In the beginning the Florentines faced their new rulers predisposed by the long and affectionate relationship with the Medici, with the same good will as their predecessors. When hundreds of works of art from the vast collection accumulated in the course of centuries by the Florentine dukes, started to be transferred with long processions of ships from Florence to Vienna, that predisposition shifted to indignation. When Peter Leopold of Lorraine ( 1765 – 1790 ) took the helms of the Grand Duchy things started to improve for the Florentine economy after a series of liberal reforms that reinvigorated commerce, modernized public administration and the judicial system, addressed many outdated practices of the health system and boosted agricultural production.
Population was on the rise again and new Neoclassical structures started to sprout in various corners of Florence. Two new bridges connected the two sides of the Arno, new districts expanded the city’s circumference, the Museo di Storia Naturale di Firenze (1775) and the Galleria dell’Accademia (1784) were established.
The next ruler was Leopold’s son, Ferdinand III who was born in Florence in 1769 and took over in 1790. Two years later Europe was shaken by the French Revolution. Ferdinand was the first monarch to recognize the French Republic and the first to declare Tuscany’s neutrality in the War of the First Coalition. In 1796 however the French occupied the Florentine port city of Livorno and soon after Napoleon entered Florence and occupied the duchy. Ferdinand was forced to flee Florence for Vienna in 1799.
The Grand Duchy was dissolved by the French and was replaced by the Kingdom of Etruria in 1801. The Kingdom was then ceded to the Bourbon Duke of Parma, Ferdinand as compensation for the loss of his territories in northern Italy. In May 1808, Etruria was formally annexed to France and Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, Elisa Bonaparte was appointed Grand Duchess of Tuscany.
Napoleon’s world collapsed in 1814 and Ferdinand III returned to Florence. All Leopoldine laws were re-instated but many of the Napoleonic reforms were also maintained. Although the restored Lorraine rule was en example of moderation, the legislative environment one of Europe’s most liberal frameworks, despite the series of public works like roads and aqueducts, despite the expansion of the port of Livorno, Italian nationalism had already started to sweep through major Italian cities and Florence was one of them. In the Austro-Sardinian War that followed the Revolutions of 1848, Grand Duke Leopold II, offered his support and troops to the Italian side. Despite his support Leopold had to abandon Florence in February of 1849 to the Republicans who established their temporary government until 1852, when Leopold returned to Florence with the help of the Austrians.
The Austrian troops left in 1855 but four years later the Second Austro-Sardinian war broke out and hundreds of Florentines and Tuscan citizens joined the Sardinian forces. The aristocratic and the popular party demanded the participation in the war on the side of the Italians but Leopold refused and declared neutrality. New popular demands asked for Leopold’s abdication in favor of his son and a strong alliance with Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia and Piedmont who led the struggle for the Italian independence. Leopold II again refused and on April 27, 1859 a large crowd took to the streets of Florence with Italian flags. The army refused to obey Leopold’s orders and the sovereign decided to set off with a carriage from Palazzo Pitti and depart for Bologna in order to avoid bloodshed.
A few hours after Leopold’s departure the National Assembly appointed a provisional government from the town hall of Florence. On 22 March 1860 Tuscany was united with the Kingdom of Sardinia. The first assembly of the Italian Parliament took place on 18 February 1861 and on March 17, Vittorio Emanuele II was declared first king of Italy. In 1865 Florence succeeds Turin as capital of the new Italian kingdom.
The elevation of Florence as Italian capital although short-lived (in 1871 Rome became the Italian capital) would change the face of the city for ever. An unprecedented spending spree that intended to rise the city’s status and resolve some chronic functional inadequacies brought enthusiasm to the Florentines and triggered a series of multilayered effects in the economic, social and architectural environment. The transfer of the capital meant that a number of about 25.000 to 30.000 of officials, public servants etc. would move to a city which in the eve of the transfer had a population of 120.000. The shortage of housing created an immediate increase in rents which in their turn created hundreds of homeless families of people unable to cope with the high expenses of housing. Some of the families were temporarily placed in convents, others in prefabricated houses made of iron and wood that were purchased from the City.
An urgent plan of adaptation and expansion was entrusted to the architect Giuseppe Poggi (1811-1911). Works begun in May of 1865. For five years the whole city became a giant construction site. The medieval walls that enclosed the city were torn down to make way for a series of boulevards in the style of Paris. The ancient gates were mostly spared and framed with new large squares that became the link between the old town and the new neighborhoods.
The avenue Viale dei Colli that runs through the hills that surround the central district of Oltrarno was created and was crowned by the new Piazzale Michelangelo, a magnificent panoramic terrace overlooking Florence, with a central copy of the statue of Michelangelo’s David. In the same time a plan for a construction of a monumental square in the area of the Old Market (Piazza della Repubblica) is laid out in 1869 but is soon put on hold due to the transfer of the capital to Rome in 1871.
At the time of the transfer of the Italian capital to Rome (1871) the population of the city had reached 167.000 people. Despite the initial shock and the postponement of many construction projects, including that of Piazza della Republica the population continued rising. By the time the Piazza della Repubblica had taken its final shape in 1890 the population had reached 200.000 people. The monumental square was inaugurated with the equestrian statue of Vittorio Emanuele II, later placed in Piazzale delle Cascine. For the formation of the square dozens of slums and dilapidated buildings in poor condition had to be evacuated and the properties expropriated, to make way for the great palaces, porches, the triumphal arch and the big space of Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, today’s Piazza della Repubblica .
The population continued to rise rapidly during the 20th century. When WWI broke out and although the Italian front in World War I was at safe distance from the city the conflict had a profound effect on it, with many young Florentines dying in battle during the winter of 1917 and the shortages of supplies, combined with the harshness of that winter creating a gloomy atmosphere not seen in centuries. After the end of the war, the reconstruction project focused on the creation of an industrial zone in the northern part of the city. The industrial development of the city brought with it the birth of numerous associations of workers, who would form the basis of a long lasting tradition of support for the left that still stands in the political life of Florence to this day.
In 1922 a young graduate of law from the University of Florence and student of Political Science in Rome named Alessandro Pavolini led a group of fascist black-shirts during the 1922 March on Rome when Benito Mussolini took over the control of the Italian government. In 1929 he became the leader of the party in Florence and and one of the key figures of the party after Mussolini, responsible for the Ministry of Popular Culture, in essence the Ministry of Propaganda of the fascist party.
On 9 May, 1938, the two fascist leaders of Europe, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler met at Santa Maria Novella Station for a third time in only few days, during Hitler’s last stop of his Italian tour. A convoy of about 20 cars drove through flower and flag festooned streets, from the Shrine of the Fascist Martyrs, (next to the Basilica of Santa Croce) to the Piazzale Michelangelo and the Boboli Gardens, where a series of historical games and a tournament with costumed participants from Florence, Pisa and Arezzo took place.
During his younger years Hitler had been an aspiring student of painting and architecture but he had been rejected by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. Nevertheless his interest endured. During his visit to Florence he spent more than two hours studying the works of art in Pitti Palace, Vasari Corridor, and Uffizi Gallery. It was that visit that inspired him for the creation of an extraordinary museum the Führermuseum, that would contain some of the world’s most important art.
The Allied invasion of Sicily and the Fall of Mussolini brought the German Nazis to Italy. A new fascist puppet state, the Northern Italian Social Republic was created and Mussolini with Pavolini were once again at its head. In July 1944 the Allies were ready to invade Tuscany and liberate Florence. A few days later dozens of open trucks loaded with some of the most important Florentine treasures started to depart Florence for an unknown to the Italians destination. Right before their retreat, in a failed attempt to delay the Allies the Germans decided to destroy all the bridges of Florence except Ponte Vecchio that was spared, at the expense of the medieval buildings and towers on both of its ends that were demolished to block passage. The Allies entered Florence on August 4, 1944 and the last pockets of German resistance gave up the hills around the city until the beginning of September.
With the help of the famous after the 2014 Hollywood movie The Monuments Men, the locations of the missing Florentine masterpieces were discovered and on July 1945 the first truck of the retrieved Florentine treasures reached the front gate of Palazzo Vecchio amidst a crowd of hundreds cheering Florentine citizens.
The reconstruction of the city after WWII started from the destroyed bridges that were all rebuilt in a few years. The Florentine political life was dominated by the figure of Giorgio La Pira, mayor of the city from 1951 to 1958 and 1961 to 1965. A devout Catholic and a socialist La Pira focused in the recovery of the city’s neighborhoods as self-sufficient little islands that continue to thrive to this day. He also took an active role in job creation, expanded the water and waste systems and improved the public transportation system.
In the 1980’s the historic center of Florence was designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site as a unique social and urban achievement, the result of persistent and long-lasting creativity, which includes museums, churches, buildings and artworks of immeasurable worth. The rest of the city continued to expand with its population reaching 400,000 people in the early 1990’s.
In 2004 Matteo Renzi, born in Florence in 1975, graduated from the University of Florence with a degree in law in 1999 and member of the centrist Italian People’s Party since 1996, becomes the President of the Province of Florence. In 2009 he is elected Mayor of Florence until 2014. In that time, he won widespread praise for his promotion of the city and his handling of a substantial pedestrianisation plan. His successful term helped Renzi become the Prime Minister of Italy from February 2014 until December 2016.
Today Florence emits the same worldwide and timeless appeal it has always enjoyed. It is and forever will be the cradle of Renaissance and one of the most important cultural capitals of the world. With a tourism industry that totalled some €2.5 billion in 2015 and a province that receives more than 13 million visitors per year, a positive agricultural output and a fashion industry of world renowned brands like Roberto Cavalli and Gucci, future seems to be as bright as the city’s glorious past.
After 1282 the legislative and executive government of Florence was executed by the Priory of Arts also know as the Signoria consisted of three priors, elected by the members of the 21 guilds of arts and crafts. Their tenure lasted only two months in order to secure a maximum degree of mobility and avoid the empowerment of certain people in the expense of the republic. In 1293 in the most important reform of the Republic since the abolition of the consular system, prior Giano Della Bella completely excluded the old feudal families from the government by making it necessary in order for a citizen to be eligible prior, to be an exercising member of one of the arts first. In addition the priors were obliged to reside initially in the Tower of Castagna later in the Palazzo del Bargello where they remained in isolation outside of the public hearings.
