History of Florence, by Niccolo Machiavelli

Chapter IV

Proceedings of the plebeians — The demand they make of the Signory — They insist that the Signory leave the palace — The Signory leave the palace — Michael di Lando Gonfalonier — Complaints and movements of the plebeians against Michael di Lando — Michael di Lando proceeds against the plebeians and reduces them to order — Character of Michael di Lando.

At daybreak on the 21st of July, there did not appear in the piazza above eighty men in arms friendly to the Signory, and not one of the Gonfaloniers; for knowing the whole city to be in a state of insurrection they were afraid to leave their homes. The first body of plebeians that made its appearance was that which had assembled at San Pietro Maggiore; but the armed force did not venture to attack them. Then came the other multitudes, and finding no opposition, they loudly demanded their prisoners from the Signory; and being resolved to have them by force if they were not yielded to their threats, they burned the house of Luigi Guicciardini; and the Signory, for fear of greater mischief, set them at liberty. With this addition to their strength they took the Gonfalon of Justice from the bearer, and under the shadow of authority which it gave them, burned the houses of many citizens, selecting those whose owners had publicly or privately excited their hatred. Many citizens, to avenge themselves for private injuries, conducted them to the houses of their enemies; for it was quite sufficient to insure its destruction, if a single voice from the mob called out, “To the house of such a one,” or if he who bore the Gonfalon took the road toward it. All the documents belonging to the woolen trade were burned, and after the commission of much violence, by way of associating it with something laudable, Salvestro de Medici and sixty-three other citizens were made knights, among whom were Benedetto and Antonio degli Alberti, Tommaso Strozzi and others similarly their friends; though many received the honor against their wills. It was a remarkable peculiarity of the riots, that many who had their houses burned, were on the same day, and by the same party made knights; so close were the kindness and the injury together. This circumstance occurred to Luigi Guicciardini, Gonfalonier of Justice.

In this tremendous uproar, the Signory, finding themselves abandoned by their armed force, by the leaders of the arts, and by the Gonfaloniers, became dismayed; for none had come to their assistance in obedience to orders; and of the sixteen Gonfalons, the ensign of the Golden Lion and of the Vaio, under Giovenco della Stufa and Giovanni Cambi alone appeared; and these, not being joined by any other, soon withdrew. Of the citizens, on the other hand, some, seeing the fury of this unreasonable multitude and the palace abandoned, remained within doors; others followed the armed mob, in the hope that by being among them, they might more easily protect their own houses or those of their friends. The power of the plebeians was thus increased and that of the Signory weakened. The tumult continued all day, and at night the rioters halted near the palace of Stefano, behind the church of St. Barnabas. Their number exceeded six thousand, and before daybreak they obtained by threats the ensigns of the trades, with which and the Gonfalon of Justice, when morning came, they proceeded to the palace of the provost, who refusing to surrender it to them, they took possession of it by force.

The Signory, desirous of a compromise, since they could not restrain them by force, appointed four of the Colleagues to proceed to the palace of the provost, and endeavor to learn what was their intention. They found that the leaders of the plebeians, with the Syndics of the trades and some citizens, had resolved to signify their wishes to the Signory. They therefore returned with four deputies of the plebeians, who demanded that the woolen trade should not be allowed to have a foreign judge; that there should be formed three new companies of the arts; namely, one for the wool combers and dyers, one for the barbers, doublet-makers, tailors, and such like, and the third for the lowest class of people. They required that the three new arts should furnish two Signors; the fourteen minor arts, three; and that the Signory should provide a suitable place of assembly for them. They also made it a condition that no member of these companies should be expected during two years to pay any debt that amounted to less than fifty ducats; that the bank should take no interest on loans already contracted, and that only the principal sum should be demanded; that the condemned and the banished should be forgiven, and the admonished should be restored to participation in the honors of government. Besides these, many other articles were stipulated in favor of their friends, and a requisition made that many of their enemies should be exiled and admonished. These demands, though grievous and dishonorable to the republic, were for fear of further violence granted, by the joint deliberation of the Signors, Colleagues, and Council of the people. But in order to give it full effect, it was requisite that the Council of the Commune should also give its consent; and, as they could not assemble two councils during the same day it was necessary to defer it till the morrow. However the trades appeared content, the plebeians satisfied; and both promised, that these laws being confirmed, every disturbance should cease.

