History of Florence, by Niccolo Machiavelli

Chapter III

Changes in Florence — The Ghibellines recalled — New form of government in Florence — The Signory created — Victory over the Aretins — The Gonfalonier of Justice created — Ubaldo Ruffoli the first Gonfalonier — Giano della Bella — New reform by his advice — Giano della Bella becomes a voluntary exile — Dissensions between the people and the nobility — The tumults composed — Reform of Government — Public buildings — The prosperous state of the city.

Florence was at this time in a very unhappy condition; for the great Guelphic families had become insolent, and set aside the authority of the magistrates; so that murders and other atrocities were daily committed, and the perpetrators escaped unpunished, under the protection of one or other of the nobility. The leaders of the people, in order to restrain this insolence, determined to recall those who had been expelled, and thus gave the legate an opportunity of uniting the city. The Ghibellines returned, and, instead of twelve governors, fourteen were appointed, seven for each party, who held their office one year, and were to be chosen by the pope. The Florentines lived under this government two years, till the pontificate of Martin, who restored to Charles all the authority which had been taken from him by Nicholas, so that parties were again active in Tuscany; for the Florentines took arms against the emperor’s governor, and to deprive the Ghibellines of power, and restrain the nobility, established a new form of government. This was in the year 1282, and the companies of the Arts, since magistrates had been appointed and colors given to them, had acquired so great influence, that of their own authority they ordered that, instead of fourteen citizens, three should be appointed and called Priors, to hold the government of the republic two months, and chosen from either the people or the nobility. After the expiration of the first magistracy they were augmented to six, that one might be chosen from each sixth of the city, and this number was preserved till the year 1342, when the city was divided into quarters, and the Priors became eight, although upon some occasions during the interim they were twelve.

This government, as will be seen hereafter, occasioned the ruin of the nobility; for the people by various causes excluded them from all participation in it, and then trampled upon them without respect. The nobles at first, owing to their divisions among themselves, made no opposition; and each being anxious to rob the other of influence in the state, they lost it altogether. To this government a palace was given, in which they were to reside constantly, and all requisite officers were appointed; it having been previously the custom of councils and magistrates to assemble in churches. At first they were only called Priors, but to increase their distinction the word signori, or lords, was soon afterward adopted. The Florentines remained for some time in domestic quiet, during which they made war with the Aretins for having expelled the Guelphs, and obtained a complete victory over them at Campaldino. The city being increased in riches and population, it was found expedient to extend the walls, the circle of which was enlarged to the extent it at present remains, although its diameter was previously only the space between the old bridge and the church of St. Lorenzo.

Wars abroad and peace within the city had caused the Guelph and Ghibelline factions to become almost extinct; and the only party feeling which seemed occasionally to glow, was that which naturally exists in all cities between the higher classes and the people; for the latter, wishing to live in conformity with the laws, and the former to be themselves the rulers of the people, it was not possible for them to abide in perfect amity together. This ungenial disposition, while their fear of the Ghibellines kept them in order, did not discover itself, but no sooner were they subdued than it broke forth, and not a day passed without some of the populace being injured, while the laws were insufficient to procure redress, for every noble with his relations and friends defended himself against the forces of the Priors and the Capitano. To remedy this evil, the leaders of the Arts’ companies ordered that every Signory at the time of entering upon the duties of office should appoint a Gonfalonier of Justice, chosen from the people, and place a thousand armed men at his disposal divided into twenty companies of fifty men each, and that he, with his gonfalon or banner and his forces, should be ready to enforce the execution of the laws whenever called upon, either by the Signors themselves or the Capitano. The first elected to this high office was Ubaldo Ruffoli. This man unfurled his gonfalon, and destroyed the houses of the Galletti, on account of a member of that family having slain one of the Florentine people in France. The violent animosities among the nobility enabled the companies of the Arts to establish this law with facility; and the former no sooner saw the provision which had been made against them than they felt the acrimonious spirit with which it was enforced. At first it impressed them with greater terror, but they soon after returned to their accustomed insolence, for one or more of their body always making part of the Signory, gave them opportunities of impeding the Gonfalonier, so that he could not perform the duties of his office. Besides this, the accuser always required a witness of the injury he had received, and no one dared to give evidence against the nobility. Thus in a short time Florence again fell into the same disorders as before, and the tyranny exercised against the people was as great as ever; for the decisions of justice were either prevented or delayed, and sentences were not carried into execution.

In this unhappy state, the people not knowing what to do, Giano della Bella, of a very noble family, and a lover of liberty, encouraged the heads of the Arts to reform the constitution of the city; and by his advice it was ordered that the Gonfalonier should reside with the Priors, and have four thousand men at his command. They deprived the nobility of the right to sit in the Signory. They condemned the associates of a criminal to the same penalty as himself, and ordered that public report should be taken as evidence. By these laws, which were called the ordinations of justice, the people acquired great influence, and Giano della Bella not a small share of trouble; for he was thoroughly hated by the great, as the destroyer of their power, while the opulent among the people envied him, for they thought he possessed too great authority. This became very evident upon the first occasion that presented itself.

