Florence and Its Church in the Age of Dante

Reveals the role of the church in Florence's rise to wealth and power in the fourteenth century.

Florence and Its Church in the Age of Dante

George W. Dameron

2004 | 392 pages | Cloth $79.95
History | Religion
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Institutions
Chapter 2. Vocations
Chapter 3. Economy
Chapter 4. Piety
Chapter 5. Commune

List of Abbreviations

A. Dating, Measurements, Names, and Currency
B. A Checklist of Notarial Protocols for a Study of Ecclesiastical Institutions
C. Papal Provisions and Expectatives
D. Patronage Rights in Ecclesiastical Institutions
E. Major Locations of Ecclesiastical Property, 1250-1330

Chronology of Significant Events Mentioned in Text

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

from the Introduction

On July 3, 1292, in the open-air loggia of Orsanmichele in central Florence, where grain merchants sold their grain to feed a growing population, a series of curative miracles occurred that contemporaries believed were associated with an image of the Virgin Mary. According to the fourteenth century chronicler, Giovanni Villani (1280-1348), the local population had for a while been gathering there every evening to chant lauds before the image of the Blessed Virgin, painted on a column inside the structure. As the fame of these miracles spread throughout the region, pilgrims streamed in from all over Tuscany to pray to her to heal themselves or their loved ones. According to Villani, writing a generation later, those who believed the Virgin answered their prayers soon filled the wooden loggia to capacity with wax votive images. Each object was the acknowledgment of a miracle. After entering the grain market, a growing number of pilgrims began to leave large amounts of money available for distribution to the poor.

Included at the end of a section of his chronicle devoted primarily to political and military matters, this brief story captures some essential truths about the nature of Florentine society during the lifetime of Dante. The chronicler speaks here of a spontaneous and vibrant eruption of popular piety, a special devotion to sacred places, the constant movement of people into and out of the center of the city, and the troubling presence of the poor in the midst of prosperity. There is also evident here a connection between the marvelous and the mundane, between the material process of food distribution and a fervent reverence for the miraculous power of the painted image. Above all, this episode encapsulates an important truth: the Florentine Church and the growing prosperity and power of the Commune were inextricably linked. Here—in the center of the city—economic realities and spiritual yearnings intersected. The site had previously been occupied by a church, San Michele in Orto. In 1292 it became a grain market. The city leaders had leveled it in 1249 to make room for a piazza and grain exchange, and it rapidly became the principal distribution point for the provisioning of this increasingly populated city. By 1284 a loggia existed on the site, and by 1292 the little church of San Michele in Orto had disappeared. Nevertheless, at this burgeoning food distribution center, Florentines continued to gather to sing lauds before a painted image of the Virgin, housed in a tabernacle attached to one of the pilasters of the loggia. The location remained linked to the sacred, paradoxically binding the material with the spiritual.

Issues, Intents, and Interpretations

For observers like our chronicler, Giovanni Villani, in the space of two short generations, Florence had rapidly become one of the foremost cities of Europe. Much like New York in the generation after the American Civil War, Florence after the mid-thirteenth century was a former second-tier city rapidly on the rise, bustling with a large immigrant population, new money, and extensive new construction. There was growing wealth, new citizens, expanding suburbs, and extensive new building programs: Florence was indeed a city that was surpassing its rivals—Pisa, Arezzo, Siena, and Lucca—to assume a position of economic and political prominence. By 1300 the city had 100,000 inhabitants, double the populations of Siena and Pisa, and three times the population of Lucca. Only Paris was more populated. The position of Florence as the premier commune of Tuscany was a new phenomenon in 1300, and the pace of demographic and economic growth was startling. Writing in the late 1330s, Giovanni Villani—in five famous chapters of Book Eleven of his chronicle—proudly boasted of the supremacy, power, and magnificence of the city of Florence. Indeed, as Giovanni Miccoli has noted, Villani's Florence was a city without equal, with a rapidly expanding economy and population. Not even the most astute observer in the early thirteenth century could have predicted this outcome. After all, Florence had remained a political and economic backwater for most of the thirteenth century. Prior to 1250 Pisa, Lucca, and Siena had been the principal cities of Tuscany, not Florence. Only after 1250 did the population of Florence exceed that of Pisa, and before then there are few references to its merchants. Even in terms of its political developments, Florence began developing its key institutions only after its Tuscan neighbors had already done so. Furthermore, unlike Lucca before 1300, Florence had controlled little of its immediate countryside (contado), a development that was important for later political as well as economic security.

