- Dec 28, 2013
Chapter 5: Turbulent Days, 1454-1456
The period after the Tuscan Wars saw Florence expand its influence and Cosimo de’ Medici increase the power of the Gonfaloniere and also of his own family. However, the following years would be more turbulent for the Republic of Florence as events both within and without combined to remind its leaders that they must always be ready for anything. That is not to say that everything was bad. The latter half of the 1450s saw major advances for the city continue as well.
The Gonfaloniere faced a difficult choice in 1455 that would force him to decide between his family and the wellbeing of the republic.
Cosimo’s oldest son, Piero “the Gouty”, was both the president of the Medici Bank and the Master of Mint for Florence. This setup, established by Cosimo in order to both put someone he could trust in charge of the state’s gold as well as to put his son in a position of power and influence, created a situation ripe for corruption and abuse. In the winter of 1454 rumors began to circle that Piero de’ Medici and several of his associates were involved in scandalous and criminal activity at the bank and the mint.
Piero de’ Medici, nicknamed “the Gouty” due to his ill health, was the president of the Medici Bank and Master of Finance for the Republic of Florence
Piero and a group of his friends, some of whom were also officers of the Medici Bank, had been using the Florentine mints to produce coins which they or the financial institutions they ran then pocketed. The list of offenses that would be brought to trial was a long one. When the longtime Medici rival, the Spadolini family, learned of the allegations, they spread the word to all of Florence. They organized a coalition of anti-Medici noble families to ensure that charges would be brought against Piero and his associates. They also tried to implicate Giovanni de’ Medici, Cosimo’s youngest son, as part of the scheme but these claims turned out to be baseless. Giovanni while close with his brother, was not much for business or politics and spent most of his time chasing women, hunting, and being drunk.
Cosimo was shocked by the allegations. He felt betrayed by Piero. He had done everything to set him up for success and instead of being responsible, his son had exploited the situation to turn a profit. He was prepared to have Peiro fired as both Master of Mints and president of the Medici Bank. However, the attacks from the Spadolini and other rival families against the Medici, especially the implication of Giovanni, changed his mind. He resolved to defend his son and do everything in his power to have his name cleared.
Through the spring and summer of 1455, the various parties maneuvered to make the case turn out favorably for them. Trials of “high public men”, the description for high office holders within the government, were presided over by a three judge panel. One judge was selected by the Gonfaloniere, in this case Cosimo himself, one by the Assembly, the group of nobles, merchants, and military leaders who formed a de facto legislature for Florence, and one was elected by the “people” of Florence (however, only those who owned property or were in a guild were eligible to vote; members of the Assembly could not also vote as part of “the people”). Cosimo selected Pierluigi D’Agoberti, an old friend and business partner with little legal experience but a strong sense of loyalty to the Medici. He was also Piero’s godfather.
The stickier situation would develop from the selection of the other two judges. The situation in the Assembly was complicated. It had just over 400 members. Most of them were supporters of Cosimo and a great deal of them had benefitted greatly under his rule. The opposition faction, led by Carlo Spadolini and Iacopo Neri, was small and not very well organized. However, they were dedicated to seeing the Medici stopped. Spadolini, Neri, and several of their allies gave speeches in the Assembly that praised Cosimo’s rule but argued that Piero was a criminal and that if he succeeded his father as Gonfaloniere the republic itself would be threatened. They also produced letters from Piero to several of his partners in crime describing how he would certainly succeed his father as Gonfaloniere and ensure that they were given privileged positions. The opposition had a certain moral high ground as well. The candidate for judge proposed by the pro-Cosimo side was another Medici associate, Rodrigo Casalini, with almost no legal experience. On the other hand, the anti-Cosimo side nominated Giuseppe Profondavalle, one of the most celebrated and respected judges in Florence.
Many of Cosimo’s allies were not thrilled about voting for the widely disliked Casalini but did not want to cross Cosimo. However, in the end, the cajoling and persuasion by the anti-Cosimo side worked. After all, the succession of a son to the position of Gonfaloniere did threaten the freedom of the republic.
The elections for the third judge were held on 1 September. The law allowing citizens to vote for judges in cases involving the state or government officials, dated back to the Ciompi Revolt in 1378. Electing judges had been one of the main demands of the rebels and, while the nobles were unwilling to consider it for private criminal cases where they feared the wrath of the population turned against them, they were willing to offer a mild compromise in public cases.
The man chosen as the third judge was Amerigo Cantacenere, a young lawyer who had won acclaim representing merchants and artisans in suits against noblemen. The vote was widely believed to have been a rebuke against the Spadolini-led opposition, made up mostly of noblemen, but Cantaceneri would turn out to vote strictly on the evidence presented.
