History of Florence, by Niccolo Machiavelli

Chapter V

Bernardo takes possession of Prato, but is not assisted by the inhabitants — He is taken, and the tumult appeased — Corruption of Florence — The duke of Milan in Florence — The church of Santo Spirito destroyed by fire — The rebellion of Volterra, and the cause of it — Volterra reduced to obedience by force, in accordance with the advice of Lorenzo de’ Medici — Volterra pillaged.

Cesare Petrucci held the office of Provost of Prato for the Florentine people, at this period. It is customary with governors of towns, similarly situated, to keep the keys of the gates near their persons; and whenever, in peaceful times, they are required by any of the inhabitants, for entrance or exit, they are usually allowed to be taken. Bernardo was aware of this custom, and about daybreak, presented himself at the gate which looks toward Pistoia, accompanied by the Palandra and about one hundred persons, all armed. Their confederates within the town also armed themselves, and one of them asked the governor for the keys, alleging, as a pretext, that some one from the country wished to enter. The governor not entertaining the slightest suspicion, sent a servant with them. When at a convenient distance, they were taken by the conspirators, who, opening the gates, introduced Bernardo and his followers. They divided themselves into two parties, one of which, led by Salvestro, an inhabitant of Prato, took possession of the citadel; the other following Bernardo, seized the palace, and placed Cesare with all his family in the custody of some of their number. They then raised the cry of liberty, and proceeded through the town. It was now day, and many of the inhabitants hearing the disturbance, ran to the piazza where, learning that the fortress and the palace were taken and the governor with all his people made prisoners, they were utterly astonished, and could not imagine how it had occurred. The eight citizens, possessing the supreme authority, assembled in their palace to consider what was best to be done. In the meantime, Bernardo and his followers, on going round the town, found no encouragement, and being told that the Eight had assembled, went and declared the nature of their enterprise, which he said was to deliver the country from slavery, reminding them how glorious it would be for those who took arms to effect such an honorable object, for they would thus obtain permanent repose and everlasting fame. He called to recollection their ancient liberty and present condition, and assured them of certain assistance, if they would only, for a few days, aid in resisting the forces the Florentines might send against them. He said he had friends in Florence who would join them as soon as they found the inhabitants resolved to support him. His speech did not produce the desired effect upon the Eight, who replied that they knew not whether Florence was free or enslaved, for that was a matter which they were not called upon to decide; but this they knew very well, that for their own part, they desired no other liberty than to obey the magistrates who governed Florence, from whom they had never received any injury sufficient to make them desire a change. They therefore advised him to set the governor at liberty, clear the place of his people, and, as quickly as possible, withdraw from the danger he had so rashly incurred. Bernardo was not daunted by these words, but determined to try whether fear could influence the people of Prato, since entreaties produced so little effect. In order to terrify them, he determined to put Cesare to death, and having brought him out of prison, ordered him to be hanged at the windows of the palace. He was already led to the spot with a halter around his neck, when seeing Bernardo giving directions to hasten his end, he turned to him, and said: “Bernardo, you put me to death, thinking that the people of Prato will follow you; but the direct contrary will result; for the respect they have for the rectors which the Florentine people send here is so great, that as soon as they witness the injury inflicted upon me, they will conceive such a disgust against you as will inevitably effect your ruin. Therefore, it is not by my death, but by the preservation of my life, that you can attain the object you have in view; for if I deliver your commands, they will be much more readily obeyed, and following your directions, we shall soon attain the completion of your design.” Bernardo, whose mind was not fertile in expedients, thought the advice good, and commanded Cesare, on being conducted to a veranda which looked upon the piazza, to order the people of Prato to obey him, and having done which, Cesare was led back to prison.

The weakness of the conspirators was obvious; and many Florentines residing in the town, assembled together, among whom, Giorgio Ginori, a knight of Rhodes, took arms first against them, and attacked Bernardo, who traversed the piazza, alternately entreating and threatening those who refused to obey him, and being surrounded by Giorgio’s followers, he was wounded and made prisoner. This being done, it was easy to set the governor at liberty and subdue the rest, who being few, and divided into several parties, were nearly all either secured or slain. An exaggerated report of these transactions reached Florence, it being told there that Prato was taken, the governor and his friends put to death, and the place filled with the enemy; and that Pistoia was also in arms, and most of the citizens in the conspiracy. In consequence of this alarming account, the palace as quickly filled with citizens, who consulted with the Signory what course ought to be adopted. At this time, Roberto da San Severino, one of the most distinguished generals of this period, was at Florence, and it was therefore determined to send him, with what forces could be collected, to Prato, with orders that he should approach the place, particularly observe what was going on, and provide such remedies as the necessity of the case and his own prudence should suggest. Roberto had scarcely passed the fortress of Campi, when he was met by a messenger from the governor, who informed him that Bernardo was taken, his followers either dispersed or slain, and everything restored to order. He consequently returned to Florence, whither Bernardo was shortly after conveyed, and when questioned by the magistracy concerning the real motives of such a weak conspiracy, he said, he had undertaken it, because, having resolved to die in Florence rather than live in exile, he wished his death to be accompanied by some memorable action.

