History of Florence, by Niccolo Machiavelli

Book VII

Chapter I

Connection of the other Italian governments with the history of Florence — Republics always disunited — Some differences are injurious; others not so — The kind of dissensions prevailing at Florence — Cosmo de’ Medici and Neri Capponi become powerful by dissimilar means — Reform in the election of magistrates favorable to Cosmo — Complaints of the principal citizens against the reform in elections — Luca Pitti, Gonfalonier of Justice, restrains the imborsations by force — Tyranny and pride of Luca Pitti and his party — Palace of the Pitti — Death of Cosmo de’ Medici — His liberality and magnificence — His modesty — His prudence — Sayings of Cosmo.

It will perhaps appear to the readers of the preceding book that, professing only to write of the affairs of Florence, I have dilated too much in speaking of those which occurred in Lombardy and Naples. But as I have not already avoided, so it is not my intention in future to forbear, similar digressions. For although we have not engaged to give an account of the affairs of Italy, still it would be improper to neglect noticing the most remarkable of them. If they were wholly omitted, our history would not be so well understood, neither would it be so instructive or agreeable; since from the proceedings of the other princes and states of Italy, have most commonly arisen those wars in which the Florentines were compelled to take part. Thus, from the war between John of Anjou and King Ferrando, originated those serious enmities and hatreds which ensued between Ferrando and the Florentines, particularly the house of Medici. The king complained of a want of assistance during the war, and of the aid afforded to his enemy; and from his anger originated the greatest evils, as will be hereafter seen. Having, in speaking of external affairs, come down to the year 1463, it will be necessary in order to make our narrative of the contemporaneous domestic transactions clearly understood, to revert to a period several years back. But first, according to custom, I would offer a few remarks referring to the events about to be narrated, and observe, that those who think a republic may be kept in perfect unity of purpose are greatly deceived. True it is, that some divisions injure republics, while others are beneficial to them. When accompanied by factions and parties they are injurious; but when maintained without them they contribute to their prosperity. The legislator of a republic, since it is impossible to prevent the existence of dissensions, must at least take care to prevent the growth of faction. It may therefore be observed, that citizens acquire reputation and power in two ways; the one public, the other private. Influence is acquired publicly by winning a battle, taking possession of a territory, fulfilling the duties of an embassy with care and prudence, or by giving wise counsel attended by a happy result. Private methods are conferring benefits upon individuals, defending them against the magistrates, supporting them with money, and raising them to undeserved honors; or with public games and entertainments gaining the affection of the populace. This mode of procedure produces parties and cliques; and in proportion as influence thus acquired is injurious, so is the former beneficial, if quite free from party spirit; because it is founded upon the public good, and not upon private advantage. And though it is impossible to prevent the existence of inveterate feuds, still if they be without partisans to support them for their own individual benefit, they do not injure a republic, but contribute to its welfare; since none can attain distinction, but as he contributes to her good, and each party prevents the other from infringing her liberties. The dissensions of Florence were always accompanied by factions, and were therefore always pernicious; and the dominant party only remained united so long as its enemies held it in check. As soon as the strength of the opposition was annihilated, the government, deprived of the restraining influence of its adversaries, and being subject to no law, fell to pieces. The party of Cosmo de’ Medici gained the ascendant in 1434; but the depressed party being very numerous, and composed of several very influential persons, fear kept the former united, and restrained their proceedings within the bounds of moderation, so that no violence was committed by them, nor anything done calculated to excite popular dislike. Consequently, whenever this government required the citizens’ aid to recover or strengthen its influence, the latter were always willing to gratify its wishes; so that from 1434 to 1455, during a period of twenty-one years, the authority of a balia was granted to it six times.