In 1294 the city council decided to employ an architect that would help Florence express the self-confidence and ambition of the growing city. Arnolfo di Cambio had already worked under Nicola Pisano in Siena’s cathedral and was initially hired to work on a new cathedral in the place of the 5th century church dedicated to Saint Reparata that seemed remnant of a time long-passed. He would not however be confined to just one project. In May 1294 in the presence of many bishops and members of the clergy, the mayor and the captain of the People and the priors the men and women of Florence, with great pomp and solemnity, the architect began working on a chapel established by St. Francis of Assisi back in 1226. It would later be known as the Basilica di Santa Croce. The first stones of the new grand duomo on the other hand were laid in September of 1296. Its consecration would take place 140 years later.
Just when things seemed to be smoothing out, a new division in the field of internal politics, would rock Florence again. A group headed by Corso Donati, a typical Florentine noble, in essence a coalition between the nobles and the working class, proponents of a more conservative policy, also known as the guelfi neri, the black guelphs against the upstart merchants, the new money, proponents of a more loose relation with the pontiff, the white guelphs, led by the politician, banker and veteran of the Battle of Compaldino, Vieri de ‘Cerchi.
The feud came to a boiling point on May 1st 1300, a day when Florence was traditionally celebrating the return of spring with dances and other festivities. Two groups of young men from the two opposing parties clashed with fists and swords, with one member of the Cerchi family ending up with a slit nose. That was the official beginning of an open warfare between the two. The Cerchi turned to the neighboring city of Pistoia that was similarly divided into rival factions and after securing more manpower, they entered Florence and drove out the Donati and the rest of the Black Guelph leaders in May 1301. The Blacks did not lay down their arms however. They found their own ally in the face of Pope Boniface VIII (as a white Guelph himself, Dante would reserve a special place for Pope Boniface VIII in his inferno/hell). The Pope placed Florence under an interdict and summoned a French prince (Charles of Valois), like his predecessors before him, to put order in the city of Florence and take the Sicilian crown in return.
Probably because of weakness, the Whites did not raise any objection to the visit of Charles, who came to Florence on November 1, 1301. Five days later however Corso Donati burst into the city with a small group of followers and went straight to the town’s prison, which was packed with Black Guelphs. For six days the streets of Florence became a stage of violence and murder, women were raped and children were taken as hostages, houses were set on fire and people were tortured publicly in broad daylight. By 1302 the Blacks had prevailed and the Whites (Dante among them) had left the city and their properties behind. Alas Florence’s self-destructive factionalism did not stop with the expulsion of the Whites. Corso Donati started to antagonize his own comrades and the Black camp split in two, with one part of it standing with him (the Donateschi) and the other with Rosso della Tosa (the Tosinghi).
In 1303 Corso Donati sided with the Cavalcanti, a family of White Guelphs in order to defeat his former comrades leading to an unprecedented mess, temporarily resolved after the intervention of Pope Benedict XI and an army sent from the city of Lucca, that briefly controlled Florence. In 1304 Donati managed to come out unscathed from an assassination attempt but by 1308 the city had had enough of him. When the decision of the Signoria, that sentenced him as guilty of treason against the commune came out, an angry mob swarmed his palazzo, forcing him to flee. In his attempt to escape he fell from his horse and died. With his death and the expulsion of his followers the city finally got its peace back.
Despite the bloodshed and the exiles the population had increased considerably by 1300. A new set of walls, the sixth one, would enfold an area five times larger than the one before. The works in Palazzo Vecchio and the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore proceeded in full swing, new palazzi and churches sprouted everywhere and new powerful guilds like the Arte della Lana (its members processed the raw baled wool at numerous looms scattered throughout the city, unlike their rivals in the well established Arte di Calimala, who imported raw clothes and then dyed/finished it) inaugurated their grand new guildhalls.
In the same time, the Sienese bankers that dominated the world of money lending and finance in Western Europe in the 13th century were gradually losing ground to the more aggressive Florentines. In the 1290’s a bankruptcy of a leading Sienese banker would give all the needed space to the Florentine families of the banking sector to grow and expand. The families of the Bardi and the Peruzzi had already established their branches in England by 1290. By the 1320’s the two families had become the main European bankers and their novel financial services like the bills of exchange, known today as checks, facilitated merchants throughout the European continent.
The booming economy created wealth and wealth generated confidence. Probably too much confidence that would be unexpectedly shattered by the star of Uguccione Faggiola, lord and mayor of Arezzo, Pisa and Lucca. Seriously outnumbered by the combined forces of Florence, Siena, Pistoia and Arezzo among others, the Ghibelline army of the three cities, reinforced by a contingent of 1,800 German knights crashed the Florentine alliance in the Battle of Montecatini in 1315. The defeat shocked the city that had to pay a huge amount of money in ransom while almost every family of nobles mourned of a dead member after the battle.
The star of Uguccione Faggiola would be very quickly outshined by his military commander, main architect of the Ghibelline victory, Castruccio Castracani. After the battle, Uguccione saw in him a potential danger for his power and did not hesitate to send him to prison, with an intent to have him executed. A popular uprising in Lucca would save his life and acclaim him a Captain-General for life. In 1319 he resumed hostilities against the Florentines, breaking into their territory, burning and plundering everything in his way.
The conquest of Pistoia, a town very close to Florence (30 km) that had been under Florentine rule for almost 70 years, did not leave any choice to the Florentines. With an army of 17.000, mostly French and German mercenaries, the Florentines moved to attack Castruccio‘s forces in August 1325. In the Battle of Altopascio on September 23, 1325 the military brilliance of Castruccio would triumph once more. The Guelph army was humiliated and the road to Florence was wide open. Casrtuccio‘s army started to sack the territory and towns around Florence for days until it finally reached the city’s gates in October 1325 and started to celebrate his victory by running mockery processions. Castruccio died at the peak of his glory at a time when he was preparing to fulfill his dream of conquering Florence.
The imminent danger forced the city to entrust its fate in the hands of Charles, Duke of Calabria, Vicar-General of the Kingdom of Sicily (Naples) in January 1326. He would rule for just 12 months, before the commune reasserted its independence and both Castruccio and Charles were dead (1328). Despite the military failures Florence hadn’t lost its confidence. Despite the confidence the military failures kept coming first in 1330-1331 with the unsuccessful attempts to take Lucca and Pisa and then by the forces of the Ghibelline lord of Verona, Martino della Scala in 1339. In the meantime a great flood had swept away three of the four bridges that connected the two sides of the Arno. By 1345 the losses in the fields of war were balanced by the gains of the strong Florentine economy fueled by its strong currency and the profits of the big money lenders. That changed when some of the biggest clients of the Florentine bankers, like the King of England and the King of France proved to be unreliable. The bankruptcy of the greatest players of the Florentine banking system (Peruzzi & Bardi) dragged with it the whole Florentine economy. The vicious circle would close in the worst possible way with the outbreak of the Black Death in 1348. More than half of the city’s population perished, thousands left the city to avoid infection and mass graves piled with hundreds of Florentines surrounded its walls. The calamity would be recorded by the Florentine Giovanni Boccaccio, one of the most important writers and poets in Italian history, harbinger of the Renaissance that was about to follow.
With the economy waning and the shortage of labor after the plague creating shortage in food, tensions between the lower classes and people who had moved in from the countryside after the plague on one side and upper-middle classes also known as the fat people (popolo grasso) that ruled the city started to increase. In 1355 an estimated 22% of the households in Florence lived in extreme poverty. The internal disputes were briefly put aside when the Pisani, under the command of an ingenious English condottiere (professional mercenary) named John Hawkwood started to encroach upon Florentine territory and occupied a series of towns. In the Battle of Cascina, just a few miles from Pisa, in July 1364, the Florentine army triumphed and the city’s supremacy was effectively defended.
A victory against a rival city could only mean one thing for the Florentines at the time. That they could go on with their internal strife undisturbed. The Arti Minori, or minor guilds, were constantly in contention with the Arti Maggiori, or the seven major guilds. After the plague a new class of mainly immigrants with no aristocratic background known as the gente nuova bonded with the people of the minor guilds that had no saying in the city government, against the oligarchy of the major guilds that controlled the Guelph party. When Florence turned against Avignon’s Pope Gregory XI, due to his attempt to expand the Papal States as prerequisite for his return to Rome and the fact that John Hawkwood, was raiding Tuscany in order to extract payment from his employer, who was none other than the pope, the expenses of the government skyrocketed. Firstly in order to pay off Hawkwood and his men, secondly to pay for an increase of its military force that was depleted after the plague and finally in order to finance a coalition against the new Papal claims. In the War of the Eight Saints that followed between Florence and the Avignon Pope the battles were mostly conducted in the diplomatic field. Florence incited revolts in the cities of the papal state while Pope Gregory XI excommunicated all members of the Florentine government and placed the city under interdict in March 1376. Despite the confiscations of the ecclesiastical property by the Signoria, the detriment in Florence’s economic life was substantial mainly due to the economic sanctions imposed to Florentine merchants living abroad.
The heavy burden of the taxes used to finance the state’s policy would cause the first documented proletariat revolt in history, the so-called Ciompi revolt in 1378. Fourteen minor guilds, spearheaded by low wage textile workers managed to seize government power by force and hold it until 1382. The cause for the collapse of the proletariat government was once again internal disputes, this time between wool merchants and dyers. When the Florentine elites took back the power they initially tried to soften up their relation with the laboring class by reforming the tax system but the rebellion had awakened a fear that could not go away easily. The constant paranoia of the nobles about the next moves of the working class led to a more authoritative and autocratic government, a structure more centralized in order for decisions to be made promptly in case of an imminent danger. That would open the way for the oligarchic government of the Albizzi family (rich wool merchants and leaders of the black Guelphs that had been exiled during the government of the Ciompi) that held power for almost 50 years (1382 – 1434).
Towards the end of the 14th century the Duchy of Milan ruled by the powerful family of the Visconti had reached its apogee. The project of Gian Galeazzo Visconti (Milanese ruler between 1385 and 1402) was to unify Italy under a large national state with Milan at the head, similar to what was happening at that time in France or Spain. The only state that was able to stand up to his army was that of Florence under the guidance of John Hawkwood who had jumped to the Florentine camp by 1380.
The effete Republic of Pisa became part of the Milanese dominion in 1399. Three years later and after a great victory against the joint Bolognese-Florentine army, Galeazzo Visconti died of plague. His widow found it more useful to sell Pisa to the Florentines who wanted the complete control of the route to the sea. The Pisani who had a long line of battles with the Florentines were not willing to accept the decision hands down. After a long siege, Pisa was finally conquered by the Florentines in 1406: in fact the Florentines managed to corrupt the Capitano del Popolo (People’s Captain) Giovanni Gambacorta who opened the city gates of the besieged city.
