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The Politics of Exclusion in Early Renaissance Florence

Gabriela Dragnea Horvath

Fabrizio Ricciardelli belongs to a new generation of Italian historians whose expertise in medieval Latin and Italian is doubled by the knowledge of English and whose archive research is often presented in international conferences. 

His recent book, The Politics of Exclusion in Early Renaissance Florence, published by the Belgian Brepols in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Studies series, is seminal to understanding the Florentine republican system in the period between 1215, “the date that the chroniclers designate as the birth of the division of the Florentine ruling class into Guelfs and Ghibellines,” and 1434, “the year when the Medici offered themselves as the citizens most capable of holding the balance of Florentine republicanism.” 

The premise of the study is taking political exclusion as a standard feature.

Through centuries, Dante’s exile and the immediately associated radical adversity between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines have become a symbol of the predisposition of Florentines to factionalism, of the tension between politics and culture, of the city’s incapacity to treat well men of genius or even of political frustration as a condition to compose masterpieces. 

Ricciardelli, a Florentine himself, treats the subject in its proper context setting out from clarifying terminology. The ancient antecedents of the Florentine political exclusion are to be found both in classical Greece, where political dissidents were excluded from their community to escape punishment and in ancient Rome, where the sentence to exilium implied depriving an offender of his civil and political rights, an eiectio a civitate, explained by the author as a form of civil ‘excommunication’. 

The term exilium, in disuse after the Fall of the Roman Empire, was replaced in the early Middle Ages by bandum, which implied a legally disposed form of punishment. In the medieval Italian communes the legitimation of a winning political group was affected by a system of justice which acted unilaterally at the service of power, treating the losers as criminals and producing in various epochs diversified sentences, from fines, ban, confinement and death penalty to ammonizioni (exclusion from public office, followed sometimes by expulsion from the community). 

The author stresses that while examining his numerous primary sources he never came across the term exile, used by historians improperly, as it actually refers to the consequence of a ban, confinement or ammonizione sentence against political enemies. After specifying terms, Ricciardelli conveys his chronological investigation into the phenomenon of exclusion in an admirably balanced perspective, treating political, sociological and anthropological problems with equal insight and rigorous documentation.

The ban issues in Florence were analogous to those in other northern and central Italian city-states, but also specifically connected to the intrinsic changes of its urban reality and the dynamics of power which opposed initially the Guelfs to the Ghibellines, later on the White Guelfs to the Black Guelfs, the Ricci family to the Albizzi, the Albizzi to the Alberti and finally the Albizzi to the Medici. 

The various passages of power in these 200 years mark as many structural changes in the Florentine society: from the undisputed authority of the guilds to the emergence of new categories like the magnates (“an amalgam of urbanized nobility with a narrow circle of privileged citizens”) and their oppositors the commoners, called popolani; through the assertion of the powerful nonmagnates, the popolo grasso (fat cats) and the popolo minuto, that is the “workers and artisans without guild representation in the city,” up to the victory of merchants and bankers, heralds of the rising capitalist economy. 

Florentine factionalism was the result of many factors, from internal competition between various families and social categories to the impact of external influences, like the conflict between imperial and papal authority. An amazing fact is that the strongly conflictual reality of early modern Florence could not impede the economic and cultural progress that was to lead to the Renaissance, nor the extension of the power of the Florentine republic beyond its city walls to becoming a regional state. 

Ricciardelli documents the ties between the various stages in the legal evaluation of political enemies and the public rituals aimed at reinforcing power by disqualifying or simply annihilating the opposition, showing that long before Machiavelli’s reflections, “it was through fear that the Florentine political system sought to check dissent, it was upon fear that it based the means of its political action, and it was through fear that it attempted to maintain internal stability.”

Grounded on fear and the principle of erasing opposition, such a system was an ingenious producer of violence: punishing all the family members of an alleged rebel, destroying the enemy’s houses in the city or any other kind of property in-or outside the city, executions that combined humiliation and torture like dragging somebody behind a mule until dead, or even, in the case of Farinata degli Uberti, condemning a dead man and his wife for heresy, 19 years after his death, in 1283, and having “his body exhumed and burned, his ashes scattered, and his properties confiscated and destroyed.” 

Under such circumstances the ban appears as a merciful solution and quite often the losers themselves decided for the exile to avoid repression. Allowing rebels to leave the city proved often a risky decision, as the fuoriusciti, that is those who had lost the privilege to live within the city walls, were looking for a good occasion to make alliances and take revenge, responding with new forms of violence. Indeed quite often the punished losers created network conspiracies, in which competing or enemy cities like Pisa, Lucca, Padua, Ferrara, and Venice joined forces against Florence.

And yet, in spite of permanent instability and escalation of violence, the Florentine Republic made continuous efforts to put an end to conflict or reduce its disastrous consequences. Actually the author discloses the progress from the wild street murders of the 1300s, like the ones imagined by Shakespeare in Romeo’s and Juliet’s Verona, to a gradual attempt to rationalize conflict management, granting it a moral and legal motivation, and resorting to more complex though not always efficient forms of control. 

