Above is the city council of Dayton, Oregon. Most city governments are pedestrian affairs of basic maintenance of schools and infrastructure with the occasional excitement of having to referee between competing factions. In much of the Western world, city and town councils made up of local citizens elected for short terms are the norm. Most of the time, we don’t think about local government except when it steps on our feet, or when we want something from it. We take it for granted. And yet, such councils are the seed from which mighty republics and great political careers grow. Florence was one of the first places where citizens took responsibility for governing themselves since the end of the Roman Empire.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, the local archbishop was officially in charge of the government of Florence. He depended on armed local nobles for the power to enforce the law. They rarely gave him their cooperation unless it was in their interest. Faced with an ineffectual government from the Church, and extortion from the nobility, Florentines, like the inhabitants of many other medieval cities, began taking the responsibility for governing into their own hands. With the arrival of dramatic growth and prosperity in the 13th century came the power to face down and finally destroy the rule of the feudal nobility in the city.
Florence, like most other medieval cities, organized its population by trade. Each trade had its association, the guild. The guilds collectively assumed the responsibility for governing the city. The collective government of the city by all of the guilds was known as the Comune or commune. The city government of Florence is still called the Commune (as are the governments of a lot of older European cities). The word “commune” here has nothing to do with any kind of socialist utopia. It is a practical word describing the collective government of the city by its citizens in various trades.
In Florence, the guilds were not equal, and when the city’s economy boomed in the 13th century, they became even less equal.
What each guild was depended on the trade. All guilds set professional standards and looked out for the interests of their members. All guilds gave their members political representation in one form or another. Guilds for the poorer trades tended to be largely mutual aid societies. Guilds for the middle trades like carpenters and ironworkers tended to act as labor unions. Guilds for the very wealthy trades such as bankers and manufacturers tended to act as economic cartels. All the guilds sought to limit economic competition, especially from outside the city.
Guild stemmi on a ceiling of the Palazzo Spini, Florence
stemma of the Arte dei Fabbri, the Iron Workers' Guild
stemma of the Arte dei Calzolai, The Shoemakers' Guild
Florence through most of its early history was a small town. Ancient Roman Florentia was a small garrison town founded by Julius Caesar to protect some major north Italian trade routes that intersected there. Florentia was small, but it was prosperous. Early Medieval Florence was a very small town built on the remains of the earlier Roman city. At one point in the 9th century, the population of the city was less than a thousand people. Throughout the 11th and 12th centuries, Florence was a backwater on the Arno River overshadowed by the great maritime republic of Pisa and by Lucca, the home of the Tuscan Grand Dukes.
By the end of the 13th century, Florence was one of the largest cities in Europe, the dominant city in Tuscany, and one of the major powers on the Italian peninsula, eventually making once mighty Pisa into a Florentine dependency. The growth of Florence was sudden and explosive, perhaps the first city to experience such rapid growth in wealth and population. The reason for that growth was unprecedented. It wasn’t because of foreign trade or military conquest; it was because of business, manufacturing and commerce.
The waters at that point on the Arno River turned out to be perfect for the washing and dying of wool. There were abundant deposits of alum necessary for dying in Florentine territory. There was also a very large rural population from which to draw a labor force. Numerous cottage looms sprang up and soon coalesced into the largest textile-manufacturing center in Europe.
Andrea Pisano, Weaving, 14th century
Carding, Dying, and Spinning Wool, 14th century French illumination
Spinning and Weaving Linen, 14th century French illumination
Raw wool from Spain and England arrived in Florence through Pisa and Adriatic ports to be turned into finished wool cloth to be sold back to the rest of Europe. Flax arrived from France and Flanders to be woven into bed linens and pillows for the continent and beyond. Cotton was imported from Egypt and North Africa to be made into underwear for both Christendom and Islam. Even silk from China arrived in Florence to be turned into highly valued silk fabric by the city’s skilled weavers. The Florentines figured out how to cultivate silk worms, ending the Chinese monopoly on silk.
