Taughannock Falls

Taughannock Falls
from: althouse.blogspot.com

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Some historical background for Machiavelli's Florentine Histories

My medievalist colleagues will no doubt crucify me for the gross over-simplifications that follow. My only excuse is that I want this lesson to be accessible to the educated layperson, even if they haven't been lucky enough to study Italian history.

So-- the Italian world of the late 14th century was very different from today's Italy. Italy was just an ethnic and linguistic concept, a holdover from the ancient Roman times. Major city-states, like Florence, Venice, Naples, and Milan dominated the peninsula, along with the vast territories under Church contol known as the papal states. All of these city-states were forced to pay some sort of homage to larger powers-- either the Holy Roman Empire (the Germanic descendant of Charlemagne's empire), the Church, the French or Spanish monarchies, etc. The Italians who sided with the Church and the French were called Guelphs (Parte Guelfa in Florence), while those who sided with the emperors were usually known as Ghibellines. Milan was traditionally a Ghibelline stronghold, while Florence was usually firmly inside the Guelph camp.

The Ghibelline faction favored the domination of society by noble familes who held titles like: count, baron, marchese, etc. While many Italian nobles were Guelphs, the Guelphs generally favored sharing political power with the merchant classes and the skilled artisans (butchers, bakers, jewellers, etc.) Indeed, the city government of Florence was basically a "guild republic". This means that you could only enjoy political power if you belonged to a sort of union. University professors, butchers, merchants, lawyers, doctors-- everybody was in the union (Arte). The wealthier unions (like the merchants) naturally dominated city hall. Yet the less powerful artisans (organized in the Arti Minori or "Lesser Guilds") did enjoy some rights of expression and participation in public affairs.

The next passage we'll read from Machiavelli concerns his general ideas on how divisions, between rich and poor, tended to polarize and harm the city of Florence. Powerful families like the Albizzi and Ricci always tried to exploit these divisions for their own ends. We'll wait for tomorrow to read those few paragraphs!! Ciao for now!


mlee33 said...

This is cool stuff, Ulysses. Thanks for doing this!!

Laertes wife said...

Indeed it is cool stuff.