Florence, in the fifteenth century, was a city-state ruling not only Florence but (with interruptions) Prato, Pistoia, Pisa, Volterra, Cortona, Arezzo, and their agricultural hinterland. The peasants were not serfs but partly small proprietors, mostly tenant farmers, who lived in houses of crude cemented stone much as today, and chose their own village officials to govern them in local affairs. Machiavelli did not disdain to chat and play with these hardy knights of the field, the orchard, or the vine. But the magistrates of the cities regulated sales, and, to appease a troublesome proletariat, kept food prices too low for peasant happiness; so the ancient strife of country and city added its somber obbligato to the songs of hate that rose from embattled classes within the city walls.
According to Villani the city of Florence proper had in 1343 a population of some 91,500 souls; we have no equally reliable estimate for later Renaissance years, but we may presume that the population grew as commerce expanded and industry thrived. About a fourth of the city dwellers were industrial workers; the textile lines alone, in the thirteenth century, employed 30,000 men and women in two hundred factories.1 In 1300 Federigo Oricellarii earned his surname by bringing from the East the secret of extracting from lichens a violet pigment (orchella, archil). This technique revolutionized the dye industry, and made some woolen manufacturers into what today would be millionaires. In textiles Florence had already reached by 1300 the capitalistic stage of large investment, central provision of materials and machinery, systematic division of labor, and control of production by the suppliers of capital. In 1407 a woolen garment passed through thirty processes, each performed by a worker specializing in that operation.2
To sell its products Florence encouraged its merchants to maintain trade with all ports of the Mediterranean, and along the Atlantic as far as Bruges. Consuls were stationed in Italy, the Baleares, Flanders, Egypt, Cyprus, Constantinople, Persia, India, and China to protect and promote Florentine trade. Pisa was conquered as an indispensable outlet of Florentine goods to the sea, and Genoese merchant vessels were hired to carry them. Foreign products competitive with Florentine manufactures were excluded from the markets of Florence through protective tariffs set by a government of merchants and financiers.
To finance this industry and commerce, and much else, the eighty banking houses of Florence—chiefly the Bardi, Peruzzi, Strozzi, Pitti, and Medici—invested the savings of their depositors. They cashed checks (polizze),3 issued letters of credit (lettere di pagamenti),4 exchanged merchandise as well as credit,5 and supplied governments with funds for peace or war. Some Florentine firms lent 1,365,000 florins ($34,125,000?) to Edward III of England,6 and were ruined by his default (1345). Despite such catastrophes Florence became the financial capital of Europe from the thirteenth through the fifteenth century; it was there that rates of exchange were fixed for the currencies of Europe.7 As early as 1300 a system of insurance protected the cargoes of Italy on their voyages—a precaution not adopted in England till 1543.8 Double-entry bookkeeping appears in a Florentine account book of 1382; probably it was already a century old in Florence, Venice, and Genoa.9 In 1345 the Florentine government issued negotiable gold-redeemable bonds bearing the low interest rate of five per cent—a proof of the city’s reputation for commercial prosperity and integrity. The revenue of the government in 1400 was greater than that of England in the heyday of Elizabeth.
The bankers, merchants, manufacturers, professional men, and skilled workers of Europe were organized in guilds. In Florence seven guilds (arti, arts, trades) were known as arti maggiori or greater guilds: clothing manufacturers, wool manufacturers, silk goods manufacturers, fur merchants, financiers, physicians and druggists, and a mixed guild of merchants, judges, and notaries. The remaining fourteen guilds of Florence were the arti minori or minor trades: clothiers, hosiers, butchers, bakers, vintners, cobblers, saddlers, armorers, blacksmiths, locksmiths, carpenters, innkeepers, masons and stonecutters, and a motley conglomeration of oil sellers, pork butchers, and ropemakers. Every voter had to be a member of one or another of these guilds; and the nobles who had been disfranchised in 1282 by a bourgeois revolution joined the guilds to regain the vote. Below the twenty-one guilds were seventy-two unions of voteless workingmen; below these, thousands of day laborers forbidden to organize, and living in impotent poverty; below these—or above them as better cared for by their masters—were a few slaves. The members of the greater guilds constituted in politics the popolo grasso, the fat or well-fed people; the rest of the population composed the popolo minuto or little people. The political history of Florence, like that of modern states, was first the victory of the business class over the old landowning aristocracy (1293), and then the struggle of the “working class” to acquire political power.
In 1345 Cinto Brandini and nine others were put to death for organizing the poorer workers in the woolen industry, and foreign laborers were imported to break up these unions.10 In 1368 the “little people” attempted a revolution but were suppressed. Ten years later the tumulto dei Ciompi— the revolt of the wool carders—brought the working classes for a dizzy moment into control of the commune. Led by a barefoot workingman, Michele di Lando, the carders surged into the Palazzo Vecchio, dispersed the Signory, and established a dictatorship of the proletariat (1378). The laws against unionization were repealed, the lower unions were enfranchised, a moratorium of twelve years was declared on the debts of wage earners, and interest rates were reduced to further ease the burdens of the debtor class. Business leaders retaliated by shutting down their shops and inducing the landowners to cut the city’s food supply. The harassed revolutionists split into factions—an aristocracy of labor consisting of skilled craftsmen, and a “left wing” moved with communistic ideas. Finally the conservatives brought in strong men from the countryside, armed them, overthrew the divided government, and restored the business class to power (1382).
The triumphant bourgeoisie revised the constitution to consolidate its victory. The Signoria, or municipal council of signori or gentlemen, was composed of eight priori delle arti— priors or leaders of the guilds—chosen by lot from bags containing the names of those eligible for office. They in turn chose as their executive head a gonfaloniere di giustizia—a “standardbearer of justice” or executor of the law. Of the eight priors four had to be from the greater guilds, though these arti maggiori included but a small minority of the adult male population. The same proportion was required in the advisory Consiglio del Popolo or Council of the People; popolo, however, meant only the members of the twenty-one guilds. The Consiglio del Comune was chosen from any guild membership, but its function was confined to assembling when summoned by the Signory, and to voting yes or no on proposals put before it by the priors. On rare occasions the priors called a parlamento of all voters to the Piazza della Signoria by ringing the great bell in the Palazzo Vecchio tower. Usually such a general assembly chose a balia or commission of reform, gave it supreme power for a stated period, and adjourned.
It was a generous error of nineteenth-century historians to credit pre-Medicean Florence with a degree of democracy quite unknown in that plutocratic paradise. The subject cities, though themselves fertile in genius and proud of their heritage, had no voice in the Florentine Signory that governed them. In Florence only 3200 males could vote; and in both councils the representatives of the business class were a rarely challenged majority.11 The upper classes were convinced that the illiterate masses could form no sound or safe judgment of the community good in domestic crises or foreign affairs. The Florentines loved freedom, but it was, among the poor, the freedom to be commanded by Florentine masters, and, among the rich, the liberty to rule the city and its dependencies without imperial or papal or feudal impediment.
The indisputable defects of the constitution were the brevity of its terms of office, and the frequent changes in the constitution itself. The evil results were faction, conspiracy, violence, confusion, incompetence, and the inability of the republic to design and execute such consistent and long-term policies as made for the stability and power of Venice. The pertinent good result was an electric atmosphere of conflict and debate that quickened the pulse, sharpened sense and mind and wit, stirred the imagination, and lifted Florence for a century to the cultural leadership of the world.