Cover image for Chronicling History: Chroniclers and Historians in Medieval and Renaissance Italy Edited by Sharon Dale, Alison Williams Lewin, and Duane J. Osheim

Chronicling History

Chroniclers and Historians in Medieval and Renaissance Italy

Edited by Sharon Dale, Alison Williams Lewin, and Duane J. Osheim


$34.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03226-9

352 pages
6" × 9"

Chronicling History

Chroniclers and Historians in Medieval and Renaissance Italy

Edited by Sharon Dale, Alison Williams Lewin, and Duane J. Osheim

“There is nothing like this on the market. . . . Nowhere is there offered such an ample body of translations; nowhere is there offered such generous commentary. There are some books of original sources . . . but none that covers as much chronological and regional ground.”


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Literally thousands of annals, chronicles, and histories were produced in Italy during the Middle Ages, ranging from fragments to polished humanist treatises. This book is composed of a set of case studies exploring the kinds of historical writing most characteristic of the period.

We might expect a typical medieval chronicler to be a monk or cleric, but the chroniclers of communal and Renaissance Italy were overwhelmingly secular. Many were jurists or notaries whose professions granted them access to political institutions and public debate. The mix of the anecdotal and the cosmic, of portents and politics, makes these writers engaging to read.

While chroniclers may have had different reasons to write and often very different points of view, they shared the belief that knowing the past might explain the present. Moreover, their audiences usually shared the worldview and civic identity of the historians, so these texts are glimpses into deeper cultural and intellectual contexts. Seen more broadly, chronicles are far more entertaining and informative than narratives. They become part of the very history they are describing.

“There is nothing like this on the market. . . . Nowhere is there offered such an ample body of translations; nowhere is there offered such generous commentary. There are some books of original sources . . . but none that covers as much chronological and regional ground.”
“Overall, this is a wonderful source for researchers familiar with and delving deeper into regional Italian history.”

Sharon Dale is Associate Professor of Art History at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College.

Alison Williams Lewin is Associate Professor of History at St. Joseph's University.

Duane J. Osheim is Professor of History at the University of Virginia.




1. Lombard City Annals and the Social and Cultural History of Northern Italy

Edward Coleman

2. History Writing in the Twelfth-Century Kingdom of Sicily

Graham A. Loud

3. The Genoese Civic Annals: Caffaro and His Continuators

John Dotson

4. Salimbene de Adam and the Franciscan Chronicle

Alison Williams Lewin

5. The Villani Chronicles

Paula Clarke

6. Chronicles and Civic Life in Giovanni Sercambi’s Lucca

Duane J. Osheim

7. Fourteenth-Century Lombard Chronicles

Sharon Dale

8. Venetian History and Patrician Chroniclers

John Melville Jones

9. Chronicles into Legends and Lives: Two Humanist Accounts of the Carrara Dynasty in Padua

Benjamin G. Kohl

10. Challenging Chronicles: Leonardo Bruni’s History of the Florentine People

Gary Ianziti

11. From the Roman Empire to Christian Imperialism: The Work of Flavio Biondo

Nicoletta Pellegrino




Literally thousands of annals, chronicles, and histories were produced in Italy during the Middle Ages, ranging from fragments to polished humanist treatises. This book offers eleven case studies exploring the kinds of historical writing most characteristic of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. It is meant to serve as an introduction to this largely unappreciated historical resource.

The volume and diversity of Italian historical literature reflect a complex society that evolved from the creation of the Lombard kingdom through the forging of a political order based on communes and finally into a system of regional Renaissance states. While waves of conquest maintained monarchic rule in the south of Italy, the papacy claimed temporal control of a broad swath of central Italy. Thus, the historical circumstances that created strong centralized monarchies in northern Europe did not exist in Italy. Instead, its history is a fractured mosaic of local and regional stories. As Italians displayed their extraordinary capacity for evolving new and contrasting types of communities and forms of government, they explained their experiences in an equally creative chronicle tradition.

Chroniclers were not modern detached historians. They were opinionated, often deeply partisan, and intensely personal. Idiosyncrasy and anecdote pervade their accounts. Yet their value to historians is inestimable. Often our only sources of information about momentous events, they have shaped the historiography of Italy. Moreover, it is precisely this mix of the anecdotal and the historic, of portents and politics, that makes these writers so engaging to read.