All of this changed rapidly after the middle of the thirteenth century. In the space of fifty years—from 1250 to 1300—its banking companies surpassed in importance those of Siena (the previous banking center), and its elite commenced construction on the secular and religious buildings that still dominate the city skyline. By 1328, through a series of political reforms, the Florentines had created a more stable institutional structure than had existed in the previous decades. Following a period of tumultuous factional conflicts, the ruling elite that now governed the Commune was steadier than before. Economically, by the third decade of the fourteenth century, Florence had become a center for the manufacture of fine luxury textiles. Its industrial prominence as a center of cloth finishing and later (from the 1320s) luxury cloth production for export was unrivaled in Tuscany and in all of Italy. In terms of cultural history, the religious and intellectual environment had by 1328 inspired some of the most enduring monuments of Florentine art: the Commedia of Dante, the tower and the frescoes of Giotto, the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Palazzo della Signoria, the Bargello, and the two major friaries of Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella. Following the death of its last major regional Ghibelline rival in 1328 (Castruccio Castracane of Lucca), Florentine leaders were presiding over a regime and civic culture bent on territorial expansion.

For many in Florence at the time, however, the cost to society of this rise to supremacy was too great. As the city swelled with newcomers from the countryside who were seeking work in the large industrial enterprises, the streets seemed to teem with the poor, the homeless, and the seasonally employed. Perhaps 10% of the population was destitute in the midst of this growing prosperity. One man alone, according to Villani, gave alms to 17,000 poor, 17% of the urban population. Dante Alighieri himself wrote in the Inferno about the toll that immigration and profit-taking had taken on his native city: "Newcomers to you,
O Florence, and sudden profits, have led to pride
And excess that you already mourn!"
In this quote Dante captures one of the central paradoxes of Florentine culture-a paradox embedded in the religious environment of the city: there was pride in a prosperous Florence as a chosen city of God, but disdain for the vices of greed and arrogance that had helped transform it so rapidly into a city divided increasingly between rich and poor, insiders and outsiders.

How did this city—which in 1250 had scarcely expanded beyond the limits of the Roman walls—rapidly become by 1330 one of the most affluent, culturally dynamic, and politically powerful cities on the continent, not to mention Tuscany? Why not Pisa, Lucca, or Siena? There is no one answer to these questions. As Philip Jones has recently summarized, its "competitive superiority," its ability to dominate lesser cities militarily, its success at compelling Pisa to grant freedom of commerce into and out of its port (after 1254), and its close connections to the Roman papacy were all-important factors. Also significant were its successful pursuit of a policy of "urban colonialism" and its control of credit and capital flows that forced other communes (such as Arezzo, Volterra, and San Geminiano) into economic dependence. Perhaps the most important explanation, as P. Malanima has argued, is that two processes developed simultaneously in Florence and nowhere else in Tuscany: an advanced export-oriented textile industry and highly productive and efficient agricultural sector. Each interacted with the other synergistically to create an accelerated rate of economic growth. Domestic and international demand for Florentine cloth became robust as the Flemish cloth industry began to decline in the early decades of the fourteenth century. At the same time, urban merchants invested heavily in land. The Florentine gold coin, the florin, rapidly became the preferred currency of international trade, outstripping the popularity of the Byzantine hyperperon and the Genoese genoino. The success of the florin was an emblem of growing Florentine prosperity and influence.

