History of Florence, by Niccolo Machiavelli

Chapter VIII

The Duke of Athens requires to be made prince of Florence — The Signory address the duke upon the subject — The plebeians proclaim him prince of Florence for life — Tyrannical proceedings of the duke — The city disgusted with him — Conspiracies against the duke — The duke discovers the conspiracies, and becomes terrified — The city rises against him — He is besieged in the palace — Measures adopted by the citizens for reform of the government — The duke is compelled to withdraw from the city — Miserable deaths of Guglielmo da Scesi and his son — Departure of the duke of Athens — His character.

These executions greatly terrified the middle class of citizens, but gave satisfaction to the great and to the plebeians; — to the latter, because it is their nature to delight in evil; and to the former, by thus seeing themselves avenged of the many wrongs they had suffered from the people. When the duke passed along the streets he was hailed with loud cheers, the boldness of his proceedings was praised, and both parties joined in open entreaties that he would search out the faults of the citizens, and punish them.

The office of the Twenty began to fall into disuse, while the power of the duke became great, and the influence of fear excessive; so that everyone, in order to appear friendly to him, caused his arms to be painted over their houses, and the name alone was all he needed to be absolutely prince. Thinking himself upon such a footing that he might safely attempt anything, he gave the Signory to understand that he judged it necessary for the good of the city, that the sovereignty should be freely given to him, and that as the rest of the citizens were willing that it should be so, he desired they would also consent. The Signory, notwithstanding many had foreseen the ruin of their country, were much disturbed at this demand; and although they were aware of the dangerous position in which they stood, that they might not be wanting in their duty, resolutely refused to comply. The duke had, in order to assume a greater appearance of religion and humanity, chosen for his residence the convent of the Minor Canons of St. Croce, and in order to carry his evil designs into effect, proclaimed that all the people should, on the following morning, present themselves before him in the piazza of the convent. This command alarmed the Signory much more than his discourse to them had done, and they consulted with those citizens whom they thought most attached to their country and to liberty; but they could not devise any better plan, knowing the power of which the duke was possessed, than to endeavor by entreaty to induce him either to forego his design or to make his government less intolerable. A party of them was, therefore, appointed to wait upon him, one of whom addressed him in the following manner:—

“We appear before you, my lord, induced first by the demand which you have made, and then by the orders you have given for a meeting of the people; for it appears to us very clearly, that it is your intention to effect by extraordinary means the design from which we have hitherto withheld our consent. It is not, however, our intention to oppose you with force, but only to show what a heavy charge you take upon yourself, and the dangerous course you adopt; to the end that you may remember our advice and that of those who, not by consideration of what is beneficial for you, but for the gratification of their own unreasonable wishes, have advised you differently. You are endeavoring to reduce to slavery a city that has always existed in freedom; for the authority which we have at times conceded to the kings of Naples was companionship and not servitude. Have you considered the mighty things which the name of liberty implies to such a city as this, and how delightful it is to those who hear it? It has a power which nothing can subdue, time cannot wear away, nor can any degree of merit in a prince countervail the loss of it. Consider, my lord, how great the force must be that can keep a city like this in subjection, no foreign aid would enable you to do it; neither can you confide in those at home; for they who are at present your friends, and advise you to adopt the course you now pursue, as soon as with your assistance they have overcome their enemies, will at once turn their thoughts toward effecting your destruction, and then take the government upon themselves. The plebeians, in whom you confide, will change upon any accident, however trivial; so that in a very short time you may expect to see the whole city opposed to you, which will produce both their ruin and your own. Nor will you be able to find any remedy for this; for princes who have but few enemies may make their government very secure by the death or banishment of those who are opposed to them; but when the hatred is universal, no security whatever can be found, for you cannot tell from what direction the evil may commence; and he who has to apprehend every man his enemy cannot make himself assured of anyone. And if you should attempt to secure a friend or two, you would only increase the dangers of your situation; for the hatred of the rest would be increased by your success, and they would become more resolutely disposed to vengeance.

