Florentine politics and the ruling class, 1382-1407
By Ronald Witt
The Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol.6 (1976)
I spoke with several friends about what I thought and how it seemed to me that the state would necessarily become tyrannical and not republican when the government was conducted outside the Palazzo… The answer given me was that the commune was ruled more at dinners and in studies than in the Palazzo and that many were elected to office but few to the government.
These cynical words by Giovanni Cavalcanti, referring to his early experience in the government councils of the Florentine Republic in the 1420’s, represent for most modern historians of Florence an accurate characterization of the nature of Florentine political life in the whole period from 1382 to 1434. Although outwardly the regime respected the institutions of communal Florence and republican formalities, real power in the state supposedly resided in the hands of a narrow group of families. Almost without exception, moreover, students of Florentine history have singled out the Albizzi family as the dominant force in this oligarchy.
Within the last twenty years the work of intellectual historians, particularly Hans Baron, has raised questions about the validity of this by now almost traditional interpretation of Florentine politics,” Baron emphasizes that Florentines were developing a republican civic ethic in the years around 1400. Such a development would seem to imply that political power was fairly well diffused among the citizen body and that the institutions of communal government were healthy. Baron, however, has not demonstrated that there was such a real basis for republican ideas, and for this reason it has been possible to interpret the “civic humanism,” described by this author, as primarily propaganda created by a cynical oligarchy designed to justify policies which were in fact motivated by selfish interests.