CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

Establishing a new republican regime [1]

1After Charles VIII of France left Florence on 28 November 1494, the citizens of Florence undertook constitutional reforms that were the logical consequence of the fall of the Medicis, and which had been postponed due to the previous military situation. [2]

Transitional measures to restore the republican regime

2On 30 November, the Signoria[3] convened a Council of petitions to discuss the form that the government should take moving forward. This Council invited the Signoria to summon a general citizens’ assembly (a parlamento) to ratify the abolition of the Medici-governed bodies. [4] A new secret ballot (squittinio) [5] had to be organised, while, in the interim, names that were already in the purses were extracted “by hand”, since “chance could favour supporters of Piero de Medici and thus bring him back to power”. [6] The parlamento, which was held on 2 December, passed the reform proposal that it had received. The proposal in question eliminated the Council of the One Hundred and the Council of the Seventy, the Eight of Practice and the twelve prosecutors. [7] The Council of the People and the Council of the Commune, which had been stripped of their authority by the Medicis, would become the only legislative councils (consigli opportuni) [8] that enjoyed “the same authority and power, as well as full balìa for the term of their mandate, [9] as those possessed by […] the People and Commune of Florence”. They were to be completely re-elected thanks to a special squittinio; in turn, they were to elect the ambassadors, commissioners and other officers “who had hitherto been appointed by the Council of the Hundred or of the Seventy”, with the exception of the Dieci di Libertà e Pace (the Ten of Peace and Liberty) [10] and the twenty scrutineers (accoppiatori), [11] who had to form a joint assembly for the purposes of the aforementioned election. For one year, the twenty newly elected scrutineers were responsible for nominating the members of the Signoria; their mandate could, however, be extended for an additional year. A general squittinio was scheduled for organisation in November 1495; in the interim, the twenty scrutineers could “put back in the purses all the names that had been eliminated” – more specifically, according to Parenti, “those who had been removed from the purses in 1484 by Lorenzo di Medici” during the last squittinio. [12]According to Guicciardini, [13] following this new squittinio, the idea was to return to the old tratta system – the traditional lottery system – that had partially fallen into disuse under the Medicis.

3Generally speaking, these measures were designed to restore the regime that had existed before the Medicis took power, while preserving some of the latter’s constitutional reforms (at least for a period of time). Consequently, the scrutineers’ election of the Signoria and the Councils’ election of a number of other offices were merely the continuation of earlier practices. Until the final decisions regarding the electoral system were made, the orientation and composition of the twenty scrutineers and other newly elected officers remained of major importance. From the beginning, a certain level of dissatisfaction was expressed regarding this topic, in part due to the conservative nature of the reform itself. Parenti writes:


“All of the good citizens were saddened, lamenting that they had taken up arms in the name of freedom and discovered that they had not done so for the people’s freedom, but to preserve the state [14] of those who had ruled over them in the past.” [15]

5The people’s dissatisfaction, as well as their fear (real or imagined) that Piero de Medici might return generated pressure for more radical reforms, likely supported by some aristocrats who hoped in this manner to preserve and strengthen their dominant positions.

Savonarola and the creation of the Grand Council

6Just five days after the parlamento had met, Savonarola addressed the citizens of Florence and invoked the need for new reforms. [16] On 14 December 1494, during his great political sermon, he vehemently argued that “the form that you have created cannot be sustained unless you re-organise it in a better fashion”. As he had alluded to in Venice on 7 December, Savonarola emphasised that there was no better Constitution than “the Venetian Constitution, which you must take as an example”; he was most likely referring to Venice’s Great Council. [17] At the same time, he proposed that this new reform should be set out by the gonfalonieri of the companies, following consultation with the people. His proposal was accepted, but was given a much less democratic shape: the project was ultimately to be completed by the Signoria (the Gonfaloniere of Justice and the eight Priors), the sixteen other gonfalonieri, the Twelve Good Men (Buoni Uomini), the twenty scrutineers, the Ten of Peace and Liberty, and the captains of the Guelph faction. A few drafts of this project have been preserved: all of them accepted the creation of a Grand Council as the starting point for discussions. The law that created this Council, approved by the Councils of the People and of the Commune on 22 and 23 December 1494 respectively, marked the culmination of this process.

7The most notable aspects of the new Council were the following: it had full sovereignty; with few exceptions, its conditions for admission were based on the beneficio dei tre maggiori (the fact that the candidates themselves, or at least one of their “direct” ancestors had been a member of one of the three major offices); [18] its mandates were for life, even though their effective exercise was reserved for members aged 29 or older who were netti di specchio (those who had paid their taxes and other public debts); its size, since admission was partially based on the hereditary principle; and the fact that elections for the highest magistracies took place within the Council itself. The ambience in which the 23 December law was passed may explain some of the ambiguities and lacunae in its formulation (and which subsequently became more evident). For example, the process for electing minor office holders was not defined. [19] Savonarola immediately emphasised the need to “purge” the Council. [20] It is possible that, at the time, those who were the most eager to establish the Council suggested that certain details could be addressed later on. Moreover, if we are to believe a statement made by Savonarola two years later, some minor aspects of the legislation had been introduced for opportunistic reasons. [21]

8The Grand Council combined elements from the Venetian constitution and from earlier Florentine institutions. For example, while the method for allocating vacant offices by elections within the Council had an equivalent in the Venetian Great Council, it also had roots in Florentine constitutional history. The same was true of the beneficio dei tre maggiori: the concept of hereditary offices also existed in Venice’s Great Council, but its specific nature stemmed from Florentine political practices. The ancient Florentine tradition of the squittinio was also conserved.

9If we set aside this kind of continuity in the broader sense of the word, it is evident that many efforts were made to facilitate the transition between the two reforms on 2 December and 23 December. The Grand Council was entrusted with the power that the parlamento had granted to the Councils of the People and of the Commune: in fact, it was originally slated to be called the Council of the People and the Commune. The members of the Councils of the People and of the Commune that had not “served or been seen in the three major offices” [22] (and whose admission was thus automatic) were admitted to the Grand Council. Finally, all the members of the Council of the People and the Council of the Commune who were aged 29 or older were to be admitted into the first section of the Grand Council, which was to govern from January to June 1495. As a consequence, the majority of citizens who had approved the new Constitution on 22–23 December were granted the right to participate in the Grand Council’s first section, a decision which clearly demonstrated that great efforts were being made to ensure a smooth transition between the old and new regimes. It was thus that one-quarter of the members of the Grand Council’s first section – which opened in late January – had previously been members of either the Council of the People or the Council of the Commune.

10While it is impossible to deny that the 23 December reform was rooted in Florence’s traditional constitutional law, and influenced by recent events in particular, it nevertheless marked a new development thanks to a number of its more remarkable aspects. The Grand Council, like the Council of the Eighty elected from among its members, stood out from the other councils that had co-existed during the fifteenth century due to its small size, ranging from 70 to 300 members. [23] The fact that the beneficio dei tre maggiori was recognised as a condition for admission was new, as was the creation of life-long mandates.

11While establishing the Grand Council on 23 December, the reform also posed the question of how the latter should operate, a question prompted by two fundamental issues: on one hand, collective and individual opposition to the new regime; on the other, the difficulties that stemmed from the Council’s organisation. Innovative elements were the ones that posed the greatest difficulties in this regard. How could the political success of such a large Council, with its elite members, be guaranteed? Were the conditions required for membership valid? Some of these problems were linked to compromises between the various constitutional tendencies, such as those that characterised the new electoral system. Other problems no doubt stemmed from a sort of excessive optimism inherent to the new Constitution, which sometimes conflicted with the political reality.

A long period of constitutional implementation

12In the years that followed, a series of legislative measures had to be adopted in order to address the problems that emerged immediately after the Council was established, and to fill certain gaps in the 23 December reform. It was only in 1499 that the Grand Council adopted its definitive constitutional form, which it preserved without any substantial modifications until the fall of the republican regime in 1512. Far from being completed in just a few days, the new Constitution took over four years to be elaborated. By the end of this period, the Grand Council was in many ways a very different institution than before.

13It is undeniable that all of the legislation concerning the Council and the debates that the former engendered were indicative of their time, as were the conflicts of interest and factional struggles that dominated the regime’s early years, and which contemporary newspapers and chronicles amply documented. Nonetheless, given that the problems facing the Grand Council were not all political, the relevant legislation was not always dictated by political considerations: in large part, it sought to solve technical problems. In this context, differences of opinion occasionally had nothing to do with politics or the factions that existed. In addition, even when the legislation was eminently political in nature – as in the case of the electoral system – purely technical constitutional considerations could also exert significant pressure. This article will examine this aspect of the Grand Council’s evolution during the first few years of its existence.

14The two main themes of legislation and debate concerning the Council were, on the one hand, the number of its members, its composition and operational procedures; and on the other, the electoral process to adopt for vacant positions. The first issue was practically resolved at the start of 1497. The electoral process, however, ultimately became the most controversial element of the December reform – only in May 1499 was the final important law on this subject passed. In the context of the first set of issues, the specific problems were the quorum, the specchio, and absenteeism; [24] with regard to the electoral system, the debate centred on choosing between elections and lotteries.

Constitutional debates on the quorum and the composition of the Grand Council

15With the new Constitution adopted, the following problem emerged: how was the Grand Council to function without the number of its members being reduced? Following the compromise adopted on 23 December, the Council was divided into sections designed to meet at alternating times. It was established that the Council would be divided into two sections if the number of members did not surpass 1500, and into three sections if it was still larger that. [25] Consequently, each section would have between 500 and 750 members, so that the total number of members would never go above 2250. A Council composed of 500 to 750 members was, in any case, much larger than any previous Florentine Council. Nonetheless, this number was only theoretical, as it did not mean that 500 to 750 citizens would actually be able to take part in meetings. Two main reasons could prevent a member from being involved in Council assemblies: absence from the city, and owing money to the public treasury.

16The large number of Florentine citizens who lived abroad or travelled for professional reasons naturally translated into a reduction in the number of eligible Council members that could participate in assemblies. The debt restriction was more flexible, however, as the rules governing the specchio could always be relaxed in order to ensure greater participation in Council meetings.

The establishment of the Grand Council

17From the moment this institution was founded, the distinction between the “abili al Consiglio” (eligible Council members) and the “abili al raguniarsi al Consiglio” (those capable of effectively participating in the Council’s assemblies) acquired fundamental significance. In reform proposals concerning the Grand Council, the specchio was emphasised as a necessary condition for membership. One of these proposals argued that “the preservation of our land depends on the specchio”. This argument would often reappear in the years that followed: was the Council strong enough to guarantee that the norms of the specchio would be preserved in the 23 December reform? In large part, everything depended on the number of eligible citizens who were debtors of the state, a number which itself depended on taxation levels and the general economic climate.

