CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

Introduction: the Florentine ideological model in Leonardo Bruni’s Laudatio florentinae urbis (1403-1404) [1]

1In the early years of the fifteenth century, a mood of general enthusiasm swept Florence as a result of the unexpected end to the gruelling war with Milan upon the death of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan, and hence the breathing of new life into an expansionist project which, by necessity, had up until then been at a standstill. It was during this period that the young Leonardo Bruni (1374-1444) – who was on the verge of becoming apostolic secretary before occupying the position of Chancellor of Florence (the first under the Florentine communal administration) from 1427 until his death – penned his Laudatio florentinae urbis (Panegyric to the City of Florence). [2] Written in Latin, this panegyric was received fervently by the city and immediately adopted as the manifesto for the new Florentine ideology, underpinning the role that the Tuscan city intended to play within the Peninsula. But it also sought to celebrate the oligarchic ruling class that had survived the wars with the Visconti and was now setting itself up as a model for all of Italy on the basis of the myth of Florentine libertas, and its republican ideology. [3] Bruni thus appeared as the natural successor to Coluccio Salutati, [4] who died in May 1406.

2The ideal which Bruni offered as an ideological model to the citizens of Florence was based on a series of points set out emphatically in the Laudatio. Here, buoyed by pride in Florence’s recently acquired sense of dignity of state, and entirely in accord with the views of the ruling groups, Bruni particularly glorified the city’s independence from foreign dominion. In contrast to the seigneurial system increasingly being imposed elsewhere in Italy, only his republican ideal would be able to preserve Florence’s capacity for self-determination. This ideal was taken from the Roman Republic under which Florence – a daughter of Rome –had been founded and from which it continued to draw inspiration for its actions, and Bruni considered it not only a superior moral legacy but also a legitimately demanded right to territorial domination, which could extend world-wide. [5]

3In many respects the Laudatio falls unequivocally within the genre of laudes civitatum (city eulogies), which are paeans to the architectural harmony of a city, its artistic excellence, salubrious location, and the correspondence between the beauty of the place and the virtues of its citizens. Bruni was at pains to lavish particular praise on the political and human qualities of Florence’s citizens, whose worth, inventiveness and constancy had been bequeathed to them when the city was founded by the Roman Republic, when liberty had not yet been trampled underfoot by the actions of emperors and tyrants. The Laudatio lays stress on key political ideas – such as populus, libertas, prudentia and justitia – which it presents as typically Florentine. It calls for the legal as well as administrative independence of the Republic from all external authority, beginning with that of the emperor, and thus clearly demonstrating its affinity with fiercely anti-imperial Guelph tradition, [6] so close to Florentine hearts. [7] In its pages, Bruni sets out clearly and forcefully the elements of citizen identity which Florence would retain until at least the 1460s. Only then would the change in its political base make Bruni’s ideology seem anachronistic.

4Bruni was not the first to voice such sentiments. In part he was adopting the themes, ideas and the propaganda of the Invective which the humanist Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406) had composed shortly before this. In this, Salutati (as Chancellor of the Republic of Florence from 1375), [8] was responding to Antonio Loschi (c.1368-1411), a humanist from Vicenza, whom Gian Galeazzo Visconti had appointed as his chancellor in 1398. [9] Against those who defended the strategy of the Duke of Milan as being not one of conquest of the Italian peninsula, but as one of peace, in his elegy Bruni in turn sought to demonstrate how Florence had gone to war to defend Italy’s freedom and thus brought peace wherever she intervened. [10] Bruni also championed new ideas, which, admittedly, had already been outlined by Salutati, but which would rapidly become established as his own political discourse. [11] The last section of the Laudatio thus begins with the creation of Florence’s mythical status as a “respublica virtuosa”, [12] honoured and respected not only for the nobility of her origins but especially for the virtues and deeds of her citizens. [13] This last section is spent lauding Florence’s citizens and her Constitution; the latter, it claims, distinguished by order and balance, a kind of harmony emanating from the consonance struck between its different notes. Furthermore, it presents the unity of the city as resulting from the common respect for law and liberty, without which no state can survive, and on which all Florence’s actions are based.

Elogy to a unified and centralised city: a reflection of the changes in the practices of power

5This vision of the city as unified and centralised which Bruni promotes is a response to the tensions and debates within the city between the later decades of the fourteenth century and the beginning of the fifteenth; it calls for a complete overhaul of the decentralised republican system typical of the fourteenth-century Florentine Republic. [14] It marks a point in Florence’s history as a republic, which we now need to contextualise within a longer-term political history of Florence and the transformation of its ruling class.

Classic republican institutions (1328-1343)

6The institutional and political edifice to which Bruni alludes, and which would long remain in place, came into being with the establishment of the Priori system (the priorate) and then with its fundamental reform in 1328. [15] To mitigate certain aspects of this system which were seen as demagogic, a series of reforms was gradually introduced, such as the selection of officers on the basis of an election (squittino), or by drawing lots, [16] which conversely might discourage selection on merit. The priorate was the principal executive body of the state. It was composed of eight priors and a Gonfaloniere of Justice (standard-bearer of the Republic of Florence, and charged with maintaining public order) who occupied their roles for two months, following the drawing of lots from leather bags (borse) containing the names of the winners of the elections which had been carried out in the four districts which comprised the city. This judicial body enjoyed significant power, which was not, however, allowed to degenerate into tyranny. This first political institution, whose members spent the two months during which they were in charge in isolation in the Palazzo della Signoria, were flanked by two other Collegi (elected councils): that of the Dodici Buonomini (twelve good men), and of the Sedici Gonfaloniere (sixteen gonfalonieres), which were set up to protect the popolo (non-aristocratic citizens) from the magnates (the elite families which had traditionally held power) [17] but which rapidly assumed a political role. These main organs of government, the tre maggiori (three main offices), [18] considered all matters pertaining to the running of the state. Draft bills, once approved by the Signoria, [19] were submitted for approval to the city’s Councils: the people’s council and the communal council. Bruni showcases the “perfection” of the organisation of the Commune, particularly in how justice is administered, via the striking image of the communal palace – the Palazzo della Signoria – which, as much by its height as by its bulk, stood out from all the other buildings in the city. [20] Physically, it signalled the centre of the city; symbolically, it stood for communal society: a place which embodied the supremacy of the law over the different factions, institutions and consorterie[21] which tended to create or maintain their own spheres of authority, and thus a place which represented the victory of public authority over the various bonds of solidarity, and expressed its superiority over the loyalties which linked families and individuals.

