The modern world is a cold impersonal place. It is over rationalized with all kinds of institutions from governments to businesses to religions thoroughly bureaucratized. As a consequence, many different forms of Anarchism, are enjoying a new life with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the old Communist versus Capitalist conflict. They run the whole gamut from far-left Anarchism that wants to abolish the very idea of private property to far-right Anarchism, which argues for private property, for “sovereignty,” as the sole organizing principle for society. Both presume the absence of any kind of state. Their common enemy is “statism.” Neither side explains exactly what they mean by what the state is, who is the state, how the state got there, and where does society end and the state begin. I presume they mean things like laws and courts, legislatures, policy making bodies, civil services, and enforcement agencies like the police and military. In those things reside the wickedness of the modern world, a huge out-of-scale world filled with baffling complexity and numerous constraints upon individuals. The Anarchists have a point. The modern world is vast, governed by impersonal and seldom benevolent forces, a world where individuals are alienated from each other and from themselves.
Anarchism pervades our culture. In a world that is so out of scale, it is small wonder that people dream of some fate other than anonymous futility in a vast bureaucratic society. The desire for excitement, to “feel alive,” to be and do something memorable is so deep that the distinction between fame and infamy seems to have disappeared. People will do great good or great evil just to be famous and remembered. So much entertainment from movies to games is about warrior fantasies of one kind or another, violence as a breakout from the boredom and anonymity of an over-organized world.
Anarchism may be one of many “untried ideals” in our political thinking, and breakout lawlessness may pervade our dreams, but anarchy, the condition of complete statelessness and lawlessness, is a recorded historical experience. Florence experienced anarchy in the early Middle Ages, and experienced it for almost 4 centuries. Florence had no real government or body of law during this whole period. What did that experience really look like?
Few tourists dining in the restaurants of San Gimignano enjoying the wines and cuisine of Tuscany know the dark history behind the many towers that loom over the town. These early Medieval skyscrapers rose above streets that were far meaner than anything we have today. Every north Italian city once bristled with these towers, hundreds of them. Bologna still has a few left. You can find the stumps of these towers in every northern Italian city if you look for them. Florence is filled with the remains of these towers. They are everywhere if you know what to look for.
Northern Italy was the only place in Western Europe where urban life survived the collapse of the Roman Empire. It was the most densely populated part of Europe at a time when large areas of Western Europe were becoming depopulated and reverting back to wilderness.
These towers were fortresses. They belonged to families that had their own private armies, and frequently waged war on each other. These military noble families made their fortunes through extortion, by shaking down merchants and shopkeepers, by blocking roads and charging tolls, through collecting protection money from the surrounding inhabitants. They constantly fought with each other over turf. When the fighting became fierce, these families and their soldiers would retreat into these towers and pull up the ladders for protection. Families kept their precious possessions in these towers, and used the towers to announce to the rest of the city who ruled in a particular neighborhood.
The other inhabitants of the city lived at the mercy of these feuding families. They lived in crowded tenements along very narrow winding alleys.
Whereas the noble families lived in towers of stone and had their own wells, everyone else lived in half-timber wattle and daub structures vulnerable to fire and flooding. For water, most of the inhabitants depended on the local river. The dark narrow streets were filthy, full of garbage, raw sewage, and animals, dangerous and crime-ridden. Disputes and criminal offenses were usually settled by vendetta, leading to generations-long pointless warfare between families and clans. Long before the first outbreak of the Plague, diseases such as typhus and cholera cut through these tenements like a scythe every summer. Due to the constant warfare between clans over turf, one day’s safe area would be another day’s no-man’s-land. To find anything similar today, we would have to travel to places like Somalia, southern Yemen, or the eastern Congo.
Cities like Florence were prey to the many foreign armies that fought over possession of Italy in those years. Cities suspected of disloyalty, or collusion with an enemy could face savage reprisals. Armies could, and did, burn down cities and put their inhabitants to the sword. The German leader Totila was comparatively merciful destroying the city walls of Florence and killing the local bishop and other leading citizens when he punished the city for its support of the Byzantine armies.
Cities tried to avoid such calamities through diplomacy, through a combination of bribes and flattery toward whatever prince had an army in the region. Citizens rarely agreed among themselves over who would speak for them, and there was always the risk of an alienated faction conspiring with a rival army and betraying the city. The task of negotiating usually fell by default onto the one surviving institution from the Roman Empire that had near universal legitimacy, the Church.
