History of Florence

Statue of Santa Reparata in the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral or duomo of Florence

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

Prehistoric evidence

In the Quaternary Age the Florence-Prato-Pistoia plain was occupied by a great lake bounded by Monte Albano in the west, Monte Giovi in the North and the foothills of Chianti in the South. Even after most of the water had receded, the plain, 50 metres (160 ft) above sea level, was strewn with ponds and marshes which remained until the 18th century when the land was reclaimed. Most of the marshland was in the region of Campi Bisenzio, Signa and Bagno a Ripoli.

It is thought that there was already a settlement at the confluence of the Mugnone with the River Arno between the 10th and the 8th century BC. Between the 7th and 6th centuries BC Etruscans had discovered and used the ford of the Arno near this confluence, closer to the hills of the North and South. A bridge or a ferry was probably constructed here, about ten metres away from the current Ponte Vecchio, but closer to the ford itself. The Etruscans, however, preferred not to build cities on the plain for reasons of defence and instead settled about six kilometres away on a hill. This settlement was a precursor of the fortified centre of Vipsul (today's Fiesole), which was later connected by road to all the major Etruscan centres of Emilia to the North and Lazio to the South.

Roman origins

Florence was founded in 59 BC as a settlement for former soldiers who were allotted land by Julius Caesar in the rich farming valley of the Arno. Dubbed Florentia, the city was built in the style of a military camp with a castrum of grid pattern and the main streets, the cardo and the decumanus, intersecting at the present Piazza della Repubblica, which can still be seen in the city center. Florentia was situated at the Via Cassia, the main route between Rome and the North, which position enabled it to rapidly expand as a commercial center. Emperor Diocletian made Florentia capital of the province of Tuscia in the 3rd century AD.

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

Early middle ages

The seat of a bishopric from around the beginning of the 4th century CE, the city was alternatingly under Byzantine and Ostrogothic rule as the two powers fought each other for control of the city, taking it by siege only to lose it again later.

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

Middle ages

Main article: Republic of Florence
Profile of Dante Alighieri, one of the most renowned Italian poets, painted by his contemporary Giotto di Bondone

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

Reviving from the 10th century and governed from 1115 by an autonomous medieval commune, the city was plunged into internal strife by the 13th-century struggle between the Ghibellines, supporters of the German emperor, and the pro-Papal Guelphs, after the murder of nobleman Buondelmonte del Buondelmonti for reneging on his agreement to marry one of the daughters of the Amidei family.[1] In 1257 the city was ruled by a podestà, the Guelph Luca Grimaldi. The Guelphs had triumphed and soon split in turn into feuding "White" and "Black" factions led respectively by Vieri de' Cerchi and Corso Donati. These struggles eventually led to the exile of the White Guelphs, one of whom was Dante Alighieri. This factional strife was later recorded by Dino Compagni, a White Guelph, in his Chronicles of Florence.

The growth of Florence from 1300 to 1500

Political conflict did not, however, prevent the city's rise to become one of the most powerful and prosperous in Europe, assisted by her own strong gold currency. The "fiorino d'oro" of the Republic of Florence, or florin, was introduced in 1252, the first European gold coin struck in sufficient quantities to play a significant commercial role since the 7th century. Many Florentine banks had branches across Europe, with able bankers and merchants such as the famous chronicler Giovanni Villani of the Peruzzi Company engaging in commercial transactions as far away as Bruges. The florin quickly became the dominant trade coin of Western Europe, replacing silver bars in multiples of the mark. This period also saw the eclipse of Florence's formerly powerful rival Pisa, which was defeated by Genoa in 1284 and subjugated by Florence in 1406 . Power shifted from the aristocracy to the mercantile elite and members of organized guilds after an anti-aristocratic movement, led by Giano della Bella, enacted the Ordinances of Justice in 1293.