7However, this institutional edifice was subject to the effects of a series of changes. The initial system, which enjoyed its heyday at the end of the 1330s, rapidly came undone in the following years, partly due to a series of unfortunate coincidences, such as the bankruptcies which resulted from the insolvency of Edward III, King of England (1343), and affected the big commercial companies (belonging to the Peruzzi, Acciaiuoli, Bonaccorsi, and Bardi families) and thus a large section of Florentine society. These bankruptcies were followed by attempts by the Bardi, Frescobaldi, Rossi and Nerli families to assume control of the city’s government in order to better protect their own economic interests worldwide. Additionally there were problems concerning the food supply, [22] as well as the aborted attempt to conquer Lucca, which threatened to plunge the city into chaos. The Republic believed it could put an end to these troubles by appointing a signore – initially for a limited period of one year, and then extended to a life appointment – to regain control over the violent tensions opposing the nobility (the magnates) and the other social groups. They chose Gautier de Brienne, who had led the Florentine troops in the war against Lucca. As early as 1343, de Brienne was ousted by a coalition comprising all social groups who, for a brief period, managed to formulate unified demands and work together; subsequently the political class once again allowed the magnates access to power, [23] but also, for the first time, representatives of the arti minori (minor guilds). [24] Despite the rapid disintegration of this unified front, and the subsequent exclusion of the magnates from government once again, the 1343 reform remained a key moment in the history of the Commune, and a challenge to the political and social order which, in seeking to promote “new men” (novi cives), [25] created a ruling class which had never previously been represented in the Signoria. [26]

Increasing centralisation, social struggle, and the quest for consensus within the ruling class (second half of the fourteenth century)

8The chronicler Giovanni Villani reported that 3000 citizens were preselected by the electoral commissions for the 1343 election, of which around 300 were approved and saw their name go into the leather bag. Their number increased: 500 qualified in the 1361 election, even though the population had experienced a sharp decline when compared to the previous elections. Between October 1343 and August 1348 no fewer than 163 families held priorate positions for the first time. During this period, on average half the priors were “new men”. [27] The trend persisted, though at a much slower pace, in the decades which followed, at least until 1387 when the selection process for appointments began to be based on other criteria. There was then a marked decline in social mobility, but only from 1393, although the Republic remained open to new families penetrating the traditional power base. [28] The divieto limited how often a single individual could be elected. [29] For example, a prior could not take up the same office for the two years following the end of his term, and his family members were prevented from doing so for one year. This served to prevent the wealthiest families from monopolising the exercise of power, and worked to the benefit of those who did not have family connections. The large number of positions available and the frequent changes of personnel meant that the system achieved the political education of a significant number of citizens. Their involvement in the legal and political system, in administrative and financial offices, with the guilds, in assemblies, Councils, commissions and embassies provided them with enviable political training and a unique understanding of the problems and techniques of government. Despite the short-term nature of the positions, political continuity in the city was ensured both by overlapping political offices, and by referral to special balìe, which ensured continuous leadership and policy control, particularly when it was a matter of seeing through long-term enterprises, such as wars, which required consistent decision-making over a long period. [30] Moreover, small groups of citizens (including magnates) were regularly coopted to advise the Signoria and the Colleges on problems of both interior and exterior policy. These were people who held great political influence, who were called upon for their understanding of economic or international circumstances; even if, at the point at which they were co-opted, they held no specific institutional office. [31]

9The new ideological direction heralded by Salutati – from the time of the so-called War of the Eight Saints against Pope Gregory XI (1375-1378) and the tumultuous period of the Revolt of the Ciompi [32] (1378) until the fortunate and satisfactory outcome of the struggle against the Visconti (1402) – and the construction subsequently attributed to this by Bruni in which he exalted Florentine freedom, corresponded to a period of enormous change in Florentine history.

10The collapse of the government formed by the minor guilds (which lasted for only a short time from the Revolt of the Ciompi to the beginning of the 1380s) then, to an even greater extent, the reforms of 1393 confirmed the domination of the merchant and financial bourgeoisie, and the decline of a Commune which was based on the autonomy of each guild and their equal participation in the government, within which the differences and divisions were formally recognised. The resulting government represented these differences and exercised its power as a federation of autonomous parties. [33] The city thus now sought a new institutional foundation in order to protect itself from internal divisions, which had already proved fatal to the survival of a number of self-governing or citizen-controlled communes, and had even seriously threatened the survival of the Florentine Republic itself on several occasions. Such a new institutional foundation was also intended to enable it to tackle and bring to fruition its foreign policy objective of expanding its dominio. [34] The ideological programme set out by Bruni clearly articulated this break with what had gone before, with its new emphasis on loyalty to the state, considered more important than any other family or professional loyalty. The common good was thus designated as a reality more powerful than that exerted by all other partial associative structures, such as professional or associative interests.

11These demands led to a debate concerning the traditional norms and, following the parlamento (citizen’s general assembly) of 1378, to demands for the sovereignty of the city to be enshrined in the Signoria and the Colleges, the highest structures of government, which met with the approval of both Councils, that of the People and of the Commune. Power was then concentrated in the hands of the Signoria, and a selection process for the city’s rulers was developed. Those recognised as belonging to the reggimento[35] were recruited via the electoral borse of the tre maggiori, and were destined over time to become a hereditary ruling group who monopolised public office. Similarly, although with partial success, the simple drawing of lots for offices was also put up for discussion, the feeling being that they should in fact be elected so that the merit of the persons selected could be truly guaranteed. [36] Bruni’s insistence in describing the priorate as enjoying the quasi royal prerogatives of a city which had inherited the right of conquest from Rome was a reaction to the resistance to this project and the strong regime within many strata of the city. [37]

12Florence’s affirmation of its sovereignty and its ambitions for territorial expansion went hand in hand with increasing concentration of power at the highest level, until the social representation of the Commune was jeopardised and the endemic conflict between the debates in the Signoria and the vote in the Councils resurfaced. In addition, the context of war and crisis meant that power was delegated and, passing out of the hands of the usual Councils, was instead entrusted to select committees such as the Dieci di Balia (Ten of the Balia) or the Council of Eighty, which were made up of members of the main organs of government. These members, instead of the Councils within whose jurisdiction these matters fell, were authorised to debate the most controversial (financial and fiscal) matters. The coup d’état led by Maso degli Albizzi in 1393 led to the expulsion of the opposition faction, notably the Alberti and Acciaiuoli families, who were competing for the very structure of Florence’s institutions. Maso then proposed that the city statutes be revised in order to take into account Florence’s new position, a “powerful city”, capital of a rapidly expanding territory.