With the rivalry with Milan being temporarily frozen, Florence was once again free to embark on its expanding expeditions in mainland Italy. In the same time a new generation of artists, starting with Lorenzo Ghiberti ( 1378 – Florence, 1455) Filippo Brunelleschi ( Florence , 1377 – Florence,1446) and Donatello (Florence , 1386 – Florence , 1466) took over major works like the astounding doors of the Baptistery, the statues of Orsanmichele external niches and the key features of Santa Maria del Fiore like the great dome and the almond door, which were commissioned by the major arts. These works inaugurated a period in human history that would be identified by many historians with the city of Florence, that of the Renaissance.
By the 1420’s the Albizzi family had led the republican government for almost two generations. Despite the progress in both domestic and Italian affairs the Fiorentini had grown weary of their one-dimensional inclination towards war, which bled the city in both men and money. The situation favored the rise of a more moderate, pacifist leadership. Lorenzo & Cosimo Medici had taken over their father’s bank in 1420, a financial network with branches in Rome, Venice and Genoa. Both brothers had been tutored by one of the earliest figures of the Renaissance, a humanist and a poet who later became chancellor of the Republic named Carlo Marsuppini. Cosimo Medici took what was an Italian business centered mainly in Papal finances and transformed it into a European bank with branches in Bruges , Paris , London and the rest of the major cities of Europe in just a few years, without ever striding away from Church’s affairs.
Although Cosimo’s wealth had secured him a great extent of influence in the city’s politics, he preferred to pull the strings on the background without ever claiming a public office. When the city decided to conquer the Republic of Lucca in 1429 and Cosimo stepped up as the funding manager of the expedition, the Albizzi who controlled the government together with the Strozzi started to feel threatened. In September 1433 Cosimo of the Medici was imprisoned, accused for conspiring his own dictatorship. He managed to save his life and turn his sentence in exile instead of execution. By taking his bank with him in Padua and then Venice, Cosimo managed to set the foundations of his triumphant return from the start.
Less than a year after his exile Cosimo’s supporters in Florence managed to overturn the sentence and bring Cosimo back by democratic means. Rinaldo degli Albizzi and his family were banished from the city ending once and for all an oligarchic regime that had stood for more than 50 years. Although in a position to impose a one-man-rule, Cosimo decided to keep all democratic bodies and instigate a series of constitutional changes that would secure his power through influence. Typically he was just a citizen, but in reality he was the one who decided the names of candidates of the municipal offices, in essence a king in all but name.
Cosimo would immediately prove to be an enlightened leader whose intellect and love of knowledge could propel Florence into a new era. In 1437 his deal with the leading scholar and collector Niccolò Niccoli would make him the heir of the latter’s invaluable collection of ancient Greco-Roman manuscripts, the basis of the new public library at San Marco that would be financed by Cosimo a few years later, the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana. In 1439, after a series of generous donations, he managed to convince Pope Eugenio IV, who had already been living in Florence from 1434 due to a revolt in Rome, to move the Great Ecumenical Council that would try to reconcile the Byzantine Orthodox Church with Roman Catholicism, from the city of Ferrara to Florence.
The council skyrocketed Cosimo’s and Florence’s international prestige and sparked the imagination of ordinary people and of the Florentine artists who were astounded by the colorful and bizarre characters from the East, the outlandish clothes of the Orthodox delegates and the grandeur of the Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaeologus who was also in Florence.
The economy of the city benefited as well from an event of a universal importance like that, while it probably gave vent to Cosimo’s vision of turning Florence into a new Athens .An extraordinary interest in Platonic philosophy and Greek literature would stay on, long after the Greeks’ departure. In 1440 the Duke of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti, would try to follow up on his father’s dream of a united Italian kingdom under the rule of Milan. Prompted by the pleas of Rinaldo degli Albizzi who had been living in Milan after his exile and was trying for long to make the Milanese ruler to intervene and restore him to power in Florence, Visconti ordered the advancement of his army in Tuscany. The Florentine victory in the Battle of Anghiari would put a bridle on Milanese expansionism, securing Florentine domination of central Italy for the next 50 years.
Freed from the greatest external threat and already dominant in internal affairs Cosimo continued to offer to his city all the things that could make it stand out on a European level , with even more fervor. A true bibliophile who did not hesitate to embark on any undertaking that involved books himself, he finances the construction of the first public library of Florence in 1444. The Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana would be attached to the cloister of San Lorenzo already revamped by Michelozzo and Donatello and paid for by Cosimo. The reconstruction of the Convent of San Marco, the renovation of Badia Fiesolana, the construction of Palazzo Medici were also works carried out during Cosimo’s era.
The death of Filippo Maria Visconti in 1447 brought forth a new alliance between Milan and Florence that joined forces in order to tackle the constantly rising power of the Republic of Venice. The Peace of Lodi in 1454 stabilized the fragile balance between the three powers as well as Naples, bringing a precious peace in the Italian peninsula after centuries of constant warfare. When Cosimo died in 1464 he was buried according to his wishes as a private citizen. The Florentines acknowledging his immense contribution to the city’s betterment declared him Pater Patriae, father of the Florentine nation, a title inscribed on the basis of his posthumous statue now located at the Loggia of the Palazzo degli Uffizi.
Cosimo’s death was enough for a new round of unrest to kick in. Luca Pitti, a loyal friend and servant to Cosimo during his rule, a nobleman and a banker that served as head magistrate of Florence and basically ruled Florence during the last years of Cosimo’s government was heavily indebted to the Medici Bank. In August 1466 he tried to seize power with the help of troops sent to Florence by the Duke of Ferrara. Cosimo’s son Piero managed to hold on to power with the help of the Florentine people. A new attempt for a coup this time backed by Venice would also fail. As soon as internal turmoil seemed to be appeased the Venetian army invaded the Florentine territory (1467). In the Battle of Molinella in July 1467, the joint army of the Florentines and the Milanese together with some troops sent by the King of Aragon and the ruler of Bologna managed to stop the Venetian advancement.
Upon Piero’s death in 1469, his oldest son Lorenzo, raised as a true golden boy assumed power in the age of twenty. Lorenzo’s grandfather and father had been the greatest art patrons and collectors in Florence’s history up to that point, while his mother was also an educated noble woman, lover of poetry and philosophy, writer & poet herself. Tutored by diplomats and humanists, neo-platonic philosophers with deep knowledge of ancient Greek writings, Lorenzo would soon surpass his ancestors in greatness.
Aside from his Renaissance upbringing, Lorenzo had the amazing luck to rule Florence in a time when three mythic figures of of art, Sandro Botticelli (born in 1445 in Florence), Leonardo da Vinci (born in 1452 in Vinci just outside of modern day Florence) and Michelangelo (also a Florentine, born in 1475). Lorenzo surrounded himself with the enlightened Florentine teachers who became his entourage and gave way to these artists to unfold their immense talent during their very early steps. Michelangelo in particular lived with Lorenzo and his family for five years, dining at the family table while in the same time he attended the Neoplatonic academy that Cosimo Medici had founded after the Council of Florence (1439).
In 1478 the Medici edifice was shaken by a conspiracy plotted by the families of Pazzi and Salviati (Noble Florentine families that served as Papal Bankers) in close alliance with Pope Sixtus IV with a plan to assassinate both Lorenzo de’ Medici and his brother Giuliano and replace them with Sixtus IV’s nephew, Girolamo Riario. The two Medici brothers were attacked on Easter Sunday in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore before a crowd of 10.000 Florentines. Giuliano was stabbed 19 times by Bernardo Bandi and Francesco de’ Pazzi and bled to death on the cathedral floor, but Lorenzo managed to escape with a wound to the shoulder. The coup failed before it began and most of the conspirators were soon caught and executed; five, including Francesco de’ Pazzi and Salviati, were hanged from the windows of the Palazzo Vecchio. Jacopo de’ Pazzi, head of the family, escaped from Florence but was caught and brought back. He was tortured, then hanged from the Palazzo Vecchio next to the decomposing corpse of Salviati. The Pazzi were banished from Florence for ever, all records of them, coats of arms, any trace of them was erased for ever.
The pope was infuriated with the fiasco of the rebellion. The execution of the Archbishop of Pisa, Francesco Salviati, in his ceremonial robes would give him all the needed excuse for a full frontal attack against Lorenzo. All Medici assets in papal lands were confiscated and Lorenzo along with the members of his government were excommunicated. Soon after a papal delegation was sent to Florence in order to arrest Lorenzo and the rest of perpetrators. When the people refused to abide the whole state was put under interdict, Mass and communion were forbidden. The papal wrath did not subside. Sixtus went on with the formation of a military alliance with the Kingdom of Naples and the Republic of Siena. The son of the King of Naples, Alfonso Duke of Calabria led an invasion of the Florentine Republic in June 1478. With no support from Bologna and Milan, the Florentine castles fell one after another. The war dragged on for two years before Lorenzo’s ingenuity ultimately resolved the conflict in 1480, assisted by the Turkish invasion in Southern Italy of that year.
The Turkish threat operated as an agent of unification for the Italian rulers, but not the pope. Disappointed by the failure of his Tuscan ambitions and unswayed by the conquest of Otranto by the Turks Papa Sisto lured the Serenissima (Republic of Venice) for an attack against Ferrara in 1482. Lorenzo’s actions secured the Ferrara’s independence despite its defeat. After his intervention Lorenzo was hailed as the leading figure of Italian politics by compatriots, Italian lords and foreign leaders alike. From then on he would be Lorenzo il Magnifico (Lorenzo the Magnificent). With the death of Pope Sisto IV in August 1484 and the ascension of Pope Innocent VIII on the throne, a dangerous enemy and a disturber of Italian peace was taken out of the picture and Lorenzo cemented an alliance between the Papal states, Naples and Florence that would help all three and Italy as a whole. Lorenzo’s unexpected death in the Spring of 1492, in the age of 43, due to gangrene, left most Florentines in a state of shock. He was buried without pump, according to his wishes in the Basilica of San Marco. Decades later his remains were moved to the New Sacristy of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in a monumental tomb sculpted by his close friend Michelangelo. He had managed to achieve greatness during his lifetime, to be the main agent of the Renaissance splendor of Italy and to be attributed among others for the rebirth of the city of Pisa.
