Florence: A city of warriors and merchants

“The Army of Florence 1260”

Between the eleventh and twelfth centuries Florence was still a relatively modest centre compared with others in Tuscany. Although it was already clear that she was overtaking Arezzo, Volterra and other cities that were more illustrious in point of age, she was still decidedly inferior in point of population size, wealth and power to Lucca and Pisa, which also preceded her in acquiring free local government systems. Even nearby Pistoia and Prato still looked to the important centres of western Tuscany rather than to Florence; and the fact that the Via Francigena continued to bye-pass her was a disadvantage that had still not been overcome. The great Florentine buildings of the time – from the baptistery to the San Miniato monastery – with their strong, serene Romanesque lines and their characteristic combination of white and green marble, rendered homage to the aesthetics and technology of Pisa and Lucca.

Manufacture and commerce did not rise much above subsistence level; they did little more than satisfy the financial needs of the city, though there was a sign or two of coming opulence on the horizon, reflected in the beautiful religious buildings and perhaps supported by the aristocratic life of the families clustering round the House of Canossa and the Episcopal administration. Land was still the real backbone of Florentine wealth, in spite of the fact that the terrain was rough, hilly and here and there marshy and produced little in the way of cereal crops, though it did yield wine and olive oil (not highly esteemed for the table at that date).

Like the other cities of the Italian proto-Communal world, twelfth-century Florence set out to conquer the county, subdue the castles of the surrounding territories and gain ascendancy over the land-owning families and knights who dominated the territory from their strongholds. In the space of two years, between 1113 and 1115, the Cadolingi family, who controlled Valdarno to the west of Florence, petered out and the Countess Matilda died. Ten years after Matilda’s death the Emperor Henry V also died, and there followed a long interregnum. Together these events facilitated Florentine opposition to the power of the feudal landowners who were among the supporters of the Emperor and of the Marquesses of Lorraine. They also made it comparatively easy for Florence to impose her will on smaller towns and cities.

It is symptomatic that in those decades one is much less conscious of the Florentine people than of their army. In 1125 the city expressed its unity for the first time in a firm collective action, the capture and destruction of Fiesole. Only the cathedral was spared, but the Bishop of Fiesole was forced to take up residence within the city boundaries of Florence. In the same way, as the castles were conquered and destroyed, the knightly families that owned them were obliged to become townspeople and live, for at least some months of the year, within what Dante called “the ancient circle”.

Many ironical comments have been made on Dante’s nostalgic memories of the Florence of that time, all sobriety and modesty. It is said that that sobriety was chiefly abject poverty, and that modesty first and foremost coarseness. Furthermore, it is asserted that the reactionary and factious Alighieri pretended to forget (and perhaps really was not entirely aware) that the Florence of that time “lived in peace” only up to a certain point. Towards the end of the twelfth century the city dominated the whole of the middle part of Valdarno, from Figline to Empoli, and had by now entered several times into direct conflict, or at least into some sort of close political relations, with the surrounding cities: Arezzo, Pistoia, Pisa and Siena. Among the powerful feudal lords who lived between the county of Florence and the counties of those other cities, only the Alberti to the north and west and the Guidi above all to the east could oppose her. But her ruling class contained families who came from the surrounding county and were proud of their warrior traditions; they had carried into the city streets the impregnable military buildings dedicated to their defence – the case-torri (house-towers, the towers that were dwellings as well as defence works) – and the custom of violence and feuding, that is, revenge.

By this time the Florentine county enjoyed peace and security, for the most part, because those who had once ruled it had not abandoned their possessions when they went to live in the city, but had seen that living together under the city’s colours gave them a new collective strength.

This being so, trade was able to prosper: the easy river passage between Florence and Pisa – which between the towns of Fucecchio and San Miniato allowed a connection with the Via Francigena – was an excellent link with the outside world. A closely knit organisation of merchants, a “Guild”, is on record as early as 1182. The budding Commune entrusted the maintenance of the beautiful great buildings such as the baptistery and the church of San Miniato, which were by now the very symbols of the city, to the merchants, although it did not allow them to take part in politics. Wide-ranging Florentine merchants bought cloth from Flanders and France, and precious dyes and alum from the Levant; they then had the cloth dyed in their workshops, so that they could re-export it at a heavily marked-up price. They combined commerce and manufacture with money-lending. This was risky, for they might at any time have been accused of usury by the Church, but it yielded a handsome and immediate profit. Trade, banking activities and the search for raw materials obliged the Florentines not only to travel continually but also to gather, assess and sort out information relating to the political and economic situation of various countries. In the twelfth century this was easy enough in ports, such as Pisa, Venice and Genoa; it was not usual, however, in inland cities, with the possible exception of Milan; so Florence was ahead of her time in enjoying this advantage.

