CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

Introduction: interpreting the Medici regime [1]

1On 25 January 1439, Pope Eugene IV made his solemn entrance into Florence, after transferring the ecumenical council that he had originally convoked in Ferrara. His Florentine host was Cosimo de’ Medici, then Gonfaloniere of Justice. Cosimo had in fact delegated to his brother Lorenzo, as an ambassador for Florence, the responsibility of dealing with the council’s transfer. Financially speaking, both the Commune of Florence and the Medici family in particular had made significant contributions to facilitate the council’s transfer. [2] While Cosimo himself should have taken charge of the Ferrara mission, he had turned down this opportunity and delegated it to his brother in order to be able to assume his formal role as head of state in Florence. [3] Having come to power four years earlier amidst suspicions of papal complicity – suspicions that were far from being unfounded, as we shall see below – the Medici had used the return of Pope Eugene IV to formally consecrate their newly established regime. At the time, Florence and its government attached great political and symbolic importance to this event illustrating the city’s greatness and sovereignty. [4] The Commune had forced the pope, swayed by political and financial necessity, to make a choice that was far from neutral – in comparison with the original choice of Ferrara – and thus to defy the public opposition of the Duke of Milan. Florence had also thus implicated the pope in the challenge issued to its exiled citizens, who relied on the Duke of Milan for support. [5] It was no coincidence that the Greek emperor [6] was a guest in the palace of one of the most prominent exiled Florentines, Rodolfo Peruzzi, and thus involuntarily helped to consecrate the new order, which ultimately meant recognising – including symbolically – the city’s sovereign powers. [7]

2There is not space within this article to examine the strictly ecclesiastical aspects of the council, nor its specific political background. However, the subject addressed here does require a few broad preliminary remarks regarding a regime change that was fraught with consequences, as well as the fact that it coincided with the presence of first the papal curia and then the ecumenical council in Florence.

3No broad historical consensus exists on this subject. The main sources available today are Gene Brucker’s work on the period prior to the Medici’s rise to power and Nicolai Rubinstein’s work on Medici governance. [8] As these studies are working from different methodological perspectives, connections between them are not easily established. Although they both pinpoint 1434 as the date of the Medici’s rise to power, the terms of and reasons behind this transition are not explained. Dale Kent also contributes some interesting observations, [9] but her fixed sociological timeframe is too narrow to offer more than partial insight for our purposes. In fact, the vast political and constitutional questions at play require a broader investigation than the brief period studied by Kent (1426–1434). Even the terminology remains unclear, and is often used without much conviction: what do terms such as “oligarchs” and “conservatives” really mean when we are describing Cosimo’s adversaries? As if the Medici governments were not even more oligarchical, relying primarily on the traditional patrician families in Florence, as Rubinstein has illustrated in abundant detail. Should we therefore support the contrary – and extremely radical – argument, put forth by John N. Stephens, according to whom the Medici’s accession was just another example of power switching hands between prominent groups? [10] Yet it is tempting to object that historical tradition cannot be so easily ignored, and that anti-Medici sentiment, to be found in fifteenth-century political pamphlets right up until the liberal erudition of the nineteenth century, ought therefore to be reflected and explained by contemporary works. How is it possible that Cosimo de’ Medici managed to implement a system of governance that led, in just a few decades, to the quasi-seigneury of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and that this quasi-seigneury was re-instated after a brief republican interval, eventually leading to a princely regime? [11]

4One fundamental problem is defining the key term of “regime” (reggimento), not only from a purely descriptive and prosopographical standpoint, [12] but also in the context of the city’s institutional configuration and traditions, and thus from a longer chronological perspective. The reggimento (regimen) thus signified the group of men who, by virtue of the most recent electoral ballot (squittinio) had been deemed eligible for the Republic’s three major offices; or, more specifically, since the electoral purses were officially kept secret, who had been recognised as such during successive sortition processes. [13] Consequently, “being seen” (veduto), regardless of whether the individual in question effectively received the mandate or not, marked public recognition of the “benefit” obtained, and was thus a definitive sign that one was part of the reggimento. Election after election, a privileged class of “statuali”, or “state” citizens (from stato, which ultimately converged in meaning with “regime”) began to emerge within the city, via the recognised criteria of familial and social continuity. [14] According to Rubinstein’s analytical reconstruction, the Medici later modified this system by exercising stricter control over voting operations, and then by periodic, but frequent recourse to “hand-picked selection”. [15] These “a mano” elections meant that the accoppiatori (scrutineers) made arbitrary selections from the electoral purse, selecting men who were both trustworthy (for the Medici) and already “veduti”. As a result, a series of mechanisms were established to control the reggimento, without, however, marking an official departure from the city’s constitutional system – in fact, these new mechanisms could be seen as compromises or adaptations – and, as we have seen, without substantially affecting the social base of the traditional patrician class.

5Without denying the value of his results, Rubinstein’s conclusions may appear too limited, since their central concern is to contradict the traditional opposing point of view, which posits the existence of a veritable Medici “Signoria”. [16] However, the problem cannot be limited to the ultimately rather vague (and thus partly unresolvable) question of whether the Medici wielded more or less power than their predecessors. We must go beyond the assumptions made by Rubinstein and determine the basis of Florentine constitutionalism and how the highly turbulent establishment of the various successive reggimenti unfolded.

The oligarchic republic of 1382 and the dominance of the Albizzi

6The reggimento system of government was a relatively later phenomenon in the history of Florence, and its origin can be linked to the establishment of selection to public offices by sortition. John M. Najemy has studied the subject in depth, [17] but one, often overlooked, preliminary remark must still be made. Selection to public offices by sortition was established in 1328, after the seigneury of Charles I of Naples, Duke of Calabria, and was reinstated in 1343, following the expulsion of the Duke of Athens. [18] In other words, it characterised the period during which the priorate was consolidated [19] and, correspondingly, the Commune’s sphere of sovereignty expanded. But it was in 1378, with the simultaneous reactions to the Guelph party’s abuse of power and to the Ciompi Revolt, [20] that the new order truly began to take shape, via the gradual expansion of the ranks of individuals eligible for office and the emergence of new forms of citizen representation that would ultimately prevail and re-absorb the older corporate forms. [21] That being said, the consolidation of the priorate’s power over other citizen bodies; the creation, through periodic and global elections, of a reggimento representation; and the unambiguous demand for the city’s sovereignty (“the full, total and entire authority [auctoritas] and power [potestas] of the Florentine people”, as expressed by the parlamento in September 1378 [22]) were merely different facets of the same issue. The reggimento thus gradually emerged as a complex regulatory body overseeing the city’s public life, ultimately undertaking the vast and radical reform project proposed by the aforementioned parlamento.


“It is necessary to reform the entire respublica communis […] in order to ensure the well-being of the city of Florence and of the entire Republic.” [23]

The constitutional order in 1382

8The parlamento and balìa of 1383, which stood in opposition to the parlamento of 1378, [24] endorsed the return to power of the major guilds (the Arti), but they also sought to reform some of the city’s power structures (the “respublica communis”), increasingly concentrating control within the limited groups that had acquired dominance over the reggimento. Once again, it must be highlighted that the reggimento was a complete innovation for Florentine politics at the time, as the latter did not yet have a clear institutional profile. It was likewise an implicit reality behind the scenes during successive elections of the Signoria. Originating in the ballots of parliamentary balìe, the reggimento then became rooted in an exceptional and arbitrary act and remained definitively marked by this arbitrariness. [25] From a legalist perspective, the idea was to gradually transcend this situation by means of a series of well-regulated and institutionalised elections (at first, every three years). The “first election” in 1382 was thus identified as the starting point and an adequate measure of continuity. [26]

9The facts tell another story, however. The “second election” that took place in 1385 was ignored, and its records burnt in 1393, while at the same time another scandalous novelty was adopted: the borsellino. The “little purse” established a distinct, privileged core group of priors (initially two, and then three from 1393) from the group of individuals eligible for the tre maggiori. This distinction was supposed to be justified by the fact that such privileges were granted to “the wisest of those who had been put in the purses”, and that other “wise men” had deemed them so. In other words, they had been judged by the scrutineers (accoppiatori) as “molto confidenti allo stato”, or “very loyal to the state”, as the regime in power referred to itself. [27] At the same time as orderly continuity with the foundational 1382 reggimento was being broken, the random element was perpetuated through the selection of the priorate’s most eligible members on the basis of their loyalty to various rival factions (until 1393, these were the Alberti and Albizzi families [28]). A core group of leaders and regulators thus began to position itself above the expanded reggimento.

