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The Civic World of Early Renaissance Florence
By Gene A. Brucker
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1977 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Corporate Values and the Aristocratic Ethos in Trecento Florence
From the beginnings of their documented past, medieval Florentines (like other Italian city-dwellers) had displayed a strong and persistent impulse to band together into associations, and to invest those bodies with a corporate character. They drafted constitutions specifying the rights and obligations of membership; they exacted oaths of fealty; they convened assemblies; they levied dues and services. These organizations gave their members a measure of security in a turbulent world where public authority was weak, and where survival depended upon cooperation and mutual assistance. In addition to providing support, both material and psychic, they performed an important social function by resolving conflicts and restraining violence among their members. As Florence grew in size, and her society and polity became more complex, new associations were formed in response to changing needs. A citizen of Dante's generation (c. 1300) would customarily belong to several of these societies: a guild, a confraternity, the Parte Guelfa, the commune.
The commune of the trecento was a composite of these collectivities, and the institutional embodiment of the corporate spirit. Its legislative councils, of the Popolo and the Commune, were the organs of political associations that had been formed in the past. Membership in the commune was restricted to citizens who were matriculated into one or more of the city's twenty-one guilds. Comprising the supreme executive, the Signoria, were eight priors chosen as representatives of the guild community, and the standard-bearer of justice. Among the groups which advised the Signoria on policy, and voted on legislation, were agents of corporations that had been integrated into the communal structure: the Sixteen standard-bearers of the militia companies who represented the city's neighborhoods; the captains of the Parte Guelfa; the guild consuls. Every magistracy — from the Signoria to the officials charged with collecting gabelles at the city gates or those responsible for internal security — functioned collegially: debating issues, promulgating edicts, levying fines.
The corporate ethos was fundamentally egalitarian. Members of a guild, political society (parte), or militia company (gonfalone) were assumed to possess equal rights and privileges, and to bear equal obligations to the society and their fellows. "If any one of us is offended or outraged by any person," so read a clause in the charter of a fourteenth-century Guelf association, "each and every one is obligated to help, defend and avenge him with his life and property, and to respond to that quarrel as though it were his own person." By joining a corporation, the Florentine acquired "brothers" who, individually and collectively, could make claims upon him that he had sworn an oath to acknowledge. These obligations took no account of differences in wealth, social status, or personal qualities. "Members of late medieval confraternities and corpora mystica," Lionel Rothkrug has written, "were compelled by oath of entry to treat every other person in the community according to a whole set of reciprocal rights and duties without regard to personal choice." In theory if not always in practice, that principle applied to every corporate society in Florence, whether religious or secular.
This corporate spirit was revealed most graphically during the celebrations honoring Florence's patron, John the Baptist. Every year, on the day before the saint's feast (24 June), the guilds displayed the finest examples of their wares and skills: in cloth-making and leatherwork, in gold ornaments and woodcarving. Competing for the public's attention were members of religious confraternities, "who assemble [Gregorio Dati reported] at the place where their meetings are held, dressed as angels, and with musical instruments of every kind and marvelous singing. They stage the most beautiful representations of the saints, and of those relics in whose honor they perform." Later that day, representatives from each of the city's sixteen electoral districts (gonfaloni) brought candles to the Baptistery, as offerings to their patron saint. On the feast day itself, a more formal procession moved through the streets, headed by the captains of the Parte Guelfa, their standard carried by a page on horseback. Behind the captains were representatives of the towns in Florence's dominion, and the nobles of the contado and district, required by the terms of their submission to the republic to bring their insignias and candles to the Baptistery. Then came the Signoria, accompanied by their collegiate associates, the Twelve buonuomini and the Sixteen. Preceding the priors in the procession was the great flag of justice, the symbol of the commune's authority, which left the palace of the Signoria only on these formal occasions, or when civic turmoil threatened the regime's security.
During those times of crisis, armed citizens rushed to join those associations which appeared to offer the greatest security, and for which they felt the strongest affinity. For many, the family was the cornerstone of their world, and the palace of the family's patriarch, or its loggia, the place of assembly. Others banded together with neighbors into militia companies, to protect their district from riots, and, if summoned by the priors, to march to the palace of the Signoria. During the Ciompi revolution (July–August 1378) and again in January 1382, the guilds formed the most important blocs in the street battles that were fought in the square in front of the palace of the Signoria. On 31 August 1378, armed guildsmen led by the butchers defeated the cloth-workers, the Ciompi, recently organized into their own guild, and overthrew the popular republic that had governed Florence for six weeks. The regime established after the Ciompi revolution was itself overthrown three years later, when members of the cloth manufacturers' guild defeated contingents from the lower guilds led, once again, by the butchers. In each of these disorders, the flags of the guilds, the commune, and the Parte Guelfa played a prominent role: as assembly points for their members, as symbols of legitimacy. These banners were used to bolster allegiance to the existing regime; they were also employed by dissidents to rally support for corporate values and institutions that (so the rebels argued) had been suppressed by those in power. "Long live the popolo and the guilds!": that cry reverberated through the city during every political crisis from the 1370s to the end of the century and beyond.
