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Emergence of a Bureaucracy: The Florentine Patricians, 1530-1790

Emergence of a Bureaucracy: The Florentine Patricians, 1530-1790

by R. Burr Litchfield

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Burr Litchfield traces the development of the patrician elite of Florence from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, the growth of a bureaucratic state in Tuscany during this period, and the changing relationship of the patricians to the state apparatus. His discussion of this largely neglected period of Italian history shows that the elite of the


Burr Litchfield traces the development of the patrician elite of Florence from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, the growth of a bureaucratic state in Tuscany during this period, and the changing relationship of the patricians to the state apparatus. His discussion of this largely neglected period of Italian history shows that the elite of the Florentine Renaissance Republic continued as the main component of the urban office-holding aristocracy under the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, and that they had an important role in the transition from Renaissance communal institutions to those of a regional state.

Originally published in 1987.

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Emergence of a Bureaucracy

The Florentine Patricians, 1530â"1790

By R. Burr Litchfield


Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05487-2



To see the development and particular character of the Florentine elite through time, one must consider its medieval and Renaissance origins and the changes that affected it under the sixteenth- to eighteenth-century dukes. Although never a legally closed body like the nobles of Venice or Genova, and still less a feudal class like the magnates of Sicily or the Kingdom of Naples, the Florentine patricians were nonetheless similar to urban nobles elsewhere in Italy. The term "patrician" is what the Florentines ultimately adopted to evoke their own particular character. The feudal nobility of Tuscany had lost most of its importance in the commercial expansion of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. In the eighteenth century some surnames survived from the clans that had controlled the region before emergence of the city, and a few feudal dynasties still had fiefs in the Apennines to the north and west of the city, or in the hills of Pisa and Volterra to the south and east. But the commercial development of Florence gave the patricians their special character. Some popolani among the consuls and priors of the communal government were of feudal origin, but the wealth of others was formed in the city's cloth industry and merchant ventures. At the end of the thirteenth century control was secured by merchants of the guilds. The feudal nobles of the countryside and their allies in the city were branded as magnati. They were excluded from office and withdrew to their distant holdings or continued to live in Florence as powerful families prohibited from active participation in politics. Many renounced their origins, matriculated into the guilds, and were assimilated into the political elite.

Florence continued its rapid growth in the fourteenth century, and its population was partly replenished after the Black Death through immigration from the smaller towns and the countryside. Rapid but uneven growth created tensions between old and new families in the ruling group, and between the merchants and masters of the major guilds and the artisans and workers in the cloth shops and minor trades. As the city confronted the economic crises of the fourteenth century and expanded territorially, its institutions grew in complexity, and access to offices was defined in a more regular manner. The fourteenth-century regulations defining citizenship and eligibility for office had a lasting importance in distinguishing the patrician class as a whole. The electoral procedures continued into the eighteenth century. Citizenship of Florence, which required residence in the city, matriculation into one of the guilds, and inscription into the militia, was only the first step toward selection for the councils and magistracies. The highest offices of the Republic, the Tre Maggiori, were the Signoria (the Gonfaloniere di Giustizia and eight priors) and the councils of the Collegi (the sixteen Gonfalonieri of the militia and twelve Buonomini). The Gonfaloniere and priors assumed executive authority. In the fourteenth century, these highest offices became more differentiated from the growing number of less important administrative ones and from the Vicariati and Capitanati, judgeships in the towns of the territorial dominion. Officeholders changed every few months. After 1328 they were selected at all levels by lot from men passing the scrutinies of citizens inscribed in the guilds in accordance with the procedures of the Tratte. After the failure of the Ciompi uprising of minor guildsmen and unorganized workers in 1378, families in the major guilds acquired permanent control of the executive councils. First, two-thirds and then three-quarters of the places in the Signoria and two Collegi were reserved for men passing the scrutinies of the Arti Maggiori, as were a majority of places in such other important magistracies as the Otto di Guardia e Balia, which provided for internal security, and the Dieci di Guerra, which was charged with war and defense.

