History of Florence, by Niccolo Machiavelli

Chapter IX

Many cities and territories, subject to the Florentines, rebel — Prudent conduct adopted upon this occasion — The city is divided into quarters — Disputes between the nobility and the people — The bishop endeavors to reconcile them, but does not succeed — The government reformed by the people — Riot of Andrea Strozzi — Serious disagreements between the nobility and the people — They come to arms, and the nobility are subdued — The plague in Florence of which Boccaccio speaks.

These events taking place in the city, induced all the dependencies of the Florentine state to throw off their yoke; so that Arezzo, Castiglione, Pistoia, Volterra, Colle, and San Gemigniano rebelled. Thus Florence found herself deprived of both her tyrant and her dominions at the same moment, and in recovering her liberty, taught her subjects how they might become free. The duke being expelled and the territories lost, the fourteen citizens and the bishop thought it would be better to act kindly toward their subjects in peace, than to make them enemies by war, and to show a desire that their subjects should be free as well as themselves. They therefore sent ambassadors to the people of Arezzo, to renounce all dominion over that city, and to enter into a treaty with them; to the end that as they could not retain them as subjects, they might make use of them as friends. They also, in the best manner they were able, agreed with the other places that they should retain their freedom, and that, being free, they might mutually assist each other in the preservation of their liberties. This prudent course was attended with a most favorable result; for Arezzo, not many years afterward, returned to the Florentine rule, and the other places, in the course of a few months, returned to their former obedience. Thus it frequently occurs that we sooner attain our ends by a seeming indifferent to them, than by more obstinate pursuit.

Having settled external affairs, they now turned to the consideration of those within the city; and after some altercation between the nobility and the people, it was arranged that the nobility should form one-third of the Signory and fill one-half of the other offices. The city was, as we have before shown, divided into sixths; and hence there would be six signors, one for each sixth, except when, from some more than ordinary cause, there had been twelve or thirteen created; but when this had occurred they were again soon reduced to six. It now seemed desirable to make an alteration in this respect, as well because the sixths were not properly divided, as that, wishing to give their proportion to the great, it became desirable to increase the number. They therefore divided the city into quarters, and for each created three signors. They abolished the office of Gonfalonier of Justice, and also the Gonfaloniers of the companies of the people; and instead of the twelve Buonuomini, or good men, created eight counsellors, four from each party. The government having been established in this manner, the city might have been in repose if the great had been content to live in that moderation which civil society requires. But they produced a contrary result, for those out of office would not conduct themselves as citizens, and those who were in government wished to be lords, so that every day furnished some new instance of their insolence and pride. These things were very grievous to the people, and they began to regret that for one tyrant put down, there had sprung up a thousand. The arrogance of one party and the anger of the other rose to such a degree, that the heads of the people complained to the bishop of the improper conduct of the nobility, and what unfit associates they had become for the people; and begged he would endeavor to induce them to be content with their share of administration in the other offices, and leave the magistracy of the Signory wholly to themselves.

The bishop was naturally a well-meaning man, but his want of firmness rendered him easily influenced. Hence, at the instance of his associates, he at first favored the duke of Athens, and afterward, by the advice of other citizens, conspired against him. At the reformation of the government, he had favored the nobility, and now he appeared to incline toward the people, moved by the reasons which they had advanced. Thinking to find in others the same instability of purpose, he endeavored to effect an amicable arrangement. With this design he called together the fourteen who were yet in office, and in the best terms he could imagine advised them to give up the Signory to the people, in order to secure the peace of the city; and assured them that if they refused, ruin would most probably be the result.

This discourse excited the anger of the nobility to the highest pitch, and Ridolfo de’ Bardi reproved him in unmeasured terms as a man of little faith; reminding him of his friendship for the duke, to prove the duplicity of his present conduct, and saying, that in driving him away he had acted the part of a traitor. He concluded by telling him, that the honors they had acquired at their own peril, they would at their own peril defend. They then left the bishop, and in great wrath, informed their associates in the government, and all the families of the nobility, of what had been done. The people also expressed their thoughts to each other, and as the nobility made preparations for the defense of their signors, they determined not to wait till they had perfected their arrangements; and therefore, being armed, hastened to the palace, shouting, as they went along, that the nobility must give up their share in the government.

The uproar and excitement were astonishing. The Signors of the nobility found themselves abandoned; for their friends, seeing all the people in arms, did not dare to rise in their defense, but each kept within his own house. The Signors of the people endeavored to abate the excitement of the multitude, by affirming their associates to be good and moderate men; but, not succeeding in their attempt, to avoid a greater evil, sent them home to their houses, whither they were with difficulty conducted. The nobility having left the palace, the office of the four councillors was taken from their party, and conferred upon twelve of the people. To the eight signors who remained, a Gonfalonier of Justice was added, and sixteen Gonfaloniers of the companies of the people; and the council was so reformed, that the government remained wholly in the hands of the popular party.

At the time these events took place there was a great scarcity in the city, and discontent prevailed both among the highest and the lowest classes; in the latter for want of food, and in the former from having lost their power in the state. This circumstance induced Andrea Strozzi to think of making himself sovereign of the city. Selling his corn at a lower price than others did, a great many people flocked to his house; emboldened by the sight of these, he one morning mounted his horse, and, followed by a considerable number, called the people to arms, and in a short time drew together about 4,000 men, with whom he proceeded to the Signory, and demanded that the gates of the palace should be opened. But the signors, by threats and the force which they retained in the palace, drove them from the court; and then by proclamation so terrified them, that they gradually dropped off and returned to their homes, and Andrea, finding himself alone, with some difficulty escaped falling into the hands of the magistrates.

