HISTORY OF FLORENCE 12-14TH C.
THE PERIOD OF THE "COMMUNES"
When Countess Matilda died in 1115 the Florentine populace to all effects already constituted a Commune. The numerous privileges conceded by her and the events in which the Florentine community had played a leading role in the struggle against the emperor, induced the people to organize autonomously and to undertake action aimed at weakening imperial power. It was therefore inevitable that in 1125, upon the death of the last emperor of the Franconian dynasty, Henry V, the Florentines decided to attack and destroy Fiesole, the neighboring rival city. As a result the two counties were conclusively united and remained as separate entities only on an ecclesiastic level with Fiesole maintaining its own diocese.
The first mention of an officially constituted Commune dates to 1138, when at a meeting of the Tuscan cities it was decided to constitute a League, for fear that Henry the Proud who had in precedence oppressed them as imperial legate might be elected emperor. At that time the community wasmade up of religious and secular representatives, with three dominant social groups: the nobles, grouped into consorterie, the merchants, and the horse soldiers, the backbone of the army.
Although the nobles held most of the power in the 12th century, it was nevertheless mainly the merchants who were responsible for the growth of the city. The rise of the merchants accelerated in the second half of the century, as trade with distant countries was intensified and became a new and much richer source for the accumulation of capital. Extensive trade and its inseparable companion, credit, were the basis for the economic and demographic expansion of the city.
This process of expansion underwent a temporary halt when Frederick Barbarossa advanced south into Italy. In 1185 the emperor even deprived the city of its contado [countryside] [countryside] and restored the marquisate of Tuscany, but the provision had a brief life. In 1197, taking advantage of the death of Barbarossa's successor, Henry VI, Florence regained control of her contado [countryside].
Clear evidence of the power Florence had acquired in the course of the 12th century is to be found in the expansion of its urban territory. All around the circle of Matilda's walls, in correspondence to the gates, populous suburbs had sprung up. In 1172 the Commune therefore decided to enlarge the city walls and incorporate the newest districts. The perimeter of the new city walls, raised in barely two years, from 1173 to 1175, was twice that of the "old circle" and enclosed an area that was three times as great. As far as the suburbs across the Arno were concerned, it was not until later that they were fortified, even though a small part of the "Oltrarno" was enclosed in the walls as early as 1173-1175. As a result the Arno became an infrastructure within the city, as a communications route, a source of energy and a water supply for industries.
In the 12th century the skyline of the city was punctuated by numerous towers: in 1180 thirty-five were documented, but there were certainly many more. Later the towers were used as houses, but in the 12th century the towers still served for military purposes and gave birth to the phenomenon of the "Tower Societies", associations which reunited the owners of various towers enabling them to control a portion of the city. A considerable number of small and large churches also sprang up as the size of the city increased. In two centuries the number of churches in Florence was tripled, so that at the beginning of the 13th century the city had as many as 48 churches (12 priories and 36 parishes).
THE THIRTEENTH CENTURY
The speed with which the new walls were built is a sign of the prosperity that reigned in Florence. The city had become the principal center of continental Tuscany, with a population that at this point must have been around 30,000 inhabitants, and which clearly showed signs of continued growth thanks to the arrival of immigrants from the countryside. The Commune thus experienced a period of peace during which the economic basis of the city continued to expand. The merchants, who had begun to organize in corporate association (the Arte dei Mercanti) in 1182, on the example of the Society of Knights, multiplied and spread well beyond the limits of their region.
Around the turn of the century Florence thus became an international economic center, with its operators in the principal fairs of the West. The development of the economy went on at such a rate that in a few years the associations multiplied among the other categories of tradesmen and artisans, whose number increased considerably. The city still preserves some of the buildings which served as headquarters for the Guilds. Generally they are buildings which date back to the 14th century, such as the headquarters of the Wool Guild, built in 1308 by restructuring an extant tower.
The increase in size and population, due not to a natural increment but to the accelerated immigration from the countryside, lay at the basis of this economic expansion. The immigrants, members of a rural middle class that had been formed in consequence of the general economic development, settled in the city district which corresponded to the part of the contado [countryside] from which they came.
This was why the Oltrarno, on which the populous southern regions converged, increased enormously and a new bridge in wood on stone piers was constructed in 1128 and in 1237 a third bridge was built upstream. This bridge, completely in stone, was set across the widest point of the Arno and was eventually called Ponte alle Grazie, after the small church which was built on one of its piers in the middle of the 14th century. The pressing needs of trade and commerce between the cities, the result of the urban expansion, led to the construction in 1952 of still another bridge across the Arno: the Ponte a Santa Trinita. The four bridges served the city's needs up to the 19th century.