18Prior to the first random drawing, no one could know how many members in the first Council would turn out to be debtors. Consequently, a significant number of citizens found themselves in this problematic situation, as evidenced by the libri di specchio. Even before the first Council was randomly composed (20-26 January 1495), there was an attempt to deal with the effects of this problem. As early as 23 December – in other words, right after the reform was passed – an ordinance was approved that decreed amnesty for the citizens who had been “unfairly taxed” by the Medici regime. While it is evident that this measure was driven by political considerations, the same cannot be said of the 13 January law, which established that, in the hopes that “a short delay might not undermine the new advantages granted to citizens regarding inclusion in the lottery and participation in the councils […], the specchio will not affect those who pay off all of their debts within two months, starting from the date of the lottery or election of one of the two aforementioned councils”. According to older statutes, each time that the name of a debtor was drawn from the lottery purse, it had to be torn up. The matter was more complicated for the Grand Council: if this regulation were applied to the Council’s general purse, it would strip debtors of their eligibility forever. It was thus logical to only apply the rule to section lotteries and to put the names of debtors back into the Council’s general lottery purse. From this perspective, the 13 January ordinance significantly improved the situation, as it stated that those members who had settled their debts within two months were “levati di specchio” (struck from the debtors’ register) and “would be considered as legitimately selected by the aforementioned Council”. It is significant that this measure only affected the first round of selections; supporters of the new regime thus clearly wished to facilitate participation in the Council from the beginning, especially given that the institution was a “cosa nuova”, as Savonarola observed. [26]

19Once the list of eligible candidates was established, it had more than 1500 names on it. As a result, in accordance with the December reform, the Council had to be divided into three sections (Consigli terzati, as they would later be called). The random drawing of the first Consiglio terzato occurred from 20 to 26 January. Although we do not have access to the list of general lottery candidates on which this selection was based, we do, however, possess two copies of the results in the first round. These documents are even more valuable because they refer to the specchio and other obstacles to effective participation in the Council. Other lists provide the names of the members of the Council of the People and of the Commune that constituted the first Consiglio terzato. The final number of members in the Council was close to 1150, or almost exactly the figure proposed by Parenti; almost 300 of these had been members of one of the two Councils beforehand. But only some of these 1150 individuals were effectively able to participate in the Council meetings (abili al ragunarsi): many were absent or eliminated for other reasons, and no fewer than 350 individuals were hindered by the specchio. Ultimately, approximately 690 members were able to convene in the assembly.

20The situation significantly improved two months later, when the 13 January ordinance went into effect, stipulating that members of the Grand Council who had been eliminated from the specchio during this period were to be admitted to the assemblies, and that additional names would be randomly drawn to replace those still affected by the specchio. This additional round of selection took place between 28 March and 2 April 1495 and produced 216 new names, a large proportion of whom were still a specchio or unable to participate in the assemblies for a variety of other reasons. Following a final, additional lottery round on 2 April, 129 names were left, 13 of which belonged to absent members. Pursuant to a ruling from 14 May, the habili tracti (able members of the Council) thus numbered 944. Over the course of two months, the 13 January ordinance had managed to counteract the negative effect of the specchio on the total number of able members. Between 28 March and the end of June, the total number of voters fluctuated between 700 and 750.

21The additional selection round had necessarily taken names out of the general lottery purse that still had to be used for the other two Consigli terzati. Under the guise of compensation, a certain number of previously ineligible citizens were admitted to the Council during this time. The reform’s legislation had established that three distinct categories of citizens could be admitted to the Council. Every three years, the latter could grant admission to 60 citizens aged 28 or older; each year, it could also admit 24 eligible citizens who had not attained the necessary lower age limit, but were older than 24. Finally, the first two Signorias in 1495, as well as the corresponding Collegi, could admit citizens to the Council who had lost eligibility “due to old age or some other reason”. During this period, the Council only welcomed nine individuals younger than 29, while the Signorias that ruled from January to February and then March to April admitted 118 citizens from the third aforementioned category.

Absenteeism and intervention by non-members in the Council during the Consigli terzati period

22Granting a large number of eligible citizens the possibility to effectively exercise their privileges by relaxing the laws governing the specchio was, as we have seen, an expedient solution. However, whilst the specchio prevented members who were present and otherwise eligible from participation, a different factor was having the opposite effect. A certain number of members were absent from assemblies for legitimate reasons – an official mission abroad or on Florentine territory, for example. However, the absence of other members could not always be justified. Very quickly, it was realised that such absences posed a serious problem for the Grand Council.

23“Time is a precious commodity for merchants and artisans”, one citizen emphasised during a pratica in February 1497; [27]and many others had already expressed this opinion two years earlier. Had the legislators in December 1494 truly realised the extent of the new Constitution’s inherent difficulties for a community of merchants such as was Florence? On this topic, the 23 December law had not established any specific standards. For its members, the Grand Council represented a much greater commitment than previous Councils. Even though its members only performed their duties for six months out of the year, they were members for life. By its very nature, the Council’s work – which concerned legislation as well as elections, and included frequent lengthy meetings – required an important time commitment. It is symptomatic that the December reform stipulated that assembly meetings should not last more than seven hours. Existing sources provide a fairly accurate picture of meeting frequency during this period: there were fourteen meetings in February, six in March, nine in April, five in May and eleven in June; only four, two, one, two and three of these, respectively, dealt specifically with legislation. It is evident that such a system was very demanding for its members and that the temptation of absenteeism must have been great, despite the desirability of belonging to the Council. In addition, the absence of certain members was likely driven by their opposition to the new regime.

24There were three solutions to this problem: make it easier for new members to join; punish absenteeism; or limit the damages caused by absenteeism to the Council’s work. Each of these methods was adopted at one point or another in the months and years that followed the 23 December reform. The first decision taken in this regard occurred during one of the first meetings of the Consiglio terzato.

25On 7 February 1495, the Council passed an ordinance that modified the quorum required for elections, setting it at 450 votes, while maintaining the quorum required for legislative activities. This entailed a decrease in the relative value of the quorum needed for elections, which thus fell below half of the eligible selected members. When on 10 June – and thus before the established date – the Council began to elect the members of the Signoria, the quorum for this election was set at 500 individuals, due to this function’s exceptional importance. The difference in treatment for elections and legislation can be explained by the greater number of meetings needed for the former. Legislation was the more important of the Council’s functions, while elections took up more time due to the rapid rotation of mandates that was traditional in Florence. In addition, the passing of the 7 February ordinance regarding the new quorum mentioned “450 of those who intervened in the aforementioned Council”, while the December law spoke of “two-thirds of those randomly selected”. Taking part [28] and being selected were therefore not the same thing.

26In November of the same year, the Council experienced difficulties regarding the election of the Ten of Liberty and Peace. Although 570 individuals were present that day – an apparently sufficient number – in reality, quorum was not met, according to several Council members and Parenti himself: [29] out of these 570 participants, only 450 had been randomly selected (the presence of the remaining individuals was justified for other reasons). A large scandal then erupted where the accusers quickly became the accused, insofar as opponents to the regime exploited the occasion to discredit its supporters by accusing them of criticising the state’s laws. Finally, the uproar died down thanks to Savonarola’s intervention. However, Lionardo Dei, one of the scandal’s instigators, was forced to issue a public retraction.

27Reading the minutes from these assemblies, we can see that the accusation was unfounded. What actually emerges from closer inspection, however, is that substituting the intervenienti for the tratti (those who had been randomly selected) was, in the eyes of Lionardo Dei and his allies, a matter of great importance. In its final version, the law endorsed tacitly abandoning an important principle of the December Constitution, which had only conferred full sovereign power to the Grand Council so long as the latter was composed of a clearly defined group of privileged citizens. In terms of constitutional law, the accusers certainly had good reasons to protest, but they should have done so in February, and not November, of 1495. In the end, the November incident illustrates that the members of the Council had not necessarily understood the law’s full significance.

28Practically speaking, what happened in November during the election of the Ten was perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the law, which was designed to introduce the possibility that, under certain circumstances, quorum could be reached on the basis of the participants present and not of the members able to participate in the meeting. In accordance with the 23 December reform, a certain number of magistrates had the ex-officio right, and even duty, to participate in the Grand Council’s assemblies; given that close to 200 magistrates were admitted in accordance with this regulation, their presence constituted a significant addition to the Consigli terzati, even if we must subtract from their numbers those who were already rightful members of the Council.

29Despite this effective reduction of the quorum necessary for elections, and the increase in the number of members authorised to participate in assemblies once they were eliminated from the specchio register at the end of March, it was not always an easy feat to obtain the minimum required for the Council to meet. On 2 May, a pratica was convened to discuss the possibility of reducing the quorum even further, but the participants took a strong stand against any measure of this kind. Instead, they decided to set a calendar for the Council’s meetings and to penalise absences. The debate resulted in an ordinance published on 14 May that attempted to solve the problem of absenteeism by introducing fines, on the one hand, and by facilitating participation in meetings, on the other.

30The law stated that for each Council meeting, the chancellor of the tratte had to draw up a list of the electors whose names had been randomly selected by lottery and who were absent without any legal justification. These members were in turn reported to the Chamber and registered as “owing the Commune a sum of 3 lire” and placed on the specchio. The sanctioning of unjustified absences was nothing new in Florentine constitutional law: similar regulations can be found regarding the capitano del popolo from as early as 1322-1325.

31In order to facilitate participation in assemblies, the law ruled that the Council would meet at least every Thursday. Given that the 23 December reform had not set a meeting schedule, it was hoped that this measure would encourage participation. To convoke council members to an assembly, it was ordered that the Palace’s bell had to ring uninterrupted for one hour, then one hundred times in twenty minutes, and finally ten more times. If after this time the two-thirds quorum required to debate and vote on legislation was not reached, the Signoria had to proceed to the election, “for which 450 members sufficed”. A rather unusual situation would thus ensue, as the Signoria could never be certain of an assembly’s agenda on any given day (since that depended on the number of members present). This uncertainty reflects some of the difficulties that the government faced while working with the new Constitution.