We might expect a typical medieval chronicler to be a monk or cleric, but the chroniclers of communal and Renaissance Italy were overwhelmingly secular. Many were jurists or notaries, whose professions granted them access to political institutions and public debate. Others were merchants, reflecting the importance of trade, banking, and business in the history of Italian cities. But most of all they were townsmen, and it is in the city that their accounts are situated. Although a past framed by Rome or an evocative Italia often provided chroniclers with some variant of a foundation myth, it was the promotion of the greatness of one’s own city that inspired most chroniclers. Even the chroniclers of important families such as the Carrara or the Visconti were shaped by a sense of place, be it Padua or Milan.

Paul the Deacon, who wrote in the eighth century, established a much imitated precedent with his History of the Lombards. Portraying the Lombards’ evolution from a primitive and rustic conquering tribe to a sophisticated and complex dynasty that dominated Italy, Paul’s History became the narrative touchstone for numerous early writers, particularly in southern Italy, where Norman and Hohenstaufen conquerors replaced Arab and Lombard rulers. An alternative, short on narrative but often endowed with bursts of eyewitness description, was the annalist tradition, whose emergence coincided with the flowering of the northern Italian communes in the twelfth century. Perhaps the greatest stimulus for the production of chronicles was Italian cities’ emerging maritime dominance. Rivalry between cities and sometimes between families was keen and stoked a desire to justify current status with a propitious past. The chronicle form provided the right blend of past and present.

This book approaches the diversity and creativity of the Italian historical tradition through a series of introductory essays and extensive translations from a number of Italian chronicles composed between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries. The chronicles vary greatly by time and place; they also differ from the spare annals and chronicles generally composed in northern Europe during the same period. In northern Europe it was clerics, bishops, monks, and secular clergy who were inspired to write. And not surprisingly their concerns revolved about the royal court, the episcopal palace, and the monastic house.

In medieval Italy concerns were different. The annalists with whom we begin mark a transformation in Italian historical writing. The older tradition of the ninth and tenth centuries that followed on the work of Paul the Deacon had largely disappeared along with any sense of the early medieval Italian state. As described by Edward Coleman, the annalists recorded the wars and exploits of the twelfth-century Lombard towns, the immediate events that dramatically affected life in their cities. They paid scant attention to the distant past and had little sense of how their own experiences were connected to the wider world. In the Genoese chronicle tradition, as John Dotson makes clear, that narrow understanding of what should be recorded expanded over the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Genoese annalists began to include internal political and institutional information in addition to the wars and lists of officials that were the traditional fare of annalists.

The essays by Graham Loud and Alison Williams Lewin offer an important counterpoint to the Lombard and Genoese annalist traditions. Loud introduces readers to “the other Norman Conquest,” the one less remembered in the Anglophone world. The migration of Norman adventurers to the south of Italy and their eventual creation of a Norman kingdom greatly altered the political dynamics of the Italian peninsula, and, significantly for our studies, the Norman histories of Italy more resembled their English counterparts than the communal annals of Lombardy. The central issue for these historians was the expansion and the power of the Norman kingdom.

Alison Williams Lewin’s essay analyzes Salimbene de Adam’s vision of Italian history. Salimbene spent most of his life traveling among the cities of northern and central Italy. But he was uninterested in communal government or political life, unless, of course, either influenced his beloved Franciscan religious order or his understanding of God’s plan for history. In some respects Salimbene’s chronicle resembles northern religious writing. Its first chapters, now lost, began with creation and maintained a fairly traditional Christian frame of sin and salvation. Nonetheless, Salimbene was describing life in an Italian cultural world. He was profoundly influenced by the prophecies of Joachim of Fiore and the common belief that Italy and the world would shortly enter Joachim’s “Third Age of the Spirit” and that Final Judgment must soon follow. It was in this context that Salimbene recorded religious life in Italy and the history of Emperor Frederick II, the medieval emperor who attempted to unite northern and southern Italy into the largely German medieval empire.

The fourteenth century was the great age of chronicle writing. Our essays outline a far-ranging and discontinuous transformation of such writing until we reach the historians of the fifteenth century, who intended to place Italy in a broad historical context. Essays on Florence, Lucca, Milan, and Venice demonstrate the range of complexity and purpose that can be found in fourteenth-century chronicles. Paula Clarke introduces us to Giovanni and Matteo Villani of Florence. Giovanni Villani may well be the most famous chronicler of medieval Italy, and his work certainly represents the most sophisticated of the four fourteenth-century traditions represented here. More than the compilers of the Lombard and Genoese annals, the Villani chroniclers place their Florentine hometown, and indeed all of Tuscany, in a broader, more historical frame. Giovanni Villani famously announces that he resolved to write his history after a pilgrimage to Rome, which revealed to him that Florence was in no way inferior to that historic city. As Clarke makes clear, the resulting New Chronicle was composed in the context of Florence’s Roman heritage, its growing importance in Tuscany, and its tumultuous social and political life. For Villani, Florence’s ancient history was a key to understanding its present dilemmas.