The new religious orders (Franciscan, Dominican, Augustinian, Servite, Carmelite) played a leading role in the structuralization of the late medieval city. The Dominicans, who had established themselves in Florence in 1221 in the small church of Santa Maria delle Vigne enlarged the original heart of their monastery for the first time in 1246 and then in 1278 began the present structure.
The first church of the Franciscans, dedicated to the Holy Cross, Santa Croce, dates to the second quarter of the 13th centuryand in 1295 it was rebuilt as we see it today. And the same thing happened with the Agostinians of Santo Spirito, who established themselves in the heart of the Oltrarno in 1259, which was enlarged in 1296. In addition to restructuring the precedent churches, the new religious organism created vast convent complexes, full of cloisters and rooms for study and work; they organized the communitarian life of the urban population, playing a role in political and cultural as well as religious life.
Together with the new cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, whose construction began in 1294, the large churches erected by the mendicant orders in the last decades of the 13th century constituted the principal examples of Gothic religious architecture in Florence.
GUELPHS AND GHIBELLINES
The period of peace which followed the installation of government under a podestà did not last long. 1216 saw the beginning of feuds which were to afflict Florentine society for the entire century, dividing the citizens between Guelphs and Ghibellines. In 1244 the Ghibelline nobles, who were in power, decided to broaden the social base of the government, so as to obtain the favor of the merchant middle class. This was the prelude to the beginning of the period that was to be known as "Primo Popolo". But only a few years later, in 1250, the merchants and the artisans as a whole managed to usurp the power of the Ghibelline nobles and initiate a new political policy.
The Societas militum [tower or military societies] were abolished, in the hopes of allaying the arrogance of the nobles and of preventing them from returning to power. So all the towers had to be cut down to a height of 29 meters. This was the beginning of another period of peace and prosperity and the city's economic and financial power was affirmed. Outstanding evidence of this economic expansion was the coining in 1252 of the gold florin, which joined the silver florin coined as early as 1235. During the period of the "Primo Popolo" the population of the city grew and new public buildings went up. In 1255 construction began on what was to be called the Palazzo del Popolo, now the Bargello, which was erected to house the Councils of the Commune. With its imposing mass and its crenellated tower rising above all other city towers, it was the expression in architecture of the new political policy.
At the battle of Montaperti, 1260, the Florentines were defeated by the Sienese hosts, which resulted in the obliteration of all that the merchant middle class had accomplished politically. When the Ghibellines resumed power and restored the old institutions they decreed the destruction of the palaces and towers and houses which the principal exponents of the Guelph party owned in the city and in the surroundings. The city was covered with rubble, and 103 palaces, 580 houses and 85 towers were totally demolished not to speak of the partial damage done to other buildings. For six years Florence was forced to submit to the outrages of the great Ghibellines and it would have been destroyed had it not been for the fearless defense of Farinata degli Uberti at the convention of Empoli. The Ghibellines, fearing the power of the people were forced to accept the services of Clement IV as peacemaker between the opposing factions. The pope openly favored the Guelph faction which thus succeeded in reconquering the power and they reintroduced the political institutions abrogated by the Ghibellines.
In the meantime, two new parties began to shape up among the people at large: the "Magnati" or nobles (persons whose aims were deemed dangerous to the populace as a whole, that is the noble Guelphs and the repatriated Ghibellines, mostly large holders of houses and lands) and the "Popolani" or workers (merchant and artisans organized in guilds and in turn divided into "grassi" and "minuti" depending on the extent of their interests). In 1293, the historical process begun in the 12th century was to reach its natural conclusion - the Magnati were prohibited from taking part in the political life of the city.
In the late 13th century Florence reached the zenith of its economic and demographic development. This was the period when great things were done in the fields of architecture and town planning, made possible by the formidable accumulations of capital that resulted from the expanding commercial and financial activities. The population had continued to increase and so new city walls were needed and in 1282 a belt 8,500 meters long was planned, enclosing an area of 430 hectares, five times that of the precedent urban area. These sixth, and last, city walls were the greatest financial commitment ever undertaken by the Florentine Commune. This was why work went on so slowly, interrupted more than once because of war and not finished until 1333. Much of the wall was demolished in the 19th century and only a few tracts, Oltrarno, and the principal gates still exist.
