Francis William (Bill) Kent (1942−2010)

bill-kentEducation: BA, Dip Ed (Melbourne); joined the staff of the School of History as a teaching fellow in 1965. After doctoral studies at the University of London, Kent rejoined the staff of the Department of History at Monash as a Lecturer in 1971; he was promoted to Senior Lecturer (1977), Reader (1980), and finally to a Personal Chair in History (1989). In 2000 he became Founding Director of the Monash University Centre in Prato. In 2004 he returned to Monash Clayton to take up an Australian Professorial Fellowship in 2005. He retired in June 2010 and was appointed an Emeritus Professor at Monash University. He was awarded a posthumous degree of Doctor of Letters by Monash University in August 2010. He was elected FAHA in 1982.

A number of invitations to prestigious centres of learning in Europe and North America consolidated his international reputation. He was a Fellow at Villa i Tati, the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence in 1977−1978, and a Visiting Professor there in 1986−87. He returned again as Robert Lehman Visiting Professor in 1995−1996. In 1987 he was a British Academy Visiting Professor in London and held a Christensen Visiting Fellowship at St Catherine’s College, Oxford. He delivered the James S. Schouler Lectures at Johns Hopkins University in 1999.

Research interests: From the time of his first publication, Kent consolidated an international reputation as a cultural and social historian of Renaissance Florence. In the early days of the Monash Department of History, Kent taught ‘Renaissance Florence’ with his colleague Louis Green. ‘He was a born teacher, channelling his nervous energy and passion into dazzling performances that captured the imagination of generations of Monash students’ … including ‘a small, but talented, stable of graduate students who would also become notable Florentine historians’ (Davison and Howard 2010, 23).’ According to Constant Mews, who wrote Kent’s obituary for the Proceedings of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, it was through Kent’s influence that Renaissance Florence was (and still is) taught in many schools in Victoria by teachers ‘who had themselves been captured by his imaginative gift, and imbibed his love not just of history but also of the study of humane letters’ (Mews, 2011, 85). His interest in the urban history of Renaissaince Florence, its society and the families that helped to shape it, complemented the Department’s strong research theme in urban studies; increasingly his scholarly focus turned to Florence’s ‘patron in chief’ Lorenzo de’ Medici, on whom he became a world authority. Following the death of Nicolai Rubinstein in 2002, the first general editor of the multi-volume critical edition of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s letters, Kent took charge of the ongoing project and oversaw the publication of several more volumes. From 2006−2009 he was founding chair of the editorial board of Europa Sacra, a series published by Brepols (Turnhout, Belgium) under the auspices of the Faculty of Arts.

Constant Mews provided a summary of Kent’s attributes as a colleague: ‘Bill’s dry, self-effacing humour helped create a sense of community wherever he found himself. … His enthusiasm for teaching, combined with unflinching honesty and persistence, served as a beacon for his colleagues, and sets a standard for all who seek to be part of the community of letters’ (Mews 2011, 87). Another long-time colleague and friend, John Lack, spoke of his charm and humour, his feeling for language and the local origins of his scholarly concerns: ‘Above all, he had a way with words, written and spoken. There was poetry in his essays; he could marshal an argument and handle complex ideas. … His scholarly interest in family and clan, neighbourhood and patronage, originated, I can assure you, in his observations of local society in Footscray and Williamstown’ (Lack 2011, 251). His interest in and understanding of friendship is captured in his long essay on the subject (co-authored with Carolyn James) in Friendship: A History (ed. Barbara Caine, London: Equinox Publishing, 2009). A Bill Kent Foundation Fund was established at Monash in 2010 to honour Kent’s life and work; two research fellowships are now offered for post-graduate or post-doctoral study at Prato.


Constant J. Mews, ‘Francis William (Bill) Kent (1942−2010), published in Proceedings 35, 2010 (Australian Academy of the Humanities, 2011), 82−7. Online at;

John Lack, ‘From Foot-is-cry to Firenze: Remembering Bill Kent 1942−2010’, Victorian Historical Journal 82/2 (November 2001): 246−53;

‘From Footscray to Florence: OBITUARIES’, Graeme Davison and Peter Howard (John Lack assisted), The Age, 3 Nov 2010: 23;

The Bill Kent Foundation Fund,;

Bill Kent Prato Research Fellowship,

Major Publications:

As author:

Household and lineage in Renaissance Florence: the family life of the Capponi, Ginori, and Rucellai (1977); Lorenzo de’ Medici and the art of magnificence (2004); Princely Citizen: Lorenzo de’ Medici and Renaissance Florence, edited by Carolyn James, (2013).

As co-author:

Giovanni Rucellai ed il suo Zibaldone. II. A Florentine Patrician and His Palace. Studies by F. W. Kent, Alessandro Perosa, Brenda Preyer, Piero Sanpaolesi, and Roberto Salvini (1981); Neighbours and neighbourhood in Renaissance Florence : the district of the Red Lion in the fifteenth century (1982) (with Dale V. Kent).

