The New, New Men, and Violence
It might seem strange that in the century after the first wave of the plague and the demographic, economic, and social disruptions that followed, the Rinascimento enjoyed a cultural flowering that was flush with the sense of the superiority of its urban civiltà. Central to this was the fact that the popolo grosso had finally come to dominate most of the major cities of Italy as a political and social elite. And their victory was idealized and defended as an ongoing rebirth of first times and cultures that had been the best of times – thus the best of times were returning, literally being reborn. Such claims, and the political and social reality that stood behind them, never totally triumphed, however; in fact, if anything, the uncertainty about the extent and permanence of their victory played an important role in fueling the cultural flourishing of the time and the optimistic claims of the superiority of Italy’s urban civiltà. And, significantly, such uncertainty was accompanied both by a wide range of open conflict and violence that, in an apparent paradox, also typified the cultural flourishing and by a sense of superiority that rose from the ashes of demographic disaster, social conflict, violence, and apparently unending war.
One challenge the popolo grosso perceived as particularly dangerous afier the plague was the “new men” who seemed to threaten to destroy the order of urban life in city after city. These “new men” were often associated with large numbers of rural youths attracted to cities by opportunities to replace the ranks of artisans and workers lost to the plague. Their ranks were also swollen, however, by dislocated urban males who were suddenly without significant family ties or who had moved from one city to another seeking better working conditions. To a degree, as we shall see, imagination also increased their ranks, for their newness made them a convenient scapegoat for apparently growing levels of urban disorder and violence that turned on broader social and economic tensions. The violence of these young males was attributed in part to their youth, in part to their lack of acculturation to the more orderly civil life required in densely packed urban spaces – now legally required by the restrictions that urban governments had promulgated and attempted to enforce with their policing patrols. The few recorded criminal statistics that we have for the period reveal that crime rates after the plague remained virtually the same as before and continued at similar levels into the fifteenth century – data that seem to suggest that “new men” and their youthful, rural ways actually were an important factor in the violence, managing to make up (at least in terms of violence) for smaller urban populations.
This was almost certainly the case. But to a degree this startling continuity in crime in the face of large population losses may also be attributed to the fact that governments, for all their growth in the first half of the century, never had the capability to prosecute all the violent crimes committed. In reality few societies do, even modern, much more efficiently policed ones. Thus, pre-plague prosecutions represented merely the tip of a larger iceberg of violence. From that perspective, when a large part of the population died off, the bureaucracy merely dug deeper into that iceberg, and prosecutions continued at much the same level – essentially the level bureaucracies were able to sustain both before and after the plague. Yet after the plague many young males did take advantage of the increased demand for urban workers and moved to the city, creating an unusual concentration of young men lacking urban living skills. This almost certainly created a more violent urban environment and, in turn, more concern about youthful violence, followed by more aggressive attempts to maintain and strengthen bureaucracies in order to repress such violence. It comes as no surprise, then, that the number of policing magistracies and patrols in most cities continued to increase in the second half of the fourteenth century, even in the face of dramatic population declines. Moreover, it was during this very period that in many cities the older Podestà system of justice, discussed in Chapter 2, was augmented by local policing and judicial bureaucracies.
Much of this violence, when lumped together and considered from a statistical perspective, seems the senseless violence of youth in response to perceived minor slights or moments of petty conflict. And that is an accurate picture of the situation in many ways. But behind such generalizations lie the deeper tensions of an urban world that was especially difficult to cope with for young men, especially when they were fresh from the countryside, without family support or the discipline created by consensus realities for those better integrated into the urban social fabric. Moreover, masculine ideals, in both rural and urban society, expected young men to be active, masculine, and powerfully male. But the reality of their economic and social existence meant that they were often poor, dependent on others for their work, and in precarious positions that they and others perceived as not particularly masculine at all. In that context every slight, real or imagined, every minor offense, every petty conflict offered the tempting opportunity to demonstrate aggression, power, and masculinity, and the records of violent crime suggest that many young men did just that – probably many more than the records indicate.
Of course, this was not just a question of gender or masculine identity. Much violence was predicated upon real or perceived economic and social issues; for while most youths came to the city to secure economic and social advancement, and some actually succeeded, most were doomed to live on the economic and social margins, where violence was often a response to that fate. Finally, obviously, violence could also be a useful skill: often the strongest and most aggressive males, with their ability to dominate and intimidate others, were seen as valuable by those who could use their violence for more profitable ends. A physically powerful and violent young man could be a valued client or bravo for the powerful who felt the need to protect their families or their enterprises from the violent tenor of city life, or who wished to use violence for other purposes of their own.
Rising expectations are often cited as yet another reason for a higher level of violence. The need for workers following the demographic losses of the plague created a deeply conflicted situation. Governments and guilds were forced to raise wages, lower requirements for guild membership and citizenship, and offer a range of other incentives in order to attract labor from other cities and the countryside. This certainly raised the expectations of those attracted by such incentives. But at the same time governmental leaders and guild masters were not eager to give up too much to the new men they attracted with the promise of a more secure economic life and the possibility of advancement. Thus they quickly invented ways to keep new men in place and to limit their access to wealth and power. It was a dangerous balancing act between reward and regulation – often in the name of peace, order, and stability – and when it broke down, as it often did, the result was again violence on both the individual and the collective level. Actually, it might be suggested that this difficult balancing act contributed to the fear of new men as much as their actual violence. For the leaders of society were almost certainly aware that, although they wanted to attract new men with promises of labor and wealth, they were not really all that eager to share their wealth with them in any significant way.
The New, the Old, and the Ciompi Rising in Florence
Florence provides a good example of this situation. New men – real and imagined – became a negative theme of the political, social, and economic struggles of the city after the plague. As elsewhere, they were blamed for virtually all the problems confronting the city, as they in turn pressed to secure their place in their new urban world. The result was growing tension marked by an ongoing series of conflicts, which came to a head in the summer of 1378 with what appeared to many at the time to be an attempted revolution led by new men and the popolo minuto. As usual, things were not so simple. For in many ways old men – from the powerful old families of the city – were equally if not more responsible, even if the first wave of open violence seemed to feature those at the bottom of society. On June 22, large numbers of guildsmen and workers who were not voting members of the guilds for which they labored but under their control nonetheless – the sottoposti discussed earlier – went into the streets and, with considerable violence, burned the houses of a number of the older families of the city. Their violence was not random, for the houses they burned belonged to families whom they feared were using the Guelph party apparatus to control the government and implement policies that they believed were victimizing them. As will be discussed more fully later, those fears were not without some basis and suggest a political awareness among the lower classes that is often discounted.
Yet another form of violence typical of the day, war, made this explosive moment yet more explosive. As discussed briefly in Chapter 1, in the 1360s the warrior Cardinal Egidio Albornoz had had considerable success temporarily regaining for the papacy much of the Papal States in central Italy. His successes created tensions with Florence’s own program of territorial expansion to the east and south, as the two powers’ borders came uncomfortably close, with concomitant conflicting territorial claims and ambitions. Although things were more complex, as we will see, in the face of this situation Florence decided to fight a war against the papacy, which would become known as the War of the Eight Saints (1375–1378), named after the special committee or Balìa of eight that led the war effort. As the name Eight Saints suggests, a war between a traditional Guelph city like Florence and the pope, the official leader of the Guelph party, created problems politically, rhetorically, and in terms of the legitimacy of government. Labeling the leaders of the war efforts “saints” was a way of claiming that Florence was following the truly Christian path in this war while the pope and his generals were not: Florentine saints were squared off against a corrupt pope and Church.
Needless to say, at such moments the tradition of associating government with civic morality and creating a truly Christian urban civiltà proved useful, greatly aiding such claims. The pope was distant and corrupt; Florentine government was close at hand, moral and committed to defending a truly Christian city. In the early stages of the war this vision found wide support in Florence, but as the war dragged on, the leadership of the local Guelph party began to mobilize discontent and question the saintliness of the conflict in an effort to gain control of government. Their goal appears to have been to secure power for a limited number of older families and to eliminate new families and lesser guildsmen who had become more competitive after the plague. The key to their strategy played upon the party’s traditional power to disqualify from holding governmental office those perceived to be Ghibelline traitors. In addition to blocking access to offices in this way, they also made use of ammonizioni (official warnings issued by the party) that alerted individuals to the fact that the party suspected them of being Ghibellines. If one ignored the party’s ammonizione and was demonstrated to be a Ghibelline, the penalties could be severe, including banishment and confiscation of a family’s property. What gave teeth to this threat was the fact that, because they had supported the war against the papacy, most people in Florence could be charged with secret Ghibelline leanings as that party traditionally opposed the papacy.
Things came to a head as 1377 ended and 1378 began with literally thousands of denunciations being processed by the Guelph party and almost one hundred citizens, mostly from the newly rich, being warned via formal ammonizioni not to attempt to hold office. Still, at least in theory, the guilds of Florence dominated government and should have been capable of standing up to the Guelph party. Guild membership remained necessary for holding virtually all offices in the city, and guild leadership, especially of the more powerful guilds, tended as a result to overlap closely with city leadership. Following the plague, however, the lesser guilds and those workers controlled by the larger and more powerful cloth guilds – the majority of the sottoposti – had begun to press for more power in government and for new guilds to represent even the sottoposti. That, crucially, would have changed them from sottoposti to guild members with voting and political rights like the other members of the guild community.
Thus, to make a complex and rather fluid situation more straightforward than it ever was, when the Guelph party used its power to label people Ghibelline with moderation, as it did before the War of the Eight Saints, the power of the richer and more traditionally powerful guilds was unthreatened, and they tended to work with the Guelph party to maintain popolo grosso control of government, even if occasionally a lesser guildsman or a newer man held an important office. When, however, the Guelph party overreached and began to label leaders of the major guilds and a few members of the popolo grosso itself as Ghibellines in the late 1370s, that alliance broke down and the more powerful guilds turned to the lesser guilds, evoking traditional guild solidarity against Guelph party pretensions. In this delicate balancing act, real new men, perceived new men, and the lower levels of the popolo minuto, with their demands for greater power, were the catalysts.
The breaking point came in the hot summer days of June 1378 when Salvestro de’ Medici (c. 1331–1388) – a family name with a future – as Standard Bearer of Justice called for a renewal of the old Ordinances of Justice. Originally passed at the end of the thirteenth century to eliminate from government those families labeled magnates, as we saw in Chapter 1, the Ordinances were still officially the law of the land, even if they had largely fallen into disuse. It appears that behind this particular rebirth lay a plan to use the Ordinances and their provisions against magnates and to turn the labeling game against the leaders of the Guelph party. If those leaders were labeled magnates by the terms of the Ordinances, they faced stern punishments, both politically and economically. This threat, wrapped in an appeal to return to the great guild and popolo traditions of the city that the Ordinances exemplified, was not lost on the leaders of the Guelph party, who quickly mobilized their supporters in government against Salvestro’s proposal. It was at this moment that the workers went into the streets, attacking and burning not just any houses of the rich, but those of the most important leaders of the Guelph party. Virtually as those palaces were burning, the government approved a Balìa – a special committee with the full power of government – headed by Salvestro and the leaders of the city’s guilds to deal with the deeper issues involved.
Using the Ordinances of Justice, as he had threatened, Salvestro and the Balìa labeled several leaders of the Guelph party magnates. In turn, they declared that a number of those recently labeled Ghibelline were actually good Guelphs and thus eligible to hold office. This relatively contained strike against the Guelph party quickly got out of hand, in large part because the driving force behind the violence that had been used to initiate it was based on an appeal to a renewal of guild power and traditional popolo ideals. But, while those ideals served well the popolo grosso in power in their struggle with the Guelph party, they also could serve the lesser guilds in their demands for more power. And the appeal of such ideals did not stop there, for new men and sottoposti under the control of the larger guilds saw in the reassertion of guild power a rationale for creating guilds of their own in order to participate in the political and economic life of the city. Thus, the agitation in the streets did not stop with the elimination of the powerful leaders of the Guelph party, but continued to simmer as a hot June slid uneasily into July.
Things came to a boil in mid-July, when a number of leaders of the popolo minuto were arrested and tortured in response to reports that they were holding secret meetings to demand that new guilds be created for the sottoposti and that the forced loan policies that favored the upper classes be eliminated. This brought large masses of people back into the streets on July 20. Again, select palaces of the rich were burned. Negotiations were attempted, fitfully interspersed with violence in the streets, until on July 22 Michele di Lando (1343–1401), one of the more charismatic leaders of the popolo minuto, leading a large crowd, took over the halls of government and declared himself Standard Bearer of Justice. As bells rang throughout the city signaling their victory, Lando and his supporters declared the old Priors deposed and radically reordered the government, placing new men and leaders of the popolo minuto in many of the key positions of power.
But what most impressed contemporaries and gave this revolt its name and the flavor of a truly radical revolution was the creation of three new guilds for the sottoposti: one for dyers, washers, and other skilled workers in the cloth industry; one for shirt makers, tailors, and others lesser artisans in clothing production; and one for unskilled textile workers (the mass of the sottoposti), who were called the Ciompi – perhaps in reference to the noise their wooden clogs made as they marched through the streets. This was the moment of maximum success for what would become known as the Ciompi rising or revolution. One contemporary estimated that the Ciompi guild alone included 9,000 workers and that altogether the three new guilds comprised 13,000 men. When added to the approximately 9,000 in the older guilds, all of a sudden the guild community grew to approximately 22,000 men in a population of 55,000 men and women. If these numbers are correct, they imply that the vast majority of men in the city had become actual voting members in guilds and had the right to be elected to communal government. One hesitates to speak of democracy, but this was probably as close to that ideal as any government ever came in the Rinascimento. New men were in; sottoposti were no longersottoposti; the guilds and government were in the hands of virtually the whole popolo. Political reality appeared for once to have caught up with rhetoric and ideology.
