Disillusioned but not disenchanted…
Ever since the decline and fall of the Roman Empire in the Third and Fourth Centuries there have been numerous attempts to try and regain the idealistic lost splendor of the empire. These attempts have been political, social and cultural, attempting to bring back anything from the Roman educational system to classical art. In many cases this consisted of looking back to that age of ‘classical antiquity’ as a means of bolstering one’s own self-interests, a way of legitimizing political authority by connecting with a lost history. This use of classical antiquity to legitimize authority can be seen throughout the ages, from Charlemagne being crowned emperor long after the decline of Rome to the very title of the Holy Roman Empire. This can be seen in Mussolini looking back in emulation to try and create a new Roman Empire or simply in the titles which rulers held and in some places still hold throughout Europe; titles of ‘Kaiser’ and ‘Czar’, all derivatives of the Roman ‘Caesar’. Even during the founding of the United States this can be seen in the architecture selected to adorn the capital of the country, white pillared buildings all reminiscent of classical Rome.
Beyond all of these attempts, the Italian Renaissance stands out as the greatest and most distinguished, though it was perhaps not the first. During the period of the Italian Renaissance the city-states of the Italian region would come alive with rebirth – the rebirth of literature, art and poetry as well as the development of the humanistic school of thought. Soon to follow would be the rebirth of Roman political systems, namely the republic. During the Renaissance no ruler could claim legitimacy for none could trace bloodlines back to the ancient emperors. Instead, they made due with creating a façade, by surrounding themselves with classical art and reviving the old political systems they would attempt to legitimize their authority. The Florentines of the Italian Renaissance in particular saw themselves as legitimizing their authority in their revival of Roman republican values and institutions, however even that great city would not seem capable of truly reviving the Roman republic.
One cannot study the politics of Florence during the Italian Renaissance without studying the works of Machiavelli, who wrote during the early Sixteenth Century. Even in these works he affirms that this looking back to antiquity is of great concern to him and how he goes about his analysis of politics by utilizing his “long experience of modern affairs and a continual study of antiquity.” Now, despite the fact that scholars of today know that there was a revival of classical antiquity during the Renaissance a set of ideas makes itself known in Machiavelli’s The Discourses as early on as the preface of the book. To quote Machiavelli, he says that “one finds neither prince nor republic who repairs to antiquity for examples,” and says in the very next paragraph that those who read “take great pleasure in hearing of the various incidents, but never think of imitating them.” This seems outright contradict the modern view of what was trying to be accomplished during the period, at a simple glance over the literature of today one would get the impression that princes and republics imitating antiquity is exactly what was going on. As is stated Renaissance scholar and political scientist Felix Gilbert in the 1960’s, “the Medici attempted to legitimate their rule by dangling before the eyes of the Florentines the picture of a past – half recent, half classical…”
The Medici was the premier family in Renaissance Florence, so how is it that these two statements line up? As will be explained and has been stated once, the Florentines saw themselves as legitimizing their authority in their revival of Roman republican values and institutions, however they would not seem capable of truly reviving the Roman republic.
They would look back to antiquity as Gilbert notes, but they would fail. Machiavelli lived through the collapse of republican rule in Florence, or rather the collapse of the Medici rule. The picture can be best seen in another statement of Gilbert’s where he states that “The Medici ruled behind a republican façade. That the citizens of Florence were the rulers of their city was a fiction which the Medici had carefully preserved.”  So at least during the period in which Machiavelli lived there was a veil of the republic present, but this was not a true republic. It will be the purpose of this research to survey how it is that this republican reform developed, the reasons why it was developed, the outcomes of that development and why it became nothing more than a façade in the eyes of many Renaissance scholars.
Taking into account how many times people have looked back to classical antiquity to legitimize their authority one cannot deny the importance of discussing such a topic, this seed has found its way into almost every western society since the fall of the western Roman Empire. Furthermore, this idea of looking back at what was perhaps the greatest attempt at consciously using the past to legitimize the present state of being is important because if one follows something similar to a cyclic view of history then this idea may yet come around again. Beyond this, it is important for those who may wish to legitimize their own authority – for these people, it is good to know how the originals did it and more importantly, whether or not they managed to be successful in reviving the authority or in reviving whatever aspect of classical antiquity they chose to attempt that legitimization, be it art, institutions or something else.
