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History of Florence

Born under the Ornery Sign of Mars

Florence, 1493 from Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle

Etruscans and Romans

The identity of Florence’s first inhabitants is a matter of dispute. There seems to have been some kind of settlement along the Arno long before the Roman era, perhaps as early as 1000 BC; the original founders may have been either native Italics or Etruscans.

Throughout the period of Etruscan dominance, the village on the river lived in the shadow of Faesulae – Florence’s present-day suburb of Fiesole was then an important city, the northernmost member of the Etruscan Dodecapolis. The Arno river cuts across central Italy like a wall. This narrow stretch of it, close to the mountain pass over to Emilia, was always the most logical place for a bridge.

Roman Florence can claim no less a figure than Julius Caesar for its founder. Like so many other Italian cities, the city began as a planned urban enterprise in an underdeveloped province; Caesar started it as a colony for his army veterans in 59 BC. The origin of the name – so suggestive of springtime and flowers – is another mystery. First it was Florentia, then Fiorenza in the Middle Ages, and finally Firenze. One guess is that its foundation took place in April, when the Romans were celebrating the games of the Floralia.

The original street plan of Florentia can be seen today in the neat rectangle of blocks between Via de’ Tornabuoni and Via del Proconsolo, between the Duomo and Piazza della Signoria. Its forum occupied roughly the site of the modern Piazza della Repubblica, and the outline of its amphitheatre can be traced in the oval of streets just west of Piazza Santa Croce.

Central Florence's Roman plan

Roman Florentia never really imposed itself on the historian. One writer mentions it as a municipia splendidissima, a major town and river crossing along the Via Cassia, connected to Rome and the thriving new cities of northern Italy, such as Bononia and Mediolanum (Bologna and Milan). At the height of Empire, the municipal boundaries had expanded out to Via de’ Fossi, Via S. Egidio, and Via de’ Benci. Nevertheless, Florentia did not play a significant role either in the Empire’s heyday or in its decline.

Early Middle Ages

After the fall of Rome, Florence weathered its troubles comparatively well. We hear of it withstanding sieges by the Goths around the year 400, when it was defended by the famous imperial general Stilicho, and again in 541, during the campaigns of Totila and Belisarius; all through the Greek–Gothic wars Florence seems to have taken the side of Constantinople. The Lombards arrived around 570; under their rule Florence was the seat of a duchy subject to the then Tuscan capital of Lucca.

The next mention in the chronicles refers to Charlemagne spending Christmas with the Florentines in the year 786. Like the rest of Italy, Florence had undoubtedly declined; a new set of walls went up under Carolingian rule, about 800, enclosing an area scarcely larger than the original Roman settlement of 59 BC. In such times Florence was lucky to be around at all; most likely throughout the Dark Ages the city was gradually increasing its relative importance and strength at the expense of its neighbours. The famous Baptistry, erected some time between the 6th and 9th centuries, is the only important building from that troubled age in all Tuscany.

By the 1100s, Florence was the leading city of the County of Tuscany. Countess Matilda, ally of Pope Gregory VII against the emperors, oversaw the construction of a new set of walls in 1078, this time coinciding with the widest Roman-era boundaries.

Already the city had recovered all the ground lost during the Dark Ages, and the momentum of growth did not abate. New walls were needed again in the 1170s, to enclose what was becoming one of the largest cities in Europe. In this period, Florence owed its growth and prosperity largely to the textile industry – weaving and ‘finishing’ cloth not only from Tuscany but wool shipped from as far afield as Spain and England. The capital gain from this trade, managed by the Calimala and the Arte della Lana, Florence’s richest guilds, led naturally to an even more profitable business – banking and finance.

The Florentine Republic Battles with the Barons

In 1125, Florence once and for all conquered its ancient rival Fiesole. Wealth and influence brought with them increasing political responsibilities. Externally the city often found itself at war with one or other of its neighbours. Since Countess Matilda’s death in 1115, Florence had become a self-governing comune, largely independent of the emperor and local barons.

The new city republic’s hardest problems, however, were closer to home. The nobles of the county, encouraged in their anachronistic feudal behaviour by representatives of the imperial government, proved irreconcilable enemies to the new merchant republic, and Florence spent most of the 12th century trying to keep them in line. Often the city actually declared war on a noble clan, as with the Alberti, or the Counts of Guidi, and razed their castles whenever they captured one.

To complicate the situation, nobles attracted by the stimulation of urban life – not to mention the opportunities for making money – often moved their entire families into Florence itself. They brought their country habits with them, a boyish eagerness to brawl with their neighbours on the slightest pretext, and a complete disregard for the laws of the comune.

Medieval Florence

Naturally, they couldn’t feel secure without a little urban castle of their own, and before long Florence, like any prosperous Italian city of the Middle Ages, featured a remarkable skyline of hundreds of tower-fortresses, built as much for status as for defence. Many were over 60m in height. It wasn’t uncommon for the honest citizen to come home from a hard day’s work at the bank, hoping for a little peace and quiet, only to find siege engines parked in front of the house and a company of bowmen commandeering the children’s bedroom.

But just as Florence was able to break the power of the rural nobles, those in the town also eventually had to succumb. The last tower-fortresses were chopped down to size in the early 1300s. But even without the nobles raising hell, the Florentines always found new ways to keep the pot boiling. The rich merchants who dominated the government, familiarly known as the popolo grosso, resorted to every sort of murder and mayhem to beat down the demands of the lesser guilds, the popolo minuto, for a fair share of the wealth; the two only managed to settle their differences when confronted by murmurs of discontent from what was then one of Europe’s largest urban proletariats.

But even beyond simple class issues, the city born under the sign of Mars always found a way to make trouble for itself. Not only did Florentines pursue the Guelph–Ghibelline conflict with greater zest than almost any Tuscan city; according to the chronicles of the time, they actually started it.

