The Accademia Fiorentina and the Question of the Language. the Politics of Theory in Ducal Florence *

By Sherberg, Michael | Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

The Accademia Fiorentina and the Question of the Language. the Politics of Theory in Ducal Florence *


Sherberg, Michael, Renaissance Quarterly


Upon assuming power in 1537, Cosimo I de' Medici (1519-74) embarked on a program with three principal goals: to secure his own position as duke of Florence, to restore tranquillity to a city wearied by domestic political turmoil, and to expand his dominion across Tuscany. (1) Key to all of these efforts was a strategy aimed at creating a seamless identity between Florence and the Medici. If family and city were inseparable in the Florentine mind, then the people could no longer entertain ideas of expelling their leader, for to do so would be an act of civic suicide. Following a path already trod by his forefathers, Cosimo eschewed a revolutionary politics in favor of a gradual revisionary strategy, reshaping existing institutions--governmental, cultural, even architectural--to endow them with a Medici identity. (2) This effort sent an important message about the historic place of the Medici, namely that they represented continuity with the Florentine past, including its republicanism. All of Florentine hi story thus could be made to converge in Cosimo; he was the logical endpoint of a process whose true direction had been hidden for generations but was now revealed. (3)

One group that helped promote this strategy came from the Accademia Fiorentina, whose history reflects the duke's disposition to reshape Florentine institutions to suit his purposes. Founded in late 1540 as the Accademia degli Umidi, it offered a polemical response to the Paduan Accademia degli Infiammati and the latter's support of the linguistic proposals of Pietro Bembo (1470-1547), who exalted the Trecento Tuscan of Boccaccio and Petrarch as a model for a contemporary literary language. By their very name the Umidi signaled a desire to put out the fire set by their northern rivals, (4) and their initial plan, to offer readings of Petrarch's sonnets, marked an intention to reclaim the Florentine cultural legacy--and Bembo's most important poet--from northern pretenders. (5) Within three months of its foundation Cosimo had taken control of the academy and gave it the less reactionary, more civic-minded name of Accademia Fiorentina. The original Umidi found themselves marginalized as the ranks of new aca demics, mostly clients of Cosimo, increased dramatically. As Michel Plaisance points out, Cosimo had found a place to "calm and occupy spirits quick to inflame." (6) The academy continued to promote Florentine language and letters through readings of both Dante and Petratch, among others, and through translations of Latin and Greek classics into Florentine. (7) The translations affirmed the equal status of contemporary Florentine alongside ancient languages while simultaneously eliminating the need to learn the latter, since readers could now gain access to major texts in their native tongue. (8) Indeed, many of the academy's projects focused on the establishment of a canon. In their often spirited defense of a Dante denigrated by Bembo the academics sought to reinstate Dante, and the translated Latin and Greek classics shaped a reading list for intellectually ambitious Florentines.

Cosimo leavened his rather heavy-handed incursion into the academy with some palliatives. The Umidi initially met in the home of one of their founders, Francesco Campana, but once the duke took over he provided space in the Medici Palace on Via Larga, and later a room at the Studio Fiorentino. When this space proved too small, public events, including the production of at least one comedy, were moved to the Sala del Papa in the cloister of Santa Maria Novella. (9) In 1550, after that room passed to the convent of the Monache della Concezione then under construction, the academy took up permanent housing in the Salone dei Dugento in the Palazzo della Signoria, by then the Ducal Palace. (10) The movement from private to public spaces not only reflected the duke's support of the institution but also reminded his subjects of what could be lost with the removal of his patronage. …

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