The Ciompi Rebellion

In Florence, Italy, a revolt took place in 1378 and lasting until 1382. The unrepresented laborers, mainly in the textile or clothing manufacturing and merchant businesses, which became the backbone of the burgeoning Florentine economy. Italy is home to some of the most important landmarks in the historical narrative, and some of the finest works of art and culture were brought forth due to the wealth, in part, of the Florentine rulers during the Renaissance. The un-guilded workers did not have a role in the government, and were being burdened more and more by taxation. The resulting insurrection over such tensions led to the creation of a government composed of wool workers, which lasted for three and a half years. The violence which erupted was caused by the centerpiece which was the formation of the ‘Signoria’—a civic institution forming by the city’s fourteen minor guilds which demanded greater representation from the elites. When the Signoria quadrupled it’s cost for attendance to the system a revolt was sparked: the Ciompi lower class took up arms and took over the city’s government. Salvestro de’ Medici was a figure representing the middle and upper classes…

Although the Ciompi Revolt was brief, it left an impact on future generations. The three and a half year revolt not only affected Florentine society throughout the 15th century, but was a flashpoint in Florentine history, which continued to intrigue historians. Interpretations of the events evolved across the centuries.

The Arti Minori, or minor guilds, were constantly in contention with the Arti Maggiori, or the seven major guilds. Between the years of 1339 to 1349, wealthy houses went bankrupt and markets were reduced. The economy never peaked nor declined sharply again, aside from minor political and military disputes familiar to Florence. Economic grievances had drawn artisans and wage-labourers into Florentine politics from the mid-fourteenth century. These workers, however, were forbidden from associating by city government. The oligarchy was unstable, as many either died from the plague, or fled to safer territories.

From these turbulent times emerged the gente nuova (‘new men’) a class of mainly immigrants with no aristocratic background who grew their wealth from trade.

Together, the gente nuova and Arti Minori bonded over their dislike of the oligarchy. Each side sought to gain control over the other, as the oligarchy used justifications to their patriciate status, while the gente nuova appealed to the middle and lower classes for support.

In addition, war broke out against the papacy in the same year, increasing the costly burdens on the city. Forced loans, high taxes and an even higher incidence of indebtedness kept the ciompi impoverished. In 1355, the miserabiles, defined as having no property, whose possessions were worth less than 100 lire and had no trade or profession, accounted for 22% of households in Florence.

In becoming the ciompi, the word must have originated from the French, as the popolo minuto would hear them in the taverns say, “Compar, allois a boier” or “Comrade, let’s get a drink,” and the Florentine labourers would pronounce this as ‘ciompo’, and then finally, ‘ciompi’. Thus, the term does not solely refer to wool makers. Records of condemned ciompi rebels show that tavern owners were also found to be part of the revolt.

In Florence in 1371, unequal taxation was the norm; in particular, the highlanders paid three times more in taxes than plain dwellers.

Adding to the need for more military forces was the increased crime and attacks directed at merchants and at pilgrims passing through Florence that developed after the Black Death.

To pay these militias, however, Florence was getting deeper in debt, and the oligarchy burdened those living in the countryside with increasing taxation.

As taxes kept on increasing, the highlanders chose to flee, worsening a labour shortage, already present after the Black Death.

The 21 guilds, however, did not include the whole of Florence’s working population and many people were excluded from the system, thus limiting their protection from exploitation and ability to be involved in city politics. Few of those in the textile industry, including the Ciompi wool workers, were eligible for guild membership, with around only 200 of the approximately 14,000 people in wool manufacture qualifying, and the remainder named the Sotto posti who were designated ineligible for entry to the guild system or for creating a guild for their own benefit. The exclusion of the Ciompi from this system reinforced unequal power relations within the city, reducing the rights and protections available for these workers unlike those assigned to members in other guilds. It was a highly unequal society allowing Florence’s wool trade to thrive and set the stage for the revolt.

The Ciompi resented the controlling power that was centred in the Arte della Lana—the textile-manufacturing establishment which guided the economic engine of Florence’s prosperity—and was supported by the other major guilds as well as the limitations they faced in influencing politics, and the lower wages and exploitation they experienced as a result of their exclusion from the guild system. The consequent revolt of 1378 marked the high point of labour agitation in Florence.

Salvestro de Medici was one of the individuals assigned the blame by many in the lower classes, and later also faced accusation from his peers for letting the situation with the Ciompi get out of hand.

On 22 June 1378, the first outbreak of violence occurred when the un-guilded wool-workers took up arms and attacked government buildings, monasteries and a number of Palazzi whilst also releasing inmates from city prisons. Nevertheless, it was yet to become a full blown revolt. The Signoria attempted to appease the lower classes through talks and petitions, although ultimately suggested little change and still left the Ciompi guildless and without power or representation in government. The procrastination of the Signoria and half measures adopted therefore is perhaps what contributed to the second phase of the revolt.

On July 21, the lower classes forcibly took over the government, and showing their banner, the blacksmith’s flag, at the Bargello palace. On this day, thousands of armed wool workers (the Ciompi) and those from the Sotto posti, besieged the Signoria and pointedly hanged the public executioner by his feet in front of the Palazzo Vecchio.

… the Ciompi requests were not especially radical: they were simply demanding the same rights as the other minor guilds currently had. Most of the Ciompi acted for reform rather than radical or revolutionary innovation.

After the incorporation of these new guilds, almost every man in Florence was able to participate in city government.