Although Lorenzo had turned Florence into the cultural capital of the Italian peninsula he had also made a grave mistake during his later years. He had introduced a Dominican friar from Ferrara named Girolamo Savonarola to Florence, that would sink the city into a retrograde mist of religious bigotry. Lorenzo had invited Savonarola soon after he had secured the independence of his city, impressed by the friar’s oratory skills. Although his first stay did not cause much turbulence, it was clear from the start that his deeply theocratic view of reality was not in tune with a secularized to a great extent society like the Florentine. He soon left Florence for Lombardy but in 1490 he was summoned again by Lorenzo. When Savonarola resumed his preaching in San Marco in 1490 it immediately became apparent that his speeches were more aggressive. He had become more of a radical whose sermon reminded the fanatics of the early Middle Ages. Main recipient of his scourging lectures, the degenerate Church and Lorenzo of the Medici himself, corrupter of true Christian customs, who steered Florentine society into pagan, frivolous pleasures. After Lorenzo’s death and after just two years at the helm, his son Piero was faced with an invasion by King Charles VIII of France who claimed the throne of the Kingdom of Naples. When Piero attempted to mount a resistance, he received little support from Florentine elites, who had already fallen under the influence of Girolamo Savonarola; even his cousins defected to Charles’s side. Piero’s failure to negotiate good terms for the surrender of his city put an end to his family rule. The Florentines revolted, the palazzo of the Medici was looted and his family was exiled.
Savonarola took advantage of the power vacuum and led a delegation to the camp of the French King. After a short occupation and a huge subsidy by the city, the French resumed their journey to the south. Savonarola who had previously prophesied that God’s wrath would soon fall upon the sinners, now declared his prophecies came true with the French King acting as the hand of God and that Florence was spared because its population had answered his call to penitence. A new political party, the Savonarolan Frateschi (the friar party) was formed and soon Savonarola’s priorities became the official state policy through the city councils. A new more democratic constitution gave all citizens the right of vote and tried to curb the consolidated practice of exiles. From the pulpit of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore the new Florentine leader declared a new era of universal peace. Savonarola’s peace was not as inclusive as it declared to be. With most of the simple people of the low classes (the weepers his critics called them) by his side, his government started to enforce a series of measures for the purging of the city from all of its vices. New laws were passed against sodomy, adultery, public drunkenness and all kinds of moral transgressions. Secular art was labeled as damaging and worthless. New founded patrols of young men scoured the streets for sinners or indecent outfits. A bit to the south, the man sitting on the papal throne since 1492 was not famous for his piety. On the contrary Pope Alexander VI remains to this day one of the most infamous Popes for exactly the opposite reason. More famous today by his family name, Rodrigo Borgia, tolerated the whims of the Florentine fanatic until Savonarola declined the papal proposition for the formation of a Holy League against the French invaders. When the Florentine friar refused to appear before him in Rome, the Pope accused him of heresy and false prophecies and banned him from preaching.
After a brief interval, Savonarola continued his preaching that became more hateful than ever. His fears for a papal conspiracy made him suspicious of all Florentines that did not comply fully with his view of a theocratic society. His verbal attacks on secret enemies became more violent, special masses for the youth and religious theaters were organized, often processions and bonfires of the vanities where thousands of objects such as cosmetics, art (including works by Botticelli) , and books were set ablaze. Savonarola had turned the Renaissance capital of the world into a Dark-ages nightmare.
In May 1497 Girolamo Savonarola was excommunicated and the Florentines were warned for an imminent interdict if they continued to support him. In March 1498, Savonarola stopped preaching. A failed attempt to win over the crowds again with a miracle that never happened was enough for the crowds to feel fed up. In May 1498 the risen Medici party had him arrested along with two of his close associates. He was tried for heresy, he was tortured until he confessed and was burned at the stake in the middle of the Pizza della Signoria. His ashes were scattered in the Arno so that his followers don’t have the chance to look for his relics.
A few days after the execution, the young Niccolò Machiavelli was elected secretary of the Second Chancery, a position that meant he could coordinate Florence’s relations with other territories that were under the city’s rule. After a short period he became the secretary to the Council of War. As one of the Republic’s most active diplomats he started visiting the courts of all European and Italian leaders. When Piero Soderini became head of the government in 1502 he convinced the new head of the government to create a native Florentine militia instead of a mercenary army, against the wishes of the aristocracy. In 1509 he would be vindicated with the conquest of Pisa.
The changing tides of Italian politics were so fast, that even a master of the game, a man who would be considered the founder of modern political science would be soon left behind. When Pope Borgia died in 1503, the deck had to be reshuffled. The new Pope Julius II (from 1503 to 1513) formed a new Holy League in order to tackle the mighty Venetian Republic in 1508 and everybody wanted a piece of the pie. The Spanish King, the French King, the Holy Roman Empire, the list included almost every significant power in Western Europe. After two years Pope Julius II and the French King Louis XII broke their alliance and turned on each other. Florence stuck with France, with Machiavelli advising against a war. With a little shove from the Medici who wanted back in, the Florentine native army faced a superior and more experienced Spanish army in Prato and lost (1512).
Soderini fled to Siena, the Medici were reinstated and Machiavelli was dismissed, imprisoned and even tortured under an accusation of conspiracy against the new regime. In 1513, Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici, the brother of Giuliano de’ Medici who ruled Florence, ascends on the papal throne as Leo X. All political prisoners in Florence are offered amnesty in a general climate of celebration for the city. Machiavelli was released and after a fruitless effort to win the favor of the new rulers he retired and wrote his most famous work, “the Prince”, a cynic masterpiece of realpolitik that would make him immortal. He dedicated his work to the Medici family in an effort to demonstrate his support but he would never manage to get back in the highest echelons of power.
Two years after the death of Pope Leo X in 1521 another Medici, Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici ascended on the papal throne as Clement VII, reinforcing the bond between the Papal states and Florence that were essentially ruled by the same family. At the time Italy had been turned into a stage of military contest between the two great powers of Europe, the Holy Roman Empire and France. The new pope did what every weak side does in these circumstances. He tried to side with whichever was more powerful. When the French conquered Milan in 1524 Clement VII sided with the French. When Francis I of France was crashed at the Battle of Pavia in 1525 Clement VII was forced to sign an alliance with the Habsburg Emperor Charles V. In reality the Pope continued to favor the French so in 1526 he went on to the formation of the League of Cognac, an alliance that included France, Venice, the Sforza of Milan, the Papal army and the Republic of Florence.
The two sides exchanged insults and a new round of warfare began. The imperial army under Charles III of Bourbon advanced on Rome in 1527, crashed the papal armies and sacked the city. Pope Clement VII was imprisoned and Florentines found their chance to drive out the Medici and restore the republic. At the time the republican party in Florence was still under the influence of Savonarola’s preaching. Jesus Christ was declared King of Florence and religious puritanism found its way back to the city. In July of 1529 the French King capitulated leaving the Italian cities on their own. By the end of summer the Republic of Florence had been left alone against the Imperial forces, led by Prince Philibert of Chalon. On October 14, 1529 and after a series of battles the Spanish and German troops of the emperor laid a siege on Florence.
A Florentine army under Francesco Ferrucci engaged the armies of the Emperor at the Battle of Gavinana in 1530, and, although the French Prince was killed, the Imperial army won a decisive victory and the Republic of Florence surrendered ten days later. Alessandro de’ Medici was then installed as Duke of Florence. During the siege, on February 17, 1530, a historic match of Florentine football was played in mockery of the besiegers by 54 Florentine nobles to demonstrate the superiority of the city’s citizens over the besiegers. To this day, every June there is a tournament between teams of the four historic districts in memory of that match in one of the historic Piazzas of Florence.
Although Alessandro de’ Medici had agreed to a treaty that required him to respect the democratic institutions of Florence he soon began to give a more princely character to his government with the help of his cousin Pope Clemente VII who managed to convince the regent commission of Florence, to establish a new constitution which formally introduced a hereditary monarchy instead of a republic. The Imperial troops stayed in Florence even after Alessandro assumed power in 1530, as safeguards. The moor, a nickname given to Alessandro by the Florentines due to his dark complexion, had spent most of his life in the imperial court of Charles V, a background he brought with him in his native city. An extra guard of armed German mercenaries who protected him at all times, his move to change the traditional images on Florence’s fiorino with his image and his demand for disarmament of all citizens, alienated him from his citizens who made an official but unsuccessful plea to the emperor for his deposition. His massive fortress the Fortezza da Basso, would remind the Florentines of his authoritarian rule to this day. In the beginning of 1537 Alessandro fell victim of his cousin and close friend Lorenzino de’ Medici who decided to act as the hand of all Florentine republicans and slay his relative in order for his city to be liberated by a man seen by most of them as a tyrant. With Alessandro’s death, the main branch of the Medici family was extinguished. Lorenzino fled to Venice and then France. When he returned to Venice he was murdered by two hired killers.
A young (17-year old) distant and unknown to most Florentines cousin of the murdered duke, from Mugello appeared in the city, followed by a few servants to assume power based on the claim of the hereditary monarchy. His name was Cosimo I de’ Medici. The Palleschi (a name given to the Medici partisans by the family’s coat-of-arms, bearing six balls (palle), made sure the newest member of the dynasty would get his chance to be a duke. The republicans fooled by the young of his age raised their hopes for a rule that would be mostly channeled through the city’s democratic institutions but they were soon proven wrong. As soon as Cosimo I secured a decree that excluded the family branch of Lorenzino from any right of succession, he brushed aside all administrative bodies and assumed absolute authority. The republicans were furious. Many noble families were voluntarily exiled following the example of Filippo Strozzi and his family who had fled to Venice and then Rome during Alessandro’s term and were leading the anti-Medici faction. (According to some sources he was the instigator of Alessandro’s assassination a suspicion supported by the fact that Lorenzino fled to Palazzo Strozzi in Rome after his action).
In 1537 Filippo Strozzi summoned an army of exiles. After securing the support of the French royal family the army of exiles marched towards Florence at the end of July, under the leadership of Filippo and his son Piero and rallied around the Fortress of Montemurlo about thirty kilometers from the city, waiting for the right moment to attack Florence.
Cosimo managed to earn the consent of the city who saw the approaching army as invaders but most importantly earn the support of the Emperor. With the help of the experienced Imperial troops that were still stationed in Florence, the army of Cosimo reached Montemurlo on August 1. The battle was won and Filippo Strozzi was captured and imprisoned at the Fortezza da Basso in Florence, where he died after a few months. All leaders of the revolt were first imprisoned and then beheaded at the Bargello palace. Cosimo I was now the indisputable, absolute ruler of Florence.
