Florence - a short history

(With emphasis on the origins of city state republics) MorganThrower? with some additions by MarkCutkosky

The Etruscans

Florence was the site of an Etruscan settlement and later became a Roman town on the Cassian Way (the modern Piazza della Republica is on the site of the Roman Forum). In the 5th and 6th cent. A.D. the city was controlled, in turn, by the Goths, Byzantines, and Lombards. It became an autonomous commune in the 12th cent. Italian civilization is said to have officially started (made its transition from pre-history to history [literacy] with the Etruscan peoples. The Etruscan civilization lasted for seven centuries. Remains which can be defined as Etruscan date back into the Iron Age, to aout 800 BC, and are centered in the area between Rome and Florence, the area which the Romans were to call Etruria. The modern name “Tuscany” – Italian “Toscana” – comes, of course, from the Latin name ‘Etrusci’, sometimes shortened to ‘Tusci’. Their wealth, and so their civilization, was based on the rich deposits of metals in the area – especially of iron ore, but also of copper, lead and tin. They share with the Greeks the distinction of being the first city-builders in Italy. At the peak of Etruscan civilization there were twelve cities, linked in a Confederation, but with each city retaining autonomy and a cultural identity. The Etruscans were engineers as well as architects. They drained the land, and built good roads, anticipating the Romans, and they were also a sea-faring people, trading happily with Carthage.

The Romans

Long before Etruscan civilization had reached its peak, a Latin people was living on the seven hills of Rome. Two powerful myths were to be born concerning the foundation of Rome. 1) a Trojan, Aeneas, escaping from conquered Troy, after many adventures reached Italy, and founded the city of Lavinium in Latium. 2) Told by one of the greatest of European historians, Livy (Titus Livius) wrote his monumental history of Rome; some of the episodes in his re-telling were taken from Greek stories, and not necessarily believed to be true. Ex.: The story of Romulus and Remus – ‘the twins’ born of a Vestal Virgin, saved from drowning by a she-wolf who suckled them, (but some think that the she-wolf was actually ‘a common whore called Wolf by the shepherds’). Romulus kills Remus, and founded Rome. An Etruscan king, Tarquin, is said to have been on the throne in the early sixth century, and another Tarquin to have been the last, when, in 510 BC, the Romans secured control and founded the Republic. With the foundation of the Roman Republic came for the first time in Italy a dim realization of a basic principle of political philosophy – that the people were sovereign. The concept was to be lost with the decline of Rome and the coming of the Middle Ages, and not to be properly rediscovered until the ideas of the French Revolution crossed the Alps in the 1790s. In Rome it was expressed by the phrase ‘Senatus Populusque Romanus’, the Senate and Roman People, the initials of which, SRQR, are still stamped on public property in Rome. The Senate in practice was often in confrontation with the people, but disputes rarely led to bloodshed. The confrontation never, of course, allowed the people real power, but in the first century or so of the life of the Roman Republic resulted in a ruling coalition of the older upper class from the days of the kings with a new, rich, republican class. The headship of the executive government was provided by two Consuls, whose qualifications for office were that they had been in both of two junior posts – quaestors and praetors. Twenty quaestors were elected annually, and on election became members of the Senate. In practice, the system kept power in the hands of a limited ruling class, but did not fail to produce able and highly trained men. The more democratic element in the constitution of the Roman Republic consisted in the election of ten Tribunes. They could start legislation, and veto bills. The Tribunes themselves were often rich nobles, but they provided an important countervailing force against the Senate, and were supposed to represent the plebeians. The Roman empire was not the creation of the Roman Empire, but of the Roman Republic. Under the Republic Rome developed from being one force among many in the Italian peninsula, in the first place, to being in control of the whole territory of what we now know as Italy; in the second place, to being the dominant power in the Mediterranean; and in the third place, to controlling and dominating most of the known world. And the whole process took only three or four centuries.

The Dark and Middle Ages

(Skipping about 7 centuries of history) By 400AD, we are starting to hit the Middle Ages. In the twelfth century and throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries a new kind of political institution emerged in Italy – the city-states or city-republics, whose political organization became known as the ‘commune’. The characteristics of this institution were that it was essentially secular, its executive officers were elected, by varying methods, and it had de facto independence, although often – and initially, always – under the nominal overlordship of emperor, pope, king, or duke. Communes in their more typical form existed in North and Central Italy, but they were not unknown in the South.

The central officials of the commune were the ‘consuls’ – a word brought back into use in eleventh-century Italy from the faint memories of the Roman Empire. At some stage consuls came to be elected and to acquire executive power. The first time the term appears in the records of medieval Italy is in1081-5 when consuls were in office in Pisa. There was also variety in the methods of choosing consuls. Sometimes names were put to a general assembly for approval or disapproval by acclamation, as at Pisa in 1162. Often the consuls had to have executive decisions approved by a council, either a large, popular one, or a smaller one, packed with the rich. Councils or varying size, and sometimes two or three in number, took the place of the popular assembly, or arengo, as cities grew larger and the practical difficulty of formulating policy in a huge gathering became too great. Methods of election of councils were varied, sometimes involving a system of indirect election of electors, sometimes the drawing of lots. If the drawing of lots appears a somewhat irrational way of choosing delegates, it at least diminished the risk of corruption. Members of a council were anyhow meant simply to represent the citizens, and in theory the office could be performed by any sane adult. Fear of corruption played an important role in the evolution of the communes. Consuls were in office for only very short periods – sometimes only a few months. Sometimes, too, ... they were obliged to live in complete isolation during their brief periods of office, to avoid any contacts which could result in bribery.

