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Society and Individual in Renaissance Florence

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7. The War of the Eight Saints in Florentine Memory and Oblivion

David S. Peterson


Memory forgets, sometimes quite willingly. It is a process whereby individuals, groups, and entire societies conserve and record, but also filter, repress, and configure past experience to shape and accommodate their identities for presentation to self and others. The aims (or results) may range from explanation to concealment, self-congratulation to exculpation, self-justification and legitimation to the nurturing (construction, and elaboration) of grievances against others. Although memories may be preserved even fortuitously in texts and artifacts, their storage there can just as well be part of a deliberate and selective process. This is especially so when the objects concerned are carefully designed works of art, and the texts artfully composed narrative histories.

The memory of the Quattrocento Florentine Renaissance has long enjoyed an iconic status in narratives of Western civilization as a stage upon which its admirers have found enacted much of what they most prized in European culture and politics. Nor is this wholly accidental. The numerous vernacular memoirs (ricordi) of merchants like Giovanni Morelli, as well as the Latin histories of humanists like Leonardo Bruni and Poggio Bracciolini, reveal a society whose members were deeply self-conscious and historically minded. Much of the basis for accepting the notion of a Florentine Renaissance derives from the testimony of contemporaries like Matteo Palmieri and Giorgio Vasari that they were indeed having one, and on the determination of their fellows to furnish the necessary historical texts and artworks as proof. The Florentines' rediscovery of their ancient Roman ancestors carried in its train a recognition of themselves as an audience of modern posterity, making their Renaissance dialogue with the past an essential stimulus also to their own studied self-presentation to future generations.

Among the most notable examples of the Florentines' Renaissance are the works of art they commissioned for their churches and the texts composed by their humanist historians. Architects like Brunelleschi articulated a classicized Roman vocabulary of harmoniously balanced columns and rounded arches to solemnize the interior spaces of Florence's new cathedral and numerous other churches such as San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito that were rebuilt or remodeled in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Painters like Masaccio and sculptors such as Donatello in turn adorned these churches with images and objects whose classical realism and naturalism give them heightened spiritual poignancy. Meanwhile, the city's humanist chancellors and historians from Coluccio Salutati onward recalled to Florentine citizens the genealogy of their descent from the Roman Republic, celebrated their republican institutions and their embrace of civic duty in the defense of their liberty, and lauded the ambition and unabashed entrepreneurial acquisitiveness that made possible their civic and charitable benefactions.

But although Florentine artists and humanists alike deployed classical motifs, the projects in which they engaged were in fact quite different. Artists employed pre-Christian art forms in the city's churches not to subvert religious space but to sacralize the city's urban fabric. The humanists, on the other hand, used classical rhetoric and historiographical models not only to connect the city's republican present to its Roman origins but also to secularize the vision of its history that informed contemporary political discourse. Underscoring the particularity of Florentine history did not, to be sure, require detaching it entirely from Christianity's universal eschatology. Even Machiavelli, after all, concluded Il Principe crying out for a new Italian redeemer. But Florentine humanists no longer recounted events to manifest the providence of God working directly through human agents. They highlighted instead the causal agency of human protagonists themselves and inscribed into their actions the civic and republican values that they aimed to recall to their contemporary and future readers. Fortuna was not providentia Dei.

The result has been that subsequent historians, taking their cues from Quattrocento and Cinquecento Florentine historians, long tended to portray the society as a whole in secular hues. But if we turn back from these textual sentinels to reconsider the city's churches not simply as works of art but as historical artifacts with a documentary significance of their own, and begin, as historians recently have done, to incorporate the archival study of religion and the church into Florentine social and political history, a paradox emerges: while Florentines were secularizing and de-Christianizing the discursive realm of their civic politics in the early Quattrocento, they were simultaneously sacralizing and re-Christianizing their built civic environment.1 This is not to resurrect long discredited caricatures of the humanists as pagans, or to reposit a fundamental conflict (not even updated as "culture wars") between secularizing humanists and Christian reactionaries. Humanists from Petrarch onward were deeply Augustinian in their anthropology and attacked ecclesiastics not for their religion but for their lack of it. Nor is it necessary to pin religion and classicism on different elements of the social order. Leonardo Bruni wrote his classicizing republican panegyric and history of Florence to ingratiate himself with the same Florentine rulers who commissioned Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise; indeed, he helped select the biblical scenes to be represented.