Yet this was far too radical a revolution to survive in a world where, economically and socially, things were stacked heavily in favor of the popolo grosso; and to make its survival even less likely, the revolution did not stop. In August, leaders of the new guilds, especially the Ciompi, attempted to interfere more aggressively in elections, apparently in an endeavor to assure that their new power would not be challenged. For many of the older, richer, and more traditionally powerful guilds, this seemed to confirm that they were in danger of losing power to the lesser guilds. Fighting soon broke out in the streets, with the older guilds, led now by Michele di Lando, squaring off against the Ciompi. Unfortunately for the Ciompi, even the other two new guilds broke ranks to align with the older ones, and they found themselves outnumbered and overwhelmed by the better-organized guild militias rallied against them. At the end of the day a number of Ciompi leaders were killed in the street battles, and most of the rest quietly disappeared.
On September 1, 1378, the Ciompi guild was formally abolished and the twenty-three guilds that remained divvied up control of government among themselves. For the moment it seemed that a still fairly representative guild government ruled the city, one with room for members of the popolo minuto and new men. But the reality was that the leaders of the major guilds and the popolo grosso had learned their lesson. Slowly but surely they rolled back the gains of the revolution and put in place reforms that secured their control of the city. By 1382 most of the reforms of the revolution had been undone; the popolo grosso were back in the driver’s seat, having incorporated into their number a few of the richest and most powerful of the newer families and newer men; and behind the scenes, one powerful family from the topmost ranks of the popolo grosso, the Albizzi, was soon playing on anxious memories of the Ciompi and rising to corrupt the electoral process and control government using techniques that would be adopted and perfected by the Medici in the next century.
Although few other cities had revolutionary moments that were so visible – or successful, for that matter – the violence encountered in many cities in the second half of the fourteenth century and the early years of the fifteenth often had strong overtones of social and economic conflict, with new men, imagined new men, and the lower classes arrayed in various alliances against the ever-more in control and progressively more aristocratic popolo grosso. At the same time it also served the purpose of the popolo grossoto label those who opposed their power “new men,” as the label suggested their dangerous and negative novelty. From this perspective, much as suggested earlier, a significant portion of the apparently senseless petty violence in the streets of cities, much decried at the time, was not without a social dimension. At the same time, however, violence in the form of warfare often played a role in such social conflict, for its cost and its impact on the urban lower classes and the rural peasantry often brought to the fore and strengthened deeper social tensions.
The Italian Hundred Years’ War (c. 1350–1454)
Although the name has not been used before, much like the famous Hundred Years’ War in northern Europe between France and England (1337–1453), a period of approximately one hundred years of almost continual strife among the city-states of northern Italy from 1350 to 1454, which might be labeled the Italian Hundred Years’ War, had a profound impact on the society and economy of Italy as well as on the cultural flowering of the day. Actually, to a certain extent, the northern European Hundred Years’ War helped to make Italy’s own Hundred Years’ War possible. First, as that northern war occupied the military and aggressive energies of two of the most powerful realms in Europe north of the Alps – France and England – and captured much of the attention of the rest of the region, it left the city-states of Italy relatively free to pursue their own local aggressive expansion without outside interference. Perhaps the most significant exception to this overly broad generalization was the papacy, which first from Avignon and then from Rome attempted to reestablish its territorial power base in Italy, contributing to the ongoing warfare.
Moreover, although many of the battles of the northern Hundred Years’ War were fought by feudal levies of noble warriors and their retainers, with increasing frequency and success professional soldiers were used. Early on, during lulls in that ongoing series of conflicts, many of those professional soldiers found their way to northern Italy, where they fought in the Italian Hundred Years’ War, and many stayed on to make their fortune in Italy. Known as condottieri – the name given to mercenary soldiers in Italy – they were joined by locals from old branches of Italian noble families like the Visconti of Milan or by the signori of smaller cities. Many, however, were northerners like Sir John Hawkwood (c. 1320–1394), an English mercenary who had fought in the north of Europe, but after moving to Italy enjoyed a long, successful career leading a mix of Italian and northern soldiers known as the White Company (Illustration 4.1). The most important condottieri armies were called the Great Companies and were often led by elected leaders (once again corporations or corporate groups much in the spirit of the day) who sold their services to the highest bidder and wielded great power.
4.1. Paolo Uccello, Sir John Hawkwood, 1436, Florence Cathedral (Duomo). Photo: Scala/Art Resource, New York.
In many ways these mercenary armies, with their elected leaders, were like great mobile guilds or even cities made up primarily of young men and their supporting camp followers, who were often as numerous. Normally they lived off the land, utilizing a mix of violent appropriation of local wealth and pay from contracts that were awarded them to fight for (or not against) the territories they traversed. In this way they could be as much ofa burden on the cities and countryside of Italy in peacetime as when they fought, for, much like feudal armies, they were often a moving plague on the countryside. This extra cost of premodern warfare is often forgotten, but the passing of armies regularly meant a generation of dearth as peasants labored to rebuild lost herds and flocks, recover seed stocks taken, and even to replant trees and vines that had been destroyed. Actually, condottieri armies were frequently more devastating in this respect, because, unlike feudal levies, they were less likely to disband and return home after a campaigning season, instead living off the countryside they traversed for long periods.
While Hawkwood was one of the best-known condottieri, fairly early on Italians came to dominate the trade. The victory of Alberico da Barbiano (c. 1344–1409) and his Company of San Giorgio in 1379, against a powerful French army that was threatening Rome, is often cited as a moment that confirmed the superiority of Italian condottieri and their tactics. Those tactics favored a mix of highly skilled warriors who fought on horseback, using complex cavalry formations and maneuvers that less well-trained feudal levies had trouble matching, and well-armed and equipped foot soldiers whose training and experience made them superior to local militias, especially in facing cavalry charges. Alberico’s camp became in a way the training ground for those who would master this Italian arte of condottieri warfare. Perhaps the most noted condottieri trained there were Braccio da Montone (1368–1424) and Muzio Attendolo (1369–1424), who became better known under his nickname, Sforza. They, in turn, founded the two most famous schools of Italian condottieri, the Bracceschi and the Sforzeschi, each of which developed its own traditions, loyalties, and techniques of warfare. Although drawn from all classes and all parts of Italy, especially important were the petty nobility from the more rural regions of the center and north, especially the Romagna and the Marches. They found in condottieri warfare a way to continue the military traditions that had once made their families a powerful nobility.
The system also offered some opportunity for upward mobility, with even peasants occasionally rising to lead great companies. Francesco Carmagnola (1380–1432) is one of the better-known examples. He played an important role, serving at different times both Milan and Venice in the early fifteenth century before coming to an unhappy end at Venetian hands, as we shall see. The lords of smaller cities also were often involved in condottieri warfare, at times to consolidate their local political power with their military prowess, and regularly to supplement their revenues with military earnings. Most notable in this were the Gonzaga lords of Mantua, the Malatesta of Rimini, and the Este of Ferrara and Modena, all willing to hire themselves out to lead armies from time to time and thereby earning both money and fame to aid their rule. Even an occasional church leader became an outstanding condottiere, perhaps most notably Cardinal Giovanni Vitelleschi (c. 1390–1440), who fought for the papacy and became virtual signore of Rome for a time in the late 1430s.
In Italy, then, condottieri warfare became the norm. The marginalization of the old warrior nobilities, and the slow but sure incorporation of their richer and more flexible peers into the popolo grosso, meant that there no longer existed a sufficiently large or well-trained noble military class in or around the major cities to fight their wars. More importantly, those who wished to continue that life had to adapt to a new, more commercial approach to warfare that was more suited to cities ruled by the popolo grosso, who much preferred to pay for warriors rather than submit to their power. Most cities also had civil militias, usually based on neighborhood and/or guild militias, and had on the books formal provisions for training and arming them. In fact, these militias were used regularly, especially to aid in the defense of their cities or to swell the numbers of foot soldiers put into the field for decisive battles.
But by the second half of the fourteenth century (and usually well before) city governments had come to realize that professional soldiers, with their superior tactics, training, and skills, were the key to victorious campaigns. In turn, that meant that money to paycondottieri was the sine qua non of successful warfare. Thus, significantly for a merchant-banker popolo grosso vision of the world, warfare became largely a matter of successful management of funds and investment for return – investment in condottieri to increase a city-state’s territory and markets, and often to eliminate competitors. In this way warfare was transformed from a form of violence that was an integral part of the way of life of a medieval nobility to an investment in violence with an eye toward economic gain; and thus it was neatly reintegrated into the way of life of the new popolo grosso elite of the Rinascimento.
At a very general level, the primary cause of these one hundred years of Italian warfare – always with local variations and conditions – was the competition for markets and territory among the many little cities that dotted the north of Italy. In this respect the Italian Hundred Years’ War tended to be quite different from the dynastic wars of northern Europe or the south of Italy, driven by family and claims of inheritance. For as cities expanded their control over the territory farther and farther from their city walls in order to gain secure food supplies, exercise control over land and over lines of communication and trade, and dominate markets, they invariably encountered neighboring cities following the same trajectory of expansion. From time to time momentary accommodations were worked out, but without higher authorities such as the papacy or the empire to negotiate disputes over boundaries and territorial aspirations, warfare was a common solution. Reduced populations following the plague, increased competition for markets, along with the significant number of mercenary soldiers available – often aggressively pressing for contracts to fight – all accelerated the aggressive expansion of larger and more powerful cities at the expensive of their weaker neighbors.
The Florentine War of the Eight Saints and the Italian Hundred Years’ War
In many ways Florence’s strange War of the Eight Saints with the papacy suggests the complexity of these wars. Although Florence prided itself on being a Guelph city, in the mid-fourteenth century the papacy had begun a campaign to regain the papal territories in central Italy as well as Rome, which had fallen out of papal control while the papacy was in Avignon. Pope Innocent VI (c. 1282–1362; pope 1352–1362) in 1353 appointed a legate and tough warrior, Egidio Albornoz (1310–1367), to regain control of Rome and the Papal States, where many cities had been taken over by powerful local families ruling as signori. Albornoz, with a mix of military force and diplomacy, slowly reestablished papal authority in both. Florence, however, was not happy to see the return of papal power in the Papal States, in part because much of the area bordered their own territories and in part because a renewed powerful papal neighbor interfered with their own dreams of expansion. Weaker local signori seemed far less dangerous as neighbors and far easier to manipulate than a renewed Papal State slowly expanding on their borders.
Things came to a head in 1375 when Pope Gregory XI (c. 1329–1378; pope 1370–1378) was freed from a military conflict with Milan that had taken much of his attention and resources. Florence feared that this meant he was also freed to turn his aggressive interests to their common borders. Making matters worse, Gregory’s main condottiere, John Hawkwood, was lurking near those borders with a large army that they feared might be used to “liberate” towns subject to Florence and perhaps to attack the city itself. Thus, in the spring of 1375, just before the campaigning year was to begin, the Florentines made what they saw as a wise investment. They hired Hawkwood for themselves for the princely sum of 130,000 Florins. Actually they hired him not to fight for them, but rather not to fight against them. How the pope felt about this is unclear, but his feelings toward the Florentines were definitely undermined when they appointed a special Balìa of eight important civic leaders to find the money; for, far too cleverly, the Balìa decided that the cost would be covered by a forced loan on the local clergy in Florentine territories. Clearly this did not sit well with the local clergy or the papacy. But before either had time to react, in July the Balìa definitively broke its traditional Guelph alliances to align with the leading Ghibelline city of the north, Milan. No one missed the significance of this, and war broke out immediately.
But with Hawkwood safely bought, little was accomplished, and the war settled down to a few bloody sacks of hapless small towns; meanwhile, Florence worked diplomatically to undermine the pope by fomenting revolts throughout the Papal States. The pope, in turn, trotted out his spiritual heavy guns and proclaimed an interdict against Florence. Florence responded with its own ideological weapons, claiming to be defending republican liberty and the guild regime of the popolo against the return of papal tyranny and corruption in Italy. Such claims had a particularly strong resonance for many of the little cities of the Papal States, which had, over the years, with the papacy at Avignon, established independent governments of their own. In fact, such claims even garnered sympathy in cities where local signori ruled, often with the support and cooperation of the popolo and guilds. Better a local lord who had some understanding of, and need to appease, local interests than a distant powerful one whose agendas were driven by the dangerously distant concerns of Avignon and French cardinals.
Thus when the soon-to-be-famous Florentine chancellor, Coluccio Salutati (1331–1406), wrote letters to cities that were formally part of the Papal States like Bologna and Perugia, he deployed his developing rhetorical powers, claiming that papal claims to rule them were illegitimate because, as cities with a strong guild and popolo tradition, they deserved their liberty from the tyranny of a corrupt papacy. He argued that, like Florence, they had been and should continue to be ruled by “merchants and guildsmen, who naturally love liberty” and should not be subjected to a distant and corrupt lord like the pope. Later in the century Salutati would return with greater insistence to these same claims when Florence faced off against Milan and its lord, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, as we will see. But for the moment he supported Florentine war efforts with a series of impressive paper battles that helped to consolidate widely shared ideals of Rinascimento civiltà in a powerful synthesis that stressed that only as an active citizen in a republic could one live a full and meaningful Christian life. Such expressions of civic morality – the morality fostered by living a civic life in a Christian city – were not new and not solely Florentine, but rather the much more general phenomenon of a legitimating ideology associated with republican governments and guild regimes.
