History of Florence, by Niccolo Machiavelli

Chapter IV

The Cerchi and the Donati — Origin of the Bianca and Nera factions in Pistoia — They come to Florence — Open enmity of the Donati and the Cerchi — Their first conflict — The Cerchi head the Bianca faction — The Donati take part with the Nera — The pope’s legate at Florence increases the confusion with an interdict — New affray between the Cerchi and the Donati — The Donati and others of the Nera faction banished by the advice of Dante Alighieri — Charles of Valois sent by the pope to Florence — The Florentines suspect him — Corso Donati and the rest of the Nera party return to Florence — Veri Cerchi flies — The pope’s legate again in Florence — The city again interdicted — New disturbances — The Bianchi banished — Dante banished — Corso Donati excites fresh troubles — The pope’s legate endeavors to restore the emigrants but does not succeed — Great fire in Florence.

The Cerchi and the Donati were, for riches, nobility, and the number and influence of their followers, perhaps the two most distinguished families in Florence. Being neighbors, both in the city and the country, there had arisen between them some slight displeasure, which, however, had not occasioned an open quarrel, and perhaps never would have produced any serious effect if the malignant humors had not been increased by new causes. Among the first families of Pistoia was the Cancellieri. It happened that Lore, son of Gulielmo, and Geri, son of Bertacca, both of this family, playing together, and coming to words, Geri was slightly wounded by Lore. This displeased Gulielmo; and, designing by a suitable apology to remove all cause of further animosity, he ordered his son to go to the house of the father of the youth whom he had wounded and ask pardon. Lore obeyed his father; but this act of virtue failed to soften the cruel mind of Bertacca, and having caused Lore to be seized, in order to add the greatest indignity to his brutal act, he ordered his servants to chop off the youth’s hand upon a block used for cutting meat upon, and then said to him, “Go to thy father, and tell him that sword wounds are cured with iron and not with words.”

The unfeeling barbarity of this act so greatly exasperated Gulielmo that he ordered his people to take arms for his revenge. Bertacca prepared for his defense, and not only that family, but the whole city of Pistoia, became divided. And as the Cancellieri were descended from a Cancelliere who had had two wives, of whom one was called Bianca (white), one party was named by those who were descended from her BIANCA; and the other, by way of greater distinction, was called NERA (black). Much and long-continued strife took place between the two, attended with the death of many men and the destruction of much property; and not being able to effect a union among themselves, but weary of the evil, and anxious either to bring it to an end, or, by engaging others in their quarrel, increase it, they came to Florence, where the Neri, on account of their familiarity with the Donati, were favored by Corso, the head of that family; and on this account the Bianchi, that they might have a powerful head to defend them against the Donati, had recourse to Veri de Cerchi, a man in no respect inferior to Corso.

This quarrel, and the parties in it, brought from Pistoia, increased the old animosity between the Cerchi and the Donati, and it was already so manifest, that the Priors and all well-disposed men were in hourly apprehension of its breaking out, and causing a division of the whole city. They therefore applied to the pontiff, praying that he would interpose his authority between these turbulent parties, and provide the remedy which they found themselves unable to furnish. The pope sent for Veri, and charged him to make peace with the Donati, at which Veri exhibited great astonishment, saying that he had no enmity against them, and that as pacification presupposes war, he did not know, there being no war between them, how peacemaking could be necessary. Veri having returned from Rome without anything being effected, the rage of the parties increased to such a degree, that any trivial accident seemed sufficient to make it burst forth, as indeed presently happened.

It was in the month of May, during which, and upon holidays, it is the custom of Florence to hold festivals and public rejoicings throughout the city. Some youths of the Donati family, with their friends, upon horseback, were standing near the church of the Holy Trinity to look at a party of ladies who were dancing; thither also came some of the Cerchi, like the Donati, accompanied with many of the nobility, and, not knowing that the Donati were before them, pushed their horses and jostled them; thereupon the Donati, thinking themselves insulted, drew their swords, nor were the Cerchi at all backward to do the same, and not till after the interchange of many wounds, they separated. This disturbance was the beginning of great evils; for the whole city became divided, the people as well as the nobility, and the parties took the names of the Bianchi and the Neri. The Cerchi were at the head of the Bianchi faction, to which adhered the Adimari, the Abati, a part of the Tosinghi, of the Bardi, of the Rossi, of the Frescobaldi, of the Nerli, and of the Manelli; all the Mozzi, the Scali, Gherardini, Cavalcanti, Malespini, Bostichi, Giandonati, Vecchietti, and Arrigucci. To these were joined many families of the people, and all the Ghibellines then in Florence, so that their great numbers gave them almost the entire government of the city.

