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Politica e diplomazia nell’Italia del primo Rinascimento

Luciano Piffanelli

Postfazione. An afterword: diplomatic contingencies and innovations in the Italy of Filippo Maria Visconti

John Watkins

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1Luciano Piffanelli has written two books in one. First and foremost, his work is a richly researched treatment first of the Lombard wars that racked Italy between 1423 and the 1454 Peace of Lodi. While the story of that conflict has been told primarily from a Venetian angle, Piffanelli shifts our perspective to Florence, its allies in the Romagna, the Savoy, Rome. In the process, he gives his reader a more vivid understanding of the initial stages of the war and of Florence’s diplomatic efforts to organize a broad resistance to Filippo Maria’s incursions beyond the boundaries specified in the Milanese-Florentine agreement of 1420. Contrary to the impressions given by prior historians, and especially by Italo Raulich, the war was at least as much a Florentine-Milanese affair as a Venetian-Milanese one. In terms of Italian historiography, Piffanelli’s achievement rests on an unusually apt command of all relevant Italian archives, including those of the papacy and several smaller polities. This allows him to chart the entire diplomatic landscape of northern Italy, from the Savoy to Rome, in unprecedented detail.

2But as much as this first book contributes to the study of early Quattrocento Italy, it also advances our understanding of what diplomatic history might become through a more interdisciplinary interrogation of its methods and sources. Piffanelli’s archival ambition is matched only by his methodological ambition, his determination to teach historians not just something new about the Filippo Maria Visconti’s Italy, but about new way of investigating and interpreting the diplomatic past. In this sense, this essential study becomes, as it were, a second book, one on archival and diplomatic hermeneutics that speaks well beyond the already large community of Italian early modernists. Again and again, Piffanelli raises central questions about what it means to investigate a moment in diplomatic history. What constitutes a diplomatic action? Can modern scholars distinguish relations between states from the internal politics of the states themselves? Is the international system an epiphenomenon of political shifts within states? Or does the behaviour of the system determine internal state affairs? What is the epistemological status and the archival nature of a treaty? Can we talk about treaties in isolation as static legal documents? Or should we approach them as moments in a continually unfolding and developing diplomatic conversation? Are their various preambles and provisions best approached in terms of law and politics or in terms of rhetoric? Is a single, controversial, provision an injunction or a heuristic? To what extent do documents in the diplomatic archives – treaties, relazioni, dispacci, memos of instruction – participate in the rhetorical and linguistic flux characteristic of all writing? Are they best approached in terms of genre and occasion, much as we might approach a lyric poem or a novella?

3Throughout Piffanelli’s book, archival history threads its way into contemporary theories of politics, space, and language. From his opening exegesis of Stendhal, Piffanelli proves himself to be the most literarily sophisticated political historian writing at the current moment. He is the first scholar to recognize the potential consonance between the craft of the diplomatic historian, ever returning to the sources on which any interpretation of the past must finally rest, and the critique génétique, a theoretical approach to the study of literature that emerged in France during the 1970s and has subsequently influenced almost every other mode of literary analysis, including narratology, poetics, new formalisms, sociocriticsm, feminism, and even psychoanalysis. Genetic critics challenge the hermeneutic primacy of final, canonical, literary texts by placing at least as much weight on their antecedents. What matters more are the avant-textes – manuscripts, drafts, letters, even reports of conversations with the author during the time of composition – that allow the critic to retrace the process of literary creation from the first germ of a project’s conception. In much the same way, Piffanelli rejects any pretension of writing a final, definitive, account of pre-Medicean relations between Florence and Milan to bring his readers along with him into the relevant collections and take us through the work of assessing archival strengths and limitations. He reads the gaps and lacunae with as much passion and intelligence as he reads more extant traces of the diplomatic conversations triggered by Visconti’s invasion of the Romagna.

4At his most theoretically rigorous, Piffanelli makes us see that even individual documents are subject to competing interpretations, a property inherent in all textuality that has produced disagreements not just among historians and literary critics but even among statesmen. In a masterful discussion of the vocabulary of space, for example, he follows Barry Smith in distinguishing between bona fide borders, such as rivers and other physical features of the landscape, and fiat borders, which mark impositions solely of the human imagination. In settling on distinct Florentine and Milanese spheres of influence, the 1420 agreement established the Magra River as the boundary between Tuscan and Lombard interests. The decision had strong historical precedent, since the Magra (from the Latin “Marca”) had formed the Roman border between Liguria and Aemilia. But when Filippo Maria entered into an alliance with Cardinal Alfonso Carrillo of Bologna, lying over 100 kilometers to the east of the Magra, a semantic debate erupted that led ultimately to war. Technically, the Magra did not flow through Bologna or anywhere near it. So in which sense had Filippo crossed it? Was an alliance, moreover, the same thing as an invasion? Filippo Maria’s justification of his actions depended on the narrowest interpretation of the contested terms. But the Florentines were not convinced. Beyond all the word play, they recognized in Filippo Maria’s alliance with Carrillo a dangerous expansion of the Milanese sphere of influence.

