In fifteenth-century Florence, friendship—or the client–patron relationship, as contemporaries termed it—was often associated with uncertainties and risks. An investigation of diaries, notebooks, and letter correspondences of the time, from the perspective of game theory and decision theory, reveals how Florentines reasoned about the uncertainties of friendship, deploying an array of knowledge-constructing practices, under the rubric of “commonplacing,” to understand it. The preventive techniques that Florentines applied to cope with the conflicting testimonies of the contemporary information culture (the increase in the variety and the availability of vernacular texts, the expansion of literacy, etc.) only served to intensify their predicament. The fact that clients and patrons largely viewed their relationship in the same way challenges the traditional notion of that relationship as asymmetrical.

The ubiquitousness of uncertainty in human experience has undergone extensive analysis by anthropologists, cognitive scientists, and behavioral economists, as well as intellectual and political historians. But it should also inform historical scholarship about everyday life. How did people in history experience and reason about uncertainty? How did they cope with it? The challenges of providing answers are twofold. First, history lacks methods to study the thought processes that ordinary people underwent to address uncertainty. Second, such people rarely left documents that offer insight into how they reasoned about uncertainty. In this regard, however, late medieval Florence is exceptional. Between 1350 and 1500, Florentines produced an extraordinarily large corpus of diaries and memoirs in which they reflected on their problems and uncertainties. Thanks to previous scholarship, we have a good understanding of the cultural and social context of these documents. These findings, combined with a range of conceptual frameworks, help us to explore the uncertainties related to friendship not only as abstract emotional or mental states but also as concrete moments of everyday life.1

The Historical Context

The connection between the Florentine tradition of compiling diaries and the uncertainty of friendship becomes clear through the stories of two men. On Easter in 1457, Giovanni di Pagolo Rucellai (1403–1481), a successful merchant and patron of the arts, compiled a mixture of a diary and a notebook (or commonplace book), which he named Zibaldone Quaresimale, for his two sons. Rucellai had become a political pariah because of his marriage in 1428 to the daughter of Palla Strozzi (1372–1462), an eminent Florentine intellectual and wealthy merchant, who was exiled in 1434 for his opposition to the Medici. Not only was Rucellai forced to establish himself in a hostile political climate; he, like everyone else, also had to deal with frequent plague pandemics and forced taxation. By the second half of his life, however, he had managed to regain the favor of the Medici and to connect his family with them through strategic marriages and friendships, while holding a number of important offices in the city. The vagaries of life that Rucellai recounted in his Zibaldone Quaresimale were hardly exceptional. The diary contains the stock challenges and dilemmas that generations of Florentines, rich and poor, had to face—one of them being the problem of how to build and maintain friendships.2

Similarly, the diary composed by Giovanni Morelli (1371–1444), a less prominent member of the Florentine elite, contains advice about how to navigate a fragile social environment by befriending the members of the elite. Both Rucellai and Morelli followed a practice widespread in late medieval Florence, compiling not only ricordanze, a combination of account book and diary, but also memoirs and notebooks (or zibaldoni). This Florentine tradition is preserved in a corpus of large unpublished manuscripts that offer insight into the challenges facing the members of a late medieval community. One issue in particular that perplexed Florentines was friendship. Zibaldoni abound with advice about how to interact with friends. Descriptions of friendship in these sources suggest that the bond connecting friends was risky, troublesome, and burdened with uncertainty.3

Florentines mainly, but not exclusively, used the terms friend and friendship to describe the patron–client relationship. In short, friendship between patrons and clients denoted a mainly vertical but occasionally horizontal and instrumental bond through which less powerful Florentines secured the support and protection of influential citizens. Patrons helped their clients to seek office and to resolve legal conflicts or financial troubles; clients reciprocated by doing favors or supporting their patrons in public life. Friendship, as a synonym of client–patron relations, was a source of uncertainty partly because of the historical development that the Renaissance city underwent from the late fourteenth century until the end of the fifteenth century.4

By the end of the fourteenth century, the importance of the patron–client network had increased for two reasons. First was a weakening corporate solidarity, as represented by the guilds. Without the help of corporate groups to articulate the collective and individual interests of less powerful citizens, Florentine guildsmen had to rely on the patronage of powerful men. Second, following the revolt of the Ciompi (1378–1382), Florence became an oligarchy, the members of which based their political power on their clients. Networks of friends and allies became the cornerstone of influence in the time preceding the emergence of the Medici. In this social and political climate, the client–patron relationship was marked by competition and exploitation. On the one hand, less powerful Florentines had to rely on asymmetrical social relations for protection, and, on the other, more powerful ones had to compete with each other by exploiting their client networks.5

Among the members of the oligarchy, the Medici were the most successful in building a robust network of clients. Their success derived from a patronage that spread throughout the city and beyond. By contrast, other families’ network of friends was limited to a given neighborhood. The Medici network was also more tightly organized than any other network of clients in the city. From 1434 onward, Cosimo de’ Medici continued the strategy that his father Giovanni di Bicci had established, cultivating allies from both the upper echelon of the Florentine social world and the less wealthy social groups, such as artisans. Cosimo stabilized his regime by forming an unprecedented informal network of other elite families, organized both horizontally and vertically, even though he did not hold any office. Multiple client–patron networks existed before Cosimo, but none of them dominated the city as his did. During the leadership of Cosimo’s grandson Lorenzo, the Medici network became even more centralized. Unlike Cosimo, whose pre-eminence was tacit and based on an implicit consensus, Lorenzo explicitly controlled every aspect of civic life in the manner of a prince. His new leadership style weakened the political stability of Florence, however, turning the Medici client network into a more exclusive personal network.6

These political and social developments in fifteenth-century Florence had dramatic consequences for people like Rucellai and Morelli. They marginalized powerful citizens and produced economically powerful outsiders who had to build their own network of clients and to take pains to connect it with the Medici network. Wealthy persons like Rucellai were familiar with the roles of both patron and client. For them, friendship was burdensome because it involved the task of cultivating myriad social ties that often led to contradictions and ambiguities. In addition to these complications, three other factors created difficulties in the domain of friendship—the information culture in late medieval Florence; the everyday practices that Florentines applied to address uncertainty; and the conflicts that erupted between cultural beliefs, ethical values, and self-interest.7

Uncertainty and the Tradition of Commonplacing

Probably because Rucellai and Morelli each lost his father at the age of three, they took the opportunity to provide advice about the challenges of friendship to their sons. They copied and occasionally rewrote passages by classical, early modern, and medieval authors to re-use as the building blocks of their diaries. To gain insights into the secrets of human relations, they marked or annotated passages addressing certain topics such as enmity and friendship. Like other Florentines, they copied texts, such as Cicero’s De Amicitia (On Friendship) into their notebooks, and created thematic inventories of sayings, proverbs, and maxims. This complex and highly influential communicative tradition derived from classical rhetorical guides that suggested the use of passages to express widely held beliefs (loci communes, or commonplaces) in speeches.8

Commonplacing covered such practices as annotation, rewriting, information gathering/organizing, and note taking, which had a long-lasting impact on Western culture. During the Middle Ages and the early modern period, commonplaces were integral to preaching, education, diplomacy, and science. In Renaissance Florence, laypersons, such as merchants and artisans, used its techniques to record, transmit, and muse about the dilemmas, challenges, and problems of everyday life. Laypersons in Florence became acquainted with commonplacing throughout their studies. Florentines applied three of its basic creative practices (annotation, construction of thematic collections, and rewriting) to contemplate the vicissitudes and vagaries of friendship.9


When Rucellai was compiling his Zibaldone Quaresimale, a man named Michele Siminetti was copying and annotating texts—ranging from horoscopes and geographies to the aphorisms of philosophers—into his notebook. He marked passages with pointing fingers and thematic identifiers to help him to retrieve information later. Siminetti was deeply interested in the joyful and bitter sides of friendship. The passages that he noted about sociability, mutuality, and pleasure contrasted sharply with others about the perils of betrayal and recrimination. In one passage, he rejects reciprocity as an aspect of friendship and advises that one should see rich friends only when invited. Siminetti’s attention and selection process indicates that he was intent on gathering information about optimal friendship strategies and about the tension between friendship as a felicitous emotional relation and an instrumental strategy threatened by many dangers and governed by tacit rules that limited reciprocity. This duality of friendship reflects the everyday experience of Florentines.10

