History of Florence, by Niccolo Machiavelli

Chapter III

Giovanni de’ Medici acquires the favor of the people — Bravery of Biaggio del Melano — Baseness of Zanobi del Pino — The Florentines obtain the friendship of the lord of Faenza — League of the Florentines with the Venetians — Origin of the Catasto — The rich citizens discontented with it — Peace with the duke of Milan — New disturbances on account of the Catasto.

These events, and the circumstances attending them, becoming known to the people, contributed greatly to increase the reputation of Giovanni, and brought odium on those who had made the proposals; but he assumed an appearance of indifference, in order to give less encouragement to those who by his influence were desirous of change. In his discourse he intimated to every one that it is not desirable to promote factions, but rather to extinguish them; and that whatever might be expected of him, he only sought the union of the city. This, however, gave offense to many of his party; for they would have rather seen him exhibit greater activity. Among others so disposed, was Alamanno de’ Medici, who being of a restless disposition, never ceased exciting him to persecute enemies and favor friends; condemning his coldness and slow method of proceeding, which he said was the cause of his enemies’ practicing against him, and that these practices would one day effect the ruin of himself and his friends. He endeavored to excite Cosmo, his son, with similar discourses; but Giovanni, for all that was either disclosed or foretold him, remained unmoved, although parties were now declared, and the city in manifest disunion.

There were at the palace, in the service of the Signory, two chancellors, Ser Martino and Ser Pagolo. The latter favored the party of Niccolo da Uzzano, the former that of Giovanni; and Rinaldo, seeing Giovanni unwilling to join them, thought it would be advisable to deprive Ser Martino of his office, that he might have the palace more completely under his control. The design becoming known to his adversaries, Ser Martino was retained and Ser Pagolo discharged, to the great injury and displeasure of Rinaldo and his party. This circumstance would soon have produced most mischievous effects, but for the war with which the city was threatened, and the recent defeat suffered at Zagonara, which served to check the audacity of the people; for while these events were in progress at Florence, Agnolo della Pergola, with the forces of the duke, had taken all the towns and cities possessed by the Florentines in Romagna, except Castracaro and Modigliano; partly from the weakness of the places themselves, and partly by the misconduct of those who had the command of them. In the course of the campaign, two instances occurred which served to show how greatly courage is admired even in enemies, and how much cowardice and pusillanimity are despised.

Biaggio del Melano was castellan in the fortress of Monte Petroso. Being surrounded by enemies, and seeing no chance of saving the place, which was already in flames, he cast clothes and straw from a part which was not yet on fire, and upon these he threw his two little children, saying to the enemy, “Take to yourselves those goods which fortune has bestowed upon me, and of which you may deprive me; but those of the mind, in which my honor and glory consist, I will not give up, neither can you wrest them from me.” The besiegers ran to save the children, and placed for their father ropes and ladders, by which to save himself, but he would not use them, and rather chose to die in the flames than owe his safety to the enemies of his country: an example worthy of that much lauded antiquity, which offers nothing to surpass it, and which we admire the more from the rarity of any similar occurrence. Whatever could be recovered from the ruins, was restored for the use of the children, and carefully conveyed to their friends; nor was the republic less grateful; for as long as they lived, they were supported at her charge.

An example of an opposite character occurred at Galeata, where Zanobi del Pino was governor; he, without offering the least resistance, gave up the fortress to the enemy; and besides this, advised Agnolo della Pergola to leave the Alps of Romagna, and come among the smaller hills of Tuscany, where he might carry on the war with less danger and greater advantage. Agnolo could not endure the mean and base spirit of this man, and delivered him to his own attendants, who, after many reproaches, gave him nothing to eat but paper painted with snakes, saying, that of a Guelph they would make him a Ghibelline; and thus fasting, he died in a few days.

At this time Count Oddo and Niccolo Piccinino entered the Val di Lamona, with the design of bringing the lord of Faenza over to the Florentines, or at least inducing him to restrain the incursions of Agnolo della Pergola into Romagna; but as this valley is naturally strong, and its inhabitants warlike, Count Oddo was slain there, and Niccolo Piccinino sent a prisoner to Faenza. Fortune, however, caused the Florentines to obtain by their loss, what, perhaps, they would have failed to acquire by victory; for Niccolo so prevailed with the lord of Faenza and his mother, that they became friends of the Florentines. By this treaty, Niccolo Piccinino was set at liberty, but did not take the advice he had given others; for while in treaty with the city, concerning the terms of his engagement, either the conditions proposed were insufficient, or he found better elsewhere; for quite suddenly he left Arezzo, where he had been staying, passed into Lombardy, and entered the service of the duke.

The Florentines, alarmed by this circumstance, and reduced to despondency by their frequent losses, thought themselves unable to sustain the war alone, and sent ambassadors to the Venetians, to beg they would lend their aid to oppose the greatness of one who, if allowed to aggrandize himself, would soon become as dangerous to them as to the Florentines themselves. The Venetians were advised to adopt the same course by Francesco Carmignuola, one of the most distinguished warriors of those times, who had been in the service of the duke, and had afterward quitted it; but they hesitated, not knowing how far to trust him; for they thought his enmity with the duke was only feigned. While in this suspense, it was found that the duke, by means of a servant of Carmignuola, had caused poison to be given him in his food, which, although it was not fatal, reduced him to extremity. The truth being discovered, the Venetians laid aside their suspicion; and as the Florentines still solicited their assistance, a treaty was formed between the two powers, by which they agreed to carry on the war at the common expense of both: the conquests in Lombardy to be assigned to the Venetians; those in Romagna and Tuscany to the Florentines; and Carmignuola was appointed Captain General of the League. By this treaty the war was commenced in Lombardy, where it was admirably conducted; for in a few months many places were taken from the duke, together with the city of Brescia, the capture of which was in those days considered a most brilliant exploit.