The trial of Piero de’ Medici and his associates was a sensational event in Florence
The trial of Piero de’ Medici began on 21 September 1455. He faced three charges of theft, two of bribery, and two high treason against the republic. It was a rowdy, raucous affair, with the crowd overflowing out onto the street. Spectators inside the courtroom would shout to those outside to keep them current on the proceedings. Piero, who claimed to be suffering another attack of gout, was brought in on a stretcher. The opposition claimed that it was an act to garner sympathy. At first, the crowd appeared loyal to Piero and his six co-defendants. However, as the evidence and testimony against them began to mount, the tide started to turn. Additionally, Piero and his friends did not acquit themselves with the most grace throughout the trial. At several points, the defendants attempted to shout down and insult the main prosecutor, Luigi Girolamo, who was from the countryside and not of noble stock. On another occasion, a riot nearly started when a number of peasant girls were brought into the court to testify that several of the defendants, though not Piero, had “seduced them and tricked them into committing sinful acts,” in the words of Girolamo. As the women finished their testimony, the defendants called them harlots. This sent the crowd into a frenzy and only the arrival of an army regiment managed to restore order.
On 6 October the case concluded and the three judges retired to make their decision. Two days later, they reconvened the court. By a 2 to 1 margin, Profondavalle and Cantaceneri voting for conviction and D’Agoberti voting for acquital, Piero de’ Medici and his co-defendants were found guilty on five counts for theft and bribery. However, all three judges voted for acquittal on the charges of high treason. The defendants were sentenced to public flogging and 5 years in prison. Due to Piero’s ill health, his sentence was changed to five years of house arrest in addition to an oath which promised he would never again hold a political office in the Republic of Florence. The crowd, which had started out supporting the defendants, cheered wildly and carried Luigi Girolamo out of the courtroom on their shoulders.
When Cosimo heard the news he was devastated. He had purposely stayed aloof from the proceedings but emotionally he was pulling for his son’s acquittal. He still had the option of pardoning him and he strongly considered it. However, his closest advisors implored the Gonfaloniere to not pardon his son and the other defendants. They argued that such a move would outrage the people, tarnish his legacy, and potentially lead to a revolt. This time, Cosimo followed their advice. He gave a speech to the assembly on 13 October declaring his support for the verdict and told Piero to announce his withdrawal from public life. The most sensational trial in the history of Florence to that point was over. Cosimo turned his focus back to ruling the republic.
Four months later, in February of 1456, another crisis hit the republic. A coalition of noble families in the province of Lucca had risen up and were demanding independence for their city. Led by their old Doge, Matteo Gattilusio, they had an army of about 10,000 men. However, they were either poorly trained new recruits or veterans of the old army of Lucca, who were now too old for real fighting. The conspirators also did not act quickly enough to seize the city itself of Lucca itself or its newly built fort. As a result, the city garrison was able to hold onto it, forcing the rebel army to fight the Florentine out in the open.
The Lucchese Revolt of 1456 presented the first real challenge to Florentine authority in its newly acquired provinces
The ensuing Battle of Lucca on 23 February was surprisingly bloody and the Lucchesi fought better than expected. The two sides lost nearly 8,000 men between them. When Grand Captain Pietro Leopoldo del Rosso and his men finally broke the Lucchese line and forced their surrender, the Florentine military leader was willing to grant lenient terms out of respect for their bravery and resolve. He immediately pardoned any of the rank and file men so long as they swore an oath of loyalty to Florence and disavowed any future efforts at violent insurrection. As for the leaders of the revolt, del Rosso told them that he would be forced to bring them to Florence for trial but would plead for lenient sentences against them. In the trial that followed, all of the leaders of the insurrection were found guilty but, at the insistence of Grand Captain del Rosso, were spared execution. They were stripped of their lands and titles and forced to swear an oath of loyalty.
The period of 1454-1456 also saw a sharp increase in tension with the Papal State. On 18 October 1454, Rome annexed Urbino, thereby increasing its power in central Italy and the Pope’s direct control. Then, on 6 February of 1455, agents of the Pope were discovered in Florence laying the groundwork for false claims on Florentine provinces and attempting to rally rival nobles against the Medici. Even the appointment of the Archbishop of Florence, Ludovico Trevisano, to the curia was met with only mild approval. Cosimo de’ Medici saw this as an effort by Pope Clemens VIII to gain more influence over the republic by co-opting a cleric who had, for the most part, opposed Papal involvement in worldly politics. However, as Florence and Rome stared off at each other across their long mutual border, it remained unclear if either side was willing to risk open war.
Archbishop Ludovico Trevisano of Florence was made cardinal in January of 1456
Despite the difficulty of the previous three years, the people of Florence still loved Cosimo de’ Medici. His projects for the improvements of the capital still continued and, for the most part, the people were doing well. On 11 November 1456, he was re-elected for yet another term as Gonfaloniere of the Republic of Florence. Following his electoral victory, Cosimo de’ Medici sought to put the troubles of his previous term behind him and looked eagerly toward the future.