But, returning to the War of the Eight Saints, neither propaganda nor minor massacres moved the war ahead. The pope’s interdict, however, with time became a festering wound that made a difference. It forbade all priestly functions in the city, including masses, communion, last rites, burial in consecrated ground, and a whole host of public religious events that punctuated daily urban life. For a while it was successfully ignored. As the name given to the leaders of the war effort, the Eight Saints, suggests, Florentines claimed aggressively that they were the true Christians and their leaders the true saints, not the corrupt and worldly pope, living in distant Avignon in lordly exile from his bishopric in Rome. Thus the interdict at first touched off in the self-styled Christian republic a great outpouring of spiritual fervor, with religious festivals, pageants, processions, and fasting, along with public prayer and displays of holiness, becoming the order of the day. But for all that, masses, communion, and the other services normally provided by the Church were effectively stopped, which in the long run gradually allowed the interdict to weigh on the population and create unrest.
Over the long run the interdict also had a significant economic impact as it forbade rulers throughout Europe to do business with Florentine bankers. While this was a serious threat, Florentine banking was an important base for much of the commercial economy of Europe, so it was not readily accepted. Moreover, the ability of Florentine bankers to sustain rulers with regularly needed loans when revenues fell short of expenditures often made them more necessary allies than a relatively weak and distant pope. As a result, using a series of clever ploys, rulers and bankers survived the interdict, although not without some real losses and difficulties. The real problem developed when Florentine authorities counterattacked on the economic front, confiscating and selling Church property to finance the war. This was not just a clever and profitable strategy; it was a dangerous precedent and serious threat, as the Church was one of the largest owners of property not just in Florentine territory, but across Europe. And while the property confiscated was a costly loss, it was even more damaging as a precedent that might tempt other rulers.
Compounding the problem was a continuing current of religious thought that claimed that the Church should not own property and that its wealth and property were a major reason for its corruption. This position had been pressed by more radical Franciscans and their recently declared heretical offshoot, the Franciscan Spirituals, who saw themselves as continuing Saint Francis’s call for a life of Christlike poverty, not just for individuals but also for the Church. Similar ideals of a propertyless church had also long percolated in Florence itself, where this ideal was now to a degree encouraged. In this context, war with the papacy also helped to revive the Joachite prophecy of the proximate arrival of the third and last age of the Holy Spirit. As will be remembered, that last age, according to Joachim’s prophecies, would be preceded by the destruction of the corrupt Church and papacy, an event that Florence certainly seemed to be doing its best to bring about. Not surprisingly, then, a number of proponents of such prophecies, led by well-known supporters of the Franciscan Spirituals, began to appear in Florence and take an increasingly prominent role in the religious life of the city.
We see here once again that the violence of war was rich with dangers for the status quo, well beyond the more easily appreciated economic dangers caused by the cost of condottieri armies. Florence, in appealing to guild republicanism and popolo values, opened the door for both to be turned against the status quo, as we have seen in the Ciompi revolt. Similarly, attacks on the corruption and worldly wealth of the Church provided an opportunity for much more radical attacks, not only on the Church and the papacy, but also on property and the social order of the day – ironically, in the name of a rebirth of first Christian times. Behind such deep disjunctures in a shared cultural vision lay the seeds of revolution and violence and, at the same time, of cultural creativity and flowering. Both were the order of the day.
Meanwhile, the pope had attempted to return the papacy to Rome with limited success. Arriving in Rome in January of 1377, he was forced to flee the city from May to November while pursuing the war with some notable success. In the spring his armies actually retook Bologna, a key city in the old Papal States that crucially controlled the primary pass road that connected Florence to the north of Italy. And in the early fall, with mounting concerns in Florence about the lack of regular religious services, the government there took the radical step of ordering the Florentine clergy to defy the interdict and begin saying masses. Rather than solving the problem, this merely exacerbated it and further strengthened the pope’s position.
Few were really satisfied with the order. Most priests and clergy submitted, but many, both clergy and laity, harbored doubts about whether the renewed religious services were valid, given the papal interdict. To make matters worse, a few church leaders refused to obey and fled the city. Confiscation of Church property accelerated, seeming also to confirm the government’s support of the Spirituals’ call for a Church shorn of its property. Making matters worse, it was precisely at this moment that the Florentine Guelph party began more aggressively to label their enemies Ghibellines and use the ammonizione to force many out of government. As virtually everyone who had supported or continued to support the war with the papacy was susceptible to such charges, the old guard leadership of the Guelph party may have seen government as theirs for the taking – a serious miscalculation that the Ciompi rising, which followed in short order, made violently clear.
As 1377 slid uneasily into 1378, the divisions within Florence and the weight of the continuing cost of the war seemed to make the dark clouds of the first spring rains loom darker yet. But March showers brought the death of the pope, and although April did not bring the flowers of peace, a settlement was finally agreed to in July. It cost Florence dearly, requiring an indemnity of 250,000 florins. In addition, on the difficult issue of confiscated Church property, the Florentines agreed to return all the land and wealth takeneventually. The problem was that the government also agreed to first repay those who had bought Church property for their loss. With the communal treasury empty, that meant that the restitution would be very eventual. Meanwhile, Florence promised to pay the Church 5 percent interest on the estimated value of the property and wealth taken, until it was returned. Thus, significantly and unexpectedly, the Church found itself defending Florentine interests in the end, as Florentine success guaranteed its regular 5 percent return on what had become essentially its large investment in the Florentine public debt.
Perhaps if the papacy had been stronger, the long-term commitment to restore the confiscated wealth of the Church would have been a serious brake on the Florentine economy and a long-lasting legacy of a small war that turned into a costly disaster. Fortunately for Florence, however, the new pope, Urban VI (c. 1318–1389; a pope 1378–1389), had a plethora of more immediate problems to deal with. Most notably, his election and his commitment to also return to Rome caused a split in the College of Cardinals, with a splinter group electing a second pope, Clement VII, whose election began the almost half-century of multiple popes known as the Great Schism. Florence took advantage of this division in the Church, playing one pope off against another; thus thirty years after the peace that officially ended the war, it has been estimated that almost 90 percent of the land and wealth confiscated by Florence still had not been returned. In the long run, then, it is not clear who won the War of the Eight Saints. In the short term, however, peace did not stop the accelerating divisions in Florentine society that war had accentuated, and, as we have seen, the war and its peace were deeply intertwined with the violence in the streets and the attempted revolution of the Ciompi rising and its aftermath.
The violence of that attempted revolution was, however, just a short and frightening interlude for Florence in the broader context of the Italian Hundred Years’ War. In fact, at much the same moment that Florence’s war with the papacy was entering its darkest days in 1377, a new signore, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, was raising much more dangerous storm clouds in the north; as the ruler of Milan, he would come very close to taking advantage of those wars to unite the north and center of Italy under his rule. His storm clouds would not be so easily overcome, in many ways providing the central tempests of the Italian Hundred Years’ War.
The Count of Virtù and the Central Phase of the Italian Hundred Years’ War
In Milan, the Visconti family, who had regained power in the first years of the fourteenth century, when the emperor Henry VII invited them back to the city as part of his program of a Guelph-Ghibelline peace, had long since consolidated their power as signori. While they had failed Henry’s kiss of peace with their rivals the Della Torre, they had stood the test of time well, flourished, and built for themselves a mini-state in the heart of the Lombard plain. As the century progressed, however, their territorial expansion brought them into conflict with their neighbors to both the east and the west. Thus, in Milan, when Galeazzo Visconti died prematurely in 1377, his relatively young and inexperienced son, Gian Galeazzo (1351–1402), was unexpectedly catapulted into a difficult leadership role, surrounded by enemies both beyond his borders and closer at hand.
Closer at hand, those enemies were in fact his own family, for his father up until his death had divided the territorial state they had built up around their capital cities of Milan and Pavia with his rapacious brother, Bernabò. Ruling from Pavia, Galeazzo had focused his aggression toward the west, while Bernabò, from Milan, pressed to the east. Gian Galeazzo succeeded his father in Pavia, but most did not expect him to last long given his aggressive uncle, who clearly had designs on ruling the whole of Milanese territory in his own name, seeing little need to divide it with his inexperienced and reputedly incompetent nephew. Actually, in a rather curious foreshadowing, the scholarly young Gian Galeazzo was known as the Count of Virtù, not because of his intellectual abilities, cunning reputation, or sympathy for the popolo grosso, but rather because he had obtained, as part of a dowry in his first marriage, a county in Champagne known as Vertus, rendered in Italian as Virtù. Yet virtù was exactly what Gian Galeazzo needed in order to survive against his more powerful and more experienced uncle: he had to become the Count of Virtù in deed as well as in name.
If Bernabò had plans to take over all of the Visconti mini-state, they were quickly tested when Gian Galeazzo, in 1377, after the death of his first wife, unexpectedly announced that he had arranged to marry Maria of Sicily (1363–1401). As the fourteen-year-old daughter and sole heir of King Frederick IV of Sicily, who had died in July, she was the heir to the kingdom of Naples and Sicily; thus, the marriage would have catapulted Gian Galeazzo from being the weak heir of half of the Visconti lands into a major figure in Italian and European affairs. As king of most of the south of Italy and Sicily and as signore of a small but significant part of the north, he would have dwarfed his uncle and been in a position to dominate not just him, but perhaps the whole Italian peninsula. Unfortunately for Gian Galeazzo and his not-quite-best-laid plans, although he had secured a contract to marry Maria, marriages were not valid until actually consummated. That required that the bride and the groom meet, something that virtually every powerful ruler in Italy and Europe, including his uncle, was anxious to prevent. As others maneuvered to keep them apart, the king of Aragon solved the problem by kidnapping Maria, eventually marrying her to his grandson, in a move that served to gain the south of Italy for his family and to keep it in a more European dynastic orbit.
From Gian Galeazzo’s perspective, this failure may well have taught him an important lesson; it at least confirmed a strategy that he would follow for the rest of his life – never reveal plans until everything is nailed down and enemies have no opportunity to block them. Actually, this was a lesson that most city-states were learning and that was typical of the developing ideal of popolo grosso virtù in governance and war. Careful and secret diplomacy could reduce the danger and cost of conflicts between states, especially when such conflicts required costly condottieri. Gian Galeazzo had not done his diplomatic homework; thus, with most of Europe ranged against him, the straightforward aggression of the king of Aragon made sure that his marriage remained unconsummated, and his grand plan failed. Many thought that this would end Gian Galeazzo’s precocious career. But instead, Gian Galeazzo decided to take the somewhat simpler path of dealing with his powerful enemies nearer to home, who had also worked to block his marriage, before tackling his more major projects.
The problem closer to home was clearly his uncle, Bernabò. Gian Galeazzo’s approach to dealing with him was typical of what would become his strategy of rule and the newer style of governance favored by the popolo grosso. Rather than confronting his uncle openly on the battlefield with honor and military valor – a traditional approach that honor seemed to require – he understood that with wars fought by condottieri, things turned less on valor and honor than on resources and money. Money, however, required putting one’s economy in order, so as to maximize income and minimize unnecessary expense. Thus, he resided quietly in Pavia, making no waves that would give his uncle an excuse to act, and put his economy in order, relying heavily on more efficient bureaucratic professionals – those same notaries and lawyers so popular with the governments dominated by the popolo grosso elsewhere. Together they began to centralize and rationalize taxes and to eliminate as much corruption as possible in the name of creating a government that served its subjects. Much of this, of course, was rhetoric and show designed to win support, but he still managed to cut taxes and increase revenues and began to paint himself as a true Count of Virtù.
To cut the cost of the war that he realized might be necessary to overcome his uncle, Gian Galeazzo committed to making diplomacy a central tool of his plans. If one could isolate one’s enemy and make victory as secure and quick as possible before showing one’s hand, costs could be contained and reliance on often-unreliable condottieri limited. Gian Galeazzo thus turned first to the current Roman emperor, Wenceslaus, who was induced for a relatively modest sum to give him the title of imperial vicar. Although it was largely an empty title, as neither he nor Wenceslaus had the power to back up its claims against Bernabò’s powerful hold on Milan, it did make his rule more legitimate; for in theory, of course, all power to rule devolved from the Roman emperor. Gian Galeazzo then turned to the Swiss lords who controlled the Alpine passes to the north of Milan and made a secret agreement with them not to allow any enemies to pass if war should break out. This was followed by a similar agreement with the French nobility, who controlled the Alpine passes to the west. Turning southward, he secured ties with the Florentines, who feared Bernabò’s designs on Bologna and also his meddling in Tuscany. To the east, Bernabò’s aggressive policies had already alienated the city-states of the plain and Venice; thus, Gian Galeazzo’s work had already been done for him, and he could count on their support against his uncle. As a result he had quietly isolated his uncle, and Bernabò was virtually unaware of his imminent demise.
All this had taken eight years of planning and diplomacy, but in 1385 Gian Galeazzo was ready to take care of his family problems. He announced that he was going on a pilgrimage and would pass by the city of Milan, where Bernabò ruled, but that he would not enter the city. His uncle apparently read this as well-deserved respect for his strength. Shortly thereafter, Gian Galeazzo arrived outside the city and set up camp with an unusually large bodyguard. Bernabò may well have seen this as another sign of respect, which in part it was. Gian Galeazzo humbly invited his uncle and his cousins to his camp for a parley, and Bernabò unwisely accepted. When Bernabò arrived, he was quickly arrested, and Gian Galeazzo rode back into Milan with his troops, where – given those troops, his uncle’s arrest, and the latter’s unpopularity – he was welcomed as a liberator. The Milanese had little choice in the matter, but Bernabò, with his costly wars of expansion and his high-handed ways, had not been a popular ruler. Gian Galeazzo certainly increased his own popularity by almost immediately distributing a portion of his uncle’s treasure to the population. In turn, rather too quickly for appearances, Bernabò died in jail, of unknown causes, and Gian Galeazzo’s careful diplomacy stood up well in the face of his fait accompli; thus, with a minimum of expense and violence, he had become the leader of the whole Visconti state and the Count of Virtù indeed; that is, in deed as well as in name.