Considering how the Ciompi had seized power, their demands both politically and socially, were modest. Their main concerns included the formation of a guild for wool workers and they also wished to tackle unemployment by increasing wool production. The Ciompi in fact did not demand ownership of cloth production or the cloth factories and their ideals were still based around the traditional guild idea, wishing to protect their economic interests and the situation of their workers.

An analysis of those within the newly appointed Balia suggests that only half were actually Ciompi, the rest being of middle class and other professions. The clash of interests and resulting struggle and sense of betrayal experienced by the Ciompi when their leader Michele di Lando turned against them ignoring their demands, led to the third stage of the revolt.

At the end of August 1378, factionalism among the Ciompi and the radical persecution of enemies of the revolution, led di Lando to arrest two Ciompi leaders who had demanded constitutional reform. The next day, di Lando rode out of the palace with the standard bearer of justice and cleared the piazza of a militia from the three new guilds who were shouting “Long live the popolo minuto” and demanding the resignation of di Lando’s government. The workers’ militia returned and a battle for the Piazza della Signoria broke out between the Ciompi and the forces of the major and minor guilds led by the guild of butchers.

The Ciompi and Sotto posti were slaughtered that day by the other guilds alongside the reformist forces under previous Ciompi leader di Lando, who also acted to crush the Eight Saints who were attempting to challenge his power in government. This day has been named one of the bloodiest in Florentine history.

On September 1, citizens assembled in the piazza and approved the dissolution of the Ciompi guild. Nevertheless, the government continued to enact Ciompi-led reforms, such as the establishment of the estimo—a direct tax on household wealth on October 29, 1378.

Overall, the Ciompi revolt consisted of complex social, economic and political factors, as well as the involvement of more than one group of workers such as the Ciompi. The hierarchical guild system played an important part in the conflict, as did guild members who were key in turning on the government and ending its short reign over the city. Although often portrayed as radical today, the demands and wishes of the wool workers and others involved were fairly modest and reform did not take the shape of a societal overhaul.

There is very little recorded history about who Michele di Lando was before the Ciompi Revolt, because men of the lower working class did not leave behind major documents. What is known is that he was a woolcomber, his mother was a washerwoman, and his wife ran a pork butcher’s shop. Within his industry, di Lando was the foreman of all the menial workers and made enough money to show up in tax records as paying small sums. He was also a caporale during the war of Papal States, he shared command over twenty-eight men with another caporale (It is not known if he saw active service at that time, but the fact that he was trained in command and with arms, he was likely less docile than simple workers in his industry).

His ascension to the position of Signore and Gonfaloniere was literally a story about a man who went from rags to riches. He walked into the Palace barefooted and took control at the people’s request. This scene inspired awe even in the eyes of some of the Signory (despite their compromised position). Alamanno Acciaioli was quoted saying, “… He [di Lando] was given the Signory and they [the people] wished him to be Standard-Bearer of Justice and lord (signore)… this Michele di Lando, wool comber, was lord of Florence for twenty-eight hours and more. This is the result of quarrelsomeness and innovation! O dear Lord, what great miracles you show us!…” Upon Michele di Lando’s ascension to power, the “Eight of War” (who thought themselves as effective rulers of Florence) wanted to appoint replacements for the Signory. Di Lando dismissed them, wanting to show that he could govern without their assistance, and chose the electoral candidates himself.

Once he secured his power, di Lando’s government allied with the Popolo di Firenze, infuriating radical members of the Popolo Minuto (who elected their “Eight Saints” to oppose di Lando). After the final clash with the radicals, the Signory retook office at the end of Michele di Lando’s term. This regime did not last long, it was overthrown again in 1382 and di Lando was sent into exile as a collaborator with the Signory.

The Ciompi Rebellion was not particularly long, lasting only for three and a half years (1378–1382). Yet, it not only reflected the long existed social issue of late 14th century Florence, but also constituted a long lasting impact on many generations to come. It greatly influenced Florentine society in the 15th century, and became a memorable moment of Florentine history, which historians of later centuries all showed great interest in, but interpreted the same event in a variety of different ways.

After the Ciompi Uprising, the restored Florentine government did attempt to alleviate the plight of Ciompi artisans, such as a reform to lessen the burden of taxation. Yet, the rebellion left a permanent scar in the Florentine elites’ mind (both the new and the old nobility) and created their everlasting fear and hatred toward the Ciompi. This scar built a tension between the new nobility and the lower labouring class greater than that prior to the uprising, as the elites constantly feared the rabble’s secret plots. The elites thus began to favour a more authoritative government, which may be more centralized and stronger in crushing a revolt. This eventually gave rise to the Medici family, the most powerful banking family of Florence.

In the 15th century, it would not be surprising for Florentine scholars, who were part of the elite, to view the uprising negatively. It was regarded as a mob out of control, whose members viciously looted and murdered the innocent. He viewed this event as a historical cautionary tale, which presented the horrendous consequence when rabbles managed to seize control from the ruling class.

In the 19th century, however, historians began to show sympathy to the Ciompi. Romantic historians had a tendency to interpret history as an epic tale between the evil and good, and this applied to the Ciompi Rebellion. Romantic historians regarded Michele di Lando, the leader of the rebellion, as a hero to the people who fought against their ruthless oppressors.

Recent histories treat the conflict as a lens reflecting the issues of Florentine society in the late 14th century, and also as a catalyst for Florence’s period politics. Moreover, to them, the rebellion is a lens that reflects history as an ever changing entity, as historians living in different times have different “presents”, and one’s present dictates how one views the past.

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