The socio-political and institutional structure of power after 1343

13At the time at which the Laudatio was written, Florentine political life was based upon a set of institutions and practices that protected the community from radical changes in the institutional edifice that had been established in the last decades of the thirteenth century, whilst retaining the possibility for the political class to implement from time to time changes which seemed necessary for the maintenance of the political constitution. Thanks to the entrepreneurial capacities of its productive sectors and its wealth, Florence enjoyed greater regard in Europe than its limited geographical area would otherwise allow. The city had connections across all of Europe, and maintained both economic and political relationships with the main princes and sovereigns – both religious and secular – from the emperor and the pope to the most minor nobles. Internally, Florence – like the other citystates – was worn out by conflicts between factions within the ruling class; a ruling class which had nonetheless almost always succeeded in preserving the state’s independence and the vigour of its institutions.

The quantitative importance of citizen participation in the city’s government: some numerical data

14The regime which came to power in 1343 when the Duke of Athens was ousted was the first to appreciably widen the social base and scope of the political class. However, after an initial period during which magnates and representatives from the minor guilds were able to participate in government, the regime returned to strict observance of the Ordinances of Justice which, since 1293, had barred the magnates from occupying the city’s highest political offices. Participation in government remained open to representatives of the minor guilds who – although numerically inferior – took their seats alongside the major guilds. [38] The traditional system of co-optation to the political class consisted of submitting to the electoral commissions the lists of those guild members who had been nominated and fielded by various institutions, from the Guelph party to the guilds themselves. The names of the winners of the vote were placed in the relevant leather bags – one for each of the tre maggiori – and were then selected at random from the bags when required. For the three major offices alone, the priors, the Sedici Gonfaloniere, and the Dodici Buonomini – in other words Florence’s real government – 150 citizens were elected each year. Florence’s two legal councils, the consiglio del popolo, with 300 members, all from the popolo, and the consiglio del comune, with 200 members, of which 40 were magnates, were responsible for debating and voting on the draft legislation sent to it by the executive. Since this membership of 500 was renewed every four months, these councils comprised 1500 individual citizens every year, often the same who had been elected to hold major offices. These two large legislative assemblies had no mandate to initiate the legal process; only the executive authority of the Signoria could do this. Despite this limitation, the councils played a fundamental role in Florentine public life. Although they were largely composed of members who had been chosen to occupy the highest levels of government, because of their numbers they were difficult for the executive to control; in fact, they often opposed it and rejected its draft legislation, especially when it concerned questions of taxation.

15Other public offices existed, in addition to the legal councils and the tre maggiori, and the numbers of such offices multiplied during the oligarchic regime (1383-1434). [39] The Otto di Guardia (Eight of the Guard) were a type of police force in charge of overseeing public order, established in 1378 just after the Revolt of the Ciompi. The Dieci di Balia, created shortly afterwards in 1384, were in charge of military affairs and the conduct of war. The Ufficiali dell’Onesta (Office of Honesty) controlled prostitution and sexual behaviour; and the Conservatori di Leggi, set up in 1429, oversaw the qualification requirements for holding public office. The Cinque del Contado[40] were responsible for the economic and fiscal administration of the surrounding area and the districts. The numbers of external offices dealing with the administration of justice and the defence of Florentine territory grew significantly during the oligarchic period as a result of Florence’s territorial expansion and the acquisition of Arezzo (1384), Pisa (1406), Cortona (1411), and Livorno (1421) which – along with earlier annexations of Prato and Pistoia – increased the size of the Florentine state to the area it would occupy until it acquired the state of Siena in the middle of the sixteenth century. These offices employed around 100 people each year; additionally there were between 60 and 100 people employed as officers responsible for the military posts dotted across Florentine territory. These latter positions, although their social status was considerably lower, represented an immediate and valuable economic resource for families who might be experiencing temporary financial difficulties. Moreover, all these territorial offices required a huge number of salaried employees (judges, solicitors, men-at-arms, servants) working in the entourage of an officer for whom the guaranteed and permanent nature of their employment meant a reliable source of income; such offices created a set of long-term personal connections within Florentine society. Overall there were around 2200 political and administrative posts to be filled annually, a figure which did not correspond to the number of people employed each year, as the same person might occupy more than one role per year. In any case, when we consider that, according to the land register of 1427, Florence had around 40,000 inhabitants, a large number of citizens were called on to serve in the government and administration of the Florentine state for one reason or another. [41]

16A sizeable proportion of the citizens who carried out public duties were those who were qualified to hold major offices (more political in nature), and were considered by their contemporaries as regime insiders. Over 70 per cent of those with a seat in the legislative councils were also qualified to hold the three major offices; in addition, they carried out a series of administrative duties, or duties which were economic or financial in nature. The number of those qualified to hold general office was probably not much greater than those qualified for the three major offices. [42] If we look closely at the careers of these politicians, there is evidence of a cursus honorum, starting with minor offices with the aim of reaching the higher echelons when they reached the age required to hold offices of greater responsibility; they alternated political and administrative posts, on Florentine territory and within the professional guilds, and were involved in diplomatic and advisory missions in the select consultative committees of the consulte e pratiche.