Such measures were, for example, appointing every six months a super partes podestà, that is a chief executive officer, from outside the city, or annulling every now and then the ban or confinement decision, ‘remitting’ the guilt. A small but significant step forward towards a life sparing mentality was marked by the sentences against the Alberti after 1401, which were no longer issued against their women and children under 16. 

In the light of the facts presented in Ricciardelli’s study, the abolishment of torture and death penalty in Tuscany, in 1786 by the Granduke Pietro Leopoldo, appears as the final conclusion of a long line of less successful attempts to solve the equation justice, power, violence. 

Ricciardelli insightfully addresses the effects of exclusion on the losers. As civil rights were not innate, but granted by the state one had become part of, and to be part of the community during the republican age was considered a privilege, the exclusion affected an individual’s essential dimension. From the practical point of view, “the loss of citizenship which occurred as a result of sentences such as confinement and banishment, entailed the cancellation of political and property rights, strictly connected to an individual’s freedom to act. Those who were forced into exile were perceived in the life of early Renaissance Florence as those who refused the dominant order, the shared norms of cohabitation, and the rules and laws in force.” It is interesting to see how profoundly civic and religious identity were part of the existential status of an early modern Florentine.

With today’s standards early modern Florence occupied an impressively small space, and yet, its citizens regarded it as a sacred center, conceiving their identity as strictly bound to its circumference. It was the closed space and not the large horizon that characterized their mindset, in direct correspondence to the Ptolemaic vision of the universe as spherical, limited and geocentric. Thus instead of having a sense of liberation from a theatre of war, the exiles experienced the frustration of being outsiders. The governing party, for itself, decided the exclusion of those who had acted against the ‘good and peaceful state’ of the city, with a clear awareness of space control. As a power emanating center, the government must have felt its prerogatives reinforced exactly by the closed, secure space. 

These reflections on the sacred status of the city space are closely bound to the patterns of thought underlying the practice of exclusion : even in the brief periods of truce, the existential model of the Florentines was war-like in every sense: those who were not part of a group, by the logic of kinship or economic interests, were enemies by definition, destined to be reduced to ontological null by depriving them of privilege, property, dignity and finally life. 

Thus it could happen, that “if someone who was subjected to a ban for political offences was murdered while in prison by one of his fellow prisoners, the crime was allowed to go unpunished” or that “the laws of the commune indeed favoured immunity for the assassins of those who had been judged enemies of the system.” 

One wonders if this bipolar model of mutually exclusive parties was not a transposition of the religious paradigm in the secular field, or if it was not at least perpetrated or reinforced by it. It is obvious that being continuously exposed to the incompatibility between God, virtue and heaven on one side and Satan, sin and hell on the other, had an impact on individual and social behavior. 

In fact the author hints at the analogy between political practices and religious thinking on various occasions: he entitles a section of chapter 4 “Demonizing to Govern,” he equates exclusion to purging rituals and ironically remarks that, when sometimes a ban was revoked or annulled “those who had been subject to it were asked to undergo a period of quarantine to ensure their complete rehabilitation, so that the dominant faction could have more time to monitor them,” a practice analogous to the purification of sin in purgatory.

On the other hand, the absolution, just like in the religious field, was complete, so that “banishments for very serious crimes, such as forgery, sodomy, treason, homicide, robbery, all considered perpetual in other city-states, could be cancelled after peace had been conceded by the injured party and after the payment of the fine.” 

In the same order of ideas, belonging to the city community and being part of its rituals meant life, whereas being excluded from it equated to nullification, just as baptism meant being granted a chance of salvation in the community of Christians and excommunication, on the contrary, signified being excluded from it. Last, but not least, the damage produced by an enemy party to the governing one was legally classified as maleficium, which is exactly the formal accusation against witches; moreover, just as the Inquisition compiled the famous Index of dangerous books and writers, the Florentines listed their enemies in a certain period in the Libro del Chiodo, which allowed the author to get a clear insight into the various city adversities. 

As a matter of fact, one of the most drastic accusations against enemies was precisely that of heresy, which required complete destruction of the body to impede its resurrection on the Day of Judgement, as the cited case of Farinata degli Uberti illustrates.

Thanks to its rigorous structure, the accurately documented explanations of phenomena and concepts, the narrative quality and the immediacy of expression, The Politics of Exclusion in Early Renaissance Florence by Fabrizio Ricciardelli is likely to become a title of reference in historical field, but is equally appealing to every reader interested in the Florentine past, no less than in world-wide contemporary issues. 

Factionalism and tribalization, political refugees, the violence of war and the logic of revenge make up our daily news, confirming the return of bipolar thought, according to which the other is always perceived as a potential denial of one’s own self, an enemy to be cancelled, an occupant of one’s space, a breather of one’s air, instead of being welcomed as one’s natural complement. 


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