Taken together, the written and material evidence furnished by Quattrocento Florentines points to a simultaneous rise of investment in a built Christian environment, concurrent with a surge of textual production that wrote secular values into the Florentine social and political world. The commemoration in Florentine churches of a Christian present contemporaneous with the textual recollection of a secular past that pointed directly to it suggests a fascinating instability of values. Societies, of course, need no more be consistent with themselves than are individuals. The Florentine case might simply be let stand as an example of mildly schizophrenic Renaissance self-fashioning. But because memory is the art also of selective (and collective) forgetting, and silences thus have histories of their own, it is worth excavating the documentary remains of those lying beneath Florence's ecclesiastical commemorations and historical recollections to see whether they do not converge at some point in the oblivion of a past that Florentines either chose to forget—or remembered very carefully.


In few societies have religion and politics been woven together so intimately—and conflictually—as they were in Renaissance Florence. As far back as the eleventh century, Florentine support under the Countess Matilda had been essential to the survival of the Gregorian reform movement, and from the formation of the Guelf entente in the 1260s down to the reigns of the Medici popes Leo X (1513-21) and Clement VII (1523-34) at the outbreak of the Reformation, no community in Europe was more vital to the economic and political fortunes (and misfortunes) of the papacy than its Tuscan neighbor, rival, and financier, Florence. Nor, in the two centuries from Dante's robust denunciation of the papacy in his Commedia down to Savonarola's project to fuse Christian and republican renovatio in a Florentine "New Jerusalem" that defied Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503), was any city so vigorous in condemning the papacy or so protean in generating new forms of religious thought and expression in artistic, political, and urban contexts.

The famous twenty-eighth maxim that Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) penned in the early sixteenth century appears to telescope the ambivalence many Florentines felt toward the church: "I don't know anyone who dislikes the ambition, the avarice and the sensuality of priests more than I do," wrote the papal governor of Modena and the Romagna. "Nevertheless, the position I have enjoyed with several popes has forced me to love their greatness for my own self-interest. Were it not for this consideration, I would have loved Martin Luther as much as I love myself."2 In his ensuing maxim Guicciardini specified the cause of his dilemma, explaining that the Florentines had "the church as a neighbor, which is powerful and never dies." Essential to Guicciardini's schematization of his Florentine codependence with the church was the manner in which he identified clergy at all levels with the papacy, both with political power, and the necessity he therefore felt to partition his religious convictions from his political interests. Like Machiavelli (1469-1527), Guicciardini wondered whether it was possible "to control governments and states, if one wants to hold them as they are held today, according to the precepts of Christian law," and concluded that it was not.3

There was much to justify these sentiments in the wake of Savonarola's late-fifteenth-century failure as an "unarmed prophet," when Renaissance popes had subverted the earlier efforts of conciliar reformers to curb their monarchical pretensions and had transformed themselves into ambitious Italian princes. But because Machiavelli's and Guicciardini's texts became the vehicles through which the preceding three centuries of Florentine history were synthesized and transmitted into the broader stream of European thought—and memory—historians in turn have read back out of the history of the Florentine republic the sixteenth-century identification of church with papacy, and the separation of religion from politics, that they wrote into it. Nor were these leanings without some foundation in earlier fifteenth-century humanist historiography. Leonardo Bruni (c. 1370-1444) and Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), upon whom they relied, embraced classical models that privileged political, military, and diplomatic narratives to focus their histories on Florence's development in its republican dimensions. In the process, they touched on local ecclesiastical or religious matters only so far as popes and prelates came on stage as players in Italian politics. The roles that religion and the local church played in shaping the Quattrocento Florentine cultural milieu that produced its foundational humanist historians were thus masked and obscured by the very selectivity and semiotics of the humanists' own narratives.


This is nowhere more evident than in their treatment of the cataclysmic War of the Eight Saints that Florence fought against Pope Gregory XI (1370-78) in 1375-78. Climaxing in the outbreak of the papal schism and the revolt of Florence's downtrodden Ciompi clothworkers, the war unfolded in two phases and encompassed two corresponding clusters of issues. It began as a Florentine effort to check the menacing expansion of the papal state in central Italy that the Avignon popes had set as a condition for their return to Rome and was fueled by the antipathy many Florentine citizens felt toward their Guelf fellows whose personal ties to the Papal Curia threatened to subvert the commune's sovereignty. Florence enjoyed a series of early successes, sponsoring uprisings throughout the papal state that were hailed by the republic's newly appointed chancellor Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406) as the triumph of Tuscan and Italian libertas over papal despotism. But as the war bogged down, the Florentines were confronted with rising military expenses that drove them to a momentous second step. Already under a papal interdict, the city's leaders determined in 1376 to finance the war by selling off local clerical property, and they proceeded to the most extensive liquidation of an ecclesiastical patrimony attempted anywhere in Europe before the Reformation. A war against the papacy was thus transformed into a referendum on the place of religion and the church within the Florentine community itself—again, one of the most literate and sophisticated in pre-Reformation Europe. The spoliation of the Florentine church, accompanied by efforts first to do without clerical ministrations, then, from 1377, to compel clergy to officiate and laity to attend services, turned the public sharply against the war. Flagellants took to the streets, the city's political leadership split bitterly, and Florence was forced to sue for peace. Gregory XI's timely death and the outbreak of the schism in the spring of 1378 enabled Florence to negotiate with the weak Roman pope Urban VI (1378-89). But there immediately ensued the revolt of the Ciompi. The war had a devastating impact on the Florentine church that shaped its politics and internal operations down to the mid-fifteenth century. And it impressed upon subsequent generations of Florentine rulers the vital importance of the legitimating power of the sacred in the city's economy of political interests, conditioning their policies not only toward papal Rome but, especially, toward the local Florentine church, even longer.