Thus the full exercise of citizenship was unequally distributed among the different groups that made up the Renaissance city's social hierarchy. At an upper level a few ancient feudal houses and popolani who had been branded as magnati in the previous century were excluded from active participation in government. At a lower level, men inscribed in the minor trades were accorded only a limited participation. The mass of workers in the unorganized trades and the miserabili who paid no taxes were excluded from offices. The ruling group was recruited among men in the middle and upper strata of wealth from the major guilds: wool and silk merchants, merchant bankers, and lawyers. The preservation of the Republic required their continual vigilance, both against the feudal lords of the Dominion who might act in concert with neighboring states against the common interest, and against the popolo minuto whose egalitarian tendencies might prove to be equally ruinous to the regime.

Florentine politics in the fifteenth century thus reflected a delicate balance among groups. This equilibrium contributed to the vitality of the Renaissance city, but also left it in peril of political crisis. Newcomers and men from the minor guilds could gain admission to the scrutinies for offices and to the borse for the Maggiori, yet the electoral procedures favored the more established families. After 1412 these families further protected their influence by admitting men whose fathers or grandfathers had been selected for the Maggiori for consideration automatically in the scrutinies as benefiziati. Only a limited number of newcomers could be admitted when the lists were renewed. The ascendancy of the Medici after 1434 depended on the support of this more established group. The Medici then influenced the composition of the political elite through accoppiatori who managed the scrutinies, made up the borse, and arranged the drawings of officeholders. Despite the regulations that prohibited successive or simultaneous tenure of office by the members of a single casata or consorteria, a relatively small number of names appeared frequently among the priors of the Signoria. At the time of the reaction against the Medici and creation of the broader-based Consiglio Maggiore of Savonarola in 1494, only some ?, 500 men, in a total urban population of 50,000 to 60,000, claimed admission to the new council, either because of their own selection for the highest offices or that of their fathers or grandfathers. The restricted size of the officeholding group becomes understandable when one considers that males twenty-five to seventy years of age, the customary age for officeholding, might normally have comprised 15 to 20 percent of the total population. It is estimated that the number of males eligible for offices in Florence at all levels in a given year during the fifteenth century was 2,000 to 2,500, 4 percent of the total population, although this number may have risen to 3,200 to 4,000, 6 percent, under the more egalitarian practices of the revolutionary regimes of 1494 and 1527.

The identity of families in the fifteenth-century officeholding elite can be discovered from prioriste, lists of priors by family or casata, many of which were compiled at the time of the Republic or after its collapse. The prioriste, however, do not necessarily show the changing inner groups who actually controlled power, and whose influence depended on personal influence, political circumstance, and other factors. Still, family names have an important place in Florentine history and had a particular significance for the officials of the Tratte who supervised the drawings of priors. This is because the rights of the benefiziati who were to be included in successive scrutinies and the divieti, which excluded members of the same family from simultaneous or successive tenure of certain offices, depended on a conventional definition of the family and kinship group. The household living arrangements of Florentines in the upper strata of wealth do not appear to have differed considerably from those of a later age. The patrician household was predominantly nuclear, although it might be augmented with servants or retainers. Immigration to the city had tended to break down the larger households of the countryside, but had not destroyed a sense of kinship among households. Sons continued the traditions of the paternal house or established independent but linked collateral branches. Such lineages might seem to have had little in common other than a single ancestor or a common surname, yet cousins preserved a sense of identity with the larger group. For the purposes of the scrutinies and drawings for offices, kinsmen were considered to be common members of a casata or consorteria, a group of common paternal descent.

The officials of the Tratte determined membership in a casata by three or four degrees of male consanguinity: great-grandfather, grandfather, father, and sons. Being a member of this line could confer admission of the benefizio to the scrutinies, while more distant relatives might be assumed to belong to different casate and thus be designated as distinct by an adjunct to their surnames or by a precise indication of the gonfalone of the city in which they were inscribed. Like the Roman gens, a casata might include cousins, and except for families with very many branches, it might approximate an entire group of common genealogical descent. Casate of older establishment tended to be larger than more recently established ones, although entirely new casate, with new surnames, might break off from older ones and be declared separate and distinct. Careful distinctions were made by the officials of the Tratte among casate with similar surnames. A family connection was valuable and the use of surnames was defended with care. Legislation prohibiting fraudulent claims of family affiliation later became a source of litigation, as established houses attempted to prevent newcomers to the city or distant poor kinsmen from entering the scrutinies through the use of their names.