Apart from this basic importance there is also at least a considerable audience for such
knowledge. Everywhere across the western world one can look around and see ‘Renaissance fairs’ and the period is constantly studied and looked back to as a high period in the development of western culture. There is a present interest in the Renaissance which creates a base audience. Various groups can be pulled from this base audience, especially from the realm of political science and philosophy, as it is the political science of the Renaissance that is the issue in this discussion. Finally, it would be of interest to those wishing to better understand how they may attempt to legitimize their own authority, specifically those legitimizing republican authority, the style of government which the United States in all its self-promotion subscribes to. Therefore, it may also lend in small credence to allowing in small amount to understanding the more modern ideals.
Before one may undertake an in depth look at the period of the Italian Renaissance a ground-work must first be laid so that the one observing may best understand the situation. The basic ideas are fairly simple, from the idea of ‘classical antiquity’ to what it means to legitimize authority and just what the Renaissance was in brief. For starters, the Renaissance was the period following the Middle Ages and before the Reformation and scientific revolutions and ranging in time period anywhere from 1300 to 1700 depending on what your interpretation of the period is. During this period of time primarily in Italy and also some in France, the cultures began to look back to the period of ‘classical antiquity’, that is, the periods of ancient Greek and Roman cultures at their height. They saw these periods as a period of high culture and therefore wished to emulate that culture. They saw the Middle Ages as a period of intellectual stagnation and wished to return to the time before that, it is therefore a revival of this classical antiquity. For the rulers, they would use this movement to their advantage to legitimate themselves, meaning that they would use these ideas to show the public that they were indeed the correct people to be on the throne. For the rulers in Florence, this would be attempted through patronage of the arts and attempting to revive the Roman republic, transplanting it to their present.
This study is by no means entirely original in its study of the Renaissance time period. Countless books have been published studying this specific period of history in great detail and in almost every aspect. Part of the reasoning for this comes from the simple plethora of archival texts which are available, especially from the cities of Venice and Florence. These archival texts contain everything from public records to the ecclesiastical and to supplement them is simply the rich amount of personal and private texts that were developed during this time of a revival of education.
Naturally whenever there is a period of great learning, as there is here with the humanist school of thought, the people of that period are going to leave behind a great amount of work which to be referenced by future generations. This is especially true for the political aspect of many cities, primarily Florence, due the presence of the monolithic figure of Niccoló Machiavelli. Despite this great amount of texts even as recently as the 1980s it has been stated by Renaissance scholar Gene Brucker that “No historian of Florence… native or foreign, has ever established a ‘school’ or tradition. Consequently, the scholarship on these cities has appeared to lack focus and coherence.” Still, there is a great amount of literature, primary and secondary, on the Renaissance, and on the politics of the Renaissance due to the great trail of text that was left by those such as Machiavelli. The purpose here is to analyze the most relevant of those sources and to show the major arguments and intellectual progressions in the field.
Some of the modern scholars of the Renaissance period include Jacob Burckhard, Gene Brucker, Quentin Skinner, Charles Homer Haskins, Hans Baron, Giovani Villani, Margaret King and Zachary Schiffman; this is all apart from the great scholars of the actual period, thinkers such as Machiavelli and Leonardo Bruni. Furthermore, each of these scholars gives a different perspective upon the time period and takes upon themselves various schools of thought for dealing with the period. Some scholars may simply offer a survey of the history of the Renaissance, others offer schools of thought that look at the social, the political, the economic, the intellectual and the religious aspects of the Renaissance period – often, the scholars will cross the lines between these schools of thought.
