Florence 1100-1532 What a Republic!
Florence, in an ancient history discussion? Yes. Sometimes we can find value when we compare political systems from different times in history. The Republic of Florence is an interesting case to compare to Republican Rome, because it gives us another example of how men try to build stable governments. Florence was a city republic like Rome but it was never able to expand in the same way because of the circumstances of its time. Still, its leaders faced the same challenges the Roman did – socio-economic class differences, economic interests, and cultural influences. Those individuals who designed the world’s Republics, including America’s founding fathers, went to great lengths to insure their infant political systems would not revert to monarchies through the consolidation of power. Florence stands as an extreme case of this paranoia.
As one of the great merchant cities of the middle ages (Pisa or Antwerp would be other examples), Florence escaped participation in the feudal system because it had a strong capitalist engine and could operate as an independent political system. Feudalism could only take root where bureaucracy failed and it did not fail there. The Florentine political system certainly had its ups and downs, but it was business that moved Florence forward and politics were regulated by business.
By the year 900 A.D, the great cities of Europe had been weakened to a point where it was necessary to start from scratch. Commerce and artisanship had to be rekindled by recruiting citizens with the right skills from the outside, mostly from the agrarian economies of the surrounding territory. Florence always found aristocratic control unacceptable, so any tendency in that direction was continually resisted. Its leaders were a new class of man; middle class merchants we call burghers, who were independent, entrepreneurial, and confident. Between the years of 900 and 1250, these burghers turned Florence into an autonomous institution by resisting and expelling those who would attempt to impose on them some kind of hierarchical model of government. They were aided in this effort by the emperors and popes who wasted time and money fighting among themselves for control of Italy rather than attacking the city.
In the early days, Florence was probably managed by community groups and block organizations, who worked together to provide basic services. This was an incubator republic which evolved into rudimentary courts and militias as it became more formalized. No wealthy family was recognized as a leader and a pact between families (association) was put into place to show mutual dedication to the success of the city.
By the twelfth century, an executive committee of ten was in operation as the magistrate apparatus for governing. The committee derived its power from control of the local militias and utilized a temporary executive to manage the bureaucracy. One vestigial authority retained power over this structure; the Parlamentum, which was a general assembly of all citizens brought together in times of crisis to save the city. The Parlamentum was a destabilizing institution because it was unmanaged and its output was unpredictable. For example, it had been known to throw out the city’s constitution on occasion. Fortunately, the stability of Florence was more determined by power arrangements between the social classes than formal governmental systems.
In 1207, the city fathers (Grandi) decided to introduce a new magistrate from the outside called a podesta, the theory being that an outsider would not be subject to the bias of an insider. The role of the podesta was to arbitrate disputes between powerful families, but this hardly ever worked because he had little power and the families could treat with each other and solve their problems outside of his efforts. This useless office of podesta plodded along for centuries to no purpose.
During the early 1200s, Florence came to be dominated by two families with tongue-twister names: the Guelfs and the Ghibellines. These families were essentially political parties -- the Guelfs loyal to the Pope while the Ghibellines were loyal to the emperor. By the mid-century, a feud between them developed and assassination in the name of foreign policy became commonplace. At one point, each of the families set up their own republic within the city. Between 1250 and 1260 the Guelfs ruled and the Ghibellines were in exile. The situation was reversed between 1260 and 1267. Was this a republic? Hard to understand how it could have been called one.
In the midst of the strife and assassination, two important things occurred. Large numbers of the middle class were brought into the political system (like the knights of the Roman Republic), which had the effect of damping out conflict, and there developed, through Guelf influence, a sentimental opposition to monarchy.
The introduction of the middle class into government created a comic act of complexity in organization. Beneath the first level of magistrates previously described, a second level was built of middle class citizens. Now the government apparatus was well insulated against a power grab but it was also unworkable because no man could steer the city on his own. As William Everdell points out in his brilliant book End of Kings:
“In a kind of mitotic ecstasy, Florence between 1250 and 1450 multiplied offices beyond the capacity of historians to count them. There were so many, they ran out of names for them and came to call them by number of members and purpose -- seven of flood or ten of war. It was a glorious carnival of magistrates elected, chosen by lot, or appointed by a committee. So that no one would miss a chance to govern, terms of office were shortened to as little as two months, the shortest in republican history.”
In 1343, the most mature of the many Florentine constitutions was created. It defined hundreds of public offices and its rules were amazing to contemplate. For example, an elected committee could appoint another committee to draw up list of candidates for committees and selections from the list were made by a third committee. The system was designed to keep everyone involved in the government so the aristocratic families could not consolidate their power, but it did so in a manner that defied logic. No doubt this mad matrix of offices prevented an accumulation of power -- bossism was prevented by through election by lot. Coups may have been possible until the army was disbanded in 1351 in favor of mercenaries. Meanwhile, Florence weathered wars with the cities of Tuscany, a credit collapse, and the plague, without a scratch.
The Republican system was seriously threatened for the first time in 1390, when the opportunist Visconti decided he would like to control all Italy north of Rome. Starting with Milan, Visconti began to work his way south rolling up town after town. Once Pisa and Siena fell, only Florence was left to conquer. The Florentines never considered surrender and were prepared to fight Visconti to the death when a miracle occurred. Visconti died of the plague, his empire fell apart, and Florence was saved.
And now we unveil the true culprits behind the fall of the Florentine Republic -- the Medici. The first of their clan, Cosimo, while trying to protect his business interests, was able to constitute and control a committee charged with filling a hat with names of candidates for important offices. Cosimo used this authority to create a base of power and control. Before his death, Cosimo and his son Piero had become leaders of most powerful political party in Florence. When Piero died in 1469, key power blocks asked his son Lorenzo to lead the republic. Using public support to his benefit, Lorenzo gradually gained control of the most important magistracies and chipped away at the republic. When he died in 1492, power was consolidated in a way that republicans could no longer resist.
Finally, in 1530, the pope allied with the Habsburg emperor, defeated Florence in battle, and the republic was no more.
What have we learned from this story? We learned that republics are built to oppose monarchies, that they depend on unique circumstances for their creation, and that they require middle class participation to hold the aristocracy in check. These elements existed in Florence as they did in Rome. Both republics lasted nearly five hundred years, both were able to adapt their political systems to maintain stability, and both collapsed when an opportunist appeared who had no reservations about tearing down what had been successful for centuries.