As editor:                                                          

Patronage, art, and society in Renaissance Italy (1987) (with Patricia Simons and J.C. Eade); Bartolommeo Cederni and his friends: Letters to an obscure Florentine ( [1991] (texts edited by Gino Corti with F.W. Kent); Rituals, Images, and Words: Varieties of Cultural Expression in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. (2005) (with Charles Zika); Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions (2008; 2010) (with Ros Pesman and Cynthia Troup).

Selected Monographs:

Household and lineage in Renaissance Florence: the family life of the Capponi, Ginori, and Rucellai (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977), xiii, 325pp.

In this, his first book, Kent studied three of the several hundred upper-class lineages in Medician Florence, the Capponi, Rucellai and Ginovi, non-noble patrician families who combined mercantile and banking activities with landed interests. The study involved an examination of the structure of 194 households over the half-century from c. 1427 to 1480, and engaged in a particular critique of an earlier study by Richard Goldthwaite (Private Wealth in Renaissance Florence, 1968). At issue was the ongoing debate over the progressive nuclearisation of the family household, the loosening of the bonds of patrilineal kinship, and the breakdown of earlier family structures. The study drew on notarial, tax and election records, wills, account books, treatises bearing on the family, and artistic and architectural evidence. Particular use is made of private family papers and especially letters, ‘where direct expression of family sentiments is to be found’ (Goldthwaite 1978, 818). The quality of Kent’s translations was praised.

The first part of the book establishes the nature of Florentine aristocratic households. Central to Kent’s interpretation is the view that the household was not a fixed structure: ‘each type of household was a stage in the lifecycle of a particular group … Households were not static entities, but living things whose size and nature changed as generations passed and as they were subjected to a complex set of pressures and circumstances (p. 39). Kent then proceeds to set out the complex nature of an individual’s ties to members of his patrilineal descent group beyond the household.

In the second part of the book he examines the extent to which family considerations were manifested in the public life of the city, analysing lineage as an economic community, its influence on politics and art, and what one might call the social geography of kinship (neighbourhood, patronage and the ancestors). Kent concludes that household and lineage were not mutually exclusive but emerged as ‘two complementary family institutions, each owed an appropriate loyalty’ (pp. 13−14).

Contested though ideas about the interpretation of Florentine family structures might be, Kent’s book was widely reviewed and favourably received: ‘Kent is an historian of rare sensitivity who writes eloquently and convincingly’ (Molho 1978, 306); ‘The great virtues of Kent’s book are meticulous scholarship, thoughtfulness in judgment, and a total absence of quarrelsomeness (Brady 1978, 123); ‘Kent’s book [is] a most distinguished contribution to the recent discussions on the history of the family’ (Molho 1978, 304); ‘[E]legantly presented as well as intensively researched’ (Pullan 1978, 238); ‘the result of scholarship both meticulous and imaginative’ (Davis 1979, 1090); an ‘urbane and elegant book’ (Molho 1978, 305); ‘Few can match his mastery of letters’ (Kuehn 2009, 107).

The book was courteously, if critically, reviewed by Richard Goldthwaite himself, who praised Kent’s ‘considerably subtlety in delineating affective ties’ (1978, 818), concluding (p. 819) that ‘Kent’s book can be welcomed as opening up an entire area of research too long ignored’, namely, the Florentine patrician family as a social institution in the fifteenth century.


Social History 3/2 (May 1978), 278−9 (Brian Pullan); The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 8/4 (Spring 1978), 771−2 (William J. Bouwsma); The Journal of Modern History 50/2 (June 1978), 304−11 (Anthony Molho); Renaissance Quarterly 31/2 (Summer 1978), 198−9 (Lauro Martines); Speculum 53/4 (October 1978), 817−9 (Richard A. Goldthwaite); The Sixteenth Century Journal 9/3 (Autumn 1978), 122−3 (Thomas A. Brady Jr.); The American Historical Review 84/4 (October 1979), 1089−90 (James C. Davis); The Historical Journal 22/4 (December 1979), 977 (Peter Burke); The English Historical Review 96/380 (July 1981), 607−10 (G.A. Holmes);The Sixteenth Century Journal 40/1 (Spring 2009), 107−10 (Thomas Kuehn).

Lorenzo de’ Medici and the art of magnificence (Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004) xiii, 230 pp, 28 b & w illustrations.

This book had its origin in a paper presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in September 1993. The paper became a book when the author was invited to deliver the James S. Schouler lectures at Johns Hopkins University in 1999 and its five chapters presumably correspond to the lectures on which they are based.

Kent describes the book as ‘a historian’s contribution to the art-historical debate on Lorenzo de’ Medici and the visual arts’. Drawing on the vast correspondence that survives in the Florentine archive, the author aimed to ‘provide a firm historical context, and a precise chronology for [Lorenzo’s] activities in the field’ (xi). Central to the book’s focus is the theme of Lorenzo’s magnificence and the question of whether that magnificence was a myth of Lorenzo’s own creation. The contrast between what Lorenzo was in the process of claiming for himself and his dynasty and what he achieved in his lifetime is the exact locus of Kent’s attention: the shadowland between the idea and the reality, the notion and the act, he writes, quoting T.S. Eliot (p. 149). It was this aspect of the book that attracted most comment from reviewers.

