A robust network

Political scientist John Padgett traces Renaissance Florence’s history by unraveling its complex social webs.

By Asher Klein, ’11
Photo by Dan Dry

Drawn to comics
Padgett charts political power, trade, and marriage using Renaissance Florence’s social networks.

John Padgett isn’t on Facebook, but his social network is almost 60,000 people strong, more than 400 times the friend-count of the average Facebook user.

On the other hand, everyone in his network is dead.

For the past 20 years Padgett, a University political-science professor, has labored over centuries-old documents, translating them into the code he uses to untangle the complex social network that was Renaissance Florence, a place where connections meant class, status, and, most importantly, power.

Padgett spends several months each year in Florence’s Archivio di Stato, going through its hundreds of thousands of Renaissance tax records, court documents, account books, and letters. “It’s an unusually rich archive,” he says. He’s transcribed more than 10,000 marriages, 14,000 loans, 3,000 business partnerships, and 12,000 elections: connections that show a dense, highly networked world. In a 2010 Renaissance Quarterly article, Padgett traced marriages—and intermarriages—among wealthy, powerful, and large families; he found that, contrary to previous research, elite status in Florence was more a fluid aspiration than a “stable demographic reality.”

A 2005 paper he coauthored in the American Journal of Sociology sought to untangle how Florence, a relatively traditional city-state, managed to generate so many inventions in art, architecture, science, philosophy, political science, and economics. Padgett’s conclusion: the creativity arose from Florence’s capitalist system, in which a company’s single controlling partner would make legally separate partnership contracts with branch managers in different locations and industries. This “network star” structure allowed for both centralization and decentralization, and diversification into multiple markets, without the risk of financial ruin.

Padgett, who studied engineering at Princeton before turning to sociology and public policy—he got his PhD from Michigan in 1978—began his research on Renaissance Florence by analyzing the workings of political power. The city was controlled, he says, by whomever could wring the most votes out of friends, family, and business partners.

It took a specific kind of character—inscrutable and quick thinking, says Padgett—to rein in Florence’s restless, ever-changing society to his own interests. That character turned out to be Cosimo de’ Medici, patron of the Renaissance and patriarch of the Medici family, which ruled Florence for almost 300 years. His style of managing a complex mélange of classes, interests, and families through a wide social network, with himself at the center, is what Padgett calls “robust action.” Cosimo began a Medici policy of marrying among elite Florentine families while trading exclusively with the nouveau riche, securing allegiances with both.

But Cosimo never made the first move, preferring to wait until the right opportunity arose. This management style meant “everything was done in response to a flow of requests that, somehow or other, ‘just so happened’ to serve Cosimo’s extremely multiple interests,” Padgett wrote in a 1993 American Journal of Sociology paper, “Robust Action and the Rise of the Medici, 1400–1434,” coauthored with Berkeley political scientist Christopher K. Ansell, AM’86, PhD’93.

Padgett describes Cosimo as sphinx-like in his leadership, an especially helpful quality when friends turned into enemies in a city where revolts, warring factions, and political assassinations were fairly common. “In nasty strategic games, like Florence or like chess,” Padgett and Ansell wrote, “positional play is the maneuvering of opponents into the forced clarification of their (but not your) tactical lines of action.”

Padgett’s overriding interest is in understanding how new organizational forms develop out of specific political, economic, and social structures. He’s used the Florentine data to show how the city’s social structure led to the rise of venture capital, the start of the centralized state, and the development of double-entry bookkeeping. For years he worked alone to cultivate his data set, which reaches from 1300 to 1500. Then later, with the help of graduate students and assistants, he waded through handwritten, technical documents to get to the analysis, where he notes business, social, and political connections that inform his theories. “If you just look at an account book, that’s very dry. But if you have all of this information about who they’re sleeping with and how many illegitimate children they have and who their political connections are, it makes the documents much more interesting. … You can actually start to put these things together.”

Padgett sometimes finds doodles showing bloody, overworked fingers, left in the books’ margins by the scribes who wrote them. Occasionally he comes across the handwriting of famous Florentine citizens, like Machiavelli, Dante, or Michelangelo. “You jump up and down when you see a name like that,” he says. Then they become data points in the larger scheme, if they fit into his time frame at all (Machiavelli shows up right at the end of Padgett’s timeline, in the mid-1490s).

Padgett has studied some of the world’s strongest leaders, like Stalin and Bismark, but few have lived in societies that made for robust actors. China in the 1970s and ’80s produced one—Deng Xiaoping, who led Chinese economic reform, and, because he was successful, the sphinx-like Xiaoping made partisans believe the ruler was always on their side, Padgett says. Mikhail Gorbachev tried to be a robust actor, attempting to stand both for press freedom and for continued autocratic Communist Party control. “Robust action gone bad, however, is when the liberals think Gorbachev is the KGB and the KGB thinks Gorbachev is liberal,” Padgett says.

Although he spent years shuttling between Chicago and Italy, it wasn’t until a few years ago that Padgett realized how the Windy City functions like Florence. Soon after arriving in Chicago in 2007, Santi Furnari, a visiting scholar at the Cultural Policy Center, suggested to Padgett that both mayors Daley ruled the same way Cosimo de’ Medici did. Padgett began to add up the similarities in Chicago’s economic and political structures: it has “a very strong and old business elite” and neighborhoods ruled by deeply entrenched aldermen who have little to do with each other. “They only sort of connect, not even through the [Democratic] party but through [the mayor],” Padgett says. “That brokerage position is very important to both of the Daleys. Chicago happens to be not so far from Florence.”


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