Ercole is a veteran of a system of policing with medieval roots, which was transformed to meet the needs of the princely governments that emerged across Italy in the late-fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. That system of policing was based on punishment more than prevention, and the birri were, as Ercole says, the strong right arm of the law, essentially thief-takers in the employ of governments or even elite families. One historian of the period has described them as “folk of little faith or character, one step removed from the criminals they captured.” These men were frequently recruited from the underdeveloped rural areas of the Romagna, unbeholden to local factions and more loyal to their governmental employers.
Ercole himself works for Duke Cosimo I, who solidified the Medici regime in Florence after his cousin Alessandro was murdered in 1537. Cosimo I was a master of bureaucratic rule, and transformed Florence’s judiciary into a tool of political power. As Ercole says, that process was messy – many people were not happy to see the republic come to a definite end. Bringing the law, and its enforcement, directly under the control of the Medici regime was an early priority for Cosimo. The local police became the visible agents of Medici authority and the physical enforcers of its rule.
The court that Ercole works for, the Otto della Guardia, predates the Medici duchy but became an extension of its authority, as well as a means for the Medici to channel elite privilege and ambition into useful action. The Eight were local elites drawn from families who supported the Medici in exchange for such positions of authority. They served rotating four-month terms, to prevent them gathering too much personal power. In reality, they used those terms to profit as much as possible and to lay the groundwork for further service in other state offices. Across Italy courts like the Otto worked in the sixteenth century to consolidate the strength of princely regimes. The Florentine court shows how these institutions worked to bind both ordinary people and elites to the regime –through punishment and participation in the new politics of the day.
When Ercole begins his story in 1566, Cosimo was getting old, at the height of his power and three years from being named Grand Duke of Tuscany by Pope Pius V. As Ercole tells us, he brought order to the city, but that order came at the cost of freedom for many of the elite families who squabbled for local power in the Republican and Communal years. The sbirri were the enforcers of that order, and they enforced it violently and capriciously, earning themselves a deeply negative reputation. Harassment of foreigners, shakedowns of prostitutes and gamblers, and police brutality were common complaints made against them. Ercole himself has aged out of those tactics, as he must be in his fifties, and, having seen it all, knows when a firm word will go further than a clava – a club – in bringing about compliance.
Like everything in Renaissance Florence, justice had its places. Ercole takes us through the spaces of crime, punishment and order to show how the law was deeply embedded in the physical city, and how parts of the city developed as stages for the rituals of justice that showed the strength and legitimacy of the regime.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
Colin Rose, ‘Politics and police’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/ercole-crime-and-punishment/ercole_intro/
John K. Brackett, Criminal Justice and Crime in Late Renaissance Florence, 1537-1609. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Hughes, Steven. “Fear and Loathing in Bologna and Rome the Papal Police in Perspective.” Journal of Social History 21, no. 1 (October 1, 1987): 97–116.
Stern, Laura Ikins. “Politics and Law in Renaissance Florence and Venice.” The American Journal of Legal History 46, no. 2 (2004): 209–34. https://doi.org/10.2307/3692441.