10The parlamento created in 1393, driven by Maso degli Albizzi while he was Gonfaloniere of Justice, was also designed to confirm the definitive proscription of the Alberti family and to establish mechanisms to institutionalise and monitor the exercise of power. By identifying a public enemy, the expulsion of the Alberti family helped to strengthen loyalty toward the regime and its leaders. Moreover, thanks to a truly revolutionary measure, the November 1393 Signoria was directly elected by a parliamentary balìa, [29] and the electoral commission was responsible for revising the purses used for the two previous elections (1382 and 1391). Without rejecting continuity with the foundational 1382 reggimento outright, the leadership of the new regime established firm control, including retroactively, over the reggimento through an act that represented a clear subversion of existing statutory norms. [30]

Attempts to subvert the traditional constitutional order

11The creation of the reggimento ended up challenging the Commune’s legal structure, which raised questions regarding the interpretation and understanding of the constitutionalist protests that occurred at the time. In true medieval tradition, the Commune derived its legitimacy from two interrelated sources. On the one hand, the “top-down” source meant that the priors acted as vicars of the Empire, that public writings had to be validated by a notary act, and that legislative advisors had to be summoned by external rectors representing the power of the Empire (i.e., the podestà and the capitano del popolo). On the other hand, the “bottom-up” consensual source required that ordinances be passed by a two-thirds majority of the “relevant Councils”, and that the former could not be proposed by lords without being approved by the Collegi (the territorial representation of the neighbourhoods and the gonfalons). [31] But no norms, even when they were approved in the city’s statutes, [32] were absolutely ironclad: they could be temporarily and exceptionally suspended (using arguments of “public utility” and necessity), although only by a qualified majority (or at least the unanimity of the signori and the Collegi), or by verifying unambiguous consensus on the subject. With regard to certain essential provisions, legitimacy was founded primarily on an uninterrupted tradition of consensus or the ideal of customary continuity (the observantia), which constituted the implicit, interrelated link between various provisions and statutes, including through various amendments and derogations. [33] Conversely, the evident crisis of sovereign authority, whether papal or imperial, alongside the Commune’s arbitrary adoption of clear sovereign prerogatives (an explicit sign being the podestà’s loss, in 1396, of the ability to convoke the Councils, and thus to approve their deliberations) called into question the entire Florentine legal system, including the principles of tradition and consensus.

12In 1394, the balìa of the Eighty-One, linked to the Albizzi – and a true prototype for the long-term balìe that would later inspire the Medici [34] – provided the central axis for a new process of statutory production, ambitiously modelled on the Justinian codification programme. [35] Imitating how Maso degli Albizzi had attempted to found his regime on its ability to retroactively revise the composition of the reggimento, this new process now established an entirely political corporation that was able to reform the legislative system as a whole. In fact, in a surprisingly bold move, approval of the statutes was no longer just the purview of the Councils, but was now subject to the balìa’s vote (which, at least nominally, had been convened to vote on exceptional war measures). [36] As a result, while the Commune – in reality, the regime, in its most limited form of representation – assumed the sovereign responsibility of passing laws (leges condere), in this specific context, it challenged popular consensus by attempting to establish a different “order” for the city top down.

13Florence covertly but tenaciously resisted this strategy, and this attempt at control remained without final approval until the balìa was dissolved in 1411 (the project would only re-emerge in 1408, when the new statutory code was effectively implemented). In 1411, opposition to Maso degli Albizzi from within the reggimento prompted large-scale constitutional innovation, a phenomenon that has so far received little attention by researchers. Since Maso’s balìa had sought to circumvent popular consensus to establish a public order commensurate with the obligations of a “powerful city” – to use the contemporary expression – practically designed as a self-sufficient sovereign body, it was necessary to establish consensus and greater citizen control as an effective bulwark; the traditional Collegi and Councils no longer being in a position to exercise this sort of power.

The Council of the Two Hundred and the institutional consecration of a ruling class

14This was the significance behind the creation of the Council of the Two Hundred, the direct and authorised representation of the expanded reggimento, which continued to reference the foundational year of 1382. [37] The Two Hundred were supposed to approve all of the Signoria’s decisions regarding war, peace, public spending, taxes – in other words, the same responsibilities that medieval parlamenti had possessed – but also (though this was not explicitly stated) important questions concerning the reggimento, such as the authorisation for making an exception to secret ballot voting. Without the presence of such a qualified representative body which, for the first time, explicitly institutionalised the reggimento, but which simultaneously safeguarded against the possibility of an uncontrolled partisan regime, it would be impossible to explain the extraordinary circumstances behind the rejection of the new statutes, especially considering that they had initially been approved by a 12 December 1415 ordinance. [38] Among the alleged reasons for justifying this rejection, in addition to the very general “trouble, doubts and scandals” that were supposed to ensue, critics condemned the arbitrary changes made to the Councils’ composition and operations. It was feared that the Councils would become subservient to the regime; at the same time, said regime was slipping outside the control of Maso degli Albizzi, despite the latter’s attempts to impose control mechanisms in 1393. The 1411 vote, which Brucker perceived as the moment where this modern, urban political class achieved maturity, should perhaps instead be viewed as a period of crisis engendered by a measure imposed top down, and thus as a time of bitter rivalries. [39]

15Turning to the events that unfolded in 1433-1434, the accusation made by the Albizzi family against Cosimo de’ Medici revived the controversy provoked by earlier elections. In fact, the 1433 balìa[40] – which explicitly referred to Maso degli Albizzi’s earlier balìa at the same time as it repeated with the Medici the previous act expulsing the Alberti clan – was simultaneously used, albeit much too late, to perfect what Maso had been unable to do: establish the date of the 1393 election (an effort inspired by the Albizzi clan) as the norm and reference point for a new global election for all offices. Sortition was therefore to be applied alternately, using the 1391, 1393 and 1398 purses on the one hand, and drawing from the new 1433 purse on the other. Moreover, the 1433 balìa resumed work on reforming the Councils, whose members were henceforth to be selected using the purses belonging to the Two Hundred, and thus re-assimilated into the reggimento. [41]

The new Medici regime (1434)

16All of the above provides the necessary background information to understand the significance behind Cosimo de’ Medici’s riposte the following year, when his supporters were able to reverse the situation and instate their own parliamentary balìa. It was less about establishing an innovative regime designed to replace a conservative oligarchy than about the steadfast determination to succeed where Maso degli Albizzi had failed. As a result, Cosimo’s supporters were careful not to propose any constitutional reform proposals, at least at first. They even tried to present themselves under a reassuring guise, as restorers of the former order: the reform of the Councils was therefore repealed with language modelled on that used to abrogate the 1415 statutes (in 1417). All of these measures sought to lay the foundations of a new regime which, in defiance of the past, was based entirely on the work conducted by the 1434 balìa. As a result, this meant exponentially expanding the role of arbitrariness inherent to the creation of the reggimento. Contrary to the 1433 balìa that, while suspending certain laws, had guaranteed the inviolability of the electoral purses and the land registry (catasto), [42] this time the balìa challenged the entire institutional framework. [43]