In 1215, men of the Amidei family murdered a prominent citizen named Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti over a broken wedding engagement, the spark that touched off the factionalist struggles first in Florence, then quickly throughout Italy.

Guelphs and Ghibellines

In the 13th century, there was never a dull moment in Florence. Guelphs and Ghibellines, often more involved with some feud between powerful families than with real political issues, cast each other into exile and confiscated each other’s property with every change of the wind. Religious strife occasionally pushed politics off the front page.

In the 1240s, a curious foreshadowing of the Reformation saw Florence wrapped up in the Patarene heresy. This sect, closely related to the Albigensians of southern France, was as obsessed with the presence of Evil in the world as John Calvin – or Florence’s own future fire-and-brimstone preacher, Savonarola. Exploiting a streak of religious eccentricity that has always seemed to be present in the Florentine psyche, the Patarenes thrived in the city, even electing their own bishop. The established Church was up to the challenge; St Peter Martyr, a bloodthirsty Dominican, led his armies of axe-wielding monks to the assault in 1244, exterminating almost the entire Patarene community.

In 1248, with help from Emperor Frederick II, Florence’s Ghibellines booted out the Guelphs – once and for all, they thought, but two years later the Guelphs were back, and it was the Ghibellines’ turn to pack their grips. The new Guelph regime, called the primo popolo, was for the first time completely in the control of the bankers and merchants. It passed the first measures to control the privileges of the turbulent, largely Ghibelline nobles, and forced them all to chop the tops off their tower-fortresses.

Battle of Montaperti, 14th century

The next decades witnessed a series of wars with the Ghibelline cities of Tuscany – Siena, Pisa and Pistoia – not just by coincidence Florence’s habitual enemies. Usually the Florentines were the aggressors, and more often than not fortune favoured them.

In 1260, however, the Sienese, reinforced by Ghibelline exiles from Florence and a few imperial cavalry, destroyed an invading Florentine army at the Battle of Monteaperti. Florence was at the Ghibellines’ mercy. Only the refusal of Farinata degli Uberti, the leader of the exiles, to allow the city’s destruction kept the Sienese from putting it to the torch – a famous episode recounted by Dante in the Inferno. (In a typical Florentine gesture of gratitude, Dante found a home for Uberti in one of the lower circles of hell.)

In Florence, a Ghibelline regime under Count Guido Novello made life rough for the wealthy Guelph bourgeoisie. As luck would have it, though, only a few years later the Guelphs were back in power, and Florence was winning on the battlefield again. The new Guelph government, the secondo popolo, earned a brief respite from factional strife. In 1289, Florence won a great victory over another old rival, Arezzo. This was the Battle of Campaldino, where the Florentine citizen army included young Dante Alighieri.

In 1282, and again in 1293, Florence tried to clean up an increasingly corrupt government with a series of reforms. The 1293 Ordinamenti della Giustizia once and for all excluded the nobles from the important political offices. By now, however, the real threat to the Guelph merchants’ rule did not come so much from the nobility, which had been steadily falling behind in wealth and power over a period of two centuries, but from the lesser guilds, which had been completely excluded from a share of the power, and also from the growing working class employed in the textile mills and the foundries.

Despite all the troubles, the city’s wealth and population grew tremendously throughout the 1200s. Its trade contacts spread across Europe, and crowned heads from London to Constantinople found Florentine bankers ready to float them a loan. About 1253 Florence minted modern Europe’s first gold coin, the florin, which soon became a standard currency across the continent.

Gold Florin, 1347

Golden Age of the Republic of Florence

By 1300 Florence counted over 100,000 souls – a little cramped, even inside the vast new circuit of walls built by the comune in the 1280s. It was not only one of the largest cities in Europe, but certainly one of the richest. Besides banking, the wool trade was also booming: by 1300 the wool guild, the Arte della Lana, had over 200 large workshops in the city alone.

Naturally, this new opulence created new possibilities for culture and art. Florence’s golden age began perhaps in the 1290s, when the comune started its tremendous programme of public buildings – including the Palazzo della Signoria and the cathedral; important religious structures, such as Santa Croce, were under way at the same time. Cimabue was the artist of the day; Giotto was just beginning, and his friend Dante was hard at work on the Commedia.

As in so many other Italian cities, Florence had been developing its republican institutions slowly and painfully. At the beginning of the comune in 1115, the leaders were a class called the boni homines, made up mostly of nobles. Only a few decades later, these were calling themselves consules, evoking a memory of the ancient Roman republic.

When the Ghibellines took over, the leading official was a podestà appointed by the emperor. Later, under the Guelphs, the podestà and a new officer called the capitano del popolo were both elected by the citizens. With the reforms of the 1290s Florence’s republican constitution was perfected – if that is the proper word for an arrangement that satisfied few citizens and guaranteed lots of trouble for the future.

Under the new dispensation, power was invested in the council of the richer guilds, the Signoria; the new Palazzo della Signoria was designed expressly as a symbol of their authority, replacing the old Bargello, which had been the seat of the podestà. The most novel feature of the government, designed to overcome Florence’s past incapacity to avoid violent factionalism, was the selection of officials by lot from among the guild members. In effect, politics was to be abolished.

Business as Usual: Riot, War, Plagues and Revolution

Despite the reforms of the Ordinamenti, Florence found little peace in the new century. As if following some strange and immutable law of city-state behaviour, no sooner had the Guelphs established total control than they themselves split into new factions. The radically anti-imperial Blacks and the more conciliatory Whites fought each other through the early 1300s with the same fervour they both had once exercised against the Ghibellines.

The Whites, who included Dante among their partisans, came out losers when the Blacks conspired with the pope to bring Charles of Valois’ French army into Florence; almost all the losing faction were forced into exile in 1302. Some of them must have sneaked back, for the chronicles of 1304 record the Blacks trying to burn them out of their houses with incendiary bombs, resulting in a fire that consumed a quarter of the city.