Construction of the Grand Council’s chamber and the meetings of the Consigli terzati (May 1495-February 1496)

32In order to facilitate participation, the law also decreed that the election of Palace workers and officers in charge of building the new Council chamber was to take place within eight days, as it was highly necessary, “given the large number of council members and the location and heat of the current chamber, which cannot comfortably accommodate that many citizens”. At the time, the Consiglio terzato met in the old chamber of the Council of the Two Hundred, which was plainly not large enough. The new Palace workers were elected on 23 May 1495; after their election, however, there were further delays due to technical and financial issues. Savonarola alluded to such problems on 5 July and suggested that the “master builders of Santa Reparata” be put to work, “as this construction project is more important than the other”. [30] Finally, on 15 July, the workers elected as their master builders Francesco Monciatto Legnaiuolo and Simone del Pollaiolo (“Il Cronaca”). [31] In fact, Il Cronaca had been the architect and foreman for the Duomo since 23 June. The cornerstone was laid sometime between 18 and 29 July. In a new sermon delivered on 28 July, Savonarola asked the authorities to speed up construction: “Make [the construction] of this chamber advance quickly, and not like a plodding cow”. [32] Addressing the government, he also added that “this chamber should be commissioned by the Signoria”.

33At the end of June, the first Consiglio terzato had concluded its session, which was followed by a second Consiglio, also randomly drawn from the Grand Council’s general lottery purse. However, the number of randomly selected individuals for this second Council who were eligible to participate in the assemblies was much lower than for the first Council. “The total number of suitable members of the aforementioned current Council represents barely two-thirds of the able members of the previous Council”, announced the preamble to the 9 July decree. Consequently, and because “through experience, the full benefits of a large number of council members” had been observed, the decree increased the number of eligible members on a par with the first Council (“as in the past”) – i.e., 930 individuals – by drawing names from the third selection purse. If this subsequently were to leave too few names for selection, the number of eligible members of the third Consiglio terzato would be supplemented by drawing from the first selection purse. Additionally, it was hoped that the new “large chamber […] in which the whole Council could meet” would be ready by January 1496.

34This was the first time that the entirety of the Grand Council was to meet (instead of just one of its sections). But this decision only became law on 13 August 1495, when it was decreed that the third lottery, which would normally have occurred in December, would ultimately not take place, and that the whole Council would hitherto meet in the new chamber, whose construction was “already […] begun” and whose completion was expected by that date.

35It is likely that this law, which substantially modified the December Constitution, was responding to the fact the second Consiglio terzato was rather small in number. This reality, as well as the initial difficulties encountered with regard to maintaining a sufficiently large number of council members, finally convinced the government to take this radical initiative in order to efficiently and permanently establish the Grand Council as the cornerstone of the republican Constitution. Thanks in large part to Savonarola’s sermons, this notion slowly came to embody a true political act of faith. The preacher continually pointed out to the citizens of Florence the importance of maintaining the Grand Council, and on 28 July 1495 (and thus between the 9 July and 13 August decrees), he harangued the members of the Signoria by declaring that “regarding the Council […], you have to maintain and increase it”. On 13 August, the Gordian knot was finally cut and the Council’s tripartite division was eliminated, thus immediately and definitively augmenting the effective number of council members.

36Of course, this entailed modifying the quorum, which went from 450 or 500 members to 1000 “of those who can participate in one form or another”; it was likewise applied to legislative action, with the result that the two-thirds law was definitively abolished. The doubling of the quorum marked a fundamental moment in the history of the 1494 Republic. Instead of reducing the quorum, as it had still seemed useful to do in the city’s recent past, Florence significantly increased its size, thus giving the Grand Council a much more efficient form. But what reflected Florence’s characteristic statesmanship was that this absolute increase in reality constituted a relative decrease, insofar as a quorum of 450 for each of the Consigli terzati would have corresponded to a total quorum of 1350 for the Council as a whole.

37From certain angles, this reform created new problems, however. Before any changes could be enacted, the new chamber hall had to be completed: the old one was already uncomfortable for a single Consiglio terzato and would be downright inadequate for the plenary Council. The construction of the larger chamber thus assumed greater political importance. Contrary to projections, it was not completed until the end of April 1496 – although this did not stop the third lottery process from taking place and being approved by the Council on 28 December. Nevertheless, in order to at least temporarily increase the size of the Council, it was decided that the elected officials of the second and third lottery should meet together during the first four months of 1496. At the end of this period, the new chamber would be ready. In the meantime, the quorum was raised to 600 for elections and 620 for legislative matters.

38During this time, the construction of the new chamber continued apace. On 3 December 1495, workers had started on the roof; on 12 February 1496, work began on the ceiling. On the 22nd, Il Cronaca was authorised to set a door in the wall that provided connecting access to the Palazzo.

The first two Plenary Assemblies of the Grand Council (February-April 1496)

39Three days later, the Grand Council as a whole would meet for the first time in order to elect the Signoria for March-April, despite the fact that work on the building was not completely finished. According to Rinuccini and Parenti, 1753 citizens were present at this assembly: in other words, many more than the required quorum of 1000, and more than double the number of participants in the first Signoria election in June 1495. At first glance, this appeared to demonstrate the remarkable success of the regulations adopted in August. This conclusion must be somewhat nuanced, however, once we realise that the specchio rules had been suspended for the occasion. This measure illustrates both that the government was determined to ensure the success of its new policy, and that the specchio remained one of the main obstacles to effective Council participation, a problem that would only grow in the subsequent months.

40The Council’s first plenary session in the new chamber was imbued with a particularly solemn sense of decorum. The Carmelite monks from Santa Maria del Carmine performed a service “to start things off right in the new Council chamber”. Savonarola, who had consistently urged Florentine citizens to maintain and strengthen the Grand Council, gave a sermon before the session’s opening. [33] Once again, he emphasised the fact that the Grand Council was the basis of the new Constitution: “Whosoever wishes to infringe upon this Council seeks to wrest this government from the hands of Christ”. Simultaneously, he offered a brief lesson in parliamentary ethics to the citizens in charge of electing the new Signoria.


“Each citizen […] must come to the Council with the intention of giving his vote [34] to those that he fully believes can guarantee the city’s well-being; everyone should therefore pray and come to the Council in this state of mind.”

42The following plenary assembly, which met to elect the new Signoria, took place on 26 April 1496. This time, there were only a few days left before the August reform would finally go into effect, and the Grand Council would begin to hold its regular assemblies in the new hall. The 26 April assembly was thus particularly significant. It is symptomatic that on this occasion, services were performed by the monks of San Marco, [35] and the sermon was preached by Brother Domenico da Pescia. According to Parenti, attendance was even higher than the time before, drawing more than 2000 members. The Grand Council’s register for 30 April states that the total number of eligible citizens and able members that day came close to 3300, including 900 on the specchio; there were thus around 2400 members who could effectively participate.

Growing fiscal pressure and absenteeism in 1496

43Let us remember that for both the 26 April and 25 February assemblies, the specchio had been suspended. With these numbers in mind, it is therefore easy to understand why on 24 May, when the laws passed by the new Council were first implemented, the number of voters had dropped to 1099 – barely above the quorum – and continued to hover around 1050 during the months that followed. Under these circumstances, it could be expected that the Council’s quorum would not systematically be reached, thus preventing assemblies from meeting. Judging from a January 1497 ordinance, it seems that it was not exceptional for the Signoria to convene the Council “three times in a row” without reaching a quorum.

44In a pamphlet containing a series of reform proposals printed in Florence in February 1497, Domenico di Roberto Cecchi complained that “the absence of 50 or 60 men” meant that “everyone else was in an awkward situation. This damages the prestige of the Council, which then has to cool its heels for hours without ultimately being able to do anything. Many people no longer attend sessions for this very reason.” [36] Here, Cecchi hit upon one of the most serious problems facing the Grand Council: the difficulty of frequently bringing together such a large number of citizens for lengthy sessions.

45In May 1495, the Commune had attempted to solve the problem the first time by facilitating participation and by imposing fines for unjustified absences. This two-fold strategy was likewise adopted during 1496. On 22 June, new regulations regarding the assembly’s calendar were introduced: sessions remained on Thursdays during the summer, and were to take place on Sundays in the winter, which helped artisans and merchants. At the same time, stricter measures were adopted against unjustified absences. It was decreed that, if upon entering into the room, the members of the Signoria observed that “the number required by the Council had not been met”, a minimum of 50 names would be drawn from the “rassegna” purse, “in which anyone who was a member of the Council and participated in any fashion has to be placed”. Those who were randomly selected while they were absent without a legitimate excuse would be penalised as in the past. On 7 September, the Council approved another ordinance concerning absences, which confirmed the content of the previous ordinance and added that participants who arrived late would also be fined and asked to “present their apologies in the large chamber by kneeling before […] the members of the Signoria”.

46In the meantime, the difficulties surrounding attendance figures for the Grand Council had once again caused the rules regarding the specchio to be relaxed in late October 1496. An ordinance from 31 October stated that all of the members of the Council who had been “removed from the specchio” since 1 May were to participate in the assembly during November, even if some of them were still a specchio. This was therefore just a temporary measure, characteristic of the expedient solutions so frequently adopted during this period.

47The discussion which then took place during the pratica on 24 November clearly illustrated the critical situation in which the Grand Council found itself shortly after the August reform went into effect (and even though this reform was supposed to revitalise it). In the name of the sixteen gonfalonieri, Ubertini de’ Risaliti opened the debate regarding the Council with a number of interesting statistical observations.


“We note that the number of members able to participate in the Council is 3347. And those who were initially removed from the specchio totalled 2000. And those who are today free from the specchio number 1500, and among those who are absent or sick, etc., fewer than 700 are free from the specchio and eligible to participate.” [37]

49This means that the number of eligible members who were not on the specchio, and thus able to participate in assemblies, had dropped from 2400 at the end of April 1496 to 1500 at the end of November.

50The main causes of this evolution can be found in the fiscal pressure that had grown in comparison with the previous year, due to a sharp increase in wheat prices and a general economic crisis:


“The production of silk and wool was down, and it was very difficult to make money.” [38]

52Consequently, Parenti indicates that the members of the Grand Council were “few in number, on account of all the men who ended up a specchio due to the high levels of taxation”. However, one might wonder whether the increase in the number of citizens in debt to the tax authorities was not due, at least in part, to deliberate opposition to the regime. It was perhaps not a coincidence that, the same year, the government had experienced much difficulty in obtaining an increase in mandatory loans to the Commune; this was perhaps also partially due to general dissatisfaction with the political situation.

