The History of Florence—Book III

Chapter II

The papal chair was occupied by Gregory XI. He, like his predecessors, residing at Avignon, governed Italy by legates, who, proud and avaricious, oppressed many of the cities. One of these legates, then at Bologna, taking advantage of a great scarcity of food at Florence, endeavored to render himself master of Tuscany, and not only withheld provisions from the Florentines, but in order to frustrate their hopes of the future harvest, upon the approach of spring, attacked them with a large army, trusting that being famished and unarmed, he should find them an easy conquest. He might perhaps have been successful, had not his forces been mercenary and faithless, and, therefore, induced to abandon the enterprise for the sum of 130,000 florins, which the Florentines paid them. People may go to war when they will, but cannot always withdraw when they like. This contest commenced by the ambition of the legate, was continued by the resentment of the Florentines, who, entering into a league with Bernabo of Milan, and with the cities hostile to the Church, appointed eight citizens for the administration of it, giving them authority to act without appeal, and to expend whatever sums they might judge expedient without rendering an account of the outlay. This war against the pontiff, although Uguccione was now dead, reanimated those who had followed the party of the Ricci, who, in opposition to the Albizzi, had always favored Bernabo and opposed the Church, and this, the rather, because the eight Commissioners of War were all enemies of the Guelfs. This occasioned Piero degli Albizzi, Lapo da Castiglionchio, Carlo Strozzi, and others, to unite themselves more closely in opposition to their adversaries. The Eight carried on the war, and the others admonished during three years, when the death of the pontiff put an end to the hostilities, which had been carried on with so much ability, and with such entire satisfaction to the people, that at the end of each year, the Eight were continued in office, and were called "Santi," or "Holy," although they had set ecclesiastical censures at defiance, plundered the churches of their property, and compelled the priests to perform divine service. So much did citizens at that time prefer the good of their country to their ghostly consolations, and thus showed the Church, that if, as her friends they had defended, they could as enemies depress her; for the whole of Romagna, the Marches, and Perugia were excited to rebellion.

Yet while this war was carried on against the Pope, they were unable to defend themselves against the Captains of the Parts and their faction; for the insolence of the Guelfs against the Eight attained such a pitch, that they could not restrain themselves from abusive behavior, not merely against some of the most distinguished citizens, but even against the Eight themselves; and the Captains of the Parts conducted themselves with such arrogance that they were feared more than the Signory. Those who had business with them treated them with greater reverence, and their court was held in higher estimation; so that no ambassador came to Florence, without commission to the Captains.

Pope Gregory being dead, and the city freed from external war, there still prevailed great confusion within; for the audacity of the Guelfs was insupportable, and as no available mode of subduing them presented itself, it was thought that recourse must be had to arms, to determine which party was the strongest. With the Guelfs were all the ancient nobility, and the greater part of the most powerful popular leaders, of which number, as already remarked, were Lapo, Piero, and Carlo. On the other side were all the lower orders, the leaders of whom were the eight Commissioners of War, Giorgio Scali, and Tommaso Strozzi, and with them the Ricci, Alberti, and Medici. The rest of the multitude, as most commonly happens, joined the discontented party.

It appeared to the heads of the Guelfic faction that their enemies would be greatly strengthened, and themselves in considerable danger in case a hostile Signory should resolve on their subjugation. Desirous, therefore, of being prepared against this calamity, the leaders of the party asembled to take into consideration the state of the city, and that of their own friends in particular, and found the ammoniti so numerous and so great a difficulty, that the whole city was excited against them on this account. They could not devise any other remedy than, that as their enemies had deprived them of all the offices of honor, they should banish their opponents from the city, take possession of the palace of the Signory, and bring over the whole state to their own party; in imitation of the Guelfs of former times, who found no safety in the city, till they had driven all their adversaries out of it. They were unanimous upon the main point, but did not agree upon the time of carrying it into execution. It was in the month of April, in the year 1378, when Lapo, thinking delay unadvisable, expressed his opinion, that procrastination was in the highest degree perilous to themselves; as in the next Signory, Salvestro de' Medici would very probably be elected Gonfalonier, and they all knew he was opposed to their party. Piero degli Albizzi, on the other hand, thought it better to defer, since they would require forces, which could not be assembled without exciting observation, and if they were discovered, they would incur great risk He thereupon judged it preferable to wait till the approaching feast of St. John, on which, being the most solemn festival of the city, vast multitudes would be assembled, among whom they might conceal whatever numbers they pleased. To obviate their fears of Salvastro, he was to be admonished, and if this did not appear likely to be effectual, they would "admonish" one of the Colleagues of his quarter, and upon redrawing, as the ballot boxes would be nearly empty, chance would very likely occasion that either he or some associate of his would be drawn, and he thus be rendered incapable of sitting as Gonfalonier. They therefore came to the conclusion proposed by Piero, though Lapo consented reluctantly, considering the delay dangerous, and that, as no opportunity can be in all respects suitable, he who waits for the concurrence of every advantage, either never makes an attempt, or, if induced to do so, is most frequently foiled. They "admonished" the Colleague, but did not prevent the appointment of Salvestro, for the design was discovered by the Eight, who took care to render all attempts upon the drawing futile.