As a sign of further support from Chrales V, the Imperial troops started to withdraw from Florentine territories in 1542. Soon after Cosimo set out to prove he was more than a carrier of an important name. He built new forts in Arezzo, in Sansepolcro and Pistoia, he strengthened the defenses in Pisa, in Volterra and Castrocaro, he fortified San Piero a Sieve , Empoli , Cortona and MonteCarlo to the borders of the Republic of Lucca and purchased Elba Island from the Republic of Genoa. He based the new Florentine navy there. He also founded the port city of Livorno in a pattern of an Ideal Renaissance town based on religious tolerance. The new ruler became a reformer of the civic landscape as well. Employing gifted artists like Bartolomeo Ammannati (Fountain of Neptune), Bernardo Buontalent (Boboli Gardens) and Giorgio Vasari (The Uffizi Loggia) he managed to reshape the city’s face and shift the focus of social life, from inner courtyards and gardens to the piazzas, the civic gardens and the public spaces once more.
For centuries the Republic of Siena had been a thorn on the side of Florence. When things between the emperor and Siena heated up, Charles V decided to build a fortified citadel, manned with Imperial troops to control the city. The Sienese rose up against the Empire and made a military pact with the French in 1552. After a failed invasion by the army of García de Toledo Osorio , Viceroy of Sicily in 1553, Cosimo I offered to lead a new offensive against Siena. When Cosimo prepared to attack, Piero Strozzi, head of the Florentine exiles like his father before him and sworn enemy of Cosimo I, volunteered to lead the army of the French reinforcements in 1554. The first battle, the Battle of Chiusi was won by the Franco-Sienese army with the Spano-Florentines counting almost 3000 dead at one stroke. That blow wasn’t enough for the Florentine army to succumb. In the main battle that followed the Battle of Marciano on August 2, 1554, the Sienese were crashed suffering more than 4000 dead while 4000 more were captured. The Florentine side counted for not more than 400 dead. The road to Siena was wide open.
The news arrived in Florence accompanied by the sounds of bells. The Florentines rejoiced and Cosimo I announced three days of festivities, throwing coins into the crowd that waved Florentine flags, applauded, sung and chanted “Palle Palle, Duke Duke, Strozzi in a hole” . On April 17, 1555 , after many months of siege, the city of Siena surrendered. Florentine and Spanish troops occupied the Sienese territory until in July 1557 Philip II of Spain granted Siena to Cosimo as a hereditary fiefdom. In 1559 the Republic of Siena was formally incorporated by the Duchy of Florence. Ten years later Cosimo would be elevated to the rank of Grand Duke by Pope Pius V after offering to put his fleet to the service of the Holy League that was being formed to fight the Ottomans.
The Medici continued to balance successfully between the two major powers that had interests and armies in the Italian peninsula, which were France and Spain until the beginning of the 17th century. The precious independence of the Florentine state was preserved in exchange for large sums of money paid to the empire. At the same time however heavy taxation was imposed on Tuscan citizens in order for these large sums to be paid. The size of the Tuscan duchy was just too small to compete with the great centralized powers of the time.
As the new world of the Americas arose and intercontinental expeditions started to bring wealth to Spain, Portugal, England and Netherlands, the old dominant economies like Florence started to wane. Although the Tuscan fleet was strengthened and some expeditions targeting South America were carried out, the plans for a colony in Brasil didn’t come through. Commerce started to decline and the once dominant guilds were in reality left as remainders of the good old days. Florence’s cultural tradition, her role as a Renaissance center was another story. Underage Ferdinando II became Grand Duke in 1621. His mother Maria Maddalena of Austria and grandmother Christina of Lorraine acted as joint regents until he came of age. The three of them would act as patrons, allies and close friends to one of the greatest scientists of all time, named Galileo Galilei. even when the Papal Church came after him with the accusation of heresy due to his scientific work.
Galileo was born in Pisa, part of the duchy of Tuscany, in 1564. Eight years later his family moved to Florence. He studied fine arts and in 1588 he obtained the position of instructor in the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno. He continued teaching first in Pisa and then in Padua, mathematics, geometry, mechanics, and astronomy until 1610. A true Renaissance man, Galileo was fascinated by astronomy and defended the heliocentric Copernican system since 1615. His published works, advocating the need of mathematical proof in science brought him in a conflict situation with the Jesuit professors. It was not long before Galileo’s writings on heliocentrism were submitted to the Roman Inquisition.
Galileo was ordered to abandon his opinions on heliocentrism and the scientist obeyed. For ten years he stayed away from the controversy. When Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, a friend and admirer of Galileo became a Pope as Urban VIII in 1623 Galileo returned on the subject with the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems which was published in 1632 and was dedicated to the Florentine Duke Ferdinand II. The new book was again received as an advocacy of Copernicus heliocentric system and the Roman inquisition summoned the Florentine astronomer for a second hearing. Ferdinand attempted to contain Rome’s concerns in order for a full-fledged hearing to be avoided and kept Galileo in Florence until December 1635, when the Roman Inquisitors finally threatened to bring Galileo to Rome in chains if he would not come voluntarily. Ferdinand’s influence likely contributed to the lightness of Galileo’s penalty after the court’s conviction of the astronomer for vehement suspicion of heresy and soon after the trial was over, he welcomed Galileo back to Florence.
As a suspect of heresy, Galileo was sentenced to lifelong house arrest and spent the remainder of his life in his Villa at Arcetri near Florence. He continued to receive visitors, read and write and is today perceived as the father of modern physics. He died in January 1642, aged 77. Although duke Ferdinando II, to honor him with a great monument in the Basilica of Santa Croce next to his father, the church protested. It wasn’t until 1737 that the monument was erected in his honor.
A year after Galileo’s death the duchy participated in the last ever Medicean conflict, in the Wars of Castro against the forces of Pope Urban VIII. At the time the duchy’s treasury was so empty that the interest rate of the state bond had to be lowered by 0.75% in order for it to be paid. Barter trade started to become the norm in rural markets while the treasury managed to cover nearly enough of the state’s current expenses. The next Medici, Cosimo III, took over in 1670. Although his 53-year-long reign would be the longest in Tuscan history, his term would accelerate the demise of the duchy and condemn the city of Florence to a provincial role. It was also a period characterized by a series of puritan laws, targeting prostitutes and homosexuals while others put Tuscan citizens of a Jewish descent in a state of quarantine with unbearable punishments, or even tortures for the violators.
As the influence of the clergy grew stronger and the economy suffered, the population of the city and the duchy precipitated falling below 70.000 for the first and 720.000 for the latter. The Tuscan army numbered less than 3,000 men, many of whom were unfit to be soldiers. The navy fell in disrepair and the capital was overwhelmed by beggars. In the same time the state’s empty treasury had to pay the Holy Roman Empire with high feudal dues that were extracted from heavy customs and more tax constraints. The inauguration of six new theaters between 1648 and 1759 was a comfort pill that could not alleviate the increasing number of poor.
The last of the Medici to rule Tuscany (Gian Gastone 1723-1737) was not able to reverse the duchy’s descending spiral although he did abolish all anti-Semitic laws and did take back some of the taxes that had been imposed on lower incomes. After his death without a direct heir apparent and the official end of the 300 year-long Medici rule, the European dynasties decided to grant Tuscany to Francis Stephen, Duke of Lorraine (northeastern France) who decided to renounce his title in France for that of Tuscany, a sacrifice he did not actually opt for, proven by the fact he rarely visited Florence during his reign. Francis Stephen was appointed Holy Roman Emperor as Francis I in 1745 and Tuscany became a fief of the Habsburg-Lorraine crown with Vienna as its capital.
Antagonism with the rest of the Tuscan cities led to a number of clashes that were almost every time associated with the delimitation of their territory. That was particularly true in the case of Siena, a city which was also trying to expand its sphere of influence in the expense of smaller towns. The relations with Pisa however, one of the richest cities in Europe at the time, were not hostile. Florence needed Pisa’s port, at the mouth of the Arno, for its naval commerce so the two cities had established a strong alliance with Florence offering its military support in Pisa’s struggle against Genoa in return for the use of its port, its warehouses and a favorable treatment of Florentine merchants in Pisan ships. With every city acting as a state however that was bound to be tested.
Not all Florentines were pleased with the city’s policy. In 1177, two years after the completion of the new wall, a group of families that wanted Florence to join the Imperial camp, started one of many civil conflicts between the nascent Ghibelline (side of the Emperor) and Guelph (side of the Pope) factions of Florence. The civil conflicts within the boundaries of the city must have accelerated the pace of construction of a number of defensive towers that were attached to the houses of their owners and offered them protection in a case of an attack. By 1180 more than 35 of them were documented. There were even associations known as consorterie , the tower societies that helped their members, the powerful families that owned the tower-houses, to organize, proliferate and expand their influence over the city, operating as mini local governments. Most importantly they guaranteed a member’s protection and allied protection during a time of need. Only later, during the 14th century and after a series of transformations (usually larger openings and portals) the towers would lose their defensive role.
In 1182 we have the first concrete proof of the rising power of the merchants with the establishment of their guild the Arte dei Mercatanti, Calimala located on the ground floor of one of the towers of the family Cavalcanti overlooking the Mercato Nuovo. At the end of the 14th century , it was relocated to Calimaruzza Street, in a building that still bears the golden eagle effigy, the guild’s symbol.
In 1185, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, in his sixth and last expedition to Italy, joined forces with the local rural nobility to reduce the power of the Tuscan cities. Florence would be deprived of its territories and the marquisate would be restored with his youngest son Philip at its head.
Shortly after the death of Barbarossa’s successor Henry VI (September 1197) , prompted by an initiative of Pope Celestine III, the lords and bishops of Lucca, Florence, Siena and Arezzo formed a new alliance known as the Tuscan League which pledged to a common defense against future Emperors. By 1203 the Florentines would regain their lost territories and go even further with the subjugation of the powerful feudal lords of Elsa Valley that gave Florence direct access to the Via Francigena.
A new flow of immigrants from the countryside increased the population and propelled the economy with the supply of cheap labor. Commerce boomed in the absence of the feudal tolls, fueling the circulation and accumulation of capital which in its turn created credit and more growth. Florentine merchants were active from the Levante to the east, to the Flanders on the north, as were their main antagonists from the rest of the Italian cities. The conflicts between the different factions within the Italian cities of the time had forced Pope Innocent III to take the matter into his hands and change the form of the civic government, from consuls to a single senator or Podesta, who, directly or indirectly, was appointed by the pope. Despite the short-lived alliance of Siena with the Papal camp through the Tuscan League, the city was governed by the Ghibelline faction (side of the Emperor). In 1208 the town of Montepulciano was under siege by the Sienese. The Florentine Podesta decided to run to Montepulciano’s aid and in June of that year the two armies met at Montalto. In the fierce battle that followed both sides suffered heavy losses but the Florentines prevailed in the first serious blow in a long line of battles against Siena. More than 1200 Sienese prisoners were captured and Montepulciano was temporarily saved.