In addition to the instrumental friendships that connected clients and patrons, “true friendship” that involved love, spirituality, and camaraderie was also prominent in late medieval Florence—such as that between Francesco Datini (1335–1410), a merchant from Prato, and the Florentine notary Ser Lapo Mazzei (1350–1412). Also illustrating the importance of camaraderie at the time is Francesco di Giovanni Baldovinetti’s complaint about his grandfather. In his lengthy and unpublished memoir, Baldovinetti, a fifteenth-century member of an old and prestigious Florentine family, complained about his ancestor’s preference for spending time with his friends rather than performing the honorable duties of his office. Other non-instrumental types of friendship were the bonds that connected members of fraternities and those that characterized groups of women, artists, and homosexuals. In light of this variety, previous scholarship has underlined the ambiguity of friendship as a social category that gave rise to contradictions and tensions. But annotation as a creative practice, along with the ideals of different cultural traditions, must also have wreaked some havoc. Florentines’ liberal consultation of a far-flung literature exposed them to contradictory ideas about friendship that triggered intellectual uncertainty (see below).11

Thematic Collections of Commonplaces

Although we do not know what Siminetti did with his annotated passages, other contemporary manuscripts reveal Florentines pursuing a further stage of commonplacing—the compilation of lists and inventories of sayings. Not unlike inhabitants of other urban centers of late medieval Europe, Florentines frequently collected miscellaneous sayings, passages, and proverbs to describe practical skills (public speaking, health care, etc.) or to address a thematic topic such as friendship. These tools for organizing and retrieving information helped scholars and laypersons to find multiple, though not necessarily consistent and sometimes contradictory, ideas about a single topic. The anonymous compiler of a fifteenth-century Florentine notebook titled Zibaldone Andreini listed sayings about a particularly vexing question for Florentines—What is the right strategy for maintaining friendship?12

Rucellai asked a similar pressing question in his Zibaldone Quaresimale—What is the appropriate amount of aid to give friends? In the first of his two thematic lists, he assembled material supporting a strategy of modest help. In the second, he collected sayings advocating a strategy of giving extravagant help. He also outlined strategies for rejecting friends’ requests outright. Through passages borrowed from others he surveyed the possible consequences of each strategy. Nevertheless, he did not explicitly opt for any of them; his thematic account is primarily the expression of a dilemma. Hence, collections of sayings were sometimes more than tools of information management or exemplars of note taking. They were also a means for conveying and contemplating the problems of everyday life. But, as shown below, they could hardly have been reassuring; the diversity of opinions and perspectives potentially led to uncertainty.13

Rewriting and Textual Mashups

Florentines further employed the ideas transmitted through commonplaces to construct elaborate texts, which often communicated and juxtaposed different viewpoints or widely held beliefs and ideas. In other words, laypersons also practiced the technique of recycling texts by well-known authors such as Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) and Matteo Palmieri (1406–1475). In the second half of the fourteenth century, Paolo da Certaldo applied it to produce an advice book. Like Rucellai’s diary, his Libro di buoni costumi (Book of Good Practices) resembles a mashup or a mosaic, the elements of which are sayings by well-known authors mixed with Paolo’s own experience. From a modern perspective, he may have indulged in a form of plagiarism but, according to contemporary standards, this re-use of commonplaces as the building blocks of longer texts was an accepted form of argumentation and reasoning.

Paolo pondered several onerous questions about friendship: How can one gauge the fidelity of a friend? Are some types of requests from friends inappropriate to fulfill? What are the limits of friendship? Textual mashups can however easily lead to dissonances between different viewpoints; Paolo’s work, for instance, echoes the tension between different viewpoints that Siminetti noted—the contradiction between friendship based on unconditional love and friendship as a strategic connection determined by self-interest.14

Literate cultures must have their own toolkits for conveying and reflecting on uncertainties, dilemmas, and open questions through a written medium. Laypersons in fifteenth-century Florence deployed the creative practices of commonplacing to address them. Florentines’ recycling of friendship ideas from earlier historical times was not exceptional in late medieval and early modern Europe. Intellectuals such as Desiderius Erasmus, William Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri, and others also reshaped the inherited friendship tradition in light of their everyday experience.

Florence was exceptional, however, in that both highly educated intellectuals and laypersons there employed commonplacing to address the uncertainties of everyday life. Although commonplacing dated back for centuries, its use to contemplate the challenges of everyday life emerged because of two key changes that occurred toward the end of the Middle Ages—an increase in the availability and diversity of vernacular texts and an expansion of literacy in large urban centers like Florence. Laypeople thus acquired the necessary information-processing and knowledge-constructing skills to use these texts to make sense of their own world. Annotations, thematic collections of sayings, and textual compilations permitted them not only to organize and store a variety of often contradicting ideas but also to employ them to reflect on the uncertainties of everyday life.15

Social Uncertainties and Coping Strategies

Rucellai’s accomplishments derived in large part from his ability to establish and maintain friendships. Despite an initially unfavorable political situation, he managed to move into the Medici circle and become an important patron in his local neighborhood. Thus did he come to understand the position of both client and patron. Among the pitfalls about which he sought to edify his sons in the Zibaldone Quaresimale was the dilemma, mentioned above, about the right and optimal scale of aid to friends, a situation with which wealthy Florentines had to grapple in their everyday life.

Florentine account books (ricordanze) reveal that friends or clients often approached patrons to ask for help with a public or a private problem, financial or otherwise. One of the most recurrent entries in the account book of Francesco Castellani, the last member of an important anti-Medici family, concerns informal loans to friends, familiars, and companions. Castellani also lent books and occasionally clothes and jewels to his kin and friends. Such activity was hardly unusual; indebtedness was rampant within the city walls of Florence. Many artisans and workmen had to live on loans from wealthy merchants and entrepreneurs. The level of indebtedness was just as high in the Florentine countryside (contado). Hence, Florentines were highly familiar with Rucellai’s dilemma about the right and optimal scale of aid to friends.16

Florentine diarists were eager to find guidance about how to handle requests for help. Rucellai’s research gleaned four possible strategies—moderate help, extravagant help, implicit rejection, and explicit rejection. With the aid of commonplaces, Morelli and Paolo da Certaldo, and other diarists also outlined tactics for navigating the uncertainties surrounding the world of friendship. At a first glance, Rucellai’s apparent indecisiveness about optimal friendship strategies as a patron may seem to be surprising. After all, the bonds connecting clients and patrons are usually portrayed as asymmetrical, placing clients in a decidedly subordinate position. But wealthy Florentines were both patrons and clients, familiar with the exigencies of both positions. Yet, why were they uneasy about making decisions involving supplicants? Why did they experience friendship management as a stressful and demanding task burdened with great uncertainty?17

Game Theory and Friendship Management

The basic concepts of game theory might provide an answer. With the help of commonplacing, Rucellai not only took into account the pros and cons of four possible strategies for handling petitioners; he also evaluated their possible reactions. One of his descriptive situations involved a strategic interaction in which the outcome of an agent’s action was determined by the reactions and preferences of another agent. Game is a technical term for strategic moves with outcomes that depend on the interests of multiple agents, or “players.” Defining Rucellai’s dilemma as a game provokes further questions. What could a patron lose or gain by offering or refusing to help a client? What were the major rewards, risks, and tasks of the friendship players?

The Uncertain Reward of the Friendship Game

Sources generally suggest that friendship provided long-term political, social, and financial stability and protection. Florentines expressed this state of affairs in their notebooks with the help of commonplaces. Rucellai summarized the relationship between friendship and protection with a compelling commonplace analogy: “Just as things are taken away from a field without hedgerows, wealth is lost without friends.” Filippo Manetti, brother of the humanist Gianozzo Manetti (1396–1459), evinced a similar view in his family record book, as represented by a frequently copied commonplace: “Those who have no friends are sluggish and lifeless.”18

The trying life of Alessandra Macinghi Strozzi (1407–1471), a Florentine widow, reveals how assistance to friends translated into long-term security. Alessandra, who was born into a prestigious family, went into exile with her husband Matteo di Simone Strozzi (cousin of the aforementioned Palla Strozzi) and their children in 1434. The adversity of exile was followed by the death of her husband and three of her children in 1435. Despite returning to Florence with her remaining children in 1436, the difficulties mounted. Each of Alessandra’s sons was exiled on his eighteenth birthday. Bereft financially, politically, and socially, Alessandra was forced to rely on the kinsmen and friends of her sons and late husband for all manner of support. Thanks to this network, she managed to protect her family’s interests.19

Florentine ricordanze reveal how friends came to each other’s rescue in times of trouble. Castellani noted how a friend helped him out in 1460, though he did not clarify to what end. Although Castellani rarely used the term friend in this diary, he always used another term, need (bisogno)—which wisdom literature often associated with friendship—when mentioning the loans that he gave. Friendship thus resembled an insurance policy protecting against unpredictable social, legal, and financial calamities. In the language of game theory, the putative, primary reward of a Florentine who helped his friends was reciprocal long-term support and protection in times of need [bisogno].