There were in Florence, as we have frequently observed, two principally powerful citizens, Cosmo de’ Medici and Neri Capponi. Neri acquired his influence by public services; so that he had many friends but few partisans. Cosmo, being able to avail himself both of public and private means, had many partisans as well as friends. While both lived, having always been united, they obtained from the people whatever they required; for in them popularity and power were united. But in the year 1455, Neri being dead, and the opposition party extinct, the government found a difficulty in resuming its authority; and this was occasioned, remarkably enough, by Cosmo’s private friends, and the most influential men in the state; for, not fearing the opposite party, they became anxious to abate his power. This inconsistency was the beginning of the evils which took place in 1456; so that those in power were openly advised in the deliberative councils not to renew the power of the balia, but to close the balloting purses, and appoint the magistrates by drawing from the pollings or squittini previously made. To restrain this disposition, Cosmo had the choice of two alternatives, either forcibly to assume the government, with the partisans he possessed, and drive out the others, or to allow the matter to take its course, and let his friends see they were not depriving him of power, but rather themselves. He chose the latter; for he well knew that at all events the purses being filled with the names of his own friends, he incurred no risk, and could take the government into his own hands whenever he found occasion. The chief offices of state being again filled by lot, the mass of the people began to think they had recovered their liberty, and that the decisions of the magistrates were according to their own judgments, unbiased by the influence of the Great. At the same time, the friends of different grandees were humbled; and many who had commonly seen their houses filled with suitors and presents, found themselves destitute of both. Those who had previously been very powerful were reduced to an equality with men whom they had been accustomed to consider inferior; and those formerly far beneath them were now become their equals. No respect or deference was paid to them; they were often ridiculed and derided, and frequently heard themselves and the republic mentioned in the open streets without the least deference; thus they found it was not Cosmo but themselves that had lost the government. Cosmo appeared not to notice these matters; and whenever any subject was proposed in favor of the people he was the first to support it. But the greatest cause of alarm to the higher classes, and his most favorable opportunity of retaliation, was the revival of the catasto, or property-tax of 1427, so that individual contributions were determined by statute, and not by a set of persons appointed for its regulation.

This law being re-established, and a magistracy created to carry it into effect, the nobility assembled, and went to Cosmo to beg he would rescue them and himself from the power of the plebeians, and restore to the government the reputation which had made himself powerful and them respected. He replied, he was willing to comply with their request, but wished the law to be obtained in the regular manner, by consent of the people, and not by force, of which he would not hear on any account. They then endeavored in the councils to establish a new balia, but did not succeed. On this the grandees again came to Cosmo, and most humbly begged he would assemble the people in a general council or parliament, but this he refused, for he wished to make them sensible of their great mistake; and when Donato Cocchi, being Gonfalonier of Justice, proposed to assemble them without his consent, the Signors who were of Cosmo’s party ridiculed the idea so unmercifully, that the man’s mind actually became deranged, and he had to retire from office in consequence. However, since it is undesirable to allow matters to proceed beyond recovery, the Gonfalon of Justice being in the hands of Luca Pitti, a bold-spirited man, Cosmo determined to let him adopt what course he thought proper, that if any trouble should arise it might be imputed to Luca and not to himself. Luca, therefore, in the beginning of his magistracy, several times proposed to the people the appointment of a new balia; and, not succeeding, he threatened the members of the councils with injurious and arrogant expressions, which were shortly followed by corresponding conduct; for in the month of August, 1458, on the eve of Saint Lorenzo, having filled the piazza, and compelled them to assent to a measure to which he knew them to be averse. Having recovered power, created a new balia, and filled the principal offices according to the pleasure of a few individuals, in order to commence that government with terror which they had obtained by force, they banished Girolamo Machiavelli, with some others, and deprived many of the honors of government. Girolamo, having transgressed the confines to which he was limited, was declared a rebel. Traveling about Italy, with the design of exciting the princes against his country, he was betrayed while at Lunigiana, and, being brought to Florence, was put to death in prison.

This government, during the eight years it continued, was violent and insupportable; for Cosmo, being now old, and through ill health unable to attend to public affairs as formerly, Florence became a prey to a small number of her own citizens. Luca Pitti, in return for the services he had performed for the republic, as made a knight, and to be no less grateful than those who had conferred the dignity upon him, he ordered that the priors, who had hitherto been called priors of the trades, should also have a name to which they had no kind of claim, and therefore called them priors of liberty. He also ordered, that as it had been customary for the gonfalonier to sit upon the right hand of the rectors, he should in future take his seat in the midst of them. And that the Deity might appear to participate in what had been done, public processions were made and solemn services performed, to thank him for the recovery of the government. The Signory and Cosmo made Luca Pitti rich presents, and all the citizens were emulous in imitation of them; so that the money given amounted to no less a sum than twenty thousand ducats. He thus attained such influence, that not Cosmo but himself now governed the city; and his pride so increased, that he commenced two superb buildings, one in Florence, the other at Ruciano, about a mile distant, both in a style of royal magnificence; that in the city, being larger than any hitherto built by a private person. To complete them, he had recourse to the most extraordinary means; for not only citizens and private individuals made him presents and supplied materials, but the mass of people, of every grade, also contributed. Besides this, any exiles who had committed murders, thefts, or other crimes which made them amenable to the laws, found a safe refuge within their walls, if they were able to contribute toward their decoration or completion. The other citizens, though they did not build like him, were no less violent or rapacious, so that if Florence were not harassed by external wars, she was ruined by the wickedness of her own children. During this period the wars of Naples took place. The pope also commenced hostilities in Romagna against the Malatesti, from whom he wished to take Rimino and Cesena, held by them. In these designs, and his intentions of a crusade against the Turks, was passed the pontificate of Pius II.

