Old And Sold Antiques Auction & Marketplace
Antiques Digest Browse Auctions Appraisal Home

Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Florence - History Of A City

( Originally Published 1913 )



Florence is an inland city, surrounded by hills, lying in the valley of the Arno. Tuscany, the province in which it lies, was the old home of the Etruscans, and was earlier known as Etruria. It has been recently suggested that the people of Florence may have inherited some of their artistic skill from the early inhabitants of this region, but that is a theory which it would be difficult to substantiate now.

It appears that on the site of the present Florence there was once an Etruscan trading post, known by the name of Campo Martis. This may have later been destroyed, for there are evidences that the Romans rebuilt this town not earlier than 200 J3. c. By 15 A. D. it had grown to sufficient importance to take some share in affairs.

The origin of the name Florence is uncertain. For years the legend has been perpetuated that it came from flores liliorum-due to the profusion of lilies which grew in the sur rounding meadows. However, it is more reasonable to assume that Florentia-as it was long called-came from Fluentia-a name given because of the junction of the Arno and the Mugnone at this point.

Few facts survive concerning Florence prior to 1000 n. n. Since the town lay on the direct route to Rome as one approached from the north, it gradually grew in size and im portance. From early times the people of Florence were torn by internal troubles. These increased in intensity and bitterness as years went by.

Matilda, Countess of Tuscany, ruled the city from 1076 to 1115. She was a staunch supporter of the Pope, and in the investiture struggle rendered material assistance to the papal cause.

We know that Fiesole was conquered and added to Florentine territory in 1125. Ten years later, a republic was practically established. The conditions obtaining under the rule of the Countess Matilda were such as to foster a spirit of independence; another great school for developing administrative ability was to be found in the trade guilds. Since these guilds were intimately bound up with the history of Florence, we may do well to touch upon them briefly.

The Arti Maggiori, or the Greater Guilds, comprised seven of the most influential and wealthy trades and crafts: the Guild of judges and Notaries; Dressers and Dyers of Foreign Cloth; Cloth Manufacturers; Silk Manufacturers; Bankers and Money Changers; Doctors and Druggists; and Furriers. At the head of these stood the Calimala, or Dressers and Dyers of Foreign Cloth. They were known as the Calimala from the street in which their shops were located. Their origin is especially interesting and indicates how skillful were the workmen of this time.

"The manufacture of woolen stuffs had been carried on in Italy from an early date, but the Tuscan hillsides being more suitable for vineyards and olive groves than pasture, the sup ply of home wool was unequal to the demand. To supplement the deficiency the enterprising Florentine merchants brought large quantities of cloth from foreign countries, especially from France, Flanders, Holland, and England. But these purchased goods were coarse and ill-finished, and neither in make nor colour did they satisfy the refined Florentine taste. Accordingly workshops were established in which they were carded, shaved, milled, pressed, and dyed afresh, and as the wool of which they were made was finer than any that Italy could produce, when thus finished they were superior to homemade materials. This was the nature of the work done by the members of the great Calimala guild. And to such a pitch of perfection did they carry the art of `finishing', that cloth bearing the Calimala trade-mark commanded a high price all over Europe, and was often sold at a profit in the country where it had been made. They were also noted for their skill as dyers, and among their finest products was the crimson cloth of which the lucco (a hooded cloak worn by Florentine magistrates and legislators), was made. . . . The Calimala guild required a label to be placed on every piece of cloth put on the market, on which its exact measurement and any imperf ections had to be specified."

These guilds elected officers bi-annually, and to these was given considerable responsibility in supervising matters of trade. They also caused the enactment of statutes relative to protection of their guild.

The Arti Minori finally comprised fourteen guilds: Mercers and Linen-drapers; Butchers; Shoemakers; Master Masons and Carpenters; Blacksmiths; Ironmongers; Tanners; Oil-merchants; Locksmiths; Armourers; Saddlers; Innkeepers; Wine-merchants, and Bakers. These gained gradually the political importance which they originally lacked.

The trade guilds not only possessed representative government, but they had each its standard and arms for its members, so each could muster a sort of militia. No understand ing of the history of Florence would be possible without taking the history of these guilds, their achievements and strifes, into account.

The Florentines early gave indication of their independent spirit. Both Pope and Emperor claimed over-lordship, but their claims were rarely substantiated. We find the haughty citizens refusing to receive messengers from the Emperor, saying: "The Emperor is nothing to us!" We also find them ignoring the counsel of the Pope unless it coincided with the wishes of the majority. Two political parties, the Guelfs and the Ghibillines, came into existence here, as elsewhere in Italy.

As has previously been explained, the Guelfs were long the supporters of the Pope against the Emperor; the Ghibillines, the imperial adherents. However, the time came when the Pope entered into alliance with the Ghibillines against the Guelf s.

