The Florentine Magnates: Lineage and Faction in a Medieval Commune


In the 1290s a new guild-based Florentine government placed a group of noble families under severe legal restraints, on the grounds that they were both the most powerful and the most violent and disruptive element in the city. In this colorful portrayal of civic life in medieval Florence, Carol Lansing explores the patrilineal structure and function of these urban families, known as "magnates." She shows how they emerged as a class defined not by specific economic interests but by a distinctive culture. During ...

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In the 1290s a new guild-based Florentine government placed a group of noble families under severe legal restraints, on the grounds that they were both the most powerful and the most violent and disruptive element in the city. In this colorful portrayal of civic life in medieval Florence, Carol Lansing explores the patrilineal structure and function of these urban families, known as "magnates." She shows how they emerged as a class defined not by specific economic interests but by a distinctive culture. During the earlier period of weaker civic institutions, these families built their power by sharing among themselves crucial resources--forts, political alliances, ecclesiastical rights. Lansing examines this activity as well as the responses patrilineal strategies drew from women, who were excluded from inheritance and full lineage membership. In looking at the elements of this culture, which emphasized private military force, knighthood, and faction, Lansing argues that the magnates' tendency toward violence derived from a patrician youth culture and from the instability inherent in the exaggerated use of patrilineal ties. In describing the political changes of the 1290s, she shows how some families eventually dropped the most stringent aspects of patrilineage and exerted their influence through institutions and patronage networks.

Originally published in 1991.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691604534
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 7/14/2014
  • Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
  • Pages: 282
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

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The Florentine Magnates

Lineage and Faction in a Medieval Commune

By Carol Lansing


Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03154-5



The dominant features of medieval Florence were the high towers of the nobility. Most north Italian communes by the late twelfth century were forests of narrow stone towers: Benjamin of Tudela, visiting Pisa in the 1160s, estimated the number of towers there at a dramatically improbable 10,000. In 1100, Florence probably contained only a handful of towers; by 1200 the city's skyline was jammed with more than 150, some ranging as high as 250 feet.

No civic monument offered visual competition: in fact, there were few public buildings. Florence had a new set of walls, built in the 1170s, but they enclosed a city largely made up of wooden shops and housing, and parish churches. The few standing classical ruins had been remade into private fortifications. There were two open public spaces within the walls, the ancient forum and a new market used by money changers. The only large building complexes were the Benedictine monastery and the group surrounding the cemetery: the medieval cathedral, Santa Reparata, together with the baptistry, the bishop's palace, and the hospital of St. John. Other large foundations were built in the free space outside the walls. The familiar image of Florence as a city structured by public and institutional buildings—the oversized Duomo and the monastic churches, the palaces of the guilds, the civic government, and the Guelf party—dates only from the end of the thirteenth century. Until that time, the city was largely shaped by private fortifications.

Thirteenth-Century Florence

The physical dominance of the towers was a dramatic expression of the power of noble families in the twelfth- and thirteenth-century city. Like the towers themselves, most noble families were new to the commune, a part of the flood of immigrants into the commune in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The expansion of Florence was late among the north Italian cities, lagging well behind the seaports, including Pisa and Genoa. As late as 1100, Florence had barely moved beyond its undistinguished late Roman origins. When expansion did begin, it was explosive. Actual figures are speculative, but the rough proportions of growth are clear from a series of new city walls. Twelfth-century Florence jumped from a population of approximately 25,000 to one of 50,000. The city doubled again in the thirteenth century, reaching about 105,000 by 1300. In these two centuries, then, the population of Florence quadrupled. Figure 1.1 shows the major thirteenth-century changes to the city, including the walls projected in 1284.

This expansion was caused by rural economic growth and emigration. The eleventh and twelfth centuries saw the rapid development of the city's contado, or hinterland, an area equivalent to the bishop's diocese. The best evidence for growth is the multiplication of castelli, fortified villages generally inhabited by a number of small proprietors or tenants. Castelli are mentioned in Florentine documents in large numbers only in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Robert Davidsohn, the great nineteenth-century historian of Florence, counted only eleven castelli by 1000, then 130 by 1100 and 205 by 1200. These dates are rough approximations, as mention of castelli in surviving documents must lag behind their actual spread.