17In 1343, of 3,000 “nominated” citizens, [43] 300 were declared eligible to hold the city’s main offices. This number only increased over time, despite the considerable ongoing fall in the Florentine population following the 1348 plague and the repeated epidemics which succeeded it. In 1361, 500 emerged victorious from the vote; in 1382, 750 out of the 5000 whose names had been put forward; and in 1433 there were 6354 nominated and 2084 elected. [44]

18This system, which had been devised to avoid the ever-present danger of the regime become an absolutist one, controlled by a single individual or family, was based on an extensive political class participating in government in a spirit of solidarity. Although its members successively alternated positions of power, and enjoyed the prestige which involvement in public office could confer whilst also gaining extensive political experience, the system did not allow the continuity of office necessary to pursue long-term political projects. For the latter, the Signoria relied on a body of civil servants, first among whom was the chancellor, who worked in the service of the Republic for long uninterrupted periods, and were its historic and administrative memory. The civil servants were consulted on various aspects of policy, both internal and external, and also on the establishment of special committees (balìe), which were responsible from beginning to end for special missions such as war, taxes, or electoral policies. The use of such committees was particularly frequent and regular from the middle of the fourteenth century, when Florence set the course which would lead to the constitution of its territorial state.

19This complex yet well-proportioned system, in which each element was balanced, rapidly experienced the emergence from within of forces of disunity, which would bring it to the brink of destruction. Initially this took the form of two rival factions within the ruling class. The first faction, supported by the Guelph party and drawing on its tradition, was led by the Albizzi family, and defended the alliance with the papacy and with Naples; in terms of interior policy, it was in favour of a regime based on a limited group of families from the old aristocracy and excluding those elements more recently admitted into the political elite. The Ricci family was at the head of the rival faction, and espoused a more flexible foreign policy, less rigidly associated with Guelphism, and, at home, embraced a more open approach towards those strata of society constituted by craftsmen and, more generally, towards the “new men”. These tensions culminated in a period of extreme turbulence in the early months of 1378, leading to the Revolt of the Ciompi in the summer of the same year, and thence to the short-lived government of the minor guilds. January 1382 saw the major guilds and the city’s historically important families take back the reins of power and the beginning of a remarkable period in Florence’s history which lasted until 1434, when Cosimo de’ Medici, who had returned to his homeland after a year in exile, took the running of Florence and its city-state firmly in hand.

The ruling class during the oligarchic period (1482-1434)

20Historians have defined this as an oligarchic period because power was held mostly by the old Florentine families and, even if the door remained open to newcomers to the ruling class, their numbers diminished when compared to the previous decades. This change was not introduced suddenly, but gradually and over time, and the regime never directly opposed the craftsmen and the minor guilds, who were always present in public office, thus avoiding alienating their support. Nevertheless, the regime slowly developed a series of electoral checks to guarantee the selection of its politicians. Public offices were reserved for citizens who had both economic resources and a background in politics and who – either themselves or their fathers – had paid communal taxes continuously for at least 30 years. Special borse were introduced for the names of citizens in whom the regime placed the most trust, borse which guaranteed that a certain number of these preferred citizens would be presented each time lots were drawn for major offices. The regime which emerged in the aftermath of the shock caused by the uprising of the lower social groups feared its possible recurrence. Without closing its doors and toppling into authoritarianism, it sought to protect itself from such an eventuality and made attempts to build social harmony through consensus politics. The loyalty of each social group meant that all individuals might hope to be accepted into the political sphere; an ideology which both Salutati and Bruni – especially Bruni – fervently espoused.

21At the height of the Medici period several writers, railing against the contemporary political context, harked back wistfully to the oligarchic decades when the Republic experienced its greatest successes, which they attributed to the men who had then been in charge: their capabilities and their virtues, it was claimed, made them comparable “to the wisest of the Romans, whom the Ancients thus celebrated”. [45] The ruling class, as we have seen, could at that time be identified with the whole system of government, the central element of which was constituted by the priorate; a political class separate from all those who did not have the right to exercise executive office. In a more limited sense, this same ruling class meant those who had received the approval of the ballot box to occupy a role within the highest echelons of the political system: the priorate and the auxiliary colleges, the Dodici Buonomini and the Sedici Gonfaloniere. [46] The highest political success was judged as being attained when an individual or a family qualified to exercise these offices. [47] Fulfilling the office of prior meant becoming a part of the regime; and a particularly special place was reserved within the regime for those families who had been continuously represented on the priorate from the earliest year of its inception (1282) to the present day. The anticati del civile reggimento (“ancients of the civil regime”), as Giovanni Cavalcanti called them, [48] tended to constitute a small and highly influential inner circle within the ruling group, which was made up of all those connected to the priorate.

22Their awareness of their role is evident from a number of private documents, [49] which clearly set out – somewhat disdainfully – the distance which separated the sorte maggiore families [50] from other families who were nonetheless part of the regime. Alessandra Macinghi Strozzi, who for financial reasons married her eldest daughter off to Marco Parenti, a young silk merchant and member of a family which had only been admitted to the priorate in 1351, emphasised the young bridegroom’s personal qualities, whilst highlighting the social gap between the two families. [51] Social and political pre-eminence was not so much a function of wealth – a significant proportion of Florence’s richest families were not part of the ruling group – as of a close combination of a long-standing family presence on the economic and political stage with economic activity conferring prestige and honour. The families who enjoyed such circumstances found themselves always in conflict with the families newly admitted to public office after the expulsion of the Duke of Athens in 1343. Such opposition gave rise to the political divisions of the second half of the fourteenth century, and subsequently remained a fundamental faultline in terms of the social status that Florentine families enjoyed.

23When analysing the vote of 1433, the last before Cosimo de’ Medici’s return to the political stage, it is possible to ascertain the date of first admission to the priorate for 307 of the successful families. For 77 of these families, this was after 1383, thus demonstrating the persistence of upward mobility at the highest echelons of Florence’s government. [52] Their participation in government demonstrates that Florentine political life tended to reward families more than isolated individuals putting themselves forward for the first time at the start of their political career without the support of socially pre-eminent relatives. The selection process paid more attention to the family from which an individual came – seen as the unit of reference which qualified a candidate to join the ruling political class – than to the individual himself.

