History of Florence, by Niccolo Machiavelli

Book IV

Chapter I

License and Slavery peculiar defects in republican governments — Application of this reflection to the state of Florence — Giovanni di Bicci di’ Medici re-establishes the authority of his family — Filippo Visconti, duke of Milan, endeavors to make amicable arrangements with the Florentines — Their jealousy of him — Precautionary measures against him — War declared — The Florentines are routed by the ducal forces.

Republican governments, more especially those imperfectly organized, frequently change their rulers and the form of their institutions; not by the influence of liberty or subjection, as many suppose, but by that of slavery and license; for with the nobility or the people, the ministers respectively of slavery or licentiousness, only the name of liberty is in any estimation, neither of them choosing to be subject either to magistrates or laws. When, however, a good, wise, and powerful citizen appears (which is but seldom), who establishes ordinances capable of appeasing or restraining these contending dispositions, so as to prevent them from doing mischief, then the government may be called free, and its institutions firm and secure; for having good laws for its basis, and good regulations for carrying them into effect, it needs not, like others, the virtue of one man for its maintenance. With such excellent laws and institutions, many of those ancient republics, which were of long duration, were endowed. But these advantages are, and always have been, denied to those which frequently change from tyranny to license, or the reverse; because, from the powerful enemies which each condition creates itself, they neither have, nor can possess any stability; for tyranny cannot please the good, and license is offensive to the wise: the former may easily be productive of mischief, while the latter can scarcely be beneficial; in the former, the insolent have too much authority, and in the latter, the foolish; so that each requires for their welfare the virtue and the good fortune of some individual who may be removed by death, or become unserviceable by misfortune.

Hence, it appears, that the government which commenced in Florence at the death of Giorgio Scali, in 1381, was first sustained by the talents of Maso degli Albizzi, and then by those of Niccolo da Uzzano. The city remained tranquil from 1414 to 1422; for King Ladislaus was dead, and Lombardy divided into several parts; so that there was nothing either internal or external to occasion uneasiness. Next to Niccolo da Uzzano in authority, were Bartolomeo Valori, Neroni di Nigi, Rinaldo degli Albizzi, Neri di Gino, and Lapo Niccolini. The factions that arose from the quarrels of the Albizzi and the Ricci, and which were afterward so unhappily revived by Salvestro de’ Medici, were never extinguished; for though the party most favored by the rabble only continued three years, and in 1381 was put down, still, as it comprehended the greatest numerical proportion, it was never entirely extinct, though the frequent Balias and persecutions of its leaders from 1381 to 1400, reduced it almost to nothing. The first families that suffered in this way were the Alberti, the Ricci, and the Medici, which were frequently deprived both of men and money; and if any of them remained in the city, they were deprived of the honors of government. These oft-repeated acts of oppression humiliated the faction, and almost annihilated it. Still, many retained the remembrance of the injuries they had received, and a desire of vengeance remained pent in their bosoms, ungratified and unquenched. Those nobles of the people, or new nobility, who peaceably governed the city, committed two errors, which eventually caused the ruin of their party; the first was, that by long continuance in power they became insolent; the second, that the envy they entertained toward each other, and their uninterrupted possession of power, destroyed that vigilance over those who might injure them, which they ought to have exercised. Thus daily renewing the hatred of a mass of the people by their sinister proceedings, and either negligent of the threatened dangers, because rendered fearless by prosperity, or encouraging them through mutual envy, they gave an opportunity to the family of the Medici to recover their influence. The first to do so was Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, who having become one of the richest men, and being of a humane and benevolent disposition, obtained the supreme magistracy by the consent of those in power. This circumstance gave so much gratification to the mass of the people (the multitude thinking they had now found a defender), that not without occasion the judicious of the party observed it with jealousy, for they perceived all the former feelings of the city revived. Niccolo da Uzzano did not fail to acquaint the other citizens with the matter, explaining to them how dangerous it was to aggrandize one who possessed so much influence; that it was easy to remedy an evil at its commencement, but exceedingly difficult after having allowed it to gather strength; and that Giovanni possessed several qualities far surpassing those of Salvestro. The associates of Niccolo were uninfluenced by his remarks; for they were jealous of his reputation, and desired to exalt some person, by means of whom he might be humbled.

This was the state of Florence, in which opposing feelings began to be observable, when Filippo Visconti, second son of Giovanni Galeazzo, having, by the death of his brother, become master of all Lombardy, and thinking he might undertake almost anything, greatly desired to recover Genoa, which enjoyed freedom under the Dogiate of Tommaso da Campo Fregoso. He did not think it advisable to attempt this, or any other enterprise, till he had renewed amicable relations with the Florentines, and made his good understanding with them known; but with the aid of their reputation he trusted he should attain his wishes. He therefore sent ambassadors to Florence to signify his desires. Many citizens were opposed to his design, but did not wish to interrupt the peace with Milan, which had now continued for many years. They were fully aware of the advantages he would derive from a war with Genoa, and the little use it would be to Florence. Many others were inclined to accede to it, but would set a limit to his proceedings, which, if he were to exceed, all would perceive his base design, and thus they might, when the treaty was broken, more justifiably make war against him. The question having been strongly debated, an amicable arrangement was at length effected, by which Filippo engaged not to interfere with anything on the Florentine side of the rivers Magra and Panaro.

