Democracy in Florence, by Mary Hollingsworth

  

Democracy in Florence, by Mary Hollingsworth

Florence is justly famous for its food and wine and, above all, for the Italian Renaissance masterpieces that can be seen in the city's art galleries. Less well known is Florence's role in the chequered history of democracy.

Unlike most states in Renaissance Europe, Florence was governed by her citizens. All working men over the age of 30, not in arrears with their taxes and not bankrupt, were eligible to vote - it was not democracy as we know it but it was a significant step along the way. Michelangelo's David - the young boy who killed the mighty giant Goliath - stood outside the government building, the Palazzo Vecchio, to celebrate this proud republic's triumph over tyranny.

All this came to an abrupt end in 1530 in one of the most brutal repressions of the democratic spirit in the political history of Europe. That year Florence was beseiged by a huge army and its paymaster was Pope Clement VII, one of Florence's own sons and head of the powerful Medici family. The Medici were in exile, legally ousted by the republic after Clement VII had bankrupted the city in pursuit of his own personal ambitions. 'Florence in ashes rather than under the Medici' as one citizen wrote; the slogan 'Poor But Free' was daubed on walls across the city.

But Clement VII was determined on revenge and cynically planned the overthrow of the legally elected government in order to install his own illegitimate son as hereditary head of state. The Florentines were powerless aganst the besieging army and surrendered after a nine-month struggle. The human cost of the Pope's ambition was appalling. A third of the city's population was dead, some killed in action but most dead from starvation and disease. A terrible price to pay for the greed of one family.

The Medici by Mary Hollingsworth is out in October. Pre-order your copy now.