On the following morning, while the Council of the Commune were in consultation, the impatient and volatile multitude entered the piazza, under their respective ensigns, with loud and fearful shouts, which struck terror into all the Council and Signory; and Guerrente Marignolli, one of the latter, influenced more by fear than anything else, under pretense of guarding the lower doors, left the chamber and fled to his house. He was unable to conceal himself from the multitude, who, however, took no notice, except that, upon seeing him, they insisted that all the Signors should quit the palace, and declared that if they refused to comply, their houses should be burned and their families put to death.

The law had now been passed; the Signors were in their own apartments; the Council had descended from the chamber, and without leaving the palace, hopeless of saving the city, they remained in the lodges and courts below, overwhelmed with grief at seeing such depravity in the multitude, and such perversity or fear in those who might either have restrained or suppressed them. The Signory, too, were dismayed and fearful for the safety of their country, finding themselves abandoned by one of their associates, and without any aid or even advice; when, at this moment of uncertainty as to what was about to happen, or what would be best to be done, Tommaso Strozzi and Benedetto Alberti, either from motives of ambition (being desirous of remaining masters of the palace), or because they thought it the most advisable step, persuaded them to give way to the popular impulse, and withdraw privately to their homes. This advice, given by those who had been the leaders of the tumult, although the others yielded, filled Alamanno Acciajuoli and Niccolo del Bene, two of the Signors, with anger; and, reassuming a little vigor, they said, that if the others would withdraw they could not help it, but they would remain as long as they continued in office, if they did not in the meantime lose their lives. These dissensions redoubled the fears of the Signory and the rage of the people, so that the Gonfalonier, disposed rather to conclude his magistracy in dishonor than in danger, recommended himself to the care of Tommaso Strozzi, who withdrew him from the palace and conducted him to his house. The other Signors were, one after another, conveyed in the same manner, so that Alamanno and Niccolo, not to appear more valiant than wise, seeing themselves left alone, also retired, and the palace fell into the hands of the plebeians and the Eight Commissioners of War, who had not yet laid down their authority.

When the plebeians entered the palace, the standard of the Gonfalonier of Justice was in the hands of Michael di Lando, a wool comber. This man, barefoot, with scarcely anything upon him, and the rabble at his heels, ascended the staircase, and, having entered the audience chamber of the Signory, he stopped, and turning to the multitude said, “You see this palace is now yours, and the city is in your power; what do you think ought to be done?” To which they replied, they would have him for their Gonfalonier and lord; and that he should govern them and the city as he thought best. Michael accepted the command; and, as he was a cool and sagacious man, more favored by nature than by fortune, he resolved to compose the tumult, and restore peace to the city. To occupy the minds of the people, and give himself time to make some arrangement, he ordered that one Nuto, who had been appointed bargello, or sheriff, by Lapo da Castiglionchio, should be sought. The greater part of his followers went to execute this commission; and, to commence with justice the government he had acquired by favor, he commanded that no one should either burn or steal anything; while, to strike terror into all, he caused a gallows to be erected in the court of the palace. He began the reform of government by deposing the Syndics of the trades, and appointing new ones; he deprived the Signory and the Colleagues of their magistracy, and burned the balloting purses containing the names of those eligible to office under the former government.

In the meantime, Ser Nuto, being brought by the mob into the court, was suspended from the gallows by one foot; and those around having torn him to pieces, in little more than a moment nothing remained of him but the foot by which he had been tied.