One of the major schools of thought concerning the period looks at the political aspects of the time. Some of the major scholars which fit into this field are Jacob Burckhardt, Hans Baron, Felix Gilbert, Anthony Grafton, J.G.A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner. For this type of research, the political aspect is naturally one of the most immediately relevant. This school would look at the progression of the political institutions of the period, the revolutions which took place and at how in some areas there came to rise despots, while in others rose republics. It is this area which is also most likely to provide information on the details of how the rulers went about legitimizing their authority.
Another of the schools of thought looks more at the economic developments of the period and uses things such as merchant success and trade as reasonings behind the development of the republics. Jacob Burckhardt offers some input on this field. Margaret King also adds to this field. Along with the political school of thought, this school is also relevant to the topic of how the republics came about, even if it may not be directly applicable on how the rulers legitimized themselves.
The social and intellectual schools are also very prevalent. Thinkers that fall into the social school will also offer reasons for the republics which deal with revolutions, though focusing more on the individuals than the revolutions as a whole. Thinkers in this field include those such as Margaret Oliphant, Gene Brucker and Massimo Salvadori. The intellectual school of thought follows close alongside the social school and would look more to the developments in humanism and more to the point of this topic, to the developments in art which the rulers would surround themselves with. Scholars in this field include Ferdinand Schevill, Paul Kristeller, Hanna Gray, Anthony Grafton and as with the political school it includes Jacob Burckhardt and Quentin Skinner. For the purposes of this research the political school of thought is the most relevant, however in order to have a proper understanding of the period and the mindset behind the rulers use of antiquity in order to legitimize their authority the other schools will be drawn from as well.
The Foundations of Republican Values and Revival in Renaissance Italy:
It is difficult to say exactly when these ideas of reviving classical antiquity began. As Charles Homer Haskins notes, “The fourteenth century grows out of the thirteenth as the thirteenth grows out of the twelfth.” Still, the renowned Renaissance scholar Jacob Burckhardt states that “the wave of barbarism had scarcely gone by before the people, in whom the former life was but half effaced, showed a consciousness of its past and a wish to reproduce it,” and that with this new consciousness came “the vision of the world-wide empire of Italy and Rome so possessed the popular mind.” Although some of the Italian city-states would turn to using despotic institutions closer to that of the empire of Rome, such as Milan would, other such as Venice and Florence would look back to Rome and instead of desiring to emulate the despotic aspects of the empire would wish to emulate the republican aspects. And as Burckhardt notes elsewhere Florence had “the most elevated political thought” and in a sense “deserves the name of the first modern State in the world.” Florence is able to do this in part due to its nature as a merchant community which would then evolve into a guild ran city which would develop into a sort of republican system. The merchants were those with the money and the old noble titles were not worth as much in the city after the communal revolution. This communal revolution was one in which the citizens attempted to replace the ruler of old imperial lords and bishops with a sort of “self-rule by self-appointed leading citizens.”
This is contrasted to a city such as Milan where, although such a revolution did occur, Milan did not have the right economic conditions in order to allow for such revolutions to come their full fruition. Instead, cities such as Milan would develop strong despotic histories which “thoughtful men like Machiavelli knew… were too ‘corrupt’ for a republic.” So, as the guild ran city developed Florence would become more and more republican. To be a guild member allowed one to be a citizen, and to be a citizen would allow one to participate in the government. The guilds would eventually come to the point that even the “lesser guildsmen too were able to participate in civic life,” allowing Florence to reach a very republican system.
In this development from a communal revolution to the guild republic, one may easily see how the makers of this system were influenced by ancient Rome. The early communal government would have an elected consul, a term taken directly from “the constitution of republican Rome.” Below this there was an assembly of people with a council of magnates, those merchants that were so successful due to Florence’s trade economy. However, although the system was a republican one with no single lord presiding over the government, it was not to the point of being a democracy as it had the elected committee. The government which spawned from this communal revolution would later face its own revolution, a popolo revolution, or a revolution of the people which would take Florence even closer to a true republican government.
