The History of Florence—Book IV

Chapter II

The defeat of Zagonara spread consternation throughout Florence; but none felt it so severely as the nobility, who had been in favor of the war; for they perceived their enemies to be inspirited and themselves disarmed, without friends, and opposed by the people, who at the corners of the streets insulted them with sarcastic expressions, complaining of the heavy taxes, and the unnecessary war, and saying: "Oh! they appointed the Ten to frighten the enemy. Have they relieved Furli, and rescued her from the hands of the duke? No! but their designs have been discovered; and what had they in view? not the defence of liberty, for they do not love her; but to aggrandize their own power, which God has very justly abated. This is not the only enterprise by many a one with which they have oppressed the city; for the war against King Ladislaus was of a similar kind. To whom will they flee for assistance now? To Pope Martin, whom they ridiculed before the face of Braccio; or to Queen Giovanni, whom they abandoned, and compelled to throw herself under the protection of the King of Arragon?" To these reproaches was added all that might be expected from an enraged multitude.

Seeing the discontent so prevalent, the Signory resolved to assemble a few citizens, and with soft words endeavor to soothe the popular irritation. On this occasion, Rinaldo degli Albizzi, the eldest son of Maso, who, by his own talents and the respect he derived from the memory of his father, aspired to the first offices of the Government, spoke at great length; showing that it is not right to judge of actions merely by their effects; for it often happens that what has been very maturely considered is attended with unfavorable results: that if we are to applaud evil counsels because they are sometimes followed by fortunate events, we should only encourage men in error which would bring great mischief upon the republic; because evil counsel is not always attended with happy consequences. In the same way, it would be wrong to blame a wise resolution, because of its being attended with an unfavorable issue; for by so doing, we should destroy the inclination of citizens to offer advice and speak the truth. He then showed the propriety of undertaking the war; and that if it had not been commenced by the Florentines in Romagna the duke would have assailed them in Tuscany. But since it had pleased God, that the Florentine people should be overcome, their loss would be still greater if they allowed themselves to be dejected; but if they set a bold front against adversity, and made good use of the means within their power, they would not be sensible of their loss or the duke of his victory. He assured them they ought not to be alarmed by impending expenses and consequent taxation; because the latter might be reduced, and the future expense would not be so great as the former had been; for less preparation is necessary for those engaged in self-defence than for those who design to attack others. He advised them to imitate the conduct of their forefathers, who, by courageous conduct in adverse circumstances, had defended themselves against all their enemies.

Thus encouraged, the citizens engaged Count Oddo the son of Braccio, and united with him, for directing the operations of the war, Niccolo Piccinino, a pupil of his father's, and one of the most celebrated of all who had served under him. To these they added other leaders, and remounted some of those who had lost their horses in the late defeat. They also appointed twenty citizens to levy new taxes, who, finding the great quite subdued by the recent loss, took courage and drained them without mercy.

These burdens were very grievous to the nobility, who at first, in order to conciliate, did not complain of their own particular hardships, but censured the tax generally as unjust, and advised that something should be done in the way of relief; but their advice was rejected in the councils. Therefore, to render the law as offensive as possible, and to make all sensible of its injustice, they contrived that the taxes should be levied with the utmost vigor, and made it lawful to kill any that might resist thc officers employed to collect them. Hence followed many lamentable collisions, attended with the blood and death of citizens. It began to be the impression of all, that arms would be resorted to, and all prudent persons apprehended some approaching evil; for the higher ranks, accustomed to be treated with respect, could not endure to be used like dogs; and the rest were desirous that the taxation should be equalized. In consequence of this state of things, many of the first citizens met together, and it was resolved that it had become necessary for their safety, that some attempt should be made to recover the government; since their want of vigilance had encouraged men to censure public actions, and allowed those to interfere in affairs who had hitherto been merely the leaders of the rabble. Having repeatedly discussed the subject, they resolved to meet again at an appointed hour, when upward of seventy citizens assembled in the Church of St. Stephen, with the permission of Lorenzo Ridolfi and Francesco Gianfigliazzi, both members of the Signory. Giovanni de' Medici was not among them either because being under suspicion he was not invited, or that entertaining different views he was unwilling to interfere.

