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“Singulis Etruriae populis”: The Political Mobilization of the Etruscan Foundation Myth in the Self-Conception of Renaissance Florence


As Florence became more imperially-motivated and ideologically-independent during the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries, Florentine humanists increasingly sought to promote the city’s allegedly autochthonous Etruscan origins, rather than claim any direct ancestral lineage from Ancient Rome. In making this historiographical shift, the writers strove to distance Florence–both ideologically and historically–from Roman influence, provide historical precedent for the aristocratic governing structure, and present an ancient justification for a Florentine-led Tuscan imperial league. Yet, for Florentines to associate themselves with Etruscans also meant identifying themselves, quite undeniably, as losers in the ancient struggle against Rome. Niccolò Machiavelli, recognizing the political precarity of relying on the Etruscan example, attempts to dismiss the humanist claims to an ancient Florentine exceptionalism. In this refusal to romanticize the “ancient Tuscans,” Machiavelli challenges the historiographical assumption prevailing at the time that past glory and ancestral heritage necessarily determine the political trajectory of a regime. The changing status of the Etruscan foundation myth, then, not only makes manifest the frantic search for identity and turbulent political landscape of Renaissance Florence, but also offers important insight on how humanists mobilized, or evaded, history for the advancement of their political agendas and collective goals.

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