Beginning in 1313, Florence was involved in a constant series of inconclusive wars with Pisa, Lucca and Arezzo, among others. In 1325, the city was defeated and nearly destroyed by the great Lucchese general Castruccio Castracani. Castruccio died of a common cold while the siege was already under way, another instance of Florence’s famous good luck, but unfortunately one of the last.

The factions may have been suppressed, but fate had found some more novel disasters for the city. One far-off monarch did more damage to Florence than its Italian enemies had ever managed – King Edward III of England, who in 1339 found it expedient to repudiate his foreign debts. Florence’s two biggest banks, the Bardi and the Peruzzi, immediately went bust, and the city’s standing as the centre of international finance was gravely damaged.

If anything was constant throughout the history of the republic, it was the oppression of the poor. The ruling bankers and merchants exploited their labour and gave them only the bare minimum in return. In the 14th century, overcrowding, undernourishment and plenty of rats made Florence’s poorer neighbourhoods a perfect breeding ground for epidemics. Famine, plagues and riots became common in the 1340s, causing a severe political crisis. At one point, in 1342, the Florentines gave over their government to a foreign dictator, Walter de Brienne, the French–Greek ‘Duke of Athens’. He lasted only for a year before a popular revolt ended the experiment.

The Black Death of 1348, which was the background for Boccaccio’s Decameron, carried off perhaps one half of the population. Coming on the heels of a serious depression, it was a blow from which Florence would never really recover. In the next two centuries, when the city was to be the great innovator in Western culture, it was already in relative decline, a politically decadent republic with a stagnant economy, barely holding its own among the turbulent changes in trade and diplomacy.

For the time being, however, things didn’t look too bad. Florence found enough ready cash to buy control of Prato, in 1350, and was successful in a defensive war against expansionist Milan in 1351. Warfare was almost continuous for the last half of the century, a strain on the exchequer but not usually a threat to the city’s survival; this was the heyday of the mercenary companies, led by condottieri like Sir John Hawkwood (Giovanni Acuto), immortalized by Uccello's equestrian ‘statue’ in Florence’s cathedral. Before the Florentines made him a better offer, Hawkwood was often in the employ of their enemies.

Uccello's Sir John Hawkwood

Throughout the century, the Guelph party had been steadily tightening its grip over the republic’s affairs. Despite the selection of officials by lot, by the 1370s the party organization bore an uncanny resemblance to some of the big-city political machines common not so long ago in America. The merchants and the bankers who ran the party used it to turn the Florentine Republic into a profit-making business. With the increasingly limited opportunities for making money in trade and finance, the Guelph ruling class tried to make up the difference by soaking the poor.

Wars and taxes stretched Florentine tolerance to breaking point and, finally, in 1378, came revolution. The Ciompi Revolt (ciompi – wage labourers in the textile industries) began in July, when a mob of workers seized the Bargello. Under the leadership of a wool-carder named Michele di Lando, they executed a few of the Guelph bosses and announced a new, reformed constitution. They were also foolish enough to believe the Guelph magnates when they promised to abide by the new arrangement if only the ciompi would go home. Before long di Lando was in exile, and the ruling class firmly back in the seat of power, more than ever determined to eliminate the last vestiges of democracy from the republic.

The Rise of the Medici

In 1393, Florentines celebrated the 100th anniversary of the great reform of the Ordinamenti, while watching their republic descend irresistibly into oligarchy. In that year Maso degli Albizzi became gonfaloniere (the head of the Signoria) and served as virtual dictator for many years afterwards.

The ruling class of merchants, more than a bit paranoid after the Ciompi revolt, were generally relieved to see power concentrated in strong hands; the ascendancy of the Albizzi family was to set the pattern for the rest of the republic’s existence. In a poisoned atmosphere of repression and conspiracy, the spies of the Signoria’s new secret police hunted down malcontents while whole legions of Florentine exiles plotted against the republic in foreign courts.

Florence was almost constantly at war. In 1398, she defeated an attempt at conquest by Giangaleazzo Visconti of Milan. The imperialist policy of the Albizzi and their allies resulted in important territorial gains, including the conquest of Pisa in 1406, and the purchase of Livorno from the Genoese in 1421.

Unsuccessful wars against Lucca finally disenchanted the Florentines with Albizzi rule. An emergency parlamento (the infrequent popular assembly usually called when a coming change of rulers was obvious) in 1434 decreed the recall from exile of the head of the popular opposition, Cosimo de’ Medici. Perhaps it was something that could only have happened in Florence – the darling of the plebeians, the great hope for reform, happened to be the head of Florence’s biggest bank.

The Medici family had their roots in the Mugello region north of Florence. Their name seems to suggest that they once were pharmacists (later enemies would jibe at the balls on the family arms as ‘the pills’). For two centuries they had been active in Florentine politics, and many had acquired reputations as troublemakers; their names turned up often in the lists of exiles and records of lawsuits.

None of the Medici had ever been particularly rich until Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici (1360–1429) parlayed his wife’s dowry into the founding of a bank. Good fortune – and a temporary monopoly on the handling of the pope’s finances – made the Medici Bank Florence’s biggest.

Cosimo de' Medici 'Il Vecchio'

Pontormo's portrait of Cosimo de' Medici

Giovanni had been content to stay on the fringe of politics; his son, Cosimo (known in Florentine history as ‘il Vecchio’, the ‘old man’) took good care of the bank’s affairs but aimed his sights much higher.

His strategy was as old as Julius Caesar – the patrician reformer, cultivating the best men, winning the favour of the poor with largesse and gradually, carefully, forming a party under a system specifically designed to prevent such things. In 1433 Rinaldo degli Albizzi had him exiled, but it was too late; continuing discontent forced his return only a year later, and for the next 35 years Cosimo would be the unchallenged ruler of Florence.