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

A rare snow-covered Florence, with the towering campanile of the Cathedral of Florence to the right


Of a population estimated at 80,000 before the Black Death of 1349, about 25,000 are estimated to have been engaged in the city's wool industry: in 1345 Florence was the scene of an attempted strike by wool carders (ciompi), who in 1378 rose up in a brief revolt against oligarchic rule in the Revolt of the Ciompi. After their suppression, the city came under the sway (1382–1434) of the Albizzi family, bitter rivals of the Medici. Cosimo de' Medici was the first Medici family member to essentially control the city from behind the scenes. Although the city was technically a democracy of sorts, his power came from a vast patronage network along with his alliance to the new immigrants, the gente nuova. The fact that the Medici were bankers to the pope also contributed to their rise. Cosimo was succeeded by his son Piero di Cosimo de' Medici, who was shortly thereafter succeeded by Cosimo's grandson, Lorenzo in 1469. Lorenzo was a great patron of the arts, commissioning works by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli.

Florence in a 1493 woodcut from Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle

After Lorenzo's death in 1492, his son Piero took the reins of government, however his rule proved brief when in 1494 Charles VIII of France invaded Italy, entering Tuscany on his way to claim the throne of Naples. After Piero made a submissive treaty with Charles, the Florentines responded by forcing Piero into exile, and the first period of Medici rule ended with the restoration of a republican government. Anti-Medici sentiment was much influenced by the teachings of the radical Dominican prior Girolamo Savonarola. However, in due time, Savonarola lost support and was burned at the stake in 1498.

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

The Siege of Florence in 1530

The 10-month Siege of Florence (1529–1530) by the Spanish ended the Republic of Florence as Alessandro de' Medici became the ruler of the city. The siege brought the destruction of its suburbs, the ruin of its export business and the confiscation of its citizens' wealth.[2]

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

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

Citizen Government in Renaissance Florence

In order to reconcile the warring factions and families, a complex electoral system was developed as mechanism for sharing power.[3] Incumbent officers and appointees carried out a secret ballot every three or four years. They committed the names of all those elected into a series of bags, one for each sesto, or sixth, of the city. One name was drawn from each bag every two months to form the highest executive of the city, the Signoria. The selection scheme was controlled to ensure that no two members of the same family ended up in the same batch of six names.

This lot arrangement organized the political structure of Florence until 1434 when the Medici family took power. To maintain control, the Medici undermined the selection process by introducing a system of elected committees they could effectively manipulate by fear and favour. Civic lotteries still took place but actual power rested with the Medicis. In 1465, a movement to reintroduce civic lotteries was halted by an extraordinary commission packed with Medici supporters.[4]

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

Role in art, literature and science

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

Added to this, the crises of the Catholic church (especially the controversy over the French Avignon Papacy and the Great Schism) along with the catastrophic effects of the Black Death were to lead to a re-evaluation of medieval values, resultant in the development of a humanist culture, stimulated by the works of Petrarch and Boccaccio. This prompted a revisitation and study of the classical antiquity, leading to the Renaissance.[5] Florence benefited materially and culturally from this sea-change in social consciousness.

Modern and contemporary age

The family of Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor, who was for a while the Grand Duke of Tuscany.

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

Florence in 1898. Painting by Oswald Achenbach.

Florence replaced Turin as Italy's capital in 1865 and, in an effort to modernise the city, the old market in the Piazza del Mercato Vecchio and many medieval houses were pulled down and replaced by a more formal street plan with newer houses. The Piazza (first renamed Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele II, then Piazza della Repubblica, the present name) was significantly widened and a large triumphal arch was constructed at the west end. This development was unpopular and was prevented from continuing by the efforts of several British and American people living in the city. A museum recording the destruction stands nearby today. The country's second capital city was superseded by Rome six years later, after the withdrawal of the French troops made its addition to the kingdom possible. A very important role is played in these years by the famous café of Florence Giubbe Rosse from its foundation until the present day. "Non fu giammai così nobil giardino/ come a quel tempo egli è Mercato Vecchio / che l'occhio e il gusto pasce al fiorentino", claimed Antonio Pucci in the 14th century, "Mercato Vecchio nel mondo è alimento./ A ogni altra piazza il prego serra". The area had, however, decayed from its original medieval splendor.