The armed guildsmen mobilized around their standards had determined Florence's destiny in the summer of 1378; thereafter, the power of the guild community waned rapidly. Its impotence was dramatized by a putative rebellion in October 1393, the last moment in Florentine history when guild loyalties and aspirations played an important if ultimately unsuccessful role in a political crisis. The revolt began when a debtor, seeking to avoid capture by the police, shouted: "Long live the popolo and the guilds!" Upon hearing this clamor, artisans and shopkeepers seized their arms and rushed to the piazza della Signoria. A goldsmith named Giovanni Ottinelli left his shop and ran through the streets urging his colleagues to "close down vour shops ... for this is the day that we shall be free!" A dyer, Leonardo di Niccolò, assumed the leadership of the rebellious artisans; he and his followers invaded the palace of the captain, seized that official and mounted him on a horse with a banner displaying the arms of the popolo. Defending the regime against this mob were citizens identified by the chroniclers as "good Guelfs," together with contingents of the civic militia and mercenaries in the commune's service. If the testimony of a certain Starmine di Amideo can be believed, two rival youth gangs, called the Berta and the Magrone, took advantage of this imbroglio to attack each other. In the fighting between the rebels and the regime's supporters, Sandro di Niccolo was killed; the banner of the popolo was seized from the artisans by Messer Michele de' Medici and carried to the palace of the Signoria. One artisan later confessed that he had urged Michele "to raise that banner and hold it upright ... and the artisans will follow and defend you." But Michele declined this opportunity to become a hero of the lower guildsmen. Demoralized by the death of their leader and the seizure of the flag, the artisans fled from the square in disorder. That evening two prominent citizens, Messer Rinaldo Gianfigliazzi and Messer Donato Acciaiuoli, carried the banners of the popolo and the Parte Guelfa around the square, followed by a large crowd shouting: "Long live the popolo and the Parte Guelfa!"
The failure of the guilds to sustain their political authority has led some historians to minimize their role in the political and social life of early Renaissance Florence.12 But evidence does exist to suggest that the corporate spirit was not moribund, and that the commune had not become the sole respository of the allegiances that these associations had once inspired. Lauro Martines has noted how strongly and aggressively the guilds defended their privileges, even against the commune. Although the guilds may have suffered some diminution of their autonomy in the late trecento, they continued to exercise substantial control over their members: forcing them to abide by the rules regulating their crafts, adjudicating disputes, levying assessments, requiring their presence at the funerals of fellow guildsmen. Confraternities proliferated in the decades after the Black Death, a trend which suggests that the religious sodality became increasingly important in the lives of the Florentines. The only corporate body to experience a permanent loss of its authority and prestige, and its capacity to attract recruits in these years, was the Parte Guelfa.
To perceive the family, the lineage, as a corporate unit in a social order formed by collectivities is to grasp an important truth about this urban community. Though the family had no charter or constitution, nor formal rules and regulations, it was — and remained — the most cohesive force in Florentine society through the Renaissance and beyond. Lineages were held together by fidei commissum; by jointly owned property and businesses; by common political interests and objectives; above all, by identification with, and loyalty to, a family tradition. The bonds of kinship had changed significantly since the halcyon days of the consorterie in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The infiltration of "new men" into the city, the rise of the popolo, the enactment of legislation concerning magnates, the demographic and economic crises of the mid-fourteenth century: these developments had combined to transform, and perhaps to weaken, kinship ties. Florentines in 1400 were rather more reluctant than formerly to participate in vendettas, less willing, perhaps, to risk money on behalf of relatives plagued by economic misfortune or threatened by neighbors or the commune. In 1373, Foligno de' Medici recalled with nostalgia a past time when his family was strong and unified, "and every man feared us." But some scholars have exaggerated the disintegration of the lineage in the fourteenth century, just as they have emphasized too strongly the debility of other corporate bodies. The trend is not a simple declension from strength to weakness, from cohesion to fragmentation, but a more complex pattern of flux and reflux, of breakdown and reconstitution.