Nonetheless, Florentines often complained that the reward for their assistance to friends remained all-too uncertain. Filippo Manetti recorded the following commonplace, which was often copied by others: “Oh, how many friends and relatives one had in happy times not noticing adverse winds.” Manetti had good reason to write these words. He inherited an enormous fortune that he gradually lost due to “unbearable tax burdens.” In late medieval Florence, friends and taxes were interrelated; citizens often asked their friends to intercede with tax assessors to reduce the amounts that they had to pay. Filippo either lacked the right friends, or his friends forsook him. The fact that many different people copied his pessimistic commonplace suggests that the fragility of friendship was widely shared. The main reward of the friendship game, protection in the unpredictable future, remained uncertain.20

A story in the diary of Donato Velluti illustrates Florentines’ attitude toward financial failure, a circumstance that often called friendship into play. After spending his entire inheritance, Piero di Ciore, a distant relative of Velluti, lived in such misery that his relatives did not even bother to attend his funeral. As Brucker remarked about Piero di Ciore’s plight, “Florentines displayed little charity or pity toward the fallen.” Rucellai experienced a similar betrayal during his long life when, in 1474, Ridolfo Paghanelli, his business partner, swindled him. As he wrote in the Zibaldone Quaresimale, “from rich I became poor.” Fortunately for Rucellai, the received wisdom that people betray their disgraced friends turned out not to be true; his Medici friends bailed him out. Nevertheless, many Florentines who needed the assistance of friends in times of crisis faced bitter disappointment. Since the supposed future reward for aid given was uncertain, so was the decision regarding whether to fulfill a friend’s request.21

The Fuzziness of the Friendship Game

The heart of the matter was that the degree of reciprocity expected from friends was not clear-cut. Hence, Rucellai, Paolo da Certaldo, and others raised the question, Which requests are friends not meant to fulfill? When Alessandra, the concerned mother, reminded her sons about their obligations toward friends, she must have known that such obligations were indefinite. Others expressed their bitterness regarding unreciprocated services without reservation. As Mazzei wrote to Francesco Datini in a letter, “There is nothing more painful than waiting for reward from someone whom you have served a lot and being not properly served by this person.” What was expected from friends remained vague. Reciprocity was a matter of power that depended on changing circumstances, thereby distinguishing friendship from an insurance policy. Both arrangements supplied protection in the unpredictable future, but friendship was merely an informal bond without legal guarantees.22

Giving aid to friends for security against future calamities bears some similarity with the exchange of gifts in archaic societies. As Miller pointed out, the fact that the terms of gift exchanges—when, what, and how to repay—are not spelled out distinguishes gift exchanges from formal contracts. Likewise, the nature of future solidarity expected from friends was not set in stone for Florentines; people could not reclaim formally what friends had earlier promised to them informally, particularly in the case of monetary loans. As James put it, “Mercantile relationships were fragile in the face of even minor financial disputes, especially since those who prospered often did so through a combination of luck and ruthless outwitting of their rivals.”

Those who asked favors from friends were aware of the uncertainty of future compensation. In 1446, Bartolommeo Cederni, a Florentine bank employee, received a letter from someone named Bernardo Serzelli asking for numerous favors and alluding to future assistance as needed. Serzelli was trying to assure Cederni against the uncertainty of the future: “As you can see, I am asking your effort as I really trust you. I am asking you not to be disturbed because of this; I can still live so long that I will be able to show how dear you were to me.”23

The Tasks of the Players

The contradiction between the uncertainty of friendship and the recourse to friendship in the face of future contingency encouraged the gathering and distributing of information. Correspondence between Salvestro de Cica and Cederni in the late 1440s sheds light on the relationship between friendship and the urge to acquire information. Cederni asked de Cica to tell him about two powerful citizens who had approached him for a favor. De Cica’s reply presented several arguments to convince Cederni to “let them (the two powerful men) take care of him.” Some of his arguments were based on the moral qualities of the people in question, whereas others treated the uncertainty of the future. In de Cica’s view, Cederni should not doubt that if these persons “start a common affair, it will get to the desired goal and end.” What was this desired goal? De Cica’s answer was confounding: “This would be—in case of either a forced tax or any need that you might have—giving you the help or doing the favor that were necessary with the honesty that your problem would require for the survival, which would be nothing else than them attending to their business.”24 De Cica also reminded Cederni that he needed to be prepared for the unforeseen. The letter encapsulates the rewards and the uncertainties of friendship—the delicate balance between the promise of help and the reality of an uncertain future, to which the hesitation of Cederni testifies. To face this uncertainty, Cederni gathered information. He followed the counsel that others provided by means of commonplacing. Similarly, Rucellai had suggested to his sons that they keep track of the trustworthiness and financial situations of their fellow citizens. He regarded such information as essential to reduce risk.

Not surprisingly, in the absence of proper institutional and legal guarantees, players in the friendship game used reputation, which was, in Kuehn’s words, “honor’s outer dimension,” as a guarantee for the trustworthiness of other agents. Thus, gathering and distributing information about friends became a key social practice. According to Rubin, in Renaissance Florence, “knowing each other was a skill necessary for survival as well as prosperity.” But information arriving through various channels, such as gossip and letters, also had to be processed, organized, and stored for use in devising strategies or providing information and writing recommendations. These tasks all required careful consideration, responsibility, energy, and time; they must have been particularly demanding for Florentines in a period encumbered with a pressing information overload.25

Some of the ways in which Florentine diarists and compilers of commonplace books addressed the complexity and the uncertainties of friendship gave rise to shared rituals, such as “sending gifts to friends” and behaving properly when doing so. As anthropologists have pointed out, gift giving was intended to forge a durable bond with the recipient. Another way to cement friendship was to transform a relationship into extended kinship, as Morelli advised, either through marriage or by becoming a godparent. Weddings could serve as public celebrations of friendship and relationship. Rucellai inserted a detailed account of his son’s marriage to Nannina di Piero Medici into his Zibaldone Quaresimale. The desire to communicate and cement social alliances to the world was also a feature of Florence’s art world. Paintings that depict a powerful patron accompanied by his friends and family are on display in Florentine churches even today, such as the frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the Tornabuoni Chapel of Santa Maria Novella. Public paintings, marriage alliances, and gifts all contributed to cementing friendship and protecting against its uncertainty. They were not only public and private rituals but also demanding tasks and coping strategies.26

Commonplace books and correspondences highlight another important coping strategy; in modern terms we would describe it as evaluation and assessment. A commonplace in one modestly illuminated manuscript from the fourteenth century admonished its readers to evaluate their friends. Alessandra Strozzi, who sometimes provided her sons with moral and quasi-psychological perspectives, clearly heeded this advice. So did De Cica in his letter to Cederni mentioned above. His detailed description of the two citizens drew from a highly familiar “friendship template” (see Figure 1). After declaring that both men fell under the category amico, de Cica rated the first as belonging to the sub-class of closer friends (maggiore amico) and the second as being an ordinary amico. To enhance the positive perception of the first, de Cica also distinguished him as a tested friend (amico provato). He also informed Cederni about the bond between himself and the two men, applying the terminology of kinship. De Cica regarded the first as his brother (fratello) and the other as his father (padre). Fratello might have meant more of a horizontal tie and padre more of a vertical friendship.27

Fig. 1

The Description of Two Friends (X and Y) in Salvestro de Cica’s Letter to Bartolommeo Cederni

Fig. 1

The Description of Two Friends (X and Y) in Salvestro de Cica’s Letter to Bartolommeo Cederni