The quasi-professionalisation of the ruling political class: three examples

24Those who were successful in the vote for the priorate were influential across all sectors of society in the sense that they did not merely exercise all major responsibilities, but also all those of secondary importance, such as acting as advisors to the podestà and the capitano del popolo, and fulfilling diplomatic missions and various offices across Florentine territory. A closer look at the political careers of a number of prominent members of the ruling class will serve to demonstrate how belonging to the governing elite had become a full-time activity. Winners of the vote for the major offices also fulfilled a considerable number of minor offices and assumed responsibilities in the internal functions of the guild from whose ranks they had come; although these responsibilities revolved between holders they entailed continual involvement in political, administrative, advisory, military, economic or financial functions. This ruling class thus gave the impression that they had won the right to run the state and this was now their ongoing occupation. In their private writings [53] not all responsibilities were considered as equally worthy of mention; only those which conferred honour on the writer or his descendants. Nonetheless, all offices were carried out and, taken together, give the impression of constituting a career.

25Let us therefore examine the lives and careers of some of the more significant members of this ruling group. Without exception, their lives are characterised by a series of offices and responsibilities, as often within government as within their own guild; despite the burden and varied nature of the tasks, they rarely sought to evade them. The careers portrayed in these thumbnail sketches vary depending on whether the citizen in question retained a professional activity; whether he was willing to spend long periods of time out of Florence at regular intervals; and whether he was particularly interested in roles which required specialist skills.

26Jacopo, the son of Alamanno Salviati (c.1370-1412), was one of the first of his family to demonstrate strength of character and build a successful political career, even though a number of his ancestors had had seats in the priorate since 1297. He too left a family book covering the years 1399 to 1411, right up until shortly before his death. [54] His notes record everything he deemed worthy of remembering and which was thus likely to bestow honour on both him and his family. In this vein, he made particular note of the many diplomatic missions with which he had been entrusted and on the basis of which, among other things, he was appointed ambassador to the king of France for at least seven months, between December 1404 and July 1405. [55] But Jacopo did much more than this: on three occasions he was elected captain of Florence’s men-at-arms by the Dieci di Balia, first in 1404 against the Ubertini family, a feudal family who supported the Duke of Milan and had been declared as rebels by Florence; and then between September and December 1405 he was elected captain of the cavalry and foot soldiers that Florence had sent to lay siege to the walls of Pisa which, having been sold by Milan in 1405, was resisting Florentine control. On his return from the first military expedition he was knighted. Jacopo also saw his election to the city’s highest offices (gonfaloniere [gonfaloniere di compagnia] in 1397, prior in 1398, member of the Buonomini college in 1399 and 1405) as worthy of being recorded. He fulfilled a great many external roles: as the podestà (chief magistrate) of Montepulciano in 1399, vicar to Valdinievole in 1401 and to Anghiari in 1403, captain of Pistoia from 1406 to 1407, vicar to the Florentine Alps the following year, captain of the city of Arezzo in 1410, and captain in the citadel of Pisa in 1411. Conversely, in his family book Salviati fails to mention, on the one hand, his elections to the council of the guild to which he belonged – the wool guild – in 1394 and 1402; and, on the other, the many minor offices such as officer of the Florence cathedral works commission (Opera del Duomo), the body which managed Florence’s cathedral; officer in the chamber of contracts, officer of the city’s public debt (monte), [56] officer at the Orsanmichele (grain market), camerlengo (chamberlain) of the tax chamber, officer for fortresses, officer of the Tower, officer for pupils: offices that he fulfilled several times during the course of his career, but which did not represent an element of excellence since such offices were also available to those who were outside the restricted circle of the political class. Similarly, he made no mention of the fact that he had had a seat on the legislative councils, [57] a fact discovered when searching the archives for the Commune council, in which his name appeared for the last four months of 1410. [58] This was a real political career which, each year, necessarily involved alternating highly prestigious offices – all of which were followed by a period of ineligibility, or divieto – with ordinary administrative positions in public affairs which, although they may not have merited being recorded in written memoirs, nonetheless contributed to this citizen’s service to the Republic.

27Similar observations might be made of another key figure in the oligarchic period, Bonaccorso di Neri Pitti (1354-1432), who left behind him a lively and detailed family book. [59] The first part of his life seems to have been entirely devoted to travelling, gambling, and adventuring. His marriage signalled the beginning of the second part of his life, in which he played the part that Florentine society expected of him, becoming an active and valued member of the ruling class, specifically as an expert and astute economic and financial advisor. Twice a prior (1399, 1404), he was also elected to the Buonomini on two occasions (1398, 1405), served as gonfaloniere three times (in 1403, 1420, and 1430) and twice assumed the supreme office of Gonfaloniere of Justice (1417, 1422). If he was frequently to be found occupying the highest offices, it should also be noted that his name was also always drawn for external offices (captain of Pistoia, Pisa, Castrocaro, and of the citadel of Pisa; vicar to Valdinievole, to the upper Valdarno, to the Mugello region; podestà to Pieve Santo Stefano, San Gimignano, Montepulciano, Tizzana, Prato and Barga). In addition he occupied a considerable number of minor offices, undertook diplomatic missions, and assumed responsibilities within both the wool guild and the Guelph party. He was on the council of the latter, and member of the group of citizens responsible for overseeing elections in order to draw up the list of people qualified to take a seat in the party. [60]

28Niccolò da Uzzano (1359-1431) was also extremely busy during the oligarchic period; one of the prominent figures within the city’s elite, he was seen as being both consensual and possessed of great personal influence. He was a member of the powerful Arte di Calimala (merchants, finishers and dyers of foreign cloth) and of the Arte del Cambio (bankers and money-changers) and continued to be heavily involved in trade. He was elected a member of the Corte della Mercanzia[61] on three occasions, and was a member of the councils of his guilds at least eight times. [62] His political activity rapidly took him into the innermost political circle, very close to the political group led by Maso Albizzi, and he was eventually “handpicked” as Gonfaloniere of Justice in 1393 at the point at which the Albizzi regime really came into its own. [63] Nor did his career end there: he was twice more appointed Gonfaloniere of Justice and a prior, three times a gonfaloniere di compagnia, and he had a seat on the Buonomini college on four occasions. His activity was essentially within Florence (he only once accepted a post outside of the city, that of podestà to the neighbouring city of Prato in 1415); but he devoted his energies to responsibilities which required high levels of economic skill and knowledge. He was thus an officer of the city’s public debt, an officer of abundance, of wheat, of money; a camerlengo of the chamber, chamberlain for salt, captain of the Orsanmichele, contracts officer, sea officer, and officer of the condotta[64] (contract concerning the hiring of soldiers); finally – and this in his youth – he was elected several times to a seat on the city councils. [65] Even then, this meant Niccolò’s continued presence in public office on an annual basis, since he was allocated several responsibilities each year. In his case, he was sought after for his political and economic skills and experience, and was always involved in the inner political workings of the Republic.