Gian Galeazzo was now a north Italian power. Imperial vicar of Milan, he held a strong mini-state at the heart of one of the richest regions in Italy and Europe. His next goal appears to have been to become a truly European power, which meant gaining control of the rest of the Lombard plain by taking over the rich city-states to the east, which had formerly been the chosen prey of his uncle. His most powerful enemies in the area were two important signori, the young Antonio della Scala, lord of Verona (1362–1388), and Francesco da Carrara, lord of Padua (1325–1393). Neither was a particularly easy opponent to overcome, but they shared one fatal weakness that Gian Galeazzo exploited to the full – they feared and hated each other more than they feared him. Shared borders and long-standing hostility between their two families prepared the ground for the Count of Virtù’s clever – nay, virtù-ous – maneuvers. Turning first to Francesco da Carrara, he secretly proposed that they divide up the territories of della Scala, a logical proposition as Carrara’s Padua-centered lands bordered della Scala’s Verona-centered lands to the east, while his own Milanese territories bordered them to the west. Carrara agreed, and, striking quickly before della Scala had time to protect himself from this powerful alliance, he was defeated and his lands divided between Milan and Padua.
Unfortunately for Francesco da Carrara, he had made one major miscalculation in eliminating della Scala, for he had substituted for the youthful and aggressive Antonio the much more powerful and aggressive Gian Galeazzo. Visconti wasted no time teaching him that lesson. Virtually as soon as Verona had been divided, Gian Galeazzo turned to Venice, Padua’s most powerful neighbor to the east, and suggested that they work together to eliminate their common enemy, none other than his erstwhile ally, Francesco. As the Venetians had been suffering from Carrara’s expansionist policies at the expense of the limited territories they controlled on the mainland, and as they were also frustrated with Carrara’s interference with their trade up the river systems that opened both the rich Lombard plain and some of the most important passes to northern Europe, they were tempted. Moreover, Visconti suggested that for Venice it would be much better to deal with one lord of the Lombard plain, and an ally on matters of trade, than with a host of little warring city-states, a position that had its supporters in Venice, apparently even a few quietly paid off by Gian Galeazzo. Suddenly Francesco found himself isolated in Padua, and as he wisely fled the city, realizing he was no match for Milan and Venice, Gian Galeazzo’s soldiers rode through its open gates in the fall of 1388, taking it without striking a blow.
Reviewing Visconti’s rapid rise: his father had died in 1377; he had eliminated his uncle in 1385; and three years later he was in control of virtually the whole of the Lombard plain. In eleven short years, with only minimal expense for condottieri, he had conquered his powerful rivals and become the most important ruler in the north of Italy.
There was only one major obstacle to his control of the Lombard plain – the city of Bologna. Theoretically one of the northernmost cities of the Papal States, with the papacy hamstrung by the Great Schism it was caught up in virtually interminable local factional squabbles. This allowed Gian Galeazzo to weaken the city internally by playing on local conflicts while working once again to isolate it. But Bologna was not easily isolated, in large measure because the other city-states of the north, led by Florence and Venice, were not eager to see Visconti’s power expand yet further. Florence was especially concerned because, as noted earlier, the crucial north-south trade route that crossed the Apennines began its way over the mountains immediately to the north of Florence and descended through Bologna onto the great northern plain cut by the Po River. Venice shared Florence’s concerns and suddenly was also worried about its rapacious new neighbor.
The standard historical view of what happened next was that the two remaining great republican cities of the Rinascimento, Florence and Venice, banded together to protect republican liberty from the threat of evil tyranny in the form of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, poised to gobble up not just Bologna but also Florence and perhaps all of Italy, cutting out the very heart of the Rinascimento. The reality of the situation was somewhat less black-and-white or mythic. To simplify greatly, the Venetians soon realized that in destroying Francesco da Carrara, they had created a more powerful and dangerous neighbor by far, one who would require careful, and often costly, watching and diplomacy, at best, and perhaps expensive military intervention, in order to protect their mainland territories and their trading interests. Both Florence and Venice were also deeply concerned about the power that controlling the north-south trade routes would give Gian Galeazzo. And finally, both were worried about his potential interest in dominating not just the Lombard plain, but the whole of the northern half of Italy, especially Tuscany.
Significantly, this concerned Florence because it had also embarked on its own program of taking over the other city-states of Tuscany, including many republics – significantly undermining its high-minded claims to defend republican liberty. What made the city’s concern more pressing was the fact that in preparing to isolate Bologna, Gian Galeazzo realized that he had to neutralize Florence. As Florence’s neighbors in Tuscany correctly feared that city’s expansionist policies, he saw them as easily won allies who could be used to isolate that city, at least for the time it took him to take Bologna. Thus, in return for his promise to protect them against Florentine expansion, most of Florence’s neighbors allied formally or informally with him. What we have, then, is not so much a battle between republican liberty and tyranny as a messy battle between powerful expanding states, as they slowly but surely eliminated their smaller weaker neighbors, leaving the victors to turn their aggression on each other.
With Florence apparently isolated, and with supporters in the city of Bologna ready to undermine the government there, Gian Galeazzo showed up with his condottieri outside the walls of Bologna, apparently calculating that Venice, being a maritime power without a ready army, would not be able to come to the city’s aid before he took it. But Venice thwarted his plans for yet another quick and inexpensive success; for Francesco da Carrara had earlier fled with his sons to Venice as Gian Galeazzo took Padua. Now Venice gave Carrara’s son, Francesco Novello (the New) Carrara (1359–1405), a few troops and set him loose to retake Padua. As Visconti had drawn off his troops from that city to help take Bologna, and as the locals had already become restive under his new rule and new taxes, Padua welcomed back the new Francesco with open arms. That quick success led much of the rest of the eastern Lombard plain to rise up in revolt as well. Even without a major army, Venice had outflanked Gian Galeazzo and threatened virtually all that he had accomplished. Evidently, Venice could also play the game of virtù, and the Count of Virtù was forced to withdraw his troops from Bologna in order to put down the revolts fomented by the maritime city.
At considerable expense in terms of money and bloodshed, Gian Galeazzo squashed local resistance and reestablished his control, more straightforward violence for once replacing virtù as well as diplomacy to secure his ends. He then returned to his plans to take Bologna. This time, however, he proceeded with greater caution, attempting once more to isolate Florence and to neutralize Venice. Florence, however, realizing the danger of its situation, decided to strike first. With the arrival of the campaigning season of 1391, the Florentines launched a major offensive against Gian Galeazzo. With substantial promises and bribes, they induced the French to invade Milanese territory from the west. In turn, mobilizing as much wealth as possible, they hired a large army led by their old client, John Hawkwood, who, passing over the mountains and through Bologna, marched up the Po River valley from the east. Thus Gian Galeazzo found himself caught in the middle in a slowly closing trap between the French and Hawkwood and badly outnumbered as well.
Things looked bad, but Gian Galeazzo’s response once again showed his virtù-ous ability to understand and manipulate wartime situations. Mobilizing his resources, he put the largest army he could into the field. But rather than waiting for his enemies to close their trap, he committed his whole force against Hawkwood. As the armies neared each other, instead of engaging immediately, he sent small contingents behind the advancing enemy to open the dikes along the Po and its smaller tributaries, flooding the plain behind Hawkwood’s army. Much as he expected, this caused Hawkwood to pull his troops back toward Bologna; for, as Gian Galeazzo understood well, the condottiere was not prepared to fight a battle where, if he lost, his retreat was cut off.
As Machiavelli would later note, professional soldiers were not in the business of fighting wars in order to die needlessly; in fact, they seldom earned their wages at the cost of shedding their own blood, preferring battles that were easily won or, if necessary, quickly lost with minimal losses. For Machiavelli, as well as for those who hired condottieri, this was regrettable, but logical, as the main resource of a condottiere leader was his men, and if he lost too many, he was out of business. With the plains flooding behind him, Hawkwood wisely chose retreat in order to fight another day under less threatening conditions. This meant, in turn, that the number of enemy troops that Gian Galeazzo had to face was temporarily cut in half. Taking full advantage of this, he rapidly marched westward to face the French in one of the most famous battles of the Italian Hundred Years’ War, the Battle of Alexandria in July of 1391.
The French troops he faced were a mix of French nobles and professional soldiers. Visconti’s condottieri were primarily veterans of fighting in the north of Italy and well-trained in condottieri techniques of war. Perhaps because of their superior experience and tactics involving fighting on horseback in close formation (rather than in individual combat between nobles as was the medieval ideal); perhaps because of superior technology, including a sterner bit that allowed a rider to control a horse more effectively and thus to fight in formation; perhaps simply because many were fighting closer to home and with greater incentive, Visconti’s troops won a decisive victory. As a result, the Battle of Alexandria was widely seen as yet another proof of the deadly danger for foreigners of becoming involved in Italian affairs and the superiority of Italian condottiere warfare. In war, as in wealth and cultural display, Italy was claiming, and seemed to be demonstrating, its leadership role in Europe and its superiority to those from beyond the Alps, who lacked its command of true virtù and its urban civiltà. And who better to teach that lesson than the Italian Count of Virtù.
Perhaps more significantly, however, the Florentines without their French allies found their tactical and numerical superiority gone and sued for peace. Both sides saw the treaty signed in 1392 between Florence and Milan as temporary and planned to use it to rebuild their resources and return to battle as soon as possible. But, of course, Gian Galeazzo was not content merely to sit quietly, waiting for his treasury to recoup his losses in order to finance another war. Once again he turned to diplomacy in order to isolate his enemy and to gain a superiority that would guarantee a swift and relatively inexpensive victory when open warfare resumed. A crucial success came when he signed a secret agreement with Venice that promised that that city would not interfere with his plans for Bologna and Florence, provided that he committed to leave the Carrara in Padua as a buffer state between Milan and Venice. Apparently the Venetians believed that Florence and Milan were fairly equally matched; thus, sitting on the fence, they could avoid the costs of war, and even profit by supplying both contenders, while protecting themselves with a new tough Carrara lord in Padua. Events would soon show that their calculations were clever but ultimately incorrect. Meanwhile, Gian Galeazzo turned to Tuscany to isolate Florence. Once again taking advantage of Florence’s neighbors’ fear of her aggressive policy of expansion in the area, slowly but surely he gained their support against his enemy and even formally became the signore of Pisa, Siena, and Perugia. As the new century dawned, Florence was effectively isolated in Tuscany.
Bologna, however, came first. And Visconti had been working behind the scenes there to foment factional strife that he could exploit in order to gain the city at minimal expense. Thus, in the early summer of 1402, when the city suddenly dissolved in civil war, it was probably not by chance that a sizeable contingent of his soldiers was lurking in the vicinity. When the gates of the city were opened, they quickly entered in the name of restoring peace. And, not surprisingly, peace came with a new signore, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, the Count of Virtù. Thus, once again with hardly a battle and with a treasury still largely intact, he finally took Bologna. But more importantly, with Bologna in hand it was now Florence’s turn. With a large army Gian Galeazzo moved rapidly south over the Apennines to finish off his rival once and for all and consolidate his control of Tuscany and most of the rest of northern Italy. Florence’s situation looked hopeless. It had almost no army and no opportunity to hire one. It had no allies who were in a position to come to its aid. And it had virtually no time to prepare to face the large army that Visconti had gathered to assure its demise. It appeared that virtù would finally make the Count of Virtù master of the northern half of the peninsula at fifty-one, changing the course of Italian history and the Rinascimento irrevocably.
But that was not to be. For, as Machiavelli would later point out cogently – and as was already a commonplace – virtù had one implacable enemy, fortuna. The best-laid plans, the most cunning schemes, the most carefully worked out strategies – all of which Gian Galeazzo seemed to have – were trumped by evil fortune. For as bad luck would have it, as his armies were approaching the walls of a desperate Florence, Gian Galeazzo himself fell ill and died. Cruel fortune had triumphed over the Count of Virtù andvirtùitself.
Visconti’s troops retreated to Milan to squabble over who would dominate the heartland of Milanese power, and slowly the balance of power in Italy shifted. Florence eventually gobbled up Tuscany. Venice, tired of squabbling with petty tyrants in the eastern Lombard plain, took advantage of the situation to take much of that territory and create a mainland empire that balanced her maritime empire in the east. Milan was confined to the central Lombard plain and eventually found a Visconti, Filippo Maria Visconti (1392–1447), capable of defending it and holding Venice and Florence at bay. This rebalancing of the political equilibrium, however, required a series of additional conflicts that continued the Italian Hundred Years’ War until midcentury. Once again it was fought almost exclusively by condottieri, who pressed the finances of Venice, Florence, and Milan (the main combatants) to the limit, repeatedly devastated the countryside, and slowed the demographic recovery from recurring bouts of the plague. They also drove these city-states to experiment with organizing more effective bureaucracies of rule and warfare, and colored significantly the cultural flowering of the first Rinascimento.
At the time, however, the most significant impact of the wars following the death of Gian Galeazzo would have seemed to most to have been the carving out of territorial states and broader spheres of influence around what had become the three great powers in the north, Florence, Milan, and Venice. Venice appeared to have undergone the greatest change: a profound reorientation of its relationships with its Italian neighbors and its commercial empire in the Adriatic and eastern Mediterranean. For most of the fourteenth century it had largely avoided involvement in mainland politics in favor of protecting its maritime empire, which had entailed an increasingly costly conflict with an expanding Ottoman Empire. From that perspective the island city’s move onto the mainland following 1402, creating a mini–Venetian empire that included most of northeastern Italy, seemed to indicate a radical shift in Venetian economic and diplomatic policy.