The popolo revolution, or rebellion, followed a conflict between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. The government which would be set up by the popolo was also a guild republic but unlike the communal republic, this one would allow for a greater portion of the population to be represented. After a second popolo revolution following betrayal by certain magnates, the Secondo popolo or the “Second People’s Republic” would be set up. Here would begin the age of popular government through guild republics, and all this as early as the Thirteenth Century. Considering that the roots of the Republic in Florence go back as far as before the Thirteenth Century it is easy to see where Haskins acquired his idea of the Renaissance not beginning at one particular time period, but rather of slowly growing out of each previous time period. However, though the Republic of Florence may be the development of a society evolving over time it is not an unconscious development.
The Ideals Behind the Revival:
Rather than simply being the unconscious evolution of a state over time the republic of Florence was something much different. The period of the Renaissance was a period of conscious rebirth of antiquity in every aspect: culture, education, arts, and most importantly for this study, politics. This is so much so that Jacob Burckhardt refers to the city-states of the period as a “work of art,” the “outcome of reflection and calculation.” Not only was much thought put into the development of the state, but it may be argued that much of the society was geared toward the development of the state. With the coming of the republic the rebirth which was occurring in the society adapted to fit it and so the result would be that the very intellectual processes and the educational systems would begin to promote the ideas of a republican style system.
The theory behind the development of the republic is something that is easily seen when looking at the intellectual ideas of the period, especially the ideas of humanism. Within these thinkers there would develop a notion that Florence was a physical descendant of Rome, “and heir to the political mission.” Along with this view of having a mission the most important development within humanism would be the development of ‘civic humanism’, and this type of humanism would be related to the idea of a mission. This type of humanism would be one which was rooted in city life and which tried not only to create virtuous people, but also “endeavored to educate a man as a member of his society and state.” The reason for this type of humanism was due to the fact that the first humanists would arise from the jurists and secretaries of early Renaissance society. They would rise from those who were experts in the law who due to their need to comprise official letters were well acquainted with the ancient texts. From these men the intellectual movements of the period would come and they would serve to intertwine two aspects of society, the state and education. In this way the republic could naturally be bettered and with this it is demonstrated how the education system worked to help out the republican values. The goal was not to simply educate the youth, but rather to create valuable members of the society, and more importantly, of the state. This will to create virtuous citizens who could serve as good members of the state was not simply one of practical desire, but transcendent. According to Leonardo Bruni in his Laudatio, “what greater thing could this commonwealth accomplish, or in what better way prove that the virtus of her forbears was still alive.” For Bruni, the institutions of the government served not only the practical purposes of the republic, but also to further connect Renaissance Italy with the period of antiquity by bringing back the virtues of that time period in it’s people.
That the people of Florence had an ideal is easily seen as well. The intellectual revival in which humanism thrived brought with it the humanists ideas concerning liberty. As the Professor Villari states on the subject that “the greatest felicity which man can hope to find on earth, is to have a share in the government of his country.” He goes on to say how the Florentines sought to create the perfect government, the perfect government being defined as one “in which tyranny cannot exist… that which shall be so regulated as to satisfy one and the same time all the passions of all orders of the citizens.”  The ideal for the Florentines was a government in which all of the citizens could be satisfied and to be involved in the government was one of the chief aims of the members of that society, so it is no surprise that their education would seek to create good members of the state, or good citizens that could serve in the government. According to Renaissance scholar Quentin Skinner the humanist thinkers of Renaissance Florence were mostly concerned with the ideal of Republican liberty, concentrating their main attention on the question of
how it comes to be jeopardized and how it can best be secured… liberty in the sense of being free from external interference as well as the sense of being free to take an active part in the running of the commonwealth.