20th century

In the 19th century the population of Florence doubled, and tripled in the 20th century with the growth of tourism, trade, financial services and the industry. A foreign community came to represent one-quarter of the population in the second half of the 19th century and of this period was the romantic vision of the town as captured by writers such as James Irving and pre-Raphaelite artists. This era left bequeath to the city numerous villas of mainly English barons with their eclectic collections of art, which today are museums like the Museum Horne, the Stibbert Museum, Villa La Pietra, etc.

During World War II the city experienced a year-long German occupation (1943–1944). On September 25, 1943, allied bombers targeted central Florence, destroying many buildings and killing 215 civilians.[6]

British officer views the damage to the Ponte Vecchio from the east just after the liberation of Florence on 11 August 1944 in WWII

During the German retreat, Florence was declared an "open city", thereby avoiding major war damage. Shortly before leaving Florence, as they knew that they would soon have to retreat the Germans murdered many freedom fighters and political opponents publicly, in streets and squares including Piazza Santo Spirito. In 1944, the retreating Germans decided to blow up the bridges along the Arno linking the district of Oltrarno to the rest of the city, thus making it difficult for the British troops to cross. However, at the last moment the German officer in charge, Gerhard Wolf, ordered that the Ponte Vecchio must not be blown up, as it was too precious to him: before the war, Wolf had been a student in the city and his brave decision to spare this ancient landmark has been honored with a memorial plaque on the bridge. Instead an equally historic area of streets directly to the south of the bridge, including part of the Corridoio Vasariano, was destroyed using mines.[7] Since then the bridges have been restored exactly to their original forms using as many of the remaining materials as possible, but the buildings surrounding the Ponte Vecchio have been rebuilt in a style combining the old with modern design. The Allied soldiers who died driving the Germans from Tuscany are buried in cemeteries outside the city: Americans about 9 kilometers (5.6 mi) south of the city , British and Commonwealth soldiers a few kilometers east of the center on the north bank of the Arno ).

On November 4, 1966 the Arno flooded parts of the centre, killing at least 40 and damaging millions of art treasures and rare books. There was no warning from the authorities who knew the flood was coming, except a phone call to the jewellers on the Ponte Vecchio. Volunteers from around the world came to help rescue the books and art, and the effort inspired multiple new methods of art conservation. Forty years later, there are still works awaiting restoration.[8]

On 28 May 1993, a powerful car bomb exploded in the via de Georgofili, behind the Uffizi killing five people, injuring numerous others and seriously damaging the Torre dei Pulci, the museum and parts of its collection. The blast has been attributed to the Mafia.[9]

21st century

In 2002, Florence was the seat of the first European Social Forum. There are also several new building and cultural projects, such as that of the Parco della musica e della cultura, which will be a vast musical and cultural complex which currently is being built in the "Parco della Cascine" (Cascine park). It will host a lyrical theatre containing 2,000 places, a concert hall for one thousand watchers, a hall with three thousand seats and an open-air amphitheatre with three thousand spaces. It will host numerous ballets, concerts, lyrical operas and numerous musical festivals. The theatre was inaugurated on 28 April 2011, in honour of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Italian unification.[10]

See also


  1. "13th C". washington.edu.
  2. Sir Francis Adams Hyett (1903). Florence: her history and art to the fall of the republic. Methuen. pp. 505–21.
  3. Oliver Dowlen, Sorted: Civic Lotteries and the Future of Public Participation, (MASS LBP: Toronto, 2008) pp 36
  4. Dowlen, Sorted
  5. Peter Barenboim, Sergey Shiyan, Michelangelo: Mysteries of Medici Chapel, SLOVO, Moscow, 2006. ISBN 5-85050-825-2
  6. "25 settembre 1943 bombardamento di Firenze - Zoomedia.it". zoomedia.it.
  7. Brucker, Gene (1983). Renaissance Florence. University of California Press. p. 8. ISBN 0-520-04695-1.
  8. Alison McLean (November 2006). "This Month in History". Smithsonian. 37 (8): 34.
  9. Cowell, Alan (28 May 1993). "Bomb Outside Uffizi in Florence Kills 6 and Damages Many Works". The New York Times.
  10. Filippo. "UrbanFile - Firenze | Nuovo Auditorium Nel Parco Della Musica E Della Cultura". Urbanfile.it. Retrieved 2010-01-22.

Further reading

Primary sources

Other readings

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