The war had continued from 1422 to 1427, and the citizens of Florence were so wearied of the taxes that had been imposed during that time, that it was resolved to revise them, preparatory to their amelioration. That they might be equalized according to the means of each citizen, it was proposed that whoever possessed property of the value of one hundred florins should pay half a florin of taxes. Individual contribution would thus be determined by an invariable rule, and not left to the discretion of parties; and as it was found that the new method would press heavily upon the powerful classes, they used their utmost endeavors to prevent it from becoming law. Giovanni de’ Medici alone declared himself in favor of it, and by his means it was passed. In order to determine the amount each had to pay, it was necessary to consider his property in the aggregate, which the Florentines call accatastare, in which in this application of it would signify TO RATE or VALUE, and hence this tax received the name of catasto. The new method of rating formed a powerful check to the tyranny of the great, who could no longer oppress the lower classes, or silence them with threats in the council as they had formerly done, and it therefore gave general satisfaction, though to the wealthy classes it was in the highest degree offensive. But as it is found men are never satisfied, but that the possession of one advantage only makes them desire more, the people, not content with the equality of taxation which the new law produced, demanded that the same rule should be applied to past years; that in investigation should be made to determine how much, according to the Catasto, the rich had paid less than their share, and that they should now pay up to an equality with those who, in order to meet the demand unjustly made, had been compelled to sell their possessions. This proposal alarmed the great more than the Catasto had done; and in self-defense they unceasingly decried it, declaring it in the highest degree unjust in being laid not only on immovable but movable property, which people possess to-day and lose to-morrow; that many persons have hidden wealth which the Catasto cannot reach; that those who leave their own affairs to manage those of the republic should be less burdened by her, it being enough for them to give their labour, and that it was unjust of the city to take both their property and their time, while of others she only took money. The advocates of the Catasto replied, that if movable property varies, the taxes would also vary, and frequently rating it would remedy the evil to which it was subject; that it was unnecessary to mention those who possessed hidden property; for it would be unreasonable to take taxes for that which produced no interest, and that if it paid anything, it could not fail to be discovered: that those who did not like to labor for the republic might cease to do so; for no doubt she would find plenty of loving citizens who would take pleasure in assisting her with both money and counsel: that the advantages and honors of a participation in the government are so great, that of themselves they are a sufficient remuneration to those who thus employ themselves, without wishing to be excused from paying their share of taxes. But, they added, the real grievance had not been mentioned: for those who were offended with the Catasto, regretted they could no longer involve the city in all the difficulties of war without injury to themselves, now that they had to contribute like the rest; and that if this law had then been in force they would not have gone to war with King Ladislaus, or the Duke Filippo, both which enterprises had been not through necessity, but to impoverish the citizens. The excitement was appeased by Giovanni de’ Medici, who said, “It is not well to go into things so long past, unless to learn something for our present guidance; and if in former times the taxation has been unjust, we ought to be thankful, that we have now discovered a method of making it equitable, and hope that this will be the means of uniting the citizens, not of dividing them; which would certainly be the case were they to attempt the recovery of taxes for the past, and make them equal to the present; and that he who is content with a moderate victory is always most successful; for those who would more than conquer, commonly lose.” With such words as these he calmed the disturbance, and this retrospective equalization was no longer contemplated.

The war with the duke still continued; but peace was at length restored by means of a legate of the pope. The duke, however, from the first disregarded the conditions, so that the league again took arms, and meeting the enemy’s forces at Maclovio routed them. After this defeat the duke again made proposals for peace, to which the Florentines and Venetians both agreed; the former from jealousy of the Venetians, thinking they had spent quite enough money in the aggrandizement of others; the latter, because they found Carmignuola, after the defeat of the duke, proceed but coldly in their cause; so that they thought it no longer safe to trust him. A treaty was therefore concluded in 1428, by which the Florentines recovered the places they had lost in Romagna; and the Venetians kept Brescia, to which the duke added Bergamo and the country around it. In this war the Florentines expended three millions and a half of ducats, extended the territory and power of the Venetians, and brought poverty and disunion upon themselves.

Being at peace with their neighbors, domestic troubles recommenced. The great citizens could not endure the Catasto, and not knowing how to set it aside, they endeavored to raise up more numerous enemies to the measure, and thus provide themselves with allies to assist them in annulling it. They therefore instructed the officers appointed to levy the tax, that the law required them to extend the Catasto over the property of their nearest neighbors, to see if Florentine wealth was concealed among it. The dependent states were therefore ordered to present a schedule of their property against a certain time. This was extremely offensive to the people of Volterra, who sent to the Signory to complain of it; but the officers, in great wrath, committed eighteen of the complainants to prison. The Volterrani, however, out of regard for their fellow-countrymen who were arrested, did not proceed to any violence.

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