Friday, December 31, 2010

Florence: The Ciompi Revolt

Labor demonstration in Florence during a 2007 general strike.

The Ciompi Rebellion was, so far as I know, the first industrial labor uprising in history. The textile workers, upon whose labor Florence’s prosperity depended, rose up in revolt in 1378 and briefly seized control of the Republic. The rebellion failed in the end, defeated by factionalism among the rebels and by the determination of the city’s ruling oligarchy to squash the uprising. The oligarchy emerged from this episode even more powerful, determined to prevent such a rebellion from ever happening again.

Florence’s new prosperity began with the textile industry. The waters of the Arno at Florence were perfect for washing freshly dyed wool. There were abundant alum deposits in the area necessary for dying fabric. Above all, there was an abundance of cheap labor in the surrounding countryside. Northern Italy was the most densely inhabited part of Europe in the 13th century when Florence’s economy suddenly boomed. Peasants coming into the city provided a seemingly endless and inexpensive supply of labor. Florentine fabrics were competitive in price because the industry paid its workers near starvation wages.

Linen Weaver, mural from the Kanonikerhaus, Constance, Germany, circa 1320

I use the term “industry” loosely. This was long before the Industrial Revolution and mechanized mass production. The assembly line was way in the future at this point. Textiles were still officially a “cottage” industry. Manufacturers owned or leased looms and facilities housed in city tenements and in cottages in the surrounding countryside, a system similar to modern sweat shops. These “cottages” frequently employed hundreds of people. Whole families would work in these shops with small children employed for the simplest tasks.
Not all of this labor was unskilled. Florentine linen and silk weavers were famous for the quality of their work. In addition, there were sewers and embroiderers who did splendid work.
Working conditions could be brutal with long hours and only religious feast and fast days off (the weekend is a creation of the American labor movement in the 19th century). Sickness frequently meant unemployment and destitution. The shops were poorly lit and ventilated with dust and lint making lung disease a certainty.

The Florentine Republic created very strict laws against workers organizing with sometimes draconian punishments. The city’s working class was entirely disenfranchised with absolutely no say in the governing of their communities. They were entirely dependent on the good will of their employers and landlords (who were frequently one and the same). Legal intimidation and economic insecurity kept workers quiet and passive for decades, but that quiet passivity ended in the wake of the Black Death.

The Black Death left in its wake an acute labor shortage throughout Europe, and especially in Florence. Those workers fortunate enough to have survived had new expectations of a certain measure of bargaining power to improve their lot. Those expectations, and having survived the ordeal of the Plague, emboldened them to challenge their exploiters for the first time.

The revolt began with a foreign policy crisis and an attempted coup. Pope Gregory XI attempted to reassert papal control over the States of the Church, which had broken up into a chaos of independent city states and military fiefdoms claimed as payment by a number of mercenary commanders. The last thing Florence wanted was a strong Papal State sharing its longest border. In response to Florentine attempts to subvert his efforts in the Papal States, the Pope placed Florence under interdict forbidding any religious sacraments in the city and making the city’s merchants abroad fair game for seizure of their goods and their persons. The city responded by ordering its local clergy under severe penalties to re-open the churches. That the city’s government succeeded in this policy is a measure of the popularity of its position among patriotic Florentines, rallied by eloquent writers like Coluccio Salutati to the cause of republican liberty against Papal tyranny. The length of the standoff and its growing cost emboldened the traditional pro-papal Parte Guelfa in the city. The Guelfa included the most powerful manufacturers and bankers in the city. They now felt emboldened to attempt a coup d’etat against the Commune, exchanging indirect for direct rule. The prospect of a coup, rumored to take place on June 24th, Saint John’s Day, the national holiday of the Florentines, alarmed the lesser guilds as well as many members of the greater guilds who made common cause with the arti minori.

The Commune, under the leadership of Salvestro de Medici (the family name should be familiar), struck first on June 18, 1387. Using the slogans Liberta! and Popolo!, Salvestro summoned the populace who eagerly rallied to the government. Events quickly turned violent with mobs looting and burning the homes of Guelfa leaders who had all fled the city at the first sign of trouble.
That should have been the end of the troubles, as the Commune had intended, but it was not. This pre-emptive strike against an oligarchic coup turned out to be but the first stage in a revolutionary uprising. The mobs, having done their useful work, would not go home. They simply became bigger and bolder, swelled by the ranks of the popolo minuto (the little people), angered and disappointed that their hoped for bargaining power with their employers was neutralized by the textile manufacturers venturing out in the Tuscan countryside far and wide recruiting even more desperate peasants, keeping wages low.