53Two possible solutions were discussed during the pratica on 24 November: relaxing laws regarding the specchio, and lowering the quorum requirement. Both solutions were met with strong opposition. “Disrupting the arrangement of the specchio is no small job,” declared Guidantonio Vespucci, speaking on behalf of the Ten. At the same time, Guido de’ Mannelli, speaking on behalf of his colleagues, admonished the government, explaining that “eliminating the specchio would create great confusion and would be very harmful to our city: the specchio is what has always allowed us to retain our freedom”. [39] As for the reduction of the quorum, Ubertino de’ Risaliti and the sixteen gonfalonieri declared that they “would never consent”; they would prefer to authorise exceptions regarding the specchio, “rather than require fewer than 1000 men”. This number quickly acquired symbolic value as the concrete expression of the Grand Council. Changing this number was seen as challenging the very foundations of the new regime, and would have been a clear admission of defeat in the task of creating a solid and long-lasting foundation for the Grand Council. In the end, the opinion that won out was put forth by those who wished to maintain the status quo for a few months, while reserving the right to study the problem in greater depth during that time. Most likely thanks to Francesco Valori, who was named the Gonfaloniere of Justice in January, a law was passed on 18 January 1497 that broadly reflected the concerns and proposals of the sixteen gonfalonieri.

1497: the Black Plague and political purges

54The 18 January ordinance introduced a new element into the legislation regarding the Council by establishing – in addition to the quorum – a minimum number of members “able to meet” (“abili al ragunarsi”). This minimum was set at 2200, a number that corresponds perhaps to the number of citizens unaffected by the specchio, as mentioned by Risaliti. In order to verify if there were at least 2200 members unaffected by the specchio, an inventory would have to be taken every four months – and not merely every six months, as had been decided upon in August 1495. The members of the Council who had made late tax payments during the four previous months would have been re-admitted to the assemblies. It was only in the case that the threshold of 2200 individuals was not reached that extraordinary measures would have gone into effect. First, all young eligible citizens older than 24 and unaffected by the specchio would be allowed to participate in assemblies during the subsequent four months. If this were not sufficient, the specchio regulations would be further relaxed with the utmost caution, such that only those citizens who were indebted for minor sums or very specific reasons benefitted from this relaxation. A later ordinance decreed that if the members in attendance only reached 500, electors should be randomly selected and nominated. Nonetheless, it was firmly established that for both elections and legislative activity, a quorum of 1000 members was indispensable.

55Two weeks later, new measures were enacted to eliminate certain members who did not meet the Council’s requirements. A sermon preached by Savonarola on 13 December sheds some light on the significance of these measures. The preacher revisited one of his favourite themes, highlighting the fact that, while it was necessary to preserve a sufficiently large Council, it was also essential to exclude its enemies.


“God […] has given you this large Council, and you have put troublemakers in its midst: this was not my intention […]. My lords, we must take care of this Council, be vigilant, reforming and purging it bit by bit, always checking to see if those who are part of it deserve to be.” [40]

57Under the auspices of Francesco Valori, [41] the Signoria patently strove to follow this advice. However, the citizens who were excluded – with the exception of those who had initially been nominated in an illegitimate manner – could appeal for re-admission to the Council. Once accepted by the Signoria, such appeals had to be individually approved by a 51 per cent majority of the Council. Practically speaking, it is clear that these measures directly targeted Medici supporters. In particular, the latter were accused of having “made an infinite number of plebeians eligible for public office”, and Lorenzo was criticised for having “always kept a hand-picked (fatto a mano) chancellor in the Mercanzia, [42] as well as in all the guilds and offices”. [43] Also affected by the ruling were those who belonged to the former nobility, the magnati. In all such cases, the Signoria and the Grand Council were thus allowed to evaluate citizens’ qualifications when they appealed, which ultimately amounted to a full political review of certain segments of the Council.

58Undertaken in the wake of the 18 January 1497 reform, all of these measures were characteristic of a tendency that we have already observed, and which consisted of attempting to reconcile the Council’s conflicting needs. The situation must have still seemed rather unsatisfactory, however, since seventeen days after these measures were approved, there was a new attempt to lower the quorum (which was ultimately rejected by the Grand Council on 19 February). On the eighth of the same month, a pratica regarding the Council examined “the need to abridge certain things that regularly provoked much bother and inconvenience for citizens, and greatly hindered the city’s operations, especially with regard to the creation and appointment of many minor offices”. The general opinion was that “abridging” the Council would be an excellent move: according to the sixteen gonfalonieri, it was “desired by almost everyone”. [44] In May 1497, these discussions translated into a significant reform of the electoral system, which was strictly linked to attempts at facilitating participation in assemblies while maintaining a high quorum. We shall revisit this topic in the following section.

59The year 1497 was particularly difficult for Council operations, in large part because of the outbreak of the plague in May that lasted all summer, causing many citizens to flee the city. On 11 July, the Council passed a series of emergency measures to elect the Signoria and other offices, decreeing that the courts would be closed from 15 July to 30 October. At the same time, the Signoria attempted to encourage attendance by strengthening disciplinary measures. On 9 July, the fine for unjustified absences for the 11 July session went from two florins (as per the 22 June ruling) to five florins. On 11 July, not only did this fine increase to eight florins for the session to be held on the thirteenth, but it was additionally decreed that whosoever was absent on the following day (the fourteenth) would be sequestered in the city for all of August, unless they obtained a special permit from the Signoria approved by seven votes out of nine. In cases of violation, individuals would lose the right to participate in the Council and be banned from holding public office for two years. The same measure was confirmed on 14, 20 and 21 July, as well as on 2 and 4 August, after which the Signoria lowered the fines, from three to two florins, and finally to one florin in November, December and January, respectively. Forcing citizens to stay in Florence for a month while the plague ran rampant was of course a very severe punishment; it must also have proven to be a very effective one, as it was adopted in subsequent years, even in the absence of an epidemic. Fines once again climbed to two and even four florins in the springtime and the beginning of the summer of 1498. Confinement within the city walls was a penalty adopted several times between July and October, for two and four months respectively, in addition to a monetary fine. The same measure was applied during the winter of 1498-1499 and during the summer and fall of 1499; confinement thus became a regular form of penalisation.

60During the summer and the beginning of the fall, when Florentine citizens enjoyed spending as much time as possible in their countryside villas, it was particularly difficult to ensure sufficient attendance for Council assemblies. Consequently, the Signoria strengthened sanctions against absenteeism. Under such circumstances, it was evident that the obligation of spending one or two uninterrupted months in Florence was seen as a completely suitable punishment. However, despite all sorts of obstacles facing the Council, the 1000-member quorum remained in effect.

The post-Savonarola period

61It was not until 1501 that this quorum was lowered to 600 members for the election of offices and the Council of the Eighty. The ordinance passed on 4 August 1501, as well the pratica held on 13 July before it, illustrate that the difficulties that had assailed the Council during the first two years of its existence remained unresolved. The ordinance in question once again introduced a distinction between the quorum required for elections and that required for legislation, a distinction that had been abandoned when the law of 13 August 1495 had gone into effect. Such revisiting of former regulations was a common occurrence in the Council’s history.

62But the 4 August ordinance only marked a temporary divergence from the “perfect number” that had overcome so many obstacles and had consequently become anchored in Florentine tradition. In addition, the size of the Grand Council continued to be a significant burden for many Florentine citizens, as well as a call to their sense of political responsibility.

Election or lottery?

63The two main functions of the Grand Council were legislation and elections; the latter was subject to the most significant changes of the 23 December 1494 reform, save for the creation of the Council itself. Since the fourteenth century, filling vacant offices had always been one of the key problems of Florentine constitutional history, and the methods adopted to deal with this had often reflected the political situation of the given moment. During the reign of the Medicis, the traditional electoral system by lottery (tratta) [45] had been partially abolished or suspended, thus becoming one of the main elements of controversy between Medici supporters and their opponents. “Hand-picked” selection came to be considered as emblematic of the Medicis’ autocratic tendencies, as this procedure greatly helped to consolidate the family’s power. Inversely, returning to lottery-based elections had every chance of looking like a decisive step towards restoration of the traditional regime. Naturally, the question of elections played a major role in the reforms adopted after the fall of the Medicis.

Transitional measures in late 1494 and the relative triumph of the elective principle

64On 30 November 1494, writes Parenti, “the council of petitions” convened by the Signoria recommended that “the lottery purses be selected by hand until a new squittinio is held, in order to avoid the reoccurrence of what happened in 1433 […]. [46] However, since chance might favour supporters of Piero de Medici, who would recall him to power, a number of scrutineers [accoppiatori] should be nominated: good, freedom-loving men.” The law passed during the parlamento held on 2 December followed this advice with regard to the Signoria and its notary: the election process for these public offices was entrusted to 20 scrutineers who were intended to serve for one year, with the possibility of a renewed mandate for an additional year. The elected offices that had previously been governed by the Councils of the One Hundred and of the Seventy would now be under the purview of the Council of the People and the Council of the Commune. Random selection techniques were maintained for those offices where they had continued to be used under the Medicis.

65Naturally, such measures were in large part provisional. It seems that no definitive solution was sought before the new squittinio to be held in November 1495. No doubt the intention was to re-implement random selection for all offices; however, restoring such a process, as well as its specific modalities, would require passing an additional law.

66No squittinio had been held since 1484, and the content of the purses was the same as under Medici rule. Before even considering re-implementing the lottery system, a new squittinio was clearly necessary. Generally speaking, political changes in Florence were accompanied by new squittini, as this was the simplest method for eliminating the state’s political enemies and consolidating the social basis of government. This rule had held in 1433, 1434 and again in 1458. [47] By ordering a new squittinio, the 2 December law followed a tried and true tradition.

67However, the situation changed radically in the days that followed, and the electoral problem occupied a central position in the debate concerning the formation of the Grand Council. The question of elections versus lotteries, which was crucial for the Florentine Constitution, was raised, and its essential components were discussed. One of the reforms proposed, mostly likely by the Ten, identified the flaws in both methods when they were applied too rigidly: these “two extremes” often “provoked serious disruptions”. The compromise suggested envisioned elections for the highest offices, such as the Signoria and the Collegi, since chance was “untrustworthy”, while “the majority of offices with benefits” would be drawn by lottery. [48] For the latter, a squittinio thus had to be organised every five or six years. Moreover, Piero Capponi, as a member of the 20 scrutineers, [49] asked for any decisions concerning the Signoria to be postponed, “as it is possible that during this period of one or two years some error might be observed […] and I would like enjoy the benefit of time to reflect upon the matter”. This attitude was doubtless characteristic of the conservative mind-set behind the 2 December reforms.