“That time can neither destroy nor abate the desire for freedom is most certain; for it has been often observed, that those have reassumed their liberty who in their own persons had never tasted of its charms, and love it only from remembrance of what they have heard their fathers relate; and, therefore, when recovered, have preserved it with indomitable resolution and at every hazard. And even when their fathers could not remember it, the public buildings, the halls of the magistracy, and the insignia of free institutions, remind them of it; and these things cannot fail to be known and greatly desired by every class of citizens.

“What is it you imagine you can do, that would be an equivalent for the sweets of liberty, or make men lose the desire of their present conditions? No; if you were to join the whole of Tuscany to the Florentine rule, if you were to return to the city daily in triumph over her enemies, what could it avail? The glory would not be ours, but yours. We should not acquire fellow-citizens, but partakers of our bondage, who would serve to sink us still deeper in ignominy. And if your conduct were in every respect upright, your demeanor amiable, and your judgments equitable, all these would be insufficient to make you beloved. If you imagine otherwise, you deceive yourself; for, to one accustomed to the enjoyment of liberty, the slightest chains feel heavy, and every tie upon his free soul oppresses him. Besides, it is impossible to find a violent people associated with a good prince, for of necessity they must soon become alike, or their difference produce the ruin of one of them. You may, therefore, be assured, that you will either have to hold this city by force, to effect which, guards, castles, and external aid have oft been found insufficient, or be content with the authority we have conferred; and this we would advise, reminding you that no dominion can be durable to which the governed do not consent; and we have no wish to lead you, blinded by ambition, to such a point that, unable either to stand or advance, you must, to the great injury of both, of necessity fall.”

This discourse did not in the slightest degree soften the obdurate mind of the duke, who replied that it was not his intention to rob the city of her liberty, but to restore it to her; for those cities alone are in slavery that are disunited, while the united are free. As Florence, by her factions and ambition, had deprived herself of liberty, he should restore, not take it from her; and as he had been induced to take this charge upon himself, not from his own ambition, but at the entreaty of a great number of citizens, they would do well to be satisfied with that which produced contentment among the rest. With regard to the danger he might incur, he thought nothing of it; for it was not the part of a good man to avoid doing good from his apprehension of evil, and it was the part of a coward to shun a glorious undertaking because some uncertainty attended the success of the attempt; and he knew he should so conduct himself, that they would soon see they had entertained great apprehensions and been in little danger.

The Signory then agreed, finding they could not do better, that on the following morning the people should be assembled in their accustomed place of meeting, and with their consent the Signory should confer upon the duke the sovereignty of the city for one year, on the same conditions as it had been intrusted to the duke of Calabria. It was upon the 8th of November, 1342, when the duke, accompanied by Giovanni della Tosa and all his confederates, with many other citizens, came to the piazza or court of the palace, and having, with the Signory mounted upon the ringhiera, or rostrum (as the Florentines call those steps which lead to the palace), the agreement which had been entered into between the Signory and himself was read. When they had come to the passage which gave the government to him for one year, the people shouted, “FOR LIFE.” Upon this, Francesco Rustichelli, one of the Signory, arose to speak, and endeavored to abate the tumult and procure a hearing; but the mob, with their hootings, prevented him from being heard by anyone; so that with the consent of the people the duke was elected, not for one year merely, but for life. He was then borne through the piazza by the crowd, shouting his name as they proceeded.

It is the custom that he who is appointed to the guard of the palace shall, in the absence of the Signory, remain locked within. This office was at that time held by Rinieri di Giotto, who, bribed by the friends of the duke, without waiting for any force, admitted him immediately. The Signory, terrified and dishonored, retired to their own houses; the palace was plundered by the followers of the duke, the Gonfalon of the people torn to pieces, and the arms of the duke placed over the palace. All this happened to the indescribable sorrow of good men, though to the satisfaction of those who, either from ignorance or malignity, were consenting parties.

