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History of Florence

Florence panorama - ph.
                  Federica Gentile

From the origins to the beginning of Christianity

The origins of Florence go back to the agrarian law passed by Julius Caesar in 59 BC which established the colony of Florentia. However according to recent archaeological findings it was not until the Augustan period – between 30 BC and 15 BC – that this came into effect. The castrum which formed a rectangle of 500m by 400m was bordered by the current Via Cerretani Via del Proconsolo Via Tornabuoni and by a line drawn parallel with Via delle Terme and Via Vacchereccia. The city soon had a temple dedicated to Jupiter. In the first decades of the 2nd century AD probably during the reign of Hadrian (who had built the new Cassian Way which passed through Florence) a massive urban redevelopment plan affecting almost the entire city embellished Florence with new and restored monuments. Residential areas were demolished to make way for important public buildings such as the large thermal complex in Via delle Terme the theatre between Via dei Gondi and Palazzo Vecchio and the amphitheatre outside the city walls (which could hold an audience of 1 500) the curved outline of which can still be seen between Via de’ Bentaccorti and the Peruzzi residences. Florence which had several thousand inhabitants by this time grew along the roads leading to the city.

Despite the important political and administrative role the city played following the Diocletian reforms (when Florence became the capital of Tuscia corresponding to the current regions of Tuscany and Umbria) Florence was unable to escape from the general decadence mainly demographic which was typical of many Roman cities from the middle of the 4th century on and the devastation of the countryside due to the Radagaiso incursion. However the distruction of the Mugnone Valley by the barbarian hordes of Radagaiso on the part of Stilicone marked the definitive triumph of Christianity in Florentia which according to tradition was introduced by Saint Minias martyred in the amphitheatre in 250 and buried on the hill which bears his name. The church of Santa Felicita built outside the urban perimeter immediately to the south of the Arno and the centre of a thriving Greco-Syrian community was meant to correspond to the first extramural cathedral of San Lorenzo (consecrated by Bishop Ambrose in 393).

After the threat of Radagasio and above all in the reign of Theodor Florence enjoyed a long period of peace. Subsequently however it was besieged by Goths during the Gothic-Byzantine War in that it was the seat of the imperial garrison and saved by the arrival of Byzantine reinforcements from Ravenna who met the enemy in Mugello in a battle whose outcome is still uncertain (541-2). Peacefully reoccupied by the Byzantines in 553 Florence remained under the rule of the exarch of Ravenna for twenty years until 570 when the Longobards occupied Tuscany. In this period Florence did not decline as much as it had in the past: archaeological evidence confirms this revealing that even as far as buildings were concerned there was a slow passage from late antiquity to the High Mediaeval with adaptation and continuous employment of Roman buildings. From an administrative point of view a duke was installed who shared power with the bishop. The city already had its baptistry dedicated to Saint John. In the eighth century a church dedicated to Saint Michael patron of the Longobards was built in the space currently occupied by Orsanmichele. In any case Florence was of only secondary importance in the Longobard Tuscia (Tuscany) where it was overtaken by Lucca its capital city and Pisa its port.

According to tradition the Florentine revival occurred in the time of Charlemagne (end of the 8th century to the end of the 9th) who spent time in the city on three occasions. It was during this period that there was large-scale urban expansion with the population reaching some 5 000 inhabitants. The perimeter walls started to widen once more first around the end of the 9th century and the start of the 10th then again in 1078 when Countess Mathilda encouraged the building of a new circle of walls - that which Dante called the "ancient circle" although it was in fact the fourth such set of walls – so as to include her places of residency the Baptistry and Santa Reparata.

From the revival of the 10th century to the 13th century city

With the political and economic recovery of the 10th century cultural life in Florence also began to flourish once again. This was the great period of Florentine Romanesque art distinctive for its having different characteristics to every other area such as clarity rigour essentiality. The Baptistry is the best example but other Romanesque churches that often provide the cornerstones of subsequent urban buildings feature the geometric essentiality and original interpretation of classic models: Santi Apostoli San Pier Schieraggio Santo Stefano al Ponte San Salvatore al Vescovo Santa Margherita San Jacopo Sopr’Arno San Miniato.

The traces of the Roman road network remained fundamental even though they were becoming less important. The market was organised in the area of the ancient forum. The first high residential buildings began to be built in the magmatic city and in some cases already featuring towers. The artisans were already organised into professional associations that subsequently became guilds.