The Eight Commissioners of War, on the other hand, thinking themselves, after the departure of the Signors, left sole masters of the city, had already formed a new Signory; but Michael, on hearing this, sent them an order to quit the palace immediately; for he wished to show that he could govern Florence without their assistance. He then assembled the Syndics of the trades, and created as a Signory, four from the lowest plebeians; two from the major, and two from the minor trades. Besides this, he made a new selection of names for the balloting purses, and divided the state into three parts; one composed of the new trades, another of the minor, and the third of the major trades. He gave to Salvestro de’ Medici the revenue of the shops upon the Old Bridge; for himself he took the provostry of Empoli, and conferred benefits upon many other citizens, friends of the plebeians; not so much for the purpose of rewarding their labors, as that they might serve to screen him from envy.

It seemed to the plebeians that Michael, in his reformation of the state, had too much favored the higher ranks of the people, and that themselves had not a sufficient share in the government to enable them to preserve it; and hence, prompted by their usual audacity, they again took arms, and coming tumultuously into the court of the palace, each body under their particular ensigns, insisted that the Signory should immediately descend and consider new means for advancing their well-being and security. Michael, observing their arrogance, was unwilling to provoke them, but without further yielding to their request, blamed the manner in which it was made, advised them to lay down their arms, and promised that then would be conceded to them, what otherwise, for the dignity of the state, must of necessity be withheld. The multitude, enraged at this reply, withdrew to Santa Maria Novella, where they appointed eight leaders for their party, with officers, and other regulations to ensure influence and respect; so that the city possessed two governments, and was under the direction of two distinct powers. These new leaders determined that Eight, elected from their trades, should constantly reside in the palace with the Signory, and that whatever the Signory should determine must be confirmed by them before it became law. They took from Salvestro de’ Medici and Michael di Lando the whole of what their former decrees had granted them, and distributed to many of their party offices and emoluments to enable them to support their dignity. These resolutions being passed, to render them valid they sent two of their body to the Signory, to insist on their being confirmed by the Council, with an intimation, that if not granted they would be vindicated by force. This deputation, with amazing audacity and surpassing presumption, explained their commission to the Signory, upbraided the Gonfalonier with the dignity they had conferred upon him, the honor they had done him, and with the ingratitude and want of respect he had shown toward them. Coming to threats toward the end of their discourse, Michael could not endure their arrogance, and sensible rather of the dignity of the office he held than of the meanness of his origin, determined by extraordinary means to punish such extraordinary insolence, and drawing the sword with which he was girt, seriously wounded, and cause them to be seized and imprisoned.

When the fact became known, the multitude were filled with rage, and thinking that by their arms they might ensure what without them they had failed to effect, they seized their weapons and with the utmost fury resolved to force the Signory to consent to their wishes. Michael, suspecting what would happen, determined to be prepared, for he knew his credit rather required him to be first to the attack than to wait the approach of the enemy, or, like his predecessors, dishonor both the palace and himself by flight. He therefore drew together a good number of citizens (for many began to see their error), mounted on horseback, and followed by crowds of armed men, proceeded to Santa Maria Novella, to encounter his adversaries. The plebeians, who as before observed were influenced by a similar desire, had set out about the same time as Michael, and it happened that as each took a different route, they did not meet in their way, and Michael, upon his return, found the piazza in their possession. The contest was now for the palace, and joining in the fight, he soon vanquished them, drove part of them out of the city, and compelled the rest to throw down their arms and escape or conceal themselves, as well as they could. Having thus gained the victory, the tumults were composed, solely by the talents of the Gonfalonier, who in courage, prudence, and generosity surpassed every other citizen of his time, and deserves to be enumerated among the glorious few who have greatly benefited their country; for had he possessed either malice or ambition, the republic would have been completely ruined, and the city must have fallen under greater tyranny than that of the duke of Athens. But his goodness never allowed a thought to enter his mind opposed to the universal welfare: his prudence enabled him to conduct affairs in such a manner, that a great majority of his own faction reposed the most entire confidence in him; and he kept the rest in awe by the influence of his authority. These qualities subdued the plebeians, and opened the eyes of the superior artificers, who considered how great must be the folly of those, who having overcome the pride of the nobility, could endure to submit to the nauseous rule of the rabble.

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