The accoppiatori and “a mano” selection for public offices

17The College of the scrutineers – the accoppiatori – thus came into a brand new role. It would be inaccurate to say that the College (in fact, better defined as a “bureau”), which had originally fulfilled a technical function in the electoral process, now acquired a markedly political significance. In reality, its function had always been political, to the extent that since its fourteenth-century inception, the College had been responsible for filling the purses with the names of those citizens deemed eligible by the squittinio to be randomly appointed as priors at a later date. [44] These initial, political and perhaps even partisan, functions had subsequently been strengthened by the Albizzi family, which granted the accoppiatori the power to select the names of “idonei et confidentes” men for the little purse (the borsellino). They had also played a very important role in the 1433 balìa when, co-opting the Gonfaloniere Bernardo Guadagni, they “hand-picked” (selected “a mano”) the new Signoria. With the 1434 balìa, the College of the accoppiatori adopted a different shape at the outset, however. Their power was further strengthened because it was used to restructure the reggimento, by invalidating all previous purses and incorporating them into two unique purses (one functioning as the reserve purse). The year 1434 would henceforth acquire the same weighty significance that the year 1382 had possessed for the “original squittinio”. [45] The invalidation of the elections instigated by the Albizzi, and their subsequent integration into the 1433 election, had ultimately broken with the whole tradition of the reggimenti on which the Albizzi had themselves relied (albeit without completely identifying themselves with it), as well as the associated institutional framework. [46]

18Let us note in passing that this was also the context in which the Medici regime’s “innovativeness” with regard to fine old tradition was criticised (with “recent rural transplants” pitted against “long-time city-dwellers” [47]), thus erroneously leading many observers to attribute a plebeian sensibility to the regime, in opposition to the oligarchs’ “conservatism”. In reality, these pejorative epithets sought to stigmatise the new regime’s innovative and arbitrary aspects by drawing comparisons with its predecessor, which had derived its legitimacy from the strength of tradition. The proportional expansion of the sphere of arbitrariness thus merely reflected the “novelty” of a regime that no longer relied on any traditions. Excepting certain specific cases, it was not so much the social origin of the regime’s members that was problematic, but rather the new political constraints and obligations that affected them, in addition to the social cohesion associated with the crushing weight of condemnations and exclusions.

From arbitrariness to the search for a new institutional consensus

19Functioning as veritable commissioners for the regime, the accoppiatori thus highlighted the element of arbitrariness that their College had in fact always embodied, but which had hitherto, barring a few exceptions, remained concealed by electoral mechanisms. Alongside the signori – with whom they at least partially identified – the scrutineers began to intervene in the manner of the College of “secretaries” (who performed the same functions for the offices other than the tre maggiori) on a great variety of themes, in addition to fulfilling their principal role as the electors of the Signoria. The accoppiatori thus elected substitutes for the purged members to various offices; reformed the purses for the Eight of the Guard (in charge of Florence’s criminal affairs); nominated and controlled fortress guardians; intervened, as both passive and active electors, in the appointment of fiscal commissions; and demoted the magnates to the “people’s level”; etc.

20The unusual persistence of “hand-picked” nominations was equivalent to placing the Signoria under surveillance. However, this control over nominations to the Signoria should not be seen as a purely prudential (and limited) measure: it was part and parcel of a broader operation to strengthen the regime and its control mechanisms. First of all, certain extraordinary control mechanisms adopted by the outgoing balìa were maintained. [48] Consequently, new balìa assemblies were designed – going against tradition – to be long-term bodies: three years for the 1438 balìa, five years for another one in 1444 – or the same duration as the complete cycle of a reggimento between two elections. [49] Once again in defiance of tradition, the accoppiatori formed the core and practically the spine of this kind of balìa. It was thus not just the Signoria, but the whole reggimento that was placed under surveillance.

21However, this phenomenon was not explained by the stated intention of “pursuing the construction of the new regime’s constitutional foundation”. [50] The balìe and system of “hand-picked” selection were extraordinary processes (in the strict sense of the word, i.e., outside of the ordinary, extra-legal) authorised in more or less long-term cases where the existing provisions were suspended. Thus a legitimate ordinary body was missing: the Council of the Two Hundred, whose creation was timely and which had survived elimination by statute (it would later be abolished, but only by a different parlamento convened in 1458). Insofar as would have been possible, the Council was nevertheless unable to recover its full powers as an expression of the reggimento, which was precisely what many wished to eliminate. [51] The break in continuity had created a legitimacy vacuum, which the long-term balìe were designed to remedy on an exceptional basis. They were completely supplanted by the “Grand Council” convened in 1444-1449 in order to revise (and thus definitively enshrine) banishment sentences, but also to reinstate the squittinio that had been challenged the year before. [52]

22Rather than prematurely forge a new constitutional framework that would be legally impracticable, Medici supporters first focused on strengthening the regime, including “extraordinary modalities” and derogations to the established legislation. One exceptional document from 1449 clearly depicts the situation. The balìa had reached the end of its term, and given the impossibility of renewing its mandate, a group of 64 distinguished regime members pledged allegiance to the ties that bound them. [53] The oath’s official purpose was putting the public interest first and foremost; it was expressed in very careful legal terminology, mentioning the “preservation and growth of our Republic and its good and peaceful state”, as well as the adoption of a well-regulated constitutional framework. The means chosen, however, was of a quite another sort: it was a matter of “monitoring […] the preservation and growth of the present state and the present reggimento […] and of all its partisans, friends and supporters”. [54]

23Although the means employed violently overthrew old legal traditions, the final objective was obtaining a relatively consensual constitutional framework that resolved the imbalances of the past. In principle, this goal was no different than those espoused during the era of Maso degli Albizzi: the cloture (serrata) of the reggimento as the main public regulatory body; [55] the strengthening of the executive branch and its funding, shielded from the endemic opposition of the legislative Councils; the weakening of the aforementioned Councils’ power, now subject to control by bodies of the reggimento; direct control over finances and taxation, defending the interests of the largest taxpayers, and thus including the executive branch’s ability to intervene in efforts to reform the monte; [56] etc. What had changed were the government’s methods and style. The project to reform institutions from the inside by enacting global statutes was replaced by greater pragmatism (that might also translate into more violence), a sort of opportunistic power grab that involved a number of bold and radical moves. It was symptomatic, for example, that in 1445, Cosimo de’ Medici – then Gonfaloniere of Justice – once again brought up the question of statute elaboration. He was careful not to directly propose a new statutory project, however, relying instead on a commission created to embark upon a large-scale project of legislative revision (and about which we know nothing other than that it was appointed). [57]

Excluding the magnates

24Although the balìa functioned in a context where the existing legislation was exceptionally suspended, it was nonetheless endowed with ample capacity to enact laws, and thus with sovereign power (at the time, provisions of a statutory nature, unlike those that were only temporarily valid or only concerned specific issues, were listed in the records alongside an uppercase L for lex). In fact, in the customary framework of communal law, only a balìa had the capacity to intervene in order to repeal substantial sections of the constitutional order. This was precisely what happened when the venerable Ordinances of Justice (Ordinamenti di Giustizia) were eliminated, [58] which came to represent a sort of calling card for the new regime. In fact, elements of both continuity and difference could simultaneously be observed with regard to these two successive regimes. The Albizzi regime’s constant flattery of the old magnate class was in keeping with its aristocratic tendencies. [59] And yet on 9 November 1434, almost all of the magnate households were declared to be popolani and consequently – since this was a statutory measure – all magnates were stripped of their representation quota in the offices that they had previously occupied. [60] In addition, on 17 November, it was also decreed that the remaining magnates, reduced to persons condemned by the law, would be subject to “ordinances dealing with the matter”. In other words, the Ordinances of Justice were implicitly judged to be null and void; as a logical consequence, the position of the executor of these ordinances was also eliminated (the last executor left his position in June 1435). [61]

