Shop a Looter: Renaissance style

by Stephen Milner, Serena Professor of Italian, School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures.

The outbreak of seemingly random violence and looting which marked the end of the summer continues to generate comment, analysis and discussion in the press and amongst politicians, policy makers, and academics as evidenced already in this blog. Causal explanations have been drawn from the full range of ‘–ologies’ made available to us by the social sciences whose own disciplinary roots lie in late nineteenth century attempts to account for collective violence, crowd psychology, and the relation of the individual to social structures. Many have blamed the loss of moral compass in the political and social realm by linking the street level opportunism of the urban dispossessed with the corporate opportunism of the financial sector and political opportunism of some MPs who continue to place private wealth before any common wealth and who view the state as a supplier of patronage for the benefit of friends and relations.

Yet unlike the complex and intricate investigations into covert political and financial malpractice, the very public nature of the recent riots and looting has seen the police deploy information collected from so-called ‘security’ cameras and surveillance technology to help identify participants. This ‘publication’ of the riots, in the sense of both using media to identify and capture participants and in calling on the public to participate in the policing endeavour, resulted in Manchester in the ‘Shop a Looter’ campaign: faces caught on camera were displayed on billboards together with the number of a confidential helpline for use by the general public when forwarding information.

As a historian of Renaissance Florence based in Manchester, I’m naturally interested in the analogy that was often made in the nineteenth century between the two cities. It was to Italy and to Florence as the cloth, wool processing, and financial capital of late medieval and Renaissance Italy that the industrialist entrepreneurs turned when seeking a cultural paradigm that fused capital accumulation with cultural production in a civic context. In the figures of the Medici and Strozzi, this new industrial class saw fellow merchants who demonstrated a high level of cultural discernment and civic pride in their roles as patrons of the arts and builders of the city’s architectural fabric.

Yet the analogy also encompassed the respective cities’ social inequalities, for both cities also had their underclass. Just as every mill-owner and merchant employed a mass of workers, so every Florentine mercantile dynasty employed numerous lesser guildsmen and wool-carders. The uprising and seizure of power by the so-called ‘Ciompi’ wool workers against their patrician overlords in 1378 is often given pride of place in western histories of social insurrection and industrial dispute as the so-called ‘popolo minuto’ sought wider political participation within the governance of the city’s affairs. The parallels with the Chartists abound. Behind the great palaces of both cities, the living and working conditions of the labouring poor were abject. Engels’ description of Manchester assumes a Dantean hue as he describes how his partner, the working-class Irish radical Mary Burns, acted as both Virgil and Beatrice in leading him through the slums of Cottonopolis and its ‘subterranean dens’ and ‘smokiest holes’.

But recent events, and specifically the ‘Shop a Looter’ campaign, reminded me of a more pertinent parallel between the two urban centres, albeit at over 500 years remove, a parallel which begs again the question as to how recent events look when placed in a broader historical context and what such a view may tell us about the enduring characteristics and dynamics of urban life. I’ve recently been looking at the Florentine town criers as mediators in the flow of information in Renaissance Florence having come across 500 written proclamations that were read out on behalf of the Florentine policing magistracy between 1470 and 1530. Proclaimed by the banditori, or criers, of the so-called ‘Otto di Guardia’ or ‘Eight of Security’, these documents are bound into communal registers. Significantly the bandi do not just proclaim the law on behalf of those in authority, they also call for information from members of what we might term ‘the general public’ concerning those who have transgressed. In fact they constitute a latterday form of ‘Shop a Looter’ or ‘Crimewatch’, publishing to a wider constituency what may have been known to only a few in the search for information. Just as contemporary viewers voyeristically scan the faces of looters or tune in to find out what goes on out there, so, I would hazard, contemporary Florentines awaited these proclamations with a certain relish, fascination and faux disgust.

The scenarios described are easily recognisable today. The vandalising of allotments; riot and the assaulting of police officials; breaking and entering; arson; street fights betwen gangs using slings and knives; drunken brawls and so on. Most take place outside the hours of curfew as established in the city’s statutes and chimed out by the city’s bells. Once such calls for information had been proclaimed, citizens were invited to pass information to the authorities anonymously by placing details on a piece of paper which they were required to deposit in sealed wooden boxes, known as ‘tamburi’, which were located at key points around the town. Judicial officials would then empty these boxes daily and were legally bound to investigate all denounciations. Amongst those sought for questioning are Niccolò Machiavelli and Benvenuto Cellini, neither of whom can be charactrised as members of an underclass.

Renaissance Florence was probably one of the most policed pre-modern cities in Europe. It certainly had a pletora of magistracies concerned with law and order. Yet what these documents show is that even within what, by current standards, was a small city bounded by a circle of walls, they still struggled to contain social unrest and crime, calling on fellow citizens to help maintain the rule of law and bring offenders to court. They bear witness to governmental anxiety concerning their ability to maintain order, to moments otherwise unregistered, to incidents behind which lie irrecoverable stories, to the traffic of the street, in sum to social practice beyond the ritualistic.

And it was in the streets that most of this action took place. Defined by the built environment, streets embody the networks that their social traffic constructs. At once place and space, they offer a literal ‘via del mezzo’ between the two foundational co-ordinates of sociology as a discipline, namely structure and agency: whilst the former prioritises the description of social structures and the institutions of social ordering, the latter foregrounds the agency of the individual as he/she negotiates a route through the conditioning (not determining) cultural landscape. On the one side stand figures such as Weber, Durkheim, Parsons, and the early Foucault on the other the likes of the voluntarists Gabriel Tarde, Walter Benjamin, Goffman, Bourdieu, De Certeau and Latour.

For it is the street in particular which provides a liminal space, physically and symbolically, in which the continuing dialogue is carried out between the binaries of society vs the individual, frames vs flows, and maps vs pedestrians. Indeed, it is precisely the inbetweeness of the street as an empty space which allows identities to be called into being, regenerated, challenged, contested and afforded a scene. They are also the prime urban site through which social energies are channelled. In the process they obviate in the clearest way the tension between the desire for liberty on the one hand and the need for security on the other. The street, therefore, can be thought of as a medium through which information flows, a way (via) of delivery and dispersal rather than a decisive factor in disciplining identifications. Unlike the ‘Other’ places studied by Foucault which marginalised and contained those considered a threat to the normative structures of potentially repressive political ordering, the streets and open spaces of the city are permeable, and as such ‘The’ places where such normative structures of social ordering are legitimated and contested. As practiced spaces, streets and squares have always been perennially receptive to the imputation of symbolic meanings and resistant to definitive closure. As sites of social centrality they are resistant to any form of political marginalisation. Consequently, they remain ‘places of invention’ for the individual and society, empty spaces through which the life-blood of communities flows. As sites of contiguity they generate community but conversely they carry the perennial threat of contagion. In the words of Friedrich Kittler, ‘The City is a medium’ and as such it constantly challenges us when seeking to read its message.

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