30These three examples, chosen from hundreds of similar cases, help to shed light on a political class for whom governing the state meant a total commitment, which might be undertaken alongside real, personal involvement in the world of work, but which more often made this impossible. Those families and individuals who enjoyed a monopoly over the highest public offices were not solely occupied with exercising these responsibilities in their working lives, but they nonetheless lived this administrative and political life to the full. [66] The upshot of all this constant chopping and changing was that a small group of men – doubtless of great personal ability, and within the context of a regime in which the patriciate [67] enjoyed absolute pre-eminence – succeeded in gaining the support of the people, and of a significant number of the minor guilds and those who were bound by them. These men pursued, and believed in, the project of state-building, whilst maintaining a balance between the still-celebrated principle of the common good, and their own personal and family interests. As a result of the openness which the ruling class always extended to “new men”, Florence offered possibilities for inclusion which had not been seen before. Although to begin with these “new men” had very little political influence, they nonetheless helped to reinforce the sense of belonging and the civic pride which strengthened the consensus around the regime and weakened internal opposition. Gaining access to the limited circle of those who were qualified to occupy the highest level of office was an obvious marker of social distinction and the prelude to enjoying important personal advantages. The key to understanding the Florentine political mentality lies in recognising the conscious and deliberate balance between public obligation and private interest, between personal advantages and the common good. Ultimately, they were proud to represent republican values in Italy, at a point when the country was shifting towards regimes in which the supreme power lay in the hands of a signore and took the form of princely rule. [68]

31Thousands of Florentine citizens participated in political life. In many cases this took the form of a professional commitment which went far beyond the desire simply to be part of the political regime. The enthusiasm of these decades gradually abated, and disappointment with public office rapidly took its place. As a result, citizens distanced themselves from, or retreated from, the ambition – clearly visible in the examples above – to number amongst those “who take part in the state” (cittadini statuali), to use the striking expression employed by Giovanni Rucellai (1403-1481), a rich cloth merchant who had occupied a number of political offices under Cosimo and Lorenzo de’ Medici, in the solemn advice he addressed to his son. [69]


