I have been doing a course on the history of Florence during the time of Dante (1265-1321) and Boccaccio (1313-1375) and found they were surprisingly modern…or we are still incredibly medieval!! The more I learn of Florentine history the better I understand the power and beauty of this magnificent city along with its lurks and perks!
A peek behind the scenes reveals that Florence was a significant economic influence in Europe, minting the first gold florins, being bankers to the great monarchies and Popes, and creators of the modern day cheque. It was the 4th largest city of Europe after Paris, Milan and Venice with a population of around 100,000, due to the constant migration from the countryside and nearby cities. A population that had doubled in size creating new social, political and economic issues which had to be addressed. However city dwellers did not look favourably on the influx of these ‘outsiders’, a mix of noble families, ‘snobs’ seeking to consolidate their wealth and power, together with workers required for the new industries and continuing construction. In fact some of the most important buildings of Florence were begun in this period – Palazzo Vecchio, the Cathedral, Giotto’s bell tower, Bargello Museum, Palazzo Spini- Ferroni (home to Ferragamo) although many were not completed until centuries later.
With the minting of the gold florin came a complex tax system collecting 300,000 florins per year most of which (200,000!) was spent on military expenses – mercenaries, arms etc. Being a major commercial city the main Council income came from the tax on goods entering and leaving the city, like an early VAT tax, and the management for the collection of this tax was given to merchants, who stood at the doors of the city – a type of medieval outsourcing.
The second highest tax revenue came from the sale of wine to the public, with a hefty 30% tax on each glass sold! On average 1 litre of wine was consumed each day and the city had numerous taverns. Aside from the taverns many noble families with country estates sold glasses and flasks from small wine windows in the wall of their Palazzi. “This cellar remains open for sales from Nov 1 until all of April from 6am – 2pm and 5-8pm From May 1 through all of Oct from 8am -3pm and from 6-9pm. On holidays it remains open for sales until 3pm”
The salt tax was the third highest revenue and a public monopoly which continued until the 1970’s as can still be seen in the black or blue ‘T’ signs outside todays Tabacchi stores.
But when the city tried to introduce a tax on property there was a general revolt by citizens, so it was only imposed on country estates. Curious that this has been an election issue for political parties over the past 20 years and even our current Prime Minister Renzi has abolished it again on first homes!
Solicitors sanctioned all contracts, and everything was so well documented that it was common practice to declare less than the actual value, and families avoided the tax on public land by building extensions to their homes only from the first story up. So tax evasion, endless paperwork and bureaucracy are nothing new!
Women were expected to dress in a sober fashion with little or no jewellery and could be fined for boasting their newly acquired wealth by a specific officer assigned to control their attire. The list of officials was endless and the system of governors complex, who while elected were oligarchic in nature, and to avoid being bribed or corrupted remained locked inside the Palazzo Vecchio for their entire term of 2 months!
After the military expenses, the revenue was spent on “foreign officials or magistrates and their entourage” who managed the city’s affairs and were employed from outside the city to ensure their impartiality.
Each citizen was required to will a small sum of their estate to the building of the Cathedral and maintenance of the city’s walls. While maintenance of the city’s bridges, roads and public buildings appears to have been very low on the Council’s list of priorities.
700 florins were given each year in alms for the maintenance of the hospital Santa Maria Nuova which remains in operation to this day.
And 500 florins for the upkeep of the 24 lions kept in cages behind the Palazzo Vecchio. You may stroll along the street bearing witness to the fact.
Many Marzocco lions can be found around Florence as a symbol of the free Republic of Florence of this time.
As a multinational style of society Florence suffered its own Global Financial Crisis when the influential bankers like Frescobaldi, Bardi, and Peruzzi families loaned too extravagantly to the Kings of England who were unable to repay their debts and the word soon spread to creditors who came knocking on their doors. The English barons revolted thus taking the banking power away from these ‘foreigners’.
So much of this explains the snobbery of Florentines, their resilience and their cheekiness of character which I have grown to love.
How much we owe to these medieval ancestors for our current political, economic and social system….both for better and worse!