Giovanni Sercambi’s Lucca was a very different sort of Tuscan town, and the history Sercambi produced was much less sophisticated—more narrowly focused and less ambitious—than Villani’s meditation on history, morality, and politics. As Duane Osheim indicates, Sercambi’s emphasis is liberty. He explains how Lucca lost its political liberty early in the fourteenth century, regained it in 1369, and struggled to retain its liberty in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. In many respects his concentration on contemporary local events recalls the earlier Lombard annalists, insofar as he viewed most events from the limited perspective of their immediate significance for his own city. Like many of our historians, Sercambi feared the divisive effects of faction and assumed that discord, violence, and lack of communal feeling were a direct result of human moral failings and the insidious workings of the devil. Ironically, as Osheim shows, Sercambi began by describing the restoration of liberty through republican government. But as a result of factional struggles in Lucca, he ends up advocating one-man rule in the hands of Paolo Guinigi. Sercambi always saw himself as a defender of Lucchese liberty, but to his mind the means of protecting that liberty had radically changed between 1369 and 1400.

Whereas Sercambi viewed the events of the late fourteenth century from behind the beleaguered walls of his provincial town, Galvano Fiamma and Pietro Azario, the Lombard chroniclers Sharon Dale introduces, recorded the events of the tumultuous rise of the Visconti family first in Milan and later throughout Lombardy. Especially in Azario’s telling, it is the Visconti and not the communal governments that offer hope. And the prize they offer is not the liberty that Sercambi and other Tuscans celebrated, but peace. It was a twofold peace, an end to factional divisions within cities and also an end to the endemic warfare between towns and regions. Unlike the earlier Lombard annalists of the twelfth century, Dale’s Lombard chroniclers had a clear concept of Lombardy and Italy, a perspective that differs significantly from the Tuscan view of the Italian world found in Giovanni Sercambi and the Villani.

Venetian historical writing in general and The Morosini Codex in particular present a quite different historiographical situation, as John Melville Jones elucidates, for Venice lacked ancient religious or cultural roots. It was a new city, made wealthy through trade with the eastern Mediterranean. Many of the stories that Venetians recalled about themselves and their world reflect a strong imperative to justify their prominence in the Italian world. The Morosini Codex itself is what one scholar has called a “social chronicle.” In Venice the production of historical works by members of the Venetian patriciate was a sign of family nobility and an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of ancestors while simultaneously recounting important events in the city’s history. Unlike the Villani chroniclers of Florence or the chroniclers of Visconti Lombardy, who worked in a limited historical tradition, Venetians read and copied from each other to the point that it is nearly impossible to follow various historical tales to their origin.

The Morosini Codex marks a notable transition in the Italian chronicle tradition. The last three essays in our book reflect the more complex world of the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It is a world of courts, emerging regional states, and renewed humanistic interest in the past. Benjamin Kohl’s discussion of the historians of Carrara Padua reveals the transformation of historical writing in a courtly milieu. As his title indicates, the experience at Padua, an ancient republican commune now firmly under the control of the Carrara dynasty, illustrates how civic chronicles were reformulated into legends that celebrated the noble rulers of the city. Giovanni Conversini da Ravenna was a courtier in the fullest Renaissance sense. He lived at the feet of Francesco il Vecchio Carrara, and he tells the favorite Carrara myth that the family was descended from Carolingian and imperial origins and thus had a natural right to rule in Padua as well as claims to many other parts of the Veneto. His was a history, or perhaps a myth, with obvious social and political utility. At virtually the same time, as Kohl shows, Pier Paolo Vergerio wrote a history of the family using the available historical sources. His work was innovative because he consciously followed the models for historical biography in the classical works of Suetonius and Plutarch. His was, in short, a humanist work that subtly investigated the interests and motivations of the Carrara dukes.

In his use of classical models and in his consciousness of classical historical traditions, Vergerio was similar to the last two historians considered in this book. Gary Ianziti’s introduction to Leonardo Bruni’s History of the Florentine People makes a telling comparison with Paula Clarke’s study of the Villani. Bruni and the Villani studied the same subject, Florence and its state, and Bruni knew the work of the Villani; but written in the fifteenth century, his work challenges and transforms the chronicle tradition. As Ianziti explains, Bruni provides a fresh paradigm for Florentine history, one that recognizes the newly important oligarchic domination of Florentine public life, the concomitant promotion of professional government, and the value of prudence as the supreme attribute of that government.