  • [1]
    The subtitles and editorial notes in this article have been added by the special issue editors, Jean Boutier and Yves Sintomer, to the French version of this article and translated into English.
  • [2]
    The text can be dated to 1403-1404. See the English translation (e-book): Leonardo Bruni, In Praise of Florence: The Panegyric of the City of Florence (Olive Press, 2005); and the recent edition of Laudatio florentinae urbis edited by Stefano U. Baldassarri (Tavarnuzze [Florence]: SISMEL edizioni del Galluzzo, 2000). Much has been written about Leonardo Bruni; see Hans Baron, From Petrarch to Leonardo Bruni. Studies in Humanistic and Political Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1968); Gordon Griffiths, James Hankins, David Thompson, The Humanism of Leonardo Bruni. Selected Texts (Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 46; Renaissance Texts Series, 10) (Binghamton: Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, State University of New York/Renaissance Society of America, 1987); Paolo Viti (ed.), Leonardo Bruni cancelliere della Repubblica di Firenze (Florence: Olschki, 1990); concerning Bruni’s ideology, see James Hankins,’Rhetoric, history and ideology: the civic panegirics of Leonardo Bruni’, in James Hankins (ed.), Renaissance Civic Humanism. Reappraisals and Reflections (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 143-78.
  • [3]
    See Nicolai Rubinstein, “Florentina libertas”, Rinascimento, second series, 26, 1986, 3-26.
  • [4]
    Editorial note: Coluccio Salutati did much to introduce humanist studies to Florence.
  • [5]
    Riccardo Fubini, “Cultura umanistica e tradizione cittadina nella storiografia fiorentina del’400”, in La storiografia umanistica. Convegno internazionale di studi (Messina 22-25 ottobre 1987) (Messina: Sicania, 1992), vol. 1, 399-443.
  • [6]
    Editorial note: In the Middle Ages, Florence’s independence was most at stake in its relationship with the Holy Roman Empire: unlike the opposing faction, the Ghibellines, who supported the latter, the Guelphs were in favour of an alliance with the papacy.
  • [7]
    Gary Ianziti, Writing History in Renaissance Italy. Leonardo Bruni and the Uses of the Past (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).
  • [8]
    Daniela De Rosa, Coluccio Salutati. Il cancelliere e il pensatore politico (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1980 [new edition: Ariccia: Aracne, 2014]); Ronald G. Witt, Hercules at the Crossroads. The Life, Works and Thought of Coluccio Salutati (Duke Monographs in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 16) (Durham: Duke University Press, 1983); Riccardo Fubini, “Propaganda e idee politiche da Coluccio Salutati a Leonardo Bruni”, in Politica e pensiero politico nell’Italia del Rinascimento. Dallo stato territoriale al Machiavelli (Florence: Edifir, 2009), 143-63.
  • [9]
    See the entry on Paolo Viti in the Dizionario biografico degli Italiani (Rome: Istituto Treccani, 2007).
  • [10]
    L. Bruni, Laudatio florentine urbis, edited by S. U. Baldassarri, 616-33.
  • [11]
    Riccardo Fubini, “Coluccio Salutati cancelliere nel suo sfondo storico-politico”, in Coluccio Salutati cancelliere e letterato, atti del convegno tenuto a Buggiano Castello il 27 maggio 2006 (Buggiano: Comune di Buggiano, 2007), 159-69.
  • [12]
    Stefano U. Baldassarri, La vipera e il giglio. Lo scontro tra Milano e Firenze nelle invettive di Antonio Loschi e Coluccio Salutati (Ariccia: Aracne, 2012).
  • [13]
    L. Bruni, Laudatio florentine urbis, edited by S. U. Baldassarri, 614.
  • [14]
    Editorial note: In the fourteenth century, Florence’s political life and institutions relied on a set of largely autonomous organisations, which played a part in appointing the city’s officers and which, in some cases, also enjoyed wide-ranging powers and their own domain of jurisdiction: the Arti (guilds); the Guelph Party; and the districts, which were organised along specific lines.
  • [15]
    See the article by Piero Gualtieri in this issue of the RFSP.
  • [16]
    Editorial note: From 1328 the standard procedure for selecting the city’s officers involved an election which took place within the electoral commissions, followed by the drawing of lots between those who remained in contention, and whose names had been put in a leather bag.
  • [17]
    Editorial note: The magnates comprised Florence’s historical aristocracy. Against them, the popolo organised themselves into commercial and industrial guilds – the Arti – becoming a state within the state before assuming a central position of power within the city.
  • [18]
    Editorial note: The priorate was the heart of the Florentine executive. It was assisted by two Colleges, the Sedici Gonfaloniere and the Dodici Buonomini, which meant that a higher proportion of the dominant stratum of society could be involved in government. These were Florence’s three major offices.
  • [19]
    Editorial note: In other words, by the priorate with the support of the two Colleges.
  • [20]
    L. Bruni, Laudatio florentine urbis, edited by S. U. Baldassarri, 581; cf. Nicolai Rubinstein, The Palazzo Vecchio, 1298-1532. Government, Architecture, and Imagery in the Civic Palace of the Florentine Republic (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).
  • [21]
    Editorial note: Originally, consorterie were unions between families related by blood which required their members to avenge insults inflicted upon any other member.
  • [22]
    Prices were particularly high in the years 1339 to 1341. See Charles M. de La Roncière, Prix et salaires à Florence au xive siècle, 1280-1380 (Rome: École française de Rome, 1982), 126-7.
  • [23]
    For more on the magnates’ involvement in ruling Florence after their exclusion in 1293, see Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, Retour à la cité. Les magnats de Florence, 1340-1440 (Paris: Éditions de l’EHESS, 2006).
  • [24]
    Marvin Becker, Gene A. Brucker, “The Arti Minori in Florentine politics, 1342-1378”, Medieval Studies, 18, 1956, 93-104.
  • [25]
    Editorial note: Expanding the power base in Florence meant reaching out either to the lower social groups (the minor guilds, or even the popolo minuto, craftsmen who were traditionally excluded from the guilds), or to the “new men” – the upwardly mobile families within society who were not part of the traditional circles.
  • [26]
    On the period which succeeded this reform, see Gene A. Brucker, Florentine Politics and Society, 1343-1378 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962).
  • [27]
    Marvin B. Becker, “The ‘novi cives’ in Florentine politics from 1343 to the end of the century”, in Florence in Transition. Tome II. Studies in the Rise of the Territorial State (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968), 93-149.
  • [28]
    Ronald Witt, “Florentine politics and the ruling class, 1382-1407”, The Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 6(2), 1976, 243-67.
  • [29]
    Editorial note: Divieto meant that one could not exercise a role for which one had been selected in cases where certain criteria had not been observed.
  • [30]
    Editorial note: Via the mechanism of a balìa, the legislative councils could grant special powers to public office holders. The word balìe referred to the act, accepted by the councils, of granting extraordinary power to this special committee, to the committee itself and, by extension, to the decrees of this committee.
  • [31]
    Editorial note: These consultative assemblies were called consulte e pratiche. High-quality public debate took place within them, whereas it was rarely to be heard in the legislative Councils, as it was forbidden to criticise the Signoria’s draft bills within the latter.
  • [32]
    Editorial note: The Ciompi were poor craftsmen and labourers in the textile industry who were excluded from the guilds, and thus from access to political office, and who rebelled in 1378 and were subsequently violently repressed.
  • [33]
    John M. Najemy, “Civic humanism and Florentine politics”, in J. Hankins (ed.), Renaissance Civic Humanism, 75-104 (81).
  • [34]
    Editorial note: In other words, its hold over the neighbouring cities.
  • [35]
    Editorial note: the word reggimento at that time partly meant what we call “regime” in English, but its first meaning corresponded to what we now call the “ruling class”.
  • [36]
    Editorial note: The “elections” were always the responsibility of the electoral commissions and never involved all citizens voting; they were thus largely an exercise in co-option.
  • [37]
    Riccardo Fubini, Quattrocento fiorentino. Politica, diplomazia, cultura (Pisa: Pacini, 1996).
  • [38]
    Editorial note: See note 5, p. 66, of the article by Piero Gualtieri in this issue of the RFSP.
  • [39]
    On this oligarchic period, see Anthony Molho, “The Florentine oligarchy and the balìe of the late trecento”, Speculum, 43, 1968, 23-52.
  • [40]
    Editorial note: The contado was the countryside surrounding Florence. The peasants from the contado were not organised into guilds and had no right of citizenship.
  • [41]
    David Herlihy, Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, Les Toscans et leurs familles. Une étude du droit florentin de 1427 (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po/Éditions de l’EHESS, 1978).
  • [42]
    Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, “Les acteurs politiques de la Florence communale (1350-1430)”, in Jean Boutier, Sandro Landi, Olivier Rouchon (eds), Florence et la Toscane. Les dynamiques d’un État italien (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2004), 217-39.
  • [43]
    Editorial note: Meaning that they had been preselected by various bodies and their names put forward to the electoral commissions, who put these names in the borse if they succeeded in the qualified majority vote.
  • [44]
    Gene Brucker, The Civic World of Early Renaissance Florence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977); Dale Kent, “The Florentine reggimento in the fifteenth century”, Renaissance Quarterly, 28, 1975, 575-638 (587).
  • [45]
    Luca della Robbia, “Vita di Bartolomeo Valori”, Archivio storico italiano, 4(1), 1843, 239-40.
  • [46]
    Lauro Martines, Lawyers and Statecraft in Renaissance Florence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968); D. Kent, “The Florentine reggimento…”.
  • [47]
    See Giovanni di Pagolo Morelli, “Ricordi”, in Vittore Branca (ed.), Mercanti scrittori. Ricordi nella Firenze tra Medioevo e Rinascimento (Milan: Rusconi, 1986), 157-8.
  • [48]
    Giovanni Cavalcanti, Istorie fiorentine, edited by Guido Di Pino (Milan: Aldo Martello, 1944), 47.
  • [49]
    Editorial note: This is a key period in the development of intimate writing, such as private journals and memoirs.
  • [50]
    Editorial note: The sorte maggiore families were those who were allowed to be drawn by lot for the major offices.
  • [51]
    Alessandra Macinghi negli Strozzi, Lettere di una gentildonna fiorentina del secolo XV ai figliuoli esuli, edited by Cesare Guasti (Florence: G. C. Sansoni, 1877), 3 and 89.
  • [52]
    D. Kent, “The Florentine reggimento…”.
  • [53]
    This analysis is informed both by family books (private writings, particularly widespread in the Florentine archives: for more on this exceptional source material, see Claude Cazalé Bérard, Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, “Mémoire de soi et des autres dans les livres de famille italiens”, Annales. Histoire Sciences Sociales, 59, 2004, 805-26) and by the public archives, which record appointments to public office (Florence, Archivio di Stato [henceforth ASF], Tratte). A prosopographic analysis of the careers of around 400 Florentine citizens during the early decades of the fifteenth century is in preparation.
  • [54]
    Iacopo Salviati, Cronica o memorie di Iacopo Salviati dall’anno 1398 al 1411, in Ildefonso di San Luigi (ed.), Delizie degli eruditi toscani (Florence: G. Cambiagi, 1784), vol. XVIII, 175-392. For more on the Salviati family, see Pierre Hurtubise, Une famille témoin. Les Salviati (Cité du Vatican: Bibliothèque apostolique vaticane, 1985).
  • [55]
    On the aristocratic aspect of the ambassador role in Florence in the fifteenth century, see Riccardo Fubini, “Classe dirigente e esercizio della diplomazia nella Firenze quattrocentesca”, in I ceti dirigenti nella Toscana del Quattrocento. Atti del V e VI convegno, Firenze, 10-11 dicembre 1982, 2-3 dicembre 1984 (Florence: Papafava, 1987), 117-90.
  • [56]
    Editorial note: In 1343 the Commune decided to consolidate its public debt, known thereafter as the monte comune.
  • [57]
    Editorial note: The list of these councils is given in note 1, p. 66 of the article by Piero Gualtieri in this issue of the RFSP.
  • [58]
    ASF, Tratte 682.
  • [59]
    Bonaccorso Pitti, “Ricordi”, in V. Branca (ed.), Mercanti scrittori, 77-95. Translated into French as Bonaccorso Pitti, marchand et aventurier florentin. Mémoires (Paris: Éditions du CNRS, 1991), with an introduction by Charles Adelin Fiorato, and translated by Charles Adelin Fiorato, Hélène Giovanetti, and Corine Lucas.
  • [60]
    Online Tratte of Office Holders 1282-1532, <> (entry under his name); B. Pitti, “Ricordi”, 341-503.
  • [61]
    Editorial note: The Mercanzia tribunal was set up in 1308 on the basis of an agreement between the major guilds to regulate and protect Florence’s trade.
  • [62]
    Online Tratte (entry under his name).
  • [63]
    See Antonio Rado, Dalla Repubblica fiorentina alla Signoria medicea. Maso degli Albizzi e il partito oligarchico in Firenze dal 1382 al 1393 (Florence: Vallecchi, 1926).
  • [64]
    Editorial note: Established in the fourteenth century, the six officers of the condotta were in charge of the management of troops.
  • [65]
    ASF, Tratte 674.
  • [66]
    Editorial note: The more important the office in terms of responsibilities and power, the more prestigious it was; partly because of the room for manœuvre available to those exercising such positions, but also because the selection process was tougher, and thus those who emerged victorious enjoyed greater distinction as a result.
  • [67]
    Editorial note: The patriciate in question was made up of the higher echelons of the Popolo, essentially recruited from the ranks of the major guilds, and excluded the traditional nobility, the magnates.
  • [68]
    Editorial note: In the fourteenth century – and even more so in the fifteenth century – there was a steep drop in the number of communes governed by a regime which comprised some form of self-governance or of control by a larger or smaller proportion of citizens; instead there was a rise in the number ruled by princes which, on a small scale in terms of area, resembled the monarchies that were in the process of consolidating their power in France or Spain. Bruni played a key role in attributing to the idea of the republic (respublica) the antimonarchical meaning that it still broadly carries today.
  • [69]
    Editorial note: Giovanni di Pagolo Rucellai, Zibaldone, edited by Gabriella Battista (Florence: Sismel-Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2013). The term “state” was more fluid at the time; it could mean “state” in the modern sense of the term, or the circle of people who constituted the regime.

