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How to Defeat a Tyrant: The Florentines against the Duke

In a time of crisis the Republic of Florence turned to a brash noble to lead their city. He soon turned into a disgraceful tyrant. Could the Florentine citizens overthrow him before a plot to murder hundreds of people could be carried out?

The story of the events of 1342 and 1343 are told by Giovanni Villani, a Florentine chronicler who had a keen eye for detailing the story of his city as well as what was happening in other parts of Europe. His New Chronicle highlighted the many successes Florence had in building their Republic, but also noted the difficult times they were facing in the 1340s. He lists a number of troubles that they were enduring: “flood, crop failures, famine and sickness, defeats, failed ventures, loss of capital, failure of merchants, unpaid debts” and blamed those who were in government – “these lesser artisans, ignorant idiots, willful men without discretion” – for this decline.

The spring of 1342 saw another humiliation for Florence – their military forces were defeated by their archrivals from Pisa, and had lost to them the city of Lucca. Some of the leading men of the city used the defeat to elect a foreigner to be the new captain general – Walter, Count of Brienne, a French noble who also held lordships in parts of Italy. He was better known to the chronicler as the Duke of Athens, although he never actually ruled that city, but it was his most grandiose title.

As someone with experience in warfare and with noble connections, the Florentines thought he was a perfect choice to lead the city, albeit for a limited term. The Duke also gained support from key families by making sure their faltering businesses would not go bankrupt or have to pay their debts. The lower classes backed him as well, as they had become discontent with their own government and looked to him bring greatness back the Republic. Villani writes that “the citizens had his coat of arms painted on nearly every corner and every house in Florence, some to curry favour and some out of fear.”

Although a deal was made for him to rule the city for a year, the Duke of Athens had other plans. On September 8, 1342, Walter was accompanied by 420 soldiers as he marched through the city to Piazza of the Priors where he would be confirmed into office. Villani writes:

Incited by certain wool carders and people of the lowest class, and by the followers of certain grandi, the crowd began to cry out, “may the duke’s lordship be for life, for life!” and “long live the duke our lord!” He was lifted up bodily by the grandi, who wished to place him in the palace. On finding it locked they began to cry, “get the axes!” and so the door had to be opened. And so by force and trickery they placed him in lordship in the palace while shamefully moving the priors to the chamber of arms in the lowest part of the building. Some of the grandi tore up the book containing the Ordinances of Justice and also the banner of justice; they raised the duke’s banners on the tower while the bells rang te deum laudamus.

The duke used these actions to force the Florentine government to make him the ruler of the city for life, and afterwards removed these officials from their posts. His relatives and supporters soon came to Florence, along with hundreds of mercenaries from Burgundy, to take control of their city. The money brought by taxes and forced loans went to rebuilding the Duke’s palace, while those homes around it were seized and given to his supporters. Moreover, he was using his power to embezzle funds and send it out of Florence to his other estates in Italy and France. Meanwhile, the key reason he was brought to rule Florence – to lead the city’s armies against Pisa – was settled when he made peace with the rival state. This included agreeing to allow the Pisans to keep Lucca, a clause that enraged many Florentines.

Scene from the Nuova Cronica, by Giovanni Villani – ms. Chigiano L VIII 296 – Biblioteca Vaticana

The Duke was astute enough to spend money on feasts and jousts within the city, giving the masses a distraction. However, Villani clearly hated him. He described Walter as “a lord of little constancy and did not keep his promises. He was greedy, avaricious and lacking in grace. He was small in statute, ugly, with a little beard.” He also accused him and his supporters of various crimes and scandals:

He and his men began to use force and do villainous and obscene thing to the wives and daughters of citizens…for the love of women he gave ornaments to the women of Florence and created a place for women of easy virtue from which his marshal drew much profit.

He was also at work crushing dissent. Villani reports what happened when one official complained about the high taxes he issued:

The duke had his tongue torn out all the way to the roots, and had it carried around the city on a lance for laughs; he then exiled Bettone to Pesaro, where he died shortly thereafter from the cutting of his tongue. The citizens were greatly upset by this punishment, and everyone realized that they could neither speak nor complain about wrongs and outrages.

By the early months of 1343 the situation in Republic had become unbearable and that the Duke was no longer the city’s saviour but its tyrant. Villani explained that those:

who had expected him to give them great power and grandeur as he had promised, found themselves fooled and betrayed…no one was making money, because of the poor state of the city, because of the unbearable burden of taxes, forced loans, and intolerable gabelles… And whereas the citizens had hoped that expenses would decrease owing to his rule and that he would give them a prosperous state, he did the opposite; and because of bad harvests, grain prices rose to more than twenty soldi per staio, whence the popolo minuto was discontent. And the offenses against women by himself and by his people, as well as other acts of force and crude justice, moved almost the majority of the citizens to ill will against him. Hence a number of conspiracies were planned to take his rule and his life.

