The Political Geography of Florence and the Florentine Republic

By William Landon, University of Northern Kentucky

To understand how the Florentine Republic worked, you have to look at the political geography of Florence. In 1400, one could cross the whole city in 20 minutes or less. Florence was compact, but neatly divided into four quarters, each linked to a particular saint or church. Each of these main administrative quarters was subdivided into four quarters.

A photo of a medieval stone bridge over the Arno river in Florence.
The four main administrative districts of Florence were and remain: San Giovanni, Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella and Santo Spirito. (Photo: Vladimir Sazonov/Shutterstock)

The three main branches of government

The four main administrative districts of Florence were and remain in fact: San Giovanni, Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella and Santo Spirito. Santo Spirito is located across the Arno River from the current historic center of Florence. Each of these main administrative quarters was subdivided into four quarters.

Each of the four main wards had a flag representing it, and each of the city’s 16 sub-wards had its own flag. If ever Florence was attacked, the standard-bearer of each sub-district had to rally the male inhabitants there, so that militias could be organized quickly.

Politically, each of Florence’s four wards provided two members, for a total of eight, to the city’s first branch of government, the Signoria. A ninth member, the gonfalonier of justice was elected to arbitrate the discussions and the disputes which developed within Signoria; it was the most prestigious elected office in Florence.

The second branch of government was known as the Twelve Good Men, and the third was the Sixteen Standard Bearers (who each represented sub-districts of the city). The nine members of the Signoria were bound by law and tradition to seek the advice of the Twelve Good Men and the Sixteen Standard Bearers on any legislation they proposed.

And before this bill could be transferred to the larger governing bodies in Florence, the three main branches of government had to agree on it.

This article comes directly from the content of the video series How the Medici Shaped the Renaissance. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

People’s Council and Commune Council

To be clear, the main branches of government did not have the power to enact new laws. The other branches of government—the People’s Council, which had 300 members, and the Commune Council, which had 200 members—put laws on the books.

For legislation to become law in the Florentine Republic, both councils had to ratify the proposals presented to them by the Signoria, by a two-thirds majority. Importantly, no council had the ability to initiate legislation; they were only allowed to consider proposals drawn up by the Signoria and approved by the Twelve Good Men and standard bearers.

The Seven Great Guilds

Florence’s seven major guilds accounted for 75% of those serving in government, and the more numerous minor guilds (there were fourteen) provided the remaining 25%. This proportional representation was codified in the Florentine constitution.

The only office in Florence that prohibited a minor member of the guild from serving was the Gonfalonier of Justice – who had to be a major member of the guild.

Portrait of two medieval aristocratic nobles.
In the Florentine Republic, the majority of the most important offices in the city were open only to wealthy and powerful families. (Photo: Dario Lo Presti/Shutterstock)

Distrust of political power

When all the elected offices and committees of the Florentine Republic are taken into consideration, there were typically 1,650 men serving at any one time. These various positions were elected to serve from 2 to 6 months. To be eligible, a man had to be at least 30 years old, and if he was either late paying his taxes or bankrupt, his name could not be considered.

The Florentines were deeply suspicious of political power and the notion of tyranny. Thus, Republican law prohibited, at least in theory, an individual from acquiring too much power. The Florentine constitution stipulated short terms of office, and therefore high turnover in these offices.

Additionally, the majority of the most important offices in the city were only open to wealthy and powerful families – and these families were responsible for providing the names of those who were eligible for service.

The names of every open office and seat in the city’s representative chambers were drawn from a hat. Every two years, the names of the electoral hats were emptied and replaced by new eligible names. Every man who was eligible to serve in government could expect his name to be drawn at some time.

Anything but Democrat

It must therefore be obvious that the Florentine Republic was anything but “democratic”. The majority of Florentines were not members of the guild, so they lacked political representation; and when you consider that the elections were done by lot — a game of chance — to call them elections leaves us somewhat bewildered.

But since elections by lot were held so frequently and members of the Florentine government were constantly visible on the streets of the city, a bond between the people of Florence (directly represented in government or not) developed. and interest in politics was constant.

Giving birth to political revolutions

With our contemporary values ​​in mind, it is rather too easy to scoff at these Florentine innovations. After all, the Republican government was “conservative.” He protected the interests of the old Florentine families and the corporations of the city. Few men were able to serve in government – ​​only 10% of Florence’s population – and not all women had the right to vote. Why is such a system worthy of our admiration?

Because when the Florentine Republic is studied objectively in the context of the longer stream of history, it becomes clear that the Renaissance in Florence began a battle between free government and tyranny, and – by reintroducing political elections into the Western consciousness – gave birth to political politics. revolutions that continue to shape our world today.

Common questions about the political geography of Florence and the Florentine Republic

Q: What were the four main administrative districts of Florence?

The four main administrative quarters in Florence were and remain in fact: San Giovanni, Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella and Santo Spirito.

Q: How were the second and third branches of government known?

In the Florentine Republicthe second branch of government was known as the twelve good menand the third was the sixteen Standard Bearers (which each represented sub-districts of the city).

Q: Which office in Florence banned an underage guild member from serving?

The only office Florence which prohibits a minor guild member to serve was the gonfalonier of justice – who had to be a major member of the guild.

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The First Republic: from the Terror to Napoleon

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