68The law that was passed on 23 December 1494 only partially preserved this compromise: in accordance with the proposals made, in addition to the Signoria and its notary, the Collegi, the Conservators of the Laws, the Six of the Mercanzia, and the captains of the Guelph party, other offices were to be elected by the Grand Council, including the Eight of Guard and all of the most important offices of the exterior (uffici di fuori), including Pisa’s Captain and podestà. [50] Electors whose names had previously been drawn from the Council’s lottery purse nominated candidates for the aforementioned positions. The minor offices were to be filled by lottery, for which the 2 December law fixed a squittinio in November 1495. However, the passage on this topic reveals that decisions concerning minor offices were left open to subsequent modification. On the whole, the 23 December reform marked the triumph of the elective principle over the lottery system that had previously been presented as a constitutional alternative to the arbitrary interference of the Medicis. While it might have seemed only natural on 2 December for the fall of the Medicis to be followed by the restoration of the traditional electoral system, the 23 December reform expressed a fundamentally different perspective. This shift, shaped by the decision to create the Grand Council, was inspired by the Venetian Constitution. According to Parenti, “the goal of the electoral method was solely to restore power to the nobility, which, due to numerous measures taken during previous revolutions, had lost its power to the popolani, men of modest backgrounds”. [51]

69The situation was not quite so simple, however. From the perspective of constitutional practice, the electoral system offered more continuity with the electoral methods of the Medici era than with the previous system. However, elections taking place within the Grand Council, which represented Florence’s politically active population, necessarily had a different significance than those conducted by the councils of the previous regime. It remained to be seen, however, whether random selection (lottery) would not be more democratic, even under these new circumstances, than elections within the Council.

Random selection: from anti-Medici measure to Medici-supported device (1495)

70On 6 and 7 February 1495, the Council of the Eighty and the Grand Council passed an ordinance, according to which all offices were to be filled by lottery, with the exception of those that the 23 December 1494 Constitution had expressly marked for election, [52] as well as those which had been excluded from lottery by a May 1466 law “because these are positions that require people with the correct know-how”. [53] Moreover, a certain number of positions that had previously been filled by appointment were now subject to random selection. The 1466 law was referred to once again in the ordinance’s preamble, in terms that indicated a significant attitude change regarding the electoral system: it was proposed by the Signoria “hoping […] to please the people and to distribute offices and honours as was previously done for many positions at many times, and as it was decreed in May 1466 with regard to the random selection of all of the offices of your city chosen by election, which has produced resentment among citizens”.

71In fact, the 25 May 1466 law reflected the transitory victory of opponents to the Medici regime by establishing that, with the exception of a small number of carefully chosen positions, all of the offices “both internal and external to the city of Florence” could only be selected by lottery (tratta). [54] The reference to this law, much like the general tenor of the preamble as a whole, suggests the desire to avoid any further extension of the elective principle in the creation of offices. The 7 February 1495 ordinance was perhaps the result of pressure applied by those citizens hoping for a conservative reform of the electoral system. These citizens doubtless wished to put a stop to the potential spread of electoral methods that, while they were quite different in their application, seemed to evoke the “excessive authority” granted to councils (rather than lotteries) under Medici rule. The events of the days that followed illustrated the political context behind the law. According to Parenti, [55] on 9 February, the Signoria burned the “former purses” belonging to the offices that would now be appointed by election. [56]

72In any case, contemporary accounts demonstrate that the aristocratic party had more than one reason to prefer a return to the lottery system over the preservation – or expansion – of the electoral system. As long as the old purses were still used, the citizens who had enjoyed a prominent position under the Medicis might in fact see the restoration of lotteries for the most important external offices (uffici di fuori) as a rather convenient development. After the 7 February 1495 ordinance, the first electoral measure – shifting the election of the 20 scrutineers from the purview of the Signoria to that of the Grand Council, which occurred on 10 June 1495 – was not significant for the development of the Council itself, insofar as it merely foreshadowed an event that would have taken place at the end of the year in any case. The first substantial reform of this system did not occur until 26 November 1495, or during the same month as the organisation of the new squittinio. According to Parenti, there was great pressure in October to return to the old lottery system. On 16 October, it became impossible to elect Prato’s podestà. [57] It was concluded that a faction (the “intelligentia”) “of about 300 citizens who wished to change the government had provoked this situation, since they hoped to preserve the squittinio and eliminate all popular mediation”. [58] The “intelligentia” thus hoped to abolish elections and restore random selection, not because the latter was a more democratic solution, but precisely for the opposite reason. The ordinance passed on 26 November 1495 represented a compromise between these two tendencies, and reopened the question of elections and lotteries from a new perspective.

New electoral procedures and the reorganisation of active citizenship

73It was then decided that no squittinio would be organised, that the purses corresponding to the elective offices would be destroyed, and that in accordance with a new system, lotteries would take place for the offices affected by this change. Although previously the squittini had filled the purses with the names of all the citizens eligible for office (abili agli uffici), henceforth they would only contain the names of Grand Council members – which was why a squittinio was no longer necessary. The “abili agli uffici” represented a good portion of Florence’s population, however, since the main requirement for abilità was primarily based on the consistent payment of taxes (by a citizen or certain members of his family) for a period of at least 30 years.

74The squittini had traditionally entailed a selection from the pool of taxpayers. And even if the selection had not always been impartial under the government of various factions, it nonetheless applied to a large class of citizens who could thus aspire to public office. Replacing the purses composed using the traditional squittini by those of the Grand Council meant taking a major step towards eliminating the political rights of citizens who were not members of the Council. While it was true that for the major offices that were filled by election within the Grand Council, electors could nominate citizens who were not members, it was never certain that they would chose to do so, or that the Council would approve such candidacies.

75On the other hand, for positions that were subject to random selection, aptitude for a mandate effectively coincided with eligibility for Council membership. [59]

76At the same time, the methods of random selection designed for the aforementioned offices were significantly altered: instead of a “pure and simple” lottery, a new system was created that combined random selection and election procedures. From the Council’s purse were drawn ten, six or four names, depending on the office in question, after which the Council voted and allocated the office to the candidate who had obtained both the absolute and relative majority of the votes.

77In order to guarantee that seniority would receive preferential treatment, three different groups were created: those older than 45 were entitled to three slips in the lottery purse, while young candidates between 25 and 35 years old were only entitled to one (and the third, in-between, group was entitled to two). Consequently, even though lotteries were preserved for a large number of offices, they acquired new meaning, since they were limited to Council members and additionally combined with elections. The ordinance passed on 26 November was thus an institutional compromise – one of Florence’s favourite solutions – this time clearly biased in favour of the elective principle. As a result, Parenti could speak of the reform as being “founded on electoral principles”. When he opined that the latter was a “reason for men to be good and behave correctly”, he could perhaps be accused of being overoptimistic, but the fact remains that the new system appears to have functioned relatively well – at least if we consider the almost total absence of legislative measures regarding elections and lotteries during the year 1496.

Popular demand for random selection and opposition to Savonarola (1496-1497)

78On the other hand, during 1496 political scandal perhaps strengthened the position of those citizens who supported greater use of lotteries and random selection. On 26 April, Parenti describes the discovery of “a faction which united numerous citizens with regard to the formation of the new Signoria”. [60] The day before, a citizen “of lowly status” had given to another citizen “of equal or lower status […] but still participating in the Council” a list of about 45 names given to him by this faction (the intelligentia) which were to be “favoured for the Signoria”. The citizens elected in this fashion would in turn be asked to “favour their acolytes and reap all the benefits and honours associated with other magistracies to be created”.

79Once he was contacted, however, the aforementioned citizen denounced the “faction”, a revelation that provoked “great astonishment and fear throughout the Council” – especially because it was then discovered that the conspirators (later proven to have numbered more than 200) belonged to the most prominent families and were part of the ruling class (“consueti al reggimento”). [61] The general opinion was that this “faction” was more interested in “securing mandates” than in “transforming the state [mutare lo stato]”. However, this incident revealed the level of influence that prominent citizens could wield using Council elections. And yet this kind of influence, which would have been completely legitimate in the context of contemporary parliamentary procedures, had been made illegal thanks to the prohibition of “factions” and the emphasis placed on the independence of each voter throughout nomination and election processes. [62]

80The following year, the electoral system was once again the subject of significant reforms. On 9 January 1497, during one of the pratiche convened for debate, one speaker had observed the existence of three problems for the Grand Council: chance, age, and the specchio. On 18 March, during another, highly attended pratica, the Signoria complained that, the day before, the Grand Council should have elected “several external rectors and vicars but that no one came to vote”. [63] The Signoria then came to its main criticism, which had probably been alluded to in previous debates: it “reminded the aforementioned great lords […] that it was hoped that the people [universale] would select candidates for offices of moderate importance through lottery and not election, thus giving the possibility to serve to a greater number of people”. As for the “other major offices”, it was suggested that a combination of electoral and lottery methods should be used. In this manner, the “Council’s reduction” was limited to establishing random selection for a number of minor offices. However, these proposals met with considerable opposition, even if an agreement was ultimately reached regarding some of the essential points.

81The pratica on “Council issues” that was convened ten days later involved even more hesitation: its participants generally agreed that it was preferable “not to make any changes for the moment” and to postpone the decision. However, the Signoria revisited the issue at the beginning of April during a particularly large pratica. Speaking on behalf of the captains of the Guelph party, [64] Piero di Cante Compagni expressed a sentiment shared by other orators when he echoed the Signoria, lamenting that “so much discomfort had been caused on account of this honourable Council” and, referring to Plato, suggested that citizens should be convinced to act more appropriately: [65] a new commission was therefore appointed. Finally, on 8 and 9 April 1497, a draft law was presented to both the Grand Council and the Council of the Eighty; it was passed by the latter but rejected by the former. Consequently, on 11 April, the Signoria consulted the participants of a new pratica. Once again, opinion was very divided. On 16, 19 and 20 April, the Grand Council again rejected two amended draft laws on the same subject after they had been approved by the Council of the Eighty. On 21 April, a new pratica was appointed to determine what decisions should be made in such circumstances, given that the proposed legislation had been rejected three times. Some participants suggested that the demands of the people (universale) should be met as much as possible. On 23 April, a third amended proposal suffered the same fate as its predecessors. Close to three weeks then went by during which no pratiche seem to have been held. Finally, on 12 May the Grand Council passed a law on electoral reform.

82All of these negotiations clearly demonstrate that the Signoria attached great importance to this reform, and that it garnered a significant amount of support during the successive pratiche, but also that the Grand Council expressed its opposition with exceptional vigour. The Signoria had started by soliciting a reform to design more effective procedures, but had ended up encouraging more widespread use of lottery (tratta), mainly in order to address the shortcomings of the electoral system. The Signoria also pinpointed as one of the causes of the system’s malfunctioning the fact that the people (universale), who wished to expand the use of random selection, were sabotaging the existing method to reach their objectives. These observations alluded to the accusations made against one segment of the Council in February 1495. Although at that time random selection and lottery had seemed like an aristocratic programme, it was now supported by the popolani.

83A sermon given by Savonarola on 13 December 1496 also sheds light on this situation by illustrating that at the end of 1496, there was already great pressure to adopt lottery methods, pressure that sometimes took the form of obstructionism.