This event, although an act of great temerity, and attended with the result that usually follows such attempts, raised a hope in the minds of the nobility of overcoming the people, seeing that the lowest of the plebeians were at enmity with them. And to profit by this circumstance, they resolved to arm themselves, and with justifiable force recover those rights of which they had been unjustly deprived. Their minds acquired such an assurance of success, that they openly provided themselves with arms, fortified their houses, and even sent to their friends in Lombardy for assistance. The people and the Signory made preparation for their defense, and requested aid from Perugia and Sienna, so that the city was filled with the armed followers of either party. The nobility on this side of the Arno divided themselves into three parts; the one occupied the houses of the Cavicciulli, near the church of St. John; another, the houses of the Pazzi and the Donati, near the great church of St. Peter; and the third those of the Cavalcanti in the New Market. Those beyond the river fortified the bridges and the streets in which their houses stood; the Nerli defended the bridge of the Carraja; the Frescobaldi and the Manelli, the church of the Holy Trinity; and the Rossi and the Bardi, the bridge of the Rubaconte and the Old Bridge. The people were drawn together under the Gonfalon of justice and the ensigns of the companies of the artisans.

Both sides being thus arranged in order of battle, the people thought it imprudent to defer the contest, and the attack was commenced by the Medici and the Rondinelli, who assailed the Cavicciulli, where the houses of the latter open upon the piazza of St. John. Here both parties contended with great obstinacy, and were mutually wounded, from the towers by stones and other missiles, and from below by arrows. They fought for three hours; but the forces of the people continuing to increase, and the Cavicciulli finding themselves overcome by numbers, and hopeless of other assistance, submitted themselves to the people, who saved their houses and property; and having disarmed them, ordered them to disperse among their relatives and friends, and remain unarmed. Being victorious in the first attack, they easily overpowered the Pazzi and the Donati, whose numbers were less than those they had subdued; so that there only remained on this side of the Arno, the Cavalcanti, who were strong both in respect of the post they had chosen and in their followers. Nevertheless, seeing all the Gonfalons against them, and that the others had been overcome by three Gonfalons alone, they yielded without offering much resistance. Three parts of the city were now in the hands of the people, and only one in possession of the nobility; but this was the strongest, as well on account of those who held it, as from its situation, being defended by the Arno; hence it was first necessary to force the bridges. The Old Bridge was first assailed and offered a brave resistance; for the towers were armed, the streets barricaded, and the barricades defended by the most resolute men; so that the people were repulsed with great loss. Finding their labor at this point fruitless, they endeavored to force the Rubaconte Bridge, but no better success resulting, they left four Gonfalons in charge of the two bridges, and with the others attacked the bridge of the Carraja. Here, although the Nerli defended themselves like brave men, they could not resist the fury of the people; for this bridge, having no towers, was weaker than the others, and was attacked by the Capponi, and many families of the people who lived in that vicinity. Being thus assailed on all sides, they abandoned the barricades and gave way to the people, who then overcame the Rossi and the Frescobaldi; for all those beyond the Arno took part with the conquerors.

There was now no resistance made except by the Bardi, who remained undaunted, notwithstanding the failure of their friends, the union of the people against them, and the little chance of success which they seemed to have. They resolved to die fighting, and rather see their houses burned and plundered, than submit to the power of their enemies. They defended themselves with such obstinacy, that many fruitless attempts were made to overcome them, both at the Old Bridge and the Rubaconte; but their foes were always repulsed with loss. There had in former times been a street which led between the houses of the Pitti, from the Roman road to the walls upon Mount St. George. By this way the people sent six Gonfalons, with orders to assail their houses from behind. This attack overcame the resolution of the Bardi, and decided the day in favor of the people; for when those who defended the barricades in the street learned that their houses were being plundered, they left the principal fight and hastened to their defense. This caused the Old Bridge to be lost; the Bardi fled in all directions and were received into the houses of the Quaratesi, Panzanesi, and Mozzi. The people, especially the lower classes, greedy for spoil, sacked and destroyed their houses, and pulled down and burned their towers and palaces with such outrageous fury, that the most cruel enemy of the Florentine name would have been ashamed of taking part in such wanton destruction.

The nobility being thus overcome, the people reformed the government; and as they were of three kinds, the higher, the middle, and the lower class, it was ordered that the first should appoint two signors; the two latter three each, and that the Gonfalonier should be chosen alternately from either party. Besides this, all the regulations for the restraint of the nobility were renewed; and in order to weaken them still more, many were reduced to the grade of the people. The ruin of the nobility was so complete, and depressed them so much, that they never afterward ventured to take arms for the recovery of their power, but soon became humbled and abject in the extreme. And thus Florence lost the generosity of her character and her distinction in arms.

After these events the city remained in peace till the year 1353. In the course of this period occurred the memorable plague, described with so much eloquence by Giovanni Boccaccio, and by which Florence lost 96,000 souls. In 1348, began the first war with the Visconti, occasioned by the archbishop, then prince of Milan; and when this was concluded, dissensions again arose in the city; for although the nobility were destroyed, fortune did not fail to cause new divisions and new troubles.

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