Recent scholarship, however, has suggested that this move onto the mainland, or terraferma, as the Venetians called it, was neither as radical nor as new as once thought. First, as noted earlier, Venice, much like other cities heavily involved in long-distance commerce, always balanced it with local trade. Thus they were especially interested in protecting access to the Po River, which with its tributaries gave access to the Lombard plain, and to the more local Adige River that flowed through Verona and on toward the passes to Austria and Germany; to the Brenta River, which led to Padua and eventually Belluno in the low Alps; to the Sile River, which bisected Treviso and the rich Trevigiano plain; and to the Tagliamento River, which opened the poorer plains of the Friuli region and the eastern passes to Austria, to name only the most important. In sum, Venice had long had an interest in the mainland cities that dominated those rivers that were so important both for its local trade and for its overland luxury trade with northern Europe. When these interests were threatened, as we have seen in the wars with Gian Galeazzo, Venice was ready to spend the money necessary to protect its interests and even to wage war on the mainland. Less often recognized, however, is the fact that the Venetian nobility had already begun investing in country estates and more profit-oriented agriculture, especially around Treviso, in the fourteenth century, a quiet economic expansion onto the mainland that was made easier when Venice took over the rich little city itself in 1339.
Still, the traditional view that holds that in the turmoil following Gian Galeazzo’s death, Venice decided that a more aggressive approach to the mainland of northeastern Italy was necessary clearly has much to support it. Debates in the Venetian Senate reveal that a powerful group supported taking a more direct hand in controlling that hinterland, in order to protect both traditional trade interests and Venetian investments there. In addition, Gian Galeazzo picked an unusually good time to die, not just for the Florentines but also for Venice. For in 1402 the Ottoman Emperor Beyazid I (1347–1403) was captured by Tamberlane (c. 1336–1405), a new Middle Eastern conqueror from the plains of Asia. Fortunately for Venice, this new threat from the east and the ensuing confusion created a momentary reprieve from Ottoman pressure on the Venetian maritime empire in the eastern Mediterranean, which allowed the city to redirect its military resources and wealth to dealing with perceived problems closer to home: what would become their terraferma.
The War of Chioggia and the Venetian Attempt to Dominate Italian Mediterranean Trade
That distant victory by Tamberlane over the Ottoman emperor, however, opens a more Mediterranean perspective on the Italian Hundred Years’ War and the transformation of Venice from a primarily commercial metropolis into a city-state also committed to profiting from its terraferma empire. While most histories of the period focus on the wars fought in the center and north of Italy, much of the wealth that paid for those wars came from international trade and banking, both of which relied heavily on the great maritime cities of Italy. By the second half of the fourteenth century fierce competition had reduced the rivalry to dominate long-distance trade to essentially two northern Italian cities: Genoa and Venice. Actually, although Tamberlane’s victory would temporarily slow the growth of Ottoman power in the east, the Ottomans had been the other major player in that competition.
Early on, even without a navy, the Ottomans had repeatedly demonstrated their military superiority in land battles, defeating crusading armies, crushing the Eastern Empire’s attempts to thwart their advance on Constantinople, and pushing aggressively into eastern Europe. In a way, the result was an ongoing unofficial conflict between the Italian naval powers and the Ottomans, though there was often considerable difficulty actually engaging in military confrontation, as the Italian navies and the Ottoman armies literally lacked a common battleground. Eventually the Ottomans would become a sea power as well, which would give them the upper hand in the conflict as the fifteenth century progressed. But that lay in the future. To a great extent the conflict during the fourteenth century was fought out in terms of Italian naval raids and Ottoman attacks on Italian trading outposts and naval bases.
In what was then essentially a three-way conflict, at least Venice and Genoa could fight at sea. And fight they did, on and off for at least two centuries. What are normally considered the conclusive last two wars, however, were fought in 1350–1355 and 1378–1381. The ability to fight those two wars was severely limited once again by the demographic devastation of the plague; for both cities lacked the manpower to man their war fleets, which were made up of galleys that were still rowed and thus required large crews. Most war galleys were also equipped with sails, but rowing was preferred for battle as it gave ships more maneuverability, especially important for ramming, the preferred method of disabling enemy ships. Cannons had been introduced in midcentury, but they were still highly inaccurate, and their weight and unreliability limited their number on the relatively small, swift galleys. Much more effective and significant in battle were crossbows firing steel bolts as oarsmen maneuvered ships in and out of firing range. Hand-to-hand fighting when ships were grappled together was often the last stage of battle, in a way transforming sea battles into land battles. It appears there were also attempts to burn enemy ships using various burning compounds based probably on naphtha, quicklime, sulfur, niter, or perhaps even adaptations of the closely guarded secret Greek Fire. The danger of using such incendiaries was that they could set both fleets on fire, as well as destroy enemy ships that, if captured, were highly valuable prizes. Most battles, then, involved maneuvering aimed at coming within crossbow range with the enemy downwind, ramming, or grappling, with experienced rowers, crossbow men, and soldiers for boarding being crucial.
Before the plague, Venetian crews were drafted from the sailors of the commercial fleets and boatmen of the city. But the population losses of the plague forced the city to recruit sailors from its trading outposts in the east and other maritime cities in order to man even the smaller war fleets it put to sea. In fact, in the war of 1350–1355 the city was so short-handed that they actually rented twelve fully equipped and manned galleys from the Aragonese for 12,000 ducats a month. The Aragonese, given their traditional enmity with the Genoese in the eastern Mediterranean, promised to supply an additional eighteen galleys at their own expense. A similar deal was worked out with the Byzantine emperor to rent another eight galleys. Significantly, Venice was able to make such investments in men and ships because it was rich enough and well-organized enough in terms of its taxing abilities to raise the funds necessary to finance its war, thus in a way, transforming naval warfare into just another investment, much as was the case withcondottieri warfare on land.
It was not just plague losses, however, that made recruiting foreign sailors and renting ships necessary. Many non-noble Venetians who had once served willingly in the Venetian fleet were no longer willing to do so. Thus it had become the practice to allow those with the means to do so to avoid service by paying to hire a replacement, and many of the better-off below the nobility took advantage of that possibility. Clearly, many who could pay preferred this to the risky business of fighting at sea. But it appears that there were also deeper social tensions involved, not unlike those Florence experienced with its Ciompi rising or those in other mainland cities where tensions continued between artisans and the more wealthy popolo grosso. Local chroniclers reported that by the 1350s lower-class antagonism had begun to be manifested in Venice against the closed nature of the ruling class and its popolo grosso nobility. Their high-handed ways, their absolute control of government, and their handling of what were seen by many as their wars heightened the dissatisfaction. War only heightened such tensions, and in 1355 it appears things came to a head with a mysterious conspiracy to overthrow the closed ruling order and nobility of Venice.
Most of the records dealing with the event were destroyed by the Council of Ten, Venice’s secret police council that dealt with conspiracy. But it seems that in 1355 the new doge of Venice, Marin Faliero, himself a successful naval commander who was highly popular with the lower classes, decided to take advantage of that popularity and lead the lower classes and new men of the city in eliminating the most high-handed nobles and establishing himself as signore of Venice. Unfortunately for him, a number of those he attempted to recruit for his conspiracy informed the Ten. Paradoxically, as doge, Faliero sat on that body as an ex-officio member. Thus he actually participated in the first stages of the investigation that eventually led to the Ten ordering his secret execution. In the face of what should have been, given Venetian ideology, this unthinkable crime, a concerted effort was made to eliminate the doge from the civic memory of the city; even his portrait was removed from the chambers of the Great Council, where the portraits of all Venetian doges were displayed as a reflection of civic pride.
Real tensions were not eliminated, however, by eliminating Faliero or the memory of his failed conspiracy. If anything, they emerged even stronger in the last Genoese war of 1378–1381, known as the War of Chioggia. Behind the battles that involved galleys and ports from the Bosphorus and the Black Sea to Sardinia and the Tyrrhenian coast, in the city and its fleets there festered a deep antipathy to Venetian government, the nobility, and the war itself. When added to Genoese military successes and naval forces that seemed virtually unstoppable, those internal divisions seemed to spell the end of the proud republic and its pseudo-nobility. In this context it is suggestive that the two Venetian naval leaders who emerged as the popular heroes of the war, Carlo Zeno and Vettor Pisani, both had troubled histories with Venetian government and the noble families that dominated it. From important noble families themselves, both had followed career trajectories that definitely established them as black sheep and made them at least appear to contemporaries as lightening rods of antinoble sentiment.
Zeno was destined by his family for a career in the Church, but while studying at Padua, according to the rather romantic accounts of his early life, he reportedly enjoyed his student days too fully, wasting the funds that had been earmarked for his studies on the pleasures the city offered. Eventually he was forced to flee his family’s wrath, running off to join a condottiere company. After several years soldiering, he returned to Venice and his family. And, then, as should befall the prodigal son in such romantic stories, he was forgiven and shipped off to serve in an ecclesiastical position that his family had secured for him in Greece. There his military experience came in handy in fighting the Turks. His soldiering and his involvement in duels, however, soon led him to desert the Church, marry, and move to Constantinople as a merchant. The successes that followed meant that this rather atypical noble, who had begun as a professional soldier and cleric, was eventually appointed one of the admirals of the Venetian fleet that faced off against Genoa.
Vettor Pisani was an even less likely admiral. He was a nephew of Nicolò Pisani, who, after winning a brilliant victory against the Genoese in the war of the 1350s, had lost perhaps the crucial battle of that war at Porto Longo in 1354. As was typical of the Venetian government in such cases, Nicolò was prosecuted for his defeat, sentenced to pay a large fine, and permanently banned from military command. His young nephew, Vettor, also took part in that battle and, like his uncle, was tried, but acquitted. After that war, Vettor continued to sail with Venetian commercial fleets. Apparently his skillful seamanship and popularity with his crews led to his being named a commander of the commercial fleets, a major post that put him in line for military command in time of war. But his reported run-ins with his noble peers in defense of his non-noble crewmen have a romantic air that makes them seem almost mythic. In one telling incident, widely remarked upon at the time, he assaulted one of the most powerful nobles of the city, Pietro Corner. Corner had questioned his defense of one of his non-noble galley masters, and Pisani was so outraged at the affront to his honor and his galley master that he attacked Corner with a dagger. Fortunately for both men, Corner escaped, and Pisani was fined 200 ducats and deprived of an important state office to which he had just been elected. Whether or not defending a non-noble galley master against the insults of a high-handed noble was his actual motive, Pisani clearly had his issues with the leaders of the Venetian nobility who had condemned him and his uncle. In turn, many non-nobles, who saw him in this light, had good reasons for seeing him as a sympathetic leader.
In the first phase of the 1378 war, Pisani had actually risen to be the Captain General of the fleet and had considerable success in the western Mediterranean attacking Genoese shipping. But things turned against him when the Venetian government refused his request to return to Venice for the winter to refit his fleet. In the spring his small fleet of approximately twenty-four ships encountered a Genoese fleet of about the same size in the southern Adriatic. Although Pisani was reluctant to fight, feeling that too many of his ships were unfit for battle, he engaged the enemy and actually managed to capture the Genoese admiral’s galley and kill him. But reportedly the inferior repair of his galleys caused the tide of battle to turn, and the Venetians were soundly defeated, with Pisani managing to escape with only a half-dozen ships. As might be expected, given his uncle’s fate and his own defeat, Pisani’s return to Venice was not pleasant. He was put on trial for his role in the defeat, and although his powerful noble enemies pressed for his execution – a penalty legally required for a commander who fled from battle before it was over – the Doge Andrea Contarini, apparently aware of Pisani’s popularity with the sailors of the fleet, recommended merely a fine and a ban from offices and commands. In the end he was sentenced to six months in jail and permanently banned from offices and military commands.
Meanwhile, back at sea, the Venetian government had committed to an aggressive policy and had sent off their other black sheep, Carlo Zeno, with a small fleet to harass the Genoese in their home waters. After Pisani’s defeat they actually sent Zeno reinforcements, hoping to force the Genoese fleet to leave the Adriatic and return home to defend their city. Unfortunately, that strategy failed. With Pisani’s fleet destroyed and Zeno’s off threatening Genoa, the Genoese fleet stayed on and took control of the Adriatic. To make matters worse, Francesco Carrara, the lord of Padua, came to the aid of Genoa, moved by his own expansionist policies, blockading Venice on the mainland. The king of Hungary, who was interested in controlling the northeastern coast of the Adriatic and who was thus in perennial conflict with Venice in that area, joined the fray, blocking the supply lines of Venice to the north. Thus the Venetians in 1379 found themselves in much the same situation the Florentines would find themselves in later, in 1402. They were totally cut off from supplies and any possible support.
Their one hope was the lagoons themselves – a wide expanse of shallow waters dotted by mudflats and traversed by shifting channels that made access to the city difficult for war galleys, unless guided by local pilots. The lagoons had long protected the city from conquest, and the Venetian government hoped that they would continue to do so. The Genoese and their allies, however, planned to make the matter of the lagoons moot by simply waiting and starving out the city. To increase the pressure and secure a base that would allow their fleet to come into harbor, the Genoese, with the aid of Carrara, attacked the Venetian port city at the southern edge of the lagoons, Chioggia, and took it in August of 1379. The fall of Chioggia stunned Venice. Totally isolated, the once great maritime power seemed on the verge of defeat.
It is at such moments that governments are tested, and Venice was no exception, for at precisely that moment the deep rifts within the body politic became clearest. The Venetian government ordered a general conscription of the populace to serve in the fleet that was being rebuilt and in the civil militia. But when those called to serve on the sixteen galleys that remained reported for duty, they were only enough to man six. Essentially, a large portion of those called refused to serve under the new Captain General of the fleet, who was seen as representing the worst of the nobility. Instead, according to the chronicler Daniele di Chinazzo, they insisted that they would serve only under Vettor Pisani, “head and father of all the seamen of Venice.”
