The Medici's of Florence

We are all familiar with the powerful House of Medici that ruled Florence with an iron fist for centuries and who was a powerful patron of the arts, but not everyone knows that the Medici's wealth and influence initially started from the textile trade.

When Florence started to become a hub for trade in the 12th century influential merchants and craftsmen deemed it fit to create guilds that would regulate trade, prices and quality of products but it would also serve as protection for those who belong to it, much like trade unions today. One of the seven main guilds was that of Arte della Lana (Wool Guild). At the height of the industry the Arte della Lana directly employed 30.000 workers and indirectly about a third of Florence's population, and produced 100,000 lengths of cloth annually. The Arte della Lana saw all the processes from the raw baled wool through the final cloth, woven at numerous looms scattered in domiciles throughout the city. Like other guilds, the Arte served only to coordinate the activities of its own members, who did not generally own the means of production or directly manage the processes. Its syndics ensured that quality standards were met and contracts were honored.

Many labourers came from rural areas to work in Florence, but because they could not afford to pay membership to the guilds, they enjoyed no protection at all. These workers’ underrepresentation led to their exploitation, low wages, and lack of political clout. In addition, they were expected to pay heavy taxes which they could not afford, forcing some to abandon their homes. Apart from the seven major guilds, there were many minor guilds who did not enjoy the prosperity and economic protection of the major guilds. The inequality eventually led to the minor guilds and “un-guilded” (Ciompi) labourers to revolt. In what came to be known as the Ciompi revolt the “lower” labour class took control of the government of Florence forming the Gonfaloniere of Justice. The entire revolt lasted three years,

They managed this with the help of Salvestro de Medici who was a member of the patrician class and an adversary of the noble Guelphic faction. Salvestro was drawn as Gonfaloniere in the summer of 1378 and pursued an anti-Guelph policy, reviving laws which placed restrictions on the nobility, reducing the power of the Capitani di Parte and recalling the ammoniti (those who had been admonished). These laws encountered much opposition from the nobles, which led to their being threatened and in some cases their homes burnt in the beginning of the insurrection of the Ciompi. Salvestro de Medici was a lesser known cousin of the famous House of Medici a banking family. He was blamed for causing the rebellion of the Ciompi by his peers.

On 21 July 1378, Salvestro, along with 63 other citizens, were created knights and soon afterwards, he was given the revenue of shops on the Old Bridge by the newly appointed Gonfaloniere, a privilege later removed from Salvestro by the Ciompi themselves. Salvestro was later crucial to the counter-revolution of the major and minor guilds and ruled in effect as a dictator before his exile in 1382, at which time the Guelph faction regained power and renewed the admonitions