Soon after the treaty was concluded, the duke took possession of Brescia, and shortly afterward of Genoa, contrary to the expectation of those who had advocated peace; for they thought Brescia would be defended by the Venetians, and Genoa would be able to defend herself. And as in the treaty which Filippo made with the Doge of Genoa, he had acquired Serezana and other places situated on this side the Magra, upon condition that, if he wished to alienate them, they should be given to the Genoese, it was quite palpable that he had broken the treaty; and he had, besides, entered into another treaty with the legate of Bologna, in opposition to his engagement respecting the Panaro. These things disturbed the minds of the citizens, and made them, apprehensive of new troubles, consider the means to be adopted for their defense.

The dissatisfaction of the Florentines coming to the knowledge of Filippo, he, either to justify himself, or to become acquainted with their prevailing feelings, or to lull them to repose, sent ambassadors to the city, to intimate that he was greatly surprised at the suspicions they entertained, and offered to revoke whatever he had done that could be thought a ground of jealousy. This embassy produced no other effect than that of dividing the citizens; one party, that in greatest reputation, judged it best to arm, and prepare to frustrate the enemy’s designs; and if he were to remain quiet, it would not be necessary to go to war with him, but an endeavor might be made to preserve peace. Many others, whether envious of those in power, or fearing a rupture with the duke, considered it unadvisable so lightly to entertain suspicions of an ally, and thought his proceedings need not have excited so much distrust; that appointing the ten and hiring forces was in itself a manifest declaration of war, which, if undertaken against so great a prince, would bring certain ruin upon the city without the hope of any advantage; for possession could never be retained of the conquests that might be made, because Romagna lay between, and the vicinity of the church ought to prevent any attempt against Romagna itself. However the views of those who were in favor of war prevailed, the Council of Ten were appointed, forces were hired, and new taxes levied, which, as they were more burdensome upon the lower than the upper ranks, filled the city with complaints, and all condemned the ambition and avarice of the great, declaring that, to gratify themselves and oppress the people, they would go to war without any justifiable motive.

They had not yet come to an open rupture with the duke, but everything tended to excite suspicion; for Filippo had, at the request of the legate of Bologna (who was in fear of Antonio Bentivogli, an emigrant of Bologna at Castel Bolognese), sent forces to that city, which, being close upon the Florentine territory, filled the citizens with apprehension; but what gave every one greater alarm, and offered sufficient occasion for the declaration of war, was the expedition made by the duke against Furli. Giorgio Ordelaffi was lord of Furli, who dying, left Tibaldo, his son, under the guardianship of Filippo. The boy’s mother, suspicious of his guardian, sent him to Lodovico Alidossi, her father, who was lord of Imola, but she was compelled by the people of Furli to obey the will of her deceased husband, to withdraw him from the natural guardian, and place him in the hands of the duke. Upon this Filippo, the better to conceal his purpose, caused the Marquis of Ferrara to send Guido Torello as his agent, with forces, to seize the government of Furli, and thus the territory fell into the duke’s hands. When this was known at Florence, together with the arrival of forces at Bologna, the arguments in favor of war were greatly strengthened, but there were still many opposed to it, and among the rest Giovanni de’ Medici, who publicly endeavored to show, that even if the ill designs of the duke were perfectly manifest, it would still be better to wait and let him commence the attack, than to assail him; for in the former case they would be justified in the view of the princes of Italy as well as in their own; but if they were to strike the first blow at the duke, public opinion would be as favorable to him as to themselves; and besides, they could not so confidently demand assistance as assailants, as they might do if assailed; and that men always defend themselves more vigorously when they attack others. The advocates of war considered it improper to await the enemy in their houses, and better to go and seek him; that fortune is always more favorable to assailants than to such as merely act on the defensive, and that it is less injurious, even when attended with greater immediate expense, to make war at another’s door than at our own. These views prevailed, and it was resolved that the ten should provide all the means in their power for rescuing Furli from the hands of the duke.

Filippo, finding the Florentines resolved to occupy the places he had undertaken to defend, postponed all personal considerations, and sent Agnolo della Pergola with a strong force against Imola, that Ludovico, having to provide for the defense of his own possessions, might be unable to protect the interests of his grandson. Agnolo approached Imola while the forces of the Florentines were at Modigliana, and an intense frost having rendered the ditches of the city passable, he crossed them during the night, captured the place, and sent Lodovico a prisoner to Milan. The Florentines finding Imola in the hands of the enemy, and the war publicly known, sent their forces to Furli and besieged it on all sides. That the duke’s people might not relieve it, they hired Count Alberigo, who from Zagonara, his own domain, overran the country daily, up to the gates of Imola. Agnolo della Pergola, finding the strong position which the Florentines had taken prevented him from relieving Furli, determined to attempt the capture of Zagonara, thinking they would not allow that place to be lost, and that in the endeavor to relieve it they would be compelled to give up their design against Furli, and come to an engagement under great disadvantage. Thus the duke’s people compelled Alberigo to sue for terms, which he obtained on condition of giving up Zagonara, if the Florentines did not relieve him within fifteen days. This misfortune being known in the Florentine camp and in the city, and all being anxious that the enemy should not obtain the expected advantage, they enabled him to secure a greater; for having abandoned the siege of Furli to go to the relief of Zagonara, on encountering the enemy they were soon routed, not so much by the bravery of their adversaries as by the severity of the season; for, having marched many hours through deep mud and heavy rain, they found the enemy quite fresh, and were therefore easily vanquished. Nevertheless, in this great defeat, famous throughout all Italy, no death occurred except those of Lodovico degli Obizi and two of his people, who having fallen from their horses were drowned in the morass.

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