- Principal city of the Italian region of Tuscany, located on the Arno River. Although other cities of northern and central Italy also played an important role in the development of Renaissance culture, Florence was the most creative center for the humanistic learning and artistic styles that constitute the principal features of the Italian Renaissance. During the wars between popes and emperors in the 12th and 13th centuries, most citizens favored the Guelf (pro-papal) cause against the Ghibelline (pro-imperial) cause. By the 12th century, Florence had become a self-governing commune, with its own elected magistrates. Lacking access to the sea, Florence remained rather small in the early 13th century, but it grew rapidly in the later 13th and early 14th centuries, attaining a population estimated at about 120,000 on the eve of the Black Death, which devastated the city in 1348. By 1427 Florence seems to have declined to a mere 40,000 inhabitants; and it did not regain its pre-plague population until the 19th century.The city's power and wealth rested primarily on commerce and industry. The production of high-quality woolen and silk textiles and the development of trading and banking firms that bought and sold goods throughout Europe were the foundation of its prosperity. Economic and political life was dominated by guilds of wealthy merchants and industrialists. The city had 21 recognized guilds; seven of these ranked as greater guilds (arti maggiori) and consisted of professional men or wealthy merchants and bankers. The other 14 guilds, officially classed as the lesser guilds (arti minori), were made up of shopkeepers and skilled artisans. The right to an active role in politics was restricted to members of the guilds, and for nearly all of the Renaissance period, the seven greater guilds held a majority of positions on the councils that governed the city. Perhaps 15 percent of the total population, and a considerably higher proportion of adult male guild members, were eligible to hold public office.The fact that such an unusually large proportion of the population had some chance of exercising political office may explain why Florence, unlike almost every other Italian commune except Venice, retained its republican institutions until its republican constitution was replaced by a duchy imposed by foreign troops in 1532. Excluded from guild membership and hence from politics were inhabitants who did not own businesses or property and supported themselves by working as unskilled laborers. In the 13th century, the guilds still had to share power with a nobility (the grandi) whose high social and political rank was based on ownership of landed estates. These nobles, many of whom were Ghibellines, maintained fortified houses and bands of armed retainers, and were notorious for using violence against their social inferiors. The guildsmen's struggle to uphold the city's de facto independence against the Ghibellines was linked to their desire to compel the grandi to obey the laws like other citizens.The middle decades of the 13th century were a violent and unstable period, since both Guelfs and Ghibellines, aided by outside military forces, enjoyed periods of political dominance. In 1267 the Guelfs permanently gained control of the city. They made the Guelf party the only legal political party; they made it a crime for anyone whom the Guelf party declared to be a Ghibelline to hold public office; and they passed laws imposing heavier penalties on nobles who committed crimes of violence than on ordinary citizens. By 1293 the guilds had worked out a series of laws, the Ordinances of Justice, which remained the basis of the republican constitution until the republic itself was suppressed by force in 1532. This republican system put effective control of the government into the hands of the seven wealthy guilds behind a façade of participatory republicanism, while preserving a limited voice for the 14 lesser (but much more populous) guilds. The central institution of government was the Signaría, a council that was chosen not by election (which the Florentines regarded as an aristocratic practice) but by drawing lots. The membership of the new Signaria was determined by drawing names until the eight district members (the priori) and one atlarge member (the ganfalaniere della giustizia) were selected. The term of office was brief, only two months, and at the next drawing, current members and their close kin were ineligible. Since six groups of nine citizens were selected each year, a large number of male citizens would serve at least once in a lifetime on the Signaria.At most periods, some system was used to ensure that more than half of the Signaria came from the seven greater guilds—that is, from the wealthy classes. Various advisory committees and boards advised the Signaria, and there were other boards that dealt with executive matters like military preparations and internal security. Continuity was promoted by a staff of civil servants headed by the chancellor of the republic, a position that from the late 14th century usually