Throughout this period, Cosimo occasionally held public office – this was done by lottery, with the electoral lists manipulated to ensure a majority of Medici supporters at all times. Nevertheless, he received ambassadors at the new family palace (built in 1444), entertained visiting popes and emperors, and made all the important decisions.

A canny political godfather and usually a gentleman, Cosimo also proved a useful patron to the great figures of the early Renaissance – including Donatello and Brunelleschi. His father had served as one of the judges in the famous competition for the Baptistry doors, and Cosimo was a member of the commission that picked Brunelleschi to design the cathedral dome.

Cosimo did oversee some genuine reforms; under his leadership Florence began Europe’s first progressive income tax, and a few years later the state invented the modern concept of the national debt – endlessly rolling over bonds to keep the republic afloat and the creditors happy. The poor, with fewer taxes to pay, were also happy, and the ruling classes, after some initial distaste, were positively delighted; never in Florence’s history had any government so successfully muted class conflict and the desire for a genuine democracy. Wars were few, and the internal friction negligible. Cosimo died in August 1464; his tomb in San Lorenzo bears the inscription Pater patriae, and no dissent was registered when his 40-year-old son Piero took up the boss’s role.

Piero, didn’t quite have the touch of his masterful father, but he survived a stiff political crisis in 1466, outmanoeuvring a new faction led by wealthy banker Luca Pitti. In 1469 he succumbed to the Medici family disease, the gout, and his 20-year-old son Lorenzo succeeded him in an equally smooth transition. He was to last for 23 years.

Lorenzo the Magnificent

Not necessarily more ‘magnificent’ than other contemporary princes, or other Medici, Lorenzo’s enduring honorific reveals something of the myth that was to grow up around him in later centuries. His long reign corresponded to the height of the Florentine Renaissance. It was a relatively peaceful time, and in the light of the disasters that were to follow, Florentines could not help looking back on it as a golden age.

As a ruler, Lorenzo showed many virtues. Still keeping up the pretence of living as a private citizen, he lived relatively simply, always accessible to the voices and concerns of his fellow citizens, who would often see him walking the city streets in his long black cloak. In the field of foreign policy he was indispensable to Florence and indeed all Italy; he did more than anyone to keep the precarious peninsular balance of power from disintegrating.

The most dramatic affair of his reign was the Pazzi conspiracy, an attempt to assassinate Lorenzo plotted by Pope Sixtus IV and the wealthy Pazzi family, the pope’s bankers and ancient rivals of the Medici. Lorenzo had angered the pope by starting a syndicate to mine for alum in Volterra, threatening the papal monopoly.

In 1478, two of the younger Pazzi attacked Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano during Mass at the cathedral. Giuliano was killed, but Lorenzo managed to escape into the sacristy. The botched murder aborted the planned revolt; Florentines showed little interest in the Pazzis’ call to arms, and before nightfall most of the conspirators were dangling from the cornice of the Palazzo Vecchio.

Since Sixtus failed to murder Lorenzo, he had to settle for excommunicating him, and declaring war in alliance with King Ferrante of Naples.

The war went badly for Florence and, in the most memorable act of his career, Lorenzo walked into the lion’s cage, travelling to negotiate with the terrible Neapolitan, who had already murdered more than one important guest. As it turned out, Ferrante was only too happy to dump his papal entanglements; Florence found itself at peace once more, and Lorenzo returned home to a hero’s welcome.

In other affairs, both foreign and domestic, Lorenzo was more a lucky ruler than a skilled one. Florence’s economy was entering a long, slow decline, but for the moment the banks and mills were churning out just enough profit to keep up the accustomed level of opulence. The Medici Bank was on the ropes. Partly because of Lorenzo’s neglect, it came close to collapsing on several occasions – and it seems that Lorenzo blithely made up the losses with public funds.

The Medici had taken great care with Lorenzo’s education; he was brought up with Marsilio Ficino and he was trained in Greek by John Argyropoulossome of the leading humanist scholars of Tuscany for tutors and his real interests were literary. His well-formed lyrics and winsome pastorals have earned him a place among Italy’s greatest 15th-century poets; they neatly reflect the private side of Lorenzo, the retiring, scholarly family man who enjoyed life better on one of the many rural Medici villas than in the busy city.

In this, he was perfectly in tune with his class and his age. Plenty of Florentine bankers were learning the joys of country life, reading Horace or Catullus in their geometrical gardens and pestering their tenant farmers with well-meant advice. Back in town, they had thick new walls of rusticated sandstone between them and the bustle of the streets. The late 15th century was the great age of palace building in Florence. Following the example of Cosimo de’ Medici, the bankers and merchants erected dozens of palaces (some of the best can be seen around Via de’ Tornabuoni). Each one turns blank walls and iron-barred windows to the street.

Historians always note one very pronounced phenomenon of this period – a turning inward, a ‘privatization’ of Florentine life. In a city that had become a republic only in name, civic interest and public life ceased to matter so much. The very rich began to assume the airs of an aristocracy, and did everything they could to distance themselves from their fellow citizens.

Ironically, just at the time when Florence’s artists were creating their greatest achievements, the republican ethos, the civic soul that had made Florence great, began to disintegrate.


Lorenzo’s death, in 1492, was followed by another apparently smooth transition of power to his son Piero. But after 58 years of Medicean quiet and stability, the city was ready for a change. The opportunity for the malcontents came soon enough, when the timid and inept Piero allowed the invading King of France, Charles VIII, to occupy Pisa and the Tuscan coast.

A spontaneous revolt chased Piero and the rest of the Medici into exile, while a mob sacked the family’s palace. A new regime, hastily put together under Piero Capponi, dealt more sternly with the French and tried to pump some new life into the long-dormant republican constitution.