As Nicoletta Pellegrino shows, Flavio Biondo also creates a new paradigm. But Biondo, a papal secretary, writes from an Italian perspective and not from a regional or communal one. Like Vergerio and Bruni, Biondo was conscious of the connection between papal Rome, and indeed Italy as a whole, and the political and intellectual heritage of classical Rome. In his Decades he is acutely aware of Roman language and traditions. The Roman heritage provides the context in which Biondo understands the history of the Italian cities that are at the heart of our chronicles.

Flavio Biondo’s history marks a convenient stopping point for this book. The French invasion of 1494 and the wars that followed in its wake destabilized and transformed Italy, its regions and its cities. And the histories of Niccolò Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini reflect that new reality. Both writers discarded the classical and humanistic aims of Bruni and Biondo, but they appreciated and used the Florentine tradition represented by the Villani. They shared a political realism found in the vernacular historians, but they wrote about factions and the wealthy optimates in a different context. Guicciardini ultimately wrote about Italy, not Florence, and the context of his history was Europe.

Hans-Werner Goetz has observed that historical writings are a complex of present concerns and knowledge of the past. In that sense, Italian chronicles must first be seen as a subset of the medieval tradition of historical writing. Italian chronicles shared religious ideas, imperial symbols, and, in some cases, the chivalric ethos of northern writers. In a series of lectures before the Royal Historical Society, Richard Southern outlined three distinct themes that seemed to characterize much of medieval European historiography. The first was royal history, largely based on classical Roman images of both secular and divine rulership. This was a tradition that continued strongly until the religious reforms of the late eleventh century made ideas of divine kingship highly controversial. A second theme was divine direction of universal history. Hugh of St. Victor, for example, saw God’s covenant with Abraham and later the New Covenant of the birth and sacrifice of Christ as marking two of the three ages of human history. Finally, building in many respects on ideas of universal history, writers influenced by Joachim of Fiore and various prophetic texts wrote history as eschatology, a way to mark the progression to the eschaton, the End Days before Final Judgment.

In northern Europe the chronicles that dealt with these themes were usually written by clerics, in the context of a monastery or a royal or noble court. The narrative was most easily organized around the lives of succeeding abbots or kings. Whether the focus was monastic or royal, the narrative often justified rights and privileges. Writers occasionally even inserted copies or descriptions of charters. Some writers, especially those at court, described chivalric traditions at the local or regional level. Chronicles charted the rise of elite families and established their claims to local and even national preeminence. Their tales were often military. Jean Froissart explained that his history of what would be called the Hundred Years’ War was written “in order that the great deeds of arms . . . should be prominently recorded and committed to perpetual memory . . . and credited to those who, by their prowess, have performed them.”

Whether focused on noble families, religious figures, or heroic kings, historical works lend themselves to various forms of reading and analysis. Historians approach a text in one of three general ways: as a self-contained unit, as the product of an author, or as the product of an interpretative community.

The first approach emphasizes the text and the reader’s response to it. Strongly influenced by modern critical and ideological movements, this “linguistic turn” in historiography is perhaps most closely identified with Hayden V. White and Dominick LaCapra. In this view, texts are always contemporaneous with the person reading them. Each text is assumed to be complete and self-referential; thus meaning and understanding come from the literary, ideological, and cultural background of the reader. Moreover, texts do not depend on historical context for meaning, since it is already provided by the narrative pattern of the text itself. Patterns of symbols provide the social and cultural process by which the reader engages the text in a form of dialogue.

Were one to apply Hayden White’s analysis to the annals and chronicles in our book, one might profitably examine the early Lombard annals, with their spare prose entries, as a form of “narrativity” in which the plot exists as a “structure of relationships by which the events contained in the account are endowed with a meaning by being identified as parts of an integrated whole.” In this reading the context of the Cremona annals reveals itself as structured by Christian mission, war, violence, and contested authority. Likewise, one might examine any of our fourteenth-century chroniclers as participants in historical discourse in which events are judged real not because they occurred but rather because they are both remembered and then judged important enough to be included in a chronological sequence.

These theorists find medieval chronicles, in their often idiosyncratic inclusions, distortions, and omissions, to be excellent examples of the tension between the historical account that claims authority from reality itself and the narrative process that gives form, coherence, and authority to the text. Theorists find earlier historical constructs to be “destructively oversimplified”; newer linguistic approaches, on the other hand, can be “refreshing in their speculative intricacy.”