Florence is the urban centre that recorded the highest demographic increase in Tuscany in the 12th and 13th centuries. When the population reached 30 000 inhabitants making necessary the enclosure of the suburbs that had developed along the external roads the construction of a new circle of walls was discussed (1173-75). Inside the walls the city appeared a compact and homogeneous whole. Only in later centuries would this give way to a hierarchical composition articulated according to the requirements of city’s monuments. The numerous minor churches were often only distinct from other buildings due to the presence of bell-towers. Large squares began to appear. A significant part of urban and suburban land is the property of religious organisations.

In the city of the late 12th century there were only two distinct types of building: the tower and the "a sporti" house with wooden or stone brackets. Towers were used for military purposes and only when families were in danger did they temporarily move out from their contiguous houses and take refuge in them. Later on (during the 14th century) towers were transformed into and used as residential homes. Several belonged to a single owner but in the 12th century they became widespread giving rise to the "tower society" a type of association in which the towers belonged to a consortium of different allied noble families. In this way the consortium controlled the extent of the building complex.

The expansion of production and commerce brought with it a continual growth of the suburbs inhabited by people who had recently moved to the city from the country. In the middle of the 13th century the areas along the two banks of the river were the most densely populated and the most active in terms of industrial activity and craftwork textiles in particular (which needed large quantities of water). The building of the ponte Nuovo or New Bridge (later Ponte alla Carraia 1218-20) and the Rubaconte Bridge (later ponte alle Grazie 1237) situated downstream and upstream of the ponte Vecchio was in response to the acceleration in growth the city was undergoing and at the same time served to further increase this growth. In 1252 the Santa Trinita Bridge was built the last of the four bridges that were to connect the two sides of the river until modern times.

The religious orders which settled in successive stage were an important factor in the urban development of Florence: in 1221 the Dominicans were installed in Santa Maria Novella; in 1226-28 the Franciscans in Santa Croce; in 1248 there were the Servites in Santissima Annunziata; in 1250 the Agostinians in Santo Spirito; in 1250 the Carmelites in Santa Maria del Carmine. In the same period the Cistercians renovated Santa Trinita and Santa Maria Maggiore the came to the area of the current Ognissanti complex and at the end of the century the Silvestrini founded San Marco. In front of the mendicant orders’ churches and convents there were large squares for sermons and community life went on in the surrounding areas. The links between religious complexes and industrial activity were of primary importance in the city’s history. For example to a large extent it is thanks to the activity of the Benedictine order that the wool industry in Florence grew significantly up to the 16th century. Processing wool a particularly complex practice being made up of around 30 separate stages was performed both inside and outside the convent covering a large area while the square in front of the church was filled with wash-tubs and fulling machines.

Besides convent complexes another fundamental element in the structuring of the 13th century city was the presence of hospitals which tended to be located in the suburbs especially along the main roads that led to the city: via San Gallo; via Romana – via Guicciardini – ponte Vecchio; via de’ Bardi – San Niccolò – San Frediano; via Sant’Egidio – Borgo La Croce. The hospital of Santa Maria Nuova established in 1286 by Folco Portinari the father of Dante’s Beatrice is still in existence today.

In the alternating play of the struggle for power that saw the Ghibellines (in favour of imperial power) set against the Guelphs (who preferred power in the hands of the papacy) in 1244 the social base of the government was enlarged to include middle class entrepreneurs and manufacturers (merchants and artisans) creating the autonomous organisation known as the "Popolo" (or People) which was to work side-by-side with the Mayor and his two councils.

The economic and financial power of Florence was significant and growing: use of the international letter of credit was widespread the loan system was perfected and above all the Florin (silver in 1237 gold in 1252) was coined.

In 1255 the construction of the building belonging to the "Capitano del Popolo" (or People’s Captain) currently the Bargello Museum began. This event was even more remarkable if we remember that up to this point the seats of the citizens’ magistrates had been adapted from pre-existing houses or churches.

The City of Arnolfo

The final events of the 13th century signal the city’s economic and demographic peaks. The government initiated grandiose public works that gave life to a new urban order. The most important works of this period promoted by the government and carried out by the guilds were particularly characterised by the presence of an extraordinary personality that of Arnolfo di Cambio. It was he for example that began the building of the final circle of walls finished in 1333 (largely corresponding to the present day avenues which were built in the 19th century when Florence was Italy’s capital city resulting in the demolition of most of Arnolfo’s wall). The decision to build such an extraordinarily wide circle of walls was in order to provide adequate space for the city’s ambitious growth forecasts; this space was in fact sufficient until the middle of the 19th century. The walls were around 8 500 metres (28 000 feet) long 11.6 metres (38 feet) high and numbered 73 towers and 15 gates.