The problem was that the “head and father,” Pisani, was in prison, condemned by that same nobility and government that were now trying to press their lower classes to fight to support their regime. It appears that the lower classes, especially the sailors, saw Pisani as their defender and as the nobility’s scapegoat for the earlier defeat. From their perspective he had been forced to fight, and many of their comrades to die, handicapped by the lack of support from Venetian government; thus, he and they were victims of that government, as were the lower classes in general. Certainly there were significant differences between this lower-class resistance to Venetian government and the Ciompi revolt that occurred at much the same time. But in a real way the sailors of Venice were itssottoposti, and Ciompi and their refusing to fight, as well as their rallying behind popular leaders, suggests again the way in which war tested the fabric of society and the challenges that the Italian Hundred Years’ War posed for ruling classes made up largely of thepopolo grosso.
Supported by the Doge Andrea Contarini, who apparently saw that compromise was necessary to pacify the city, Pisani was released from jail, and a series of reforms and rewards were promised the lower classes once the war was won. Cheered by mobs who called out “Long live Vettor,” Pisani avoided a potentially revolutionary moment, going immediately to the doge to assure him of his loyalty and his readiness to serve and defend the honor of the city. Tensions remained, however. When a large contingent of men came to the ducal palace to enroll to fight under Pisani and were told that they would have to serve under the unpopular Captain General who remained in command, they reportedly replied with shouts so seditious that the chronicler refused to report them. When eventually Pisani was given command of six galleys, it was reported that he was overwhelmed with men volunteering to crew for him. Finally, the aged Doge Contarini personally took over the command of the navy, naming Pisani his chief of staff, and regained the necessary support of the city’s lower classes.
In essence, the war was back in Pisani’s hands. And his strategy demonstrated once again a masterful use of virtù. Rather than directly facing the enemy, he simply reversed the siege, besieging the Genoese fleet in Chioggia by blocking the channels to that city with sunken ships, thereby cutting it off without supplies. Begun in December, the counter-siege succeeded so well that soon the Genoese fleet found itself a nonfleet unable to get to sea and trapped and starving in Chioggia. Carlo Zeno returned to the Adriatic in the new year with a series of important successes. After harassing Genoese shipping in the western Mediterranean, he had sailed on to Constantinople and back to the Adriatic and Venice, winning a number of naval battles, greatly aided by the fact that the heart of the Genoese battle fleet was blockaded in Chioggia. Upon his return, although some called for an immediate confrontation with the Genoese fleet, Zeno settled down to defend the blockade strategy of Pisani and the doge. Much of the conflict focused as a result on skirmishes involving smaller boats adapted to the shallow waters of the lagoons and mercenary soldiers hired by the Venetians to intercept attempts to supply Chioggia over land. With his youthful experience as a mercenary, Zeno was reportedly particularly effective in working with and holding the loyalty of those hired troops. In the end, in June of 1380 the Genoese fleet in Chioggia was forced by the siege to surrender, and Venice, without winning a truly major battle in the war, snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
The war was formally ended by a peace signed in Turin in 1381, which on paper did not appear to be particularly favorable to Venice. But Genoa’s power as a maritime city was severely handicapped, especially in the eastern Mediterranean, with their trade there never again reaching even a quarter of Venetian totals. At home the city was also torn apart by factional strife led by the great families of the city, suffering some thirteen uprisings between 1413 and 1453. Population also declined slowly but surely across the fifteenth century, driven in part by recurring waves of the plague, in part by the less attractive economic climate of the city. To make matters worse, the city’s geographic position, huddled at the base of the mountains on the Tyrrhenian Sea, which made it such a fine port, meant that there was a limited hinterland to support the city and even more limited space to develop the kind of proto-industrial production that gave cities like Florence and Venice more balanced economies. Without entirely giving up on their naval power in the western Mediterranean, in the end the Genoese played perhaps the one card they had to play, focusing on banking and finance and developing a close working relationship with the ruling powers in the Iberian peninsula and the nearby south of France. In the sixteenth century they would flourish again as they became the bankers of Spain and the riches that flooded Europe from the “new world,” becoming major financial players, as we shall see.
But for the moment, with Genoa in decline in the eastern Mediterranean, peace allowed Venice to recoup economically via its powerful merchant fleets and to restabilize its government and social order. Perhaps more significantly than most have recognized, the very popular Vettor Pisani died at sea in 1381 fighting to reestablish Venetian control of the Adriatic after being named Captain of the Sea. With his death, a military leader who had won the popular imagination as no other, and who might well have inspired a viable revolution against the nobility of the city, passed from the scene. Carlo Zeno followed him as Captain and was kept busy, and well rewarded, reestablishing Venetian trading lanes in the Mediterranean.
In turn, shaken by the war, the Venetian nobility at least appeared to deliver on its larger promises. Most notably, the Serrata or closure of government was momentarily undone, with thirty new families added to the Great Council and the nobility. Most were richpopolo grosso–type families who had had enough money to make major economic contributions to the war effort, but a few were men who had served the city well during the war. And in both groups were men who could be seen as “new men.” To many this seemed to indicate that the closed nature of government was not quite as closed as it had seemed. The reality, however, was that this was the last major addition of new families to the closed nobility during the Rinascimento. Perhaps more importantly, many of the old nobility had been seriously weakened economically by the war, and while the richest tended to survive and recoup their losses, a number fell into decline, which made the nobility seem a little less privileged. With less to lose, the lower classes also had less to recover, and with the renewed commercial and artisanal activity of the city after the war, they may have recovered more quickly and successfully. For once poverty had its advantages, although clearly it remained poverty. In sum, the period following the war was one of slow recovery, where the gap between rich and poor might have seemed to narrow, even if the richest were probably richer and more solidly in control.
Venice and Milan Divide the Lombard Plain
When Gian Galeazzo died in 1402, his Lombard state, following Visconti tradition, was divided among his three young sons. The oldest, Giovanni Maria, at only thirteen, was made duke of Milan and Lombard territories to the east. In turn, Gian Galeazzo’s favorite son, Filippo Maria, at ten, was given much the same territories his father had started out with, Pavia and territories to the west. A third, illegitimate son, Gabriele Maria, was made signore of a small central region that featured the smaller but important cities of Crema and Piacenza. As all three were too young to rule, formal power fell to a council of sixteen tutors. Behind the scenes, however, the real struggle for power appears to have been between Gian Galeazzo’s wife, Caterina, and his powerful chancellor, Francesco Barbavara.
These divisions at the heart of Gian Galeazzo’s Lombard state made it particularly ripe for dismemberment. Immediately Francesco Novello Carrara, the city of Florence, and Pope Boniface IX (1359–1404; a pope 1389–1404) stepped up to take advantage of the situation. Carrara made the first move, attacking Verona, his traditional enemy and neighbor to the west. The new Francesco, however, reversed his family’s traditional policy of animosity to the della Scala family. Rather, he took under his wing two of the illegitimate males of the line, Brunoro and Antonio, offering to reestablish them as the rulers of Verona in return for their submission to him as overlord. It was a deal too good for them to pass up; thus as Carrara’s troops moved towards Verona with Brunoro and Antonio in tow, promising to “liberate” the city from the Visconti, a badly divided Milan found itself unprepared to respond. Without troops and with little to offer Francesco to buy him off, they turned to the Venetians and offered them a number of small but significant towns along the passes over the Alps controlled by Milan in return for aid against Carrara. The offer was too little and too late. Venice declined, and in short order Carrara took Verona, installing the della Scala as his vassals.
Carrara then turned his eyes to Vicenza, another rich city that lay midway between Padua and Verona. It was clear to all, and especially to the leaders of Vicenza, that Carrara would not leave them free right in the middle of his new mini-state for long. Thus, as Carrara laid his plans for taking over their city, they too turned to the Venetians and asked them to become their overlords, clearly preferring the distant rule of a hopefully lighter-handed Venice to submission to their rapacious neighbor. The offer of a significant city like Vicenza was considerably more attractive, but it also appears that Venice, with the fall of Verona, had come to fear that the new Carrara was as bad as the old, who had been a long-term thorn in Venice’s side. Vicenza’s offer, then, was seen as offering an opportunity to eliminate the Carrara once and for all and gain a terraferma state that would stretch from the lagoons and Treviso to Vicenza and potentially beyond to Verona. Some desultory negotiations ensued, in which Carrara tried to convince Venice that interfering was not in their interest, sweetening the deal with offers of a few small cities of his own on the passes to northern Europe that he hoped might win over Venetian commercial interests.
But Venice opted for war and took up arms. Much like Gian Galeazzo, they understood the virtue of using virtù in waging war. Reason, careful planning, limiting costs, and cunning, once again, came before valor, honor, and blood. Moreover, they demonstrated a particular taste for making use of military engineering – yet another form of virtù – to reshape the field of battle and gain unexpected advantages over their opponents. First, they mobilized their resources to isolate Carrara by fortifying the mouths of all rivers entering the Adriatic from Paduan territory. With Milanese territory to the west and an effective Venetian blockade to the east, Padua was perhaps not completely isolated, but its options were severely limited. Venice then bought one of the best condottierimoney could buy, Pandolfo Malatesta (1370–1427), along with a number of lesser-known condottieri. But in typical merchant fashion they assigned two Venetian nobles to advise Malatesta and also to keep track of him in order to make sure they were getting their money’s worth. As they worked to further isolate Carrara by diplomatically closing the passes to the north of Padua, they used their investment in condottieri to harass his forces in the countryside around both Padua and Verona, but avoided major confrontations.
As these troops pillaged their way over the countryside, their costs to Venice were limited, thanks to the spoils taken – a cost that Carrara, committed to defending the same territories, obviously could not escape. By forcing the less wealthy Carrara to face Venetian forces on two fronts and to defend a long border, the Venetians essentially used their superior wealth to strain his resources to the limit. Thus the war had a David and Goliath tenor from the start, with the distinction that in this case Goliath would win. Things came to a head in the campaigning season of 1404, when Venice made good use of its engineering virtù to soundly trounce Francesco in the field. Francesco was camped on the plain not far from Padua behind fieldworks that he deemed impregnable, only to find himself suddenly attacked by a large Venetian force, thanks to engineers who had secretly constructed a bridge across a swamp that guarded one of his flanks. As Francesco was unprepared and without defenses on that flank, the battle was lost almost as soon as begun. Seriously wounded, Francesco retreated with the remnants of his army to Padua, where Venice clamped on a tight siege. With his other army similarly besieged in Verona, things quickly unraveled. Verona fell first, on June 22, 1405. Taking the city, the Venetian army was on its best behavior; atypically for condottieri armies, there was virtually no sacking – a lesson not lost on those suffering the siege of Padua. Rather, the Venetians promised that Verona’s laws and liberties would be protected and upheld by a Venice committed to protecting them.
With the fall of Verona, Venice turned all its military might on Padua. But it was hardly necessary: plague had broken out in the city, and, according to chronicle accounts, hundreds were dying daily as July turned into August. Francesco, finding himself fearing for his life at the hands of his own citizens, made a last desperate attempt to save himself by offering to sell Padua to the Venetians in return for a safe conduct to Florence for himself and his sons. Apparently Venice was disposed to accept, as the price asked appeared to be less than the cost of keeping their armies in the field. At this point, however, Florence, fearing Venice’s growing power and anxious to preserve Carrara as a counterbalance to the Visconti in the Lombard plain, apparently stepped in, offering to help Francesco. Thus suddenly, in the midst of negotiations, with the promise of Florentine support, Francesco launched an attack on the besieging Venetian troops. But it failed, and no Florentine help showed up to save the day. The siege dragged on. Once again, however, the Venetians used their engineering skills to advantage. The engineer Domenico da Firenze managed to divert the course of a fork of the Brenta River that ran through the city, thus seriously depleting the city’s water supply. Finally, on November 23, the gates of Padua were simply opened, and Francesco Novello Carrara was handed over to Venice. Once again the Venetian troops entered with minimal looting and violence, promising to protect the laws and liberties of Padua and to keep the peace.
Venice now became a mainland power with a terraferma mini-empire of its own that would quickly grow to encompass virtually all of northeastern Italy, with a few notable exceptions. As they developed their ruling techniques for that Italian mini-empire, the Venetians followed in many ways the techniques they had developed in the Middle Ages for ruling their maritime empire in the Adriatic and eastern Mediterranean. That empire had been aimed less at direct exploitation of conquered territory than at creating a peaceful and ordered environment favorable to trade and development, with perhaps just that pinch of graft needed to ensure profits and make things run smoothly. There was little interest in exerting more heavy-handed control as a way to extract revenues, as the Venetian vision always leaned toward making money by controlling trade and related commercial activities rather than via direct rule.
Thus, as they took over Verona, Padua, and Vicenza, with minor variations in each city, the Venetians left in place local laws and governments, merely adding at the top of the administration a rector or Podestà to oversee the highest levels of civil justice and act as the chief executive officer of the city. As the final arbiters of civil justice, these officials played a significant role in assuring that commercial activities were conducted in an orderly and legal fashion, or at least in a fashion that served Venetian interests. In addition, they appointed officials responsible for the policing and defense of the city, both always seen as a measure of good government. Many of the smaller towns in the area that had been under the control of Verona, Padua, or Vicenza continued to be ruled by those cities, but once again Venetian oversight of their rule tended to make it less heavy-handed and corrupt. In sum, although it would be unwise to be too idealistic about Venetian rule, it seems that, broadly speaking, while leaving each city at least looking as if little had changed and functioning much as it had previously, they made sure that what might be labeled a popolo grosso program of rule would obtain. Peace, order, and law were all to be guaranteed with an eye to protecting and encouraging the economic prosperity of the new cities of their new terraferma mini-empire. Over the long run Venetian rule tended to become more centralized and more exploitative, but with a few significant exceptions, it remained remarkably intact until 1797, when the city and itsterraferma were finally conquered by Napoleon.