Guicciardini omitted the war almost entirely from his youthful Storie fiorentine, beginning immediately afterward with the revolt of the Ciompi. But he blamed the uprising itself on the Otto di balìa, a special commission of eight magistrates who had been charged with the war's prosecution, for recklessly catering to Florence's lower classes.4 He returned to the war twenty years later in his Cose fiorentine, written in the immediate aftermath of the Sack of Rome in 1527, on his return to a Florence in the last gasp of republican and messianic fervor. He prefaced his account with a speech by a confident Florentine councillor who favored the war "to preserve the dignity of our patria . . . [and] to maintain our liberty . . . undertaken not against the Church of God, nor against the vicars of Christ, but against evil pastors, against wicked governors."5 To this he contrasted the cautious Carlo Strozzi, who wondered how Guelf Florence could justify a war against the papacy, and predicted that the inevitable papal interdict would so traumatize the Florentines that "perhaps the greater part, on account of the damages and injuries of the war, will be disposed to return to the old faith."6 But from these suggestive interpretive poles Guicciardini proceeded to narrate a tightly focused account of the political infighting between Florence's Ricci and Albizzi factions, and of the movements of armies and embassies, touching only minimally on the broader domestic impact of the interdict and the expropriation of church property. The veteran statesman's dry verdict was that "it is not enough to undertake wars with justice and generosity, if these are not accompanied by prudence as well."7

Machiavelli touched only glancingly on the war in his Istorie fiorentine. Nevertheless, he paused to offer an encomium to the Otto for having administered it "with such virtue and with such universal satisfaction that . . . they were called Saints even though they had little regard for censures, had despoiled the churches of their goods, and had compelled the clergy to celebrate the offices—so much more did those citizens then esteem their fatherland than their souls."8 But though he lauded the Otto for their courage in placing devotion to the patria above fear of spiritual sanctions, Machiavelli nevertheless left open the possibility that their actions might indeed have been damnable. Recounting a meeting held just before the war of citizens concerned to end factional strife, Machiavelli inserted into the speech of their spokesman the lament that factionalism and the corruption of the city had arisen "because religion and fear of God have been eliminated in all."9 While he reveled in the blow dealt the papacy by the Otto, Machiavelli echoed in his Istorie the view he had set forth in the Discorsi, that "as the observance of divine institutions is the cause of the greatness of republics, so the disregard of them produces their ruin."10

Writing a century before Machiavelli and only decades after the War of the Eight Saints itself, Leonardo Bruni, the founder of Florentine humanist historiography, was even more reticent. He could scarcely ignore the rising new Florentine cathedral and the numerous other ecclesiastical building projects that were visible throughout early Quattrocento Florence. Thus, in his famous "Panegyric" (Laudatio) of 1403-4, he commended the Florentines' piety and paused in his description of the city to offer lavish praise of their churches: "Indeed," he wrote, "in all of Florence nothing is more richly appointed, more ornate in style, more magnificent than these churches. As much attention has been given to decorating sacred buildings as to secular ones, so that not only the habitations of the living would be outstanding but the tombs of the dead as well."11 At the same time, Bruni carefully circumscribed the churches' significance by inserting his description into a portion of the Laudatio devoted not to the city's history and institutions but to its architecture. Aiming to celebrate the republic, his parallel juxtapositions of buildings sacred and profane, of habitations for the living and the dead, effected an equality between the Florentine church and the republic, while separating the concerns of this world from those of the next.

Likewise, though Bruni celebrated the role of Florence's Parte Guelfa in championing the city's Roman republican ideals, he made only the briefest allusion to the Parte's origin as an alliance supporting the papacy.12 While he could trace the many wars that Florentines had fought against tyrants in defense of their libertas back to the famous Guelf victory over the Ghibelline leader Manfred at Beneventum in 1266, he made no reference whatsoever to the great war that Florence had fought immediately prior to its recent victory over Milan's Giangaleazzo Visconti in 1402—the War of the Eight Saints. The omission was scarcely casual. Florence's victory over Milan in fact served Bruni, as it did many other Florentines, not only as an occasion for celebrating the triumph of Florentine republican ideals but also as a means of canceling the memory of an earlier war for Florentine libertas—that of the Eight Saints—that had gone terribly wrong.