Their idea of what ‘true liberty’ consisted of was simply a free constitution where all of the citizens were able to involve themselves in the government. To figure out how best to go about achieving this Republican liberty the craftsmen of the Florentine state would look back to Roman antiquity. This would be achieved through systems of councils reminiscent of those in the Roman republic, which has already been mentioned concerning the councils of magnates which came into being during the period of the guild republics. It must be noted here that not only would the humanists look simply to creating councils similar to those of the Romans, but the upper-class merchant families of Florence would also resort to art and to poetry in order to bring back the atmosphere of Roman antiquity (this would be done similarly in the despotic cities such as Milan). As is pointed out by Hans Baron, some of these families spent most of their fortunes “on ancient manuscripts and relics of classic art, until in the end he had to depend of Cosimo de’ Medici’s support.” To also once again repeat Felix Gilbert “the Medici attempted to legitimate their rule by dangling before the eyes of the Florentines the picture of a past – half recent, half classical…”
This part of the Florentine ideal was not one that was purely political but this aspect of the ideal was one that was purely superficial. Here the leaders of the Florentine Republic, and the leaders of various other city-states since this aspect of legitimizing authority was not one completely limited to Florence, would turn to becoming great patrons of the arts. One must simply look at a picture of the great plazas in Florence to see the great amounts of sculpture that grew from the period. During the Renaissance all varieties of artists came into the forefront of the society; these would include sculptors, painters, architects, poets and bards. Prior to this most artists had simply been minor ones in the employment of the church. Now however, art became an avenue for personal advancement. This was a superficial legalization which came by creating an atmosphere reminiscent of that of Rome and so there would be frescos painted upon the walls and sculptures of great leaders or more commonly, of mythical figures from Roman mythology, placed within the area. This ideal of antiquity can even be seen in the statue of David by Michelangelo and other such sculptures where a Roman appearance is given to the individuals.
The ideals of a Roman Republic would not only be to create good citizens capable of
serving in the government, but also to create an atmosphere in which those citizens could
work. It would ideally be a Roman Republic in both the political institutions and in the literal appearance of the buildings those institutions worked out of. While the plethora of artists which were allowed for by the patronage of the period no doubt succeeded in creating a Romanesque atmosphere for Florence, the ideal of the republican institution would not fare quite so well. Indeed, “Cosimo, while continuing to wear the mask of a citizen, was the first tyrant ever suffered by Florence.”
Outcomes of the Republicanism in Practice & Why It Didn’t Work:
As early as the communal revolutions which first got the ball rolling in the direction of the republic, even then the “machinery of government was the power of the magnates, whose interests the government was created to serve.” From the earliest roots of Italian republics there were seeds of corruption, flaws in the republican values, and so the ideal vision of the republican society would not line up the practical outcomes. Machiavelli may have felt that cities such as Milan were too corrupt to sustain a republic, but Florence was not much better off. From the onset the fashion of the guild republic worked to best serve the most powerful, more specifically, those at the heads of the guild.
The guilds worked on the premise that the masters in the guilds were those who were officially members. Below the masters were the apprentices, but the apprentices, not being masters could not participate in guild life. The base of this would be broadened by the revolutions which would take place and allow more individuals to participate in guild life,
however it would still be true that only those capable of participating in guild life could
participate in the republic. According to John Symonds,
to begin with, the Italian republics were all municipalities. That is, like the greek states, they consisted of a small body of burghers, who along had the privileges of government, together with a larger population, who, thought they paid taxes and shared the commercial and social advantages of the city, had no voice in its administration. 
Therefore, there was in the republic of Florence a large body of people who, though they supported the government, had no say in the government. The ruling magistrates were not simply those who lived in the state, “but all those who have rank; that is, who have acquired either in their own persons or through their ancestors, the right of taking magistracy…”
These facts alone really only go so far as to conclude that one had in order to be a citizen one had to be a member of a guild, and that with that citizenship one could then participate in governmental life. This alone does not necessarily go against the ideals of the
Florentine people as in the most technical sense, it does allow for all citizens to participate in the government, it just limits who are defined as citizens. This may not follow with a modern day view of liberty and of what republican institutions entail, but as it was their ideal this alone is not the soul reason for the failure of the republics – although it would result in such things as the ciompi revolt, a rebellion where the unguilded seized control and over ten thousands new citizens were added to the population, however this would only last for a few months.