“However, there are many who say […] ‘I do not want to give my vote’ [‘dare la fave’] […] or raise money […] if we don’t first bring some order into this Council […]. Another might say: ‘I would like us to settle the issue of the greater number’ […] and I tell you, ‘whoever wants a lottery system is driven by passion and not by reason […] you’re afraid of not being elected, and for that reason, you prefer lotteries.’” [66]

85Savonarola thus clearly expressed his opposition to expanding the use of lottery, a practice that he believed was harmful for Florence. [67] He was therefore not inclined to support the people’s claims. Savonarola’s opposition to random selection was in large part due to the fact that elections within the Council were an integral part of the 23 December reform and that they clearly reflected the influence of the Venetian model, which he had himself strongly supported. One might also wonder if his attitude was not perhaps shaped by certain less-disinterested motivations. [68] It is clear that, had the existing electoral system been preserved, Savonarola and his supporters would no doubt have easily influenced the assignation of offices. [69]

May 1497 to June 1498: increasing recourse to random selection as a step towards democratising the political system

86Finally, the new reform bill was passed, thus suggesting it had sufficiently addressed the demands of the people (universale). In reality, the situation had changed radically since the ancient Medici purses had been burnt, and a new lottery method had been adopted that was no longer based on the traditional squittini. Until the end of 1495, many aristocrats still hoped that a return to random selection would favour them; after that point, they no doubt concluded that Council elections gave them more chances of being appointed, given the influence that they could wield in its ranks. As a result, random selection came to be seen as more democratic in the eyes of the majority. [70] “Consequently, in order to better satisfy the men of the people, the role played by elections was reduced, and replaced with random selection from the general purse”, wrote Parenti, [71] who believed in the democratic character of the new reform.

87The ordinance issued on 12 May 1497 represented another compromise between the electoral and lottery systems, but this time ruled in favour of the latter: random selection was expanded to almost all offices of the exterior (uffici di fuori). A hybrid system was thus implemented, one that was nonetheless subject to a number of subsequent modifications. The external offices were divided into two groups, according to their importance. The first group, which contained the more prestigious offices, used the following protocol: electors nominated candidates and an election occurred, which was then followed by the imborsazione and tratta of the candidates who had won an absolute majority. [72] For the positions in the second group, only half of the candidates were selected in this fashion; the others were directly drawn from the Council’s purses. As for the “offices that are selected by lottery”, the names of those candidates who, after having been drawn, obtained an absolute majority, were likewise placed in the purse. In all three groups, the winner was the candidate who came out ahead in the final random selection. This new system could be viewed as combining elections with a double lottery (instead of a single random selection). Barring a handful of exceptions, the electoral process followed for all of these offices always culminated in random selection, whether the latter had been preceded by an election or another lottery. As Parenti observed, in general “for all the minor offices [d’utile], it was agreed upon that anyone who had obtained the absolute majority of votes would be placed in the purse, which would then be used to randomly draw the name of the person who would occupy the position”. [73] In other words, anyone who had won more than half of the votes had a chance of success. [74] According to Guicciardini, [75] this meant abandoning competitive elections and majority voting (“delle più fave”), with disastrous consequences for Florence’s government: “Everything will inevitably become more widely-based and open, because everyone will want political status. Everyone will be filled with the ambition to be summoned to consultative pratiche and to the Councils dealing with important affairs”. [76] Immediately “elections began to go downhill and take up more time, because the lotteries did not favour competent groups of men like elections did […]. Before, election to an office concerned a small group of candidates, two hundred citizens at most”. [77] Parenti likewise highlighted that thanks to the new reform, “the motives for hatred among citizens of the ruling class [“del regime”] largely disappeared […]. Once envious comparisons between citizens were thus eliminated, everyone calmed down considerably”. [78] However, the new rules did not apply to certain offices, including citadel captains and castellans who were elected first. As in the past, these individuals had to be chosen by election within the Grand Council, after being nominated by a group of six, and then ten, electors (the number of electors was increased “because it is necessary to select the most appropriate persons for these positions”). If we add to this the fact that positions of great strategic importance, such as the captains of Pistoia and Arezzo, [79] were still in part filled using this procedure, this meant tacitly recognising that election within the Grand Council was a more appropriate method than random selection for appointing public officials who would possess high levels of responsibility. Which seems to support the opinion later expressed by Guicciardini – and certainly shared by many members of his social class at the end of the Quattrocento – that expanding the use of lottery, as well as its consequences in terms of scale (larghezza), had prevented the best potential candidates from being appointed to the positions they deserved. [80]

88The reform passed on 12 May 1497 marked a crucial moment in the gradual “democratisation” of the Council that began in November 1495. The following stage in this process took place in July 1498, or close to five months after the ordinance’s planned deadline. [81] On 26 July, an ordinance was passed decreeing that a large number of minor offices would be filled not by the new hybrid system (both election and lottery), but by simple random selection (tratta) in the presence of the Signoria and the Collegi. The offices in question were mostly “those associated with the priorate”, for which the November 1495 ordinance had established a combination of lottery and election; the latter would now be completely eliminated. However, not all offices were concerned: let us not forget that in March 1497, according to the Signoria, the people (universale) wanted “the offices of moderate importance to be filled by lottery”. In order to meet the demands of these “men of lowly status”, this concession was made for the uffici di fuori, whose compensation was less than 600 lire.

89At the same time, in order to reduce the number of a specchio council members, it was decreed that if the names of the debtors were drawn during a lottery for the offices in question, their slips would be torn up and removed from the purses, “so that they would be more inclined to promptly pay their debts and be freed from the specchio”. As the purses were only replenished every three years, this was a rather serious measure to implement. It is evident, therefore, that Florentine citizens were once again attempting to kill two birds with one stone.

90The Signoria justified the new reform by invoking a number of now well-known arguments: the burden on citizens created by overly frequent assemblies; the waste of time that elections held in the Grand Council represented; and the consequent difficulties involved in convening the Council. In fact, these measures were tied to attempts to streamline the Council’s operations so that members could attend sessions more easily (plenary sessions were not necessary for lottery procedures without an election). However, this ordinance did not mention the social aspects of the reform, regarding which Parenti offers some interesting observations. [82]


“Many citizens were unhappy with the distribution of public offices. To go some way towards satisfying these men of lowly status, who were afraid of never being elected, an ordinance was passed according to which all the offices remunerated by 600 lira or less would be filled by random selection […]. This measure satisfied the most modest citizens […] and moreover solved many problems for the Grand Council, which no longer had to deal with a large number of minor offices.”

92Parenti views this law as a decisive moment in the history of the Grand Council, even speaking of “another regime” (altro modo di reggimento):


“Even though it satisfied most citizens, this ordinance nonetheless marked the beginning of the deterioration of the Grand Council’s integrity and the beginning of another regime.” [83]

94Parenti did not realise that the June 1498 ordinance was not so much an innovation as a major expansion of the constitutional transformations initiated in 1495. Parenti also added that “this new regime […] was first met with tacit approval by many, due to the difficulty of convening such large assemblies […] and given the diversity of the factions”. The nobles, however, looked unfavourably upon this development, which was not in their best interest.

95While contributing to the “democratisation” of the electoral system, the new reform also introduced significant distinctions between members of the Grand Council by declaring that only the eligible members who possessed the beneficio dei tre maggiori as a direct descendent were allowed to be placed in the purses (with one, two or three slips depending on their age, as had been established by ordinance on 26 November 1495). On the other hand, those possessing the beneficio “through transversal lineage” were only granted one slip, “regardless of age” and despite their legitimate pedigree. As for citizens allowed to participate in the Council without the aforementioned beneficio, their names were not placed in the purses, unless they had acquired this beneficio by themselves holding one of the three major offices. As a result of these forms of discrimination, while the most important public offices were quickly monopolised by Council members, the mere fact of belonging to this institution no longer guaranteed eligibility. Although the tripartite division into age groups adopted in November 1495 could be justified on the grounds of the importance of greater maturity, these new distinctions were strictly social in nature. They created a special category within the Council for those who had inherited the beneficio dei tre maggiori from their father, grandfather or great-grandfather (or had acquired this status themselves), while those who were merely abilitati did not enjoy the same rights.

Finalising the new system of nomination (1499)

96During the following year, on 31 May 1499, measures were taken to put the finishing touches to the new electoral system. Unfortunately, the minutes of the debate on this subject, which likely occurred during the pratiche, have not been recovered. Knowing that draft proposals on the issue were rejected three times in a row, it is probable that passing this legislation was no easy feat.

97The most important element of the law was the extension of random selection to all of the state’s most important offices. The Signoria and other positions mentioned explicitly in the law, including the Council of the Eighty, were to be filled following the same combination of random selection and elections as that which had been introduced in May 1497 for a number of highly sensitive external offices. Candidates had to be appointed by electors in the Grand Council and those who obtained an absolute majority were once again to be placed in the purse so the winner could be selected via lottery. As for the uffici di fuori for which this procedure had originally been introduced, they were now selected via double sortition – a method that, in May 1497, had been reserved for minor offices only. This method was likewise adopted for the second group of external offices, for which the previous electoral procedure had designated candidates half by sortition and half by election.

98Finally, with regard to the offices that were filled solely via random selection when the law was passed, the same method continued to be applied. Starting in June 1499, a purse was to be created every three years, containing the names of all of the members eligible for participation in the Grand Council. These three-year purses were designed to serve for the offices whose electoral procedure started with sortition. Moreover, in order to facilitate the nomination of members of the Council who were a specchio and simultaneously encourage the payment of taxes, it was determined that “anyone who, at the time of the selection, […] was found to be a specchio in terms of taxes, would [have their slip] torn up”. On the flipside, “if during the two months that followed the selection, anyone whose name has been torn up” could prove that he had paid his debt to the Commune, he would be “put back in the purse […] with the corresponding number of slips that he had lost because of the specchio”. Parenti states the following:


“The result was that election and sortition were combined, especially for the most important public offices in the city, including the Signoria, the Collegi, the Ten, the Eight, etc. […]. For minor offices, whether they were exercised in the city or in the territories controlled by Florence, elections were eliminated […]. This method […] satisfied the lower classes – which did not stop the men of higher quality [uomini di più qualità) from being at an advantage when it came to acquiring mandates. [84] As a result, in general everyone was satisfied.” [85]

100The distinctions between citizens were thus attenuated, Parenti explains, thanks to the elimination of elections by relative majority that led people to “make regrettable comparisons”. In addition, as a result of the secret nature of sortition, the factions were further reduced.


