Popólo Minuto / Popólo Grasso / Grandi

Popólo Minuto / Popólo Grasso / Grandi
   Terms used in the early Renaissance to describe the three principal classes in the ur-ban communes of northern and central Italy. During the 12th and 13th centuries, as imperial control declined and the cities struggled to assert their own independence, it was natural for the wealthiest inhabitants, those who were rich enough to fight in the cavalry, to assume political leadership. These rich citizens were either the leading merchants or the owners of feudal estates in the vicinity of the city, many of whom built fortified houses in the cities and used their armed retainers to enforce their will. These armed noblemen were variously called milites, nobili, magnati, or grandi. Although at first their political dominance was taken for granted, their armed retainers and their fortified urban palaces made them a source of disorder. The far more numerous non-noble citizens—the /?opolo—resented their arrogance and violence.
   In a sense, these were conflicts between rich and poor, but the sit-uation was complicated because nearly every city was also divided in complex ways between Guelfs and Ghibellines. Potentially, the rich-est non-nobles, called popolo grasso (literally, "fat people"), shared many interests with the grandi, but usually the grandi were unwilling to share power or to accept their own subordination to laws intended to create a peaceful and just civil society. Thus the united popolo, rich and poor together, in many cities combined to assert the supremacy of local law over the nobles. In specific terms, this meant suppression of their private armies and demolition of their fortified palaces. This goal was achieved largely by armed conflict, and during the second half of the 13th century, the united popolo in most places gained the upper hand and enacted legislation intended to break the power of the grandi and in particular to end forever their feeling of being above the law.
   In Florence, this victory of the popolo culminated in the definitive Florentine constitution, the Ordinances of Justice, adopted in 1293 and preserved (though often distorted) until the republic was abol-ished by Alessandro de'Medici in 1532. This constitution restricted voting and office-holding to members of the 21 officially recognized guilds—professional and commercial organizations ranging from rich industrial and mercantile groups like the bankers and woolen textile manufacturers to lower-middle-class associations of petty merchants and artisans. No person, no matter how rich, powerful, or nobly de-scended, had any citizen rights unless he was a member of one of the guilds. All members of any family that had even one single member who had been knighted during the past 20 years were legally declared to be grandi or magnati and were excluded from political rights. In ad-dition, since the magnates were blamed for frequent acts of violence, the criminal law established by the Ordinances explicitly discrimi-nated against the rich and well-born: the penalty for an act of violence committed by a nobleman was far greater than the penalty for the same crime committed by a common citizen.
   Among the triumphant Florentine popolo, the members of the seven richest guilds—legally defined as the greater guilds (arti mag-giori)—enjoyed a majority on all governing councils except for a few decades in the 14th century—from 1343 to 1382. Hence for most of the republic's history the wealthy families of the seven greater guilds dominated political life, though the members of the 14 legally de-fined lesser guilds (arti minori) were granted some representation on the Signaría and other governing councils in order to give them a sense of participation. This meant that the rich non-nobles — the papala grassa—normally dominated the government if their mem-bers were united. During the few decades of democratic reform from 1343 to 1382, the papala minuta (that is, the lower middle class and skilled artisans) gained control of the councils, but by 1382 the lead-ers of the greater guilds, exploiting the fears caused by pressure for political recognition from the propertyless classes (who had no voice at all in politics), were able to stage a coup d'etat and regain a ma-jority on the governing councils.
   Within a few decades of the enactment of the Ordinances of Jus-tice, the restrictions on the grandi were relaxed and individual mem-bers of magnate families were allowed to enroll in guilds even though they did not conduct any of the businesses associated with their new guild. This concession allowed people from magnate families to have political careers. The reduction of discrimination against rich nobles was facilitated by frequent intermarriages between rich magnates and rich papalani. The tension between papala grassa and papala minuta was never entirely resolved, but the granting of a fairly significant minority voice to the papala minuta kept the less wealthy members of the political class quiescent most of the time.
   In other cities, similar class conflict between rich and poor was the main force that led to the replacement of republican government by despotic regimes during the 13th and 14th centuries. The acceptance of a dictator was the price paid for law and order. Sometimes the new ruler—the signoreseized power on behalf or the papala grassa, but more commonly, the man who eventually acquired dictatorial powers emerged as a champion of the poor against the oppressive actions of the rich. The capitano del popolo (commander of the armed forces) was often the person who established his own authoritarian rule.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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