was awarded to a distinguished humanist. Special boards (balle) were set up whenever need arose—for the administration of a war, for example, or development of a new system of taxation. In very extraordinary circumstances, the Signaria might authorize the calling of a parlamenta or assembly of all citizens (that is, all guild members) which could set up new balle, change or suspend laws, decree the arrest of dangerous persons, or take other actions it deemed necessary. Such assemblies were often prearranged by a group who wanted to seize power and give their actions an aura of legality.On three occasions, most notably in 1343, wealthy conspirators brought in a foreign mercenary captain and attempted to create a military dictatorship, yet the Florentines loved their republican constitution and on each occasion employed mob violence to thwart these conspiracies. Social tension caused by the mutual suspicions between rich and poor citizens was a constant threat to internal stability. After the failure of the attempt to set up a dictator in 1343, the lesser guilds demanded a change in the balance among the guilds so that their groups, which included far more citizens, would hold a majority on the Signaría. A severe economic depression at the same time weakened the wealthy classes, and for about 40 years Florence was somewhat more democratic than it had been previously or would be in the future.The unorganized workers in the textile industry (the Ciompi), afflicted by severe underemployment, agitated for a voice in government. In 1378 a rebellion of the Ciampi seized control of the city and forced the ruling groups to agree to organize two additional guilds in order to ensure some political representation of the poorer classes. The workers' reforms also required employers in the textile trades to guarantee at least a minimum quota of cloth production so that there would be jobs for the poor. These successful demands frightened the wealthier classes, who viewed them as an attack on private property, but the middle and lesser guilds were even more frightened than the rich by this bid for power by their social inferiors. Because of these fears, the lesser guilds relaxed their restrictions on the rich, and in 1382 a group of wealthy conspirators brought in a mercenary army, seized control of the city by force, suppressed riots by the Ciampi, and abolished the two new guilds of unskilled workers. Within a few years, the greater guilds also changed the laws that had guaranteed a majority on the Signaria to the lesser guilds. This marked the end of the period of democratizing reforms. From that time until the abolition of the republican constitution in 1532, the greater guilds once again controlled the Signaria and thereby also controlled the city government. The middle and lesser guilds were still guaranteed a minority voice, but the propertyless workers were completely excluded.After the coup of 1382, power increasingly fell into the hands of a faction of rich clans led by the Albizzi family. During the closing years of the 14th century and the first quarter of the 15th century, the success of this oligarchical regime in defending the city from the threat of conquest by the duke of Milan, Giangaleazzo Visconti, made their dominance tolerable. They also fulfilled a long-standing goal of Florentine foreign policy by conquering the seaport city of Pisa in 1406. But the arrogance of the Albizzi clan was resented, most bitterly of all by the other wealthy families (such as the Medici) who were effectively excluded from real power. A humiliating defeat in an unprovoked war intended to annex the independent city of Lucca in 1429-1433 shook the self-confidence of the rulers, and the Albizzi decided to make a pre-emptive political strike by arresting Cosimo de'Medici, head of one of the excluded mercantile families, who had come to be the focal point of hostility to them. He was accused of conspiracy, put on trial, and was fortunate to avoid a death sentence and to be sent into exile instead.The aristocracy since the 1380s had sustained its political control by devising ways of corrupting the selection of the new Signaría. In 1433 the Signaria holding office was favorable to the action against Cosimo. But despite the regime's ability to distort the drawing of the Signaria, it never had total control. Since each Signaria held office for only two months, the degree of Albizzi control varied from term to term. Exactly one year after the action against Cosimo, the lottery produced a new Signaria dominated by men who resented the Albizzi and disapproved of the attack on the Medici. This Signaria cancelled the sentence of exile, invited Cosimo to return home, and soon exiled the Albizzi.Cosimo now organized a new ruling faction of anti-Albizzi clans and devised new methods of reducing even further the chances that the lottery for the Signaria would bring his family's political rivals back into power. Although Cosimo himself held office only occasionally and carefully avoided the kind of public flaunting of political power that had stirred