In 1296 Arnolfo began construction of the new cathedral providing evidence once more of his incomparable ability to bring together lessons from the large Gothic buildings with Classical themes (which had always been present throughout Florentine history). In 1299 not far from the Bargello Museum on the site of the former Uberti residences work began on the Priory building (the current Palazzo della Signoria or Palazzo Vecchio). This imposing structure designed by Arnolfo di Cambio and crowned by a mighty 95 metre (312 feet) high tower is the utmost symbol of the power and freedom of the Comune (or municipal government) and the prototype for the city halls of several other Tuscan cities (Volterra Montepulciano Scarperie etc.).

In the last part of the 13th century with the emergence of a new social elite made up of families whose economic and thus political power was derived from international trade a new type of building became widespread (alongside the towers and tower-houses) in the city which tended to be situated in dominant and detached locations. At the same time the families belonging to this same elite commissioned grandiose chapels in the major churches. These chapels were decorated with rich cycles of frescoes which competed with one another to express and confirm the families’ power (see the Peruzzi Chapel in Santa Croce).

However from the beginning of the 14th century in part due to a European-wide recession Florence experienced crises in all areas of life. Compared to the gravity of the economic and demographic crises (cf. the effects of the plague epidemics following the terrible plague of 1348) the works from this period show an impressive degree of effort that can be explained only by reference to a precise political and cultural will. In the 3rd decade Florence was proudly aware that it had reached its maximum potential. In 1334 in fact Giotto was nominated superintendent of the building of Santa Reparata and began work on the Bell-tower a direct expression (together with Orsanmichele built around the same time) of the corporate organisation of the city’s new institutions that operated through the Guilds.

The Renaissance in Florence and the Rise of the Medici Family

The suffering caused by crises and the social conflicts of the 14th which culminated in the Ciompi Rebellion (1378) exhausted the will of the people to renovate the city. The ruling oligarchy exercised its power through a college until 1434 and then under the Medici family. This handing over of power made public building initiatives ever rarer and less relevant while the private undertakings acquired a new dimension. The residential typology of the mercantile bourgeoisie assumed a predominant importance. The Medicis the Rucellais the Pittis – and later the Strozzis the Tornabuonis and others – wanted their homes to be a monument which reflected the position of the family to which it belonged.

During the 15th century the Medici family chose to organise the northern part of the city to its own advantage. To this effect Via Larga (the current Via Cavour) was chosen as the main avenue. Halfway along the current route near where the church of San Lorenzo is situated the Medici family had Michelozzo design and build the family palazzo today known as Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. It is at this point that we begin to talk about Cosimo the Elder (Cosimo il Vecchio) the most celebrated figure of 15th century Florence also know as Pater Patriae underlining his role as the forefather of the prestigious Medici dynasty.

Cosimo the Elder was undoubtedly a personality of the greatest importance: a highly successful merchant and a highly successful banker he was truly one of the protagonists of economic and political life during his time. As a banker he was involved with money but above all the transport of money. It is at this time in fact that the banking orders were established. The Medici Bank (Banco Medici) had an incredible network of branches. In the 15th century the bank’s head office was in Florence but it had branches in Rome Milan Avignon Bruges Geneva and London! This meant that if a Florentine had to make a payment in London he could do it with little difficulty. All he had to do was to go to Cosimo the Elder pay the amount in Florins and Cosimo arranged to send a written order to London. Once the order reached London the Medici Bank paid out in English currency. This brought Cosimo two sources of income: money was made on the exchange rate and on the shipment of the order.

This system enabled Cosimo to accumulate extraordinary riches. This was the secret of the Medici’s power: an economic ascendancy that touched the lives of an incredible number of Florentines giving life to a real and proper political pressure group. Even though governments changed every two months in Florence there were always two or three – and sometimes as many as four – among the nine government members who were tied to Cosimo. The Medici’s interests therefore were always well-placed on the political agenda. This is how the Medicis without modifying the Florentine Constitution became political arbiters: their economic power was such that their business affairs involved the majority of the Florentines that they willingly listened to Cosimo the Elder before every decision.

