Gene Brucker (1924–2017)
Historian of Renaissance Florence; AHA 50-Year Member
Gene Adam Brucker, Shepard Professor of History emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and historian of Florence par excellence, died peacefully on July 9, 2017, at age 92. Gene liked to say that the only laws of history are unpredictability and contingency. The improbability of his career is a case in point. He was born in rural Cropsey, Illinois, in 1924, attended a one-room schoolhouse in the depths of the Depression, and, when his father conceded that he was not suited to farming, enrolled in the University of Illinois. In his first year, a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the army and in 1944 shipped out to Europe, where he was assigned to an equipment depot in Marseille. After VE Day, his unit was in transit to Japan when they received news of the bombing of Hiroshima. Returning to the University of Illinois in 1946, Gene completed his BA in history and in 1948 earned his MA. His thesis, on Jean-Sylvain Bailly, the mayor of Paris during the first years of the French Revolution, received the unusual recognition of publication by the University of Illinois Press.
To Gene’s surprise, his mentor at Illinois, Professor Ray Stearns, urged him to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship, which, against all odds, he won. If the muse of history had played straight, he would have become a historian of France or England. Instead, at Oxford he was drawn to the history of Renaissance Italy by a distinguished Italophile tutor, Cecilia Mary Ady. From Oxford, Gene went to Princeton, where in 1954 he earned a PhD on the history of Florence in the 14th century, under the direction of Joseph Strayer and Theodor Mommsen. That year, he arrived at the University of California, Berkeley, and, though courted by other universities, he taught there until his retirement in 1991.
In the 1960s—a decade marked by remarkable turmoil on the Berkeley campus—Gene was one of several younger faculty who transformed the history department into one of the world’s most prestigious. Jonathan Dewald, who studied with him in the late 1960s and early 1970s, commented in an e-mail discussion, “Probably all of us from those years got a more free-range education than was typical before or since. . . . In those circumstances, what mattered to me about Gene was . . . what he showed us about how an academic life ought to be lived. That started with his kindness, openness, and good humor, but it also included his approaches to intellectual life itself. He conveyed absolute commitment to it, at a time when that wasn’t always easy to do.”
Gene is widely credited, both in Italy and in the English-speaking world, with having launched a new approach to the Florentine Renaissance. He was a leader in a cohort of influential American historians devoted to reimagining the study of a city best known for its artistic monuments and literary lights, focusing instead on its society and institutions. In two major books, Florentine Society and Politics, 1343–1378 (1962) and The Civic World of Renaissance Florence (1977), Brucker wrote what remains the most detailed account in any language of the ways in which a medieval commercial city divided by factional and class strife became the political, economic, and cultural powerhouse that gave birth to the Renaissance.
Previous Florentinists had largely relied on chronicles, historical narratives, and literary works, but Gene drew on the city’s remarkable archives, which had preserved most of their material, notwithstanding several floods. He looked for changes over time in class structure, bureaucracy, religious attitudes, relations between the sexes, factional allegiance, family structure, and social welfare, and he showed how these could be traced in the experiences of the thousands of individuals whose voices, transcribed and translated from contemporary documents, peppered his pages. In nine other books, including the very popular microhistory Giovanni and Lusanna: Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence (1986), which he wrote for his wife Marion (who predeceased him), Gene shared his sense of the past and his passion for Florentine history with scholars, students, and anyone looking for a good Renaissance read. Fortune smiled again in an unpredictable way at the end of his life. He was a long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan, but when he died the Cubs were World Series champions.
Seton Hall University
University of California, Berkeley
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