This article studies the dynamics of political power within Florence during the early Renaissance. Within a practically unchanged institutional framework as far as the substantial reforms of the first decades of the fourteenth century were concerned, the running of the city and the state was forcefully ensured by a ruling class still constituted by long-established urban families. This ruling class, by its numbers and by its social representation, promoted a new figure of the “professional” politician, into which category fell perhaps a tenth of the male adult population of the city at the start of the fifteenth century.

Laura De Angelis
A researcher (ricercatrice) in medieval history at the University of Florence, Laura de Angelis specialises in Florentine society at the end of the Middle Ages. Her publications include editions of medieval Florentine texts; an edition (with Sergio Raveggi, Cecilia Piovanelli, Paolo Pirillo and Franck Sznura) of Elio Conti, Alessandro Guidotti, Roberto Lunardi, La civiltà fiorentina del Quattrocento (Florence: Vallecchi, 1993); and a book La Repubblica di Firenze fra XIV e XV secolo. Istituzioni e lotte politiche nel nascente stato territoriale fiorentino (Florence: Nardini, 2009).
(Università degli Studi di Firenze, Dipartimento di Storia, Archeologia, Geografia, Arte e Spettacolo (SAGAS), Via S. Gallo 10, I-50129 Firenze, Italie).
Translated from French by
Vicki Whittaker
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
Uploaded on on 19/11/2015
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