Several decades later, when he turned to writing his Historiarum florentini populi libri XII (begun by 1415), Bruni could no longer completely ignore it. Rather, he focused on the first year of the conflict, which he could easily frame as a defensive war against papal aggression. Thereafter, throughout its second, domestic phase, Bruni kept his attention fixed squarely on the movements of armies and diplomats, turning to Florentine civic affairs only to note that the renewals of the Otto "provoked great jealousy among many."13 Without ever mentioning Florence's assault on its local church and the political turmoil that ensued, he concluded his account by noting the outbreak of the schism, then partitioned the war from the city's internal life, and the Ciompi Revolt, with a chapter division.


The War of the Eight Saints had its ideological roots in a debate over ecclesiastical wealth and jurisdictions that had been intensifying throughout Europe for over a century. In sixteenth-century Italy, Machiavelli and Guicciardini took the temporal power of church and papacy for granted and distinguished both from true religion. But in the fourteenth century they were still conceivable as spiritual institutions, and it was the doctrine of papal plenitudo potestatis, upon which popes based their expanding claims not only to supreme authority within the church but also to myriad powers of intervention in temporal affairs, that occupied political theorists. It had inspired the growth of the radical Spiritual wing of the Franciscan order, and King Philip IV of France's challenge to clerical immunities from royal taxation and the courts, which elicited from Pope Boniface VIII the intemperate bull Unam sanctam (1302), strongly implying that all temporal rulers derived their authority from the pope and roundly designating all the faithful as his subjects. Unam sanctam became a rich target for critics that papal apologists like Giles of Rome actually widened by advancing fulsome claims for papal world dominium (lordship) that fused the issues of jurisdictions and property rights, thus effectively inviting opponents of papal authority to take aim at clerical wealth as well.

Among the sharpest antipapal reactions came from Italians. Dante articulated in his Monarchia (c. 1310) an ideal Aristotelian vision of a new Roman Empire, in which all political authority would be concentrated in a single temporal world ruler: restricting the church to a purely spiritual role would secure humanity's common good by ending the destructive conflict between church and state. As he explained through Marco Lombardo at the center of his Commedia, all the evils of the world derived from misgovernment caused by a papacy which "striving to combine two powers in one, fouls self and load and all."14 In his Defensor pacis (1324), Marsilius of Padua added Roman corporation law to Dante's amalgam of Aristotelian and Franciscan arguments to propose reducing the church to purely spiritual powers and subjecting it to the supervision of a sovereign lay authority, the "faithful human legislator." Clergy would be subject to the penalties of the civil law and might, if necessary, be compelled by the state to perform services and to administer the sacraments.15 The legislator would supervise appointments to ecclesiastical offices and any necessary inquisitions, and would oversee the administration of ecclesiastical property. Superfluous clerical property would be subject to taxation just like that of the laity.16 Dante's Commedia became, of course, the cornerstone of Florentine literature, and an Italian translation (from the French) of the Defensor pacis circulated in Florence from 1363 onward, with numerous marginal arrows pointing to the passages on tithes and church property.17

Marsilius was soon joined at Ludwig of Bavaria's antipapal court by the brilliant English Franciscan heretic William of Ockham (c. 1285-c. 1347), who, followed by his Oxford countryman John Wycliff (d. 1384) later in the century, articulated political theories that also curtailed ecclesiastical jurisdictions and property rights, based not, however, on the church's presumed character as a spiritual institution but on its now evident forfeiture of that role. Wycliff wrote his De civili dominio (1378) with an eye on Florence's War of the Eight Saints, and the echo of his views in John Hus led to innumerable condemnations before (and after) the Czech's execution at the Council of Constance in 1415.18


Florence's rulers had been given a powerful incentive to acquiesce in the expansion of papal controls over ecclesiastical wealth and appointments by Pope Martin IV's confirmation of the Florentine bankers' right to collect papal taxes in 1281, and papal actions touching the Florentine church could in any case easily be mediated privately by Florentines at the Papal Curia itself. Nevertheless, in (frequent) periods of domestic crisis, when Florence's patrician rulers sought to augment their power by admitting members of the lesser guilds and novi cives to a greater share of political offices, these new people (gente nuova) tended to pursue stricter constitutional protections of the commune's sovereignty, both against papal meddling from outside and against aristocrats' use of local ecclesiastical institutions to augment their power within Florentine politics. Under the "popular" governments of the Primo Popolo (1250-60) and of Giano della Bella (1293-97), and in response to in