Florence also possessed other distinct advantages with regards to other cities, and it benefited from their misfortunes. Florence commanded militarily more of its surrounding territory than did Genoa and Venice, providing it with needed supplies of raw materials and labor. Florentine merchants were apparently more prudent in their investments than were their Lucchese and Sienese counterparts, as they tended to counterbalance their riskier ventures with substantial expenditures in land. Lucca was the first commune in Italy to see its economic influence (in silk) extend beyond Tuscany, but the gradual emigration of its silk workers, the intense factional fighting that led to the exile of many of its wealthiest citizens, and the sacking of the city in 1314 all contributed to its economic decline. In addition, the disappearance of significant military threats stemming from Pisa (after its defeat by Genoa at the battle of Meloria in 1284) and from Lucca (after the death of Castruccio Castracane in 1328) left Florence with no significant military rival. For all practical purposes, by the 1330s Pistoia had become an economic and political satellite of its more populated neighbor. While benefiting from its economic and political advantages, Florentines skillfully and artfully developed alliances with powerful partners after the middle of the thirteenth century: the Angevin kingdom in Naples, the papacy, and other Guelf communes. Determined to control the principal Tuscan mountain passes and ports, Florence embarked from the middle of the fourteenth century on a policy of outright direct political and military domination. Most of its Tuscan neighbors succumbed: Prato (1350), Pistoia (1351), Volterra (1361), Arezzo (1384), Pisa (1406), Cortona (1411), and Livorno (1421). Only Lucca and Siena remained independent of direct Florentine control into the modern era (until 1847 and 1557, respectively), but their economic and political capabilities were mere shadows of what they had been in the thirteenth century.

It is not the intent of this book to establish and describe in a comprehensive fashion the uniqueness of Florence, nor is it to account fully for its unprecedented success. Those goals are beyond its scope. Rather, the principal purpose of this study is to address the following question: what part did the Florentine Church, that complex set of ecclesiastical personnel and institutions that saw itself as an instrument of God's will on earth, play in this rapid and stunning transformation? Robert Davidsohn, whose work on medieval Florence remains unparalleled in scope and comprehensiveness, argued that overall, the role of the Church in Dante's Florence was divisive, corrupting, obstructionist, and negative. In many ways, he echoed the critical sentiments of Jacob Burckhardt about the church a generation before. We are now in a position to reassess those judgments. In the past three decades, historians of the Florentine Church have been extremely productive, and we have learned a great deal about this complex dimension of Florentine history. Almost all aspects of church life—confraternities, saints' cults, the principal collegiate churches, the bishopric, the visual arts, women's religious communities, the friars, the cathedral, the cathedral chapter—have been studied and examined in detail. Nevertheless, there currently exists no recent study that assesses how ecclesiastical institutions, communities, and culture contributed to the dramatic transformation of the commune during the lifetime of Dante. Indeed, principal surveys of Florentine history during this period say surprisingly little about the Church at all.

This book argues that between 1250 and 1330 ecclesiastical institutions, personnel, and traditions promoted and facilitated the rapid ascent of Florence to a position of continental prominence and influence. At the same time, ecclesiastical communities offered social and economic support to many of those who had been adversely affected by that transformation or excluded from the prosperity associated with it. Overall, the Church played a constructive role institutionally, economically, culturally, and politically in the process by which Florence became the dominant commune in Tuscany. It was complicit and deeply involved in this transition, not resistant or peripheral to it. Between 1250 and 1330 ecclesiastical communities provided the leadership, effective governance, and stability in both city and countryside that helped create the kinds of social conditions that made the rise of Florence to supremacy possible. They provided settings in which a composite but divided ruling class could emerge. Economically, they significantly contributed to and benefited from the development of the region, and their roles were especially valuable in the areas of food production, charity, shelter for the poor and the marginal, fiscal affairs, and urban development. As such, they helped make possible the two major economic changes that set Florence apart from other Tuscan communes: industrialization and the development of a an efficient and productive agricultural sector. At the same time, many ecclesiastical institutions and personnel in both city and countryside sought to mitigate the social and economic costs of these changes by providing those adversely affected by these changes with shelter, charity, credit, favorable terms on leases, and effective dispute mediation. In the countryside, members of the secular clergy acted to soften some of the most deleterious effects of expanding urban and papal control over their communities by providing credit and reasonable terms on leases to their parishioners. By the 1320s, the secular clergy was acting as a collective body to protect itself and its parishioners from the burdens of excessive taxation, made necessary by the military and security needs of the Commune.