The influence of these developments in the contado was profound. This is typical of medieval cities: the close interrelationship between city and countryside has been a major finding of medieval urban historians. The model advanced by Henri Pirenne of the city as a "non-feudal island in a feudal sea" has not held up. For Florence, the Danish historian Johann Plesner in the 1930s studied the social and economic backgrounds of thirteenth-century emigrants from Passignano and Giogoli. Plesner found an unbroken tradition of combined urban and rural interests. Immigrants to Florence were hardly fugitive serfs. Rather, they most often derived from the prosperous castellan class, families benefiting from the recent rural growth. Regardless of their social background, they characteristically kept their ties to the country and their rural property.

It may be, however, that the ties linking the Florentine urban patriciate to the countryside were more recent than those of other Tuscan cities. C. J. Wickham has recently speculated that eleventh-century Florentines were less apt to own rural property than were the patricians of other towns, including Lucca and Arezzo. Elio Conti, studying the Chianti, found little evidence in the eleventh century of Florentine landlords. The suggestion is that the Florentines were late to expand their influence over the countryside. If this is correct, the implications for the nobility are significant. It suggests that their sources of power and identity were fundamentally urban: although many derived from recent immigrants, their social rise took place in the city, and their rural lands were recent acquisitions. As we shall see, in the thirteenth century most patrician families based their identity on urban rather than rural holdings, on palaces and towers rather than country estates.

Still, there was a clear opposition between urban and rural interests; it just was not expressed by two distinct social classes. The communal government was quick to recognize the crucial importance of having control of the countryside and in the twelfth century waged a series of campaigns to extend its power over the contado. Noble families dominated the countryside through strategically placed rocche, forts or castles. As the commune expanded its jurisdiction it conquered these forts and often razed them. The defeated nobles were annually required to join the procession honoring the city's patron, St. John the Baptist, and to bear offerings of wax modeled and painted in symbolic images, like that of a castle. The scene was a potent expression of the nobles' subjection to communal authority. They also had to establish residence in the city, a policy that was probably intended to foster civic sympathy among them. Ironically, many nobles already had town houses: the distinction between the minor nobility of the city and that of the countryside was already blurred.

The paradigmatic case was the Montebuoni family, who held a castle overlooking the Greve and controlling the road to Siena. The Montebuoni were episcopal vassals with loyalties almost comically divided between the commune and private rural power. A chronicler reports that the family was fighting on behalf of the commune at the siege of their rural neighbors, the Ormanni, when they realized that their own castle was the next in line. Deserting the Florentine army, they prepared to defend Montebuoni. The effort was unsuccessful; the castle was razed in October of 1135. The Montebuoni had long established an urban-rural pattern, with at least one family member owning a house in Florence by 1048.

The thirteenth-century patriciate ranged across the full spectrum, from those having purely urban to those having purely rural interests. There were nobles who remained aloof and were not early participants in the commune. The point is awkward to document, because it relies on the absence of contradictory evidence. When the Florentines imposed restrictions on the magnates, the group was divided into two categories, nobles of the city and those of the contado. The nobles of the contado were considered those who had never chosen or been required to establish a residence in town. Again, some families are considered to have had purely urban origins, a point that is also based on the absence of contradictory evidence for their antecedents. Finally, families with new wealth derived from commercial ventures or banking were quick to invest in rural lands, even sometimes purchasing titles. Still, the majority of patrician families were probably descended from emigrants like those described by Plesner: small proprietors who moved to the city and prospered there.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, this hybrid patriciate formed the loose oligarchy that ruled Florence. Despite the sporadic efforts of the German emperors, the city was effectively self-governing. Formal political organization had begun in voluntary associations of leading townsmen, private and strictly limited in powers. After the collapse of episcopal jurisdiction, these private associations evolved into a loose form of public government, acquiring a legal foundation only on a piecemeal basis. The Florentine government slowly gathered up most imperial administrative rights, some through the concessions of the Countess Matilda and some by simple usurpation. The crucial right of civil and criminal jurisdiction over the contado was typical; it was at first exercised de facto, then conceded by an imperial legate in 1154, and lost and reacquired in 1197.