The Florence that threw out the Medici was a city in the mood for some radical reform. Already, the dominating figure on the political stage was an intense Dominican friar from Ferrara named Girolamo Savonarola. Perhaps not surprisingly, this over-sophisticated and overstimulated city was also in the mood to be told how wicked and decadent it was, and Savonarola was happy to oblige. A spellbinding revival preacher with a touch of erudition, Savonarola packed as many as 10,000 into the Duomo to hear his weekly sermons, which were laced with political sarcasm and social criticism.

French troops enter Florence, Francesco Granacci

Although an insufferable prig, Savonarola was also a sincere democrat. There is a story that the dying Lorenzo called Savonarola to his bedside for the last rites, and that the friar refused him absolution unless he ‘restored the liberty of the Florentines’, a proposal that only made the dying despot sneer with contempt. Savonarola also talked Charles VIII, whose troops entered the city, into leaving Florence in peace. Pisa, however, took advantage of the confusion to revolt, and the restored republic’s attempts to recapture it were in vain.

Things were going badly. Piero Capponi’s death in 1496 left Florence without a really able leader, and Savonarolan extremists became ever more influential. The French invasion and the incessant wars that followed cost the city dearly in trade, while the Medici, now in Rome, intrigued endlessly to destroy the republic.

Worst of all, Savonarola’s attacks on clerical corruption made him another bitter enemy in Rome – none other than Pope Alexander VI himself, the most corrupt cleric who ever lived. The Borgia pope scraped together a league of allies to make war on Florence in 1497. This war proceeded without serious reverses for either side, but Savonarola was able to exploit it brilliantly, convincing the Florentines that they were on a moral crusade against the hated and dissolute Borgias, Medici, French, Venetians and Milanese.

The year 1497 was undoubtedly the high point of Savonarola’s career. The good friar’s spies – mostly children – kept a close eye on any Florentines who were suspected of enjoying themselves, and collected books, fancy clothes and works of art for the famous Bonfire of Vanities.

It was a climactic moment in the history of Florence’s delicate psyche. Somehow the spell had been broken; like the deranged old Michelangelo, taking a hammer to his own work, the Florentines gathered the objects that had once been their greatest pride and put them to the torch. The bonfire was held in the centre of the Piazza della Signoria; a visiting Venetian offered to buy the whole lot, but the Florentines had someone hastily sketch his portrait and threw that on the flames, too.

One vanity the Florentines could not quite bring themselves to part with was their violent factionalism. On one side were the Piagnoni (‘weepers’) of Savonarola’s party, on the other the party of the Arrabbiati (‘the angry’), including the gangs of young delinquents who would demonstrate their opposition to piety and holiness by sneaking into the cathedral and filling Savonarola’s pulpit with cow dung.

A Medicean party was also gathering strength, a sort of fifth column sowing discontent within the city and undermining the war effort. Three times, unsuccessfully, the exiled Medici attempted to seize the city with bands of mercenaries. The Pisan revolt continued, and Pope Alexander had excommunicated Savonarola and was threatening to place all Florence under an interdict.

In the long hangover after the Bonfire of Vanities, the Florentines were growing weary of their preacher. When the Arrabbiati won the elections of 1498, his doom was sealed. A kangaroo court found the new scapegoat guilty of heresy and treason. After some gratuitous torture and public mockery, the very spot where the Bonfire of Vanities had been held now witnessed a bonfire of Savonarola.

Execution of Savonarola, anonymous

More Papal Meddling

Pope Alexander still wasn’t happy. He sent an army under his son, Cesare Borgia, to menace the city. Florence weathered this threat, and the relatively democratic ‘Savonarolan’ constitution of 1494 seemed to be working out well.

Under an innovative idea, borrowed from Venice and designed to circumvent party strife, a public-spirited gentleman named Piero Soderini was elected gonfaloniere for life in 1502. With the help of his friend and adviser, Niccolò Machiavelli, Soderini kept the ship of state on an even keel. Pisa finally surrendered in 1509.

Serious trouble returned in 1512, and once more the popes were behind it. As France’s only ally in Italy, Florence ran foul of Julius II. Papal and Spanish armies invaded Florentine territory, and after their gruesome sack of Prato, designed specifically to overawe Florence, the frightened and politically apathetic city was ready to submit to the pope’s conditions – the expulsion of Soderini, a change of alliance, and the return of the Medici.

The End of the Republic

At first, the understanding was that the Medici would live in Florence strictly as private citizens. But Giuliano de’ Medici, son of Lorenzo and current leader, soon united the upper classes for a rolling back of Savonarolan democracy. With plenty of hired soldiers to intimidate the populace, a rigged parlamento in September 1512 restored Medici control. The democratic Grand Council was abolished; its new meeting hall, the Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio (where Leonardo and Michelangelo were to have their ‘Battle of the Frescoes’) was broken up into apartments for soldiers. Soldiers were everywhere, and the Medicean restoration took on the aspect of a police state. Hundreds of political prisoners spent time undergoing torture in the Palazzo Vecchio’s dungeons, among them Machiavelli.

Giuliano died in 1516, succeeded by his nephew Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, a snotty young sport with a tyrant’s bad manners. Nobody mourned much when syphilis carried him off in 1519, but the family paid Michelangelo to give both Lorenzo and Giuliano fancy tombs.

The Medici do the Vatican Rag: Leo X and Clement VII

Raphael's Leo X,  Giulio de' Medici and cousin

Ever since Giuliano’s death, however, the real Medici boss had been not Lorenzo, but his uncle Giovanni, who in that year became Pope Leo X. The Medici, original masters of nepotism, had been planning this for years. Back in the 1470s, Lorenzo il Magnifico realized that the surest way of maintaining the family fortunes would be to get a Medici on the papal throne. He had little Giovanni ordained at the age of eight, purchased him a cardinal’s hat at 13, and used bribery and diplomacy to help him accumulate dozens of benefices all over France and Italy.