The local bishop usually took charge of the city government since he was the only one whose authority was recognized as legitimate by all the warring clans and families. Florence’s first bishop was a protégé of St. Ambrose, Saint Zenobius. The city had 2 martyr saints, neither of them native to the city. Saint Reparata and Saint Minias were Palestinian Christians who fled to Florence to try to escape the persecution under the Emperor Decius, and instead met their deaths. Saint Ambrose himself spent time in Florence, and founded the church of San Lorenzo. In Florence, as in most cities, the bishop was respected, revered, and largely ignored. He had to rely on those who already had power in order to even pretend to govern. The appointment of his successor was always a cause for conflict between the church and rival princes and nobles.
remains of the ancient church of Santa Reparata beneath the floor of the nave of the Florence Cathedral
In the 9th century, the Church decided to do something about this chaos. Pope Leo III proclaimed a German tribal chief to be Augustus, Emperor of Rome, and gave him the name of Carolus Magnus, or Charlemagne. Over the years, there emerged a dispute about who was supreme in this attempt to revive the Roman Empire, the Emperors who succeeded Charlemagne, or the Popes who gave them their crowns and declared them legitimate. That argument grew into the dominant political fight of the early Middle Ages. Those who aligned themselves with the Emperor were the Ghibellines. Those who sided with the Pope were the Guelphs.
The fight between Emperor and Pope came to a head north of the Appenines from Florence at Canossa. The castle at Canossa belonged to the widow of the Duke of Tuscany appointed by the German Emperor, Countess Mathilda. Her brother was Pope Gregory VII. The German Emperor Henry IV tried to appoint his court chaplain bishop of Milan without consent from the Pope. The Pope refused to recognize the appointment. Henry retaliated by calling for a church council to depose Pope Gregory. The Pope then excommunicated Henry and released all of his subjects and vassals from their vows of loyalty. It was at Canossa that Henry stood outside the castle gate begging for the Pope’s pardon.
Florence remained steadfastly loyal to the Pope and the Countess during the whole ordeal, and for their loyalty, the Countess temporarily moved her official residence from Lucca to Florence.
Florence would remain firmly Guelph in its political loyalties, even after the issues that generated that party passed into history.
Andrea di Bonaiuto, detail from The Church Militant and Triumphant, from the "Spanish Chapel" (old chapter hall), Santa Maria Novella, Florence, c1350
This detail from a 14thc century fresco in Florence by Andrea di Bonaiuto beautifully proclaims the medieval political ideal that emerged out of the chaos of the early Middle Ages. Pope and Emperor together preside over the great task of government and state, the project of Christian salvation. Both are God’s appointed representatives on earth, responsible for the defense and welfare of Christ’s Flock. A vision of the as yet still incomplete Florence Cathedral represents the Church Militant on earth, and before it Pope and Emperor sit enthroned with their bishops and nobles assuming responsibility for the care and salvation of Christian souls.
The first great building in Florence since the end of the Roman Empire was the Church of San Miniato, begun by the Archbishop of Florence, Hildebrand, in the 11th century over the traditional burial site of Saint Minias the Martyr.
It is the earliest surviving example of the Florentine architectural tradition of using colored marble both inside and out. It is a magnificent example of the conservatism of Medieval Italian taste. It is very different from contemporary Romanesque churches in France and Germany with their spires, westworks, and soaring stone vaults. The Italians remained loyal to the early Christian basilican church prototypes still to be seen in Rome. The façade is very different from the complex sculptural facades of contemporary French or German church fronts.
It is a flat planar façade of colored marble, the prototype for what will come later in Florence. On the inside of San Miniato, we see columns and capitals recycled from ancient Roman Florentia (not all of which fit together) supporting the nave arcades.
Those arcades hold up a timber ceiling in the tradition of early basilican churches. Vaulted ceilings seemed foreign to the Italians. In the apse is a 13th century mosaic showing Christ receiving Saint Minias in Heaven.
It is in the Byzantine style. The Italians remained deeply loyal to Byzantine art and culture for centuries after the Byzantine armies left Italy. Italian cities like Pisa and Venice regularly employed Byzantine artists, and sent them on to places like Florence. As splendid as this church is, it is modest compared to the great cathedral churches rising at the same time in Pisa and Lucca. San Miniato rises on the slope of a hill overlooking Florence, proclaiming the end of the anarchy that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, and the return to something like civilized life.