The Age of Lorenzo the Magnificent

When Cosimo the Elder died in 1464 the power family inheritance and Bank passed into the hands of Piero his son. Piero is represented in the fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli found in the Chapel of Palazzo Medici (the first figure with a red hat). Piero was seriously affected by an illness common to many of the exponents of the Florentine financial oligarchy: gout. So much so in fact that Piero passed into history with the nickname "Gouty".

What did Piero and the other members of the Florentine oligarchy typically eat? At that time for example there were none of the foods that are commonly found today: tomatoes peppers cornflower potatoes American products that needed to be imported; neither were there beans a mainly Mexican product. Vegetables were almost never eaten not least because a person of a certain social class would not deign to eat them since they were considered a poor food. A well-to-do person ate mainly game the tastiest of meats; beef was not as common as it is today because oxen prevalently working animals were killed only when they were old and at that point the meat was no longer suitable for eating; on the other hand pork was very common but was usually eaten without vegetables. Pasta did not exist even in soups. Thus after several meat courses meals were finished off with a dessert that is sweets made without sugar since sugar beet was a discovery of Napoleonic times while sugar cane was extremely expensive being directly imported from the East. Sweets were made mainly with honey spices and almonds. Panforte (literally strong bread) a typical Sienese sweet is perhaps the closest derivation. It can be seen therefore that the foods eaten tended to be very high in calories and over a period of time this caused health problems; uric acid which collected at the joints hindering movement.

When in 1464 Piero with the death of his father took power he had already spent a certain amount of time on a stretcher. In 1469 Piero died leaving his immense economic power to his two sons Lorenzo and Giuliano.

We can also see a portrait of the young Lorenzo in the beautiful fresco cycle in the Chapel of Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. It shows a young idealised Lorenzo painted by Benozzo Gozzoli with rare ability. Lorenzo received an excellent education. From a very young age he was noted for his incredible interest in every aspect of culture: he was a man who had been brought up with the Classics and he was firmly linked to the artistic world; he was fluent in Latin and Ancient Greek; he had mastered ancient philosophy and his aim in life seemed to be more related to cultural and political rather than to economic activity. It was not by chance that immediately after his ascent to the head of the Bank he showed his taste and refinery by commissioning the best sculptor of the times Andrea Verrocchio with the tomb of his father and uncle in the Old Sacristy of the church of San Lorenzo.In this monument Verrocchio demonstrated the remarkable refinery possessed by Lorenzo and above all his links with the ancient world. The artist in factdrew on the Classical period Ancient Rome in particular: the section of the sarcophagus containing the beautiful bronze decorations are reminiscent of Classical reliefs of the Augustean period. Verrocchio was inspired by Roman models bringing them up to date with new life.

However once Lorenzo was in power he had to face great difficulties above all due to the presence of a fearful enemy Pope Sixtus IV Della Rovere. The latter was a considerably ambitious man ready to expand his power and thus to inhibit the newly-formed Medici empire. To this end an alliance was made between Sixtus IV the King of Naples (Ferdinando d’Aragona) and Florentine families opposed to the Medicis above all the Pazzis. The famous Pazzi Conspiracy was organised on 26 April 1478 which led to the assassination of Giuliano de Medici Lorenzo’s brother.

In the fresco of the Sassetti Chapel we can see one of the witnesses of the Pazzi Conspiracy the man climbing the stairs next to the child is Agnolo Poliziano.

Poliziano was an eye witness to the conspiracy. He was one of Lorenzo’s friends ready to close the heavy bronze sacristy door. It was he that was asked by Lorenzo to provide an accurate account of the conspiracy. This gave rise to Poliziano’s extremely interesting text on the Pazzi Conspiracy which was printed and distributed in the same year as the conspiracy. Lorenzo was already aware of the importance of the printed word in influencing people – printing having been introduced in Florence seven years earlier. By distributing this text he managed to communicate the Medici’s side of the story among the people.