25If we step back a little, however, the goal was clearly to deprive the rival faction of one of its traditional clienteles. At the same time, the measure highlighted the fact that the representative role of the old magnate aristocracy had long been outstripped, since effective representation was now provided exclusively by the reggimento (magnates were absent from the list of ambassadors appointed between 1408 and 1429). [62] Moreover, the elimination of the executor position was part of an ongoing move to limit and subordinate the authority of the external rector, given that Florence sought to expand the sphere of communal sovereignty and thus of its jurisdictional bodies. From this point of view, the key episode had been the elimination, in 1396, of the podestà and the capitano del popolo’s prerogative to summon the city’s Councils. However, it was only once the Medici came to power that real acts of repeal began to occur: the elimination of the executor established a precedent for the much later elimination of the capitano del popolo under Lorenzo de’ Medici – not to mention the abolition of the podestà, which had been envisioned in the context of the first proposal to establish the Tribunal of the Rota, which was ultimately not enacted. [63] This was the final act of governance performed by the Medici before their expulsion in 1494.

The ecclesiastical issue

26Interventions in the ecclesiastical sphere were another important issue. One old statute prohibited members of Florentine families from becoming the bishops of either Florence or Fiesole. [64] This law reflected the Commune’s deep-seated, anti-aristocratic suspicion of the magnati, who had traditionally occupied many ecclesiastic offices. Rather than embodying a truly discriminatory form of prohibition, the law was designed as a weapon for the Commune to wield in order to control and intervene in ecclesiastic elections. Passed under the Albizzi regime, this law was struck from the statutes by a decree of the Medici balìa on 21 August 1444. This was a much greater issue than just trimming some “dead branches” that had allegedly been neglected. [65] This reform was the second part of a more general provision, again statutary, that formally reversed the traditional norm. Henceforth, and throughout all of the territories under Florentine jurisdiction, ecclesiastical benefits could only be conferred to Florentine citizens and subjects, and no longer to foreigners, unless the Collegi gave unanimous approval and provided specific guarantees in favour of an exceptional derogation to this law. As this measure was in clear violation of canonical principles, it was repealed in 1447 by the ordinary Councils and after the balìa had been stripped of some of its powers.

27At this juncture, let us note the bitter rivalry that existed between Cosimo de’ Medici, linked with Francesco Sforza, and Pope Eugene IV, who had fled Florence and returned to Rome. [66] In this context, we should not overlook the various Conciliarist, Gallicanist, and Regalist arguments that were percolating through Florentine ruling circles, as well as the ideas put forth by Lorenzo Valla’s recent pamphlet on the Donation of Constantine, a work mentioned by Cavalcanti. [67] But what it is crucial to remember here is that the old norm had been repealed and replaced, and that a new, broader method of control had been substituted for the traditional forms, on the basis of a highly illicit expansion of the sphere of jurisdictional sovereignty, with the implicit consequence that the regime exercised greater control over ecclesiastical elections. In reality, the new law corresponded to the vacancy of the archbishopric and Cosimo’s attempt to have one of his relatives appointed to the prestigious position. [68] Given its patently outrageous nature, this candidacy was immediately withdrawn, but handed instead to another prelate close to the regime, Giovanni Neroni. In order to resist similar forms of pressure, Pope Eugene IV took the initiative of appointing Antoninus as the archbishop of Florence, a candidate who, both on account of his own merits and the Medici’s patronage of San Marco, could not be rejected. [69] The foundations of the Medici’s ecclesiastical power were nevertheless laid. Although they abandoned the legal claims that they had made under such exceptional circumstances, in 1458, a subsequent Medici balìa proposed another member of the family for the position of cardinal: Filippo de’ Medici. This ambition would be even more boldly supported by Lorenzo de’ Medici, who would make it one of the essential pillars of his politics, first embodied by his brother and then by his son. [70]

The events of 1434

28Turning now to the events of the year 1434, one crucial question must be asked: where did Cosimo de’ Medici find the strength and ability to impose himself on the city? Numerous sources agree that his power takeover was supported by the intervention of Pope Eugene IV, recently arrived in Florence and who, under the pretence of providing arbitration, had disarmed the opposing faction. [71] Little doubt remains regarding the matter, and if contemporary accounts were not sufficient, we could also add the privilege of citizenship granted to Giovanni Vitelleschi – among other favours – by the Medici balìa, Vitelleschi being the pope’s chief agent during this Florentine intervention. What were the reasons for granting Vitelleschi citizenship? The Pope had been invited to Florence and welcomed by the men of the old regime. By drawing on the model of hospitality provided in 1409 during the Council of Pisa, these men had exerted pressure so that the Vatican would transfer the highly controversial Council of Basel to Florence. [72] Towards the beginning of the 1430s, Cosimo was not in Pope Eugene IV’s good graces. The two rival parties were swapping accusations of separate contact with the Duke of Milan who, out of hostility to Pope Eugene IV, had joined the Council of Basel and declared himself its vicar in Italy. [73] In reality, after its recent military setbacks and excessive public expenditures, Florence was looking for a peaceful solution; at the same time, however, the Commune was just as paralysed by factional rivalry and the lack of a coherent strategy as it had been during wartime. Add to this the actions of Francesco Sforza, who had been looming on the horizon since 1433. Officially serving the Duke of Milan, in 1432 Capitan Sforza had been promised Filippo Maria Visconti’s daughter, Bianca Maria, in marriage, and thus the Duchy as his inheritance. [74] In part due to the Duke’s instigation, and also to acquire the necessary personal authority and contractual power to satisfy this fundamental aspiration that he would never abandon, Francesco Sforza had entered the March of Ancona and rapidly assumed control of the region. At the time, the Papal States were a turbulent zone of conflict; in addition to Sforza, they had also been invaded by rival troops. Filippo Maria Visconti hoped to arbitrate the conflicts between the various condottieri, dividing the spheres of influence among them and, to use Visconti’s own words, “act as a link” to ensure the downfall of the Papal States and, without any direct intervention, to dictate his own conditions from a position of strength.

29The pope thus had a fundamental interest in breaking this “link”. This was the motivation behind the March 1434 Calcarella Pact, by means of which Eugene IV promised Sforza the condotta, the title of the Gonfaloniere of the Church and the marquisate of Ancona for life. [75] He was lacking the necessary financial means, however, and the Sforza captaincy was supposed to be funded by the alliance between Venice and Florence. The regime that stemmed from the anti-Medici balìa in 1433 hesitated for a number of simultaneously financial, political, and institutional reasons. Financial because after its disastrous conflict against Lucca, [76] limiting large-scale expenditures was a priority. Political because of lasting doubts on how military power would be used, when it was supposed to act exclusively in the name of the pope (Florence proposed three-thirds participation between the two allies and the papacy and asked for Captain Sforza to swear loyalty to the Florentine regime). And finally, institutional, since in the short term, it would have been impossible to have access to the vast amount of lost funds that were demanded without contravening the recently established land registry. “My conclusion is that the land registry [catasto] should not be eliminated, neither in peacetime nor wartime”, Rinaldo degli Albizzi declared on 6 May. Echoing the latter, Angelo Pandolfini defended the typical position of supporters of the regime, which entailed remaining faithful to the planned institutional project.


