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Florence Catasto of 1427

Professor R. Burr Litchfield, Brown University
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Reviewed by:
Mack P. Holt
George Mason University
March 2003

This site offers tax assessment data from 1427 for the city of Florence in Renaissance Italy. It provides a unique opportunity for students to explore the urban landscape and family life of Renaissance Florence in incredible detail, rare for a city in this period. Faced with protracted warfare against the duchy of Milan, the leaders of the Florentine Republic declared a new tax survey for all citizens of Florence in May 1427. This rigorous survey included information on all real property, business interests, debts, and family background. In the summer of 1427, 10 officials and their staffs visited and interviewed every head of household (paterfamilias) in the city, a total of 9,780 individuals. From address, occupation, age, marital status, number of mouths to feed (bocce), debts, property holdings, domestic animals owned, and tax assessment, nearly 20 different variables were recorded for each head of household. All of this information is available in this searchable database, allowing for sophisticated exploration by students, even novices in Renaissance history.

On a macrolevel, students can analyze the city of Florence as a social community and discover who the elite families were. For example, of the 9,780 households surveyed, 1,431 (14.6 percent) had no assessed wealth—the poorest households in the city. By contrast, only 137 households (1.4 percent) had assessments higher than 10,000 florins—the wealthiest households in the city. These 137 households had a combined wealth of 3,000,672 florins, or 29.8 percent of the total wealth assessed in the city. The website can list these 137 heads of household by wealth or arrange them alphabetically by family name; it can also show on a map of the city where each lived.

On a microlevel, students can search the Catasto for individual names, where it then becomes apparent that the wealthiest families tend to have more independent heads of household in Florence than poorer ones. For example, there are 1,210 different family names listed in the Catasto. At one extreme there are dozens of names that appear in only one household. At the other extreme, 60 households have the name Bardi, 54 Strozzi, 31 Medici, and 30 Albizzi, common names in the history of Florence. The Catasto also lists 99 different occupations and students can easily search all households by occupation and then compute average wealth by occupation, name, age, sex, or any other variable. In short, searching the Catasto can teach students what kinds of people lived in cities and how they related to each other in a unique way.

An additional bonus is a linked database of officeholders in Florence from 1282 to 1532. By comparing family names on the Catasto with the names listed in the “Tratte of Officeholders,” students can get a clearer sense of the elites of the city and how the offices they held served as a means of influence. While not as easy to use as the Catasto, it adds another dimension to the website.

Ease of use, in fact, is the only real complaint one can have with this marvelous website. Although a list of all variables makes using the database relatively easy, searches with multiple variables are not intuitive. There is a list of “Example SQL Queries,” but unless one is familiar with SQL (Structured Query Language), these examples are not as helpful as they were meant to be. Another complaint is that emails to Professor Lichfield (the contact on the site) tend to go unanswered.

Nevertheless, this is easily the most useful primary source of its kind available online. Many students in my classes find it more enlightening and rewarding than reading a primary text or the books on this topic. With detailed instruction, even students with minimal web experience can learn from this website.

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