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The Republic
Democratic Florence
Florence in 1400 was extremely unusual. With no king, prince or duke, the city was an independent republic, run by the people, for the people

It was not a perfect democracy but it worked and was responsible for creating a group of strong families, dynasties who would end up fighting for control of this thriving city.

The city's four quarters nominated two Priori to sit on the council, or Signoria. They were joined by elected members of the city guilds, which were divided into major and minor:
  • Major guilds: Lawyers, Cloth merchants; Wool merchants; Silk Merchants; Bankers; Furriers; Doctors, apothecaries and Spice merchants
  • Minor guilds: Butchers; Bakers; Amorers; Vintners; Tanners; Masons; Carpenters; Innkeepers; Cooks; Locksmiths; Leather workers
Every few months, a new head of state, or Gonfaloniere, was elected from the eight priori (made up of two from the quarters, and six from the guilds) who together formed the Signoria. Theoretically, Florence's leader could be anyone, from a lawyer to a butcher.

Practically, the position was usually filled by a senior member of a major family. In 1402, Giovanni de'Medici was elected Prior for the wool merchants guild, and in 1421, he was elected Gonfaloniere. It was a sign that the Medici had truly arrived.

Laws were formed by a two-house legislature; the upper house, the consiglione del commune, elected from the quarters, and the lower house, the consiglio del popolo, elected from the guilds. In times of crisis, a Parlamento was called, consisting of all male citizens over the age of 14. They would be asked to approve the creation of a balia, an emergency committee.

In 1382, the Republic was rocked by the revolt of the Ciompi, the ordinary cloth workers of Florence. Demanding their own representation, they ran riot, led by Salvestro de'Medici, a cousin of Giovanni. Although the revolt was brutally crushed, the Medici earned a reputation for workers' support, which they found hard to shake off. Their new reputation only fuelled the suspicion and envy of their rivals.

Clearly, the Florentine system of government was not perfect democracy. More than 75% of the population had no say over who governed their city. The Florentine system did encourage an oligarchy of rival families to attain positions of power, proving critical to the development of an enterprising, peace-loving city, and fueling the competition which lay behind much of the Renaisssance.

By 1537, the Republic had all but disappeared. Successive leaders had streamlined the system of government, while continual war weakened the city's finances and undermined its political independence. By the time Cosimo I was “elected” Duke of Florence ( a sign in itself that the days of Republic were over) the writing was on the wall.

Cosimo's first act was to abolish the Signoria, turning the city of Florence and its territories into a fully fledged kingdom, ruled by a royal Medici dynasty.

Where to next
Contenders   The Other Families
Florence scape Florence Scape: introduction

The Renaissance

- Botticelli
- Donatello
- Ghiberti
- Gozzoli
- Leonardo
- Michelangelo
- Raphael
- Vasari

- The Republic
- Italy at War
- Machiavelli

- Heresy
- Counter-Reformation

Science & Architecture
- Galileo
- Brunelleschi