But within the “ancient circle” the political climate was anything but peaceful. The institutions of the Commune were to take off not long after the deaths of Matilda and the Emperor Henry V, and hence to profit by the power vacuum they had left: the first verifiable piece of information about the existence of two consuls, however, goes back to 1138. Later the college of consuls increased to twelve; they took it in turns to rule, two at a time, and changed every two months, so that the whole year was covered. They were supported by a council of a hundred to a hundred and fifty boni homines (good men) and, four times a year, by a “parliament”, an assembly of all the citizens of Florence. We do not know for certain what were the qualifications for taking part in the assembly, nor how it was conducted. Its function seems to have been to ratify the decisions made by the consuls and council; but what we know of the citizenry at that time, and of how any regime based on assemblies works, leads us to believe that it was the great families and their armed retainers who led the Commune.

The importation of stuffs and dyes, and the processing of textiles, admitted Florence to the trade circuits of Europe and the Mediterranean, but her trade nevertheless was dependent on access to ports, enabling her to receive raw materials and other goods and send out her finished products to foreign markets. As road transport was difficult, the Arno and therefore the port of Pisa were of the first importance to Florentines.

When, round about 1171, Pisa, in difficulty with Genoa and the Emperor, asked for help, Florence did not miss her opportunity: she did give military assistance – which cost her a long war against Lucca and Siena, who had allied themselves to the other side – but it was in exchange for substantial recompense in the shape of a share in the profits of the Pisan mint (and from that time the silver currency of Pisa became the Florentine currency too), the concession of favourable conditions for the transport of goods and of Florentine merchants on Pisan ships and for the payment of tolls in Pisan territory, and the availability of anchorage to Florentine merchandise in that prestigious port

The city’s wealth increased in every direction; and so did the population, because the prospect of making money in the city attracted people from the rest of the county. They were not so much “fugitive servants”, as has so often been said, as a robust class of property owners, people with solid assets, who, arriving in the city without, however, cutting themselves off from their roots, reinforced the domination of Florence over the surrounding country. It was guaranteed as much by the social participation of the milites turned city-dwellers as by their arms and castles. But the city was by now completely filled with stone, brick and wooden buildings.

The free spaces characteristic of urban centres in the late middle ages were used as orchards or even as small pastures, but by now they had disappeared under the welter of feverish building rendered necessary by circumstances. Newcomers settled along the roads which radiated from the gates towards the country, usually choosing to live where they could look out towards the places they came from. That was how the borghi (villages or suburbs) came into being, back to back with the “ancient circle”, while a substantial residential nucleus grew up on the left bank of the Arno. Emporiums and workshops, but also the case-torri of notable families, had been built outside the walls, and it may be presumed that altogether the population was about 25,000. The threat of the Emperor Federico Barbarossa induced the Florentines to provide themselves hastily with new defences, for the most part wooden stockades, which enclosed the borghi too. The Emperor was determined to contain the independent cities and subdue if not crush them; moreover, there was tension between him and Florence’s ally, Pisa, so her fears were not unfounded. The enormous task of bringing the borghi into the shelter of the city walls took from 1172 to 1175. They formed irregular triangles which had as a base the sides of the Roman perimeter walls. The new walls that included them maintained a shape that was very roughly quadrangular, but changed its orientation by about 45 degrees.