For his easy-going civility (as exemplified in his famous quote: ‘God has given us the papacy so let us enjoy it’), and his patronage of scholars and artists, Leo became one of the best-remembered Renaissance popes. On the other side of the coin was his criminal mismanagement of the Church; having learned the advantages of parasitism, the Medici were eager to pass it on to their friends.

Upper-class Florentines descended on Rome like a plague of locusts, occupying all the important sinecures and rapidly emptying the papal treasury. Their rapacity, plus the tremendous expenses involved in building the new St Peter’s, caused Leo to step up the sale of indulgences all over Europe – disgusting reformers like Luther and greatly hastening the onset of the Reformation.

Back in Florence, Lorenzo Duke of Urbino’s successor Giulio, bastard son of Lorenzo il Magnifico’s brother, the murdered Giuliano, was little more than a puppet; Leo always found enough time between banquets to manage the city’s affairs. Giulio himself became pope in 1523, as Clement VII, thanks largely to the new financial interdependence between Florence and Rome, and now the Medici presence in their home city was reduced to two more unattractive young bastards, Ippolito and Alessandro, under the guardianship of Cardinal Silvio Passerini.

As Leo had done, Clement attempted to run the city from Rome, but high taxes and the lack of a strong hand made the new Medici regime increasingly precarious; its end followed almost immediately upon the sack of Rome in 1527. With Clement a prisoner in the Vatican and unable to intervene, a delegation of Florentine notables discreetly informed Cardinal Passerini and the Medicis that it was time to go. They took the hint, and for the third time in less than a century Florence had succeeded in getting rid of the Medici.

Enter Charles V

The new republic, although initiated by the disillusioned wealthy classes, soon found radical Savonarolan democrats gaining the upper hand. The Grand Council met once more, and extended the franchise to include most of the citizens. Vanities were cursed again, books were banned and carnival parades forbidden; the Council officially pronounced Jesus Christ ‘King of the Florentines’, just as it had done in the heyday of the Savonarolan camp meetings.

In an intense atmosphere of republican virtue and pious crusade, Florence rushed headlong into the apocalyptic climax of its history. This time it did not take the Medici long to recover. In order to get Florence back, the witless Clement became allied to his former enemy, Emperor Charles V, a sordid deal that would eventually betray all Italy to Spanish control. Imperial troops were to help subdue Florence, and Clement’s illegitimate son Alessandro was to wed Charles’ illegitimate daughter. The bastards were closing in.

Charles’ troops put Florence under siege in December 1529. The city had few resources for the struggle, and no friends, but a heroic resistance kept the imperialists at bay all through the winter and spring. Citizens gave up their gold and silver to be minted into the republic’s last coins. The councillors debated seizing little Catherine de’ Medici, future Queen of France, but then a prisoner of the republic, and dangling her from the walls to give the enemy a good target.

Few artists were left in Florence, but Michelangelo stayed to help with his city’s fortifications (by night he was working on the Medici tombs in San Lorenzo, surely one of the most astounding feats of fence-straddling in history; both sides gave him safe passage when he wanted to leave Florence, and again when he decided to return).

In August of 1530, the Florentines’ skilful commander, Francesco Ferruccio, was killed in a skirmish near Pistoia; at about the same time the republic realized that its mercenary captain within the walls, Malatesta Baglioni, had sold them out to the pope and emperor. When they tried to arrest him, Baglioni only laughed, and directed his men to turn their artillery on the city. After suffering privations that led to mortality rates approaching the days of the Black Death, the inevitable capitulation came on 12 August. After almost 400 years, the Florentine republic had breathed its last.

Initially this third Medici return seemed to be just another dreary round of history repeating itself. Again, a packed parlamento gutted the constitution and legitimized the Medici takeover. Again the family and its minions combed the city, confiscating back every penny’s worth of property that had been confiscated from them.

This time, however, was to be different. Florence had gone from being a large fish in a small Italian pond to a minuscule but hindersome nuisance in the pan-European world of papal and imperial politics. Charles V didn’t much like republics, or disorderly politicking, or indeed anyone who might conceivably say no to him. The orders came down from the emperor in Brussels; it was to be Medici for ever.

Cosimo I: The Medici as Grand Dukes

In the beginning little was changed; the shell of the republican constitution was maintained, but with the 20-year-old illegitimate Alessandro as ‘Duke of the Florentine Republic’; the harsh reality was under construction on the height above the city’s west end – the Fortezza da Basso, with its Spanish garrison, demanded by Charles V as insurance that Florence would never again be able to assert its independence.

If any further symbolism was necessary, Alessandro ordered the great bell to be removed from the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, the bell that had always summoned the citizens to political assemblies and the mustering of the army. In 1537, Alessandro was treacherously murdered by his jealous cousin Lorenzaccio de’ Medici.

With no legitimate heirs in the direct line, Florence was in danger of falling under direct imperial rule, as had happened to Milan two years earlier, upon the extinction of the Sforza dukes. The assassination was kept secret while the Medici and the diplomats angled for a solution.

The only reasonable choice turned out to be 18-year-old Cosimo de’ Medici, heir of the family’s cadet branch. This son of a famous mercenary commander, Giovanni of the Black Bands, had grown up on a farm and had never been involved with Florentine affairs; both the elder statesmen of the family and the imperial representatives thought they would easily be able to manipulate him.

It soon became clear that they had picked the wrong boy. Right from the start, young Cosimo had a surprisingly complete idea of how he meant to rule Florence, and also the will and strength of personality to see his commands carried out. No one ever admitted liking him; his puritanical court dismayed even the old partisans of Savonarola, and Florentines always enjoyed grumbling over his high taxes, going to support ‘colonels, spies, Spaniards, and women to serve Madame’ (his Spanish consort Eleanor of Toledo).