The victory although important could not appease the discord within the city. In 1216 at a big celebration of a newly knighted Florentine a noble was stabbed. In order for the matter to be resolved without further bloodshed, it was arranged for Buondelmonte Buondelmonti, who was the attacker, to marry a girl from the Amidei family, relative of the wounded victim. The bride was not however renowned for her appearance and Buondelmonte decided to repudiate his promise and marry a beautiful girl from the Donati family instead. The insult from the Amidei family was not taken lightly. On the morning of his wedding, Buondelmonte all dressed up for the ritual was ambushed and killed right under the tower of the Amidei family.
The murder started a long vendetta that split the Florence in two. On the one side the Buondelmonti , the Pazzi and the Donati the led the side of the Guelphs and were mostly centered between Via del Corso and Porta San Piero and on the other hand the Amidei, Uberti and Lamberti that led the Ghibellines and resided in the city sector more or less between Ponte Vecchio and the Piazza della Signoria. A vicious cycle of violence opened with fighting erupting in the streets and temporary victories proclaimed by both sides, members of the defeated being exiled from the city and their property seized. Most of the times the exiled would flee to a neighboring city-state, gather support from their counterparts and return to Florence, with more manpower. After and if they defeated their opponents, they would re-open a new cycle of blood and exile.
The establishment of various religious orders in the first decades of the 13th century, the Franciscans (Saint Francis himself arrived in Florence in 1211) who adopted the small chapel of the Holy Cross that would later become the Basilica Santa Croce, the Dominicans who resided around the Santa Maria Novella, the Augustinians and the Carmelites a bit later, did not have any effect on the mitigation of the political passions.
In November 1237 in the Battle of Cortenuova the army of Emperor Frederick II crushed the allied forces of the Lombard communes, making the Ghibelline party dominant in Northern Italy and Florence. With the battles between the Imperial army and the Guelfs still raging, Frederick II installed his illegitimate son Frederick of Antioch as Podesta of Florence and General Vicar of Tuscany in 1245. Although the Ghibellines and their leader Farinata of the Uberti family were there to welcome his arrival with enthusiasm and despite Frederick’s ruthless oppression of the Guelphs, he would be forced to re-conquer Florence with the help of his father’s army in 1249. After the death of Emperor Frederick II in 1250 the Guelphs took back the control of Florence and Farinata degli Uberti found refuge in Siena.
Dominated by the middle class, the new regime initiated an era known as the period of Primo Popolo or people first. It was the first time the power shifted away from the old noble families towards the people that made the heart of the economy beat, the merchants and the artisans. The introduction of a new coin, the golden fiorino in 1252, the first golden coin in Western Europe with a standard and consistent content proved to be a decisive move for the growth of the Florentine economy. The fiorino d’oro with the fleur-de-lis symbol of the city on one side and on the other a figure of St. John the Baptist was widely used beyond the narrow borders of the city, throughout Europe and the Mediterranean basin, as money for important business transactions and large international payments and loans.
In a symbolic move all the towers of the city had to be cut down to a height of 29 meters while in the same time the first version of the Palazzo del Popolo (the Palace of the People) is erected in Via del Proconsolo between Piazza del Duomo and Piazza San Firenze, incorporating the old palace, the Badia Fiorentina and a number of houses and towers in 1255.
When Emperor Frederick II died in the end of 1250, the Ghibelline camp temporarily faltered and many towns rebelled spurred by Pope Innocent IV. Frederick II’s illegitimate son Manfred of Sicily, although he had just turned 18, quickly rose up to the occasion forcing several rebellious cities into submission and defeating the papal army at Foggia in Southern Italy in December 1254. His coronation as King of Sicily in 1258 would give vent to the hopes of the Ghibellines throughout Italy.
Encouraged by King Manfred‘s coronation the Florentine Ghibellines revolted later that year only to lose again. A new set of exiles took place and although Siena had agreed in 1255 not to host any exiles from Florence, the Ghibelline city would not stay true to its commitment. That became the straw that broke the camel’s back for the Guelphs of Florence who felt they had to act before the King of Sicily. A Guelph army of 35.000 from the cities of Florence, Bologna, Lucca, Prato, Orvieto, San Gimignano, San Miniato and others first moved against a small joint army of German and Sienese knights that had moved against the small town of Montemassi in early 1260. All the German knights of King Manfred were killed and his insignia were dragged in the mud by the Florentines and exposed to public ridicule in the Guelph city. In the same time a first siege of Siena was broken when the reinforcements from Pisa, King Manfred and other Ghibelline allies came to its aid in May 1260.
The massive Guelph army did not disband. On September 2, 1260 it reached Siena again. The Sienese who had already learned the news of the coming invasion had only mastered an army of 20.000 strong. Among them Farinata degli Uberti , serving as the commander of their army, a part of it formed by the many Florentine exiles of the Ghibelline party. On September 4, 1260 the two armies met right after the river Arbia, at a hill named later Montaperti (hill of death). In one of the bloodiest battles of the Middle Ages, the Florentines were crashed despite their numerical superiority. According to Dante and the Florentines the unexpected defeat came after a betrayal by a (secret) Ghibelline man fighting for Florence, who managed to spread panic in the Florentine side after chopping off the hand of the flag bearer.
As a result of the nightmare of Montaperti and the heavy toll in men (an estimated of 10.000 dead and 15.000 prisoners) the Guelph families of Florence left the city in fear of reprisals for Bologna and Lucca. The Florentine Ghibeline exiles returned to their home town before the end of September of 1260. Farinata of the Uberti although finally in a good place would have to tackle another challenge, when his allies decided to make Florence an example for all Guelphs and raze it utterly to the ground. His strong stand changed the fate of his city but not that of the Guelph properties. 103 Guelph palaces, 85 towers and 580 houses were completely destroyed. The new Pope, Urbano IV (1261-1264) could not remain passive while his followers were persecuted. After excommunicating King Manfred he pressed on with the excommunication of the all the Ghibellines of Florence and Siena, creating a major problem for the merchants of the two cities, who now feared that every devout Christian in Europe would avoid working with them or deny payment. In the same time he pleaded to Charles of Anjou, brother of the French King, to become the defender of Christianity in Italy and King of Sicily instead of King Manfred. Charles entered Rome on 23 May 1265 and was proclaimed King of Sicily in January of 1266. In February 1266, leading an army of French and Italian mercenaries along with a large cavalry force of Florentine Guelphs managed to defeat the army of German, Italian and Saracen mercenaries of King Manfred in the Battle of Benevento. King Manfred of Sicily, the most hated enemy of the papacy was killed in battle. The Guelphs were again ahead of the game and that was enough for the people in Florence to rise up and drive out the Ghibellines once more.
The new pope Pope Clement IV offered as a token of gratitude his coat of arms to the Guelph Party of Florence in an official recognition of their contribution in the final victory, while Charles of Anjou, now officially Charles I of Sicily, was also elected Podesta of Florence for seven years. All the institutions abolished by the Ghibellines in their six years of power were reinstated. The destruction of the Guelph homes and palaces would also not go unpunished. All the buildings belonging to the Ghibellines and especially those of the Uberti family that stood in what is now Piazza della Signoria, were destroyed with the condition especially in the case of the Uberti houses, it was declared that no building should ever be erected in that accursed site. A few years later the Palazzo Vecchio, was built not in the center of the piazza but on its east side for that reason.
Although in some cities like Genoa the Ghibellines managed to recover by the mid 1270’s, in Florence the Guelphs felt confident and strong enough to allow the repatriation of the exiled after 1280. A civic guard of one thousand men would preserve the peace in the city. It was during that time, that the greatest figure in the history of the Italian language, the poet, writer and politician Dante Alighieri (born in 1265) started to form his rich intellectual credentials under the guidance of an important Florentine scholar named Brunetto Latini.
The 24 years old Dante took up arms in 1289 when the Florentines along with the rest of Tuscan Guelphs, went on to attack the last remaining stronghold of the Ghibellines in Tuscany, the city of Arezzo. The Battle of Campaldino in June 1289 was the final blow for the Ghibellines of Tuscany and the official beginning of the Florentine supremacy in the whole of the region, especially after the defeat of the main rival city of Pisa by Genoa a few years earlier (1284).
After the death of his son and King of Italy Pepin in 810 , Charlemagne appointed Boniface I as Margrave of Tuscany. The Bonifacii held the march until 926 with their support being quintessential for any candidate of the Italian throne.
In 926 a new dynasty, that of the Bosonids would manage to take the helm of the Kingdom of Italy and the Marca di Tuscia with Hugh of Arles, King of Provence (France) being crowned King of Italy in Pavia. His grandson Ugo di Toscana would change the fate of Florence in 968, by moving the capital of his realm from Lucca to Florentia. That elevation was in essence a recognition of the economic progress and potential of the city and the first substantial boost for the political rise of the city on the Arno. In 978 Ugo’s mother Willa di Tuscia founded a Benedictine Abbey, the Badia Fiorentina, that would help the city to evolve into a cultural hub of the Tuscan region. In 1001 Ugo was buried in the new Abbey. More than four centuries later Mino da Fiesole would sculpt his amazing memorial.
In 1008 the newly elected Bishop of Florence Alibrando (Hilderbrand) in one of his first assignments accompanied Emperor Henry II in Rome in order for the emperor to receive a proper papal coronation. The mission would help the Bishop gain the imperial favor for the construction of an imposing new church, the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte in Romanesque style. Its establishment in 1013 inaugurated a new era of confidence for Florentia. That confidence would be mirrored in the first documented attacks against Fiesole by the Florentines that took place during that time. In 1027 the House of Canossa, originally from Lucca, took over Tuscany and Boniface III became its Margrave with the support of Emperor Conrad II who stayed in Florence in 1038 during his second Italian expedition.
A Florentine monk of the monastery of San Miniato that had just been built adjacent to the basilica, would start one of the first movements in history for the reform of the clergy. Giovanni Gualberto, later (St. Giovanni Gualberto) targeted the sale of ecclesiastical offices also known as Simony, corruption and concubinage. His main opponents were the bishops of Florence, first Oberto and then Pietro Mezzabarba. The feud forced Gualberto to leave Florence and withdraw into solitude in a place called Vallombrosa, about 30 km from the city. There he founded the Order of the Vallombrosani that is still active to this day. He would not however give up earthly matters for ever. In 1048 he returned to Florence and established the Church of San Salvi in the open countryside outside the walls still then. From the church of Saint Salvi Gualberto conducted his crusade for the spiritual renewal of the city.