The duke, having acquired the sovereignty of the city, in order to strip those of all authority who had been defenders of her liberty, forbade the Signory to assemble in the palace, and appointed a private dwelling for their use. He took their colors from the Gonfaloniers of the companies of the people; abolished the ordinances made for the restraint of the great; set at liberty those who were imprisoned; recalled the Bardi and the Frescobaldi from exile, and forbade everyone from carrying arms about his person. In order the better to defend himself against those within the city, he made friends of all he could around it, and therefore conferred great benefits upon the Aretini and other subjects of the Florentines. He made peace with the Pisans, although raised to power in order that he might carry on war against them; ceased paying interest to those merchants who, during the war against Lucca, had lent money to the republic; increased the old taxes, levied new ones, and took from the Signory all authority. His rectors were Baglione da Perugia and Guglielmo da Scesi, who, with Cerrettieri Bisdomini, were the persons with whom he consulted on public affairs. He imposed burdensome taxes upon the citizens; his decisions between contending parties were unjust; and that precision and humanity which he had at first assumed, became cruelty and pride; so that many of the greatest citizens and noblest people were, either by fines, death, or some new invention, grievously oppressed. And in completing the same bad system, both without the city and within, he appointed six rectors for the country, who beat and plundered the inhabitants. He suspected the great, although he had been benefited by them, and had restored many to their country; for he felt assured that the generous minds of the nobility would not allow them, from any motives, to submit contentedly to his authority. He also began to confer benefits and advantages upon the lowest orders, thinking that with their assistance, and the arms of foreigners, he would be able to preserve the tyranny. The month of May, during which feasts are held, being come, he caused many companies to be formed of the plebeians and very lowest of the people, and to these, dignified with splendid titles, he gave colors and money; and while one party went in bacchanalian procession through the city, others were stationed in different parts of it, to receive them as guests. As the report of the duke’s authority spread abroad, many of French origin came to him, for all of whom he found offices and emoluments, as if they had been the most trustworthy of men; so that in a short time Florence became not only subject to French dominion, but adopted their dress and manners; for men and women, without regard to propriety or sense of shame, imitated them. But that which disgusted the people most completely was the violence which, without any distinction of quality or rank, he and his followers committed upon the women.

The people were filled with indignation, seeing the majesty of the state overturned, its ordinances annihilated, its laws annulled, and every decent regulation set at naught; for men unaccustomed to royal pomp could not endure to see this man surrounded with his armed satellites on foot and on horseback; and having now a closer view of their disgrace, they were compelled to honor him whom they in the highest degree hated. To this hatred, was added the terror occasioned by the continual imposition of new taxes and frequent shedding of blood, with which he impoverished and consumed the city.

The duke was not unaware of these impressions existing strongly in the people’s minds, nor was he without fear of the consequences; but still pretended to think himself beloved; and when Matteo di Morozzo, either to acquire his favor or to free himself from danger, gave information that the family of the Medici and some others had entered into a conspiracy against him he not only did not inquire into the matter, but caused the informer to be put to a cruel death. This mode of proceeding restrained those who were disposed to acquaint him of his danger and gave additional courage to such as sought his ruin. Bertone Cini, having ventured to speak against the taxes with which the people were loaded, had his tongue cut out with such barbarous cruelty as to cause his death. This shocking act increased the people’s rage, and their hatred of the duke; for those who were accustomed to discourse and to act upon every occasion with the greatest boldness, could not endure to live with their hands tied and forbidden to speak.

This oppression increased to such a degree, that not merely the Florentines, who though unable to preserve their liberty cannot endure slavery, but the most servile people on earth would have been roused to attempt the recovery of freedom; and consequently many citizens of all ranks resolved either to deliver themselves from this odious tyranny or die in the attempt. Three distinct conspiracies were formed; one of the great; another of the people, and the third of the working classes; each of which, besides the general causes which operated upon the whole, were excited by some other particular grievance. The great found themselves deprived of all participation in the government; the people had lost the power they possessed, and the artificers saw themselves deficient in the usual remuneration of their labor.