Salvestro Alamanno de' Medici was therefore drawn Gonfalonier, and, being of one of the noblest popular families, he could not endure that the people should be oppressed by a few powerful persons. Having resolved to put an end to their insolence, and perceiving the middle classes favorably disposed, and many of the highest of the people on his side, he communicated his design to Benedetto Alberti, Tommaso Strozzi, and Georgio Scali, who all promised their assistance. They, therefore, secretly drew up a law which had for its object to revive the restrictions upon the nobility, to retrench the authority of the Capitani di Parte, and recall the ammoniti to their dignity. In order to attempt and obtain their ends, at one and the same time, having to consult, first the Colleagues and then the Councils, Salvestro being Provost (which office for the time makes its possessor almost prince of the city), he called together the Colleagues and the Council on the same morning, and the Colleagues being apart, he proposed the law prepared by himself and his friends, which, being a novelty, encountered in their small number so much opposition, that he was unable to have it passed.

Salvestro, seeing his first attempt likely to fail, pretended to leave the room for a private reason, and, without being perceived, went immediately to the Council, and taking a lofty position from which he could be both seen and heard, said :- "That considering himself invested with the office of Gonfalonier, not so much to preside in private cases (for which proper judges were appointed, who have their regular sittings), as to guard the state, correct the insolence of the powerful, and ameliorate those laws by the influence of which the republic was being ruined, he had carefully attended to both these duties, and to his utmost ability provided for them, but found the perversity of some so much opposed to his just designs as to deprive him of all opportunity of doing good, and them not only of the means of assisting him with their counsel, but even hearing him. Therefore finding he no longer contributed either to the benefit of the republic or of the people generally, he could not perceive any reason for his longer holding the magistracy, of which he was either undeserving, or others thought him so, and would therefore retire to his house, that the people might appoint another in his stead, who would either have greater virtue or better fortune than himself." And having said this, he left the room as if to return home.

Those of the Council who were in the secret, and others desirous of novelty, raised a tumult, at which the Signory and the Colleagues came together, and finding the Gonfalonier leaving them, entreatingly and authoritatively detained him, and obliged him to return to the council room, which was now full of confusion. Many of the noble citizens were threatened in opprobrious language; and an artificer seized Carlo Strozzi by the throat, and would undoubtedly have murdered him, but was with difficulty prevented by those around. He who made the greatest disturbance, and incited the city to violence, was Benedetto degli Alberti, who, from a window of the palace, loudly called the people to arms; and presently the courtyards were filled with armed men, and the Colleagues granted to threats what they had refused to entreaty. The Capitani di Parte had at the same time drawn together a great number of citizens to their hall, to consult upon the means of defending themselves against the orders of Signors, but when they had heard the tumult that was raised, and were informed of the course the Councils had adopted, each took refuge in his own house.

Let no one, when raising popular commotions, imagine he can afterward control them at his pleasure, or restrain them from proceeding to the commission of violence. Salvestro intended to enact his law, and compose the city; but it happened otherwise; for the feelings of all had become so excited, that they shut up the shops; the citizens fortified themselves in their houses; many conveyed their valuable property into the churches and monasteries, and every man seemed to apprehend something terrible at hand. The companies of the Arts met, and each appointed an additional officer or Syndic; upon which the Priors summoned their Colleagues and these Syndics, and consulted a whole day how the city might be appeased with satisfaction to the different parties; but much difference of opinion prevailed, and no conclusion was come to. On the following day the Arts brought forth their banners, which the Signory understanding, and being apprehensive of evil, called the Council together to consider what course to adopt. But scarcely were they met, when the uproar recommenced, and soon the ensigns of the Arts, surrounded by vast numbers of armed men, occupied the courts. Upon this, the Council, to give the Arts and the people hope of redress, and free themselves as much as possible from the charge of causing the mischief, gave a general power, which in Florence is called "Balia," to the Signors, the Colleagues, the Eight, the Capitani di Parte, and to the Syndics of the Arts, to reform the government of the city, for the common benefit of all. While this was being arranged, a few of the ensigns of the Arts and some of the mob, desirous of avenging themselves for the recent injuries they had received from the Guelfs, separated themselves from the rest, and sacked and burnt the house of Lapo da Castiglionchio, who, when he learned the proceedings of the Signory against the Guelfs, and saw the people in arms, having no other resource but concealment or flight, first took refuge in Santa Croce, and afterward, being disguised as a monk, fled into the Casentino, where he was often heard to blame himself for having consented to wait till St. John's day, before they had made themselves sure of the government. Piero degli Albizzi and Carlo Strozzi hid themselves upon the first outbreak of the tumult, trusting that when it was over, by the interest of their numerous friends and relations, they might remain in Florence.

The house of Lapo being burnt, as mischief begins with difficulty but easily increases, many other houses, either through public hatred or private malice, shared the same fate; and the rioters, that they might have companions more eager than themselves to assist them in their work of plunder, broke open the public prisons, and then sacked the monastery of the Agnoli, and the convent of Santo Spirito, whither many citizens had taken their most valuable goods for safety. Nor would the public chambers have escaped these destroyers' hands, except out of reverence for one of the Signors, who on horseback, and followed by many citizens in arms, opposed the rage of the mob.