John Najemy argues that conflict both within the elite class and between it and two other classes (the popolo and the artisan and laboring workers) was the most decisive factor shaping the evolution of the city between 1200 and 1575. The three main protagonists in this “triangular conflict” (p. 3) include the elite (wealthy landowners, merchants, and international bankers, socially constructed as agnatic lineages and embracing knighthood), the popolo (nonelite and nonknightly merchants and artisans organized in guilds), and the working or laboring classes. Four times before 1400 popular regimes governed Florence following periods of crisis. The “Primo Popolo” (1250–60) excluded the former ruling class from power and eventually closed ranks with the Guelfs against the Hohenstaufen. During the “Second Popolo” a guild-based regime emerged, creating a new (1282) magistracy of the priorate at its core. With the passage of the Ordinances of Justice (1293 and 1295), political legitimacy henceforth depended on the consent of the guilds. [End Page 501] Between 1310 and 1340, the politically dominant merchant-banking elite enjoyed its “golden age” (p. 124). An economic and political crisis in the early 1340s, however, opened the way for a third popular government (1343–48). A rough elite/popular balance governed until 1378, but the Ciompi Revolt and the most radical popular government in premodern Florentine history (1378–82) frightened the elite and popolo alike.
By the early-fifteenth century, all three classes, especially the Florentine elite, had been thoroughly transformed. An ideology of consensus developed to encourage unity, duty, and assent under “the benevolent leadership of the elite” (182). In one of this sharpest chapters, Najemy traces how civic humanism emerged out of this ideology of consensus. Elite (Ottimati) control and consensus politics continued under the veiled republic of the Medici (1434–94). However, elite displeasure with one-family rule forced the Medici into exile, and the French invasion of 1494 created the conditions for the emergence of another, more broadly based republic (1494–1512). For half a century, a triangular conflict now engaged the Medici, the elite or ottimati (and its brand of aristocratic republicanism), and the popolo (with its tradition of popular republicanism). Eventually, conflicts undermined the republic and led to the return of the Medici (1512–27).The Medici regime, however, fell after the Spanish sack in 1527. It was replaced by another (and even more anti-aristocratic) republic (1527–30). More frightened by the popular republic of 1527–30 than they were of the Medici, the ottimati supported the Medici restoration in 1530 by Emperor Charles V, who in 1532 established the Medici principate. The popolo, horrified at the savage repression by the Medici, the emperor, the pope, and the ottimati that occurred in 1530, were no longer willing to collaborate with members of the elite again.
There is much to praise about this book. It is a model historical synthesis of the history of a great premodern European city. It is also a sophisticated political history in which class-based ideas and values matter as much as individual details of political events. Nevertheless, there is little comparative analysis here that contrasts the development of Florence with the evolution of other rival Italian cities. Furthermore, the social categories of “elite” (grandi, ottimati) and popolo, although clearly defined at the outset, appear to be static and unchanging over time. Indeed, they often appear to be operating en bloc as independent entities and single agents in historical events. It is doubtful, for example, that there existed a single “religious culture of the popolo” (p. 51). These concerns aside, this is an admirable survey, elegantly written and carefully crafted.