Petrarch uses the word fortuna in the sense of a storn in at least two places (Canzoniere, ##272 and 292). So did the chronicler Giovanni Villani thus use the word, as I’m sure did many others.
 A letter of September 16, 1422, written by a group of Florentine officials to Averardo di Francesco de’ Medici [MAP I, 40] curiously echoes this parable. The letter informs Averardo that a boat coming from England laden with merchandise has nearly capsized and been forced to enter the unfriendly port of Portofino, in Genovese territory, “to flee however possible from fortune/the storm” (quantunque per fuggire fortuna).
 Santoro (1967) argues that prudence takes over from virtue in the sixteenth century as the counterpart to a fortuna that seemed even more savage and unpredictable than it seemed to Quattrocento authors. Skinner (1978,I:186-9) suggests this change is directly linked, as in Guicciardini’s thought, to the increasing political disarray of the Italian peninsula and increasing pessimism as to its future. Perhaps it was also linked to an extreme pessimism as to the difficulties and unpredictability of upward mobility through social interaction, as in Castiglione’s diatribes against fortuna.
 I apologize if it betrays my modest quantitative social scientific penchant, but I can’t help comparing the frequency of the term Fortuna in Alberti’s work compared with the works of other notable Florentine writers. In Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography, 2 out of every 10000 words is the word fortuna. In Castiglione’s The Courtier it is 2.8/10000; in Boccaccio’s Decameron 4.2/10000; in Guicciardini’s collected works, also 4.2/10000; in Petrarch’s Canzoniere approximately 6/10000. In Machiavelli’s collected works (more on him later) the number is 8/10000. But in the Della famiglia, 17 out of every 10000 words is fortuna.
 See Alberti 1969:28, but this is my own translation of “Tiene gioco la fortuna solo a chi se gli sottomette.”
 See Alberti 1969:30, but this is my translation of “E perché non dubito el buon governo, e’ solleciti e diligenti padri delle famiglie, le buone osservanze, gli onestissimi costumi, l’umanità, facilità, civilità rendono le famiglie amplissime e felicissime, però mi parse da investigare con ogni studio e diligenza quali ammonimenti siano al ben ordinare e amaestrare e’ padri e tutta la famiglia utili per divenire all’ultima e supprema felicità, e non avere per tempo alcuno a succumbere alla fortuna iniqua e strana.”
 “Never, as long as there is art or power in me, will I spare myself fatigue or exertion or any strenuous effort that may prove good or useful to the Alberti family” (1969:32).
 Perhaps he is merely being ironic. Alberti believed his own literary greatness would make his reputation, but would do so quite independently of the reactions of his Alberti kinsmen. After all, who really had the better chance of being remembered by posterity? It was palpable nonsense that any of his kin “surpasse[d] him in learning,” an untruth hardly likely to be lost on his audience. The tension between Machiavelli’s sycophantic dedication of The Prince and the substance of his argument concerning self-reliance is more palpable than the tension here, but of the same sort. We tend to assume Machiavelli is writing ironically in the first instance. Again, though, I would argue this irony only becomes possible when one takes on a more complicated view of fortune.
 Autonomy sounds good, but may be fictitious. In the Della famiglia, Alberti has the character Lionardo argue that a good father should strive to “leave behind for his children so much of fortune’s goods that they might never need to speak that most bitter word, most hateful to a free man’s mind: ‘I pray of you’” (1969:68). But surely Alberti knew this phrase—io ti prego—was practically the defining element of Florentine patronage interaction.
 But see Prince vii, 3: Speaking of the policy of Alexander VI, Machiavelli writes, “it was therefore necessary to disturb the existing condition and bring about disorders in the states of Italy in order to obtain a secure mastery over a part of them” (1950:25).
 Some authors—notably, Garrett Mattingly (1958)—suggest a deeply satirical message permeates The Prince as well.
 Undoubtedly there was a kind of professionalization of the political realm as the fifteenth century progressed. The Medici sought particular ways—Balìe, the accopiatori—to ensure that certain persons or families favorably disposed to them would obtain office rather more frequently than was possible in a pure system of lot. Furthermore, Guicciardini articulated the idea in the early sixteenth century that elections make it more likely that those most suitable for service, rather than those minimally adequate, will enter office (Manin 1997:61), and thus he endorsed election.
 See, for example, Mediceo Avanti il Principato III, 151; V, 748; XXVII, 354, 385, 388; XXIX, 59; CXXXVIII, 39; Conventi Soppressi 78,314:476 and 322:79.
 See, for example, Mediceo Avanti il Principato XII, 26; XXVIII, 309; XXIX, 98; XXXIX, 108; Carte Strozziane III, 130:233.
 One might also cite a letter written by Cosimo himself to his son Giovanni in March of 1450 (MAP V, 623), in which he writes of news from Milan: “The Milanese have called the Count to be their signore and their duke, which is big news. Here great parties and great demonstrations are underway, because generally the news is pleasing to everyone, and also because he has written letters full of such affection and love and with such an outpouring (somessione) of words that everyone is most happy with his every success.”
 A similar assimilation of the patronage relationship to the God-believer relationship occurs in a letter of November 29, 1471, from Niccolo di Lorenzo di Ceffo Masini Ceffi to Lorenzo de’ Medici (Mediceo Avanti il Principato XXV, 117) where, echoing the parable of the talents, he identifies himself as Lorenzo’s “good and faithful servant (buono e fedele servidore), as I have been, and am, and will be, and always want to be, yours.”