City government was marked by decentralization. Scholars usually view the formation of the commune from above, as ultimately derived from the council of episcopal vassals. In fact, the more fundamental Florentine political units were the neighborhood associations. It may be more accurate to envision the parishes joining together to create the commune. Parishes were not only ecclesiastical organizations but distinct fiscal, judicial, and military units. Parishioners were collectively responsible for tax collection, for the defense of their gate and the provision of a neighborhood company in the city's militia. They were charged with cleaning the neighborhood sewers and repairing the streets. They could even be made collectively responsible for bringing a neighbor accused of a crime to justice. They also carried out major public works. When the Ponte Vecchio collapsed in 1177, the neighborhood military companies were required to march out behind their banners as if to war, plant staffs in the river, and construct a new bridge!

Ambitious patrician families built towers not only for defense but in hopes of dominating their neighborhoods and controlling consular offices as a result. The original consuls, first documented in 1138, in some way represented the neighborhood associations. In the twelfth century the Florentine consuls were generally but not always twelve in number. Internally, their main function was probably as commercial and judicial authorities, particularly in disputes between neighborhoods. They also directed the commune's interests in external affairs, making treaties and waging wars. By the mid-twelfth century they answered to a general council of about 150 men, and to the popular assembly or arringum, which met in the cathedral and presumably voted by acclamation.

In the second half of the twelfth century, consuls representing the neighborhoods were joined by consuls acting for the major new urban powers, the professional associations. The first of these were the consuls of the milites, the society of knights, probably titled men who fought on horseback in the militia. They were followed by the consoli mercatanti, representing the city's merchants. Both sets of consuls appear in a text of 1184, ratifying a pact with Lucca. By the end of the century, they were joined by representatives of the new financial associations: the priors of the original seven arti, or guilds, and the consoli cambiatorum, consuls of the money changers. In practice, most consular offices were held by members of a small group of patrician families. Memberships of course overlapped, so that a consul of the merchants also probably belonged to the societas militum. The corporations of the city were not discrete groups.

The most important characteristic of the consular system was its weakness. Civic government was based on a fragile balance between ruling families, and when that balance tipped it was unable to maintain order. Chronic factional turmoil disrupted the city. Because the factions originated in lineage-based rivalries, small private disputes quickly blew up into full-scale political confrontations. Temporary reconciliations usually followed, often effected by marriage alliances between contending families. In 1177 a successful monopoly of the consulate by a faction centered around the Giandonati was challenged by a rival alliance, led by the Uberti. The result was three years of civil war.

One attempted solution to factional warfare over consular offices was the institution of the podesta. This was a salaried executive, chosen by the council to serve for a year and made accountable by a required audit at the end of his term. The first podesta was Florentine and in fact an Uberti, who had probably led a brief takeover of the city in 1193. By 1207, however, only foreigners could be named to the office, on the principle that an outsider would stand above private interests. In effect, the podestà resembled a hired city manager.

An oath of 1204, establishing a peace pact between the commune and a rural nobleman, suggests the limited nature of this government by negotiation and contract. The oath was taken by the podestà as executive, but he was joined by the "consuls of the commune and the consuls of the knights and the consuls of the merchants and the priors of the guilds and the general council of Florence," all "assembled at the sound of the bell" to take the oath. All the major organized secular powers in the city were represented. Their full participation was the best guarantee of the soundness of the agreement.

The first half of the thirteenth century was pivotal. These decades saw rapid physical and economic growth, including the development of the south bank of the Arno, as evidenced by the construction of three new bridges. The major streets of the city were paved in 1237. With economic growth came the continuing development of the guilds, including not only wealthy merchants and bankers, but also the beginnings of the craft guilds. The other crucial change was the formation of the popular associations, which ultimately came to challenge the nobility. This began with the societas peditum, the society of foot soldiers, balancing the knights. This group evolved into the societas populi, literally, society of the people: popular organization had its origins in military association. Finally, it was in this period that the local factional alliances coalesced into two distinct parties, associated with the papal and imperial causes, the Guelfs and the Ghibellines.