For some the result was ambiguous. ‘Intriguingly’, one critic commented, ‘it is not entirely clear if Kent believes Lorenzo was successful at the “art of magnificence”’ (Baxendale 2008, 171). Some reviewers hoped that the ambiguity noted in this book would be resolved in the larger biographical study to which this book was a pendant (eg Baxendale 2008, 172).

Kent shaped his study of the relationship between Lorenzo and the visual arts by considering ‘not only the finished results of his patronage but also his ideas and ambitions, even though many of these were interrupted, truncated, or remained on paper’ (Fabbri 2006, 496). Despite its relative brevity and the self-contained character of the chapters, the author was commended for the way in which he ‘characterizes this key Renaissance figure in the broad political, cultural, and psychological terms available only to a scholar so deeply engaged with every aspect of Lorenzo’s life’ (Fabbri 2006, 496). Kent’s portrait of Lorenzo was informed by the author’s ‘insights on the complexity of patronage, art appreciation, power, and personal limitations’ (Baxendale 2008, 171).The book itself was praised for its appeal not just to art historians but to a general readership fascinated by the Medici in general and Lorenzo il Magnifico in particular (Baxendale 2008, 171). Rubin (2006: 490, 491) particularly applauded the cross-disciplinary approach: ‘This short book elegantly compresses long study’, she wrote, ‘[proving] that the “impossible conjunction” of [Lorenzo’s] personality can only be understood through an artful conjunction of historical disciplines’.

Princely Citizen: Lorenzo de’ Medici and Renaissance Florence. Francis W. Kent, ed. Carolyn James (Late Medieval and Early Modern Studies 24. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013), viii, 370 pp.

Kent’s Lorenzo de’ Medici and the Art of Magnificence was put forward as a ‘pendant’ to his two-volume biography of Lorenzo de’ Medici, then in preparation. The biography was to be a retirement project, but when Kent was diagnosed with a terminal illness in 2008, an alternative plan was developed in order to give an impression of what his biography of Lorenzo might have been like. The resulting volume, edited by Carolyn James, brings together fourteen of Kent’s published essays, arranged according to the chronology of Lorenzo’s life, and ending with a hitherto unpublished essay on Lorenzo’s death and its impact, completed in 2010 shortly before Kent himself died. One reviewer observed that, rearranged in order of original publication, the essays also bear witness to Kent’s own evolving interests in his subject over thirty-one years from 1979 to 2010.

Divided into three sections, the collection opens with a series of studies on Lorenzo’s political apprenticeship, continues by analysing his role as a patron of art and architecture, and finishes by assessing and applying the themes already introduced to Lorenzo’s whole career. Through these essays, ‘a sketch of Florence’s first citizen emerges that is both empathetic and deeply critical, navigating the pitfalls of Medici hagiography and republican moralism’ (Roberts 2015, 174).

Given the posthumous nature of the volume, it is not surprising that reviews of the book often included tributes to Kent himself as a scholar. So, for example, ‘Bill Kent was, from his very first studies on the role of family households, lineage, neighbourhood and patronage in fifteenth-century Florence, a scholar who changed our traditional conceptions and views of Renaissance society’ (Böninger 2015, 467). ‘His work on Florentine social history … stands out by its scrupulous attention to historical detail and by its philological and archival zeal, including the historia minora or minima, and their role in the bigger picture. Much of his gigantic task involved a thorough revision not only of perceived ideas but also of method …’ (Gutiérrez-Sanfeliu 2014, 184). ‘Princely Citizen serves as a fitting testament to Kent’s rich legacy’ (Roberts 2015, 175). ‘Whilst it cannot entirely assuage the loss of his projected biography of Lorenzo, Princely Citizen showcases Kent’s remarkable achievements in analyzing his subject’s life and times, particularly as far as the significance of amicizia and informal patronage networks are concerned’ (Allan 2014, 453).


Lorenzo de’ Medici:

The English Historical Review 120/487 (June 2005), 826−7 (George Holmes); The American Historical Review 110/4 (October 2005), 1279−80 (Melissa Meriam Bullard); The Burlington Magazine 148/1240 (July 2006) 490−1 (Patricia Rubin); Renaissance Quarterly 59/2 (Summer 2006), 496−7 (Lorenzo Fabbri); The Journal of Modern History 80/1 (March 2008), 170−2 (Susannah F. Baxendale).

Princely Citizen:

Italian Studies, 69/3 (November 2014), 452−3 (Judith Allan); Parergon 31/2 (2014), 184−5 (Carles Gutiérrez-Sanfeliu); European History Quarterly 45/1 (January 2015), 174−5 (Sean Roberts); Renaissance Quarterly 68/1 (Spring 2015), 279−80 (Stella Fletcher); Renaissance Studies 29/3 (June 2015), 466−7 (Lorenz Böninger).


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