Rinaldo degli Albizzi addressed the assembly, describing the condition of the city, and showing how by their own negligence it had again fallen under the power of the plebeians, from whom it had been wrested by their fathers in 138. He reminded them of the iniquity of the government which was in power from 1378 to 1381, and that all who were then present had to lament, some a father, others a grandfather, put to death by its tyranny. He assured them they were now in the same danger, and that the city was sinking under the same disorders. The multitude had already imposed a tax of its own authority; and would soon, if not restrained by greater force or better regulations, appoint the magistrates, who, in this case, would occupy their places, and overturn the government which for fortytwo years had ruled the city with so much glory; the citizens would then be subject to the will of the multitude, and live disorderly and dangerous, or be under the command of some individual who might make himself prince. For these reasons he was of opinion, that whoever loved his country and his honor must arouse himself, and call to mind the virtue of Bardo Mancini, who, by the ruin of the Alberti, rescued the city from the dangers then impending; and that the cause of the audacity now assumed by the multitude was the extensive squittini or pollings, which, by their negligence, were allowed to be made; for thus the palace had become filled with low men. He therefore concluded, that the only means of remedying the evil was to restore the government to the nobility, and diminish the authority of the minor trades by reducing the companies from fourteen to seven, which would give the plebeians less authority in the councils, both by the reduction in their number and by increasing the authority of the great; who, on account of former enmities, would be disinclined to favor them. He added, that it is a good thing to know how to avail themselves of men according to the times; and that as their fathers had used the plebeians to reduce the influence of the great, that now, the great having been humbled, and the plebeians become insolent, it was well to restrain the insolence of the latter by the assistance of the former. To effect this they might proceed either openly or otherwise, for some of them belonging to the Council of Ten, forces might be led into the city without exciting observation.

Rinaldo was much applauded, and his advice was approved of by the whole assembly. Niccolo da Uzzano, who, among others, replied to it, said: "All that Rinaldo had advanced was correct, and the remedies he proposed good and certain, if they could be adopted without an absolute division of the city; and this he had no doubt would be effected if they could induce Giovanni de' Medici to join them; for with him on their side, the multitude being deprived of their chief and stay, would be unable to oppose them; but that if he did not concur with them they could do nothing without arms, and that with them they would incur the risk of being vanquished, or of not being able to reap the fruit of victory." He then modestly reminded them of what he had said upon a former occasion, and of their reluctance to remedy the evil when it might easily have been done; that now the same remedy could not be attempted without incurring the danger of greater evils, and therefore there was nothing left for them to do but to gain him over to their side, if practicable. Rinaldo was then commissioned to wait upon Giovanni and try if he could induce him to join them.

He undertook this commission, and in the most prevailing words he could make use of endeavored to induce him to coincide with their views; and begged that he would not, by favoring an audacious mob, enable them to complete the ruin both of the government and the city. To this Giovanni replied, that he considered it the duty of a good and wise citizen to avoid altering the institutions to which a city is accustomed; there being nothing so injurious to the people as such a change; for many are necessarily offended, and where there are several discontented, some unpropitious event may be constantly apprehended. He said it appeared to him that their resolution would have two exceedingly pernicious effects; the one conferring honors on those who, having never possessed them, esteemed them the less, and therefore had the less occasion to grieve for their absence; the other taking them from those who being accustomed to their possessiam would never be at rest till they were restored to them. It would thus be evident that the injury done to one party was greater than the benefit they had conferred upon the other; so that whoever was the author of the proposition, he would gain few friends and make many enemies, and that the latter would be more resolutely bent upon injuring him than the former would be zealous for his defence, for mankind are naturally more disposed to revenge than to gratitude, as if the latter could only be exercised with some inconvenience to themselves, while the former brings alike gratification and profit. Then, directing his discourse more particularly to Rinaldo, he said: "And you, if you could call to mind past events, and knew how craftily affairs are conducted in this city, would not be so eager in this pursuit; for he who advises it, when by your aid he has wrested the power from the people, will, with the people's assistance, who will have become your enemies, deprive you of it. And it will happen to you as to Benedetto Alberti, who, at the persuasion of those who were not his friends, consented to the ruin of Giorgio Scali and Tommaso Strozzi, and shortly afterward was himself sent into exile by the very same men." He therefore advised Rinaldo to think more maturely of these things and endeavor to imitate his father, who, to obtain the benevolence of all, reduced the price of salt, provided that whoever owed taxes under half a florin should be at liberty to pay them or not, as he thought proper, and that at the meeting of the councils everyone should be free from the importunities of his creditors. He concluded by saying, that as regarded himself, he was disposed to let the government of the city remain as it was.