St. Giovanni Gualberto’s noble cause attracted the attention of Pope Victor II, who in 1055 met with Emperor Henry III in a council attended by 120 bishops in Florence. The council’s agenda was based in the reform proposals of the Vallombrosani and was held in Santa Felicita Church and the Cathedral of Santa Reparata, decorated for the occasion with apses, towers and a new porch.
Following the death of Boniface III of Tuscany, his wife Beatrice of Lorraine had decided to give her underage son Frederick the protection she could not militarily provide, by marrying Godfrey the Bearded, a distant kinsman who had been stripped of the Duchy of Upper Lorraine after openly rebelling against Emperor Henry III. Henry was enraged by Beatrice’s union with one of his most vigorous adversaries and took the opportunity to have her arrested, along with her daughter Matilda when he visited Florence in 1055. By the following year however Emperor Henry III and Frederick had died, Godfrey was reconciled with the new crown (Henry IV) and was recognized as Margrave of Tuscany, while Beatrice and Matilda were freed. By the time she and her mother returned to Italy, accompanied by Pope Victor II, Matilda had been formally acknowledged as heiress to the greatest territorial lordship in the south of the Holy Roman Empire.
In 1058 Benedict X was elected Pope. A number of cardinals who opposed the election claiming it was irregular and that the votes had been bought were forced to flee Rome. In December 1058, those cardinals met at the Tuscan city of Siena and elected the Bishop of Florence Gérard as Pope instead. He would be the first Florentine Pope as Nicholas II. He managed to properly establish himself after winning the war against the supporters of Benedict X with the military assistance of the Normans from Southern Italy in 1059. He reconsecrated the ancient Baptistery of Florence which was rebuilt in a more imposing form, very much like it is today. He was also the Pope that changed the procedure of the papal election from a process controlled by the Roman aristocracy to a closed Cardinals assembly that would henceforth be held at Rome.
In 1069, Godfrey the Bearded, Matilda’s stepfather, died. That forced her to get married to her stepbrother, Godfrey the Hunchback to whom she had been betrothed since childhood, in order to ensure her position. Soon Matilda became a widow and the sole ruler of her realm. Influenced by the preaching of San Giovanni Gualberto and the pressing demand of the common people who started to form organized groups (Patarines) who rebelled against the authority and the corruption of the clergy, Matilda gave her support to the most influential of the reformers, Hildebrand of Sovana from southern Tuscany who soon (1073) became Pope Gregory VII. Pope Gregory VII was a fervent advocate of the papal supremacy as opposed to Imperial power. Matilda’s support to the pope would evoke the wrath of Emperor Henry IV at a time when the two men had a bitter feud that had resulted in the excommunication of the Emperor in 1076.
With most of the Tuscan cities abandoning their allegiance to the Countess and siding with the Emperor, Florence became the exception. The support to their Countess and the Pope increased the danger of an imperial retaliation which in its turn led to the construction of a fourth, stronger and longer wall in 1078, that would protect the Baptistery, the Cathedral of Santa Reparata and the residence of the Countess to the north of the city. The new wall managed to hold against the imperial siege of 1082 and Matilda’s army succeeded in defeating Henry at a decisive battle in 1092. The battle shifted the balance forcing many cities to change sides. Henry withdrew from Italy leaving Matilda to reign virtually unchallenged. After the death of Emperor Henry IV she did so with the title of “Imperial Vicar and Vice-Queen of Italy” given to her by Emperor Henry V in 1111. Matilda died in 1115 and her remains lie today in the Vatican. She is one of only three women who ever had the honor of being buried in the Basilica of St. Peter.
Municipal autonomy was a privilege given to Florence by Matilda due to the city’s support in her struggle against the emperor. When the Countess died (1115), the new marquis of Tuscany a German count named Rabodo, appointed by Henry V, wanted to break the practice of hereditary succession in Tuscany and moved the capital from Florence, where it had been since 1057 to the fortified town of San Miniato al Tedesco. He also established an alliance with counts opposed to Florence’s primacy and took a castle at Monte Cascioli that was until then in the possession of the Florentines. In 1120 the Florentines took back the castle and Rabodo was killed defending it.
The next German margrave appointed by the emperor, Conrad of Tuscany favored Lucca and spent his first two years of tenure (1120–1122), in wars with Florence. In 1123 certain captains loyal to the counts of Lucca managed to occupy the castle of Fiesole. The Florentines laid a siege on it and after two long years the Fiesolani were starved into submission. Their Etruscan walls were razed to the ground and the leading families of the city were obliged to take up their residence in Florence. The two towns would from now on considered to be one. That same year (1125) was the year the last Emperor of the Salian dynasty died (Henry V). It is also the year when the first mention of the city consuls, the new ruling body of the city-state of Florence was first recorded.
The 1120’s was a period of urbanization for Florence, with people flocking to the city from the country, especially powerful families in the vicinity of the city, feudal lords, who carried with them the rights to their rural counties. That wave gave birth to the town’s new noble class, that would serve as the main tank for the city consuls along with the first circle of pre-existing nobles. Given the evidence about the fate of their castles (most of them were razed to the ground) it can be speculated that this was not a voluntary transition for them.
In 1138 we have the first nominal mention of two Florentine consuls representing the city in a council of Tuscan cities (the Roncaglia di Toscana) at San Genesio (where Via Pisana intersected with Via Francigena) where the Tuscan cities tried to establish a common policy against the imperial oppression. It was a time that Florence played a secondary role compared to Lucca, Pisa and Siena and the feuds between them were still too young. The Commune was then under the guidance of twelve consuls, prominent figures of a council of about 150 boni homines and a body of a popular assembly which convened four times per year at the Cathedral of Santa Reparata (later Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore). The connection of the road that crossed the valley of Arno with Via Francigena but most of all the gateway to the sea through the Arno river port set a solid base for the development of commerce. After 1150 with most nearby castles conquered and the population on the rise, a new class, that of the merchants would accelerate the growth of the city and its economy already booming in the fields of clothe processing and handicraft production.
New populous suburbs started to spring up around the circle of Matilda’s wall in correlation to the gates. The Borgo di Balla where the wool dyers were located, the Borgo de’ Greci, the neighborhood of the Greeks where the traders from the east resided, the Borgo San Jacopo, the Borgo di Porta Santa Maria etc. In 1173 the city officially entered the era of growth with the construction of another line of walls that would include the new districts and place the thriving port within its protection. It was an area three times larger than the one before enclosing a population of around 25.000 people.
After Odoacer’s death (493) the newly ascended Byzantine emperor Justinian I (r. 527- 565) would put forward the ambitious plan of the reconquest of the defunct Western Empire, immersing the Italian cities into a 20 year war between the Goths and the Byzantines (Gothic War 535-553) that further reduced their size and impoverished their populations. In 541 Florentia was occupied by the troops of the Byzantine General Bellisarius but nine years later, the new king of the Goths Totila (r. 541–552) looted and destroyed the city. In 552 a senior court eunuch of the Byzantine Emperor, a Romanized Armenian named Narses would manage to defeat the Goths, kill king Totila and reconquer most Italian cities for the Byzantines.
Famine and plague completed the gloomy puzzle of the years that followed evident in Florentia’s case by the modest size of the new wall which was probably built to include less than a thousand inhabitants. The fragile Byzantine rule became even more precarious with the removal of the experienced commander Narses in 568. In that same year a massive army of Lombards crossed the Alps heading south. In 570 AD Florentia became part of their new Italian realm.
In the beginning the Lombards, most of them pagan or Arian Christians acted with cruelty unfamiliar to the Roman population which compared their ways to those of the Ostrogoths, an ethnic group however that had already co-existed with them as their mercenaries. After the conversion of the Lombard leaders to the Roman Catholic Church in the beginning of the 7th century things found a new equilibrium and new religious buildings started to sprout around the city. One of them was the first version of the Baptistery of San Giovanni.
Just when the ancient society of warlords and subjects was transforming into a multilayered agglomeration of different classes of artisans, farmers, landowners, monks, merchants and Lombard coinage started to create a new economy based on money, a new power, another Germanic nation, the Franks of Charlemagne established their primacy as the ruling ethnic group in Northern Italy in 773.
The Lombard Duchy of Tuscia developed into the Frankish-Carolingian Imperial March of Tuscia with the city of Lucca serving as its capital and the only notable change being the submission to a Frank overlord instead of a Lombard. Although there are accounts of Charlemagne visiting Florence twice in the 780’s, the city remained in obscurity until the mid 850’s. The signs of the 9th century revival come from the buildings of that era. A new line of defensive walls which followed its Roman predecessor and a wider south side that included the former suburbs was probably built at that time due to the fear of Norman and Saracen raids. A new bridge came to replace the previously destroyed in the sixth-seventh century construction and a public ecclesiastical school was built. Finally the two communities of Fiesole and Florentia were united and the latter was chosen as the seat of the local count, commencing an era of unequal growth that would lead to the complete assimilation of the first by its lowland neighbor.
The Ostrogoth King led a broad coalition of Germanic & Celtic tribes (Goths, Vandals, Burgundians among others) that exceeded 200.000 strong and had already sacked the whole Northern Italy by the end of 405, displacing the people and devastating their properties. In 406 the Barbarians reached Tuscany and started to besiege Florentia. In August of 406, the Roman general Flavius Stilicho with an army of 5.000, among them many freed & recruited just before the battle slaves, managed to brake the siege and defeat the superior army near Fiesole on August 23, 406. The Ostrogoth King Radagaiso tried to escape, but was captured and beheaded in front of the gates of the city.
As a sign of gratitude for this god-given victory a new church was built just off the Porta Aquilonia, the northern gate of the city, dedicated to Saint Reparata of Caesarea (a Saint particularly popular during the Middle Ages in Tuscany), the Church of Santa Reparata. A few centuries later that church would become the city’s cathedral, the famous Santa Maria del Fiore.
The victory against the Ostrogoth king attributed by many Florentines to the prayers of the Christians played a crucial role in the conversion of the whole population to the new religion. The old gods were replaced by the new saints and the old patron god Mars by the cult of San Giovanni Battista (John the Baptist). The Fall of the Western Empire and the Germanic invasions plunged Florentia into the dark ages. Its population waned and its commerce ground to a halt. With a constant struggle between various Germanic leaders for the control of the Italian peninsula during the 5th century, from Vandals to Ostrogoths and Visigoths the whole region of Tuscany was at the mercy of the invaders. The urban structure of the city fell into a general state of degradation.