Florentine ecclesiastical communities and cultural traditions were also meeting the complex pastoral and sacramental needs of a spiritually troubled Florentine population, made uncomfortable by the material consequences of sudden wealth. Central to the spiritual traditions of medieval Florentines was the idea of Purgatory, a concept that paradoxically helped legitimize and promote the triumphant economic development of the Commune. Like their counterparts in Provence, those benefiting the most from an expanding economy found that their testamentary legacies for post-mortem masses, the recitation of the Divine Office, and charitable giving—all intended to lessen time spent in Purgatory-offered them and their families hope for ultimate salvation in a world that was dominated by usury and money-making. Purgatory gave them permission—if not actually an incentive—to create wealth without the certainty of inescapable damnation. Consequently, as the economy expanded, Purgatory became more popular among the prosperous. As the concept became more diffused after 1250, it helped render money-making in Florence possible if not necessary, thereby helping to fuel the economic expansion of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. Making money could imperil one's soul, but monetary legacies channeled into masses, prayers, and good works could also hasten one's journey into paradise. The idea of Purgatory had another function as well: it encouraged if not required care and concern on the part of the wealthy for those who had been adversely affected by the transformation of Florence into an industrial society. Nowhere in Europe (except for Flanders) did the acquisition of wealth seem more rapid or its consequences so noticeable than at Florence in the first decade of the fourteenth century. It should not surprise us, therefore, that the principal theoretician of Purgatory was a Florentine, Dante Alighieri.

Other characteristics of Florentine spiritual and cultural traditions, particularly with regards to the special devotion of women for religious images, helped shape Florentine artistic traditions in important ways during one of the most creative phases in its cultural history. Charitable giving and the peace-making activities of members of ecclesiastical communities in both rural and urban environments did much to preserve social order during this period of tumultuous economic, social, political, and demographic change, especially during periods of war and dearth. Indeed, because urban legal and jurisdictional power came much later to the Florentine countryside than it had at Pisa and Lucca, during this period of rapid transition members of the secular clergy were integral to the resolution of local disputes in the contado, the governance of local communities, and the maintenance of social peace and order. Finally, ecclesiastical communities and traditions contributed ideologically, economically, and politically to the formation of a territorial dominium and to the legitimization of the Guelf Commune. They promoted the ideal of "rebirth" or "revival" of the Commune, a transformation that Lucio Riccetti has identified with the theme of "renewal" (rinnovamento). All in all, the picture of the Church that emerges from this study is a very complicated one. It was not a single monolithic organization, but a set of ecclesiastical communities and traditions divided by ideas, wealth, gender, geography, and location within the institutional hierarchy. The contributions of the Florentine Church certainly do not alone account for the remarkable changes occurring in Florence during the lifetime of Dante, but we cannot fully account for these developments without reference to them.

The time span chosen for this study is appropriate for several reasons. The decades between 1250 and 1330 define the distinctive period of two generations during which Florence emerged out of the company of second-rank Tuscan communes (mid-thirteenth century) to become a continental power (the fourth decade of the fourteenth). Economically, by 1330 the period of greatest prosperity for the Florentine Church (specifically, the secular clergy) was coming to an end. Politically, these two generations also cover the period between the rise of the popolo in the middle of the thirteenth century and the consolidation of the Guelf guild-dominated regime following the death of Charles of Calabria (d. 1328). New magistracies developed in the course of these eighty years to provide stability and to establish a regional territorial state, the lineaments of which had become apparent by 1330. Culturally and intellectually, the two generations between 1250 and 1330 were also amongst the most productive and creative in Florentine (and European) history. They spanned both the lifetimes of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and Giotto Bondone (1266-1326), and they constituted the decades in which the most recognizable monuments in medieval Florence began to take shape (the Palazzo dei Priori, Santa Maria del Fiore, and the friaries of the Dominicans and Franciscans).

