Florence might be thought, of all cities, not to need an introduction, for its legend always precedes it: the “birthplace” of the Renaissance and the “cradle” of modern Western Civilization. I hope that many readers will be drawn to this book out of affection for that Florence, an affection I share whenever I take off my historian’s hat and recall the experience of being captivated, more than forty years ago, like so many others before and since, by Florence’s palaces, churches, sculptures, pictures, books, poetry, speech, and people. What needs introducing here is not of course that seductive Florence, whose power cannot be denied, but rather the following chapters in which I offer an interpretation of nearly four centuries of Florentine history, not from the perspective of the legend that makes of this city an inexplicable miracle, an enchanted land of geniuses whose achievements evoke admiration and astonishment, but essentially without history or context. Whenever I reflect that, until Brunelleschi built the great dome atop the cathedral, no one knew how it could be done, or that, before Dante wrote the Commedia, nothing like it had even been attempted in European literature, I feel a sense of awe at such marvels. But praise is one thing, and history another, and specialists in the history of architecture, sculpture, painting, and literature have long since integrated the cultural achievements of Florence and the Renaissance into appropriate historical contexts.
A more troublesome effect on historical understanding (and more difficult to eradicate) is the legend’s persistent idealization of the bearers of Florentine wealth and power as enlightened patrons, promoters of culture, and exemplars of civility. Renaissance princes and self-styled patricians were sometimes these things, and we are not wrong to admire their role in producing the splendid culture of the age. But seen only or chiefly in this light, they become indistinguishable from the elegant figures in the paintings they commissioned, decorously presiding over a utopian world of order, proportion, and moderation, without conflict or unwelcome noises. In fact, Florence’s history was replete with conflicts, both within the elite class and between this class and other classes: the “popolo” that created the guild republic and challenged the elite to justify its power within a normative framework of law and political ethics; and the artisan and laboring classes, whose exertions and skills produced the material culture that ranged from prized textiles to the stones of rich men’s homes, and who in turn challenged the popolo to allow the guild republic to embrace its full implications. In the course of their tense interactions, all three classes underwent major transformations, but none more than the elite of great families which experienced several metamorphoses in four centuries. Florence’s history and culture evolved through these conflicts and class antagonisms, through what Machiavelli called (in the preface to his Florentine Histories) the “divisioni” that he believed common to all republics but that he saw as especially complex in Florence.
From this perspective, Florence was not unique: other Italian city-republics from Padua and Bologna to Siena, Perugia, and even Rome experienced similar divisions and conflicts. Florence thus shared with the rest of communal Italy a development that had no precedent in European history. In the thirteenth-century cities of northern and central Italy, the popolo, organized in guilds and neighborhood military associations and imbued with notions of citizenship and the common good absorbed from ancient Rome, launched the first politically effective and ideologically sustained challenge to an elite class, a challenge that succeeded, not in displacing the elite, but in transforming it. In Florence this challenge lasted longer and had deeper effects than elsewhere. Indeed, for the first time, a European “nobility” radically revised its politics, culture, and social attitudes in response to constant pressure from another class. Their dialogue of power shaped Florence’s republican experience, engendering a rich variety of reflections and reactions from chroniclers, writers of family memoirs, humanists, poets, and political theorists of both classes. I have tried, wherever and as far as possible, to let them speak, and because they wrote endlessly about politics, competitions for power, and the shape of government, there is much political history in this book. But their approach to politics was typically through the lens of the social, and in at least two senses: through an understanding of collective interests and antagonisms involving economic and fiscal issues, public order, and law; and also and equally through an intense awareness of family solidarities, factional loyalties, ties of clientage and patronage (in the social sense), and marriage alliances. All these aspects of their social, economic, and cultural existence informed Florentine politics and discourses of politics. The interpretation offered here thus combines thematic treatments of society, economy, and culture, set in precise political contexts, with a political narrative that depends on and regularly refers to society and culture.
I have chosen chronological parameters that embrace a “long history” of republican Florence, from the medieval commune dominated by feudal families, to the emergence of the autonomous republic with its internal political conflicts and growing territorial dominion, to the wars and crises of the early sixteenth century which imposed a principate under imperial tutelage that in turn refashioned Florentine society and culture. I begin in the early thirteenth century when the great families dominated the city center as a warrior class with their towers and fortified enclaves, and the popolo was already constructing the associations that produced the guild republic in the century’s last two decades. By the fourteenth century Florence was a theater of triangular struggles among an elite that had discovered a new identity as international merchants and bankers, the guild-based popolo, and the working classes, mainly in the huge textile industry, whose brief conquest of a share of power in 1378-82 proved to be a transforming moment that frightened the popolo into relinquishing its historic challenge and cooperating in regimes led by an elite that now styled itself as a civic and patriarchal aristocracy. For the next century, elite regimes, including the unofficial rule of the Medici family, dominated Florentine politics and culture. Because they increasingly represented the potential for the kind of princely order that had ended communal government in other Italian cities (and thus embodied the danger of “tyranny”), the Medici eventually alienated much of the very elite from which they emerged and were exiled and replaced by a broadly based republic in 1494. For the next forty tumultuous years, Florence was again the scene of a triangular conflict, this time among popular republicans, elite families with their own brand of aristocratic republicanism, and the Medici. The last and most radically popular of all Florentine republics, that of 1527-30, frightened the elite (much as the participation of the working classes in government had frightened the popolo 150 years earlier) into abandoning the republic and accepting, however reluctantly, the Medici principate they had resisted for decades.
It has been more than thirty-five years since Gene Brucker, teacher to us all, published the most recent English-language general introduction to Renaissance Florence.1 It would be presumptuous folly to think of “replacing” that wonderful and still vibrant book. Thus the intended justification of the present work is that it adopts a different approach in covering a longer period and analyzing politics, society, and culture within a diachronic framework. Indeed, there has been no attempt in English at a narrative history of Florence since Ferdinand Schevill’s treatment seventy years ago of an even longer
G. A. Brucker, Renaissance Florence (New York, 1969; reprint edn. Berkeley, 1983).
Period of the city’s history.1 Mountains of new scholarship have appeared in the last two generations, and one more justification for a book of this kind (whether or not this one meets it) is the need for a synthesis of what has become an entire mountain range of specialized scholarship on Florence. However, in order not to make this book longer than it already is, I have not cited everything that might deserve to be mentioned. Besides those works from which I borrow specific data or whose analyses I summarize, I have restricted bibliographical citations to particularly significant items, mentioning wherever possible works in English together with what I consider the most important contributions of our European colleagues.
That there has been and continues to be so much attention to Florence is not, as some suspect, a function of the old myths and legends. Historians are drawn to Florence because of the unparalleled riches (and this is no myth) of the archival and manuscript sources that permit in-depth inquiries into more and more varied questions than is possible anywhere else. All this scholarship, which has grown beyond the realistic possibility of both mastering the work of the past and keeping up with what emerges every month, sometimes feels more like an avalanche in which one can easily be buried. Trying to stay on top of all the new work as I wrote these chapters has been a humbling and ultimately futile experience. Even as I decide to close the shop and not further test the patience of a very patient publisher, the latest new books are on my desk, demanding revision of this or that argument. I can only ask their forgiveness; they will have to wait for the next history of Florence.