The real problem with the came with the various councils which were set up for the magistrates to report to. These groups were ideally to be comprised of the citizenry and although some had been with the city since it’s earliest times, others had been created by the Medici. It was these councils which would call for the end of the Florentine republic as Machiavelli knew it. As is stated by Felix Gilbert, the “juxtaposition of different councils had fragmented power in such a way that it had been easy for the Medici to impose their will upon the people.” This would cause the “oligarchy which controlled Florence’s affairs of state to become increasingly narrow.” Ideally, a great number of the guilds would have had a say these various councils, however by “cunningly veiled manipulation” it had first been reduced down to simply seven of the major guilds. The republic of Florence would be undermined by the most powerful of the elite, the Medici bankers who would use their influence to take control of the reigns of government. The governmental institutions would slowly devolve into an oligarchy masquerading as a republic. As Felix notes, this is a façade that the Medici would be careful to preserve. As has been stated, one of the ways in which they went about trying to legitimize their place was through patronage of the arts.
One of the reasons why the Medici were able to take such control of the government was foremost a concern of economic power. The original republics of the time had been created by the merchant classes and they had been created to secure the interests of those merchant classes; this purpose never really left completely. The sheer wealth of the Medici bankers allowed for them to extend out very large loans to rulers as far away as England and they were very strict in their record keeping. However, this is not to say that the Medici were harsh in the way they controlled the city with their wealth, on the contrary, “they paid for charities, public buildings, and taxes from 1434 to 1471 no less than 663,755 gold florins, of which more than 400,000 fell on Cosimo alone.” And once again, much of this would be spent upon the fine arts in attempt to help the façade of Romanism.
Following the downfall of the Medici the people of Florence would try to recreate their old ideals once again, they would try and create a government based upon “the presupposition of a harmoniously integrated society, striving cooperatively for the common good.”  The would restore those institutions that they thought to have been around since the city’s conception, however what came from this was an institution wrought with conflict. The city-state would come under the rule of the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola for a short while after the fall of the Medici. Savonarola’s ideal for the republic would be a Christian one, though he would be excommunicated and executed. The Medici would eventually return and their dynasty would reign until 1737.
Conclusions Concerning the Façade:
According to Margaret King, both the republics of the Renaissance as well as the despotisms had one chief flaw, “they were the products of struggle and retaliation.” None of the governments had any legitimacy because each had wrestled control from some other entity, who somewhere along the line had wrestled it from the legitimate ruler. The rulers would try and make up for this lack of legitimacy by imitating the past, by imitating the old which they saw as being legitimate. For them, those legitimate rulers were those of classical antiquity, those of ancient Greece and Rome. They would imitate them by creating the appearance of Roman courts through their patronage of the arts, and furthermore they would attempt to legitimize their rule by putting up a veil of Roman republican values. As Burckhardt stated, the state was a work of art which was subject to careful calculation – it had to be in order to survive as it did for so long. The councils of the guild republics served to diffuse power enough away from the ordinary citizens that the elite were able to exercise their own authority. The humanists who had initially grown from the ranks of lawyers and the like attempted to further this legitimization by creating schools which sought to create citizens for a republic, however, the schools were more prone to simply create obedient and docile subjects.
The people of Florence did indeed look back to antiquity, but they would fail sufficiently enough that Machiavelli would accuse them of not imitating antiquity at all – afterall, by Machiavelli’s time the republic had fallen along with the Medici as the corruption of what was by that point more of an oligarchy than a republic was made clear. The implications of this are dependent upon the audience. For those seeking to legitimize their own authority, they must take into account the means of seizing authority.
However, at this point in history it is more an issue of abstract rights and popular rule which leads to legimization in governmental institutions, therefore it may have little impact. Rather, it is simply an example of what may happen when such institutions are left unchecked. In the current age there is a different ideal concerning liberty and what makes an individual a citizen, so in that sense the happenings in Florence may seem quite alien and unimportant. This research could have been more effectively done through the use of more analysis of primary sources. As it is, the vast array of secondary sources allows for a solid overview of the situation, however primary sources simply allow for more in-depth interpretation to take place.
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