Some time ago I visited Machiavelli’s Florence (thanks to a kind invitation from the Max Weber Program at the European University Institute). By touring the city over the week-end, I realized that most visitors see only the Florence of Michelangelo and Leonardo, which is basically the city of the authoritarian Medici, from the mid-15th to mid-16th centuries, which includes two ephemeral republican experiences. However, the most interesting period for politics is the liveliest and much more durable first republic; that is, the city of Dante from the late 13th century on.
Florence, as Venice and many other cities in the North of the Italian peninsula, was an outstanding example of the capacity of democratic self-government of a small community, as well as of the importance of institutional design to deal with increasing social complexity and rising conflicts. For about one-hundred and forty years, the citizens of Florence elected their rulers by broad popular suffrage. The Council of the People (with 300 members) and the Council of the Commune (with 200 members) were selected by a mixed procedure of people’s election and appointment by the Lordship or Signoria. The Signoria was composed of nine members, including the standard-bearer of justice or Gonfaloniere, all elected by a mixed system of voting and lots. Its administration was formed by representative of the sixteen quarters of the city, as well as by many other elected officers. Most adult men (over the age of twenty-five) voted and most voters were eligible. The magnificent Palazzo Vecchio (old palace), site of the Signoria, in the well-mid of the city, is now open to the public, but it’s never overcrowded, in contrast to the museum of the Uffizi or the palace Pitti of the Medici. The office of Machiavelli and his portraits are there, as you can see.
For two hundred and fifty years, the political histories of Florence, as narrated in retrospect by Niccolò Machiavelli, showed the connection between popular participation and increasing instability. Also Dante Alighieri, who was himself a member of the Council of the Commune on several occasions, famously scorned, in the Divina Comedia, the bitter factional disputes, the personal animosities, and the impulse to destroy one’s enemies possessed by his neighbors. Interestingly, he identified the problem as for the inclusion in the electorate of ‘new people’ (gente nuova), mostly youth and recent immigrants, who became able to challenge the traditional political equilibrium.
The most fascinating aspect, in my modest opinion, is how the Florentines were aware of these problems and how they were continuously inventing new institutional rules and procedures to try to accommodate new social demands. Traditional harangues or people’s assemblies made decisions by unanimous acclamations on the basis of broad social consensus. But as new economic interests developed, the traditional predominance of artisans’ guilds was defied, and the pattern of relatively peaceful fusion of old and new elements in society weakened, those unregulated assemblies were replaced with more sophisticated rules. Lots to select public officers became more frequent, several stages of elimination and selection of candidates were introduced, rulers and office-holders stayed in their posts for short periods of only six months or a year. The Florentine institutional designers tried to avert the commune’s domination by a few of the city’s powerful families. ‘Florentinism’ eventually became a common expression in Italian and other modern Latin languages as synonymous for political maneuvering and coalition building, although the term seems not to have entered the English language.
The critical event was the replacement of rotation with permanent factions, the kind of organization currently called ‘parties’. The republican Machiavelli was perfectly aware of the problem. In his words:
“It is a true thing that some divisions hurt the republic and some reinvigorate it. Hurting are those issues that are accompanied by sects and partisanship; invigorating are those which persist without sects or partisanship. Since no foundation for a republic can be provided without enmities, it should be provided at least that there were no sects.” (Florentine Stories, 1525).
However, ‘sects and partisanship’ could not be avoided, and no appropriate institutional formulas were found at the time to keep having elections, admit political parties, and prevent the concentration of power into a single group. Only a few centuries later innovative institutional design began to address the subject well. Meanwhile, as the Medici took over power, curbed and eventually suppressed regular elections and became self-appointed rulers for life and hereditary, Machiavelli himself adapted. Literally contradicting his previous writings, he arranged a manual of the perfect dictator.
my contribution to The Encyclopedia of Political Science, CQ Press, 2010.
(G. Garrett, M. Levi, P. McClain, J. Alt, S. Chambers eds.).
Rein Taagepera said...
You have packed much into the limited space available in a lucid way.
Interesting extensions of the city-republic format are city leagues, from Greece to Hansa, and city-republics that expand into large-territory merchant republics like Carthage and Novgorod. Neither proved durable, either.