Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Urban Legends: Civic Identity and the Classical Past in Northern Italy, 1250-1350

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Urban Legends: Civic Identity and the Classical Past in Northern Italy, 1250-1350

Article excerpt

Carrie E. Benes, Urban Legends: Civic Identity and the Classical Past in Northern Italy, 1250-1350 (University Park, Pa: Penn State University Press, 2011). xiv + 278 pp. ISBN 978-0-271-03765-3. $79.95.

This book claims both far too much and too little for itself. If you want a survey of the construction of civic identity in medieval Italy, this is not the place to start. Its focus is limited to the way in which foundation legends were celebrated in particular cities: its modus operandi is to devote each of its four central chapters to a case study - Padua, Genoa, Siena, and Perugia - and to book-end those with more general interpretative sections. The author claims that this structure allows her to transcend geographic boundaries 'avoiding the concentrated approach ... where entire books often focus on a single town' (p. 7); she is all the more proud of her determination to rise above disciplinary boundaries, and here she certainly falls into the hyperbole of the thesis-writer. It is, of course, necessary to study textual and material evidence together, but in the case of Padua, say, Benes is walking on well-trodden paths marked out by the Billanovich clan, among others. At the same time, this book undersells itself. It does so because, in the unending historians' struggle between the splitters and the lumpers, Benes is in the latter camp. Her tide speaks of a singular 'classical past' and, in the opening and closing chapters, she talks of foundation legends providing a 'Romanising identity' (e.g. p. 144). Yet, the various tales she presents suggest a competition between usable pasts. …

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