History of Florence  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Renaissance Florence

Florence (Italian: Firenze) is a major historical city in Italy, distinguished as one of the most outstanding economical and artistic centres in the peninsula from the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance.


Roman origins

Florence was founded in 59 (BCE) as a settlement for former soldiers, being named 'Florentia', allotted by Julius Caesar to his veterans in the rich farming valley of the Arno. The city was built in the style of a military camp with a castrum in a chessboard pattern and the main streets, the cardo and the decumanus, intersecting at the present Piazza della Repubblica, which can still be seen in the city center. Florentia was situated at the Via Cassia, the main route between Rome and the North, which position enabled it to rapidly expand as a commercial center. Emperor Diocletianus made Florentia capital of the province of Tuscia in the 3rd century CE.

St Minias was Florence’s first martyr. He was beheaded at about 250 CE, during the anti-Christian persecutions of the Emperor Decius. The Basilica di San Miniato al Monte now stands near the spot.

While visiting the ruins of Rome during the jubilee celebration in 1300, the banker and chronicler Giovanni Villani (c. 1276–1348) noted the well-known history of the city, its monuments and achievements, and was then inspired to write a universal history of his own city of Florence. Hence he began to record—in year-by-year format—the history of Florence in his Nuova Cronica, which was continued by his brother and nephew after he succumbed to the Black Death in 1348. Villani is praised by historians for preserving valuable information on statistics, biographies, and even events taken place throughout Europe, but his work has also drawn criticism by historians for its many inaccuracies, use of the supernatural and divine providence to explain the outcome of events, and glorification of Florence and the papacy.

Early Middle Ages

The seat of a bishopric from around the beginning of the 4th century CE, the city was alternatingly under Byzantine and Ostrogothic rule as the two powers fought each other for control of the city, taking it by siege only to lose it again later. The fighting over the city may have caused the population to have reduced to as low as 1,000 people.Template:Fact

Peace returned under Lombard rule in the 6th century. Conquered by Charlemagne in 774, Florence became part of the Margraviate of Tuscany, which had Lucca as its capital. The population began to grow again and commerce prospered. In 854 Florence and Fiesole were united in one county.

Medieval age

Margrave Hugo chose Florence as his residence instead of Lucca at about 1000 CE. This initiated the Golden Age of Florentine art. In 1013 the construction was begun of the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte. The exterior of the baptistry was reworked in Romanesque style between 1059 and 1128.

Reviving from the 10th century and governed from 1115 by an autonomous commune, the city was plunged into internal strife by the 13th-century struggle between the Ghibellines, supporters of the German emperor, and the pro-Papal Guelphs, after the murder of Buondelmonte from the Amidei for his missed promise to marry one from the Amidei family. In 1257 the city was ruled by a podestà, the Guelph Luca Grimaldi. The Guelphs had triumphed and soon split in turn into feuding "White" and "Black" factions led respectively by Vieri de' Cerchi and Corso Donati. These struggles eventually led to the exile of the White Guelphs, one of whom was Dante Alighieri. This factional strife was later recorded by Dino Compagni, a White Guelph, in his Chronicles of Florence.

Political conflict did not, however, prevent the city's rise to become one of the most powerful and prosperous in Europe, assisted by her own strong gold currency. The "fiorino d'oro" of the Republic of Florence, or florin, was introduced in 1252, the first European gold coin struck in sufficient quantities to play a significant commercial role since the seventh century. Many Florentine banks had branches across Europe, with able bankers and merchants such as the famous chronicler Giovanni Villani of the Peruzzi Company engaging in commercial transactions as far away as Bruges. The florin quickly became the dominant trade coin of Western Europe, replacing silver bars in multiples of the mark. This period also saw the eclipse of Florence's formerly powerful rival Pisa, which was defeated by Genoa in 1284 and subjugated by Florence in 1406[1]. Power shifted from the aristocracy to the mercantile elite and members of organized guilds after an anti-aristocratic movement, led by Giano della Bella, enacted the Ordinances of Justice in 1293.


Of a population estimated at 80,000 before the Black Death of 1348, about 25,000 are said to have been supported by the city's woolen industry: in 1345 Florence was the scene of an attempted strike by wool carders (ciompi), who in 1378 rose up in a brief revolt against oligarchic rule in the Revolt of the Ciompi. After their suppression, the city came under the sway (1382-1434) of the Albizzi family, bitter rivals of the Medici. Cosimo de' Medici was the first Medici family member to essentially control the city from behind the scenes. Although the city was technically a democracy of sorts, his power came from a vast patronage network along with his alliance to the new immigrants, the gente nuova. The fact that the Medici were bankers to the pope also contributed to their rise. Cosimo was succeeded by his son Piero di Cosimo de' Medici, who was shortly thereafter succeeded by Cosimo's grandson, Lorenzo in 1469. Lorenzo was a great patron of the arts, commissioning works by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli.

After Lorenzo's death in 1492 and his son Piero's exile in 1494, the first period of Medici rule ended with the restoration of a republican government, influenced until his execution (1498) by the teachings of the radical Dominican prior Girolamo Savonarola, whose monomaniacal persecution of the widespread Florentine sodomy and of other worldly pleasures foreshadowed many of the wider religious controversies of the following centuries. However, in due time, Savonarola lost support and was burned at the stake.