Florence continued in disunion and disturbance. The dissensions continued among the party of Cosmo, in 1455, from the causes already related, which by his prudence, as we have also before remarked, he was enabled to tranquilize; but in the year 1464, his illness increased, and he died. Friends and enemies alike grieved for his loss; for his political opponents, perceiving the rapacity of the citizens, even during the life of him who alone restrained them and made their tyranny supportable, were afraid, lest after his decease, nothing but ruin would ensue. Nor had they much hope of his son Piero, who though a very good man, was of infirm health, and new in the government, and they thought he would be compelled to give way; so that, being unrestrained, their rapacity would pass all bounds. On these accounts, the regret was universal. Of all who have left memorials behind them, and who were not of the military profession, Cosmo was the most illustrious and the most renowned. He not only surpassed all his contemporaries in wealth and authority, but also in generosity and prudence; and among the qualities which contributed to make him prince in his own country, was his surpassing all others in magnificence and generosity. His liberality became more obvious after his death, when Piero, his son, wishing to know what he possessed, it appeared there was no citizen of any consequence to whom Cosmo had not lent a large sum of money; and often, when informed of some nobleman being in distress, he relieved him unasked. His magnificence is evident from the number of public edifices he erected; for in Florence are the convents and churches of St. Marco and St. Lorenzo, and the monastery of Santa Verdiana; in the mountains of Fiesole, the church and abbey of St. Girolamo; and in the Mugello, he not only restored, but rebuilt from its foundation, a monastery of the Frati Minori, or Minims. Besides these, in the church of Santa Croce, the Servi, the Agnoli, and in San Miniato, he erected splendid chapels and altars; and besides building the churches and chapels we have mentioned, he provided them with all the ornaments, furniture, and utensils suitable for the performance of divine service. To these sacred edifices are to be added his private dwellings, one in Florence, of extent and elegance adapted to so great a citizen, and four others, situated at Careggi, Fiesole, Craggiulo, and Trebbio, each, for size and grandeur, equal to royal palaces. And, as if it were not sufficient to be distinguished for magnificence of buildings in Italy alone, he erected an hospital at Jerusalem, for the reception of poor and infirm pilgrims. Although his habitations, like all his other works and actions, were quite of a regal character, and he alone was prince in Florence, still everything was so tempered with his prudence, that he never transgressed the decent moderation of civil life; in his conversation, his servants, his traveling, his mode of living, and the relationships he formed, the modest demeanor of the citizen was always evident; for he was aware that a constant exhibition of pomp brings more envy upon its possessor than greater realities borne without ostentation. Thus in selecting consorts for his sons, he did not seek the alliance of princes, but for Giovanni chose Corneglia degli Allesandri, and for Piero, Lucrezia de’ Tornabuoni. He gave his granddaughters, the children of Piero, Bianca to Guglielmo de’ Pazzi, and Nannina to Bernardo Ruccellai. No one of his time possessed such an intimate knowledge of government and state affairs as himself; and hence amid such a variety of fortune, in a city so given to change, and among a people of such extreme inconstancy, he retained possession of the government thirty-one years; for being endowed with the utmost prudence, he foresaw evils at a distance, and therefore had an opportunity either of averting them, or preventing their injurious results. He thus not only vanquished domestic and civil ambition, but humbled the pride of many princes with so much fidelity and address, that whatever powers were in league with himself and his country, either overcame their adversaries, or remained uninjured by his alliance; and whoever were opposed to him, lost either their time, money, or territory. Of this the Venetians afford a sufficient proof, who, while in league with him against Duke Filippo were always victorious, but apart from him were always conquered; first by Filippo and then by Francesco. When they joined Alfonso against the Florentine republic, Cosmo, by his commercial credit, so drained Naples and Venice of money, that they were glad to obtain peace upon any terms it was thought proper to grant. Whatever difficulties he had to contend with, whether within the city or without, he brought to a happy issue, at once glorious to himself and destructive to his enemies; so that civil discord strengthened his government in Florence, and war increased his power and reputation abroad. He added to the Florentine dominions, the Borgo of St. Sepolcro, Montedoglio, the Casentino and Val di Bagno. His virtue and good fortune overcame all his enemies and exalted his friends. He was born in the year 1389, on the day of the saints Cosmo and Damiano. His earlier years were full of trouble, as his exile, captivity, and personal danger fully testify; and having gone to the council of Constance, with Pope John, in order to save his life, after the ruin of the latter, he was obliged to escape in disguise. But after the age of forty, he enjoyed the greatest felicity; and not only those who assisted