Even though the two men occupied different sub-classes of amico, they had certain qualities in common, such as discretion (discretissimo). They fulfilled the requirements of amico by possessing the three essential properties of an ideal friend—moral excellence, intellectual ability, and power within the community. One element missing from their description, however, is love. De Cica might have intended fratello and padre to communicate emotions, but, for some reason, he does not make explicit reference to them. His letter demonstrates that the categorization, testing, and evaluation of friends were not mere rhetorical gestures but real activities meant to cope with the uncertainties of friendship. Florentines had to master them to participate successfully in the complex and risky market of friendship.28

Risks and Troublesome Outcomes

The need to assess friends was accompanied by the ever-present risk of misjudgment. As Rucellai warned his sons with the help of a commonplace taken from the Roman Seneca, “A rich person cannot commit a greater error than to consider as friends those who are in fact not his friends,” a concern also addressed by the unknown compiler of the Zibaldone Andreini. Florentines were well versed in deception, self-deception, and fraud not only in real life but also in the short stories that they often copied and read, such as those by Sachetti (1335–1400) in which friends regularly swindled one another. As Sachetti often repeated throughout his short stories, “Truly in this life it is impossible to be too wary, because on all sides there are spread deceptions and frauds in order to obtain possession of other persons’ goods.”29

When Florentine diarists encouraged their readers to test their friends (provare amici), they were not simply repeating a proverbial wisdom but referring to the actual practice that had given birth to the epithet “tested friends.” Not surprisingly, de Cica had adopted this epithet in his letter to Cederni. Benedetto Dei (1418–1492), a Florentine diplomat, traveler, and alleged spy, created a list of his “tested friends” in his memoir and personal chronicle. When Castellani had to ask for a loan from a friend, he thought it important to denote his possible benefactor as a “tested friend.” These examples indicate that the risk of misjudgment in the context of friendship was not just a theoretical scenario; it was a problem in real life.30

Those who pondered the optimal strategy for handling the pleas of fellow citizens also had to face risks beyond misjudgment and deception. In the view of Rucellai and others, a patron’s primary danger was the prospect of a petitioner becoming an enemy, which was particularly troublesome to Florentines. Conflicts of all kinds—including family feuds and spats among neighbors—were among the hazards of everyday life. Castellani’s notebook shows him to have been engaged almost yearly in arbitration regarding disputes with fellow citizens. Filippo Manetti’s financial difficulties were more than likely the work of his enemies, just as the turmoil faced by Alessandra and her sons arose from the machinations of the Medici. Because of the burdens of this environment of conflict, men like Siminetti, Rucellai, and Morelli bestowed as much attention on managing enemies as on cultivating friends. To avoid antagonistic relations, both Rucellai and Morelli suggested a conflict-averse way of life: “Be rather loved than feared” was Rucellai’s advice, borrowed from Seneca, about how to treat servants. From a patron’s perspective, the transformation of a petitioner into an enemy was the worst possible outcome of the game. The heart of the dilemma about what to give to friends was that the transaction could easily produce this disruptive result. Ironically, Rucellai surmised through a commonplace that an offer of extravagant help could lead to hostility: “The more they hate you, the more they owe you, and one who gets a small amount becomes a debtor but one who gets a large amount becomes an enemy.”31

In the exchange of resources within a patron–client network, debtors would seem to have assumed a subordinate position; such is the received wisdom. But Rucellai advised his sons about disequilibrium in friendship carrying the risk of hostility. The compiler of the Zibaldone Andreini warned about the dangers of humiliating petitioners. Florentines were well aware of resentment as a social problem and as a risk. Rucellai told his sons that the rich are subject to persecution by the poor, who are their enemies. Morelli admonished, “Be careful with your workers”; “do not trust them”; “do not want to see them unless it is necessary.” Even though patrons had the upper hand, they could not ignore the reactions of their clients, who had at least some control over the game. Likewise, patrons did not have total mastery of the final outcome; to achieve their desired goals of securing friendship or avoiding conflict, they had to take the petitioners’ interests into consideration.32

The risk of enmity and resentment triggered a wary interdependence between players. The difficulty that patrons might face whenever they decided to reject requests highlights this fraught reciprocity. The conundrum was to figure out how patrons could quit the game without risking hostility. Rucellai outlined two possible strategies. The first was to turn down a request in person, which he did not recommend. Like Morelli, he preferred to find a way to convince would-be clients to refrain from making entreaties in the first place rather than saying “no” to them explicitly.33

Beyond avoidance of hostility, patrons had another interest that limited their options and increased the stakes of transactions between friends—maintaining their reputation for generosity. A flawed reputation for avarice following the rejection of a plea could produce a disastrous outcome. Greed was not only one of the seven deadly sins; it was also anathema on commonplacing grounds as disruptive and antisocial behavior. Reputation was Janus-faced. On the one hand, it served as proof of trustworthiness, and, on the other, the consequences of losing it made the rejection of pleas from needy friends an uncertain course of action. Generally speaking, reputation was extraordinarily important in late medieval Florence. Business partnerships, which generally involved only a few people, lasted for a relatively short period. The continuous beginnings and endings of business ventures compelled participants to maintain excellent reputations and to control the trustworthiness of others through their own. The goal of establishing and maintaining a good reputation, along with the desire to avoid hostility and resentment, made the friendship game immensely stressful, reshaping the asymmetrical power relationship between clients and patrons.34

As a whole, Rucellai’s dilemma, along with the ideas of other diarists and examples from letters and account books, depicts friendship as both an indispensable tool or informal kind of insurance and a problematical bond. The application of the game-theoretical framework pinpoints a rarely studied aspect of the client–patron relation—the limited agency of patrons. That framework helps to outline the risks, possible rewards, and interests that stood to alter asymmetrical power settings.

This is not to imply, however, that Florentines defined their friendships in terms of game theory, that is, in terms of a strict utility calculus. The game-theoretical approach uncovers the set of possible social factors (looming insecurity, petitioners becoming enemies, the loss of reputation, etc.) that Florentines took into consideration in a friendship-related decision process, as well as the impact of these factors on power relations. It is revealing about the nature of the bond as well as about the kind of thinking that surrounded the bond. Friendship was stressful and troublesome.

Intellectual and Ethical Uncertainties in Friendship

The intellectual life that flourished in Renaissance Florence was sustained by ideas from classical, medieval, and contemporary literature. Schoolbooks, private books, and, as discussed, commonplace books reveal how lay people tried to cope with the welter of beliefs, rationales, and values in circulation at the time, especially in it influence on matters of friendship. In addition to the social contingencies that Florentines had to face when helping friends, they also had to reconcile the shared beliefs, ideas, and values that brought intellectual and ethical confusion into the context of friendship.35

Decision Theory and Friendship

Decision theory helps to reveal the belief system behind Rucellai’s four alternative courses of decisive action with regard to the needs of friends—moderate or extravagant help and explicit or implicit rejection. Apart from possible outcomes and risks, a decision situation or, more technically speaking, a decision frame includes the reasoning applied to evaluate the available choices. Rucellai provided a rationale for each alternative, applying commonplacing and selected passages from well-known authors to explicate it. A culture offers many competing and conflicting rationales for decision makers to ascertain the consequences of various strategies. Analysis of these rationales offers insights into the means by which friendship emerged as a strategic social relationship within the broader belief system. Rucellai, however, did not opt for any of the available options. His apparent view of them as equally rational points to a phenomenon rarely studied by historians—the competition of conflicting rationalities.36

Rationales to Reject a Friend’s Request

Rucellai, Paolo da Certaldo, and Morelli all shared the critical concern of finding justification for rejecting a friend’s request for aid as delicately as possible. Rucellai stated the common view: “But if they [friends] ask me things which are inappropriate or too harmful, I think that refusing [their request] is not wrong. Why should their interest be dearer to me than my interest to them?” This rhetorical question implies two reference points—the interest of the patron and the interest of the petitioner. Which is stronger? As Rucellai, Paolo da Certaldo, and Morelli made clear, the dominance of a patron’s interest is the only acceptable alternative. The justification for the exit strategy of rejecting a request was a petitioner’s failure to consider a patron’s interest and the violation of an often-cited golden rule vouchsafed by a revered commonplace: “Ask only what the other can give or what is not harmful for the other.”37

Another piece of wisdom in Rucellai’s commonplace book took the form of a simile, “Giving to a person who does not need is like bringing sand to the beach.” In other words, such giving was irrational. For this reason, as letters to Cederni and entries in accounts books indicate, supplicants had to make the case that they were in genuine need. Again, Castellani almost always included the phrase “for his needs” when noting a loan that he gave to someone.