up resentment against the Albizzi, he manipulated the government from behind the scenes and remained the dominant political force until his death in 1464. The period of Medici dominance (1434-1494), which lasted through the lives of his son Piero and his grandson Lorenzo, was just as oligarchical as Albizzi rule. The Medici were more sensitive to public opinion, less greedy for the trappings and material advantages of political power, and far more successful in maintaining the fiction that the republican constitution was functioning as it had been designed to do. Under Piero and especially under Lorenzo, the family's control became more overt, and after an assassination attempt killed his brother and wounded him, Lorenzo introduced some constitutional changes to solidify Medici control. But the regime remained generally popular and survived until the combination of the French invasion of 1494 and the ineptitude of the new Medici leader, Piero di Lorenzo, produced a popular uprising that drove the Medici into exile.A twofold attempt to reform the govenment followed the expulsion of the Medici. The revolutionaries abolished a special executive council created by Lorenzo to consolidate his control, and there was pressure from the lesser guilds to end or reduce the dominance of the greater guilds. This reform movement received a peculiar twist because of the emergence of the eloquent revivalist preacher, Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar, who favored a popular government and sought to bring about not only political but also moral reform. For most of 1494-1498, he dominated politics though he held no public office. Unfortunately for himself, however, his pro-French foreign policy ran counter to the interests of the worldly Pope Alexander VI, who supported his internal opponents and eventally excommunicated him. His enemies were then able to accuse him of heresy and execute him.The wealthy classes now came forward with a more moderate reform policy, which kept power safely in their own hands but attempted to stabilize government by creating an executive authority stronger than the constantly-changing Signaría. While preserving the old system, they had their leader, a patrician named Piero Soderini, elected ganfalaniere della giustizia (head of the Signaria) for life. Soderini tried to make the government somewhat more equitable toward the non-aristocratic classes. He also pursued a pro-French foreign policy that sought to preserve the city's independence. But the defeat of a French army in 1512 made it possible for pro-Medici exiles to bring in Spanish and papal troops, overthrow Soderini's regime, and call the Medici back to power. During the years (1513-1521) when the papacy was held by Pope Leo X, a son of Lorenzo de'Medici, the ultimate authority in Florence was the pope. Medici control lasted until 1527, when local republicans took advantage of a war between another Medici pope, Clement VII, and the Emperor Charles V, and again sent the Medici into exile. But in 1529 Pope Clement restored friendly relations with the emperor. A Spanish army besieged Florence and in 1530 forced it to surrender.The Medici were restored to power by this foreign intervention. This time they decided to exercise their control openly and directly. In 1532 the pope's nephew Alessandro was declared head of state, and shortly afterwards, the republican constitution was abolished. Under Duke Cosimo I (1537-1574), Florence became the capital of the grand duchy of Tuscany, a mediumsized principality closely linked to Spain. It remained the center of an active literary, intellectual, and artistic life, but the center of late Italian Renaissance culture had shifted to papal Rome and to the last great republic left in Italy, Venice.The importance of Florence in the Renaissance is not primarily in its troubled political experience but in its brilliant cultural achieve-ments. From the period when Coluccio Salutati became chancellor of the republic down through the career of the later humanistic chancellor Leonardo Bruni and on into the period of Medici dominance, Florence became the liveliest center for the development of Renaissance humanism. Likewise, Florence was a major center for the artistic work of the first great painter associated with the coming Renaissance, Giotto, and in the generation of Filippo Brunelleschi, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Donatello, and Masaccio in the first half of the 15th century, the city was the principal center for the rise, spread, and maturation of early Renaissance art, culminating in the works of the great artists of the High Renaissance. Cultural historians have often speculated whether the exciting, unstable, and (by Italian standards) relatively popular form of government had any causal effect on the city's vibrant cultural life. Florentines themselves, especially from the time of Niccolô Machiavelli, believed that their own political "liberty" was the major cause of their city's greatness.
Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. Charles G. Nauert. 2004.