“Order is necessary. And first of all, spending should be in line with what is possible and no greater.”

31This was the moment when Cosimo intervened, having apparently entered into direct contact with the condotta from his Venetian exile. The fact remains that the very first action taken by the Medici balìa did not involve Cosimo’s repatriation and absolution: instead, the balìa declared that “a certain sum should be paid to Count Francesco [Sforza]”. [77] At the same time as negotiations regarding Sforza’s condotta contract were dragging on, the balìa freed up a subsidy of 63,000 florins subdivided into monthly allowances of 5,250 florins – much higher than the 2,600 florins offered by Rinaldo degli Albizzi. The balìa likewise enacted a second provision, closely linked to the first and just as important, which entailed eliminating the catasto and returning to arbitrary taxation in the form of the “novine”. [78] Subsequently – and throughout almost all of the Medici reign – this remained one of the main causes of political conflict in the city, as well as one of the most pressing reasons for limiting personal freedoms, including through new control mechanisms on the monte and, immediately thereafter, profound institutional and constitutional innovations.

In the aftermath of the takeover

32In conclusion, let us briefly address two different elements. In the short term, Sforza’s nomination as captain no doubt met the needs of the Supreme Pontiff, but it also served to immediately establish strong ties between Cosimo and Sforza. These ties would come to influence not only Florence’s foreign policy, but its internal regime as well. Under the auspices of Sforza, Florence first broke relations with the pope, then with the Venetians. The alliance between the Medici and Sforza would be maintained until the latter’s long-term strategic plans came to fruition and he was named the Duke of Milan in 1450. The formal alliance between Florence and Milan also resulted in reduced influence for the other component of the regime that had allied itself with Cosimo in 1434, driven by mutual hostility towards the Albizzi. This rival faction was led by Neri Capponi and would support pro-Venetian politics during the crucial years 1447-1450, before vanishing from the political stage, defeated and reduced to silence. [79] With Sforza’s support, the Medici family thus fought to establish this unofficial princely role that Lorenzo de’ Medici would push to its apex at the very moment when he was restructuring the field of dissent in his favour, following the crises and rebellions that had unfolded during the rule of Cosimo and Piero de’ Medici.

33My final observation is a cultural one. Contemporary historiographical studies on this period of Florentine history tended to take offence at the Medici regime. The most faithful and illustrative example of this is Giovanni Cavalcanti, who hated Sforza, denounced abuses and arbitrary measures, supported the pro-Venetian opposition of Neri Capponi, and concluded his text ex abrupto with the following: “I shall not venture to say any more”. [80]

34Poggio Bracciolini’s Istorie fiorentine were a late publication and remained very discreet concerning the city’s inner workings. [81] The final point that they address regards the debate on whether Florence should enter into the conflict against Lucca, a war that Poggio saw as absurd and ruinous, and which would ultimately provoke the 1433–1434 crisis (which Poggio does not mention). [82]

35It was not until the reign of Lorenzo the Magnificent that more in-depth historiographical studies were produced, notably after things stabilised in 1480. [83] These were not, however, purely apologist historical texts: consider that famous work of historical narration, Vespasiano da Bisticci’s Le Vite. [84] Several of the Florentine nobles that he describes therein with a great deal of sympathy were individuals who had likely suffered from persecution and injustice in the past. [85] Discussing the controversial legislation to revise the tax registers, he wrote the following on the election of the law’s guardians, who were supposed to monitor its application:


“Chosen by the city’s most important citizens, the guardians, having become the most important members of the government, thanks to the power the law gave them, immediately began to contemplate abolishing it.” [86]

37The city’s “leading residents”, who garnered the respect and votes of citizens, were thus different from the “leading government officials’ and thus from he regime’s actual leaders. Occasionally, individuals like Giannozzo Manetti or Bartolomeo Fortini, who had been guardians of the laws, were in turn elected to key positions, in the rare cases where votes could be freely expressed, but were then subsequently forced to suffer retaliation from the powerful. The apparently straightforward narrative penned by the Florentine bookseller (who, after Cosimo, mentioned no other members of the Medici family) thus sought indirectly to condemn the arbitrary use of power. Even at the height of Medici power, the tradition of consensus – and thus of local constitutionalism – was never completely abandoned in Florence, instead providing fuel for more or less veiled protests. The question remains as to whether a different and more balanced system was being developed, despite not yet having achieved full legitimacy. Nonetheless, it is certain that in a situation that could have seemed irreversible, freedom was not merely an opinion, as it can be today.


