Florentia, named for its flowers, had begun some two centuries before Christ as a trading post on the Arno where it received the Mugnone. Ruined by the barbarian invasions, it recovered in the eighth century as a crossroads on the Via Francesa between France and Rome. Ready access to the Mediterranean encouraged maritime trade. Florence acquired a large mercantile fleet, which brought in dyes and silk from Asia, wool from England and Spain, and exported finished textiles to half the world. A zealously guarded trade secret enabled Florentine dyers to color silks and woolens in shades of beauty unsurpassed even in the long-skilled East. The great wool guilds—the Arte della Lana and the Arte de’ Calimala*—imported their own materials, and made lush profits in transforming them into finished goods. Most of the work was done in small factories, some of it in city or rural homes. The merchants provided the materials, collected the marketable product, and paid by the piece. The competition of home workers—chiefly women-kept factory wages low; the weavers were not allowed to take united action to raise their wages or better their working conditions; and they were forbidden to emigrate. To further promote discipline, the employers persuaded the bishops to issue pastoral letters, to be read from all pulpits four times a year, threatening with ecclesiastical censure, even excommunication, the worker who repeatedly wasted wool.53

This industry and trade needed ready supplies of investment capital; and soon the bankers contested with the merchants the control of Florentine life. They acquired large estates through foreclosures; they became indispensable to the pope through financial control of ecclesiastical properties mortgaged to them; and in the thirteenth century they had almost a monopoly of papal finance in Italy.54 The general alliance of Florence with the popes in their struggle against the emperors was motivated partly by this financial nexus, partly by fear of imperial and aristocratic encroachments upon municipal and mercantile liberties. The bankers were therefore the chief supporters of the papal party in Florence. It was they who financed the invasion of Italy by Charles of Anjou through a loan of 148,000 livres ($29,600,000) to Pope Urban IV. When Charles seized Naples the Florentine bankers, to secure repayment, were allowed to mint the coin and collect the taxes of the new kingdom, to monopolize the trade in armor, silk, wax, oil, and grain, and the supply of arms and provisions to the troops.55 These Florentine bankers, if we may believe Dante, were not the polished manipulators of our age, but coarse and greedy buccaneers of lucre, who made fortunes by foreclosures and charged unconscionable interest on loans—like that Folco Portinari who fathered Dante’s Beatrice.56 They spread their operations over a wide region. About 1277 we find two Florentine banking firms—the Brunelleschi and the Medici—controlling finance in Nîmes. The Florentine House of Franzesi financed the wars and intrigues of Philip IV; and from his reign Italian bankers dominated French finance till the seventeenth century. Edward I of England borrowed 200,000 gold florins ($2,160,000) from the Frescobaldi of Florence in 1295. Such loans were risky, and subjected the economic life of Florence to distant and apparently irrelevant events. A multiplication of political investments and governmental defaults, capped by the fall of Boniface VIII and the removal of the papacy to Avignon (1307), brought a series of bank failures to Italy, a general depression, and intensified class war.

Three classes divided the secular life of Florence: the popolo minuto or “little people”—shopkeepers and artisans; the popolo grasso or “fat people”—employers or businessmen; and the grandi or nobles. The artisans, grouped in arti minori or lesser guilds, were largely manipulated in politics by the masters, merchants, and financiers who filled the arti maggiori or major guilds. In the competition to control the government the “little” and the “fat” people united for a time as popolani against the nobles, who claimed ancient feudal dues from the city, and supported first the emperors and then the popes against municipal liberties. The popolani organized a militia in which every able-bodied resident of the city had to serve and to learn the arts of war; so prepared, they captured and demolished the castles of the nobles in the countryside, and forced the nobles to come and dwell within the city walls under municipal law. The nobles, still rich with rural rents, built palace-castles in the town, divided into factions, fought one another in the streets, and competed to see which faction should overthrow the limited democracy of Florence and set up an aristocratic constitution. In 1247 the Uberti faction led a Ghibelline revolt to establish in Florence a government favorable to Frederick; the popolaniresisted bravely, but a detachment of German knights routed them, and the Florentine democracy fell. The leading Guelfs fled from the city; their homes were torn down in unforgetting revenge for their destruction of feudal castles a century before; thereafter each fluctuation of victory in the war of the classes and factions was celebrated by the exile of the defeated leaders and the confiscation or destruction of their property.57 For three years the Ghibelline aristocracy, backed by a garrison of German soldiers, ruled the city; then, as an aftermath of Frederick’s death, a Guelf revolt of the middle and lower classes captured the government (1250), and appointed a capitano del popolo to check the podesta, as the ancient tribunes of the people had checked the consuls of Rome. The exiled Guelfs were recalled, and the triumphant bourgeoisie cemented its domestic success with wars against Pisa and Siena to control the road of Florentine commerce to the sea and to Rome. The richer merchants became a new nobility, and sought to confine state offices to their class.