In early years the feudal lords and their followers espoused the cause of the Ghibillines, and fierce was the struggle between the two parties within the city. Now one side tri umphed; now the other. Street brawls were too ordinary to excite comment; men were killed and injured constantly. Houses were invaded and the inmates slain. One who writes of the conditions says: "Men who lived through these times used to tell how at every hour of the night and day life was equally insecure; how it was doubtful whether it were more necessary to guard your door or your windows and roof; how every man suspected an enemy to be hidden behind the curtains of his bed or even in it."

While there were plenty of exceptions, the people's party, or the Guelfs, gradually gained ground. They forced the feudal lords out of the city into strongholds in the hills and moun tains. To offset the guilds the nobles had their Societies of Towers. Nevertheless, citizenship was finally conditional upon membership in one or another of the guilds-which the feudal lords were compelled to join if they would share in municipal affairs. We may judge of the triumph of the Guelfs when in 1293 A. D. we find Giano della Bella bringing forward the famous Ordinances of Justice. These provided that one must practise the trade or craft to which he belonged. Not only did this exclude the nobles from office, but certain restrictions were placed upon them: for example, in times of disorder they were obliged to remain at home on pain of being exiled.

By 1323 the organization of the government was well defined. The constitution provided for a pure democracy; how ever, the wealthy usually exercised great influence. The Signory stood at the head of the government: it was a kind of superior council made up of a Gonfalonier of justice and six priors. The Signory had chief control of affairs and the right of initiating legislation. There was also a body made up of twelve members which constituted a privy council to the Signory. A Podesta was added, he being an executive officer chosen for one year, from some outside state. The Florentines regarded it necessary to have a foreigner in their midst to mediate between conflicting elements. Broils and riots continued until 1346, after which time they were less frequent and sometimes for years together peace was maintained in the city.

Two calamities shortly overtook Florence. The first was the famine caused by the total failure of a harvest. Prices rose above the possibilities of the majority. The municipal authorities set to work to relieve the extreme need; public ovens were provided, and men worked day and night to provide bread, which was sold at a nominal price. Quite a considerable debt was contracted.

We are told that 90,000 people were helped by the city before normal conditions returned. Two years later the Great Plague was brought into Italy from the East. Florence again was stricken. There were not enough living to bury the dead, and the sick had none to care for them. When the terrible scourge at last abated, three-fifths of the population had been wiped out. Yet it is marvelous to find how quickly the city recovered herself, and how soon she was once more warring with her neighbors.

Reference has already been made to the Condottieri system which grew up in Italy, replacing the earlier militia service. There were several reasons for this. In mediaeval times the feudal lords constituted the important part of the army. Then, as always, the rank and file were essential in winning victories, yet the knights took the lead, and the result depended largely upon their numbers and courage. During the protracted struggles between nobles and the people, the number of the feudal lords had been greatly reduced. They were not only forced to seek protection in their mountain castles, but often their property was confiscated and used to reimburse the Guelfs for losses they sustained when the nobles were in the aseendency.

Again, the Emperor not infrequently made incursions into Italy with the intention of reducing various portions of the peninsula to submission, or perhaps to replenish his empty treasury. It was not uncommon for detachments of his army to desert to the enemy, or to fall away from his command. Adventurers found it not a difficult matter to gather around them men who loved fighting for its own sake-men whose trade was war. They were in frequent demand, for men much preferred to pay soldiers to fight for them than to leave their own business and go to war. The system was accompanied with many evils. These bands were mere companies of plunderers in time of peace. Cities paid them large prices rather than have them swoop down upon their lands for support. Naturally when a large number of men whose trade was war existed in a country - foreigners, with no patriotism whatever - they did what they could to induce others to make war. One year a company would be fighting in the service of the Pope; the following year might find the same soldiers aiding the Emperor. One year they might serve one duke, the following, his enemy.

Since a condottiere's wealth consisted of his soldiers, he wished to keep them from being killed. Moreover, it was more advantageous to take prisoners and hold them for ran som than to kill them. The result of this was that "bloodless battles" became the order of the day. The battles were mere shams. Only a dozen men might be killed during a long engagement.

There could be little loyalty expected of soldiers such as these, yet there were certain codes to which even they were expected to conform. They were not supposed to desert upon the eve of battle nor to stop in the midst of battle to demand their pay; yet both were done occasionally. They developed war tactics; many modern methods of fighting originated with the condottieri. Each town or province that needed their help was glad to hurry them away as soon as possible. Florence, like her neighbors, found occasional need of them; sometimes, too, we find sums paid them to remain away from her territory.

From earliest times the Florentines had been jealous of Pisa-a seaport that shut Florence off from maritime trade. It is evident as we follow her beginnings that she would never rest until Pisa was subdued. This was brought about in 1406. It was largely due to an excellent banking system that Florence became powerful in Italy. Our present system of banking can be traced back to mediaeval Florence. Not only were there plenty of exchanges in Florence itself, but wherever her commerce led, there agencies were established. To avoid transmission of specie, local clearing-houses were maintained. The Florentines were the papal bankers, and owing to their honesty and integrity, families like the Bardi, Pitti and Medici held places corresponding to that held today by the Rothschilds. Dukes borrowed of them, kings obtained large loans, and from their position as heavy money loaners, banking families of Florence grew into world importance.

