Giovanni’s home turf, Sant’ Ambrogio, was a big, working-class parish, packed with several thousand artisans and labourers. If you wander around you’ll see very few palaces. In this respect it was typical of the outskirts of Florence, the pendici, or areas near the walls. This was where the “poor” lived, a very significant proportion of them workers in the vast Florentine textile industry. During the fifteenth century, this social geography became starker, partly due to a rising population, partly because cheap housing in the centre was being destroyed by the palace building boom.
As Giovanni points out, men like him were shut out of formal politics. This hadn’t always been the case. About a century before, in 1378, Sant’ Ambrogio had been one of the flashpoints of worker militancy during the Ciompi revolution, when wool workers seized control of the city for a couple of months.
All that had been suppressed. But while class tensions never went away, there was far less class conflict in the fifteenth century. The potenze, the “powers”, were part of the reason for this. We don’t know how many festive brigades like Giovanni’s Grand Monarchy of the Red City there were by his time, in 1490. But their numbers were growing – and over the next century and a half there were between thirty and forty of them. These potenze carved up the city into “kingdoms” or “states”. At festive moments they would go around patrician palaces and merchant workshops and demand “tribute” from their wealthy “subjects”. They were a powerful expression of lower-class male solidarity, and they offered a kind of civic representation for those who had none.
The Medici, who cultivated working-class allies in their quest for political control, were the biggest patrons of the potenze. In return these men voiced their loyalty to the first family. However they were never merely puppets of the regime. Across Europe, these carnivalesque rituals of role reversal sometimes exploded into real uprisings when the underlying social pressures were sufficiently intense. That never happened in Florence. Yet the support of the city’s worker kings was not a free lunch for the Medici – it belonged to a world of contract, of mutual obligation, both in the moment of the festa and beyond it.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
David Rosenthal, ‘Kings for a day’ published online 2013, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/1-kings-for-a-day/
Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, 3rd edn (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009).
Bill Kent, ‘“Be Rather Loved Than Feared”: Class Relations in Quattrocento Florence’, in Society and Individual in Renaissance Florence, ed. William J Connell (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 13-50
David Rosenthal, Kings of the Street: Power, Community and Ritual in Renaissance Florence (Turnhout: Brepols, 2015)