The chaos that had almost nullified government in the later years of Savonarola’s ascendancy was not mitigated by his death. The brief term of two months allowed to each Signory and gonfalonier made for a hectic discontinuity in the executive branch, and inclined the priors to irresponsibility and corruption. In 1502 the Council, dominated by a triumphant oligarchy of rich men, sought to overcome part of this difficulty by electing the gonfalonier for life, so that while still subject to Signory and Council, he might face the popes and the secular rulers of Italy on terms of equal tenure. The first man to receive this honor was Pietro Soderini, a millionaire friendly to the people, an honest patriot whose powers of mind and will were not so eminent as to threaten Florence with dictatorship. He enlisted Machiavelli among his advisers, governed prudently and economically, and used his private fortune to resume that patronage of art which had been interrupted under Savonarola. With his support Machiavelli replaced the mercenary troops of Florence with a citizen militia, which finally (1508) forced Pisa to yield again to a Florentine “protectorate.”
But in 1512 the foreign policy of the Republic brought on the disaster that Alexander VI had foretold. Through all the efforts of the “Holy League” of Venice, Milan, Naples, and Rome to rid Italy of its French invaders Florence had persisted in its alliance with France. When victory crowned the League it turned in revenge upon Florence, and sent its troops to replace the republican oligarchy with a Medicean dictatorship. Florence resisted, and Machiavelli labored strenuously to organize its defense. Its outpost, Prato, was taken and sacked, and Machiavelli’s militia turned and fled from the trained mercenaries of the League. Soderini resigned to avoid further bloodshed. Giuliano de’ Medici, son of Lorenzo, having contributed 10,000 ducats ($250,000) to the League treasury, entered Florence under the protection of Spanish, German, and Italian arms; his brother, Cardinal Giovanni, soon joined him; the Savonarolan constitution was abolished, and the Medicean ascendancy was restored (1512).
Giuliano and Giovanni behaved with moderation, and the public, surfeited with excitement, readily accepted the change. When Giovanni became Leo X (1513), Giuliano, having proved too gentle to be a successful ruler, yielded the government of Florence to his nephew Lorenzo. This ambitious youth died after six years of reckless rule. Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, son of the Giuliano who had been slain in the Pazzi conspiracy, now gave Florence an excellent administration; and after he became Clement VII (1521) he ruled the city from the papal chair. Florence took advantage of his misfortunes to expel his representatives (1527), and for four years it again enjoyed the trials of liberty. But Clement tempered defeat with diplomacy, and used the troops of Charles V to avenge his ousted relatives; an army of Spanish and German troops marched upon Florence (1529), and repeated the story of 1512; resistance was heroic but vain; and Alessandro de’ Medici began (1531) a regime of oppression, brutality, and lechery unprecedented in the annals of the family. Three centuries would pass before Florence would know freedom again.