It happened that a man from the class of the people was killed in a riot, in which several of the nobility had taken a part, and among the rest Corso Donati, to whom, as the most forward of the party, the death was attributed. He was, therefore, taken by the captain of the people, and whether he was really innocent of the crime or the Capitano was afraid of condemning him, he was acquitted. This acquittal displeased the people so much, that, seizing their arms, they ran to the house of Giano della Bella, to beg that he would compel the execution of those laws which he had himself made. Giano, who wished Corso to be punished, did not insist upon their laying down their arms, as many were of opinion he ought to have done, but advised them to go to the Signory, complain of the fact, and beg that they would take it into consideration. The people, full of wrath, thinking themselves insulted by the Capitano and abandoned by Giano della Bella, instead of going to the Signory went to the palace of the Capitano, of which they made themselves masters, and plundered it.

This outrage displeased the whole city, and those who wished the ruin of Giano laid the entire blame upon him; and as in the succeeding Signory there was an enemy of his, he was accused to the Capitano as the originator of the riot. While the case was being tried, the people took arms, and, proceeding to his house, offered to defend him against the Signory and his enemies. Giano, however, did not wish to put this burst of popular favor to the proof, or trust his life to the magistrates, for he feared the malignity of the latter and the instability of the former; so, in order to remove an occasion for his enemies to injure him, or his friends to offend the laws, he determined to withdraw, deliver his countrymen from the fear they had of him, and, leaving the city which at his own charge and peril he had delivered from the servitude of the great, become a voluntary exile.

After the departure of Giano della Bella the nobility began to entertain hopes of recovering their authority; and judging their misfortune to have arisen from their divisions, they sent two of their body to the Signory, which they thought was favorable to them, to beg they would be pleased to moderate the severity of the laws made against them. As soon as their demand became known, the minds of the people were much excited; for they were afraid the Signors would submit to them; and so, between the desire of the nobility and the jealousy of the people, arms were resorted to. The nobility were drawn together in three places: near the church of St. John, in the New Market, and in the Piazza of the Mozzi, under three leaders, Forese Adimari, Vanni de Mozzi, and Geri Spini. The people assembled in immense numbers, under their ensigns, before the palace of the Signory, which at that time was situated near St. Procolo; and, as they suspected the integrity of the Signory, they added six citizens to their number to take part in the management of affairs.

While both parties were preparing for the fight, some individuals, as well of the people as of the nobility, accompanied by a few priests of respectable character, mingled among them for the purpose of effecting a pacification, reminding the nobility that their loss of power, and the laws which were made against them, had been occasioned by their haughty conduct, and the mischievous tendency of their proceedings; that resorting to arms to recover by force what they had lost by illiberal measures and disunion, would tend to the destruction of their country and increase the difficulties of their own position; that they should bear in mind that the people, both in riches, numbers, and hatred, were far stronger than they; and that their nobility, on account of which they assumed to be above others, did not contribute to win battles, and would be found, when they came to arms, to be but an empty name, and insufficient to defend them against so many. On the other hand, they reminded the people that it is not prudent to wish always to have the last blow; that it is an injudicious step to drive men to desperation, for he who is without hope is also without fear; that they ought not to forget that in the wars the nobility had always done honor to the country, and therefore it was neither wise nor just to pursue them with so much bitterness; and that although the nobility could bear with patience the loss of the supreme magistracy, they could not endure that, by the existing laws, it should be in the power of everyone to drive them from their country; and, therefore, it would be well to qualify these laws, and, in furtherance of so good a result, be better to lay down their arms than, trusting to numbers, try the fortune of a battle; for it is often seen that the many are overcome by the few. Variety of opinion was found among the people; many wished to decide the question by arms at once, for they were assured it would have to be done some time, and that it would be better to do so then than delay till the enemy had acquired greater strength; and that if they thought a mitigation of the laws would satisfy them, that then they would be glad to comply, but that the pride of the nobility was so great they would not submit unless they were compelled. To many others, who were more peaceable and better disposed, it appeared a less evil to qualify the laws a little than to come to battle; and their opinion prevailing, it was provided that no accusation against the nobility could be received unless supported with sufficient testimony.

Although arms were laid aside, both parties remained full of suspicion, and each fortified itself with men and places of strength. The people reorganized the government, and lessened the number of its officers, to which measure they were induced by finding that the Signors appointed from the families, of which the following were the heads, had been favorable to the nobility, viz.: the Mancini, Magalotti, Altoviti, Peruzzi, and Cerretani. Having settled the government, for the greater magnificence and security of the Signory, they laid the foundation of their palace; and to make space for the piazza, removed the houses that had belonged to the Uberti; they also at the same period commenced the public prisons. These buildings were completed in a few years; nor did our city ever enjoy a greater state of prosperity than in those times: filled with men of great wealth and reputation; possessing within her walls 30,000 men capable of bearing arms, and in the country 70,000, while the whole of Tuscany, either as subjects or friends, owed obedience to Florence. And although there might be some indignation and jealousy between the nobility and the people, they did not produce any evil effect, but all lived together in unity and peace. And if this peace had not been disturbed by internal enmities there would have been no cause of apprehension whatever, for the city had nothing to fear either from the empire or from those citizens whom political reasons kept from their homes, and was in condition to meet all the states of Italy with her own forces. The evil, however, which external powers could not effect, was brought about by those within.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 17:11