Florence art guide

The Florentine Republic

The Marzocco by Donatello

Part Two

Florence was a free Commune from 1075 c. onwards thanks to Matilde di Canossa, marchioness of Tuscany, and experienced various forms of government; in 1138 it was governed by Four Consuls, who were to become twelve by the end of the century (two for every sixth part within the city walls, built in 1172), supported by a Council of one hundred "Buonuomini" (Good men) and an Assembly or Parliament, composed of all the men in the city capable of bearing arms. The first Podestà dates from 1193 when members of the Guilds (representing the economic powers that were to make Florence so rich and famous) were also admitted to the Council.
In the fight for power that exploded in 1215, the Florentines were divided between the "Ghibelline" party (feudal nobility and powerful merchants) and the "Guelph" party (an emerging but cultured middle-class, again with commercial origins). The former was dominant until 1250, when the mythical Government of the "Old People" or "First People" was set up to oppose the power of the Podestà, Frederick II of Swabia; the most important members of this institution were the Old Men and the Captains of the People, who were supposed to control the Podestà 's actions, together with the two Councils. These were completed by the Guilds and the Gonfaloniers, who commanded the various companies that formed the army, military organizations - the so-called "people's army" - based in the parish churches, which rebelled against the Swabian Podestà and threw him out.
The victory of the lower-classes (though they were really merchants, traders and shop-keepers, not the working forces) over the Swabian dictator was celebrated with the construction of the Palazzo del Popolo (1255), the Bargello of today, and the minting of the first gold florin in 1252 (24 c., 3,54 gr.).

Gold Florin
Gold Florin

The battle of Montaperti in 1260 gave the city back to the Ghibelline party, though only for seven years. After Frederick II's defeat and the arrival of Charles of Anjou, a government was formed in Florence composed of the Priors of the Guilds (which already existed in the time of the Podestà but now became a real executive council), aided by a Captain and Defender of the Guilds (similar to the old Captain of the People). However the real power remained in the hands of the families of the important citizens (aristocratic merchants and bankers) by means of the seven principal Guilds.


Florence tried to create a more democratic arrangement when Prior Giano della Bella, a nobleman who sympathised with the middle-classes, proclaimed the "Rules of Justice" in 1292-93. The city's new constitution prohibited the noble families from having public power and created the figure of the Gonfalonier of Justice, a magistrate elected to direct the College of the Priors, lead the army and defend the interests of the lower-classes. Formally at least, with the exclusion of brief periods marked by the Seignory of Charles of Calabria and Anjou (1325-28) and the dictatorship of Gualtiero di Brienne, Duke of Athens (1342), this form of government lasted until the Medici family came to power.
During the struggle of the powerful magnates against the Rules of Justice, the Guelph faction split up into two parties, the "Blacks" and the "Whites" (1300). The former supported noble Corso Donati, the hero of the battle of Campaldino, who with difficulty concealed his ambition to become the Lord of Florence, while the latter were followers of powerful but "low class" Vieri dè Cerchi. This brought about a real civil war for the conquest of power and was to have a famous victim, Dante Alighieri, who was exiled in 1301 for being a follower of the Whites.

Dante by Domenico da Michelino

The triumph of the Blacks was not enough to abolish the Rules of Justice, which were anyway reformed in 1328-29 to allow noblemen to take part in the government. The new Florentine constitution was formed of a Captain of the People, the College of the Twelve Good Men, which helped the Priors and the Gonfalonier of Justice, and two Councils (that of the Captain or the People, composed of 300 commoners, and that of the Podestà or the Commune, composed of 250 commoners and magnates). A committee of 13 authoritative representatives of the government devised a complicated election system in Florence which, with a few changes, remained in force for a century and a half.
The most important social clash, known as "revolt of the Ciompi", took place in 1378: the lower classes wished to take part in the government of the city after experiencing the regimes of the aristocratic Consuls, the rich Podestàs and the middle class Captains of the People and the Priors. The employed workers - the doublet makers, dyers and wool carders, known as the Ciompi - revolted because they wanted to found their own Guild and have representatives elected among the rulers of the city. One of their leaders was Salvestro dei Medici, who, as a result of his military action, was given a democratic patent for his family, which was never withdrawn, and became extremely popular. Giovanni, the real founder of the family wealth, and his son Cosimo "the Elder" managed several times to obtain positions of power or were able to control the situation through their allies; as a result, the city gradually went back to being governed by a Seignory in spite of still apparently keeping to its ancient Republican system.

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