More surprising still, in this pathetic age when bowing and scraping Italians were everywhere else losing both their liberty and their dignity, Cosimo held his own against both pope and Spaniard. To back up his growing independence, Cosimo put his domains on an almost permanent war footing. New fortresses were built, a big fleet begun, and a paid standing army took the place of mercenaries and citizen levies. The skeleton of the old republic was revamped into a modern, bureaucratic state, governed as scientifically and rationally as any in Europe. The new regime, well prepared as it was, never had a severe test.

Early in his reign Cosimo defeated the last-ditch effort of the republican exiles, unreconstructed oligarchs led by the banker Filippo Strozzi, at the Battle of Montemurlo, the last threat ever to Medici rule. Cosimo’s masterstroke came in 1557, when with the help of an imperial army he was able to gobble up the entire Republic of Siena. Now the Medicis controlled roughly the boundaries of modern Tuscany; Cosimo was able to cap off his reign in 1569 by purchasing from the Pope the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany.

For all Cosimo’s efforts, Florence was a city entering a very evident decline. Banking and trade did well throughout the late 16th century, a prosperous time for almost all of Italy, but there were very few opportunities for growth, and few Florentines interested in looking for it. More than ever, wealth was going into land, palaces and government bonds; the old tradition of mercantile venture among the Florentine élite was rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

For culture and art, Cosimo’s reign turned out to be a disaster. It wasn’t what he intended; indeed the Duke brought to the field his accustomed energy and compulsion to improve and organize. Academies were founded, and research underwritten. Cosimo’s big purse and his emphasis on art as political propaganda helped change the Florentine artist from a slightly eccentric guild artisan to a flouncing courtier, ready to roll over at his master’s command.

Michelangelo, despite frequent entreaties, always refused to work for Cosimo. Most of the other talented Florentines eventually found one excuse or another to bolt for Rome or even further afield, leaving lapdogs like Giorgio Vasari to carry on the grand traditions of Florentine art.

Florence - Cosimo de Medici

Vasari, with help from such artists as Ammannati and Bandinelli, transformed much of the city – especially the interiors of its churches and public buildings. Florence began to fill up with equestrian statues of Medici, pageants and plaster triumphal arches displaying the triumphs of the Medici, sculptural allegories (like Cellini’s Perseus) reminding us of the inevitability of the Medici and, best of all, portraits of semi-divine Medici floating up in the clouds with little Cupids and Virtues.

It was all the same to Cosimo and his successors, whose personal tastes tended more to engraved jewels, exotic taxidermy and sculptures made of seashells. But it helped hasten the extinction of Florentine culture and the quiet transformation of the city into just another Mediterranean backwater. Cosimo himself grew ill in his later years, abdicating most responsibility to his son Francesco from 1564 to his death 10 years later.

Knick-knacks and Tedium: The Later Medici

Francesco, the genuine oddball among the Medici, was a moody, melancholic sort who cared little for government, preferring to lock himself up in the family palaces to pursue his passion for alchemy, as well as occasional researches into such subjects as perpetual motion and poisons – his agents around the Mediterranean had to ship him crates of scorpions every now and then. Despite his lack of interest, Francesco was a capable ruler, best known for his founding of the port city of Livorno.

Later Medici followed the general course established by other great families, such as the Habsburgs and Bourbons – each one was worse than the last. Francesco’s death in 1587 gave the throne to his brother, Ferdinando I, founder of the Medici Chapels at San Lorenzo and another indefatigable collector of bric-a-brac. Next came Cosimo II (1609–21), a sickly nonentity who eventually succumbed to tuberculosis, and Ferdinando II (1621–70), whose long and uneventful reign oversaw the impoverishment of Florence and most of Tuscany.

For this the Medici do not deserve much blame. A long string of bad harvests, beginning in the 1590s, plagues that recurred with terrible frequency as late as the 1630s, and general trade patterns that redistributed wealth and power from the Mediterranean to northern Europe, all set the stage for the collapse of the Florentine economy.

The fatal blow came in the 1630s, when the long-deteriorating wool trade collapsed with sudden finality. Banking was going too, partly a victim of the age’s continuing inflation, partly of high taxes and lack of worthwhile investments. Florence, by mid-century, found itself with no prospects at all, a pensioner city drawing a barely respectable income from its glorious past.

With Cosimo III (1670–1723), the line of the Medici crossed over into the realm of the ridiculous. A religious crank and anti-Semite, this Cosimo temporarily wiped out free thought in the universities, allowed Tuscany to fill up with nuns and Jesuits, and decreed fantastical laws like the one that forbade any man to enter a house where an unmarried woman lived. To support his lavish court and pay the big tributes demanded by Spain and Austria (something earlier Medici would have scorned), Cosimo taxed what was left of the Florentine economy into an early grave.

Gian Gastone by Ferdinando Richter

His heir was the incredible Gian Gastone (1723–37). This last Medici, an obese drunkard, senile and slobbering at the age of 50, has been immortalized by the equally incredible bust in the Pitti Palace. Gian Gastone had to be carried up and down stairs on the rare occasions when he ever got out of bed (mainly to disprove rumours that he was dead); on the one occasion he appeared in public, the chronicles report him vomiting repeatedly out of the carriage window.

As a footnote on the Medici there is Gian Gastone’s perfectly sensible sister, Anna Maria Ludovica. As the very last surviving Medici, it fell to her to dispose of the family’s vast wealth and hoards of art. When she died, in 1743, her will revealed that the whole bundle was to become the property of the future rulers of Tuscany – whoever they should be – with the provision that not one bit of it should ever, ever be moved outside Florence. Without her, the great collections of the Uffizi and the Bargello might long ago have been packed away to Vienna or to Paris.

