History of Florence, by Niccolo Machiavelli

Chapter III

Contrary measures adopted by the magistrates to effect a pacification — Luigi Guicciardini the Gonfalonier entreats the magistrates of the Arts to endeavor to pacify the people — Serious riot caused by the plebeians — The woolen Art — The plebeians assemble — The speech of a seditious plebeian — Their resolution thereupon — The Signory discover the designs of the plebeians — Measures adopted to counteract them.

This popular fury being abated by the authority of the Signors and the approach of night, on the following day, the Balia relieved the admonished, on condition that they should not for three years be capable of holding any magistracy. They annulled the laws made by the Guelphs to the prejudice of the citizens; declared Lapo da Castiglionchio and his companions, rebels, and with them many others, who were the objects of universal detestation. After these resolutions, the new Signory were drawn for, and Luigi Guicciardini appointed Gonfalonier, which gave hope that the tumults would soon be appeased; for everyone thought them to be peaceable men and lovers of order. Still the shops were not opened, nor did the citizens lay down their arms, but continued to patrol the city in great numbers; so that the Signory did not assume the magistracy with the usual pomp, but merely assembled within the palace, omitting all ceremony.

This Signory, considering nothing more advisable in the beginning of their magistracy than to restore peace, caused a relinquishment of arms; ordered the shops to be opened, and the strangers who had been called to their aid, to return to their homes. They appointed guards in many parts of the city, so that if the admonished would only have remained quiet, order would soon have been re-established. But they were not satisfied to wait three years for the recovery of their honours; so that to gratify them the Arts again met, and demanded of the Signory, that for the benefit and quiet of the city, they would ordain that no citizens should at any time, whether Signor, Colleague, Capitano di Parte, or Consul of any art whatever, be admonished as a Ghibelline; and further, that new ballots of the Guelphic party should be made, and the old ones burned. These demands were at once acceded to, not only by the Signors, but by all the Councils; and thus it was hoped the tumults newly excited would be settled.

But since men are not satisfied with recovering what is their own, but wish to possess the property of others and to revenge themselves, those who were in hopes of benefiting by these disorders persuaded the artificers that they would never be safe, if several of their enemies were not expelled from the city or destroyed. This terrible doctrine coming to the knowledge of the Signory, they caused the magistrates of the Arts and their Syndics to be brought before them, and Luigi Guicciardini, the Gonfalonier, addressed them in the following words: “If these Signors, and I with them, had not long been acquainted with the fate of this city, that as soon as external wars have ceased the internal commence, we should have been more surprised, and our displeasure would have been greater. But as evils to which we are accustomed are less annoying, we have endured past disturbances patiently, they having arisen for the most part without our fault; and we hoped that, like former troubles, they would soon have an end, after the many and great concessions we had made at your suggestion. But finding that you are yet unsettled, that you contemplate the commission of new crimes against your fellow-citizens, and are desirous of making new exiles, our displeasure increases in proportion to your misconduct. And certainly, could we have believed that during our magistracy the city was to be ruined, whether with or without your concurrence, we should certainly, either by flight or exile, have avoided these horrors. But trusting that we had to do with those who possessed some feelings of humanity and some love of their country, we willingly accepted the magistracy, thinking that by our gentleness we should overcome your ambition. But we perceive from experience that the more humble our behavior, the more concessions we make, the prouder you become, and the more exorbitant are your demands. And though we speak thus, it is not in order to offend, but to amend you. Let others tell you pleasing tales, our design is to communicate only what is for your good. Now we would ask you, and have you answer on your honor, What is there yet ungranted, that you can, with any appearance of propriety, require? You wished to have authority taken from the Capitani di Parte; and it is done. You wished that the ballotings should be burned, and a reformation of them take place; and we consent. You desired that the admonished should be restored to their honours; and it is permitted. At your entreaty we have pardoned those who have burned down houses and plundered churches; many honorable citizens have been exiled to please you; and at your suggestion new restraints have been laid upon the Great. When will there be an end of your demands? and how long will you continue to abuse our liberality? Do you not observe with how much more moderation we bear defeat than you your victory? To what end will your divisions bring our city? Have you forgotten that when disunited Castruccio, a low citizen of Lucca, subdued her? or that a duke of Athens, your hired captain did so too? But when the citizens were united in her defense, an archbishop of Milan and a pope were unable to subdue it, and, after many years of war, were compelled to retire with disgrace.