Odoacer (r. 476–493), a former head of the Germanic foederati (mercenaries) of Italy had deposed the child emperor Romulus Augustulus and had set himself up as King of Italy in 476 AD. He was succeeded by Theodoric the Great (r. 493 – 526) who established a firm Ostrogothic Kingdom in the Italian peninsula. Theodoric cooperated closely with the old Roman elite and showed a considerable religious tolerance, which was also extended towards Jews.
According to the military tradition the main temple of the city was dedicated to the god of war, Mars, first patron of Florentia. The temple was built at the northern edge of the town, where Piazza del Duomo is today (most probably at the site of the cathedral). Around the main square or the forum urbis was the Curia, the ancient senate and a Capitoline Triad temple dedicated to the Roman gods of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva.
The city quickly expanded in every direction with several landmark buildings of the era like the amphitheater, the thermal baths and the aqueduct located outside the walls. Outside the walls was also a river port that connected Florentia to the sea and gave its commerce an important naval way out. Its pivotal point on the map and relatively easy access to the sea attracted the first foreign merchants from the east, who later established their own settlement on the other side of the river.
At the time of Diocletian, in 285 AD we have the first recognition of the growing importance of the city which numbered around 20.000 people at the time. Florentia was then raised to “Corrector Italiae” , in essence capital of the whole Tuscia (later Tuscany) region, preferred to other, older Etruscan cities such as Fiesole, Arezzo and Perugia. A roman legion responsible for the whole region would be now stationed in Florentia.
The traders from the East who had established their first permanent settlement in the second century, right on the other side of the bridge had brought with them their customs and religions, in the beginning that of goddess Isis and then Christianism. An easterner was the first Christian martyr in the history of the city. An Armenian prince named Miniato who served in the Roman army under Emperor Decius had decided to become a hermit somewhere near Florentia. In 250 AD the Emperor who was at the time persecuting Christians within the Empire was camped outside the gates of Florence. Miniato was brought before him with the charge of refusing to sacrifice to the Roman gods. He was put through numerous torments until he was finally beheaded near modern day Piazza della Signoria. According to the legend he picked up his own head, he crossed the Arno and returned to his hermitage on the hill where the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte stands today.
The ancient Christian tombstones found in the Church of Santa Felicita, between Ponte Vecchio and Palazzo Pitti, date back to the second century. The underground morphology of the site and the dozens of early Christian inscriptions written mostly in Greek and Syrian testify to the presence of a Christian community of Greek and Syrian origin that had built their catacombs under the foundations of the present church. This first Christian cemetery of Florentia, became the first church of the Roman city sometime during the 4th century. That church was dedicated to Saint Felicitas of Rome who had martyred in Carthage in 203. The first bishop of Florentia, present at a Christian synod that was held in Rome in 313, was most probably not by pure coincidence recorded as Bishop Felice.
In 393 the Bishop of Milan Aurelio Ambrogio (St. Ambrogio today), the most important Church figure of the 4th century revered as a saint by all Christian churches today, accepted the invitation of the community of Florentia and remained in the city for about a year. During that time he founded the Church of San Lorenzo, that would serve as the basilica of Florentia for the next 300 years.
A young Florentine Christian noble named Zenobius would make an impression to the bishop of Milan (Saint Ambrose), who appreciated his preaching talent and vouched for him to the Pope in Rome. Pope Damasus I (r. 366–386) shared the bishop’s enthusiasm and employed him in various important missions, including a legation to Constantinople. He later returned to his native city where he was elected bishop of Florentia by popular demand. Zenobius played a crucial role in the spread of Christianity in the city and its outskirts, he organised the diocese and combated Arianism.
In 405 he would take on a much greater role using his appeal to the people and ability to preach to unite the city’s population against the hordes of the Ostrogoth King Radagaiso who had invaded Italy with a massive army. He is venerated as a saint by both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church and is the main patron of the Florentine Archdiocese, along with St. Anthony, with his feast day celebrated on May 25.
Today’s Florence, the basin formed by the six hills that surround it, specifically the area where the small Mugnone River meets the mighty River Arno (western edge of the city), was inhabited even before the 9th century BC when the Etruscans moved in the wider region.
The Etruscans preferred the safety of the Hill of Fiesole (8 km to the northeast of Florence) that could provide some protection from future raids than the marshy plain of Arno that lay on its feet. It was there they decided to build their main settlement with its protective wall still standing to this day.
Fiesole’s location was not accidental. It stood at a point where the main roads between southern and central Etruria met with those that led to the south of Italy as well as those of the Po valley that led to the cities of the north.
Between 7th and 6th BC Fiesole’s residents established the first wooden bridge or ferry just a few meters from Ponte Vecchio taking advantage of a ford inside the River Arno, near the location of the bridge.
After a series of wining battles and a most decisive one in the Battle of Lake Vadimo (283 BC) where the combined forces of the Etruscans and the Gallic tribes of the Boii and the Senones were defeated, Fiesole became part of the expanding Roman territory. Under Roman rule Fiesole was the seat of an important religious school for augurs (Roman priests/prophets).Every year twelve young men were sent from Rome to Fiesole to study the art of divination. The town benefited even more with the Roman expansion to the Po Valley and the construction of the Roman road of Via Cassia (around 150 BC) that connected a number of independent Etruscan paths and crossed Arno River at the site of the old Etruscan bridge.
At the time of the powerful Roman general and statesman Sulla (138 BC – 78 BC) a new Roman-Etruscan urban nucleus was born at the site of today’s Donatello Piazzale probably to protect the old Etruscan bridge of Arno while Fiesole was colonized with decommissioned veterans in order to be controlled by the Roman general in a time he was at war with Gaius Marius (Sulla’s second civil war 83–82 BC).
A few years later, around 65 BC Sulla‘s veterans would be entangled in a conspiracy against several members of the Roman senate devised by the Roman senator Catiline. The eventual failure of that conspiracy and the fact that most veterans of Fiesole had taken part in it, proved to be crucial for the birth of a new Roman town that would control the bridge of Arno and would be loyal to one of the leading figures of the senate at the time, a highflying member of a ruling triumvirate named was Julius Caesar.
A new generation of veteran soldiers bestowed with farming plots in the Valley of Arno, became the residents of the new town built right on the spot of the first pre-historic settlement at the confluence of River Arno and the stream of River Mugnone, hence its first name Fluentia (Pliny the Elder), which later changed into Florentia, the flower city. The new town followed the classic pattern of Julius Caesar’s cities which was that of a military camp. Rectangular, enclosed by a protective wall, straight roads intersecting at right angles and two main cross-axial streets running north-south, east-west, leading to four towered gates that converged on a central square, where the forum was located. In Florentia‘s case that was the site where Piazza della Repubblica lies today.
A few hundred meters from Piazzale Michelangelo (about 10 minutes on foot) lies the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte.
Bishop Hildebrand had the present Basilica built in 1018 on the site of a 4th century chapel. The lower part of the facade is decorated by fine arcading; the upper part is simpler and has a fine 12th-century mosaic of Christ between the Madonna and St. Miniato. The Basilica has an unfinished 15th century campanile that was damaged during the Siege of Florence in 1530. The Bishop’s Palace, the fortifications, the monumental cemetery and the Basilica all stand at the top of a hill called Monte alle Croci, which overlooks Piazzale Michelangelo below and over the entire city of Florence. The interior of this magnificent example of Florentine Romanesque architecture (it originally belonged to the Benedictine monks and then passed to the Olivetan friars in 1373) is tripartite with a trussed timber roof.
The pavement in the centre of the Basilica includes marble intarsias representing the signs of the zodiac and symbolic animals. The walls retain fragments of 13th and 14th century frescoes. The crypt is a vast space closed off by an elaborate wrought-iron gate (1338). The altar (11th century) preserves the bones of St. Miniato. Fragments of frescoes by Taddeo Gaddi (1341) may be seen in the vaults of the crypt. The raised presbytery is of great beauty with its pulpit (1207) and an intimate choir with fine inlaid wooden choir stalls. The large mosaic of the Blessing Christ flanked by the Madonna and Saints (1297) is in the conch of the apse. The entrance to the Sacristy, completely frescoed by Spinello Aretino (1387) with the sixteen Stories of the legend of St. Benedict, is to the right of the presbytery. On the left, stairs lead to the Chapel of St. James, or “of the Cardinal of Portugal”, designed by Antonio Manetti and decorated with five splendid roundels representing the Holy Spirit and the Cardinal Virtues, by Luca della Robbia (1461-66). To the right is the funeral monument of the Cardinal, a particularly lovely work by Antonio Rossellino (1461). The Chapel of the Crucifix, designed by Michelozzo, and with delicate glazed vaulting by Luca della Robbia or his family, stands at the centre of the church. To the right of the church is the Bishop’s Palace (1295- 1320), the ancient summer residence of the bishops of Florence which then became a convent, a hospital and a Jesuit house. Description by www.san-miniato-al-monte.com
Piazzale Michelangelo is a terrace of the Tuscan capital, loved by tourists and Florentines alike. Piazzale Michelangiolo – the original name – was created in 1875 by architect Giuseppe Poggi. It was during the period of Florence’s capitalist boom when urban planning became part of the so-called revitalization plan, which also led to the creation of the great avenues, a period of social and urban renewal of the city of Florence. The sumptuous terrace is located on a hill on the south bank of Arno, just east of the Boboli gardens.
The ancient 14th-century walls were razed to form the avenue of ring roads, on the model of the Parisian boulevards: along the Hill of San Miniato the Colli avenue, a panoramic road of about 8 kilometers was formed and the square was placed at the end of its route. From 1890 to 1935 the avenue was run by the Chianti intersections connecting Florence with Greve in Chianti and San Casciano Val di Pesa. The square was named after the renowned Renaissance artist Michelangelo, to whom the monument was also dedicated, consisting of a bronze copy of David and the statues of the Medici tombs in San Lorenzo (on the contrary, the original ones were made in marble). According to the chronicles of that time, on June 25, 1873, nine pairs of oxen were used to carry the monumental works on the terrace. The works were completed within a couple of years, and the terrace became accessible in 1875.
At David’s feet are the copies of the four statues, allegories of day and night , that adorn the tombs of the Medici chapels of St. Lawrence: David’s copy occupies a privileged position, towering over the city and observing it from above , as an ever-watchful guard on Florentine beauties.