The city now had as its eastern limit the present-day Via de’ Fossi (the course of the River Mugnone had recently been moved eastward) and the Trebbio gate was north of the present-day Piazza di San Lorenzo. There the walls curved towards the west, more or less to where the Arch of San Piero (all that is left of that part of the walls) now is. Turning south, they then reached the river again, after having encircled the entire area corresponding to the Roman amphitheatre, an area which previously lay outside the city limits. Later, in the early thirteenth century, three new bridges were built to connect the right bank of the Arno, where the city arose, with the left bank – that is, with the busy, turbulent, populous Oltrarno which from the “Roman Gate” (as they then called what was later called Porta San Nicolò) extended as far as today’s Porta Romana (known then as the “Porta di San Pietro in Gattolino”) and Porta San Frediano. The road to Pisa started at that gate, running along beside the river. When the construction of the new defensive walls was complete, the area of the city, which in Roman times was 24 hectares, had risen to 75.

But with the enlargement and enrichment of the city came the loss of the peace, sobriety and modesty lamented by Dante. Things were not really as bad as he made out. The point is that the differentiation of the social and financial status of the citizens, the increased volume of trade and consequently the ever more quickly whirling circulation of wealth, the influx of aristocratic families and members of an upstanding middle class from the country had produced – with the growth of the city’s dimensions – a considerable divarication and complication of social and political life. The appearance of consuls, from 1138, marks, among other things, the first definite proof that by then Florence had started on the road to city government. She was de facto independent, even if de iure subject to the sovereignty of the Roman-Germanic Empire, which had, however, since the death of Matilda, lacked the most important intermediate public institution, the marquisate of Tuscany. The consular type of government is always the product of a collective wish to rule on the part of a more or less extended group of aristocratic families who combine the practice of arms and the possession of land with a certain entrepreneurial bent for trade, which includes an ability to make use of connections with non-aristocratic entrepreneurs. The other side of the coin is the objective difficulty of collective government, and therefore a continual tension that bursts out from time to time in episodes of violence. Florence became a continual battlefield as a result of the use of arms, the existence in the city of belligerent buildings (the case-torri) inspired by the families’ warlike past in the country, and the privilege of the right to carry on feuds, which set off a spiral of revenge until the entire ruling class was involved. What was at stake was power, and more immediately the mastery of one family by another. Family groups got together in actual “associations” (the statutes of some of them have survived) based on marriage, business dealings, friendship and neighbourhood. The neighbourhood concerned would be fortified by means of such connections between buildings as wooden galleries or passages which could be used or taken down at need.

The towers that crowned these fortifications could be as much as 130 “arms” (that is, 75 metres) in height. By the middle of the thirteenth century, Florence contained more than 150 of them. Little wonder that the family associations were called “tower societies”. It is said that the impression Florence made then, with her centre surrounded by walls, must have been like the impression Manhattan makes today; but while that is true as far as the look of it is concerned, it must not be forgotten that that way of planning and building the city indicated above all that living there was like living in a fortress where the enemy was not outside by within.

Before long Florence’s links with the rest of Italy and with the European and Mediterranean world ensured that the struggle between rival family groups became connected with wider reasons for conflict. The incursions of Federico Barbarossa and his allies into Italy in the third quarter of the century provoked various different reactions. The Florentine reaction, by and large (meaning that of the Florentine consular class), was to maintain a cautious line where Imperial policy was concerned, but in many episodes this caution turned into hostility. The Florentines had always shown unquestionable loyalty and formal respect towards the Holy Roman Empire, and would continue to do so until the end of the eighteenth century, but it was indeed a formal respect, a fictio iuris which, even though it had a high spiritual and cultural value and a deep juridical significance, meant little in the field of political decisions, which were determined rather by the complex network of alliances.

Moreover, since the direction of political decisions was determined by the group of family alliances that controlled the college of consuls, putting its members turn and turn about at the head of government, it was clear that the other groups, who felt excluded from it, aimed to get into it or to destroy its means of retaining power. Between 1177 and 1179 the precarious equilibrium of consular government was violently destroyed by a rebellion led by the powerful Uberti family, which from then on was accused of being seditious and enjoying the divisive support of the Empire, in the name of which it had rebelled.

In Florence, as elsewhere, the struggles between the Papacy and the Empire served as alibis to mask the internal struggles for power or to claim loftier and nobler motives for them. As time went on, however, these supposed motives acquired, in the partisan ardour of the conflict, a fascination and a fame destined to last and to have some effect on the practical plane.

