Florence Italy History
Florence Italy history is really an amazing tale with so many legends, wars, alliances, conspiracies, in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
History is my passion and I love medieval history in particular (how could that be different? I live in a medieval city). Florence is the place where at some point the (modern) western culture, as we know it today, started to appear and quickly rise above the medieval culture. What we are today, in Europe, United States, Australia and some more places in the World, we owe in part to Florence, where the humanism was born back in the 14th century.
This section is dedicated to the history of Florence, with particular attention to the golden age of the city, from the 13th to the 16th century.
A small Roman village, dedicated to Mars, the God of war, founded by the Emperor Julius Cesar in 59 b.C. to reward the soldiers of his Legions, who received a house and a land lot after retiring. This is how most Italian cities were founded, and Florentia became a flourishing village of 10 thousand in the 2nd century, thanks to the Cassia road, one of the main roads of the Roman Empire, crossing the city.
The Dark ages
The barbarian invasions and the fall of the Western Roman Empire almost destroyed the village, and for centuries Florence was dominated by Goths, Byzantines, Lombards until Charlemagne unified Europe again and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor (800 a.D.). Florence became part of the feudal system, not even the capital city of the march of Tuscany until the Margrave Hugh (950-1001) moved his residence right there.
The German Emperors had no way to control all of Europe, and many Italian cities took advantage of the disputes between Emperors and Popes, gaining more and more independence. Emperors came down to Italy with their armies once in a while, they received the “red carpet treatment”, gifts, honors, cities swore loyalty, but as soon as they were gone, they had no real power. Florence and many more Italian cities elected their own government, and many people had a chance to be part of it. Being knights was still a privilege, but you had to be smart and work hard, or the carpenter’s son would become wealthier than yours.
The largest town in Europe
In the 13th and 14th century, Florence is a free republic where merchants dominate through the guilds. Economy and politics are the two main aspects of social life, strictly linked together: being part of a guild is the only way to participate to both the government of the city and the business activities. Florence becomes the richest town in Europe and, for a short while, even the largest. The main buildings are erected in this period: Palazzo Vecchio, Florence Duomo, the churches of Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella, Ponte Vecchio. It’s the age of Dante Alighieri, poet and politician, a witness of the construction of most of these wonderful buildings and also a symbol of the violent political fights between two parties: Guelphs and Ghibellines. Dante himself will be banished from Florence for being on the losing side. It is also an age which ends into a disaster when the black death hit Europe.
The rise of the Medici family
In the 15th century, the republic of Florence survives but is dominated by the Medici family, the bankers of the Popes, who act as godfathers, exchanging favors for loyalty. Not involved in the official institutions, the Medici, from their Palazzo in via Larga, will dictate who has to be elected and which decisions have to be taken. It is also the age of the Renaissance, Florence has the perfect conditions to start a very new trend in arts: thanks to the Medici and their friends, geniuses like Brunelleschi, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo are free to express their talent. The Medici won’t have an easy life though, many conspiracies against the family will happen and a lot of money will be spent to keep their position so that at the end of the century the Medici are poor and exiled from Florence.
The Medici strike back
Florence fights for its own freedom, against tyranny, and this short period in Florence Italy history is full of events, with the Republic ruled by the Catholic fundamentalist Girolamo Savonarola, and later by the famous chancellor Niccolò Machiavelli; the symbol of the free Republic of Florence is Michelangelo’s David (1501-04), the most famous ever work of art. With no military power, Florence is impossible to protect, and the Medici still have very powerful friends like Pope Julius II, who helps them to come back and take possession of
the city again. One year later, after Julius II death, Giovanni de Medici will become Pope Leo X and some years later Giulio de Medici will become Pope Clement VII. It is the end for the Republic of Florence when Clement VII reaches an agreement with the most powerful man in Europe, Charles V, German Emperor and King of Spain: the Medici are named Dukes of Florence.
Cosimo I de Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany
The second Duke of Florence, Cosimo de Medici, conquers Siena and is named Grand Duke of Tuscany. The power of the Medici family is now absolute, and Cosimo, with his architect Giorgio Vasari, will change the face of the city, building the Uffizi, the Vasari Corridor, and the Boboli Gardens.
In the 17th century, Florence is not anymore the dynamic city that once was the richest in Europe; wealthy people are more interested in maintaining their privileges than in investing in new business, and the position in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, once an advantage, now becomes a problem, with opportunities spreading across the Oceans. Six more Medici Grand Dukes of Tuscany will follow Cosimo, but in 1737 the last one, Gian Gastone, will die with no heirs ready to take his place. A new dynasty, the Hapsburg, will take care for one more century.
The capital city of Italy
Tuscany joins the Kingdom of Sardinia with a plebiscite in 1860, one year later the Kingdom of Italy is proclaimed. With Rome still being part of the possessions of the Pope, Florence becomes the capital city of the new Kingdom and part of the medieval city is destroyed to make space for new buildings, the offices for the public administration, which will never serve their original purpose because Rome joins Italy well before the new blocks are complete.
World War II and the flood
With the allied army advancing to the North, the German army destroys all the bridges of Florence, except for Ponte Vecchio (they will destroy the districts close to each side of Ponte Vecchio though). Florence is not bombed, to preserve the beautiful monuments. Another disaster happens in 1966, when the river Arno floods the city, damaging many monuments and works of art, some of which are still under restoration after nearly 50 years. The last episode to mention in Florence Italy history is the terrorist attack by the mafia in 1993: a car bomb exploded close to the Uffizi Gallery, causing the death of five people, plus damage to several works of art in the museum, some of them lost forever.