The war that followed the Pazzi Conspiracy had terrible consequences for Florence. Lorenzo understood that negotiations were necessary and asked to go to Naples. The Florentine government was horrified by the idea since the King of Napoli Ferdinando d’Aragona was well-known not only for being Lorenzo’s enemy but above all for being a man who was not afraid of using poison to get his own way. Lorenzo was forbidden to go at first but he insisted. When he departed from Florence he was treated as though he were going to meet his death. However Lorenzo as an extremely shrewd politician knew very well that Ferdinando d’Aragona had no intention of killing him. Both men understood that the period of hatred was over and that Lorenzo was more useful alive than dead. Ferdinando received Lorenzo with open arms the two men became friends and it was with great displeasure that Ferdinando allowed him to leave Naples having enjoyed immensely Lorenzo’s company and culture. Lorenzo returned to Florence with an armistice. In 1480 the Laurentian age began due to Lorenzo’s becoming the real governer of Florence even if indirectly. In fact he was to receive no noble titles or direct form of control over the state. However the Council of the Seventy was created to take care of the internal and foreign policy of the Florentine state. The members of this council were mostly tie to the Medicis. However Lorenzo was never officially the governer of the city remaining behind the scenes.

With the Laurentian era the humanities in Florence were to fluorish. It was not by chance that the Careggi Villa was chosen as a meeting place for members of the Neoplatonic Academy founded by the philosopher Marsilio Ficino. Lorenzo was always surrounded by artists philosophers and writers. He was himself a poet and a discerning sponsor of the arts ever searching for that fusion between the ancient and the modern. Lorenzo’s philosophy was based on the revival of the ancient world the revival of ancient paganism seen as the first stage towards the assertion of Christianity. Lorenzo was a great utopian and it was to this utopia that he dedicated all his efforts: to demonstrate that the roots of Christianity were present in the Ancient world. Tthe church of Santa Trinita contains a marvellous work of art which attempts to describe this synthesis: Ghirlandaio in fact painted a wonderful Adoration of the Magi for the Cappella Sassetti in which the animal’s trough is a Roman sarcophagus.

This is the world that Lorenzo proposes and he was himself a discerning collector of ancient objects above all Roman relics in semi-precious stone. The Silverware Museum in the Pitti Palace contains several semi-precious stone vases from Lorenzo’s collection.

The painter who expressed Lorenzo’s world most precisely at this time was probably Botticelli. The Birth of Venus (Uffizi Gallery) is set in the Ancient world and proposes the Classical style as a model of the ideal as a constant perennial reference not only philosophically but also aesthetically: the pleasure of life shown in all its details.

The 16th Century

With the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent the Medici power did not diminish. His eldest son Piero dei Medici inherited the Bank the influence and the political role. However Italian political equilibrium gained thanks to Lorenzo’s enormous efforts was unexpectedly put at risk due to the arrival of a foreign sovereign Charles VIII King of France who came to Italy in 1494 to conquer the Kingdom of Naples. The Florentine government fearing the presence of Charles’ army – that was to pass through Florence on its way to Naples – sent its most influential citizen Piero dei Medici in order to reach an agreement. But Piero who was worried by the situation informed Charles VIII of all the main state fortresses. This concession to the French King gave rise to a strong feeling of contempt among the Florentines who considered Piero a traitor and they decided to expel him. Charles VIII even installed himself in Palazzo Medici for a brief period after it had been relieved of all its most important objects.

It was at this point that the celebrated Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola emerged on the political horizon. Savonarola had predicted many times in the past that the arrival of an exterminating angel would restore the way of life that the Florentines had enjoyed once before bringing purity and moral integrity in place of the pagan Renaissance and the vices of the clergy and the people which in his opinion had reached their zenith during the age of Lorenzo. The arrival of Charles VIII was therefore interpreted as divine retribution. The open conflict between Savonarola and Pope Alexander VI later led to the former’s excommunication followed by his being sentenced to death. The execution was carried out in 1498 when Savonarola and two of his fraternity were first hanged and then burned in Piazza della Signoria.

Despite the disappearance of Savonarola the Republic – the Florentine state that had been created following Piero’s exile – remained in place. It was around this time that another great Florentine personality emerged: Niccolò Machiavelli who became one of the great designers of foreign policy of this small but important state.

The beginning of the 16th Century was characterised by the presence of many important personalities. For example Leonardo da Vinci who continued the tradition that had been started during the time of Lorenzo and who studied the ancient world with great interest. In his celebrated Annunciation (Uffizi Gallery) we can see both Maria and a detail from the Ancient world that had been used by Verrocchio for the tombs of Piero and Giovanni dei Medici the father and uncle of Lorenzo the Magnificent in the church of San Lorenzo. It was not by chance that Leonardo was a student of Verrocchio’s.