“This kind of procedure had a beneficial effect: once the electoral system based on choosing the candidates who had won the majority of the fava beans was abolished, hatred between citizens died down. Since they no longer made regrettable comparisons, one major cause of jealousy had thus been eliminated, and everyone relied on chance. So-and-so thought he was a winner and had his name in the purse, while in truth he did not; [86] but this way he was appeased. In addition, the factions began to weaken once candidates were no longer designated, and the name of anyone who won an absolute majority [il partito] was placed in the purses. Moreover, the number of positive votes increased, and there were more winners, and you didn’t see who won and who lost, and there was no discernable (beneficial) difference between those who had many votes and those who had fewer, as long as the absolute majority was obtained [purche vincessi il partito]. This in turn reduced the power of factions, and decisions were based on the quality of the candidates. And with chance eliminating rivalry, restraint still operated among citizens who, while being up for election and constantly dealing with this, always behaved righteously, displaying ethical and transparent conduct.”

102The picture painted by Parenti is rather optimistic: like many Florentine citizens, including Guicciardini, he had confidence in the clever technical measures implemented in the context of the city’s governance and administration. In fact, despite a series of disappointments, Parenti continued to believe in the beneficial effects of the new republican Constitution, effects that would become fully apparent once it was perfected. This same attitude inspired the constitutional reform projects proposed following the fall of the Republic in 1512, and even after the second restoration of the Medicis in 1530. [87]

103Parenti’s evaluation of the May 1499 reform seems justified to the extent that it effectively finalised the development of the new Republic’s electoral system (with the sole exception of the Gonfaloniere of Justice). Even though this reform did not produce all of the wonderful results envisioned by Parenti, it must have been satisfactory, since it remained in use until the fall of the Republic. It can be argued that the constitutional development of the Grand Council moved into its final stages at this point, as legislation regarding the number of members and the size of the quorum had largely been in effect since 1497, even if the establishment of the gonfaloniere for life in 1502 introduced new questions regarding the Grand Council’s relationship to the executive branch in the context of Florentine constitutional structure. [88]