  • [1]
    This article is an abridged version of the third chapter, titled “Il regime di Cosimo de’ Medici al suo avvento al potere”, of Riccardo Fubini’s work, Italia quattrocentesca. Politica e diplomazia nell’età di Lorenzo il Magnifico (Milan: Franco Angeli, 1994), 62-86. References to archival sources have in particular been drastically reduced. The editorial notes (Editorial note:) and section headers were provided by Jean Boutier and Yves Sintomer.
  • [2]
    Joseph Gill, The Council of Florence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, 178). [Editorial note: In 1434, Cosimo de’ Medici, called Cosimo the Elder (1389-1464) established a semi-autocratic regime, without, however, officially transforming the Florentine Republic into a princely regime. Lorenzo de’ Medici, also called Lorenzo the Elder (1395-1440), was a businessman and a diplomat. The Seventeenth Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church was convoked as the Council of Basel in 1431. It was transferred by Pope Eugene IV to Ferrara in 1437, and then to Florence in 1439. It concluded in Rome in 1441.]
  • [3]
    Riccardo Fubini, “Classe dirigente ed esercizio della diplomazia nella Firenze quattrocentesca”, in I ceti dirigenti nella Toscana del Quattrocento (Florence: Papafava, 1987), 291-334.
  • [4]
    Riccardo Fubini, “La rivendicazione di Firenze della sovranità statale e il contributo delle Historiae di Leonardo Bruni”, in Paolo Viti (ed.), Leonardo Bruni cancelliere della Repubblica di Firenze (Florence: Olschki, 1990), 29-62 (57-60).
  • [5]
    Editorial note: In 1395, the Visconti family had established a duchy in Milan, making the city a powerful military, economic and financial rival for Florence. Each city supported the other’s minority factions. Filippo Maria Visconti (1392-1447) was the Duke of Milan at this time, which he remained until his death.
  • [6]
    Editorial note: John VIII Palaiologos (1392-1448) was Byzantine Emperor from 1425 to 1448. One of the council’s main objectives was the reunification of the two Churches.
  • [7]
    J. Gill, The Council, 182.
  • [8]
    Gene Brucker, The Civic World of Early Renaissance Florence (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 1977; Nicolai Rubinstein, The Government of Florence under the Medici (1434-94) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968).
  • [9]
    Dale Kent, The Rise of the Medici. Faction in Florence, 1426-34 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978).
  • [10]
    John N. Stephens, The Fall of the Florentine Republic, 1512-1530 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983).
  • [11]
    Editorial note: In 1469, Lorenzo de’ Medici, also called Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492), succeeded his father, Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici (1416-1469), a son of Cosimo, to rule Florence. The Medici were overthrown in 1494, and greater power was conferred to the assemblies (see the article by N. Rubinstein in this issue of the RFSP), but the Medici managed to recover power, first for a brief period between 1512 and 1527, and then definitively in 1531. On this occasion, Medici rule took the institutional form of a duchy, which later became a grand duchy.
  • [12]
    Dale Kent, “The Florentine ‘Reggimento’ in the fifteenth century”, Renaissance Quarterly, 28, 1975, 573-638.
  • [13]
    Editorial note: In a complex system, during the squittinio electoral commissions were responsible for electing the most eligible citizens for a variety of offices, and in particular for the most important government positions (called the “tre maggiori”, i.e., the priors of the guilds, the Buoni Uomini and the Gonfalonieri of the companies). Voting was conducted by secret ballot and the names of those selected were only known by the scrutineers. They were then placed in the lottery purses (the process of imborsazione) and randomly drawn to fill the various offices (tratta). Offices rapidly changed hands, as mandates were very short (two months for the Signoria, the Gonfaloniere of Justice and the Priors, which made up the city’s government). It was only once a person had been randomly selected that the fact that they had been chosen during the squittinio became public knowledge. The man in question was thus said to have been “seen” (veduto). He only came to occupy his position (seduto) if he met a number of requirements, however: he had to be up to date with his tax payments, not have any close relatives occupying a similar position, currently live in Florence, etc. Where the reverse was true, his name was placed back in the purse for a later round of sortition (this was the process of divieto, or exclusion from office).
  • [14]
    Nicolai Rubinstein, “Notes on the word ‘stato’ in Florence before Machiavelli”, in John Gordon Rowe, W. H. Stockdale (eds), Florilegium Historiale. Essays Presented to Wallace K. Ferguson (Toronto/Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1971), 314-20; and “‘Stato’ and regime in fifteenth century Florence”, in Sergio Bertelli (ed.), Per Federico Chabod (1901-1960). Atti del seminario internazionale (Perugia: Università di Perugia, 1980-1981), 137-46.
  • [15]
    Editorial note: Instead of proceeding with sortition to select names from the purses, the Medici would give scrutineers a list of names to select. This procedure was called “a mano”, or handpicked selection.
  • [16]
    Editorial note: Rejecting the hypothesis that a “de facto” seigneury was established, different from the various seigneuries found throughout Italy only from a purely formal perspective, some scholars have argued that the Florentine constitutional order was not completely subverted by the Medici, and that this type of republican political regime dominated by the leading families was on the contrary a model adapted, and not revolutionised, by the Medici.
  • [17]
    John M. Najemy, Corporatism and Consensus in Florentine Electoral Politics, 1280-1400 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1982).
  • [18]
    Editorial note: On the implementation of sortition, see the article by Piero Gualtieri in this issue of the RFSP.
  • [19]
    Editorial note: The priorate represented a form of city government, also called the Signoria. It was headed by the Gonfaloniere of Justice.
  • [20]
    Editorial note: The Guelph party was a sort of state within the state, and its influence on Florence’s overall political structure was great. The Guelph party was a bastion for patrician families. Its dominance grew to the point of provoking a rebellion, known as the Ciompi Revolt (1378). The underclass, composed of artisans, merchants and manual labourers – who did not have access to citizenship or political rights, since they did not belong to legally recognised guilds – thus erupted onto the political scene for the first and last time in the history of the Florentine Republic. Its rule only lasted for a short time (a few months) and a moderate regime was instated after a less radical phrase during 1378-1382.
  • [21]
    J. M. Najemy, Corporatism and Consensus, 301-17.
  • [22]
    Editorial note: The parlamento was the general assembly of citizens. Unlike in the Athens of antiquity, this body was convened only irregularly and essentially functioned as a plebiscite, to confirm a change in political regime.
  • [23]
    “Provvisione del Parlamento”, 1 September 1378, in Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Balìe, 17, c 73v; see R. Fubini, “Classe dirigente…”, 143. The interesting and uncommon expression “respublica communis” was likely derived from the expression “respublica regni”, coined by Andreas of Isernia and thus – at least we can assume – based on the political and legal tradition of the Kingdom of Sicily; see Gaines Post, “Status Regis”, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History, 1, 1964, 1-103 (16); the author refers to Ernst Kantorowicz, “Mysteries of state: an absolutist concept and its medieval origins”, Harvard Theological Review, 43, 1955, 65-91 (80). On the use of the term by jurist Baldo degli Ubaldi (1327-1400), see Joseph Canning, The Political Thought of Baldus de Ubaldis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 216ff, who highlights that the concept stems from public law and constitutional law: “The fisc is not the private possession of the king but is part of the respublica regni itself […]. In using these terms Baldus indicates the perpetual nature both of the kingdom as a state and of its government. There is thus a form of continuous creation of the royal office by the respublica regni, with the result that the derivation of royal power from the people is a permanent and ongoing phenomenon and is not just limited to the particular election of an individual king or dynasty”.
  • [24]
    Editorial note: The word balìa has two meanings: the delegation of the political or administrative powers of various offices or Councils to special committees; and the office to which these powers are delegated. These balìe can thus be specific or general in nature. The latter are the focus of this article, in particular the balìe created after the Ciompi Revolt to ensure the return to power of the major guilds (1378, 1393-1401, 1412), the balìe appointed to enact reform after Cosimo the Elder was exiled (1433), the balìa formed after Cosimo’s return to reform the state (1434) and those that followed (1444-1449, 1452-1454, 1458-1459, 1466, 1471-1472, 1480-1481). Some of these bodies – the parliamentary balìe – were created following a people’s assembly, or parlamento.
  • [25]
    Editorial note: The traditional constitutional order stipulated that the persons whose names were put in the purses to be randomly drawn later were first to be nominated by regular electoral commissions, in which the main powerful factions of the city were supposed to be represented. Having the imborsati elected by an extraordinary commission entailed a radical departure from this constitutional order.
  • [26]
    J. M. Najemy, Corporatism and Consensus, 263ff; and Paolo Viti, Raffaela Maria Zaccaria (eds), Archivio di Stato di Firenze. Archivio delle Tratte. Introduzione e inventario (Rome: Ufficio centrale per i beni archivistici, 1989), 24ff. For new and important elements of this process, see Renzo Ninci, “Lo ‘Squittinio del Mangione’: il consolidamento legale di un regime (1404)”, Bullettino dell’Istituto Storico Italiano per il Medioevo e Archivio Muratoriano, 94, 1988, 155-248; and “Tecniche e manipolazioni elettorali nel Comune di Firenze tra XIV e XV secolo (1382-1434)”, Archivio storico italiano, 150, 1992, 735-73.
  • [27]
    J. M. Najemy, Corporatism and Consensus, 284, 286 and 289.
  • [28]
    Editorial note: The Albizzi were one of the greatest families of Florence. Exiled from the city during the Ciompi Revolt, they returned to power in the 1380s. Maso degli Albizzi (1343-1417) then became the city’s primary ruler. When he died, his son Rinaldo degli Albizzi took up the mantle and became one of the Medici’s main opponents. The Alberti were a great rival family. They were exiled a first time for having supported the Ciompi Revolt (on account of internal rivalries between the noble families), then again at the instigation of Maso degli Albizzi in 1393 (the famous author Leon Battista Alberti, 1404-1472, was consequently born in exile). They returned to favour in 1428 and allied themselves with the Medici.
  • [29]
    Editorial note: Contrary to what happened in 1382, here the balìa was responsible for selecting not only the names to put in the lottery purse, but also the names of the Signoria members.
  • [30]
    Archivio di Stato di Firenze. Archivio delle Tratte, 28.
  • [31]
    Editorial note: The northern and central Italian cities were originally part of the Holy Roman Empire, at least officially. This connection became increasingly a matter of form and, at the turn of the fifteenth century, Florence became completely autocephalous, both in reality and in the city’s political image of itself. The relevant councils were the city’s legislative Councils; the Collegi (the Buoni Uomini and the gonfalonieri of the companies) supported the priors in the execution of their duties. The city of Florence was divided into four neighbourhoods and sixteen gonfalons.
  • [32]
    Editorial note: Florence’s institutions, as well as their operations, were defined by a certain number of legal texts called Statutes, the oldest of which dated back to the 1240s: the most important were those of the podestà (1284), the Ordinances of Justice (1293), the statutes of the capitano del popolo (1322-1323), of the podestà (1325), of the Guelph Party (1355) and of the Commune of Florence (1293, 1409, 1415).
  • [33]
    Luigi Prosdocimi, Observantia. Ricerche sull’aspetto consuetudinario del diritto dai commentatori alla scuola storica. Tome I. I commentatori e pratici italiani (Milan: Giuffrè, 1954); Gianfranco Garancini, “‘Consuetudo et statutum ambulant pari passu’: la consuetudine nei diritti italiani del Basso Medio Evo”, Rivista di storia del diritto italiano, 58, 1985, 19-55.
  • [34]
    Editorial note: Whereas the balìe had traditionally functioned for short periods of time, in response to various emergencies, the balìa of the Eighty-One lasted from 1394 to 1411.