The continuity of casate is clear from the prioriste, which also make it possible to estimate the size and composition of the fifteenth-century officeholding group. The surnames of nearly a thousand casate appear among men who were selected as priors during the fifteenth century. The eight priors, forty-eight in a year, were selected every two months, and at each selection included six men from the major and two from the minor guilds. The most complete list of Republican priors is the priorista compiled from different sources by Abate Lorenzo Mariani in the early eighteenth century. Selection was made from Mariani's list of the 426 casate appearing as priors four times or more between 1400 and 1494. This group has been taken as representative of the fifteenth-century elite.

These names indicate that the families who ruled fifteenth-century Florence varied considerably in length of establishment in the priorate and, when their names are compared with the tax assessments from the 1427 Catasto, in wealth; but old habilitation for office and a degree of wealth were both important for success (Table 1.1). There were some exceptions, however. One notes the absence from the priorate of feudal nobles like the Barbolani di Montauto, Bourbon del Monte, Gherardesca, Ubertini, or Malaspina, who never entered the councils of the Republic, as well as of such older families like the Broccardi, Gherardini, Franzesi, or Ubaldini, whose fiefs had been absorbed by the Republic, although the families were still excluded from the scrutinies as magnati. Some older popolani such as the Cerchi, Mozzi, and Tornaquinci, who had been barred from offices for various reasons, are also missing. The electoral procedures of the Republic discriminated among houses, but old establishment was still important. Of the 426 casate appearing four times or more during the fifteenth century, 316 (three-fourths) had first appeared as priors before 1400; 163 (more than a third) before 1350; and 70 before 1300. These families entered the ruling group at the time of the city's early expansion, before its population growth was checked in the mid-fourteenth century. They included such names as Acciaiuoli, De Ricci, Guicciardini, Delia Stufa, and Ginori, all of whom had appeared as priors before 1350. To be sure, a large number of houses had first appeared in office at the end of the fourteenth century. But by the mid-fifteenth century, newcomers such as the Corsi, Niccolini, Nasi, Morelli, and Serristori were beginning to be thought of as older houses and no longer the gente nuova they had been three generations earlier. Many fewer newcomers had made their first appearance among the priors after 1400 — 49 between 1400 and 1433, and 56 between 1434 and 1494. Three to four generations of habilitation for the Maggiori was typical of the political group.

Old establishment in the city was one characteristic of the elite; wealth was another. The great survey of wealth of fifteenth-century Florentines was the Catasto of 1427, from which assessments were renewed periodically until 1480. This has been prepared for reference and analysis by D. Herlihy and others. Using their transcription, it is possible to check the names of casate appearing more frequently as priors against the households with the greatest assessed wealth in 1427 and 1428. The distribution of wealth in fifteenth-century Florence had the shape of a long reclining "L": a very small number of households with considerable or comfortable fortunes, and a very large number with very small or no means. According to this ranking, out of the 8,300 or more households that were taxed, 686 had assessments among the highest eight percent with 3,200 Florins or more, while the median wealth of all taxed households was only 325 Florins. The hundred households (one percent) with the greatest wealth each had assets of 13,000 Florins or more. It is not possible to locate all of the casate appearing frequently as priors in the Catasto returns of 1427-28, since some families were probably absent from the city during those years or did not yet appear in the tax books with the surnames they would later adopt. Some linkages are tentative because of the difficulty of distinguishing precisely among casate with similar surnames. Of the 340 casate that can be located, 204 (more than half) were in the wealthiest 8 percent in 1427, and 54 (seventy-five households) were in the wealthiest one percent. Wealth was well represented in the highest offices. Although households belonging to casate that appeared frequently in the priorate amounted to only about 25 percent of the households assessed in the Catasto, they were more than twice as likely to be among the wealthy and nearly four times as likely to be among the very wealthy than assessed households with no kin in the officeholding group.


Excerpted from Emergence of a Bureaucracy by R. Burr Litchfield. Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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