At the end of the 13th century Florence could rightly consider itself the main city of the West. The entrepreneurs then in power decided to construct two great buildings which were in a sense to be symbols of the wealth and power of the city: the new cathedral and Palazzo della Signoria. Arnolfo di Cambio was the outstanding figure who designed both buildings, as well as all the other important works promoted by the government of the Guilds, including the new walls. In 1296 the reconstruction of the old cathedral of Santa Reparata was begun. The new building, no longer dedicated to the Palestinian saint, but to the Madonna, was to undergo various changes in size and plan in the course of its construction which lasted for almost a century. Arnolfo's bold project was however basically maintained. The construction of the great Franciscan church of Santa Croce is also attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio, and represents one of the most prestigious monuments erected at the end of the 13th century.
When the city and the countryside were organized into districts in 1292 and the building of the new city walls was begun, a whole new series of urban measures were undertaken. The numerous towerhouses were flanked by the palaces which the middle class merchants were building as a symbol and visible sign of their wealth and power.
THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY TO THE RENAISSANCE
Towards the end of the 13th century and in the early 14th century the contrasts between the popolo minuto-middle and lower middle classes- and the popolo grasso-wealthy merchants-were accentuated. The latter had a firm grip on the power, but in the 14th century the popolo minuto tried several times to broaden the democratic base of the government by increasing the participation of the Arti minori in the government. In 1378, under the impulse of a movement set in motion by the proletariat, the popolo grasso were obliged to accept an institutional reform which provided for the constitution of new Guilds; Tintori, Farsettai, Dyers, Corseteers and Ciompi, corresponding to the most humble activities and the workers.But due to internal divergent interests and an incapacity to govern, these guilds were unable to withstand the reaction of the large merchant middle classes which soon once more took over power.
The rivalry between two noble families resulted in much dissension and led to the formation of two antagonistic groups of political factions to be known as Neri and Bianchi or Blacks and Whites. The former were generally exponents of the newcomers with easy profits and grouped together the representatives of the old noble classes and the most intransigent Guelphists. The two parties took turns at the priorate in the last decade of the 13th century but from then on the conflict intensified. The Priors were forced to exile the heads of the two factions, and the situation precipitated. The Neri invoked the intervention of the pope who sent as his peacemaker Charles of Valois, the brother of Philip Le Belle, king of France. He openly favored the Neri, and even had the heads of the Bianchi arrested and forced those who were most compromised, including Dante Alighieri, into exile.
In addition to these internal struggles, the city had also to sustain the onerous burden of the wars against the powerful Ghibelline signorias of the Visconti and the Scaligeri, joined by the Pisans and the Luccans. Two serious defeats, one in 1315 and the other ten years later, induced Florence first to ask for the protection of the Angevin troops and then to place themselves under the direct dominion of Charles, duke of Calabria, of the house of Anjou. The death of the duke in 1327 unexpectedly restored its freedom to the Florentine Commune. But it did not end there.A new attempt to take over Pisa and Lucca failed miserably. The Florentines, defeated by the Ghibelline forces under the leadership of the lord of Verona, Martino della Scala in 1339, were once more forced to ask King Robert for aid. This resulted in a brief tyranny until the people, tired of violence and abuses of power, threw out the tyrant and restored the civic liberties.
During the 14th century, internal strife and wars were aggravated by famine and epidemics, particularly the deadly plague of 1348, which aggravated a situation that was already precarious. Further damage was caused by the disastrous flood of 1333 which also swept away all the bridges over the Arno except the Rubaconte. The 14th century was therefore a century of political and economic crisis, it was a period of decisive juncture common to all Western economies. The crisis was also reflected in the city's architectural activity which continued at a much slower pace than before. Building activity turned first of all to finishing the great undertakings of the end of the 13th century (the walls, the cathedral, the Palazzo della Signoria, the large monastic complex) and to reconstructing the bridges which had been destroyed. The first of these to be rebuilt, between 1334 and 1337, was the Ponte alla Carraia, apparently after a design by Giotto. The reconstructions of the other bridges, from the Ponte Vecchio on, were based on this bridge. The Ponte Vecchio was built by Taddeo Gaddi in three sweeping arches with a road much wider than before.
After the impressive expansion of the 13th century, the city began to take shape and what might be called a real town planning policy attempted to provide the buildings with some degree of order and regularity. Throughout the 14th century one provision after another was taken in an effort to broaden the streets or modify their routes and to tear down ramshackle buildings or those with structures which impeded traffic. Naturally the Commune's first obligations were in the reorganization of the city's principal piazzas, Piazza della Signoria and Piazza del Duomo, and streets. As can often still be seen, the buildings from that period have a facade with rough-hewn blocks of pietraforte at least in the bottom part, and a series of regular arches in correspondence to the ground floor.
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