In the second half of the thirteenth century, this tenuous political order broke down, and the city suffered intermittent civil war as the Guelfs and Ghibellines competed with one another and with the new corporate groups—the popular associations and the guilds—for control of Florence. In part, the successive regimes followed the Italian fortunes of the imperial cause. Frederick II gradually succeeded in imposing some measure of imperial control, marked by his assertion in 1238 of the right to endorse or deny a new Florentine podestà. In 1246, he appointed to the office his illegitimate son Frederick of Antioch. This appointment touched off a series of factional clashes, and the first exile of the leading Guelf families in 1248.

Imperial control vanished with Frederick IPs death in 1250. The first popular regime, or Primo Popolo, stepped in. This government was established by a group derived from the societas populi. Both the name and the circumstances evoke a democratic association of artisans, but in fact the popolo best represented the powerful new commercial interests in the city. A number of the families that rose to political prominence in the period came to be classed as magnates in the 1290s. The Primo Popolo left the traditional structure of government intact, but added a parallel series of popular institutions. These were based on the military organization of twenty neighborhood companies, each with its own council. The city's quarters were reorganized as sesti, as shown in Figure 1.2. The government was led by a capitano del popolo, who was advised by two councils, one representing the sesti, and the other the greater guilds. This military structure must have been intended in part to counteract private, patrician military control.

The Primo Popolo lasted ten years and built a number of civic institutions that are indicative of their political and financial interests. Once in power, they acted to restrain the nobles by abolishing the societas militum and restricting the height of private towers to about 29 meters. They also moved the government out of private houses, building the first substantial civic palace, now the Bargello. The most celebrated innovation of the Primo Popolo was the coining of the gold florin. They combined their commercial interests with an active policy of expansion and became engaged in a war with Pisa and Siena for local territorial control.

In 1258, the imperial coronation of Manfred raised Ghibelline hopes and led to a revolt in the city. When it failed, the leading Ghibellines fled into exile, leaving much of their property to be destroyed. Two years later, they returned: the Florentine Ghibellines under Manfred's banner joined the Sienese to defeat the Florentine militia at the battle of Montaperti. Florence itself barely escaped destruction. The important Guelfs fled the city and their property in turn was destroyed. Florence briefly returned to the old system of government by Ghibelline podestà.

This final Ghibelline regime was short-lived. Actively undermined by papal financial and political pressure, it lasted only up to Manfred's defeat by Charles of Anjou at Benevento in 1266. The Ghibellines fled into exile again, and a brief popular government was supplanted when the Angevin troops arrived in the city early in 1267. Power passed into the hands of the Guelf party. The ensuing government again abolished the popular office of the Capitano del Popolo, and made the Guelf party a permanent institution.


Excerpted from The Florentine Magnates by Carol Lansing. Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Figures and Tables, ix,
Preface, xi,
Acknowledgments, xv,
ONE Introduction: The Medieval Florentine Nobles, 3,
TWO The Formation of Urban Lineages, 29,
THREE Joint Lineage Property: An Overview, 46,
FOUR Ecclesiastical Rights as Joint Property, 64,
FIVE Joint Property: Towers and Palaces, 84,
SIX Disaffection from the Lineage: Umiliana dei Cerchi and the Cathars, 109,
SEVEN Women Within the Lineage, 125,
EIGHT Knighthood and Courtly Style, 145,
NINE Violence and Faction, 164,
TEN The Popolo and the Ordinances of Justice, 192,
ELEVEN The Debate Over True Nobility, 212,
TWELVE The Magnates in the Early Fourteenth Century, 229,
APPENDIX I List of the Magnates, 239,
APPENDIX II A Note on Coinage, 243,
Bibliography, 245,
Index, 259,

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