Taken together, the two conditions for rejection—avoidance of harm to the patron and the absence of demonstrable need for the client—might seem obvious. Nonetheless, this reasoning is revealing about the nature of friendship. First, it is egocentric and completely devoid of altruistic consideration. Instead of selflessness or mutual love, self-interest was supposed to coordinate the transaction. Second, it does not leave much room for negotiation or coordination: Interactions between friends were guided by shared, tacit rules transmitted through oral tradition and advice in commonplace books. Real-life situations, however, were not resolved as easily as this analytical reasoning suggests. The exact manner by which Florentines integrated actual contextual factors with the rationale that justified rejection requires further research.38

Rationales for Extravagant Aid to Friends

Certain noncontextual factors made other strategies equally sensible—for example, extravagant aid to friends, which was rational not from a material perspective but from the perspective of shared values, beliefs, and social expectations within the Florentine social world.

First, extravagant help to friends—essentially the strategy of generosity—took its justification from the Florentine value system. Beliefs conveyed through commonplaces about the relationship of generosity to social recognition underpinned a three-pronged strategy: (1) The greater a person’s generosity, the more distinguished a member of the community he/she had the potential to be. (2) Courtesy, which included generosity, could ease the tensions between the rich and the poor. (3) The demonstration of generosity and courtesy was the best way to increase the number of one’s friends.39

Second, extravagant generosity was also a widely acknowledged social strategy understood as a contribution to the public good. Important for acquiring prestige in Florentine society was a reputation for generosity within the community, as demonstrated by Florentines’ wide-spread contributions to lay and religious charities or artistic patronage. Because of his generous patronage of the arts and his charitable activity, Rucellai had become a respected member of Florentine society by the 1460s, despite his many previous years of political marginalization. In 1471, he was even elected to the office of accoppiatore, which supervised the election of other officials. The extraordinary charitable and consociational careers of Cosimo and later Lorenzo de’ Medici also promoted generosity. Humanist, classical, and contemporary religious texts that Florentines read, annotated, and recycled advocated a civic ethos that encouraged citizens to contribute to the public good. Generosity was, in fact, Florence’s most appreciated social quality. The extraordinary cultural heritage that Florence still commands is, in large part, due to the centrality of generosity in the city’s value system.40

Third, generosity was also pivotal and useful in everyday interactions with friends, relatives, and neighbors. As we have seen above, circulating commonplaces connected munificence with positive social qualities such as courtesy and social diplomacy. These commonplaces also suggested that by means of generosity one could extend his network of friends and supporters. Extending the network of friends was particularly important to Florentines. Late medieval Florentine society was not only contentious but also highly competitive. Even as the Medici increased their domination of the political arena, local neighborhoods and various city councils witnessed considerable contestation in officeholding; success depended on the widespread support of friends from different segments of the social world. As Kent observed, Cosimo de’ Medici was particularly adept at building and maintaining an extensive network of clients from different echelons of society. Rucellai, for his part, had friends from less privileged social groups in his neighborhood as well as from his own social milieu. The upshot is that in a competitive social environment, generosity, understood both as contribution to the public good and munificence with friends, promised success and prestige; these promises made extravagant help to friends a rational course of action.41

Rationales for Modest Aid to Friends

Yet, even though popular commonplaces, as well as biographies of famous Florentines, promoted courtesy and generosity as a way to get ahead, other nuggets of wisdom and ethical value questioned the validity of extravagant generosity, recommending restraint instead. The notion that profligacy was a vice could make extravagant help morally suspect and modest help more defensible.42

But what distinguished a miser’s avarice from a friend’s modest help? By drawing on the Aristotelean conception of generosity, Rucellai balanced the need and merit of a petitioner with his own resources, pointing to a nonaltruistic, instrumental bond between friends, as reinforced by a purely economic rationale. To justify the strategy of modest help to friends, he invoked an economic credo: “And thrifty are those who use resources how, when, and as much as is necessary and they keep the rest on the side.” The term thrifty (or massaio) describes those persons who follow the economic strategy set out by Alberti in his I libri della famiglia (The Family in Renaissance Florence) in the 1430s. This strategy prescribed an accumulation of capital by limiting expenditures to bare necessities. Since Alberti did not invoke the economic credo of masserizia to regulate transactions between friends, Rucellai appears to have selected an economic heuristic for friendship on his own. He also borrowed the frequently copied sayings of classical authors (Aristotle, Ovid, and Seneca) to construct three other economic reasons for scaling down to moderate help: (1) Moderate help limits the risk of impoverishment. (2) Moderate help does not damage the opportunity to increase wealth. (3) Keeping wealth is much more difficult than creating it.43

Notwithstanding the existential fear of affluence as a source of material uncertainty and social conflict that commonplaces evinced, Rucellai’s narrative about modest help presents a clearly positive spin on accumulation and risk aversion. Nevertheless, these idealistic economic behaviors contradicted the social reality. Florentine merchants routinely faced a great deal of risk. Their lavish spending on artistic patronage—for instance, Rucellai’s palace-building program—challenges the credo that accumulation is better than spending.

Conflicting Rationales and Intellectual Uncertainty

The rationality of moderate help derived from beliefs about an ideal of economic behavior and financial stability. By contrast, the rationality of extravagant help derived from prevailing social expectations. Modesty offered safety; extravagance promised social recognition. Rucellai’s shorthand for this irreconcilable tension was a commonplace that also captured Siminetti’s attention: “Rarely can one find a man who is both rich and generous.” But which is better, the pursuit of economic stability or of social prestige? Written culture failed to provide a definitive answer. Commonplace book culture and the rise of literacy may have opened horizons for Florentines, but it also confused those seeking an optimum solution. The social uncertainty related to friendship was complemented by intellectual uncertainty.44

Ethical Uncertainty

Finally, the intellectual ambivalence, or fuzziness, surrounding friend as a social category had another facet. We can still get a sense of what the lack of clear-cut boundaries between different social categories meant in late medieval Florence. Florentines consistently treated the recurrent expression amici e parenti, friends and kin, as denoting a single group with a number of common attributes. Moreover, the category of friend could also overlap with other social categories—neighbor, business partner, kin, etc.—which, according to Weismann, resulted in “overlapping, conflicting, mutual commitments.” These intersecting categories brought different ethical values and goals, such as neighborhood and kinship solidarity or honor and good reputation, into the friendship game. No coherent system of moral obligation governed the interactions between friends; it differed by types of friends. Ethical uncertainty arose when these obligations conflicted. For instance, Rucellai explicitly favored the strategy of extravagant help with kin. But did he have the same attitude toward friends who were neighbors and business partners? The answer depended on the concrete circumstances. However, the challenge of evaluating these circumstances made decisions difficult and uncertain.45



Anthropologists have made extensive study of the conflicting nature of informal exchanges. According to Mauss, informal exchanges in archaic societies feature power struggles that are essentially agonistic. According to Sahlins, conflicts emerge when the self-interest of agents is at odds with prevailing cultural ideas. Both these observations hold true in the context of Florentine friendship. But in classical anthropological theories of informal exchange, beliefs and ideas help to alleviate tensions; culture serves as a coherent system to assuage uncertainty and mediate between competing interests. But what happens when a culture, like that of late medieval Florence, is inherently contradictory, without a coherent system of ideas? Florence’s intellectual environment offered rationales that could justify incompatible behavioral strategies with friends and thus create and sustain uncertainty.46

The competition of conflicting rationales raises new leading questions for historians. How did historical actors apply reasoning to resolve their challenges? To what degree is the intellectual environment of a given historical community a hotbed of intellectual and ethical uncertainty? How did contemporaries cope with these circumstances? The answers require research not only about how received ideas served the purpose of erudition but also about how people used them to address difficulties in their own social world. Cognitive science can offer historians immense support. The analysis of mental processes, such as decision making, can complement the historical study of reasoning in people’s life experience.