5Piffanelli’s concerns both with the avant-textes preceding diplomatic agreements and with the linguistic ambiguity inherent in all writing resist the premature interpretative closures that underwrote the grands récits of an older diplomatic history. Like all practitioners of the New Diplomatic History, Piffanelli is justly suspicious of stories about the rise of the resident ambassador as the marker of diplomatic modernity or about the emergence of a modern state system in the wake of Westphalia. In place of such grand narratives, he offers his reader a vision of radical political contingencies. For Piffanelli, historical causation is multi-vectored. Numerous variables are always at play: factional interests within individual polities, questions about finance and individual polities’ ability and willingness to support a war effort, the response of secondary and tertiary powers to the emerging or ongoing conflict between two belligerents, the accidents of dynasty, the negotiating strengths or weaknesses of individual envoys and emissaries, and, as we have seen, the possibility of competing interpretations of key phrases in the relevant documents.

6This attention to contingency supports one of the book’s most exciting counters to the work of earlier historians like Garrett Mattingly. Instead of fetishizing resident embassy as the crucial hallmark of the Italian Renaissance, Piffanelli focuses on diplomatic improvisation. States that were themselves caught up in a process of self-invention continuously availed themselves of whatever ever diplomatic agents or strategies that served their interests. If a resident embassy could meet a given challenge, so be it. But when resident embassy failed, one might turn to other kinds of mediators, including merchants, exiles, or other persons whose careers carried them from court to court. New diplomatic protocols and conventions had to be invented on the spot.

7By resisting the longue durée narratives that once shaped the field, Piffanelli voices yet another of the most central but underexamined aspects of premodern diplomacy: its radical unpredicability. The state system that evolved over the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries worked to regularize the business of credentializing, recognizing, and exchanging ambassadors; building alliances; declaring war; and peacemaking. The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 and the Geneva Conventions of 1929 and 1949 regulated the conduct of war itself to an unprecedented degree. As the English international relations theorist Hadley Bull often insisted, perhaps paradoxically, war itself had become symptomatic of international order rather than chaos.

8But in the rapidly shifting diplomatic contexts of premodern Europe, there was nothing equivalent to the modern sense of an ordered, relatively predictable, international system. The rule of hereditary dynasties across most of the continent alone insured a high level of systemic instability. Relations between polities could shift with a single death, something familiar to any student of the Sforzas’ relations with Aragonese Naples. Papal policy was just as volatile. A single conclave might alter the political calculus of Italy.

9An unprecedented attention to that unpredicability is what makes Piffanelli’s textual focus so invaluable. By a thorough examination of every written trace of the diplomatic life of early fifteenth-century Italy, he makes us grasp the centrality of uncertainty to every negotiation. Genetic literary scholars often say that their attention to the avant-textes allows them to re-experience the drama of artistic creation. Certainly, Piffanelli’s genetic historiography allows him and his readers alike to experience something of the drama of Quattrocento statecraft. That drama is finally too rapidly shifting, too kaleidoscopic, to conform to the neat Aristotelian canons of plot that dominated the older diplomatic history, with its emphasis on the rise and fall of systems. Piffanelli’s historiography is messier. But in his fascination as much with the dead ends of diplomatic history as with its apparent trajectories, he gives us a richer, and arguably more accurate, representation of the past.

10Piffanelli’s representation of the diplomatic past ultimately speaks more powerfully to the diplomatic present, to a world longing for the greater predictability of a now broken Westphalian system. In his repudiation of Mattingly, Piffanelli’s Italy is not racing to the goal of a diplomatic modernity underwritten by regularized ambassadorial exchange. Rather, it is struggling to establish diplomatic norms in the face of rapidly changing, insistently unpredictable, political conditions across Italy and around the Mediterranean. That Europe is closer to our world than to the almost static binarism of the Cold War that shaped Mattingly’s historical imagination. Mattingly valued regularization in part because of the success with which organizations like the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund seemed to manage conflict after the Second World War. Those institutions, as well as later ones like the European Union, have now suffered a loss of prestige and general effectiveness. Democracy itself is suffering unprecedented strains. In this period of international uncertainty, Piffanelli’s recreation of the Italy that strove to contain the ambitions of Filippo Maria Visconti has much to teach us.


© Publications de l’École française de Rome, 2020

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