  • [1]
    This article is an abridged version of the text originally published as: “I primi anni del Consiglio Maggiore di Firenze (1494-1499)”, Archivio Storico Italiano, 112, 1954, 151-92 and 321-47, reprinted in Nicolai Rubinstein, Studies in Italian History in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Vol. II. Politics, Diplomacy and the Constitution in Florence and Italy (Rome: Edizioni di Storia e letteratura, 2011), 71-132. The editorial notes and section headers were provided by Jean Boutier and Yves Sintomer.
  • [2]
    Editorial note: The Italian Wars pitted France against Spain for control over what was doubtless Europe’s richest region at the time. Charles VIII, King of France, crossed through Tuscany with his army in order to conquer the Kingdom of Naples. Piero de Medici – whose Florentine regime was republican only in name by this point – accepted France’s conditions to avoid war (on 26 October 1494), and this capitulation sounded the death knell for his legitimacy. He was chased out of the city on 8 November 1494 by a popular rebellion that restored the republican order.
  • [3]
    Editorial note: The Signoria was Florence’s highest governing body. It was composed of eight priors – two for each of the city’s neighbourhoods (rioni) – and the head of the civilian government, the Gonfaloniere of Justice. Mandates were renewed every two months.
  • [4]
    Biblioteca nazionale centrale (BNCF, Florence), Ms., II: IV: 169, f. 208v, Piero Parenti, Storia fiorentina; henceforth, Piero di Marco Parenti, Storia fiorentina, ed. Andrea Matucci (Florence: Olschki, I, 1476-1478, 1492-1496, 1994; II, 1496-1502, 2005), I, 147.
  • [5]
    Editorial note: The citizens whose names were placed in the purse and randomly selected for different public offices were first nominated by electoral commissions in accordance with a voting procedure called a squittinio. The names were then placed in purses (imborsazione) and randomly drawn depending on the city’s needs (tratta).
  • [6]
    Editorial note: extraction “by hand” (a mano) meant allowing the scrutineers (accoppiatori) to choose the names of those selected to occupy public offices, instead of using the purse of names in a random lottery.
  • [7]
    Editorial note: the Medicis had established these various Councils and offices in 1471 and 1480 to gut the republican regime of all substance by appointing bodies the family could control.
  • [8]
    Editorial note: These two bodies were the traditional legislative councils of the Commune of Florence, constituted by randomly selecting citizens previously deemed eligible by an electoral commission.
  • [9]
    Editorial note: A balìa was an ad hoc emergency committee created to rule the Commune or reform it during times of crisis.
  • [10]
    Editorial note: Created in 1351, the Dieci di Libertà e Pace, under a variety of different names, were originally responsible for ensuring territorial integrity. Later, their jurisdiction was expanded to include guaranteeing the peace and limiting factional conflicts. In 1480, their responsibilities were transferred to the Eight of Practice (Otto di Pratica).
  • [11]
    Editorial note: By filling the purses that were used in the lottery for public offices, the scrutineers played a crucial role in the Commune’s electoral process.
  • [12]
    Editorial note: During regime changes, the lottery purses were frequently purged of “undesirable elements”; this practice was particularly prevalent during Medici rule. Parenti and Guicciardini are the most systematic historians of this period in Florentine politics.
  • [13]
    “Once this was accomplished, everything would be selected by lottery”. Francesco Guicciardini, Storie fiorentine, ed. Roberto Palmarocchi (Bari: Laterza, 1931), 106.
  • [14]
    Editorial note: The state was not spelled with a capital letter in Italian at the time, as it is now, in part because it did not represent an institution opposed to, or differentiated from, the body of citizens, and the meaning of the word fluctuated between our contemporary meaning and that of a “regime”.
  • [15]
    BNCF, II: IV: 169, f. 210, 21.
  • [16]
    Girolamo Savonarola, Prediche italiane ai fiorentini. Tome I. Novembre et dicembre del 1494, ed. Francesco Cognasso (Pérouse/Venice: La Nuova Italia, 1930), 115ff. [Editorial note: Savonarola, a Dominican friar originally from Ferrara, became the prior of the Florentine convent of San Marco in 1490. He was also the main instigator of this new republican period.]
  • [17]
    G. Savonarola, Prediche italiane ai fiorentini. Tome I, 195. [Editorial note: In Venice, the Great Council (Maggior Consiglio) was the Commune’s main political body; it included men from all the noble families, registered in the Libro d’Oro (Golden Book) created in 1315 and thus authorised to engage in politics. The Council was a closed and hereditary assembly that elected the doge, appointed magistracies, and had the final word on all matters of government. It had between 2000 and 3000 members during the sixteenth century. Traditionally, Florence was governed by two Councils of a few hundred individuals, randomly selected through a rotating lottery for short mandates.]
  • [18]
    Editorial note: The three main governing bodies (tre maggiori) included the Gonfaloniere of Justice and the priors, the Buoni Uomini, and the gonfalonieri of the companies. They were selected by lottery using lists of citizens deemed eligible by electoral commissions.
  • [19]
    Editorial note: The minor offices were less important and generally more administrative than political in nature.
  • [20]
    Editorial note: That is, eliminate all pro-Medici elements.
  • [21]
    Girolamo Savonarola, Prediche utilissime per la Quadragesima… sopra Ezechiel (Venice: B. Benalio, 1517), f. 21.
  • [22]
    Editorial note: The citizens whose names were randomly selected to hold public office, but who could not assume their post for whatever reason, were said to have been “seen” (veduti), since the fact that they had been considered eligible became publicly known; until that point, only the scrutineers knew the names of the potential lottery candidates.
  • [23]
    Editorial note: The Council of the Eighty was supposed to constitute a sort of Senate, in an Aristotelian or Polybian sense, as the governing body of the small number, alongside the body of the one (the Gonfaloniere of Justice) and the body of the large number (the Grand Council).
  • [24]
    Editorial note: Not being up-to-date with one’s tax payments was a common reason for not being eligible to hold public office.
  • [25]
    Editorial note: To provide some idea of size, the population of Florence – which had decreased following various military, economic and public health issues – would three decades later reach about 75,000.
  • [26]
    G. Savonarola, Prediche.
  • [27]
    Editorial note: An advisory board convened by the Signoria that brought together the most influential citizens to discuss important city matters.
  • [28]
    Editorial note: Taking part might mean only notionally, and be represented by simply attending a meeting.
  • [29]
    BNCF, II, IV, 169, f. 96-98.
  • [30]
    G. Savonarola, Prediche…, II, 354.
  • [31]
    Editorial note: Francesco di Simone di Domenico Il Monciatto (1432-1512) was a Florentine sculptor and cabinetmaker. He was responsible for the choir of Florence’s cathedral and the Palazzo Vecchio, before leading construction on the Council’s chambers. Simone del Pollaiolo (1457-1508) was an architect, sculptor and draughtsman who completed several buildings in Florence, including the sacristy of the Basilica of Santo Spirito and the church of San Salvatore al Monte.
  • [32]
    G. Savonarola, Prediche…, II, 391.
  • [33]
    F. Guicciardini, Storie fiorentine…, 124.
  • [34]
    Editorial note: Literally, to “offer the black fava bean”: voting occurring by citizens proffering a black bean to approve and a white bean to reject a proposition or candidate.
  • [35]
    Editorial note: Savonarola came from the convent of San Marco.
  • [36]
    Domenico di Roberto di Ser Mainardo Cecchi, Riforma sancta et pretiosa (Florence: 1497), f. 7.
  • [37]
    Florence, Archivio di Stato [henceforth ASF], Consulte e Pratiche, 62, f. 268.
  • [38]
    Giovanni Cambi, “Istorie”, in Il defonso di San Luigui (ed.), Delizie degli eruditi toscani (Florence: G. Cambiagi, 1785), vol. XXII, 97.
  • [39]
    ASF, Consulte e Pratiche, 62, f. 269 and 271.
  • [40]
    G. Savonarola, Prediche…, f. 21.
  • [41]
    Editorial note: Francesco Valori, who served several mandates as gonfaloniere, was at the time the leader of the Frateschi, Savonarola’s political faction. He oversaw a political purge of the Grand Council at the end of 1496. He was lynched on 8 April 1498 during a riot, on the same day that Savonarola was arrested.
  • [42]
    The Mercanzia or Universitas mercatorum was a civil court created in 1308 by the five merchant guilds to protect their activity abroad; beyond its judicial functions, it represented the interests of Florentine merchants throughout the world and played an important role in establishing an economic elite at the heart of the city.
  • [43]
    Francesco Guicciardini, Dialogue on the Government of Florence, ed. Alison Brown (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 25.
  • [44]
    ASF, Consulte e Pratiche, 62, f. 346-348.
  • [45]
    Editorial note: See the article by Piero Gualtieri elsewhere in this issue of the Revue.
  • [46]
    Editorial note: In 1433, a new squittinio had added more than 2000 citizens to the lottery purses. Although the Medicis had been banned from holding public office, a Signoria that was favourable to them was selected for September-October and organised the triumphant return of Cosimo the Elder, who had been exiled in Venice.
  • [47]
    Editorial note: Respectively, when the Medicis were banned (1433), when Cosimo the Elder returned from Venice (1434), and following the anti-Medici coup d’état led by Luca Pitt in August of 1458.
  • [48]
    Editorial note: The offices “with benefits” – minor offices – were remunerated, while the higher offices were unpaid positions.
  • [49]
    ASF, Carte strozziane, II s, 95, ins. 19, f. 241.
  • [50]
    Editorial note: Cities maintained their own institutions even after they came under Florence’s rule. In the most important cities, such as Pisa, Florence was represented by two officers, who were among the city’s most important offices: the captain was a military position, while the duties of the podestà were judicial.
  • [51]
    BNCF, II.IV.169, f. 217r-v, P. Parenti, Storia florentina, ed. A. Matucci. [Editorial note: At that time, the term popolani referred to those in support of strengthening the role of the more modest classes of citizens.]
  • [52]
    A prior ordinance stipulated that in all elections the winning candidate was the one who had obtained half plus one of the beans, and the greatest number of beans (voting was organised turn-by-turn for each candidate). [Editorial note: In order to be designated by election, candidates thus had to cross a double threshold: garnering the support of an absolute majority of Council members, and additionally receiving “the largest number of black fava beans” – “le più fave”.]
  • [53]
    ASF, Provvisioni, 185, f. 67.
  • [54]
    ASF, Provvisioni, 185, f. 41-43.
  • [55]
    ASF, Provvisioni, 185, f. 21.
  • [56]
    Editorial note: In the lottery system, the positions were filled by drawing names that had been placed in purses specifically destined for each category of offices.
  • [57]
    Editorial note: That is, the supreme judge of the city of Prato, under Florentine rule.
  • [58]
    BNCF, II.IV.169, f. 90r-v, P. Parenti, Storia florentina, ed. A. Matucci.
  • [59]
    Editorial note: The principle of Grand Council-held elections introduced a new dynamic with regard to how elections had previously been held in Florence. For the first time, elections occurred “bottom up”, with active citizens – members of the Grand Council – thus selecting their officers, rather than these officers being elected via elections held under the auspices of electoral commissions that had themselves been appointed by those in power, in a process that was largely driven by co-optation. However, compared to the previous republican regime, the number of citizens eligible for public office was consequently reduced. In 1433, on the eve of the Medici takeover, the candidates pre-selected for the squittinio numbered 6354, of whom 2084 ultimately had their names placed in the lottery purse. No true, unified civic body existed, and the citizenry comprised all those who belonged to a corporation – we should therefore add between one-fourth and one-third of individuals to the number of candidates pre-selected for the squittinio, or a total of fewer than 10,000 individuals out of a population of approximately 70,000. During the Medici period, the number of candidates rose again to around 8000.
  • [60]
    BNCF, II.II.130, f. 5v-10v, P. Parenti, Storia florentina, ed. A. Matucci. [Editorial note: Any factions and agreements designed to influence election results were strictly forbidden in Florence, while nonetheless frequently occurring.]
  • [61]
    Editorial note: In Florence, the reggimento was the group of citizens that had been deemed eligible for high public office and who were frequently in power, moving from one position to another and thus constituting a sort of semi-professional political class.
  • [62]
    The 23 December 1494 Constitution established that “no favours or agreements should be granted to anyone during the voting process” (ASF, Provvisioni, 185, f. 11, ch. 11). Cf. Savonarola’s sermons from 28 July 1495 and 25 February 1496 in G. Savonarola, Prediche italiane…, ed. Francesco Cognasso, 389-90; and Girolamo Savonarola, Prediche italiane ai fiorentini, III, 1, ed. Roberto Palmarocchi (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1933), 220: “Each citizen […] must arrive at the Council with the intention of giving his vote [his fava bean] to the candidate that he in good conscience believes will ensure the health of the city and especially the glory of God”.
  • [63]
    Editorial note: These were the Florentine officers who represented the city’s administrative, judicial and military power throughout the other cities and territories it controlled.
  • [64]
    Editorial note: The Guelph party was a sort of state within the state, whose origins stemmed from the thirteenth-century opposition between Guelphs and Ghibellines. This party was very influential until the fourteenth century and was a bastion of patrician rulers.
  • [65]
    ASF, Consulte e Pratiche, 63, f. 9-13 (28 March 1497).
  • [66]
    G. Savonarola, Prediche…, f. 21.
  • [67]
    It is interesting to note that he based his opinion on a historical argument: “Go and read your history books: where Lionardo di Arezzo [Leonardo Bruni] said that the city always fares best when it is governed without the use of lottery, and that lottery was introduced by ambitious people”. Leonardo Bruni, Historiarum Florentini populi libri XXI, ed. E. Santini, C. Di Pietro (Bologna/Città di Castello: S. Lapi, 1914-1926) (Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, new edition, 19(3), 121-2 (ad annum 1323). On Savonarola’s position with regard to the electoral system, see also his sermon on 14 December 1494 (Prediche…, vol. 1, 195): “It would not be inappropriate for major offices to be chosen by election and minor offices by random selection”.
  • [68]
    Editorial note: In any case, there was a fairly clear-cut division between the popular factions, which initially supported Savonarola but rapidly came to demand the expansion of the lottery system, and the Frateschi leaders, who generally belonged to the upper classes and, like Savonarola, tended to prefer elections. This issue provoked significant cleavages for several years.
  • [69]
    This question played a key role in the trial of Savonarola and his supporters in 1498. While it was ultimately discovered that the San Marco convent exercised a certain degree of favouritism, Savonarola’s staunchest supporters had in fact been more active than Savonarola himself.
  • [70]
    Guicciardini later pinpointed the expansion of random selection as an illustration of the Council’s process of social democratisation (larghezza). [Editorial note: Cf. F. Guicciardini, Écrits politiques; and “Du mode d’élection aux offices dans le Grand Conseil”, Raisons politiques, 36, November 2009, 85-108. Guicciardini was an advocate for the oligarchical option.)
  • [71]
    BNCF, II.II.131, f. 15, P. Parenti, Storia florentina, ed. A. Matucci.
  • [72]
    Editorial note: In this procedure, voting was therefore organised candidate after candidate, and all those who obtained a majority plus one – la metà delle fave ed una più – then had their name placed in the purse – imborsati – out of which names were then randomly drawn – tratta – to fill positions. The first vote was a judgment on the candidates’ competence, but did not directly entail competition, since the number of imborsati was not limited. The vote in question was a kind of prior political “examination”, in opposition to the political “contest” embodied by the traditional “delle più fave” electoral method. Cf. F. Guicciardini, “Du mode d’élection”.
  • [73]
    BNCF, II.II.131, f. 15, P. Parenti, Storia florentina, ed. A. Matucci.
  • [74]
    Editorial note: Voting took place candidate by candidate, and it was thus a question of accepting or rejecting the eligibility of each candidate to be included in the subsequent lottery.
  • [75]
    F. Guicciardini, Storie fiorentine…, 136.
  • [76]
    Francesco Guicciardini, Dialogue on the Government of Florence, 25.
  • [77]
    F. Guicciardini, Storie fiorentine…, 137.
  • [78]
    P. Parenti, Storia florentina, ed. A. Matucci.
  • [79]
    Editorial note: Cities in Tuscany which were ruled by Florence.
  • [80]
    F. Guicciardini, Storie fiorentine…, 136.
  • [81]
    Editorial note: Over this period, Savonarola saw his authority challenged, and then overthrown. On 4 May 1497, rioting put an end to the effectiveness of his sermons against spiritual corruption. On 12 May 1497, Savonarola was officially excommunicated as the result of a conspiracy; on 8 April 1498, he was arrested, tortured and finally burnt at the stake on 23 May. The social democratisation of the Grand Council thus largely unfolded independently of the vicissitudes of Savonarolian politics.
  • [82]
    BNCF, II.II.131, f. 86v, P. Parenti, Storia florentina, ed. A. Matucci.
  • [83]
    BNCF, II.II.131, f. 87.
  • [84]
    Editorial note: For the most important offices, candidates also had to win the majority of votes in a candidate-by-candidate process, in order to see their name put in the purse. This procedure generally favoured the most prominent candidates.
  • [85]
    BNCF, II.IV.170, f. 79, P. Parenti, Storia florentina, ed. A. Matucci.
  • [86]
    Editorial note: Voting results were not public, and candidates could believe that they had obtained a majority of the beans and thus have their name in the purse, when in fact this was not the case.
  • [87]
    Editorial note: The Medicis returned to power in 1512. They were once again driven from power in 1527 and then, with the support of Spanish troops, managed to topple the Republic again in 1530 and establish a new constitutional order (the Grand Duchy of Tuscany).
  • [88]
    Editorial note: While the gonfaloniere position had hitherto been a short mandate (generally for two months), it was transformed into a position for life, like the Venetian doge. The gonfaloniere’s authority over the state was, however, only relative, and he was required to share power with the various Councils.

This article analyses the complex evolution of constitutional and electoral procedures and the debates surrounding them during the first years of the Florentine Great Council, when the republican regime was re-established after the fall of the Medici, and at a time when Girolamo Savonarola was highly influential. Several elements of the debates were closely bound up together: fundamental reflections concerning the influence of the different social groups that were part of the Great Council or the supposed characteristics of election and sortition, tactical manœuvres that were intended to procedurally promote one political camp or another, and practical concerns about the concrete organisation of the debates (the need for an adequate meeting room, the necessity of reaching a quorum, etc.). It was only after some years that sortition for public offices became one of the “popular” current’s demands and was eventually adopted.

Nicolai Rubinstein
Nicolai Rubinstein (1911-2002) was born in Berlin, where he studied at the Lycée français, and continued his studies in Florence during the 1930s. In 1945, he became a professor at Westfield College (London) and a researcher at the Warburg Institute. Specialising in the history of political thought and structures of Renaissance Florence, in 1966 he published one of the seminal works on Medici governance: The Government of Florence under the Medici (1434–1494) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2nd edn, 1997). Posthumously, his major articles were collected in three volumes: Studies in Italian History in the Middle Age and the Renaissance (Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura): 1. Political Thought and the Language of Politics. Art and politics, 2004, 2. Politics, Diplomacy and the Constitution in Florence and Italy, 2011, 3. Humanists, Machiavelli, Guicciardini, 2012.
Translated from French by
Sarah-Louise Raillard
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Uploaded on on 19/11/2015
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