A second individual of unusual insight was Niccolò Machiavelli, whose prescriptions for Florence's regeneration under strong leadership have often been seen as a legitimization of political expediency and even malpractice. Commissioned by the Medici, Machiavelli wrote the Florentine Histories, the history of the city. However, Machiavelli was actually tortured and exiled from Florence by the Medici family and the Pope under the pretense of sedition due to his ties to the previous democratic government of Florence and the fact that his work threatened to expose the true nature of their power base and they wished to discredit him. The Florentines drove out the Medici for a second time and re-established a republic on May 16, 1527.

Restored twice with the support of both Emperor and Pope, the Medici in 1537 became hereditary dukes of Florence, and in 1569 they became the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, ruling for two centuries. After the conquest of Siena, the city's historical rival, only the Republic of Lucca (later a Duchy) was independent from Florence in all Tuscany.

There was also a darker side to the Renaissance of Florence. Mobs were both common and influential. Families were pitted against each other in a constant struggle for power. Politically, double-crossings and betrayals were not uncommon, sometimes even within families. Despite political violence, factionalism and corruption, Renaissance Florence did experiment with different forms of citizen government and power sharing arrangements.

Citizen Government in Renaissance Florence

From 1328 until 1434, Florence was a city republic governed by a broad swath of citizens from the elite merchant and banking families. They used a method of sortition to draw candidates for public office. During the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, popular revolts led to periods when public office was also shared among citizens from the middle and lower artisan class.

In order to reconcile the warring factions and families, a complex electoral system was developed as mechanism for sharing power. Incumbent officers and appointees carried out a secret ballot every three or four years. They committed the names of all those elected into a series of bags, one for each sesto, or sixth, of the city. One name was drawn from each bag every two months to form the highest executive of the city, the Signoria. The selection scheme was controlled to ensure that no two members of the same family ended up in the same batch of six names.

This lot arrangement organized the political structure of Florence until 1434 when the Medici family took power. To maintain control, the Medici undermined the selection process by introducing a system of elected committees they could effectively manipulate by fear and favour. Civic lotteries still took place but actual power rested with the Medicis. In 1465, a movement to reintroduce civic lotteries was halted by an extraordinary commission packed with Medici supporters.<ref>ibid.</ref>

The Florentine republic example shows how the process of sortition can be used as a check on arbitrary power and patronage through the anonymous and impartial selection of political office holders.

Role in art, literature and science

The surge in artistic, literary, and scientific investigation that occurred in Florence in the 14th-16th centuries was precipitated by Florentines' preoccupation with money, banking and trade and with the display of wealth and leisure.

Added to this, the crises of the Catholic church (especially the controversy over the French Avignon Papacy and the Great Schism) along with the catastrophic effects of the Black Death were to lead to a re-evaluation of medieval values, resultant in the development of a humanist culture, stimulated by the works of Petrarch and Boccaccio. This prompted a revisitation and study of the classical antiquity, leading to the Renaissance. Florence benefited materially and culturally from this sea-change in social consciousness.

Modern and contemporary age

The extinction of the Medici line and the accession in 1737 of Francis Stephen, duke of Lorraine and husband of Maria Theresa of Austria, led to Tuscany's inclusion in the territories of the Austrian crown. Austrian rule was to end in defeat at the hands of France and the kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont in 1859, and Tuscany became a province of the united kingdom of Italy in 1861.

Florence replaced Turin as Italy's capital in 1865, hosting the country's first parliament, but was superseded by Rome six years later following its addition to the kingdom.

20th century

Florence replaced Turin as Italy's capital in 1865. In an effort to "modernise" the city, the old market in the Piazza del Mercato Vecchio and many medieval houses were pulled down and replaced by a more formal street plan with newer houses. The Piazza (first renamed Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, then Piazza della Repubblica, the present name) was significantly widened and a large triumphal arch was constructed at the west end. This development is largely regarded as a disaster and was only prevented from continuing by the efforts of several British and American people living in the city. A museum recording the destruction stands nearby today. The country's first capital city was superseded by Rome six years later, after the withdrawal of the French troops made its addition to the kingdom possible. After doubling during the 19th century, Florence's population tripled in the 20th with the growth of tourism, trade, financial services and industry.

During World War II the city experienced a year-long German occupation (1943-1944). On September 25, 1943, allied bombers targeted central Florence, destroying many buildings and killing 215 civilians.

During the German retreat, Florence was declared an "open city", thereby avoiding major war damage. Shortly before leaving Florence, as they knew that they would soon have to retreat the Germans murdered many freedom fighters and political opponents publicly, in streets and squares including Piazza Santo Spirito. In 1944, the retreating Germans decided to blow up the bridges along the Arno linking the district of Oltrarno to the rest of the city, thus making it difficult for the British troops to cross. However, at the last moment Hitler ordered that the Ponte Vecchio must not be blown up, as it was too beautiful. Instead an equally historic area of streets directly to the south of the bridge, including part of the Corridoio Vasariano, was destroyed using mines. Since then the bridges have been restored exactly to their original forms using as many of the remaining materials as possible, but the buildings surrounding the Ponte Vecchio have been rebuilt in a style combining the old with modern design. The Allied soldiers who died driving the Germans from Tuscany are buried in cemeteries outside the city: Americans about 9 kilometers (6 miles) south of the city [2], British and Commonwealth soldiers a few kilometers east of the center on the north bank of the Arno [3]).

On November 4, 1966 the Arno flooded parts of the centre, killing at least 40 and damaging millions of art treasures and rare books. There was no warning from the authorities who knew the flood was coming, except a phone call to the jewellers on the Ponte Vecchio. Volunteers from around the world came to help rescue the books and art, and the effort inspired multiple new methods of art conservation. Forty years later, there are still works awaiting restoration.

See also

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