A Condottiere Wins: Milan, Francesco Sforza, and the Art of the Double-Cross
Venice’s relatively rapid successes were not so easily matched by either Milan or Florence. Both had been financially exhausted by the wars with Gian Galeazzo Visconti, and both had felt forced by events to demonstrate to their neighbors, and to their intended victims, a more aggressive and unattractive vision of what awaited them if they should fall under their power. For Milan and its Lombard mini-state, Gian Galeazzo’s death was the signal to rise up in revolt, as we have seen. When we left Visconti territories to pursue the terraferma successes of Venice, a group of tutors was theoretically ruling there in the name of Giovanni Maria Visconti, the teenage son of Gian Galeazzo, while in fact his mother, Catarina, and one of his father’s chief administrators, Francesco Barbavara, wrangled for power behind the scenes. Given the situation, it is not particularly surprising that things went badly for Giovanni. In fact, by the time Giovanni’s unhappy rule was cut short by his assassination in 1412, most of the chief cities of his father’s old mini-state either had set up their own local signori drawn from powerful local families or had been taken over by condottieri who had once served Milan. This process of disaggregation was aided by enemies who sought to assure that the Visconti would not rebuild a dangerous Milanese state, often with military intervention.
In a way, then, Giovanni picked the right time to be assassinated. Even for Gian Galeazzo’s preferred son, Filippo Maria, the future did not appear especially bright. When his brother was killed, he was besieged in his own castle in Pavia, while the city itself was controlled by a powerful local family, the Beccaria, supported militarily by one of his father’s old condottieri, Facino Cane. Actually, Filippo had not lost power to them, for to a great extent he never had been able to claim it. Moreover, not yet twenty, and reportedly sickly, socially withdrawn, and timid, he did not seem to have the ability to extricate himself from his dire situation. But whatever his personal flaws or strengths, he, like his father, quickly became a master of that virtù that brought success. Soon after his brother’s death, fortuna also came to his aid, as Facino Cane died unexpectedly – luck that in this case may have been aided by virtù in the form of an effective dose of poison.
Filippo quickly took advantage of the situation, marrying Cane’s widow, who needed a husband to help her maintain control of the territory Cane had taken. He also rapidly won over to his side one of Cane’s main captains, Francesco da Carmagnola, who provided the force behind Filippo Maria’s slow but sure reenactment of his father’s strategy of isolating and then gobbling up former allies. By 1426, together they had retaken the core of his father’s old Lombard mini-state. Moving out from Pavia and Milan, he had reestablished his power from the Mincio River in the east to the old western borders; while to the south, retaking Parma and Piacenza, he moved into the lower Lombard plain, and in the north he drove the Swiss back north of the Alpine passes. In the process, in 1422, he also captured the traditional maritime power, Genoa, still weakened by internal divisions and its wars with Venice. The emperor Sigismund, who had been dabbling in Visconti affairs, signaled perhaps most clearly the status of Filippo Maria when he invested him with the duchy of Milan in 1426, recognizing him as the dominant power in the area.
Not all were so willing to accept Filippo’s success. Florence was especially concerned about the Visconti resurgence, and with some reason. First, although Filippo was not responsible for it, they felt exposed by the loss of their Carrara allies, whom they had counted on to contain Visconti aggression and to keep open the main north-south trade routes across the eastern Lombard plain and over the Alps. Under Venetian control things were much less certain. They also worried that that city, seen as a wily and potentially dangerous commercial competitor, could not always be counted on to ally with them against Filippo, as the Carrara had been virtually forced to do, given their hostile relations with Milan. More immediately, the Visconti conquest of Genoa had moved Milan directly into the shipping lanes in the Tyrrhenian Sea that were crucial for Florentine sea trade with northern Europe – the main route that their luxury cloth trade followed tracked the coastline of that sea and passed Genoa. It also gave him control of a maritime trading and banking city with the ability to compete with Florence in both areas.
But that was not the only area in which Filippo seemed to threaten Florence, for he also reinstituted his father’s policy of dabbling in the politics of Tuscany, thwarting once again Florence’s own plans for expansion. Actually, he went one step further, dabbling more aggressively in the troubled and violent lands to Florence’s east, the Romagna. The Romagna was a less developed area with many little city-states, most of which were theoretically part of the Papal States. Perhaps best known as a breeding ground forcondottieri and for its almost constant state of local conflict, it was also much too close to Florence and Florentine expansionist ambitions to allow it to fall into the hands of old enemies like the Visconti. As a result, with an eye to stopping Filippo’s growing power before it was too late, Florence declared war on Milan in 1423.
The first two years of fighting produced little in the way of military successes, but did quickly deplete Florence’s typically strained treasury. This in turn put considerable pressure on the conservative inner group of Florentine families led by the young and inexperienced Rinaldo d’ Albizzi (1370–1442), whose family (led by his deceased father, Maso [1343–1417]) had fairly effectively cornered power in Florence for a generation after the Ciompi revolt. In the face of this situation, Rinaldo felt forced to put aside what had become a virtually traditional distrust of Venice and attempted to win their support for the war with Milan. His ambassadors, however, found themselves dealing with a divided Venice. On the one hand, a significant number of noble families felt that Venice had expanded far enough on the terraferma to secure their interests and that the Mincio River, which marked the western edge of their territories, provided a natural and defensible border with Milan. Moreover, with Florence and Milan involved in a war that was exhausting the resources of both, Venice could sit safely on the sidelines and not have to worry about the territorial ambitions of either; even commercial competition would be tilted in Venice’s favor by the ongoing war. On the other hand, a group of nobles saw the expanding territorial pretensions of the Visconti, especially in the Romagna, which bordered Venetian territories to the south, as dangerous, reawakening fears of a Milanese state that might dominate the north of Italy. Visconti control of Genoa, a traditional mercantile enemy of Venice, was also a novelty that worried many, especially as Genoa was still feared as a rival.
Finally, in 1425, the unusually aggressive and young doge, by Venetian standards, Francesco Foscari (1373–1457; doge 1423–1457), came out in support of war, and Venice aligned with Florence against Milan. The early campaigns of the new alliance went well. Troops led by Francesco da Carmagnola, once Filippo’s main condottiere (who had jumped sides, apparently fed up with broken Visconti promises), won first the city of Brescia in 1426, then the city of Bergamo in 1427, pushing the Venetian border with the Milanese state west all the way to the Adda River. At this point, with Milan’s army decisively defeated, the end seemed to be nigh for Filippo. Carmagnola had merely to sweep up the Adda into the inner core of Milanese territory to secure a final defeat of the Visconti, making Venice the ruler of the whole Lombard plain. But, inexplicably, Carmagnola at this point stopped. He appeared to be stalling on purpose. And as time dragged on without further advances, rumors began to spread back in Venice that he had secretly been bought by Milan or was trying to hold up Venice for more money, just as he had apparently tried to hold up Filippo earlier.
Venice tried to press Carmagnola to resume his advance, but to no avail. Thus, they found themselves in a delicate situation, one often noted as a significant problem with wars fought by condottieri. As Machiavelli would later point out, condottieri were frequently more loyal to money and their own interests than to their employers. But, as warriors, they controlled the direct force that was necessary to win wars in the absence of citizen armies. Thus, when they decided that it was not in their interest to follow the orders of their employers, their employers had little recourse but to renegotiate, accept the situation, or lose their army. Many a city would have liked to fire a recalcitrant condottiere, but the trouble then became how to secure new ones in the midst of war. In Venice there was considerable debate about what to do with Carmagnola. Was there a way to encourage him to return to his aggressive winning ways? Was there perhaps a way to force him to fight? Or was punishment perhaps necessary, even in the face of the danger that he would then jump back to serving his ex-master, Milan?
As these discussions raged in Venice, the Council of Ten took the initiative, quietly pressing the Senate to invite Carmagnola back to Venice for a discussion of strategy. It might have appeared that this invitation was aimed at discovering what Carmagnola really wanted and what it would take to get him back into the field. If this is what Carmagnola expected when he accepted the invitation, he was badly mistaken. For, as soon as he entered the city, he was arrested by the Ten and quickly executed. From the Ten’s perspective the problem was eliminated with his death. The lesson was clear: Venice expected results for its investments, even in condottieri, and investments that did not pay off could be terminated, in this case literally. Moreover, Venice flexed its financial muscles and quickly found new condottieri willing to take the risk of replacing Carmagnola. They were not as effective as hoped, however, and the war dragged on with neither side regaining the upper hand.
With the demise of Carmagnola, Filippo Maria Visconti was in a stronger position, at least in theory, as he had managed to hire the leading condottieri of both of the two main schools of condottiere warfare: Niccolò Piccinino (1386–1444), leader of the Bracceschi, and Francesco Sforza (1401–1466), leader of the Sforzeschi. It might be more accurate to claim that they were in and out of his camp, as he too was having trouble holding on to his condottieri and getting them to fight. Most significant for the future of Milan were his problems with Sforza. Earlier, unhappy with his performance against Carmagnola, Filippo had fired him. But he soon decided that he needed him; thus, in order to secure his loyalty, he decided to betroth the thirty-one-year-old condottiere to his own eight-year-old daughter and only heir, Bianca Maria, in 1432. Betrothal, however, was not marriage. And as time went by, it became clear that Filippo was reluctant to deliver on the promise of marriage. In turn, Sforza was busily following his own military interests, carving out a small territorial state for himself at the expense of the papacy in central Italy. Growing tensions between Sforza and Visconti were finally rendered moot, however, when Sforza accepted a Venetian offer of better pay and jumped to the Venetian camp.
Paradoxically, although the ensuing war was officially waged to control the Lombard plain, perhaps the most important battles were naval battles. This might have given the Venetians an advantage, were it not for one significant qualification: the battles were fought not on the Mediterranean, but rather on an inland lake, Garda. This actually gave Filippo an advantage as he had only to sail his ships from Mantua up the Mincio River to Garda or to build them there, as the lake was in territory he controlled. The Venetians faced a more difficult problem. If they wanted to take advantage of their skill at naval warfare, they had to figure out a way to transport a war fleet over the mountains to the lake. Needless to say, Filippo must have felt confident that that flank was one of his most secure. But after considerable debate the Venetians devised a highly unlikely plan to carry a fleet over the low mountains that divided the Adige River, which they controlled, to Lake Garda on rollers, in the winter. Improbable as it seems, they succeeded. It required over 2,000 oxen, but in the end a small fleet of 6 galleys and 25 smaller long ships was hauled over the mountains in 15 days in the winter of 1439.
This unlikely task was carried out by the Venetian naval officer Niccolò Sorbolò, and once again demonstrated the Venetian willingness to experiment with major feats of engineering and technical virtuosity in order to garner strategic advantage. For all that, however, their fleet was defeated in the first major battle on the lake, and only Sforza’s land army, now serving Venice, prevented a total rout. Still, the Venetian fleet was established on Garda, and in the following year they won a series of major victories that established their control of the lake. With the support of the now victorious Venetian fleet, Francesco Sforza took the main town on the lake, Peschiera, and moved south to push back Milanese armies that had been pressing nearby Brescia and Bergamo. Piccinino, now the main condottiere general of Milan, tried to create a diversion by attacking Florentine territory in Tuscany in the hopes of drawing off Sforza to defend Venice’s ally. But his attempt failed rather dramatically when Florence, led by their new leader, Cosimo de’ Medici, and his wealth, fielded a strong army of their own and defeated Piccinino at the Battle of Anghiari in June of 1440, a victory that would live on in Florentine memory as a great Medici moment.
Pressing Milanese finances to the limit, Piccinino raised a new army and returned to the north to face off with Sforza on the Adda River, the last barrier on the road to Milan. The impending battle appeared to have the potential to become the classic confrontation of the Italian Hundred Years’ War. At question was the heartland of the north of Italy, fought over by the two greatest cities of the north, Venice versus Milan, and with their armies led by the recognized leaders of the two greatest schools of Italiancondottieri – the Sforzeschi, led by Francesco Sforza, and the Bracceschi, led by Niccolò Piccinino. But once again the complex realities of condottiere warfare denied this perfect confrontation. Piccinino apparently saw the moment as a good one to hold up Filippo Maria Visconti for a city of his own to rule. He demanded Piacenza as a prize for his loyal service, a jewel that Visconti was reluctant to cede to a general who had not been doing particularly well in the field. Thus, it appears that Visconti decided he would rather keep the city and instead finally give up his daughter, Bianca Maria, to Francesco Sforza in order to induce him to desert Venice. Francesco did just that, abandoning Venice to marry Bianca Maria, whose dowry was sweetened with the promise of two cities, Cremona and Pontremoli. Soon after the marriage took place, peace was declared in December of 1441, with Venice lacking a major general to pursue the war and both sides financially exhausted. Yet, in its own strange way, the classic battle that was never fought between Venice and Milan was actually the truly representative moment of these wars, with all its typically complex intrigue and double-dealing.
Once peace was signed, again much in that spirit the war was almost immediately renewed. Filippo soon revealed himself to be his own worst enemy, for although he could not take his daughter back from Sforza, he attempted to keep him from taking over the cities promised. Fed up with his new father-in-law, and never the most loyal of generals, Sforza jumped back to the Venetian side, and by 1446 he and his Venetian armies had crossed the Adda and were on the road to Milan. Once again, it seemed that finally things had become clear. Sforza and Venice would take Milan, and the Visconti would be eliminated from the Italian political scene once and for all. But that was much too simple for the realities of condottiere warfare and the messy political scene of the day. To make a much more complex story of intrigue and double-dealing as brief as possible, suffice it to say that Filippo lured Sforza back to his side one last time and shortly thereafter died in 1447, perhaps exhausted by all his double crosses.