This was also the period of that great navigator Amerigo Vespucci who by means of his many voyages traced the outline of the American continent in the most precise way. In fact it was thanks to these geographic descriptions that the continent received a name derived from his: America.

Another great figure of the time was Michelangelo Buonarroti the sublime sculptor to whom the Florentine Republic commissioned the symbol of the new Florence: the David a biblical hero that fought against tyranny and thanks to the strength of his will managed to fell the giant representing the tyranny: Goliath. Michelangelo at 26 years of age thus created a political statue the symbol of the new republican Florence. The sculpture was placed outside the Palazzo Vecchio the political heart of the city.

However in 1512 the Florentine Republic fell and the Medici returned sending into exile all those who had collaborated with the Republic. Niccolò Macchiavelli was among those expelled although he was not required to move far from the city being confined to Albergaccio near San Casciano. It was here that Machiavelli wrote his most important works all in 1513: the Prince and the Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy. Machiavelli therefore during this enforced sojourn put in writing the fruits of his experience giving life to such eternal masterpieces that mark a turning point in the history of European thought.

In 1513 Giovanni dei Medici son of Lorenzo the Magnificent became Pope Leo X. This marked the absolute triumph of the Medici family. Leo X at this time the most important exponent of the family immediately began to reinforce his power; in the painting by Raphael in the Uffizi Gallery we see him with two cardinals who were both Medicis. In 1515 he made an official visit to Florence his native city to which a beautiful fresco in Palazzo della Signoria acts as testimony.

Leo X was extremely sensitive to the art world. He saw all that was art as the maximum refinement of the human spirit. He knew that Michelangelo was a man of faith and a republican that had expressed his highest ideals through the David but his art was such that Leo X could not avoid calling on Michelangelo to create the family chapel in San Lorenzo. Michelangelo accepted and we are able to see the results: a series of fascinating tombs that make the church of San Lorenzo extremely important to this day. There is the sepulchre of Lorenzo Duke of Urbino and the sepulchre of Giuliano Duke of Nemours who were respectively the grandson and son of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Both tombs are characterised by allegorical figures Twilight and Dawn Day and Night a brief temporal space like human life itself: life is a fragment of eternity a fragment which can itself become eternity through man’s greatness. The two idealised figures of the dukes are placed on top of the sarcophagi an allegorical representation of fame and glory overcoming time.

Around the same time Michelangelo completed the beautiful Laurentian Library complex that houses the majority of the literary works collected by the Medici family. This was to be the last Florentine commission that Michelangelo completed in his lifetime. In 1534 at the age of 59 he decided to abandon Florence due in part to the tyranny of Duke Alessandro dei Medici a vehement enemy of Michelangelo until the duke was assassinated by his own cousin Lorenzino in 1537.

But let us turn back to the time when the Medici family held power thanks to Leo X’s pontificate. Leon had been able to control things in Florence from Rome thanks to the help of his cousin Giulio a cardinal and future Pope Clement VII. This was a terrible period due to differences between Charles V the emperor and Francis I of Valois King of France. The so-called mediator between these two forces was Clement VII. Clement was an enthusiastic supporter of France and was to suffer greatly for this: the Sack of Rome in 1527 was to punish this alliance. The imperial troops attacked Rome in order to get at Clement VII who was seen as an enemy of the Emperor. In 1527 they managed to penetrate the city destroying and pillaging everything in sight. The pope was forced to seek refuge in the fortress of Castel Sant’Angelo. There is a large amount of documentation about this dramatic event written by the famous Florentine Benvenuto Cellini. The artist was together with the pope at the time in Castel Sant’Angelo and his autobiography is precious due to its containing many interesting details.

At the same time as the Sack of Rome a coup d'état against the Medicis began in Florence. The Florentine Republic was revived and the representatives of the Medici family were driven out of Florence. In particular Niccolò Machiavelli experienced a moment of great exaltation: having been one of the protagonists of the previous republic he decided to return with the aim of taking up some important role. However he had compromised himself somewhat by writing his Florentine History for Giulio de Medici and this excluded him from playing a part. He suffered greatly from this and died shortly after out of desperation.