A moment in the history of the Strozzi illustrates the problem. In 1387 that large and very potent lineage was severely damaged, and its political authority jeopardized, by the senseless act of a kinsman, Pagnozzino, who killed Piero Lenzi, a member of the Sixteen. Pagnozzino, his brother Nofri, and their sons were all placed under the communal ban; they could be killed with impunity by any of the Lenzi. In April 1388 the Lenzi ambushed a party of Strozzi on horseback, wounding one of their servants. By the terms of the law authorizing the vendetta, that was an illegal assault for which the Strozzi immediately claimed damages from the Lenzi. Currado Strozzi reported the incident in a letter to his cousin Leonardo; he was hopeful that the judge would cancel the penalties against the Strozzi, "and we will free ourselves from them." Currado then described the revival of family solidarity among the Strozzi as a result of those events:
We are seeking for ways and means to satisfy our honor. We will see how this affair develops, and according to what occurs, we will proceed prudently to protect ourselves. We have everything in order. ... There are twenty of us, and eight servants, and we have sent all of the children away. ... Everyone has rallied round to help, and Messer P[azzino] and N[ofri] act as though one of their sons was wounded. They denounce G[iovanni Lenzi] in the strongest terms. We will not suffer this indignity. Our lawyers are prepared, and there is plenty of money. I deplore this incident for its effect on the family, but it has been like a tonic for us. I see those who were asleep now aroused, as a result of this incident. I see everyone united and generous with money.
Rare, however, were such occasions when the resources of a lineage, and particularly one so large as the Strozzi, could be fully mobilized. Not since 1343 had the great patrician families fought as blocs in civic disorders. In the late trecento and early quattrocento, families might still be treated by the commune as units; for example, in 1394, when the Corbizzi and the Pitti were forced to end their vendetta and make peace, or when (1411) the Alberti were expelled from the city. More frequently, the commune made distinctions among kinsmen, by giving popolano status, for example, to individual magnates who had merited the commune's benevolence; or by separating delinquents from their more respectable cousins. Excluded from the penalties imposed on the Strozzi in 1387 were Messer Pazzino and his male descendants, and the heirs of Rosso and Messer Umberto di Geri, "who are called, in the vernacular, the branch of the Strozzi armati." In that same year of 1387, three Alberti households — the sons of Messer Niccolò di Jacopo, Francesco di Messer Jacopo, and Marco di Francesco — were exempt from the ban on office holding that had been imposed on the remainder of that lineage.
But the slackening of kinship bonds did not lead inexorably to that existential situation described by Goldthwaite: the Florentine "left exposed and isolated, unencumbered with the old social obligations and loyalties." Supplementing the family as a focus of loyalty, and a bastion of support, were smaller, more informal coalitions of individuals bound together by ties of kinship and, equally important, of friendship and of neighborhood. The blood connection was a cohesive element in these informal associations, but it was usually limited to close relatives — brothers or first cousins — and not more distant kin. Relations between cousins — between Francesco di Jacopo and Giovanni d'Amerigo del Bene, between Giovanni di Bicci (and later his son Cosimo) and Averardo di Francesco de' Medici — were often the key links in the nuclei "of relatives and friends and neighbors" that formed around these men. Marriage alliances were important means of recruiting others into these groups. The lawyer Rosso d'Andreozzo Orlandi had married a Davanzati girl, and thus became an intimate associate of that branch descended from Chiarino Davanzati. He wrote (September 1396) to his nephew, Piero di Chiarino Davanzati in Venice, to congratulate him on the marriage of his son Bartolomeo to the daughter of Andrea Peruzzi. "I do not know of a finer marriage connection (parentado)," he said, adding that Bartolomeo's father-in-law was the most highly regarded member of that distinguished house, "a liberal, virtuous, and worthy man, whom you will do well to treat as a blood relative." The Davanzati had followed the counsel that Giovanni Morelli gave to his sons: "Take care to arrange marriages with well-regarded citizens, who are not needy ... and who are not arrogant, but who come from ancient Greek, and are respected and good Guelfs...." The godfather-godson connection was another kind of social cement. Cristofano Bagnesi addressed Forese Sacchetti as his compare, and his letters reflect a sense of affinity as strong as any blood relationship. Indeed, the mutual obligations in these associations were substitutes for the kinship tie, and were so recognized by those who contracted them. "You may consider me your brother and your particular friend," Giovanni Morelli wrote to Forese Sacchetti (February 1427), "as I have regarded you...." Morelli had formulated the rationale, and the method, for winning friends like Sacchetti in his memorial to his sons:
If there is someone in your gonfalone who can help you and push you ahead, first try to become intimate with him, if possible, by means of a marriage. If that is not practicable, then have dealings with him and his [relatives]; try to serve him, offer him aid, if you can do so without too much harm to yourself, when you see that he is in need; give him presents; honor him by inviting him often to dinner.
Excerpted from The Civic World of Early Renaissance Florence by Gene A. Brucker. Copyright © 1977 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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