As Sforza was his primary heir, thanks to his marriage to Bianca, it looked like things had finally come together for this powerful condottiere with his inheriting the biggest prize of all, Milan and the heartland of northern Italy. Obviously, that would have been too logical and straightforward. Instead, the Milanese took advantage of the situation and declared themselves the Ambrosian Republic. Quickly they worked out a deal with the jilted Sforza. He would fight for Milan once more against Venice, lured by vague promises of future rewards and good pay. Perhaps Sforza did not have the courage to claim his due as heir, but it appears more likely that he felt that this arrangement would place him in the ideal place to double-cross his new employers and press his claims to rule Milan once Venice and Florence were actually defeated. And, in the long run, he would gain the strong support of the people of Milan, something that he could not have counted on had he tried to overthrow the Ambrosian Republic and assert his claims immediately.
He served for fourteen months, then, as the new republic of Milan sought to defend itself against Venice. His “loyal” service was rewarded in the end by the republic attempting to strike a secret deal with Venice for a peace that would have cut him out of the picture. Before things could come to a head, however, Sforza jumped to Venice again, and peace talks stalled. More double crosses quickly followed, until finally Venice and Milan agreed that their best course of action would be to eliminate their dangerouscondottiere Francesco Sforza. Thus, in September of 1449, the folly of the war and its multiple betrayals was brought to its illogical logical conclusion with Venice and Milan joining together to declare war on their most famous general, none other than Francesco Sforza. The growing unreality of it all, however, was finally brought up short before the toughest reality of war, money. The cost of the war had exhausted the treasury of the Ambrosian Republic, and it collapsed bankrupt. The city was forced to turn to its Visconti heir, condottiere, and frequent opponent, Francesco Sforza, and accept him as their new signore in February of 1450. A much reduced Milanese state remained the dominant power in the western Lombard plain now led by its new lord, Francesco Sforza, not quite a new Count of Virtù, but at least the master of the Rinascimento double cross.
The Costs of War: Debt, Fear, and the Rise of the Medici in Florence
Before the Italian Hundred Years’ War could end, however, Florence had to come to grips with its internal problems, exacerbated by years of warfare and a concomitant burgeoning public debt. Significantly, the one thing that was perhaps most critical in bringing at least momentary peace and prosperity was the rise to power of the one family that would dominate Florentine political and social life up to the eighteenth century, the Medici. The best way to begin the tale is to return briefly to Florence’s Ciompi revolt of 1378. At its most revolutionary, it seemed as if the dominance of the popolo grosso might actually be broken by a guild regime that included in government a much broader proportion of the popolo, including the large Ciompi guild made up of the thousands of unskilled workers in the cloth-producing industry. But that regime was too democratic to last, and by 1382 a conservative reaction was well under way, with the leading families of the city, having survived a scare that would not be forgotten, putting aside their differences to band together to rule. At the head of this group emerged a successful leader, Maso d’ Albizzi, who led quietly behind the scenes with a careful mix of compromise and corruption, building a solid base of support in a progressively more aristocratic and narrow group called the Ottimati (the Best). The Ottimati were drawn from the richest and most powerful of the popolo grosso, who, rather like the Venetian nobility, claimed to represent the oldest families of the city; once again the ideology was that they were not new, merely the best and oldest.
Whether or not they were actually either, Maso led with their support by essentially corrupting the electoral system of the city. As was the case in many cities, Florentine elections were conducted by lot, with the names of candidates elected to each office being drawn from bags. The key to corrupting the system was getting to the names in the bags before they were drawn, and, although the process was complex, essentially Maso did this by having his people cull the bags periodically to make sure that the names of his followers dominated. Thus, although from time to time a humble artisan might be drawn to serve, even in a major office, with impressive continuity the names drawn were those of his supporters. Luckily escaping certain defeat thanks to Gian Galeazzo’s death in 1402, Maso’s hold on the city became ever stronger, until his own death in 1417 brought on a transition crisis. A number of his long-time supporters, who had taken more of a leadership role in his last years, were ready to step in to replace him, but his son Rinaldo, not without resistance, asserted his leadership of the Ottimati. Rinaldo, however, was less content to rule quietly behind the scenes, adopting a much more princely style, which did not sit well with some of the older members of the Ottimati, who felt that they were more deserving to rule.
Nonetheless, Rinaldo managed to rule, not so quietly, nor so successfully, for almost two decades, until that great destroyer of governments, war and its expenses, stepped in to bring him down. A major factor in this was Filippo Maria Visconti, who, it will be remembered, had rebuilt his father’s power in the north successfully enough that he was again perceived as threatening Florence. Not a patient behind-the-scenes manipulator content to carry out the long, involved intrigues necessary to isolate or outmaneuver enemies, like his father or Gian Galeazzo, Rinaldo instead successfully pressed for a declaration of war against Milan in 1423, as fears about Milan’s expansionist policies grew. But the war that was supposed to nip Filippo’s power in the bud dragged on, and the costs of maintaining condottiere armies in the field placed increasing burdens on Florentine revenues and the public debt. And tensions within the city built. The princely Rinaldo, with his more open style of rule and lack of military successes to bolster his fading support, found himself in a difficult position. To make matters worse, when expenses outran revenues, as they regularly did in times of war, he was forced to rely on forced loans to cover expenses.
Based on estimates of a family’s wealth, these forced loans, if the estimates had been fairly done, would have fallen evenly on everyone. But, of course, one of the reasons for supporting Rinaldo, and his father before him, in power (or most other governments, for that matter) was that they rewarded their supporters with lower estimates. In the regular order of things, such privileges could pass largely unnoticed, but when wars dragged on and loans were required monthly and at times weekly, the unequal distribution of the burden became much more obvious. Moreover, those who benefited from this favoritism were in a position to buy up loan shares at a fraction of their original cost, yet still earn interest on their full face value, thus turning them into lucrative investments. In sum, as others struggled to survive, the protected few flourished. Needless to say, as such favoritism became more evident during the ongoing war with Milan, the economic and class divisions within society weighed more and more heavily on those who saw themselves as the victims. And this in turn put Rinaldo and the Ottimati in a decidedly precarious position.
Finally, in 1427, a group of the Ottimati, fearing the revolutionary potential of this situation, lent their weight to widespread calls for reforming the forced loan system. Reluctantly, Rinaldo’s government took on the task of making a serious and honest census of all the property and wealth in Florence as well as in the areas of Tuscany that Florence controlled. This Catasto of 1427, as it was called, attempted with considerable success to enumerate all the people and measure all the wealth and property of the region, with the goal of using this new, more accurate measure of wealth as the base for imposing forced loans. (This virtual snapshot of Florentine Tuscany, its population, wealth, and property, for all its problems and biases, has become a valuable source for historians, as noted in Chapter 3.) And it actually did provide a basis for extracting increased revenues from forced loans in a manner that was at least less unfair. But many of the Ottimati were unhappy about losing their tax advantages, blaming Rinaldo, while many in the larger population realized with the compiling of the Catasto just how unfairly they had been treated in the past and blamed him as well.
As a result, no one was particularly happy with Rinaldo. If anything, tensions in Florence increased following the reform. In turn, Rinaldo and his inner circle seemed to be caught in what might be labeled an escalating paranoia, an increasing fear that resentment about taxation, war, and his own high-handed rule might lead to the growth of an opposition that would attempt to overthrow them. Fear grew so rampant that those viewed as potential opponents were actually required to swear on the Bible that they would not be divisive and instead think only of the honor of the city. Religious confraternities were shut down, as it was feared that their popularity with a wide spectrum of the population and their enthusiasm for civic morality might make them foci of resistance or revolutionary agitation.
Things were quickly falling apart. To Rinaldo’s credit, he appears to have been aware that a dramatic success was necessary to reunite the city behind him. Given the mixed results of the city’s expensive and ongoing war with Milan, a quick and inexpensive military victory might have seemed just what the situation required. Thus, in 1429, when the nearby rival cloth-producing city of Lucca seemed to be dissolving in internal turmoil of its own, it must have appeared to Rinaldo and his remaining Ottimati supporters an opportunity too good to pass up. War was declared, with an eye to taking over their cloth-producing rival. And Rinaldo, anxious to be seen as leading a triumphant war effort for a change, took a prominent role in the campaign. Unfortunately for plans of a quick, easy, and, most importantly, inexpensive victory, the Florentine attack reunited the Lucchese. Moreover, it rallied support from other independent cities in Tuscany that continued to fear Florence’s aggressive tendencies.
As a result, a theoretically short, successful war morphed relentlessly into a long, costly one. Rumors swirled through the city, as 1432 slid painfully into 1433 without any victory in sight, that an opposing faction was forming with the goal of finally throwing out Rinaldo and the Ottimati. The most likely leader of any such faction was seen as the rich and powerful Cosimo de’ Medici (1389–1464), son of Giovanni da Bicci de’ Medici (1360–1429). Cosimo, like his father, had largely avoided political activity in the city and for the most part had been a tacit supporter of the Ottimati. But, unlike Rinaldo and the Ottimati, he was not perceived as an enemy of the lower classes. This was in part because he was a relative of Salvestro de’ Medici, who was remembered as a supporter of the Ciompi in 1378, and in part because his banking and cloth-manufacturing activities provided jobs for a significant number of the city’s artisans and popolo minuto. From this perspective he seemed a natural rallying point for those opposed to what were perceived as Rinaldo’s wars and their costs.
Rinaldo attempted to blame the war with Lucca on Cosimo and his financial interest in cornering Tuscan cloth production, and there may have been a kernel of truth in his claims. But even peace conspired against him; for Cosimo was a leader in negotiating the peace with Lucca that ended the war in April of 1433, thus at one and the same time increasing both his popularity with the war-weary city and Rinaldo’s fear of him. A few months later, in September, when a group of Priors was drawn that was strongly pro-Rinaldo – something that was relatively easy to do as the bags were still filled with Albizzi supporters – Rinaldo decided to take decisive action and had Cosimo arrested for treason. Apparently the plan was to have the Priors appoint a special Balìa made up of the strongest supporters of Rinaldo to try Cosimo and execute him.
Rinaldo got his Balìa, and Cosimo was duly arrested. But then things went wrong, as even Rinaldo’s Balìa was uncomfortable about taking responsibility for an unpopular execution of Cosimo. Moreover, a number of Florence’s most powerful allies stepped in to warn against such an extreme action. Venice, with its close ties to the Medici bank and Medici international trade interests, made it clear that they were not enthusiastic about the potential risk to its economy were the Medici bank to fold – something that it saw as a distinct possibility if Cosimo were executed. The pope, Eugenius IV, whose finances had been controlled by Cosimo’s bank and who was heavily indebted to him, expressed similar concerns. As a result, although Rinaldo continued to insist on execution, his Balìa let him down, voting merely to exile Cosimo to Venice.
Cosimo survived. And unsurprisingly, with his survival, any hopes that there was not an anti-Rinaldo, Medici-led faction died. In Venice, Cosimo continued to lead his economic empire succored by that city, while back in Florence many of Rinaldo’s supporters, seeing the writing on the wall, slowly deserted to the swelling Medici camp. Finally, in the summer of 1434, even with the bags still corrupted and supposedly filled with Albizzi supporters, a new group of Priors was drawn who were ready to openly switch sides. They appointed a new Balìa to deal with the political turmoil of Florence, which asked Cosimo to return. Rinaldo understood all too well what that meant – his own men, drawn from his own corrupted bags, had deserted him and invited back to the city the man he had failed to execute. Intelligently, he fled the city into an exile of his own.
In turn, on October 5, 1434, Cosimo returned to Florence, ostensibly merely as a once-exiled citizen now restored to the city he loved and wished to aid. But few were fooled. With his supporters Cosimo had driven out a leader who had attempted to kill him and divided a ruling group that for almost five decades had dominated the political scene. Still, Cosimo was careful not to repeat Rinaldo’s mistakes. Rather, like Rinaldo’s father, he worked quietly behind the scenes, making good use of his own group of supporters (who would become known as the Palleschi – after the six balls [palle] on the Medici coat of arms) and his own corruption of elections, which adopted and expanded many of the strategies used by the Albizzi, as we will see.
Meanwhile, the war dragged. Milan and Venice divvied up the Lombard plain, and Francesco Sforza out-double-crossed his employers until he became signore of Milan. Finally, in 1454, with perhaps the most famous peace of the Rinascimento, the Peace of Lodi, the new political realities were confirmed, with Venice and Milan dividing the north between them and Cosimo’s Florence controlling much of Tuscany directly and exerting considerable influence over the center, even if the Papal States were formally confirmed there as well. Although in many ways this peace and the division of Italy among five great powers – Venice, Milan, Florence, the Papal States, and a Neapolitan kingdom in the south – was not as neat or complete as it is often depicted, the political picture of Italy was clarified and to a great degree stabilized after more than a hundred years of almost continuous war.
New men, social turmoil, violence in the streets, and the violence of warfare had transformed the northern half of Italy, bringing the once dozens of proudly independent cities under the rule of a handful of powers. In turn, the social and political significance of an increasingly self-assured and aristocratic popolo grosso had survived and flourished in the face of numerous travails and, as we shall see, in the process constructed a cultural vision and program that consolidated their claims to lead society. The peace that had arrived would last, with a few significant exceptions, for forty years, from 1454 to 1494 – forty years often depicted as the high point of the Rinascimento. Thus for a little more than a generation Italy was relatively at peace: Italy’s own Hundred Years’ War was formally over.