By July of 1378, the initiative was firmly in the hands of the rebelling textile workers, the Ciompi (believed to be a Florentine corruption of the French word compere) the “guys” we would call them today. The rioting and agitation increased throughout the month until on July 21st, a huge crowd marched into the Piazza Signoria with a petition demanding the right to associate and to form a new guild representing the interests of the city’s textile workers.
The leaders of the Commune in the Palazzo Publico desperately sought to buy time as the rioting grew worse in all parts of the city with mobs looting and burning the palazzi of the city’s manufacturing and banking nobility.
The next day, the rioters lost patience and swept into the Palazzo Publico in a huge wave, breaking down the doors and quickly overwhelming the Palace’s defenders. A young wool carder wearing only a torn shirt and sandals named Michele di Lando seized the city banner and was proclaimed Gonfaloniere or head of state of the Republic by the rebels.
The new government under Lando set to work immediately, polling the populace about forming a new workers’ guild. The response was so large that the new government decided to create not one, but three new guilds, the Arte Tintori (the Dyers’ Guild), the Arte Farsettai (The Shirt Makers’ Guild), and the third and largest guild, the Popolo Minuti representing the workers in the city’s enormous wool industry. For a very brief moment, Florence was the only state in the world at that time to have a government representing almost all of its citizens across class lines.

The manufacturers, seeing this new-found power on the part of their workers as a guarantee of ruin, struck back in probably history’s first recorded lockout. They locked up their shops, leaving their always marginal employees to quickly become destitute. This new desperation among the workers created the first of the factional conflicts that would doom the new workers’ government. A radical faction of the rebels rallied in front of the Church of Santa Maria Novella to make demands of the new government. When their representatives attempted to present a petition at the Palazzo Publico, Lando himself chased them out with a sword. He mounted a horse and led a charge against the radicals scattering them and driving them out of the city. All of the city’s guilds, except one, hailed Michele di Lando as the savior of the Republic. The dissenting guild was the new Popolo Minuti. The Tintori and the Farsettai sided with the government and with the city’s older established guilds against the Popolo Minuto. This split proved to be a golden opportunity for the city’s oligarchs to return to absolute power. The new government abolished the Popolo Minuto, eliminating at a stroke the gains made by the city’s wool industry workers. In the years to come, the other two guilds would also be abolished and the city’s oligarchy would again be solidly in power. Once again, laws would be passed forbidding worker associations.

What is so striking about the Ciompi Rebellion from a modern point of view is that, for all of its violence and drama, it was comparatively conservative. There was never any talk of throwing out the Florentine constitution or of ending the Republic for some other kind of state. There was no real effort, and apparently no desire, to completely disenfranchise the oligarchy and to seize their assets. There was no talk of worker ownership of the mills. What the workers wanted was participation in the existing system. They wanted, not their own state, but their own guilds and a place in the Commune.
What is equally striking is the determination of the city’s oligarchy not to make any concessions, to utterly defeat and destroy this uprising. They saw any prospect of power-sharing with their workers as a potentially mortal threat.

Little in the way of reliable records survives about Michele di Lando, and yet, Machiavelli writing about the Ciompi Rebellion in his history of Florence almost 2 centuries later, ranks Lando up with Cesare Borgia among the greatest heroes of Italian nationalism.

A 19th century statue of Michele di Lando in the Mercato Nuovo, Florence.


The conservatism of the Ciompi rebels is all the more remarkable considering that there was no shortage of radical thinkers in late Medieval Italy, both in politics and religion. There were the Fraticelli, the radical followers of Saint Francis who preached a very radical form of egalitarianism that rejected the hierarchies of both feudalism and the emerging capitalist economy. They were radical even by our standards calling for redistribution of wealth and resources.
There was the very radical thinking of Joachim del Fiore who anticipated so much Reformation thought by 2 centuries. He was an apocalyptic visionary who rejected all hierarchies, including those of the Church.


June Butler said...

Thanks for another Florence history lesson, Doug. The picture makes me want to rush back there.

gary said...

nice blog, really helpful for my history work thanks