The second approach to historic texts emphasizes the interests, culture, and experiences of the author or compiler of a text. Chroniclers were often inspired to write by their own sense of living in important times or by witnessing significant events. Exemplified by Chris Given-Wilson’s recent book on English chronicles, this approach emphasizes the formation of the historian and the quality of source materials available. The chronicler is portrayed, in most cases, as a writer who is part of a complex intellectual tradition. The textual studies in this volume, treating the chronicles of Salimbene, Giovanni and Matteo Villani, Pietro Azario, and Giovanni Sercambi, reveal a range of autobiographical influences.

The third approach to historical texts emphasizes the community in which the text has been produced, the “social memory” of writers and readers, as James Fentress and Chris Wickham have termed it. Here, chronicles are construed to operate like oral traditions. They are homeostatic; that is, they are written to reflect the issues and concerns of the people at the time they are composed. In effect, they include the materials necessary to explain how the ancient past is connected to the world in which the writer lived. This approach emphasizes the materials available to the author, as well as the language, values, and cultural milieu of the intended readers of the text. In this view, chronicles are not merely a collection of facts to be mined. Rather, facts, symbols, and images derive meaning from context. Thus detail can be added or subtracted, forgotten or invented, as necessary in order to create a history that makes sense at the point it is being written.

This is basically the technique used by Gabrielle Spiegel, who, in a series of essays, has investigated a number of medieval French historical works, seeking “to locate texts within specific social sites” in order then to examine the “situated uses of language” inherent in those texts and to understand how linguistic and social realities are interwoven.

The intention of our essays is more modest. We hope to accomplish the essential first step of her project, returning a text “to its social and political context.” And having accomplished that first step, a number of themes and historiographical concerns emerge from diverse worlds of our chroniclers. It is essential to note, for example, that the readily available frame for the twelfth-century annalist was the list of communal officials, or that Giovanni Sercambi had little more than folk memories and popular songs and poems available as a basis for parts of his chronicle. On the other hand, Morosini’s Venetian codex was one of hundreds of fragmentary patrician historical tracts. And if chroniclers were partial to portents and signs of astrological or divine involvement in the affairs of the world, they were equally convinced that momentous events were frequently affected by the smallest precipitate. Thus the rebuke of a nobleman’s servant by another lord could cause major warfare and complex political realignments. Similarly, larger patterns of diplomacy are explained by simple expedients: Matteo Villani, for example, dismissed a Visconti truce with the papacy as a ploy to gain approval for a pending marriage.

Yet, these texts are products of their times and places. Beginning with the annals of Lombardy, Italian texts reveal a keen sense of civic identity and rivalry with other cities, reflecting the reality of late medieval and Renaissance Italian political and economic life. Good governance and wise leadership are praised, if often laconically. Perhaps their rarity is the reason that corruption, duplicity, and cruelty by kings, lords, magistrates, and prelates are condemned even as wrongs are graphically and even salaciously examined. Scandal is more riveting than virtue, then as now. But the very act of writing about government and discerning good and bad in political life signals a sophisticated awareness of the possibilities inherent in government.

Chroniclers strove to place the events they saw unfolding around them in a scheme that made political and even ethical sense to them. Giovanni Villani’s strongly Guelf vision stands in contrast to Matteo’s more sophisticated and nuanced civic ideology formed in reaction against the factionalism and oligarchic ideas that came to dominate Florence. Giovanni Sercambi’s definition of liberty mutates with the political transformation of Lucca. In war-ravaged Lombardy, Pietro Azario defines peace, not liberty, as the overarching goal of sound government. And in an emerging humanist world, chronicle will become legend in Padua, rationalize sovereignty in Florence, and revive a classical ideology in Rome.

While chroniclers may have had different reasons to write and often very different points of view, they shared a belief that the past might explain the present. Moreover, their audiences usually shared the worldviews and civic identities of the chroniclers, so that these texts are glimpses into deeper cultural and intellectual contexts. Seen more broadly, therefore, chronicles are far more than entertaining and informative narratives. They become part of the very history they are describing.

Yet chronicles are not static or frozen in time. Our introductory essays generally locate these chronicles in a social, historical, or biographical context. But these approaches do not preclude subjecting the chronicles, and perhaps the introductory essays as well, to a more “performative” reading. As LaCapra has suggestively observed, “We as interpreters [of text] are situated in a sedimented layering of readings that demand excavation.” Readers of the chapters that follow are invited to dig in the various and exciting products left by these creative and exciting communities.