The industrial strength of Florence was based on textiles. Wool manufacturing was the engine behind the city’s medieval growth, and, despite the increasing importance of silk in the fifteenth century, it remains the city’s biggest employer. At the top of the tree are the merchants of the Wool Guild. At the bottom are labourers like our guide Giovanni, a wool-beater whose job is to prepare the raw material before it’s sent out to more specialist artisans, to be spun into thread and woven into cloth.
Each day the rhythm of work brings Giovanni, and hundreds of men like him, streaming into the city-centre workshop district from Florence’s poorer, outlying neighbourhoods. For Giovanni this is the parish of Sant’Ambrogio. Here, with his mother and sister, he rents a property from the nuns who run the parish church. He belongs to one of the district’s religious fraternities, which organise burials for the dead and charity for the living. The dense social world of the neighbourhood sustains a strong sense of both local and class identity. Giovanni is also a member of his district’s potenza or‘power’, one of the city’s strictly lower-class brigades that gather at street-corners and in taverns. During May Day festivities, the men of these potenze elect kings and mark out kingdoms; Sant’Ambrogio becomes the Grand Monarchy of the Red City and the rich become, briefly, the subjects of the poor.
The growth of lower-class associations such as religious fraternities and their festive counterparts have gone some way to defusing the class conflict that shook Florence to its core a century before Giovanni’s time, when textile workers rebelled and briefly took over the republic. Now, the government of Lorenzo de’ Medici, who is the biggest patron of the potenze, has allowed even the once radical wool-beaters to associate as a fraternity, so they can assert their collective occupational identity and organise basic social insurance.
Despite this, labourers like Giovanni remain excluded from guild and city politics, and they survive on little more than subsistence wages. Giovanni is no revolutionary, but he’s a wry and critical commentator on the civic world. As he walks you through a day in his life, you’ll hear about tavernkeepers, petty criminals, market sellers, streetcorner Madonnas, and much else besides. But as he takes you into the heart of Florence, you’ll also get his perspective on guilds, palaces, and politics. Giovanni navigates the city’s structures of power and patronage, as he must, but he’s keenly aware the game is rigged.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
David Rosenthal, ‘Introduction: Giovanni’s Florence’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/politics-and-people/introduction-giovannis-florence/
Elizabeth and Thomas V Cohen, Daily Life in Renaissance Italy (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2001)
Lauro Martines, Power and Imagination: City-States in Renaissance Italy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988)
John M Najemy, A History of Florence, 1200 – 1575 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008)
Richard C Trexler, Public Life in Renaissance Florence (New York: Academic Press, 1980)