This disturbance having been raised and quelled almost at the same time, the citizens returned to their accustomed mode of life, hoping to enjoy, without anxiety, the state they had now established and confirmed. Hence arose many of those evils which usually result from peace; for the youth having become more dissolute than before, more extravagant in dress, feasting, and other licentiousness, and being without employment, wasted their time and means on gaming and women; their principal study being how to appear splendid in apparel, and attain a crafty shrewdness in discourse; he who could make the most poignant remark being considered the wisest, and being most respected. These manners derived additional encouragement from the followers of the duke of Milan, who, with his duchess and the whole ducal court, as it was said, to fulfill a vow, came to Florence, where he was received with all the pomp and respect due to so great a prince, and one so intimately connected with the Florentine people. Upon this occasion the city witnessed an unprecedented exhibition; for, during Lent, when the church commands us to abstain from animal food, the Milanese, without respect for either God or his church, ate of it daily. Many spectacles were exhibited in honor of the duke, and among others, in the temple of Santo Spirito, was represented the descent of the Holy Ghost among the apostles; and in consequence of the numerous fires used upon the occasion, some of the woodwork became ignited, and the church was completely destroyed by the flames. Many thought that the Almighty being offended at our misconduct, took this method of signifying his displeasure. If, therefore, the duke found the city full of courtly delicacies, and customs unsuitable to well-regulated conduct, he left it in a much worse state. Hence the good citizens thought it necessary to restrain these improprieties, and made a law to put a stop to extravagance in dress, feasts, and funerals.

In the midst of this universal peace, a new and unexpected disturbance arose in Tuscany. Certain citizens of Volterra had discovered an alum-mine in their district, and being aware of the profit derivable from it, in order to obtain the means of working and securing it, they applied to some Florentines, and allowed them to share in the profits. This, as is frequently the case with new undertakings, at first excited little attention from the people of Volterra; but in time, finding the profits derived from it had become considerable, they fruitlessly endeavored to effect what at first might have been easily accomplished. They began by agitating the question in their councils, declaring it grossly improper that a source of wealth discovered in the public lands should be converted to the emolument of private individuals. They next sent advocates to Florence, and the question was referred to the consideration of certain citizens, who, either through being bribed by the party in possession, or from a sincere conviction, declared the aim of the people of Volterra to be unjust in desiring to deprive their citizens of the fruit of their labor; and decided that the alum-pit was the rightful property of those who had hitherto wrought it; but, at the same time, recommended them to pay an annual sum by way of acknowledgment to the city. This answer instead of abating, served only to increase the animosities and tumult in Volterra, and absorbed entire attention both in the councils and throughout the city; the people demanding the restitution of what they considered their due, and the proprietors insisting upon their right to retain what they had originally acquired, and what had been subsequently been confirmed to them by the decision of the Florentines. In the midst of these disturbances, a respectable citizen, named Il Pecorino, was killed, together with several others, who had embraced the same side, whose houses were also plundered and burned; and the fury of the mob rose to such a height, that they were with difficulty restrained from putting the Florentine rectors to death.

After the first outrage, the Volterrani immediately determined to send ambassadors to Florence, who intimated, that if the Signory would allow them their ancient privileges, the city would remain subject to them as formerly. Many and various were the opinions concerning the reply to be made. Tommaso Soderini advised that they should accept the submission of the people of Volterra, upon any conditions with which they were disposed to make it; for he considered it unreasonable and unwise to kindle a flame so near home that it might burn their own dwelling; he suspected the pope’s ambition, and was apprehensive of the power of the king; nor could he confide in the friendship either of the duke or the Venetians, having no assurance of the sincerity of the latter, or the valor of the former. He concluded by quoting that trite proverb, “Meglio un magro accordo che una grassa vittoria.”2 On the other hand, Lorenzo de’ Medici, thinking this an opportunity for exhibiting his prudence and wisdom, and being strenuously supported by those who envied the influence of Tommaso Soderini, resolved to march against them, and punish the arrogance of the people of Volterra with arms; declaring that if they were not made a striking example, others would, without the least fear or respect, upon every slight occasion, adopt a similar course. The enterprise being resolved on, the Volterrani were told that they could not demand the observance of conditions which they themselves had broken, and therefore must either submit to the direction of the Signory or expect war. With this answer they returned to their city, and prepared for its defense; fortifying the place, and sending to all the princes of Italy to request assistance, none of whom listened to them, except the Siennese and the lord of Piombino, who gave them some hope of aid. The Florentines on the other hand, thinking success dependent principally upon celerity, assembled ten thousand foot and two thousand horse, who, under the command of Federigo, lord of Urbino, marched into the country of Volterra and quickly took entire possession of it. They then encamped before the city, which, being in a lofty situation, and precipitous on all sides, could only be approached by a narrow pass near the church of St. Alessandro. The Volterrani had engaged for their defense about one thousand mercenaries, who, perceiving the great superiority of the Florentines, found the place untenable, and were tardy in their defensive operations, but indefatigable in the constant injuries they committed upon the people of the place. Thus these poor citizens were harassed by the enemy without, and by their own soldiery within; so, despairing of their safety, they began to think of a capitulation; and, being unable to obtain better terms, submitted to the discretion of the Florentine commissaries, who ordered the gates to be opened, and introduced the greater part of their forces. They then proceeded to the palace, and commanded the priors to retire to their homes; and, on the way thither, one of them was in derision stripped by the soldiers. From this beginning (so much more easily are men predisposed to evil than to good) originated the pillage and destruction of the city; which for a whole day suffered the greatest horrors, neither women nor sacred places being spared; and the soldiery, those engaged for its defense as well as its assailants, plundered all that came within their reach. The news of this victory was received with great joy at Florence, and as the expedition had been undertaken wholly by the advice of Lorenzo, he acquired great reputation. Upon which one of the intimate friends of Tommaso Soderini, reminding him of the advice he had given, asked him what he thought of the taking of Volterra; to which he replied, “To me the place seems rather lost than won; for had it been received on equitable terms, advantage and security would have been the result; but having to retain it by force it will in critical junctures, occasion weakness and anxiety, and in times of peace, injury and expense.”

2 A lean peace is better than a fat victory.

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