In connection with the matter of finance, it is interesting to note that Florence was the first commonwealth to incur a national debt. Finding themselves heavily involved, her citizens funded their several debts into one bearing interest at 5 per cent, secured on the revenue, salable above or below par, according to the credit of the state.

In 1420 Giovanni de Medici was elected Gonfalonier-not without strong opposition, however. The Medici family had long been bankers and were already wealthy. They had been steadfastly prevented from becoming office-holders, for Florentines justly felt that it was a dangerous practice to allow rich men to gain great political power. Giovanni held to a very conservative policy. He uniformly refused to take advantage of his position and shortly gained the confidence of all. Holding himself strictly to the letter of the law, he refused office after office, and discharged such duties as were put upon him in a most becoming manner. Those who always see in the Medici men whose sole thought was the promotion of personal interest interpret this very policy of Giovanni as the acme of shrewd statesmanship. It was not so regarded by his contemporaries. They found Giovanni de Medici a conservative man whose charity was proverbial, who refused to use his wealth as a stepping-stone to political aggrandizement, and who, when he died, was mourned by all.

Tradition says that as he lay dying he gave his sons his parting admonition, which had they followed, Florence would have fared better. Historians today differ as to their accept ance of the story, but Machiavelli preserved it in this fashion: "Nothing makes my death so easy and quiet to me as the thought that I have been so far from injuring or disobliging any person that I have done them all the good offices I was able. The same course I recommend to you. For matters of office and government, if you would live happy and secure, my advice is that you only accept what the laws and the people confer upon you: that will create you neither envy nor danger; for, 'tis not what is given that makes men odious, but what is usurped, and you will always find a greater number of those who, encroaching upon other people's interests, ruin their own at last, and in the meantime live in perpetual disquiet. By these arts, among so many factions and enemies,

I have not only preserved, but augmented my reputation ih the city. If you follow my example you may maintain and increase yours. But if neither my example nor persuasion can keep you from other ways your ends will be no happier than several others who in my memory have destroyed both themselves and their families."

The conservative policy of this first great Medici was by no means adhered to by his successors. Cosimo at once filled the place left vacant by his father's death. He proved in the long run more ambitious and less cautious. Political treachery soon led to his temporary imprisonment and exile. Much of the period of exile was spent in Venice, where he lived like a foreign prince. Reverses of fortune, so frequent in Florence, made possible his recall, after which he remained at the head of affairs in his native city throughout his life.

While Giovanni de Medici had not opposed the new learning and had given his sons every advantage, nevertheless he belonged to the age just passing away and was not himself im bued with the spirit of the Renaissance. His son Cosimo was keenly alive to all the various phases of the Revival. No scholar appealed to him in vain for aid to carry on his studies; artists were encouraged and their paintings eagerly bought; libraries were founded and to a great extent the Medici wealth was lavished in beautifying Florence and bringing cultural advantages to her citizens.

Giovanni's other son, Lorenzo, died early. The great banking system built up by the steady industry and prudent investments of this family, together with its accompanying responsibilities, fell to Cosimo's son, Piero-nicknamed the Gouty. Poor health allowed him to hold his position but a few years, and small popular favor attended him. His pride was in his son Lorenzo, often called the Magnificent. Even Cosimo had been comforted and gratified by the promise of his grandson, whose versatile qualities early manifested themselves. At the age of sixteen he was ready for diplomatic service, and was sent on several embassies to neighboring cities. Gifted to a remarkable degree, Lorenzo commanded wide popularity throughout his life. Writer, poet, keenly appreciative of the artistic, generous and open-handed, he encouraged learning and lent a strong influence in the cause of Renaissance movements.

Because of the financial power of the Medici family, holding as they did kings and kingdoms under obligation, Lorenzo was able to muster sufficient strength to direct public affairs in Florence and to wield wide influence outside his small but important state. The forms of the republic were preserved, but the democratic spirit was all but gone.

Two opposing attitudes have been taken by modern historians who have written concerning the life of Lorenzo de Medici and his times: some have seen in him only the despot who robbed the people of their rights and Florence of her liberty. Others have been lost in admiration of the man and the far-sighted plans of his family and have passed over the relative position held by Lorenzo, in beholding a family of merchants who by prudent investments were able at last to control the state and intermarry with many of the nobles of neighboring courts.

There is much to be said in support of the idea that at this time Florence had reached a stage of development when a one-man rule was bound to come, and if so, fortunate it was for that city if the one in power was possessed of sufficient mental grasp and divining qualities to understand the controlling forces of his generation and to use his influence for the furtherance of learning-then at its height.

During Lorenzo's life the forms of the republic were preserved. After his death his weak son betrayed the city to the foreigner, incurring the just hatred of his fellow-townsmen. For several generations the Medici continued in power and the republic ceased to exist even in the semblance of former days.



Bookmark and Share