  • [35]
    R. Fubini, Firenze quattrocentesca…, 51-61; “Classe dirigente…”, 158-63; “La rivendicazione di Firenze…”, 44-57. [Editorial note: The Code of Justinian (529) produced a coherent collection of the Roman legal corpus. It was commissioned by Byzantine Emperor Justinian (483-565).]
  • [36]
    Anthony Molho, “The Florentine oligarchy and the balìe of the late Trecento”, Speculum, 43, 1968, 23-51.
  • [37]
    Beginning in 1382, the Council of the Two Hundred was in fact composed of individuals who had been “seen” by the three major offices (tre maggiori), and its creation coincided with the definitive elimination of the Eighty-One. [Editorial note: The Council of the Two Hundred was created in 1411 and remained operational until the mid-fifteenth century. Because it was not composed of citizens who were members of the corporations, but of those who had already occupied one of the city’s major offices, it was an expression of the ruling political class – and of the ruling class as a whole, rather than of one faction in particular. Through the scope of its power, however, the Council tended to rob the Commune of its previous, wider socio-political base.]
  • [38]
    Editorial note: In February 1417, the Councils of the Commune and of the People ruled, by an overwhelming majority, that the rubrics in the 1415 statute concerning public office were “repealed, rescinded and annulled”.
  • [39]
    G. Brucker, The Civic World, 248ff; Laura De Angelis, “La revisione degli Statuti della Parte Guelfa del 1420”, in Paolo Viti (ed.), Leonardo Bruni cancelliere…, 131-56.
  • [40]
    Editorial note: In 1433, by convoking a new balìa, the Albizzi managed to oust the Medici, their main rivals. The following year, the Medici returned triumphantly thanks to another balìa, putting a definitive end to the power of the Albizzi.
  • [41]
    N. Rubinstein, Il governo di Firenze, 50 and 142. [Editorial note: The legislative Councils were traditionally composed by sortition, using lists of eligible citizens, but it was much easier to qualify for Council membership than for the Signoria. Consequently, the Council purses contained many more names than those used for the Signoria. The reform consisted of significantly limiting access to the Councils, thus reserving membership for the ruling elite.]
  • [42]
    Editorial note: The land registry (catasto) implemented in 1427 allowed for the objective evaluation of Florentine and Tuscan holdings, in order to establish a solid foundation for a direct proportional tax. It was one of the very first initiatives to levy taxation on assets, both movable and immovable.
  • [43]
    Giovanni Cavalcanti, Nuova opera. Chronique florentine inédite du xve siècle, critical edition by Antoine Monti (Paris: Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1989), ch. 18, 106. [Editorial note: Giovanni Cavalcanti (1381-1450) was a Florentine historian who, while in prison, wrote the Istorie fiorentine, covering the period 1423 to 1440. He then penned a second volume, the Nuova opera, on the years 1440 to 1447. His work reflects an anti-Medici and pro-Republican perspective.]
  • [44]
    Editorial note: Its function was political, in particular because the scrutineers were theoretically the only people to know the names in the purses, but also because they were actors who could in fact manipulate, if need be, the electoral system that was officially perceived to be neutral with regard to the warring political factions.
  • [45]
    N. Rubinstein, Il governo di Firenze…, 10 ff.
  • [46]
    Editorial note: The break in continuity regarding political staff that had begun with the Albizzi was further exacerbated by the Medici.
  • [47]
    G. Cavalcanti, Nuova opera…, ch. 25, 95.
  • [48]
    N. Rubinstein, Il governo di Firenze…, 86ff.
  • [49]
    Editorial note: Taking into account the rapid rate of turnover, this was approximately the amount of time required for all the names to be randomly selected.
  • [50]
    N. Rubinstein, Il governo di Firenze…, 86ff.
  • [51]
    R. Fubini, “Classe dirigente…”, 168ff., and 172.
  • [52]
    In the meantime, a first “Grand Council”, created in 1438, was explicitly called the Consilium del 200 vel plures (The Council of the Two Hundred or More), by means of which the competencies of the legitimate body were simultaneously validated and circumvented. [Editorial note: The 1438 balìa, which adopted the name of “Grand Council”, was designed to last three years. Representing a cross between a Council in the strict sense and a balìa, it had 348 members and was responsible for the 1438 election. In 1444, another 238-member balìa was created for a five-year period, this time with expanded powers regarding fiscal matters. A third balìa, appointed in 1453, was cancelled the following year.]
  • [53]
    N. Rubinstein, Il governo di Firenze…, 33; Armando Sapori, “Cosimo de’ Medici e un ‘patto giurato’ a Firenze nel 1449”, in Studi di storia economica. Secoli XIII-XIV-XV (Florence: Sansoni, 1982), vol. 1, 407-26, text of the oath, 418-21.
  • [54]
    A. Sapori, “Cosimo de’ Medici…”, 418.
  • [55]
    Editorial note: In the older system, the circle of those who could aspire to public office, including the highest positions, was not pre-determined and could, in periods of democratisation, significantly expand. Following the Venetian model, this system’s “cloture” signified the durable establishment of a privileged circle of citizens who would constitute an institutionally recognised ruling class.
  • [56]
    Editorial note: In 1343, the Commune decided to consolidate its debt in the form of a monte, later called the monte comune. Growing debt regularly prompted questions regarding the reform of public debt (the monte).
  • [57]
    The aforementioned provision was passed on 16 October by the Council of the People by a majority of only four votes, and by the Council of the Commune by only five votes. Cf. Dave Peterson, “An episcopal election in quattrocento Florence”, in James R. Sweeney, Stanley Chodorow (eds), Popes, Teachers and Canon Law in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 300-26.
  • [58]
    Editorial note: Adopted in 1293, the Ordinances constituted one of the pillars of the Commune’s constitutional order.
  • [59]
    D. Kent, The Rise of The Medici, 149, passim.
  • [60]
    Editorial note: In 1293, the Ordinances of Justice had excluded the magnates from the majority of public offices. Although magnates were absolutely forbidden from being part of the Signoria and the Collegi, certain offices were still open to them; many ambassadors were magnates, for example. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, they were gradually “popularised”, with important waves occurring in 1380-1390 and 1400-1433, and thus reintegrated among the citizens. The final wave of “popularisation” occurred in 1434.
  • [61]
    Editorial note: The executor of the Ordinances of Justice performed a sort of proto-constitutional review.
  • [62]
    R. Fubini, “Classe dirigente…”.
  • [63]
    For general context, see Andrea Zorzi, L’amministrazione della giustizia penale nella repubblica Fiorentina (Florence: Olschki, 1988). [Editorial note: The Tribunal of the Rota was a civil court of appeals, with non-Florentine judges. This project was later revisited in a different context by the Gonfaloniere-for-life Piero Soderini in 1502.]
  • [64]
    D. Peterson, “An episcopal election…”, 303ff.
  • [65]
    For this argument, see Ugo Gualazzini, Considerazioni in tema di legislazione statutaria medievale (Milan: Giuffrè, 2nd revised and expanded edn, 1958), 120.
  • [66]
    Editorial note: Francesco Sforza (1401-1466) was one of the most famous condottieri and Italian politicians of the period. In 1447, with the end of the Visconti dynasty, Milan once again became a republic. Francesco Sforza, who had married Bianca Maria Visconti in 1441, had already served the city for several years. He ultimately turned against the Republic of Milan, took control of the city and became the Duke of Milan in 1450. Pope Eugene IV had fled to Florence in 1434, chased out by a Roman revolt. Subsequently, he had to deal with the schism of the seventeenth papal council (between Florence and Basel), and the nomination of an antipope in 1439, initially supported by France (motivated by Gallicanist concerns). Thanks to a temporary reunification with the Eastern Orthodox Church and the launch of a new crusade, Pope Eugene IV triumphed over his rival and returned triumphantly to Rome in 1443.
  • [67]
    D. Peterson, “An episcopal election…”, 305. [Editorial note: In his pamphlet De falso credita et ementita Constantini Donatione declamatio (1440), the humanist Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457) proved that the document on which the Church sought to base its temporal power, in accordance with a donation allegedly made by Roman Emperor Constantine, was in fact a forgery.]
  • [68]
    D. Peterson, “An episcopal election…”, 300-25.
  • [69]
    Editorial note: Antonio Pierozzi (1389-1459), prior of San Marco, was named archbishop in 1446. The patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici allowed San Marco to become famous (in particular thanks to the work of Fra Angelico (1395-1455)). Later, Savonarola would become the church’s leader and oppose the Medici.
  • [70]
    Lorenzo de’ Medici, Lettere, ed. Riccardo Fubini (Florence: Giunti-Barbera, 1977), vol. 1, 227-9, 398-401 and 409-28. [Editorial note: Filippo de’ Medici, 1426-1474, Archbishop of Pisa, did not ultimately become a cardinal.]
  • [71]
    Giovanni Cavalcanti, Istorie fiorentine, ed. Guido di Pino (Milan: Martello, 1944), 307-10; Nuova opera…, ch. 18, 51.
  • [72]
    Editorial note: The Council of Constance (1414-1418) had resolved the crisis of the great Western Schism and decreed that the Council was to meet periodically in order to control the papacy. The Council of Basel, which began in 1431, quickly led to a conflict with Pope Eugene IV, in particular through the Council expressing its superiority to the pope. The latter decided to dissolve the Council in December 1431 and tried to bring it back to Italy, but a majority of the council members refused to comply.
  • [73]
    Editorial note: The Duke of Milan at the time was Filippo Maria Visconti (1392-1447). Florence and Milan had been bitter rivals for several decades; moreover, Milan was a traditional opponent of the papacy.
  • [74]
    Ermolao Rubieri, Francesco I Sforza. Narrazione storica (Florence: Le Monnier, 1879), vol. 1, 168.
  • [75]
    Peter Partner, “Florence and the papacy in the earlier fifteenth century”, in Nicolai Rubinstein (ed.), Florentine Studies. Politics and Society in Renaissance Florence (London: Faber & Faber, 1968), 381-402.
  • [76]
    Editorial note: The Tuscan Republic of Lucca had allied itself with Milan against Florence.
  • [77]
    Editorial note: The balìa ordered the government of Florence to pay 50,000 florins to Sforza in the name of Pope Eugene IV.
  • [78]
    The novine was an arbitrary tax, so named because it was implemented by a Commission of nine tax commissioners. Cf. Elio Conti, L’imposta diretta a Firenze nel Quattrocento (1427-94) (Rome: Istituto storico italiano per il Medioevo, 1984), 94-100, and 181ff.
  • [79]
    Riccardo Fubini, “Appunti sui rapporti diplomatici fra il dominio sforzesco e la Firenze medicea”, in Georges Peyronnet, Giorgio Chittolini, Gabriella Airaldi (eds), Gli Sforza a Milano e in Lombardia e i loro rapporti con gli stati italiani ed europei (1450-1535). Atti del convegno internazionale (Milan: Cisalpino Goliardica, 1982), 303ff. This theme is discussed at length in G. Cavalcanti, Nuova opera… Giovanni Cavalcanti was a staunch supporter of Neri Capponi.
  • [80]
    G. Cavalcanti, Nuova opera, 250.
  • [81]
    Editorial note: Giovanni Francesco Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) was a Florentine humanist and historian.
  • [82]
    Riccardo Fubini, “Cultura umanistica e tradizione cittadina nella storiografia fiorentina del’400”, Atti e memorie dell’Accademia toscana di scienze e lettere “La Colombaria”, 56, 1991, 67-102.
  • [83]
    Editorial note: In order to deal with both political and financial difficulties, Lorenzo the Magnificent had the Signoria convene a balìa to effect a constitutional reform and strengthen his power. A Council of the Seventy was appointed for five years, composed of faithful Medici supporters; this Council performed both executive and legislative duties, like the Signoria and the magistrates. Those holding the Republic’s highest-ranking offices had to be selected from the pool of Council members.
  • [84]
    Editorial note: Vespasiano da Bisticci (1421-1498) was a Florentine writer, bookseller and humanist.
  • [85]
    Vespasiano da Bisticci, Le vite, ed. Aulo Greco (Florence: Istituto nazionale di studi sul Rinascimento, vol. 1, 1970, and 2, 1976) (critical edition with introduction and commentary by Aulo Greco). Cf. also Paolo Viti, “Le vite degli Strozzi di Vespasiano da Bisticci: introduzione e testo critico”, Atti e memorie dell’Accademia toscana di scienze e lettere “La Colombaria”, 49, 1991, 75-177; R. Fubini, “Cultura umanistica…”.
  • [86]
    V. da Bisticci, Le vite, vol. 2, 252.

