Before the Florin: The origins of Florence’s economic boom
By Enrico Faini
Paper given in Florence on February 3, 2015
Introduction: The minting of the gold florin in 1252 is commonly considered to herald the beginning of Florence’s economic boom. Indeed, the power of its coin made this city one of the major centres of the commercial revolution that marked the late Mediaeval period. However, Florence could not have been in a position to mint such a strong currency without a long history of successful commerce. The Florin, therefore, must have arrived when the Florentine economy was already flourishing, but how long had it been so strong, and where did this wealth come from?
Researchers have proposed models to illustrate the economic development of cities whose fortunes began to rise before the 13th century, but none of them are readily applicable to Florence. Although its economy also took off around this time, it had none of the features that characterize these ‘model’ cities – it had no seaports, it was located some distance from the main lines of communication, and was notably inefficient at controlling its vast territory. It therefore requires us to come up with a different explanation, a model that could also describe the origins of the economic boom in other minor cities devoid of income generators in the traditional sense.
Before giants like Arnolfo, Giotto and Dante forged the enduring myth of Florence, and even before the minting of the Florin, the city was made up of people of various, humble and uncertain origins, in other words a city of the poor. Despite their humble backgrounds, however, the Florentines were able to set up a system that could assimilate their differences and put them to work for the common good. Indeed, the city reached its Mediaeval apogee thanks to the creation of new languages, able not only to describe, but also to shape a new kind of relationship with their growing wealth. Although material goods undoubtedly played a key role in the rise of Florence’s fortunes, its success was ensured by its ability to pool and transmit knowledge.