The consular regime soon showed itself to be incapable of absorbing and containing these factious disturbances. Between 1193 and 1197 a new rebellion, provoked as before by the Uberti family, led, with the approval of the Emperor Henry VI, to its abolition. This time the Uberti had the support of many representatives of the merchant and craftsman classes, who had no reason to side with the consular establishment, having always been debarred by them from any form of participation in city government. However, in practice the abolition of the consular system simply meant the substitution of one group of family alliances for another as rulers of the city; there was no real difference between the two, as to social composition, outlook or way of life. The consular system was re-established in 1197, once Henry VI was dead, but by then it was clear that the government of the city must be redefined on some new and different basis if it was to have greater stability.

Between 1197 and 1203 the Florentines embarked on an energetic series of actions aimed at consolidating the city’s power over the county, especially in the south-west part of it, towards Valdelsa and the lower Valdarno; they were the key parts of the central Tuscan communication system, which included the Via Francigena and the River Arno. Meanwhile, consular government gave way to the system that depended on a podestà, the head of the Commune. The power which we would today call executive was in the hands of a single magistrate, who had, moreover, to be a foreigner because that seemed to offer a better chance of his being above factional rivalries. He had to be of the knightly class and to possess the qualities of a good leader in war. In his work as governor he was supported by a small council, which meant that the principle of the aristocratic college of consuls had been re-introduced into the new system. However, there was a second and larger council, whose members included the heads of the professional associations or guilds. (The Florentines called them le Arti.) From the fact that the podestà had to be a knight and possess both military ability and knowledge of the law (which could be acquired at the University of Bologna, attended by the sons of the great aristocratic families) it was clear that he had to belong to some noble house. The first podestà of Florence of whom we know anything was Gualfredotto da Milano, in 1207.

In the meantime something of the first importance happened: the social classes made up of shopkeepers and manufacturers, who in the traditions of the city were to become known as the (people), made their appearance on the scene. Ever since 1182 the merchants, excluded from sharing the consular power which was the monopoly of the aristocratic families, had founded a professional association on the model of the aristocratic groups. This was the origin of the body which was known as the Arte di Calimala (Guild of Calimala) because they had most of their shops in the “calle maia” (the widest street), which was based on the Roman cardo maximus. In the first twenty years of the thirteenth century other guilds had been formed: that of the bankers, the wool merchants, silk merchants (theirs went by the name of Por Santa Maria (St Mary’s Gate), after the area in which most of the silk workers lived), and others too. All this conveys an impression of the vitality of the Florence of that time, and of the specialised sectors into which her economy was divided. That was a phase in which a sense of civic duty was splendidly fulfilled: the work to be done around San Miniato, the baptistery, the cathedral of Santa Reparata, the churches of San Pier Scheraggio and the Santi Apostoli were completed or at least substantially advanced. The decorative façades in bands of white marble from Lucca and green marble from Prato linked the aesthetic sense and taste of the Florentines with those of Pistoia and Prato and, through them, of Lucca and Pisa; but there is much in the detail and ornamentation of these churches to remind us that Florentine art bore, from the beginning, the imprint of the classical world, which was to continue and bear splendid fruit in future centuries. The mosaic facing of the baptistery interior, begun in 1228, sets a seal on the first of those great periods, so radiant with marvellous achievements, that made Florence into a city of art without parallel in the world.

But the entry of the “people” into the public and political life of the city, though not yet into participation in government, had done nothing to lessen the violence of the clashes between different factions of the dominant class. Usually, when something succeeded in briefly breaking the spiral of revenge which spread death and bitterness among the various family groups, there was a return to the old system of sealing new alliances with marriages, either to reinforce old bonds that had been broken or to create new ones. In 1216, during a wedding feast, a riot broke out between the members of two great families, the Buondelmonti and the Fifanti. To put an end to the incident, in which people had been hurt, the powerful Uberti offered to act as mediators. A Buondelmonti was to have married a daughter of the House of Amidei, allies of the family which he had injured in the course of the riot. Peace was made. However, his double-dealing or indecision led to more violence: after accepting the terms of reconciliation, he succumbed to flattery on the part of another great family, the Donati, and accepted their offer of one of their women as his wife, thereby setting off the inexorable sequence of revenge. The outraged Amidei, with their allies the Uberti and Lamberti, organised an ambush on the morning of Easter Day 1216, the very day on which the Buondelmonti-Donati marriage was to have taken place. Buondelmonti fell, arrayed like a sacrificial victim in his festive clothes and crown of flowers, at the foot of the ancient “statue of Mars”, the pagan palladium of Florence, erected near the Ponte Vecchio. From then on, the old enmities were polarised and rationalised in two files: on one side the Uberti, the Lamberti and the Amidei, whose houses were all in the area in the centre of the city around the church of Santo Stefano in Ponte, between Ponte Vecchio and today’s Piazza Signoria, and on the other side the Buondelmonti, the Pazzi and the Donati, whose area lay between the present-day Via del Corso and Porta San Piero.