“Then why would you, by your discords, reduce to slavery in a time of peace, that city, which so many powerful enemies have left free, even in war? What can you expect from your disunion but subjugation? or from the property of which you already have plundered, or may yet plunder us, but poverty? for this property is the means by which we furnish occupation for the whole city, and if you take it from us, our means of finding that occupation is withdrawn. Besides, those who take it will have difficulty in preserving what is dishonestly acquired, and thus poverty and destitution are brought upon the city. Now, I, and these Signors command, and if it were consistent with propriety, we would entreat that you allow your minds to be calmed; be content, rest satisfied with the provisions that have been made for you; and if you should be found to need anything further, make your request with decency and order, and not with tumult; for when your demands are reasonable they will always be complied with, and you will not give occasion to evil designing men to ruin your country and cast the blame upon yourselves.” These words conveying nothing but the truth, produced a suitable effect upon the minds of the citizens, who thanking the Gonfalonier for having acted toward them the part of a king Signor, and toward the city that of a good citizen, offered their obedience in whatever might be committed to them. And the Signors, to prove the sincerity of their intentions, appointed two citizens for each of the superior magistracies, who, with Syndics of the arts, were to consider what could be done to restore quite, and report their resolutions to the Signors.

While these things were in progress, a disturbance arose, much more injurious to the republic than anything that had hitherto occurred. The greatest part of the fires and robberies which took place on the previous days were perpetrated by the very lowest of the people; and those who had been the most audacious, were afraid that when the greater differences were composed, they would be punished for the crimes they had committed; and that as usual, they would be abandoned by those who had instigated them to the commission of crime. To this may be added, the hatred of the lower orders toward the rich citizens and the principals of the arts, because they did not think themselves remunerated for their labor in a manner equal to their merits. For in the time of Charles I., when the city was divided into arts, a head or governor was appointed to each, and it was provided that the individuals of each art, should be judged in civil matters by their own superiors. These arts, as we have before observed, were at first twelve; in the course of time they were increased to twenty-one, and attained so much power, that in a few years they grasped the entire government of the city; and as some were in greater esteem than others, they were divided into MAJOR and MINOR; seven were called “major,” and fourteen, the “minor arts.” From this division, and from other causes which we have narrated above, arose the arrogance of the Capitani di Parte; for those citizens who had formerly been Guelphs, and had the constant disposal of that magistracy, favored the followers of the major and persecuted the minor arts and their patrons; and hence arose the many commotions already mentioned. When the companies of the arts were first organized, many of those trades, followed by the lowest of the people and the plebeians, were not incorporated, but were ranged under those arts most nearly allied to them; and, hence, when they were not properly remunerated for their labor, or their masters oppressed them, they had no one of whom to seek redress, except the magistrate of the art to which theirs was subject; and of him they did not think justice always attainable. Of the arts, that which had always had, and now has, the greatest number of these subordinates, is the woolen; which being both then, and still, the most powerful body, and first in authority, supports the greater part of the plebeians and lowest of the people.

The lower classes, then, the subordinates not only of the woolen, but also of the other arts, were discontented, from the causes just mentioned; and their apprehension of punishment for the burnings and robberies they had committed, did not tend to compose them. Meetings took place in different parts during the night, to talk over the past, and to communicate the danger in which they were, when one of the most daring and experienced, in order to animate the rest, spoke thus:

“If the question now were, whether we should take up arms, rob and burn the houses of the citizens, and plunder churches, I am one of those who would think it worthy of further consideration, and should, perhaps, prefer poverty and safety to the dangerous pursuit of an uncertain good. But as we have already armed, and many offenses have been committed, it appears to me that we have to consider how to lay them aside, and secure ourselves from the consequences of what is already done. I certainly think, that if nothing else could teach us, necessity might. You see the whole city full of complaint and indignation against us; the citizens are closely united, and the signors are constantly with the magistrates. You may be sure they are contriving something against us; they are arranging some new plan to subdue us. We ought therefore to keep two things in view, and have two points to consider; the one is, to escape with impunity for what has been done during the last few days, and the other, to live in greater comfort and security for the time to come. We must, therefore, I think, in order to be pardoned for our faults, commit new ones; redoubling the mischief, and multiplying fires and robberies; and in doing this, endeavor to have as many companions as we can; for when many are in fault, few are punished; small crimes are chastised, but great and serious ones rewarded. When many suffer, few seek vengeance; for general evils are endured more patiently than private ones. To increase the number of misdeeds will, therefore, make forgiveness more easily attainable, and will open the way to secure what we require for our own liberty. And it appears evident that the gain is certain; for our opponents are disunited and rich; their disunion will give us the victory, and their riches, when they have become ours, will support us. Be not deceived about that antiquity of blood by which they exalt themselves above us; for all men having had one common origin, are all equally ancient, and nature has made us all after one fashion. Strip us naked, and we shall all be found alike. Dress us in their clothing, and they in ours, we shall appear noble, they ignoble — for poverty and riches make all the difference. It grieves me much to think that some of you are sorry inwardly for what is done, and resolve to abstain from anything more of the kind. Certainly, if it be so, you are not the men I took you for; because neither shame nor conscience ought to have any influence with you. Conquerors, by what means soever, are never considered aught but glorious. We have no business to think about conscience; for when, like us, men have to fear hunger, and imprisonment, or death, the fear of hell neither can nor ought to have any influence upon them. If you only notice human proceedings, you may observe that all who attain great power and riches, make use of either force or fraud; and what they have acquired either by deceit or violence, in order to conceal the disgraceful methods of attainment, they endeavor to sanctify with the false title of honest gains. Those who either from imprudence or want of sagacity avoid doing so, are always overwhelmed with servitude and poverty; for faithful servants are always servants, and honest men are always poor; nor do any ever escape from servitude but the bold and faithless, or from poverty, but the rapacious and fraudulent. God and nature have thrown all human fortunes into the midst of mankind; and they are thus attainable rather by rapine than by industry, by wicked actions rather than by good. Hence it is that men feed upon each other, and those who cannot defend themselves must be worried. Therefore we must use force when the opportunity offers; and fortune cannot present us one more favorable than the present, when the citizens are still disunited, the Signory doubtful, and the magistrates terrified; for we may easily conquer them before they can come to any settled arrangement. By this means we shall either obtain the entire government of the city, or so large a share of it, as to be forgiven past errors, and have sufficient authority to threaten the city with a renewal of them at some future time. I confess this course is bold and dangerous, but when necessity presses, audacity becomes prudence, and in great affairs the brave never think of dangers. The enterprises that are begun with hazard always have a reward at last; and no one ever escaped from embarrassment without some peril. Besides, it is easy to see from all their preparations of prisons, racks, and instruments of death, that there is more danger in inaction than in endeavoring to secure ourselves; for in the first case the evils are certain, in the latter doubtful. How often have I heard you complain of the avarice of your superiors and the injustice of your magistrates. Now then is the time, not only to liberate yourself from them, but to become so much superior, that they will have more causes of grief and fear from you, than you from them. The opportunity presented by circumstances passes away, and when gone, it will be vain to think it can be recalled. You see the preparations of our enemies; let us anticipate them; and those who are first in arms will certainly be victors, to the ruin of their enemies and their own exaltation; and thus honors will accrue to many of us and security to all.” These arguments greatly inflamed minds already disposed to mischief, so that they determined to take up arms as soon as they had acquired a sufficient number of associates, and bound themselves by oath to mutual defense, in case any of them were subdued by the civil power.

While they were arranging to take possession of the republic, their design became known to the Signory, who, having taken a man named Simone, learned from him the particulars of the conspiracy, and that the outbreak was to take place on the following day. Finding the danger so pressing, they called together the colleagues and those citizens who with the syndics of the arts were endeavoring to effect the union of the city. It was then evening, and they advised the signors to assemble the consuls of the trades, who proposed that whatever armed force was in Florence should be collected, and with the Gonfaloniers of the people and their companies, meet under arms in the piazza next morning. It happened that while Simone was being tortured, a man named Niccolo da San Friano was regulating the palace clock, and becoming acquainted with what was going on, returned home and spread the report of it in his neighborhood, so that presently the piazza of St. Spirito was occupied by above a thousand men. This soon became known to the other conspirators, and San Pietro Maggiore and St. Lorenzo, their places of assembly, were presently full of them, all under arms.

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