The defeat of Florence at Montaperto by Siena and Manfred entailed a second flight of the Guelf leaders; and for six years Florence was ruled by Manfred’s delegates. The collapse of the imperial cause in 1268 brought the Guelfs back to power, nominally subject to Charles of Anjou. To control the podesta, who was an appointee of Charles, they established a body of twelve anziani (“ancients” or elders) to “advise” that official, and a Council of One Hundred “without whose sanction no important measure, nor any expenditure, is to be undertaken.”58 Taking advantage of Charles’s preoccupation with the Sicilian Vespers, the bourgeoisie in 1282 put through a constitutional change by which a “Priory of the Arts,” composed of six priori (foremen) chosen from the greater guilds, became in effect the ruling body in the city government. Through all these mutations the office of podesta survived, but shorn of power; the merchants and the bankers were supreme.

The vanquished party of the old nobility reorganized itself under the handsome and haughty Corso Donati, and, for unknown reasons, received the name of Neri, the Blacks. The new nobility of bankers and merchants, led by the Cerchi family, took the name ofBianchi, the Whites. Hopeless of aid from the shattered Empire, the old nobility turned to the Pope for succor from the triumphant bourgeoisie. Through the Spini, his Florentine agents in Rome, Donati planned with Boniface VIII to capture control of Florence. The Tuscan factions had infected the Papal States, and Boniface despaired of restoring order there unless he should secure a decisive voice in the municipal governments of Tuscany.59 A Florentine attorney learned of these negotiations, and accused three Spini agents in Rome of treason to Florence. The priori condemned the three men (April, 1300), whereupon the Pope threatened to excommunicate the accusers. A group of armed nobles of the Donati faction assaulted certain officers of the guilds. The Priory, of which Dante was now a member, exiled several nobles, in defiance of the Pope (June, 1300). Boniface appealed to Charles of Valois to enter Italy, subdue Florence, and recapture Sicily from Aragon.

Charles reached Florence in November, 1301, and announced that he had come only to establish order and peace. But soon thereafter Corso Donati entered the city with an armed band, sacked the houses of the priors who had banished him, threw open the prisons, and released not only his friends but all who cared to escape. Riot ran loose; nobles and criminals joined in robbing, kidnaping, killing; warehouses were plundered; heiresses were forced to marry impromptu suitors, and the fathers were compelled to sign rich settlements. Finally Corso turned out the priors and the podesta; the Blacks chose a new Priory, which submitted all its proposed measures to the Black leaders; for seven years Corso was the dashing dictator of Florence. The deposed priors were tried, condemned, and banished, including Dante (1302); 359 Whites were sentenced to death, but most of them were allowed to escape into exile. Charles of Valois accepted these events gracefully, and 24,000 florins ($4,800,000) for his trouble, and departed south. In 1304 the unchecked Blacks set fire to the homes of their enemies; 1400 houses were destroyed, leaving the center of Florence in ashes. The Blacks then divided into new factions, and in one of a hundred acts of violence Corso Donati was stabbed to death (1308).

We must remind ourselves again that the historian, like the journalist, is forever tempted to sacrifice the normal to the dramatic, and never quite conveys an adequate picture of any age. During these conflicts of popes and emperors, Guelfs and Ghibellines, Blacks and Whites, Italy was sustained by a hard-working peasantry; perhaps then, as now, Italian fields were cultivated with art as well as industry, and were divided and arranged to please the eye as well as feed the flesh. Hills and crags and mountains were carved and terraced to hold grapevines, fruit and nut orchards, and olive trees; and gardens were laboriously walled to check erosion and hold the precious rain. In the cities a hundred industries absorbed the great majority of men, and left little time for the strife of speeches, votes, knives, and swords. Merchants and bankers were not all merciless ghouls; they too, if only by their acquisitive fever, made the cities hum and grow. Nobles like Corso Donati, Guido Cavalcanti, Can Grande della Scala could be men of culture even if, now and then, they used their swords to make a point. Women moved with vibrant freedom in this high-spirited society; love was for them no wordy sham of troubadours, nor the grim fusion of sweating peasants, nor yet the service of a knight to a parsimonious goddess; it was a gallant and ardent amorousness leading with reckless despatch to a full-bodied abandonment and unpremeditated motherhood. Here and there, in this ferment, teachers maneuvered with desperate patience to insert instruction into reluctant youth; prostitutes eased the tumescence of imaginative men; poets distilled their foiled desire into compensatory verse; artists hungered while seeking perfection; priests played politics and consoled the bereaved and the poor; and philosophers struggled through a labyrinth of myths toward the bright mirage of truth. There was a stimulus in this society, an excitement and competition, that sharpened men’s wits and tongues, brought forth their reserve and unsuspected powers, and lured them, even if by their own destruction, to clear the way and set the stage for the Renaissance. Through many pains, and the shedding of blood, would come the great Rebirth.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!