One of these plots was led by a group of men who had learned that Duke would go to a certain house “for amorous meetings with a woman.” They rented two other houses on that same street and stocked it with arms and crossbows. Over fifty young men were recruited to attack the Duke the next time he went there, but one of the conspirators told the wrong man, who then informed Walter about the plan. Some of the plotters were arrested, but as the Duke learned of how large the conspiracy was against him, he came up with a more drastic plan. He was going to request for more than 300 of the most important citizens of Florence to come to his palace on Saturday, July 26th. Villani reports that “when these men gathered in the hall of the palace – the hall with the barred windows we described earlier – he would have it closed off and would have had all those inside killed and cut to pieces.”

The invitations went out. Villani writes that “the city of Florence was at a boiling point, full of suspicion and fear.” As many of the people wondered if they should go to the palace or go into hiding, others decided that they had to act now to overthrow the tyrant.

The Adimari, the Medici, and the Donati – who were the leaders – planned that at nones on Saturday the 26th of July, the Feast of St. Anne, in the year of our Lord 1343, when the workers left their shops, certain rascals should feign a scuffle in the Mercato Vecchio and in Porta San Piero and cry out “to arms, to arms!” And so they did. The city was cowed and fearful, and all immediately ran pell-mell to clear out the places dear to them. And right away, as planned, all the citizens were armed – on horse and on foot – each in his own district and neighbourhood, pulling out banners with the arms of the popolo and the commune, as planned, and crying out, “death to the duke and to his followers, and long live the popolo and the Florentine commune and liberty!” And immediately the entrances to all streets and all districts throughout the city were barred and blocked.

As the Duke’s supporters rushed to the palace, the people of Florence took control of the city and broke into the prisons, freeing the captives. While the Duke had several hundred armed men, including his Burgundian troops, to defend him, there were thousands of Florentines who rose up against him. Villani describes the scene:

By day and by night they fought with the duke’s men in the palace and on the piazza. There were quite a few killed but many more wounded by the thick hail of arrows and stones that came from the duke’s men in the palace. But in the end, by that same evening, the duke’s men on the piazza could hold out no longer and lacked provisions; they left their horses and most fled within the walls of the palace to join the duke and his barons, while some found protection among our people by leaving their weapons and horses – some were captured and some were wounded.

The citizens soon established a provisional government and surrounded the Duke’s palace. They offered Walter a deal that if he renounced his lifetime rulership, they would let him leave Florence unharmed. The Duke rejected the deal, but then his Burgundian soldiers told him that they would not “die of hunger and of torture” and that they would hand him over to the people of Florence unless he agreed. With no options left, the Duke accepted the terms.

Vengeance would be handed out to Guglielmo d’Assisi, who was the Duke’s conservator and the man who carried out many of the crimes against the people. The Burgundians first took his 18-year old son and

pushed him through the gate of the palace into the hands of the angry popolo, into the hands of the relatives and friends of men his father had punished – mainly these were the Altoviti, Medici, Ruccellai, and Bettone, but also others. In the presence of the father, to cause him more pain, these men took the son and cut him limb from limb into tiny pieces right before his father’s eyes. This done, the conservator was pushed out and they did the same to him. People carried pieces of their flesh through the city on lances or swords, and some were so cruel – filled with bestial fury and hatred – that they ate their flesh raw and cooked. Such was the end of the traitor and persecutor of the popolo of Florence. And note that whoever is cruel, cruelly must die, dixit Domino.

On August 3rd the Duke of Athens formally surrendered the palace and left the city. Although he and his remaining supporters feared that they would be attacked, they were allowed to leave peacefully. Villani concludes the tyrant’s downfall this way:

Such was the end of the lordship of the Duke of Athens, usurped through trickery and treachery from the commune and the popolo of Florence, and such was the end of his tyrannical rule – just as he betrayed the commune, so he was betrayed by the citizens. He left with much shame and dishonor, but also much money he took from us – we whom an ancient vernacular proverb calls blind, because of our faults and discords. He left us in a bad way.

giovanni-villani-new-chronicleWhile Florence would endure more troubles – including the devastation of the Black Death a few years later – the Duke of Athens would have a less happy ending. On September 19th, 1356, Walter was one of the leaders on the French side at the Battle of Poitiers, where he would be killed on the battlefield.

You can read about this event, and other happenings in 14th-century Florence, in The Final Book of Giovanni Villani’s New Chronicle, translated by Rala Diakite and Matthew Sneider, which came out earlier this year from Medieval Institute Publications. Click here to learn more about the book.

You can also buy this book from Amazon.com

Top Image: The Expulsion of the Duke of Athens, fresco by Andrea Orcagna, preserved in the Palazzo Vecchio of Florence



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