Florentines’ most intimate writings portray friendship as a source of love, joy, and pleasure that conferred a measure of safety and security. Yet, friendship was also a source of serious doubt and struggle, involving risk, enmity, strategic interdependence, and a struggle for social prestige and recognition. Friendship encumbered Florentines with the complex and stressful task of gathering information about each other to evaluate their mutual suitability as friends. By all indications, given all the competing values and rationales and all the intellectual and ethical pitfalls, navigating friendship in Renaissance Florence within the framework of the patron–client relationship required constant vigilance.



This article is based on the computing-assisted analysis and data processing described in Toth, “The Computer-Assisted Analysis of a Medieval Commonplace Book and Diary,” Literary and Linguistic Computing, XXVIII (2013), 432–443.


For Rucellai’s biography, see Francis W. Kent, “The Making of a Renaissance Patron of the Arts,” in Alessandro Perosa (ed.), Giovanni Rucellai ed il suo Zibaldone 2 (London, 1981), 9–91; for the most recent edition of the Zialdone Quaresimale, Rucellai (ed. Gabriella Battista), Zibaldone (Florence, 2013).


Morelli’s family was also excluded from the political arena due to their close ties with the Alberti family, who were exiled from Florence in 1393, although Morelli eventually reconciled with the Medici circle and had a successful political career. For estimates of the number of late medieval Florentine commonplace books preserved in Florentine libraries, see Lisa Kaborycha, “Copying Culture: Fifteenth-Century Florentines and Their Zibaldoni,” unpub. Ph.D diss. (Univ. of California, Berkeley, 2006); Dale Kent, Cosimo de’ Medici and the Florentine Renaissance, The Patron’s Oeuvre (New Haven, 2000), 69–93; Vittore Branca, “Copisti per passione, tradizione caratterizzante, tradizione di memoria,” in Studi e problemi di critica testuale: Convegno di studi di filologia italiana nel centenario della Commissione per i testi di lingua (April 7–9, 1960) (Bologna,1961), 69–83; Armando Petrucci, “Reading and Writing in Volgare in Medieval Italy,” in Armando Petrucci and Charles Redding (eds.), Writers and Readers in Medieval Italy (New Haven, 1995), 169–235.


Gene A. Brucker, Renaissance Florence (Berkeley, 1983), 99–100; Dale V. Kent, Friendship, Love, and Trust in Renaissance Florence (Cambridge, Mass., 2009), 32; Ronald F. E. Weissman, Ritual Brotherhood in Renaissance Florence (New York, 1982), 28–29; Paul McLean, The Art of the Network: Strategic Interaction and Patronage in Renaissance Florence (Durham, 2007), 150–153; idem, “Taking Patronage Seriously: Mediterranean Values and Renaissance Society,” in Francis W. Kent and Patricia Simons (eds.), Patronage, Art, and Society in Renaissance Italy (Canberra, 1987), 25–45; Richard Trexler, Public Life in Renaissance Florence (Ithaca, 1980), 28–29.


For Florentine guildsmen and patronage, see John Najemy, Corporatism and Consensus in Florentine Electoral Politics, 1280–1400 (Chapel Hill, 1982).


For a particularly thorough analysis of the Medici’s ascent to power and political patronage, see Dale V. Kent, The Rise of the Medici: Faction in Florence, 1426–1434 (New York, 1978); for Lorenzo, William J. Connell, “Changing Patterns of Medicean Patronage: The Florentine Dominion during the Fifteenth Century,” in G. C. Gargagnini (ed.), Lorenzo il Magnifico e il suo mondo (Florence, 1992), 87–107.


For the antagonistic nature of friendship in late medieval Florence, see Francis W. Kent, “Bartolommeo Cederni and His Friends: Essay,” in Gino Corti and idem (eds.), Bartolommeo Cederni and His Friends, Letters to an Obscure Florentine (Florence, 1990), 10–11; Dale V. Kent, Friendship, Love, 120–121; Weissman, “The Importance of Being Ambiguous: Social Relations, Individualism and Identity in Renaissance Florence,” in idem and Susan Zimmerman (eds.), Urban Life in the Renaissance (Newark, 1989), 269–280.


For a good introduction to commonplace books, see Earle Havens, Commonplace Books: A History of Manuscripts and Printed Books from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century (New Haven, 2001).


Ann Moss, Printed Commonplace-Books and the Structuring of Renaissance Thought (New York, 1996); Ann Blair, “Humanist Methods in Natural Philosophy: The Commonplace Book,” Journal of the History of Ideas, LIII (1992), 541–551; idem, Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (New Haven, 2010); Toth, “‘Using Culture,’ Giovanni Rucellai’s Knowledge Constructing Practice in the MS Zibaldone Quareimale,” CEU Annual of Medieval Studies, XVI (2010), 142–154. Collecting quotations and passages, as well as reusing them to compose texts, was part of Latin grammar-school education. Those who did not attend Latin grammar school either had private tutors or attended a vernacular school. They were likely to have learned about commonplacing techniques from their tutors, who often had a humanist education. See Robert Black, Humanism and Education in Medieval and Renaissance Italy (New York, 2001); Paul Grendler, Schooling in Renaissance Italy (Baltimore, 1989).


Apparently, the only record that Siminetti left of his life is his commonplace book in MS OB 44, Sächsische Landesbibliothek, Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek, Dresden (hereinafter, slsu). For a description of this manuscript, see Ludwig Schmidt, Kataloge der Handschriften der Königlichen Öffentlichen Bibliothek zu Dresden (Leipzig, 1906), III, 106–109. For folios relevant to the duality of friendship, see 160v, 166r, 188r, 197v, 205r, 79r, 192v, 197r, 187v, 173r, 169v, 197v.


Baldovinetti’s memoir is in the MS Pal. Bald. 44, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firence (hereinafter, bncf); the portrait of his ancestor is on 9r. Francis W. Kent, “Bartolommeo Cederni and His Friends”; Dale V. Kent, Friendship, Love, 120–121; Weissman, Ritual Brotherhood; idem, “The Importance of Being Ambiguous,” 269–280. For the variety of source texts on friendship, see Kaborycha, Copying Culture, 215–228. Quotations from Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero were particularly frequent. Siminetti’s instrumentality was at odds with the Christian and the classical friendship ideals of Aristotle and Cicero, who characterized friendship as a relationship between social equals, or men who were similar in virtue and intellect. In the Christian tradition, friendship was an inclusive and universal bond with religious communality at its center. For a summary of different friendship traditions, and their reception in early modern Europe, see Daniel T. Lochman and Maritere López’s introduction to Discourses and Representations of Friendship in Early Modern Europe, 1500–1700 (London, 2016), 2–26.


For examples of commonplace books containing descriptions of useful skills and inventories of sayings, see MS Pal. 793, bncf—horoscopes (22v–23r), an agricultural calendar (43r–45r), a selection of medical texts (29r–30r), descriptions of humoral complexions (30r–31v), and a treatise on apiculture (1r–11r). MS II. IX. 154, bncf, offers a rich collection of recipes (1r–19v), and a primer about everyday household management (20r–24r), as well as practical instructions about how to address people of different ranks (63r–66v). The fifteenth-century MS XXI 90, bncf, contains a short inventory of classical, biblical, and medieval sayings about friendship. For a particularly comprehensive late fifteenth-century topical inventory, see the notebook of Venetian diplomat Bernardo Bembo (1433–1519), preserved in the British Library (MS Addendum, 41068A). The Zibaldone Andreini is in MS Conventi Soppressi, 148.2, 34r–36v, Biblioteca Laurenziana-Medicea (hereinafter, blm). For the commonplace book culture of laypeople in early modern London, see David Reed Parker, The Commonplace Book in Tudor London: An Examination of Bl Mss Egerton 1995, Harley 2252, Landsdowne 762, and Oxford Balliol College MS 354 (Lanham, 1998).


Rucellai, Zibaldone, 49, 53, 32.