With the rise of manufacturing came a demand for credit to buy supplies and to pay workers. Another industry rose to meet this demand, banking. Florence became the dominant banking center of Europe. The Florentine gold coin, the Florin, was the benchmark currency of Europe for centuries.
Front of the Gold Florin showing Saint John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence.
Reverse of the Florin showing the Florentine Giglio or Lilly.
The Palazzo Portinari in Florence, once home to a major banking family, today it houses a bank.
Much that we take for granted in financial transactions was a creation of Florentine banking: denominated currency, checks, receipts, and double entry bookkeeping. Florentine banks had agents in cities throughout Europe and into the Middle East, as far away as London, Lisbon, Moscow, Cairo, and Damascus. Florentine bankers were the major lenders to the Papacy, and to kings and nobles throughout Europe. Florentine banking families eventually became the new nobility of the city, forcing out the old feudal nobility.
By the middle of the 13th century, the city’s most powerful guilds were three, the Arte della Lana, the wool manufacturers, the Arte della Calimala, the textile merchants, and the Arte del Cambio, the bankers.
Luca della Robbia, Emblem of the Arte della Lana, The Wool Manufacturers' Guild; whenever you see the Lamb of God in Florence, chances are it's the emblem of the Lana
Palazzo of the Lana in Florence
These three guilds dominated the city government and wrote their domination into the city’s constitution. The remaining guilds gave their members political representation, but were largely excluded from executive and judicial positions.
Most of the city’s workforce remained unrepresented and disenfranchised. The legions of weavers, carders, and workers in the textile industry were completely unrepresented. They were legally forbidden to organize. Attempts to do so would be severely punished. This huge disenfranchised population would assert its power and briefly take over the government in the 14th century. The powerful resentment of that large sullen mass would be very useful to the political players of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, from the Medici to Savonarola, and arguably played a role in the final destruction of the Republic.
Another major force in Florentine politics was la famiglia, the family. I don’t mean family in the sense of the 20th century American domestic model of parents and children. I mean family in the old Roman sense of a kind of tribe or nation of blood ties with its own rites and traditions. Florentine families were major forces in the city’s political and economic life. They were the centers of huge networks of patronage and influence. At first, the most powerful families were the old feudal nobility like the Alberti and the Donati families. By the end of the 13th century, they were supplanted by a new commercial nobility of manufacturing and banking families, the Peruzzi, the Bardi, the Albizzi, the Pazzi, the Strozzi, the Ruccellai, etc. Loyalty to la famiglia came first, and loyalty to the city came second. Everything up to and including treason could be countenanced to advance the interests of the family.
The Florentine Palazzo reflected the institution of la famiglia.
The Palazzo Spini
The 13th century Palazzo Spini by the Ponte Santa Trinita is a huge fortified bulk, and an expanded version of the old feudal tower, asserting the prestige and power of this neighborhood family.
The Palazzo Davanzati, 14th century, the beautiful loggia on the top floor is a 16th century addition
Here is the 14th century Palazzo of the Davanzati family, now preserved as a museum. The second floor, the piano nobile, was the main floor containing the public rooms of the palazzo.
One of the public reception rooms on the piano nobile of the Palazzo Davanzati
Windows of the Piano Nobile of the Palazzo Davanzati
Here in these large chambers, the pater familias received visitors like a head of state receiving petitioners and ambassadors (later, the Medici would actually receive foreign ambassadors in their palazzo on the Via Larga).
The upper floors were the private living quarters of the family sometimes housing 3 or 4 generations under the same roof.
Bedroom on the upper floors of the Davanzati Palazzo with the original 14th century decorative fresco work.