In 1434, Cosimo de’ Medici returned to Florence after a year’s exile in Venice. His reappearance marked the beginning of important political and institutional changes, which in the long term culminated in the establishment of a principality (1530-1532). However, the “1434 moment” is by no means the object of historiographical consensus. The Medici’s power still rested on the same group of privileged citizens, who had constituted the basis of political power since the 1380s. It did not bring about any immediate constitutional change, but instituted regular recourse to extraordinary measures that transformed the reality of political practices. This article raises the fundamental question of the bedrock of Florentine constitutionalism through a critical re-reading of Florentine political life from the 1380s to the 1450s.

Riccardo Fubini
Riccardo Fubini is a professor emeritus of Renaissance history at the University of Florence and specialises in the history of the regional state and political practices in Italy during the fifteenth century, especially in relation to political ideas and humanism. He edited the complete works of Poggio Bracciolini (Turin, UTET, 4 volumes, 1964–1969) and the first two volumes of the correspondence of Lorenzo the Magnificent (Florence, 1977). Among his numerous publications are: Italia quattrocentesca. Politica e diplomazia nell’età di Lorenzo il Magnifico (Milan: F. Angeli, 1994); Quattrocento fiorentino. Politica, diplomazia, cultura (Pisa: Pacini, 1996); and Politica e pensiero politico nell’Italia del Rinascimento. Dallo stato territoriale al Machiavelli (Florence: Edifir, 2009) (Università degli Studi di Firenze, Piazza di San Marco 4, I-50121 Florence, Italy).
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