The title of this book has two levels of meaning. On one hand, it refers to the rise of the Florentine Church to a status of continental prominence and influence. On the other, it refers to the elevation of Florence to become one of the most influential cities in Europe. The principal theme of the book is that these two transformations are connected in complex and complementary ways. The aim here is not to provide a complete and comprehensive synthesis of Florentine ecclesiastical history. That task, in and of itself, would require many volumes, as virtually every aspect of Florentine ecclesiastical history has become a field in itself. Rather, the goal is to account for the role of the Church in the transformation of Florence during the lifetime of Dante. Although there is still much research that remains to be done in the field of Florentine church history, this is the first study since the publication of Robert Davidsohn's work over a century ago to offer a general overview. To situate the role of the Church in its institutional, economic, social, and cultural contexts, it will draw on original research as well as on the pioneering work of other historians in the field. The original research for this book focuses primarily on the secular clergy (the bishopric, the cathedral chapter, the rural and urban parish clergy), the economic history of other major institutions, selected rural and urban parishes, testamentary legacies, and, to a lesser extent, selected regular and mendicant communities and confraternities. To make its case, the book will supplement this original research with published scholarship on female religious communities, saints' cults, the collegiate church of San Lorenzo, the role of ritual in Florentine social life, the history of piety, and confraternities. It will explain how ecclesiastical institutions and communities in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century diocese of Florence actually worked and operated on the local level. In itself, this is an important and necessary contribution to the ecclesiastical history of medieval Italy in particular and of medieval Europe in general.

There are five important implications of this study for medieval ecclesiastical history. First, it situates church history at the center of the stunning developments regarding the transformation of Florence at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the fourteenth centuries. The tendency to offer a sweeping judgment of the Church as an obstructionist, negative, corrupting, or even peripheral force in Florentine society after 1250 needs to be rejected. Davidsohn tended to celebrate the emergence of bourgeois civility in Florence during the age of Dante, in comparison with which the Church represented a corrupted, resistant, and backward-looking community. Some recent scholars have tended to continue to emphasize the negative. They have emphasized the presence of conflict between the laity and the church hierarchy, ignored the Church altogether, or condemned it for being complicit in the emergence in the fourteenth century of a system of industrial exploitation and oppression. In these scenarios, the Church (or aspects of it, such as the "hierarchy") appears as if it were monolithic or centrally controlled. It was not. Whereas some institutions and clergy did indeed collaborate with other members of the elite to worsen the social conditions for many Florentines at this time, others responded to these rapid changes in Florence by coming to the aid of the victims. This brings us to the second major implication of this study. We cannot treat the Church as if it were a single entity that spoke with one voice; it was a living, diverse, and often unruly set of communities that was as divided as the society of which it was a part.

Third, the conclusions of this book call into question some of the traditional notions regarding the secular clergy in modern historiography, views that have tended to be critical and negative. Scholars have long disapproved of the behavior of the secular clergy, arguing that it helps to explain the success of the friars (the mendicant clergy). Not only did the friars fulfill the religious needs of the urban laity in ways that traditional monastic spirituality was unable to provide, according to this view, but they also offered a stark contrast to the alleged careerism, materialism, and corruption of many members of the secular clergy. Such success however did not come without conflict, which played itself out in cities scattered across the continent. Recently, some historians have begun to take another look at the mendicant/secular relationship. Though there is ample evidence throughout Europe that there existed strife between the secular and mendicant clergies, it is also becoming increasingly apparent that historians can exaggerate the extent of these clashes, understate the failures of the seculars, and overstate the contributions of the friars. Such has been the case regarding Florence, as this study will argue. In terms of solidarity with the community, members of the secular clergy, especially the parish clergy, were noteworthy. One of the major reasons why the image of the secular clergy has been so negative is that historians have tended to neglect research on the countryside in favor of an emphasis on the city, where mendicant loyalties were strongest before the early fourteenth century. When the countryside (where the seculars prevailed) is studied alongside the city, a more balanced picture emerges, and the secular clergy appears in a more favorable light.