Meanwhile the Pope in Rome tried to mediate with Charles V from Castel Sant’Angelo. After long drawn-out negotiations an agreement was reached: Clement VII committed himself to becoming an ally of Emperor Charles V to leave France completely and to crown officially Charles as emperor. In exchange Clement asked for the Medici to be restored to power in Florence which he was granted. In fact in September 1529 the famous siege of Florence began with the mighty imperial army putting an end to the Florentine Republic in August 1530. Giorgio Vasari painted a beautiful fresco in Palazzo della Signoria which shows the arrangement of the imperial troops. During the siege work on the New Sacristy in San Lorenzo was being finished by Michelangelo. The sacristy was destined to be the Medici family’s funerary chapel. When the siege began Michelangelo immediately stopped work on the sacristy and made himself available to help the republican cause. The side of the city walls between Porta San Niccolò and the Forte Belvedere (that did not exist at the time) was reinforced according to Michelangelo’s instructions. This section of the wall has remained largely intact to this day and can be seen by walking along the Via di Belvedere.

The strenuous resistance of the Florentines was soon overcome and Charles V then decided on the city’s future. With imperial decree he sanctioned the birth of the absolute Medici state. Power passed to Alessandro dei Medici grandson of the cousin of Clement VII. In this way it was established that ruling power in the city was absolute and hereditary that was to pass forever to the first-born male child. The other grandchild of Clement VII’s cousin Caterina dei Medici married Enrico di Valois the son of the King of France Francis I and became one of the most celebrated French queens. Clement VII thus managed to keep a foot on each side of the fence: forced to ally himself with Charles V he gave his cousin’s granddaughter to Francis I King of France. The indefatigable pope died in 1534; before his death he succeeded in obtaining a promise from Charles V: a high-ranking wife for Alessandro. In fact Charles V gave his daughter’s hand to Alessandra. Although it is true that she was an illegitimate daughter this presented little problem since Alessandro was himself illegitimate!

While Alessandro was consolidating his power a clamorous event intervened in the destiny of this promising young man: his cousin Lorenzo dei Medici thought he would replace Alessandro in the role of Duke of Florence and killed him by means of a cunning plan. Alessandro in fact had one fatal weakness: women. He liked them in all shapes and sizes: young old single married nuns. For him there were few problems: being duke and having absolute authority he could do as he liked. He was particularly fond of a certain Ginori who was married but the woman of his dreams nonetheless. Lorenzo his cousin pretended to arrange a meeting at his house with this Ginori. Unfortunately instead of finding this charming woman he found Lorenzo together with an accomplice who stabbed Alessandro to death.

With the assassination of Alessandro the main branch of the Medici family came to an end. In the line of descendance however a close relative in a minor branch was found for the position of Duke of Florence: Cosimo son of Giovanni dei Medici delle Bande Nere and Maria Salviati. As far as the previous duke Alessandro was concerned being much hated no one was prepared to pay for his tomb. He was thus buried in the tomb of his father Lorenzo Duke of Urbino in the famous New Sacristy by Michelangelo though there is not the tiniest inscription marking the fact that Alessandro is buried there.

One of the first problems faced by young Cosimo once he became Duke of Florence was how to consolidate his newly-acquired power and to this end he attempted first of all to get closer to Charles V through marriage. The natural daughter of Charles V Margherita of Hasburg the widow of the assassinated Medici duke was available though her father had other plans for her. Despite this Charles V decided to help Cosimo and asked the Viceroy of Naples Don Pedro di Toledo who had various daughters of marriageable age to intervene. The idea that he should marry the first born daughter was not to Cosimo’s liking knowing that the woman was decidedly ugly and rather dull. He knew however that the youngest daughter Eleonora was beautiful intelligent and vivacious … and so the deal was done. The two were married in 1539 and this wedding quite clearly firmly established the authority of the Medici family once more.

The marriage was a happy one: Eleonora brought the tastes and fashions of Spain to Florence. This fusion of two different cultures Tuscan and Spanish had fascinating results. The young couple decided to leaved Palazzo Medici because it would have been unacceptable for the Duke of Florence to pay rent on his own palace: Palazzo Medici in fact by express will of Charles V was bequeathed not to Cosimo but to Margherita of Hasburg. This is why Cosimo considered it appropriate to find alternative accommodation in Palazzo Vecchio that was completely renovated for the occasion by Giorgio Vasari. According to historical sources two distinct apartments were created: the couple were never together with each having their own separate quarters: thus we have the apartments of Cosimo and Eleonora in Palazzo Vecchio as they are still known today.

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