Leon Battista Alberti (ed. Ruggiero Romano and Alberto Tenenti), I libri della famiglia (Turin, 1969) (the English version is Renée Neu Watkins [ed. and trans.], The Family in Renaissance Florence, Books I–IV [Long Grove, Ill., 2004]); Matteo Palmieri (ed. Gino Belloni), La vita civile (Florence, 1982); Paolo da Certaldo, “Il libro di buoni costumi,” in Branca (ed.), Mercanti scrittori: ricordi nella Firenze tra Medioevo e Rinascimento (Florence, 1986), 1–101, translated into English by Murtha Bacha as “Book of Good Practices,” in Branca (ed.), Merchant Writers (Toronto, 2015), 41–97. Moss, Printed Commonplace-Books, 51–82, 91, 76, 87. A passage in Paolo’s text describes the love of a friend as one of the four major loves (“maggiori amori”) (ibid., 37). Whether Paolo ever resolved the friendship contradiction is unknown. What is known is that during the fourteenth-century war between Pisa and Florence (1362–1364), Paolo was sent to San Miniato to handle the Florentine army’s bread supply. His failure resulted in heavy fines, which ruined him financially. His contemplations about friendship in his Libro di buoni costumi might have represented a yearning to find friends to help him. At any rate, the written culture with which he was familiar could hardly have offered much reassurance.


Lochman and Maritere López, Discourses, 9–15. We can reconstruct the variety of texts that Florentines accessed through the inventories in their diaries. This article cites an unpublished or less familiar inventory of books (see n. 35). Florence differed from other late medieval urban centers in that not only members of the elite but also more humble citizens were literate enough to keep their own records. Even though few peasant records have survived, resolutions by Florentine city councils give indirect evidence that peasants could write. For instance, in 1487, the Consilio del Cento, addressing the difficulty of assessing the wealth of peasants in the Florentine contado, decided that the peasants had to present their own writings (scrittura loro) to the tax collectors. See MS Ital. 202, 61v–62r, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich.


Francis W. Kent, “The Making of a Renaissance Patron of the Arts,” 72; Castellani, Ricordanze A and Quaternuccio e giornale B, Biblioteca Italiana, available at https://www.bibliotecaitaliana.it/testo/bibit000575 (accessed, 1/2/2020). The printed edition is Giovanni Ciapelli (ed.), Ricordanze 1. Ricordanze A (1436–1459) (Florence, 1992); Ricordanze 2. Quaternuccio e giornale B (1459–1485) (Florence, 1995). Franco Franceschi, Oltre il ‘tumulto’: i lavoratori fiorentini dell’Arte della Lana fra Tre e Quattrocento (Florence, 1993), 138; Giovanni Cherubini, L’ Italia rurale del basso Medioevo (Rome, 1984), 131.


McLean, Art of the Network, 22; Anthony Molho, “Cosimo de’ Medici: Pater Pariae or Padrino?” Stanford Italian Review, I (1979), 16. Weissman, “Taking Patronage Seriously,” 25.


For a good introduction to game theory, see Don Ross, “Game Theory,” in Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available at https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2011/entries/game-theory/ (accessed July 13, 2016). Rucellai, Zibaldone, 34.


MS Magliabechiano, VII, 1014, 19v, bncf. Paolo da Certaldo echoed Manetti (Libro di buoni costumi, 9, 39), as did Siminetti (MS OB, 44, 192r, slsu) and the Zibaldone Andreini (MS Conventi Sopressi, 148 [2], 37v, blm). Alessandra Macinghi Strozzi (ed. Cesare Guasti), Lettere di una gentildonna fiorentina del secolo 15 ai figliuoli esuli (Florence, 1877), 110, 205, 47. For the English translation, see Heather Gregory (ed.), Selected letters of Alessandra Strozzi (Berkeley, 1997).


Castellani, Ricordanze A. Manetti’s commonplace—located at MS Magliabechiano, VII, 1014, 11r, bncf—can be also found with the binding of the Biblioteca Colombina (hereinafter, bc), MS 7-1-48. Morelli, “Ricordi,” 202, quoted the Latin version. See also MS Palatino, 600, 120v; MS II, X, 57, 2r, bncf; MS 5-3-25(5), 11v, bc; Certaldo, “Libro di buoni costumi,” 87, 39; Strozzi, Lettere, 360. For the “unbearable tax burdens,” see Lauro Martines, The Social World of the Florentine Renaissance, 1390–1460 (Princeton, 1963), 134. David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, Tuscans and Their Families: A Study of the Florentine Catasto of 1427 (New Haven, 1985), 4. For an example of a request to intercede with tax assessors, see Francis W. Kent, “Bartolommeo Cederni and His Friends,” 70; for Alessandra’s remarks about the mutability of friendship, Strozzi, Lettere, 360.


Isidoro del Lungo and Guglielmo Volpi (eds.), La cronica domestica di Messer Donato Velluti (Florence, 1914), 137–138, quoted in Brucker, Renaissance Florence, 106. After this loss from a swindle, Rucellai received help from the Medici. Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici bought some of his lands, one of them in Poggio a Caiano, where Lorenzo built one of his most spectacular villas. Francis W. Kent, “The Making of a Renaissance Patron of the Arts,” 6.


Strozzi, Lettere, 36; Ser Lapo Mazzei (ed. Guasti), Lettere di un notaro a un mercante del secolo XI: Con altre lettere e documenti (Florence, 1880), 41; Weismann, “Taking Patronage Seriously,” 25.


William Ian Miller, Humiliation: and Other Essays on Honor, Social Discomfort, and Violence (Ithaca, 1995), 17; Carolyn James, “Mercantile and Other Friendships in Early Renaissance Tuscany,” in Peter Howard and Cecilia Hewlett (eds.), Studies on Florence and the Italian Renaissance in Honour of F. W. Kent (Turnhout, 2016), 158. Florentines’ allusion to the future in the context of aid resonates with Marcell Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (London, 1990), 45–46: “[I]n every possible form of society it is in the nature of a gift to impose an obligatory time limit. By their very definition, a meal shared in common, a distribution of kava, or a talisman that one takes away, cannot be reciprocated immediately. Time is needed in order to perform any counter-service.” Francis W. Kent, “Bartolommeo Cederni and His Friends,” 62.


Francis W. Kent, “Bartolommeo Cederni and His Friends,” 59–60.


Rucellai, Zibaldone, 27; Thomas Kuehn, “Fama as a Legal Status in Renaissance Florence,” in Thelma Fenster and Daniel Lord Smail (eds.), Fama, The Politics of Talk and Reputation in Medieval Europe (Ithaca, 2003), 33. Alessandra was keen to provide her sons with information about the reputation of potential friends, brothers-in-law, etc. She also kept her sons updated on the moves of friends. See Strozzi, Lettere, 101, 257, 288, 294–295, 338, 405, 498, 500. Patricia Lee Rubin, Images and Identity in Fifteenth-Century Florence (New Haven, 2007), 5. In commonplace books, the pressing information overload came primarily in the form of advice about time management: MS OB, 44, 166r, 200r, slsu; MS II, IX, 42, 13r, bncf; MS 5-3-25(5), 7v, 9v, bc. Florentines’ deep interest in time management is also evident in the different types of calendars that they diligently copied: MS OB 44, 87r-93v, slsu; MS Palatino, 793, 15r-17r; MS Palatino, 515, 1r-7r; MS II IX 154, 61r-63r; MS II, IX, 42, 1r-9r, bncf; MS Conventi Sopressi, 148 (2), 81r-82v, blm.


MS II, IX, 42, 16r, 18v, bncf; MS 5-3-25(5), 9v, bc; Morelli, Ricordi, 203, 190; Rucellai, Zibaldone, 54; Miller, Humiliation, 17. The Zibaldone Quaresimale contains another indirect record that celebrates Rucellai’s Medici friendship—an exhaustive list of his family (parentado)—contrasting with an earlier genealogy in the first folios, which is agnatic, largely about wives and marriage alliances. The later genealogy, however, is cognatic. It starts with his grandmother, enumerating her brothers and sisters, including their wives, husbands, and children. It repeats the same pattern with his mother, wife, and two daughters-in-law. The entire later genealogy is centered on these five women and their families, most importantly Rucellai’s tie with the Medici and their circle. See Anthony Molho et al. “Genealogia, parentado e memoria storica a Firenze nel XV secolo,” in Fulvio Pezzarossa (ed.), La memoria e la città: Scritture storiche tra Medioevo ed età moderna (Bologna, 1995), 244–270. According to Rubin, “Art and the Imagery of Memory,” in Giovanni, Ciappelli, and idem, Art, Memory and Family in Renaissance Florence (New York, 2000): “Construction, decoration and display are instruments of status and affirmation of a desired status quo” (68).