him in public business, but his agents who conducted his commercial speculations throughout Europe, participated in his prosperity. Hence many enormous fortunes took their origin in different families of Florence, as in that of the Tornabuoni, the Benci, the Portinari, and the Sassetti. Besides these, all who depended upon his advice and patronage became rich; and, though he was constantly expending money in building churches, and in charitable purposes, he sometimes complained to his friends that he had never been able to lay out so much in the service of God as to find the balance in his own favor, intimating that all he had done or could do, was still unequal to what the Almighty had done for him. He was of middle stature, olive complexion, and venerable aspect; not learned but exceedingly eloquent, endowed with great natural capacity, generous to his friends, kind to the poor, comprehensive in discourse, cautious in advising, and in his speeches and replies, grave and witty. When Rinaldo degli Albizzi, at the beginning of his exile, sent to him to say, “the hen had laid,” he replied, “she did ill to lay so far from the nest.” Some other of the rebels gave him to understand they were “not dreaming.” He said, “he believed it, for he had robbed them of their sleep.” When Pope Pius was endeavoring to induce the different governments to join in an expedition against the Turks, he said, “he was an old man, and had undertaken the enterprise of a young one.” To the Venetians ambassadors, who came to Florence with those of King Alfonso to complain of the republic, he uncovered his head, and asked them what color it was; they said, “white”: he replied, “it is so; and it will not be long before your senators have heads as white as mine.” A few hours before his death, his wife asked him why he kept his eyes shut, and he said, “to get them in the way of it.” Some citizens saying to him, after his return from exile, that he injured the city, and that it was offensive to God to drive so many religious persons out of it; he replied that, “it was better to injure the city, than to ruin it; that two yards of rose-colored cloth would make a gentleman, and that it required something more to direct a government than to play with a string of beads.” These words gave occasion to his enemies to slander him, as a man who loved himself more than his country, and was more attached to this world than to the next. Many others of his sayings might be adduced, but we shall omit them as unnecessary. Cosmo was a friend and patron of learned men. He brought Argiripolo, a Greek by birth, and one of the most erudite of his time, to Florence, to instruct the youth in Hellenic literature. He entertained Marsilio Ficino, the reviver of the Platonic philosophy, in his own house; and being much attached to him, have him a residence near his palace at Careggi, that he might pursue the study of letters with greater convenience, and himself have an opportunity of enjoying his company. His prudence, his great wealth, the uses to which he applied it, and his splendid style of living, caused him to be beloved and respected in Florence, and obtained for him the highest consideration, not only among the princes and governments of Italy, but throughout all Europe. He thus laid a foundation for his descendants, which enabled them to equal him in virtue, and greatly surpass him in fortune; while the authority they possessed in Florence and throughout Christendom was not obtained without being merited. Toward the close of his life he suffered great affliction; for, of his two sons, Piero and Giovanni, the latter, of whom he entertained the greatest hopes, died; and the former was so sickly as to be unable to attend either to public or private business. On being carried from one apartment to another, after Giovanni’s death, he remarked to his attendants, with a sigh, “This is too large a house for so small a family.” His great mind also felt distressed at the idea that he had not extended the Florentine dominions by any valuable acquisition; and he regretted it the more, from imagining he had been deceived by Francesco Sforza, who, while count, had promised, that if he became lord of Milan, he would undertake the conquest of Lucca for the Florentines, a design, however, that was never realized; for the count’s ideas changed upon his becoming duke; he resolved to enjoy in peace, the power he had acquired by war, and would not again encounter its fatigues and dangers, unless the welfare of his own dominions required it. This was a source of much annoyance to Cosmo, who felt he had incurred great expense and trouble for an ungrateful and perfidious friend. His bodily infirmities prevented him from attending either to public or private affairs, as he had been accustomed, and he consequently witnessed both going to decay; for Florence was ruined by her own citizens, and his fortune by his agents and children. He died, however, at the zenith of his glory and in the enjoyment of the highest renown. The city, and all the Christian princes, condoled with his son Piero for his loss. His funeral was conducted with the utmost pomp and solemnity, the whole city following his corpse to the tomb in the church of St. Lorenzo, on which, by public decree, he was inscribed, “FATHER OF HIS COUNTRY.” If, in speaking of Cosmo’s actions, I have rather imitated the biographies of princes than general history, it need not occasion wonder; for of so extraordinary an individual I was compelled to speak with unusual praise.


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