The Late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance

The alternative to a republican form of government was that of a lord or signore – a personal or family despotism. Powerful families had indeed done much to form the communes and to shape and dominate their institutions. But the distinction between the two forms of government was not always very clear-cut, since signori often retained republican institutions, and often ruled in a paternal or benevolent manner, with the full confidence or approval of the citizens. Nevertheless there is a contrast between Florence, which retained the reality of a republic until 1431, when it accepted the very mild despotism of the Medici, and Milan, where a strong authoritarian government emerged over a century earlier.

In the 13th cent. the Guelphs (who were propapal) and the Ghibellines (who were proimperial) fought for control of the city. By the end of the 13th cent. the Guelphs held control, but they then split into warring factions, the Blacks and the Whites, best remembered because Dante, a Florentine, was banished (1302) as a White Guelph. Warfare raged, too, with other cities, notably Pisa, as the merchants and bankers of Florence made their own fortunes and that of the city; the sale of Florentine silks, tapestries, and jewelry brought great wealth. Florence grew as a result of war, absorbing Arezzo, Pistoia, Volterra, and Pisa. Growth was temporarily halted in 1348, when the Black Death killed approximately 60% of the city's population.

The history of Florence in the later Middle Ages contrasted sharply with that of Milan. After the battle of Benevenuto in 1266 the Florentines had expelled the Ghibellines. Guelf Florentines, middle-class members of the guilds or arti, took over the government of the city. But the old nobility resisted the change, and became a violent element in the life of the city. In the fourteenth century the Guelfs were split into the Blacks, representing bankers, merchants and artisans, and the Whites, representing the declining nobility. Temporary disasters, like the failure of the Bardi and Peruzzi banks in the 1340s, and – far more terrible in human terms – the Black Death of 1347-8, did not permanently alter the fact of Florentine prosperity. It was based on finance, commerce, and the wool trade. It was the poorer workers in the woollen industry, the ciompi or wool-carders, who were to rise in revolt in 1378. The poorest workers were not citizens, and were thus denied the vote for any of the elections in the republic. For a moment they secured the support of the lesser guild, and some of them were even elected to office. A balia, or special commission, including many working-class members, held power for six weeks, and arranged for the creation of the new guilds in which even the poorest in the woollen industry would be represented. The aims of many of the ciompi were not all that radical, but others wanted a new social order.

Historians have concentrated so heavily on Florence, the impression has developed that the fourteenth century was a largely republican one, with despots taking over in the early fifteenth century, as the Medici did. But the communes in other cities – and not only in Milan – were already, by the end of the thirteenth century, dominated by single families, or signori. An oligarchy composed of many families had often been replaced by a dynasty, whether with or without the assumption of titles. Although the signori would sometimes cloak their despotism with a bureaucracy, their individual tastes would emerge in the patronage of the arts as in the formulation of foreign policy. By the fourteenth century the Holy Roman Empire in its medieval form would never again dominate Italy. Florence became a city-state and in the 15th cent. came under the control of Cosimo de' Medici, a wealthy merchant and patron of the arts. Although republican forms were kept until the 16th cent., the Medici family ruled, and Lorenzo de' Medici, who held power from 1469 to 1492, was able to put down the Pazzi conspiracy (1478), instigated by Pope Sixtus IV.

Florence in the fifteenth century was in the vanguard of prosperity, the peak may be said to have been reached under the early Medici in the period 1434 – 92. In the period three of the Medici family successively ruled Florence, but the two significant figures were Cosimo, who was in control from 1434 to 1464, and Lorenzo ‘il Magnifico’, who ruled from 1469 to 1492. The two men took no title, and controlled what was theoretically still a republic, with complex republican institutions. Only on very rare occasions did they take any office themselves, yet their indirect influence gave them despotic power in practice. The head executive officer, or gonfaloniere, had very prescribed powers, and was elected for only two months. He had to be a member of one of the seven great guilds, or arti. The class system, and the predominance of the class of merchants, bankers and industrialists, was thus enshrined in the constitution. The greater guilds, or popolo grasso (fat people) had the dominant position, but the lesser guilds, or popolo minuto (small people), were represented in government. Beneath the gonfaloniere were eight other executive officers, the priori, six of whom had to be from the greater guilds, but two from the lesser guilds. The gonfaloniere and the priori were together known as the signoria, and they held office in the great medieval palace, the Palazzo Vecchio.

The old aristocracy was a suppressed class, allowed only a small role by the constitution. Of the two legislative houses, the upper or consiglio del comune was elected on a constituency basis by the four quartieri – quite literally the four ‘quarters’ of Florence, which still exist today. The nobility were allowed seats on the consiglio del comune, but not on the consiglio del popolo, or lower house, which was confined to the arti. Citizenship was restricted to members of the arti, who could together be summoned by the bell in the Palazzo Vecchio to meet in a parlamento in the piazza. The parlamento provided the ultimate constitutional sanction: propositions put to it by the signoria could be approved or disapproved by the shouts of the citizens.

These republican institutions had, of course, existed before the Medici, but they had not prevented another family, the Albizzi, becoming dominant for the long period from 1382 to 1432. The Albizzi represented the rich middle class, and it was as a representative of the lesser middle class, the popolo minuto, that the banker Giovanni de’ Medici became prominent and was elected gonfaloniere.

This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platformCopyright &© by the contributing authors. All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
Ideas, requests, problems regarding TWiki? Send feedback