The warlike Ubertis raised this bipartite vendetta to a higher plane, linking it to the loftiest level of authority. Their loyalty to the Empire, which had shortly before returned to the House of Swabia, gave them the battle-cry Weiblingen! (from the name of one of the Swabia castles), and this led to their being called the “Ghibelline” party. Members of the opposing alliance were called the “Guelphs”; this was supposed to mean partisans of the House of Welf, that is to say the Duchy of Bavaria and later of Saxony, traditionally rivals of the House of Swabia. But at that time the House of Saxony, when Otto IV of Braunschweig died, had no hope of competing for the imperial crown. The term “Guelph”, shorn of its original meaning, signified simply “anti-Ghibelline”, and, as time went on and relations between the Pope and the Emperors of the House of Swabia got worse and worse, it came to mean “supporters of the pontiff”.

For a long time the legend – dear to the Risorgimento and its romantic pseudo-history – continued that the Ghibelline party was composed of the nobles who were faithful to the Empire, reactionary and hostile to the liberty of the Commune, in the interests of a nostalgic plan to restore feudalism, while the Guelph faction were ranged – with the intelligent support of the Papal curia – on the side of all the good, honest and practical “bourgeois” entrepreneurs and manufacturers, who were tired of aristocratic privilege and feudal obstacles to the expansion of their activities. Unfortunately this legend persists in many school textbooks and works of popular history. Nothing could be further from the truth. Guelphs and Ghibellines originated as parties of the military nobility who derived the basis of their power, prestige and wealth from possession of case-torri in the city and land in the country, even if they did not disdain to take a hand in the trade and profits that could be extracted from them.

The “People”, that is to say the manufacturers and entrepreneurs together, united in the Guilds, did not participate directly in the struggle between Guelphs and Ghibellines, although during the thirteenth century they were always deeply involved in it. They were quite distinct from the humbler classes of workers, who were employed in the various kinds of workshops. (These were the have-nots, whose wages barely reached subsistence level, a level often only attained with the help of almshouses and Church charities.) One reason for the involvement of the “People” in the struggles of their betters was the fact that their upper echelons were ambitious to achieve something like an aristocratic life style and allied themselves with families that were more distinguished in birth but short of goods and, above all, money. To be short of money was a serious disadvantage at a time when the circulation of money had become more and more rapid, the use of coin more and more necessary, and a share in the commercial and banking sectors more and more profitable. Together, these two groups formed a new class which united the pride, luxury and refinement of aristocratic customs with economic power derived from commercial and banking activities.

To this new class contemporary historical sources attribute names to which it is difficult to make precise and substantial outlines correspond, but which are, all the same, very expressive and eloquent: “the powerful,” “the great people”, “magnates”. And terms like “greatness” and the verb grandeggiare (meaning both to tower or dominate and to put on airs) seem to have remained for a long time key words to describe not so much the elusive social and institutional substance of being “magnates” as the attitudes the magnates assumed, their way of behaving, of living, which was a mixture of warlike arrogance and chivalrous generosity, contempt for others and boasting, audacity and high-handedness.

But the Florentine dialect bears many signs of that tough period of life in the city, the era of the Commune, with its freedoms and its factions. Even today someone who does not have a clearly defined role in society, who does not have the energy to achieve a position and command respect, and who does not possess qualifications is said to have “né arte né parte” (to be good for nothing). Not being able to see yourself as part of some social or professional group, not having any party membership and therefor not having a direction to go in, an objective to aim for, is considered equal to having no part in the collective life of the city. Florentines have a name for the group and the faction within it: harking back to the terms which designated them in the past and have almost become archetypes in the collective memory, they call them l’Arte and la Parte.


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