The Donati, at the head of whom was Corso, joined the Nera party, to which also adhered those members of the above-named families who did not take part with the Bianchi; and besides these, the whole of the Pazzi, the Bisdomini, Manieri, Bagnesi, Tornaquinci, Spini, Buondelmonti, Gianfigliazzi, and the Brunelleschi. Nor did the evil confine itself to the city alone, for the whole country was divided upon it, so that the Captains of the Six Parts, and whoever were attached to the Guelphic party or the well-being of the republic, were very much afraid that this new division would occasion the destruction of the city, and give new life to the Ghibelline faction. They, therefore, sent again to Pope Boniface, desiring that, unless he wished that city which had always been the shield of the church should either be ruined or become Ghibelline, he would consider some means for her relief. The pontiff thereupon sent to Florence, as his legate, Cardinal Matteo d’Acquasparta, a Portuguese, who, finding the Bianchi, as the most powerful, the least in fear, not quite submissive to him, he interdicted the city, and left it in anger, so that greater confusion now prevailed than had done previously to his coming.

The minds of men being in great excitement, it happened that at a funeral which many of the Donati and the Cerchi attended, they first came to words and then to arms, from which, however, nothing but merely tumult resulted at the moment. However, having each retired to their houses, the Cerchi determined to attack the Donati, but, by the valor of Corso, they were repulsed and great numbers of them wounded. The city was in arms. The laws and the Signory were set at nought by the rage of the nobility, and the best and wisest citizens were full of apprehension. The Donati and their followers, being the least powerful, were in the greatest fear, and to provide for their safety they called together Corso, the Captains of the Parts, and the other leaders of the Neri, and resolved to apply to the pope to appoint some personage of royal blood, that he might reform Florence; thinking by this means to overcome the Bianchi. Their meeting and determination became known to the Priors, and the adverse party represented it as a conspiracy against the liberties of the republic. Both parties being in arms, the Signory, one of whom at that time was the poet Dante, took courage, and from his advice and prudence, caused the people to rise for the preservation of order, and being joined by many from the country, they compelled the leaders of both parties to lay aside their arms, and banished Corso, with many of the Neri. And as an evidence of the impartiality of their motives, they also banished many of the Bianchi, who, however, soon afterward, under pretense of some justifiable cause, returned.

Corso and his friends, thinking the pope favorable to their party, went to Rome and laid their grievances before him, having previously forwarded a statement of them in writing. Charles of Valois, brother of the king of France, was then at the papal court, having been called into Italy by the king of Naples, to go over into Sicily. The pope, therefore, at the earnest prayers of the banished Florentines, consented to send Charles to Florence, till the season suitable for his going to Sicily should arrive. He therefore came, and although the Bianchi, who then governed, were very apprehensive, still, as the head of the Guelphs, and appointed by the pope, they did not dare to oppose him, and in order to secure his friendship, they gave him authority to dispose of the city as he thought proper.

Thus authorized, Charles armed all his friends and followers, which step gave the people so strong a suspicion that he designed to rob them of their liberty, that each took arms, and kept at his own house, in order to be ready, if Charles should make any such attempt. The Cerchi and the leaders of the Bianchi faction had acquired universal hatred by having, while at the head of the republic, conducted themselves with unbecoming pride; and this induced Corso and the banished of the Neri party to return to Florence, knowing well that Charles and the Captains of the Parts were favorable to them. And while the citizens, for fear of Charles, kept themselves in arms, Corso, with all the banished, and followed by many others, entered Florence without the least impediment. And although Veri de Cerchi was advised to oppose him, he refused to do so, saying that he wished the people of Florence, against whom he came, should punish him. However, the contrary happened, for he was welcomed, not punished by them; and it behooved Veri to save himself by flight.

Corso, having forced the Pinti Gate, assembled his party at San Pietro Maggiore, near his own house, where, having drawn together a great number of friends and people desirous of change, he set at liberty all who had been imprisoned for offenses, whether against the state or against individuals. He compelled the existing Signory to withdraw privately to their own houses, elected a new one from the people of the Neri party, and for five days plundered the leaders of the Bianchi. The Cerchi, and the other heads of their faction, finding Charles opposed to them, withdrew from the city, and retired to their strongholds. And although at first they would not listen to the advice of the pope, they were now compelled to turn to him for assistance, declaring that instead of uniting the city, Charles had caused greater disunion than before. The pope again sent Matteo d’Acquasparta, his legate, who made peace between the Cerchi and the Donati, and strengthened it with marriages and new betrothals. But wishing that the Bianchi should participate in the employments of the government, to which the Neri who were then at the head of it would not consent, he withdrew, with no more satisfaction nor less enraged than on the former occasion, and left the city interdicted for disobedience.