Post-Medici Florence

When Gian Gastone died in 1737, Tuscany’s fate had already been decided by the great powers of Europe. The Grand Duchy would fall to Francis Stephen, Duke of Lorraine and husband-to-be of the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa; the new duke’s troops were already installed in the Fortezza da Basso a year before Gian Gastone died. For most of the next century, Florence slumbered peacefully under a benign Austrian rule.

Already the first Grand Tourists were arriving on their way to Rome and Naples, sons of the Enlightenment like Goethe, who never imagined anything in Florence could possibly interest him and didn’t stop, or relics like the Pretender Charles Edward Stuart, ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, Duke of Albany, who stayed two years.

Napoleon’s men occupied the city for most of two decades, without making much of an impression. After the Napoleonic Wars, the Habsburg restoration brought back the Lorraine dynasty. From 1824 to 1859, Florence and Tuscany were ruled by Leopold II, that most useful and likeable of all Grand Dukes.

This was the age when Florence first became popular among the northern Europeans and the time when the Brownings, Dostoevsky, Leigh Hunt and dozens of other artists and writers took up residence, rediscovering the glories of the city and of the early Renaissance. Grand Duke Leopold was decent enough to let himself be overthrown in 1859, during the tumults of the Risorgimento.

In 1861, when Florentine Baron Bettino Ricasoli served as Prime Minster, he brought the first (not very successful) National Exposition to Florence. In 1865, when only the Papal State remained to be incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy, Florence briefly became the new nation’s capital. King Vittorio Emanuele moved into the Pitti Palace, and the Italian Parliament met in the great hall of the Palazzo Vecchio. It was really not meant to last. When the Italian troops entered Rome in 1870, Florence’s brief hour as a major capital was at an end.

Fabio Borbottoni , Porta S. Miniato, early 1800s

Not, however, without giving the staid old city a memorable jolt towards the modern world. In an unusual flurry of exertion, Florence knocked down the city walls (replaced by a circle of now traffic-laden boulevards, or the viali by Giuseppe Poggi) finally threw up a façade for its cathedral, and levelled the picturesque though squalid market area and Jewish ghetto to build the dolorous Piazza della Repubblica. Fortunately, the city regained its senses before too much damage was done.

Throughout this century, Florence’s role as a museum city has been confirmed with each passing year. The hiatus provided by the Second World War allowed the city to resume briefly its ancient delight in black-and-white political epic. In 1944–5, Florence offered some of the most outrageous spectacles of Fascist fanaticism, and also some of the most courageous stories of the Resistance – including that of the German consul Gerhard Wolf, who used his position to protect Florentines from the Nazi terror, often at great personal risk.

In August 1944, the Allied armies were poised to advance through northern Tuscany. For the Germans, the Arno made a convenient defensive line, requiring that all the bridges of Florence be demolished. The Ponte Vecchio was saved in a last-minute deal, although the buildings on either side of it were destroyed to provide piles of rubble around the bridge approaches.

After the war, all the bridges were repaired; the city had the Ponte Santa Trìnita rebuilt stone by stone exactly as it was. No sooner was the war damage redeemed, however, than an even greater disaster attacked Florence’s patrimony. The catastrophic flood of 1966, when water reached as high as 6.5m, did more damage than Nazis or Napoleons; an international effort was raised to preserve and restore the city’s art and monuments.

Piazza Carmine, after the 1966 flood

Since then the Arno’s bed has been deepened under the Ponte Vecchio and 6m earthen walls have been erected around Ponte Amerigo Vespucci; video screens and computers monitor every fluctuation in the water level. If a flood happens again, Florence will have time to protect herself.

Far more insoluble is the problem of terrorism, which touched the city, in May 1993, when a bomb attack, said to have been the work of the Mafia, destroyed the Gregoriophilus library opposite the Uffizi and damaged the Vasari Corridor.

Florence, shocked by this intrusion from the outside world into its holy of holies, repaired most of the damage in record time with funds which were raised by a national subscription. Careful planning has saved the best of Florence’s immediate countryside from a different sort of flood – post-war suburbanization – but much of the other territory around the city has been coated by an atrocity of suburban sprawl, some of the most degraded landscapes in all Italy.

With the building of a new airport extension, the Florentines hope will help make up some of the economic ground they’ve lost to Milan. There are plans for an underground train system, and a new high-speed train between Milan and Rome that would pass under Florence in a tunnel, at a new station, Firenze Belfiore. Ideas there are, but getting them past the city’s innate factionalism and its own mania for perfectionism has proved to be a mountain of a stumbling block.

Meanwhile Florence works hard to preserve what it already has. Although measures to control the city’s bugbear – the traffic problems of a city of 400,000 that receives 7 million visitors a year – have been enacted to protect the historic centre, pollution from nearby industry continues to eat away at monuments – Donatello's statue St Mark at Orsanmichele, perfectly intact 70 years ago, is now a mutilated leper.

Private companies, banks and even individuals finance 90 per cent of the art restoration in Florence, with techniques invented by the city’s innovative Institute of Restoration. Increasingly copies are made to replace original works. Naturally, half the city is for them, and the other half, against.

In the meantime, there's life in the old girl yet. Florence hosts blockbuster exhibitions at the Palazzo Strozzi, a continuing parade of edgy fairs at the Fortezza da Basso and music and dance in the recently completed avant garde Opera di Firenze-Teatro del Maggio Musicale, setting for the city's famed music festival, the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. A disused train station nearby sees Fabbrica Europa, Festival of Contemporary Arts and in 2017, the New Generation festival for young opera singers is kicking off in the Palazzo Corsini al Prato.

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by cc.owu, Classical Numismatic Group, Creative Commons, Eusebius@Commons, PD Art, Ricce, Creative Commons License, Vatican Library miniature