Agnolo Acciajuoli was at this time archbishop of Florence, and by his discourses had formerly greatly favored the duke, and procured him many followers among the higher class of the people. But when he found him lord of the city, and became acquainted with his tyrannical mode of proceeding, it appeared to him that he had misled his countrymen; and to correct the evil he had done, he saw no other course, but to attempt the cure by the means which had caused it. He therefore became the leader of the first and most powerful conspiracy, and was joined by the Bardi, Rossi, Frescobaldi, Scali Altoviti, Magalotti, Strozzi, and Mancini. Of the second, the principals were Manno and Corso Donati, and with them the Pazzi, Cavicciulli, Cerchi, and Albizzi. Of the third the first was Antonio Adimari, and with him the Medici, Bordini, Rucellai, and Aldobrandini. It was the intention of these last, to slay him in the house of the Albizzi, whither he was expected to go on St. John’s day, to see the horses run, but he not having gone, their design did not succeed. They then resolved to attack him as he rode through the city; but they found this would be very difficult; for he was always accompanied with a considerable armed force, and never took the same road twice together, so that they had no certainty of where to find him. They had a design of slaying him in the council, although they knew that if he were dead, they would be at the mercy of his followers.

While these matters were being considered by the conspirators, Antonio Adimari, in expectation of getting assistance from them, disclosed the affair to some Siennese, his friends, naming certain of the conspirators, and assuring them that the whole city was ready to rise at once. One of them communicated the matter to Francesco Brunelleschi, not with a design to injure the plot, but in the hope that he would join them. Francesco, either from personal fear, or private hatred of some one, revealed the whole to the duke; whereupon, Pagolo del Mazecha and Simon da Monterappoli were taken, who acquainted him with the number and quality of the conspirators. This terrified him, and he was advised to request their presence rather than to take them prisoners, for if they fled, he might without disgrace, secure himself by banishment of the rest. He therefore sent for Antonio Adimari, who, confiding in his companions, appeared immediately, and was detained. Francesco Brunelleschi and Uguccione Buondelmonti advised the duke to take as many of the conspirators prisoners as he could, and put them to death; but he, thinking his strength unequal to his foes, did not adopt this course, but took another, which, had it succeeded, would have freed him from his enemies and increased his power. It was the custom of the duke to call the citizens together upon some occasions and advise with them. He therefore having first sent to collect forces from without, made a list of three hundred citizens, and gave it to his messengers, with orders to assemble them under the pretense of public business; and having drawn them together, it was his intention either to put them to death or imprison them.

The capture of Antonio Adimari and the sending for forces, which could not be kept secret, alarmed the citizens, and more particularly those who were in the plot, so that the boldest of them refused to attend, and as each had read the list, they sought each other, and resolved to rise at once and die like men, with arms in their hands, rather than be led like calves to the slaughter. In a very short time the chief conspirators became known to each other, and resolved that the next day, which was the 26th July, 1343, they would raise a disturbance in the Old Market place, then arm themselves and call the people to freedom.

The next morning being come, at nine o’clock, according to agreement, they took arms, and at the call of liberty assembled, each party in its own district, under the ensigns and with the arms of the people, which had been secretly provided by the conspirators. All the heads of families, as well of the nobility as of the people, met together, and swore to stand in each other’s defense, and effect the death of the duke; except some of the Buondelmonti and of the Cavalcanti, with those four families of the people which had taken so conspicuous a part in making him sovereign, and the butchers, with others, the lowest of the plebeians, who met armed in the piazza in his favor.

The duke immediately fortified the place, and ordered those of his people who were lodged in different parts of the city to mount upon horseback and join those in the court; but, pn their way thither, many were attacked and slain. However, about three hundred horse assembled, and the duke was in doubt whether he should come forth and meet the enemy, or defend himself within. On the other hand, the Medici, Cavicciulli, Rucellai, and other families who had been most injured by him, fearful that if he came forth, many of those who had taken arms against him would discover themselves his partisans, in order to deprive him of the occasion of attacking them and increasing the number of his friends, took the lead and assailed the palace. Upon this, those families of the people who had declared for the duke, seeing themselves boldly attacked, changed their minds, and all took part with the citizens, except Uguccione Buondelmonti, who retired into the palace, and Giannozzo Cavalcanti, who having withdrawn with some of his followers to the new market, mounted upon a bench, and begged that those who were going in arms to the piazza, would take the part of the duke. In order to terrify them, he exaggerated the number of his people and threatened all with death who should obstinately persevere in their undertaking against their sovereign. But not finding any one either to follow him, or to chastise his insolence, and seeing his labor fruitless, he withdrew to his own house.