MS Palatino, 600, 113r, bncf; Strozzi, Lettere, 359, 405.


MS OB 44, 145v, 187v, 192r, slsu; MS Palatino, 600, 120r, bncf; MS Conventi Sopressi, 148 (2), 34r, blm; Certaldo, “Libro di buoni costumi,” 91; Morelli, “Ricordi,” 177.


Rucellai, Zibaldone, 56; MS Conventi Sopressi, 148 (2), 34r, 35r, blm; Franco Sacchetti, Tales (London, 1908), 280.


Benedetto Dei (ed. Robert Barducci), La cronica dall’anno 1400 all’anno 1500 (Florence, 1985), 137; Castellani, Ricordanze A and Quaternuccio e giornale B, Biblioteca Italiana, available at https://www.bibliotecaitaliana.it/testo/bibit000575 (accessed January 2, 2020). See also the remarks by Alessandra, Strozzi, Lettere, 405, 88.


Rucellai, Zibaldone, 30–31, 33, 48, 50, 56; Morelli, “Ricordi,” 183, 202; Kuehn, “Honor and Conflict in a Fifteenth-Century Florentine Family,” in idem, Law, Family & Women: Toward a Legal Anthropology of Renaissance Italy (Chicago, 1994), 130–140; Brucker, Renaissance Florence, 113; MS OB, 44, 145v, 173r, 197r, slsu; MS Palatino, 600, 115v, bncf; Certaldo, “Libri di buoni costumi,” 7, 72–75, 42, 41. A list of sententiae, entitled “Tutte le chose che l’omo chonviene fare,” in MS 5-3-25(5), 1r–7r, bc, suggests a series of social practices to avoid conflicts. The compiler of another fifteenth-century zibaldone noted that it is much more secure to be loved than hated (MS II. IX. 42, 12r, bncf).


Martines, Social World, 134. Siminetti marked a passage that conveyed the same message as Rucellai (56): MS OB, 44, 170r, slsu. MS Conventi Sopressi, 148 (2), 37v, blm; MS Zibaldone Quaresimale, 22vB, Archivio Rucellai, Florence (hereinafter, ar). For Morelli’s advice, see Cherubini, Italia Rurale, 138–139.


Rucellai, Zibaldone, 32–33; Morelli, “Ricordi,” 183–184.


Rucellai, Zibaldone, 56–57; MS OB, 44, 143v, 202r, slsu; Palatino 600, 117v, bncf; MS C, 242, 141r, Biblioteca Marucelliana (hereinafter, Marucelliana); MS 5-3-25(5), 8r, bc; MS Conventi Sopressi, 148 (2), 37v, blm; Richard A. Goldthwaite, The Economy of Renaissance Florence (Baltimore, 2009), 64–70.


See Grendler, Schooling. The private archive of the Michon-Pecori family holds the rich but hitherto unpublished and unknown ricordanze of Lorenzo di Francesco Guidetti, which lists books that Guidetti purchased or borrowed from friends—Fondo Giraldi, Ricordanze di Francesco Guidetti, 39r–39v, Archivio Michon Pecori (Carmignano). Among them are numerous works by Cicero, Livy, Vergil, Seneca, Horatio, and Juvenal.


Eldar Shafir, Itamar Simonson, and Amos Tversky, “Reason-Based Choice,” Cognition, XLIX (1993), 11–36; Daniel Kahneman and Tversky, “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk,” Econometrica, XLVII (1979), 263–291.


Rucellai, Zibaldone, 31, 51–52, 55. See paraphrases of the same idea in MS C, 242, 144r, Marucelliana; MS 5-3-25(5), 12r, bc; Certaldo, “Libro di buoni costumi,” 49; Morelli, “Ricordi,” 183. MS OB, 44, 143r, 173r, slsu; MS Conventi Sopressi, 148 (2), 36v, blm.


MS Zibaldone Quaresimale, 21vB, ar.


Herlihy and Klapisch-Zuber, Tuscans and Their Families, 108; Poggio Bracciolini, De avaritia: Dialogus contra avaritiam (Florence, 1994), 117–118; Rucellai, Zibaldone, 54, 51 (where a commonplace justifies the strategy of modest help but also supports the idea that generosity established status in the community). For generosity in everyday life, see the commonplace book of Antonio Pucci (MS Tempi, 2, blm), published in Antonio Pucci (ed. Alberto Varvaro), Libro di varie storie (Palermo, 1957), 102. MS 5-3-25(5), 6r, 11r, bc; Rucellai, Zibaldone, 54, 56. Rucellai adopted the medieval belief that the eagle was the most generous animal, always appreciated by other animals. Morelli, “Ricordi,” 190, also suggested using courtesy to forge friendships.


Among the works that recommended contributions to the public good were Bracciolini, Dialogus contra avaritiam; Matteo Palmieri, Vita civile; Leon Battista Alberti, I libri della famiglia; Cicero, On Duties; Quintilian, The Orator’s Education. The value of civic contribution was connected to piety through the concept of mercy (misericordia). According to one concise commonplace, “The merciful citizen is the consolation of the city” (MS Palatino 600, 116v, bnfc). MS II. IX. 42. 11v, bncf; MS. OB 44, 38v, 202r, slsu; Certaldo, “Libro di buoni costumi,” 21; Morelli, “Ricordi,” 198. Jonathan K. Nelson and Richard J. Zeckhauser, The Patron’s Payoff (Princeton, 2008), investigated how the quest for social distinction motivated wealthy Florentines to spend significant assets on commissioning art. Francis W. Kent, “The Making of a Renaissance Patron,” wrote that Rucellai’s building program reflected “the desire to assert and affirm his own importance during his lifetime and beyond” and to make a “public point about his personal worth, taste and distinction and to transform his uncertain position in Cosimo’s Florence” (54). See also contemporary religious views about magnificence in Peter Francis Howard, Creating Magnificence in Renaissance Florence (Toronto, 2012).


Francis W. Kent, “‘Be Rather Loved Than Feared’: Class Relations in Quattrocento Florence,” in Connell (ed.), Society and Individual in Renaissance Florence (Berkeley, 2002), 13–14; Dale V. Kent, Rise of the Medici, 61–71.


The popular biographies of Dante and Petrarch by Leonardo Bruni attest to the many surviving manuscript witnesses of these texts. James Hankins, Repertorium brunianum: A Critical Guide to the Writings of Leonardo Bruni. I. Handlist of Manuscripts (Rome, 1997), 264. Rucellai, Zibaldone, 51, 49. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, IV.1.


Perosa, “Lo Zibaldone di Giovanni Rucellai,” in idem (ed.), Giovanni Rucellai ed il suo Zibaldone, maintains that Rucellai used a pseudo-version of Alberti’s work as one of the sources for his commonplacing (115). For the study of thrifty economic strategy, see Ruggiero Romano, “I libri della famiglia di Leon Battista Alberti,” in idem, Tra due crisi: l’Italia del Rinascimento (Turin, 1971), 139–147; MS OB 44, 173v, 186r, slsu; MS 5-3-25(5), 2v, bc. See also such popular wisdom literature as O sommo padre celestiale (around 1450) and Letter to Raimund. A similar idea is also present in Gino Capponi’s short collection of advices—for instance, “Be careful with your expenses because spending beyond possibilities gives birth to endless evils,” in Renzo Sereno, “The Ricordi of Gino di Neri Capponi,” American Political Science Review, LII (1958), 1122. Rucellai, Zibaldone, 49–51, 52. For similar ideas, see MS Palatino, 600, 116r, bncf; MS 5-3-25(5), 11r, bc.


The social uncertainty of wealth involved the extreme difficulty of keeping it. Rucellai, Zibaldone, 30. Affluence was described as a source of conflict because of envy. Rucellai, Zibaldone, 33. MS Conventi Sopressi, 148 (2), 37v, blm; MS OB, 44, 79r, slsu; Rucellai, Zibaldone, 52; MS OB, 44, 166v, slsu.


Weissman, “The Importance of Being Ambiguous,” 271; Rucellai, Zibaldone, 53.


In Culture and Practical Reason (Chicago, 1976), Marshall Sahlins wrote, “We have to deal with the struggle of the individual subject to achieve his own ends in the face of constraining cultural conventions” (85). See also idem, Stone Age Economics (New York, 2004), 126, 203; Mauss, The Gift, 8.