The constitution of the Florentine Republic was a system of familiar and mutual mistrust. An executive committee of “priors” made most of the policy and legal decisions. Eligibility was usually confined to certain old and wealthy families and to membership in one of the 3 great guilds. There was the Council of Eight responsible for criminal justice, and a Capitano del Popolo who commanded the militias responsible for internal and external security. There were other consultative councils like the Council of Twelve made up of the 12 most eminent citizens officially playing an advisory role. The head of state was the Gonfaloniere who governed with the Priors.
Offices rotated quickly. Two months were usually the upper limit on office terms. Frequently, lots were drawn to choose electors and office holders. There was the deceptively democratic institution known as the Parlimento. The bell of the Palazzo Signoria summoned all who were eligible to vote and hold office to the Piazza Signoria. Officially, a herald or a magistrate read aloud a proposed constitutional change, and the assembled people voted on it by acclamation. As we might imagine, this procedure was notoriously vulnerable to manipulation and intimidation. The magistrate might mumble and read quickly through the proposed legislation while heavily armed soldiers (sometimes mercenaries hired by one faction or another) ringed the perimeter and posted on the rooftops with crossbows and longbows to make sure the assembled citizens voted as they were expected.
Throughout the history of the Florentine Republic, there was a constant struggle between those who wanted to expand the franchise and those who wanted to restrict it further. During most of its history, the Republic was an oligarchy ruled by the very wealthiest. The large majority of the city’s inhabitants remained disenfranchised and voiceless. And yet, in its turbulent history, Florence would produce some of the world’s first genuinely representative democratic institutions.
Florentine writers from Dante to Machiavelli complained about the factionalism of Florentine politics, how families, guilds, and other factions put their self-interest ahead of the common good of the Republic. Dante was a victim of this factionalism. When the Guelf Party split into “Black” and “White” factions, the “Blacks” won the power struggle and the “Whites” were proscribed. There was no such thing as a “loyal opposition” before the 18th century. Losers went to prison, to their deaths, underground, or into exile. The “Blacks” put Dante’s name on a list of those to be arrested and executed. He spent the rest of his life wandering from city to city as an impoverished exile. He was so disillusioned by the experience that he renounced his Guelf allegiances and became an enthusiastic Ghibelline. He was convinced that Florence’s salvation lay in a princely autocrat.
Machiavelli also suffered at the hands of Florence’s factional politics. He noted how political turmoil was always an occasion for settling private scores. He faulted Florence for having no system for indicting public officials for wrongdoing, unlike the Roman Republic. He observed that those wronged at the hands of corrupt and vindictive public officials had no recourse but to challenge the whole regime, even if that meant treason. Factionalism played a decisive role in the coup d’etat in 1512 that restored the Medici to power and caused Machiavelli to lose his position as Chancellor of the Republic and to end up in poverty and obscurity.
Florence was a medieval city with uniquely modern problems: a rapidly expanding population, expanding wealth, and rising expectations. These were responsible for the turmoil and unique creativity of Florentine politics and culture. Venice was a stable aristocratic state with a closed franchise. Other states like Perugia and Genoa were in a constant state of turmoil beset with battling claims of families and factions. Inhabitants in these cities had no real stake in these fights, but constantly checked the direction of the political winds for the sake of safety. Florence faced the very modern problem of meeting the rising expectations of prosperity and enfranchisement of its citizens. Florence argued and fought out the issue of oligarchy versus democracy for the first time since the collapse of the Roman Republic. They were keenly aware of this precedent, and of the unique nature of their city’s politics. They were even aware of the uniquely modern economic conditions of rapid economic expansion that created this situation. The Florentine Republic at its end in 1530 will be partly a medieval throwback, a city state in an age of rising nation states, and partly a bold look into the future, the politics of popular sovereignty and social contract.
In the 13th century, Florence’s neighbors watched its sudden and rapid growth with alarm. Florence would forge its identity as a state in the crucible of war and catastrophe. By the end of the 14th century, those very familiar words “Liberta!” and “Popolo!” (Liberty and People) would become the rallying cries of the Republic.