In the meantime, the contest in the piazza between the people and the forces of the duke was very great; but although the place served them for defense, they were overcome, some yielding to the enemy, and others, quitting their horses, fled within the walls. While this was going on, Corso and Amerigo Donati, with a part of the people, broke open the stinche, or prisons; burnt the papers of the provost and of the public chamber; pillaged the houses of the rectors, and slew all who had held offices under the duke whom they could find. The duke, finding the piazza in possession of his enemies, the city opposed to him, and without any hope of assistance, endeavored by an act of clemency to recover the favor of the people. Having caused those whom he had made prisoners to be brought before him, with amiable and kindly expressions he set them at liberty, and made Antonio Adimari a knight, although quite against his will. He caused his own arms to be taken down, and those of the people to be replaced over the palace; but these things coming out of season, and forced by his necessities, did him little good. He remained, notwithstanding all he did, besieged in the palace, and saw that having aimed at too much he had lost all, and would most likely, after a few days, die either of hunger, or by the weapons of his enemies. The citizens assembled in the church of Santa Reparata, to form the new government, and appointed fourteen citizens, half from the nobility and half from the people, who, with the archbishop, were invested with full authority to remodel the state of Florence. They also elected six others to take upon them the duties of provost, till he who should be finally chosen took office, the duties of which were usually performed by a subject of some neighboring state.

Many had come to Florence in defense of the people; among whom were a party from Sienna, with six ambassadors, men of high consideration in their own country. These endeavored to bring the people and the duke to terms; but the former refused to listen to any whatever, unless Guglielmo da Scesi and his son, with Cerrettieri Bisdomini, were first given up to them. The duke would not consent to this; but being threatened by those who were shut up with him, he was forced to comply. The rage of men is certainly always found greater, and their revenge more furious upon the recovery of liberty, than when it has only been defended. Guglielmo and his son were placed among the thousands of their enemies, and the latter was not yet eighteen years old; neither his beauty, his innocence, nor his youth, could save him from the fury of the multitude; but both were instantly slain. Those who could not wound them while alive, wounded them after they were dead; and not satisfied with tearing them to pieces, they hewed their bodies with swords, tore them with their hands, and even with their teeth. And that every sense might be satiated with vengeance, having first heard their moans, seen their wounds, and touched their lacerated bodies, they wished even the stomach to be satisfied, that having glutted the external senses, the one within might also have its share. This rabid fury, however hurtful to the father and son, was favorable to Cerrettieri; for the multitude, wearied with their cruelty toward the former, quite forgot him, so that he, not being asked for, remained in the palace, and during night was conveyed safely away by his friends.

The rage of the multitude being appeased by their blood, an agreement was made that the duke and his people, with whatever belonged to him, should quit the city in safety; that he should renounce all claim, of whatever kind, upon Florence, and that upon his arrival in the Casentino he should ratify his renunciation. On the sixth of August he set out, accompanied by many citizens, and having arrived at the Casentino he ratified the agreement, although unwillingly, and would not have kept his word if Count Simon had not threatened to take him back to Florence. This duke, as his proceedings testified, was cruel and avaricious, difficult to speak with, and haughty in reply. He desired the service of men, not the cultivation of their better feelings, and strove rather to inspire them with fear than love. Nor was his person less despicable than his manners; he was short, his complexion was black, and he had a long, thin beard. He was thus in every respect contemptible; and at the end of ten months, his misconduct deprived him of the sovereignty which the evil counsel of others had given him.

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