Both parties remained in Florence, and equally discontented; the Neri from seeing their enemies at hand, and apprehending the loss of their power, and the Bianchi from finding themselves without either honor or authority; and to these natural causes of animosity new injuries were added. Niccolo de’ Cerchi, with many of his friends, went to his estates, and being arrived at the bridge of Affrico, was attacked by Simone, son of Corso Donati. The contest was obstinate, and one each side had a sorrowful conclusion; for Niccolo was slain, and Simone was so severely wounded that he died on the following night.

This event again disturbed the entire city; and although the Neri were most to blame, they were defended by those who were at the head of affairs; and before sentence was delivered, a conspiracy of the Bianchi with Piero Ferrante, one of the barons who had accompanied Charles, was discovered, by whose assistance they sought to be replaced in the government. The matter became known from letters addressed to him by the Cerchi, although some were of opinion that they were not genuine, but written and pretended to be found, by the Donati, to abate the infamy which their party had acquired by the death of Niccolo. The whole of the Cerchi were, however, banished — with their followers of the Bianchi party, of whom was Dante the poet, — their property confiscated, and their houses pulled down. They sought refuge, with a great number of Ghibellines who had joined them, in many places, seeking fresh fortunes in new undertakings. Charles, having effected the purpose of his coming, left the city, and returned to the pope to pursue his enterprise against Sicily, in which he was neither wiser nor more fortunate than he had been at Florence; so that with disgrace and the loss of many of his followers, he withdrew to France.

After the departure of Charles, Florence remained quiet. Corso alone was restless, thinking he did not possess that sort of authority in the city which was due to his rank; for the government being in the hands of the people, he saw the offices of the republic administered by many inferior to himself. Moved by passions of this kind, he endeavored, under the pretense of an honorable design, to justify his own dishonorable purposes, and accused many citizens who had the management of the public money, of applying it to their private uses, and recommended that they should be brought to justice and punished. This opinion was adopted by many who had the same views as himself; and many in ignorance joined them, thinking Corso actuated only by pure patriotism. On the other hand, the accused citizens, enjoying the popular favor, defended themselves, and this difference arose to such a height, that, after civil means, they had recourse to arms. Of the one party were Corso and Lottieri, bishop of Florence, with many of the nobility and some of the people; on the other side were the Signory, with the greater part of the people; so that skirmishes took place in many parts of the city. The Signory, seeing their danger great, sent for aid to the Lucchese, and presently all the people of Lucca were in Florence. With their assistance the disturbances were settled for the moment, and the people retained the government and their liberty, without attempting by any other means to punish the movers of the disorder.

The pope had heard of the tumults at Florence, and sent his legate, Niccolo da Prato, to settle them, who, being in high reputation both for his quality, learning, and mode of life, presently acquired so much of the people’s confidence, that authority was given him to establish such a government as he should think proper. As he was of Ghibelline origin, he determined to recall the banished; but designing first to gain the affections of the lower orders, he renewed the ancient companies of the people, which increased the popular power and reduced that of the nobility. The legate, thinking the multitude on his side, now endeavored to recall the banished, and, after attempting in many ways, none of which succeeded, he fell so completely under the suspicion of the government, that he was compelled to quit the city, and returned to the pope in great wrath, leaving Florence full of confusion and suffering under an interdict. Neither was the city disturbed with one division alone, but by many; first the enmity between the people and the nobility, then that of the Ghibellines and the Guelphs, and lastly, of the Bianchi and the Neri. All the citizens were, therefore, in arms, for many were dissatisfied with the departure of the legate, and wished for the return of the banished. The first who set this disturbance on foot were the Medici and the Guinigi, who, with the legate, had discovered themselves in favor of the rebels; and thus skirmishes took place in many parts of the city.

In addition to these evils a fire occurred, which first broke out at the garden of St. Michael, in the houses of the Abati; it thence extended to those of the Capoinsacchi, and consumed them, with those of the Macci, Amieri, Toschi, Cipriani, Lamberti, Cavalcanti, and the whole of the New Market; from thence it spread to the gate of St. Maria, and burned it to the ground; turning from the old bridge, it destroyed the houses of the Gherardini, Pulci, Amidei, and Lucardesi, and with these so many others that the number amounted to seventeen hundred. It was the opinion of many that this fire occurred by accident during the heat of the disturbances. Others affirm that it was begun willfully by Neri Abati, prior of St. Pietro Scarragio, a dissolute character, fond of mischief, who, seeing the people occupied with the combat, took the opportunity of committing a wicked act, for which the citizens, being thus employed, could offer no remedy. And to insure his success, he set fire to the house of his own brotherhood, where he had the best opportunity of doing it. This was in the year 1304, Florence being afflicted both with fire and the sword. Corso Donati alone remained unarmed in so many tumults; for he thought he would more easily become the arbitrator between the contending parties when, weary of strife, they should be inclined to accommodation. They laid down their arms, however, rather from satiety of evil than from any desire of union; and the only consequence was, that the banished were not recalled, and the party which favored them remained inferior.

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