The beginnings of Florence Cathedral. A political interpretation
By John M. Najemy
Arnolfo’s moment. Acts of an International Conference Florence, Villa I Tatti, May 26-27, 2005, edited by Friedman, David and Gardner, Julian and Haines, Margaret (Florence, 2007)
Introduction: An inquiry into the politics behind the decision to build a new Cathedral in Florence at the end of the thirteenth century might seem misdirected, for it could be objected that, as the chief architectural expression of Florence’s religious identity, the great church must have been above politics. Was it not, after all, a focal point of both civic pride and religious devotion for all Florentines? On the other hand, it has long been recognized that the massive project was approved and financed largely by Florence’s communal government and that major decisions about the Cathedral were formulated in the councils and committees of city government. From this angle, the new church was obviously enmeshed in politics. Yet, most investigations of the politics behind the building of the Cathedral, while underscoring its civic status and the role of the communal government, have not asked who wanted a new Cathedral and why, and whose interests were served, and whose damaged, by the replacement of the old church of Santa Reparata with a vastly larger one that changed the character of an entire section of the medieval city. When such questions are posed, the issues become more complex and the answers less clear.
What follows is a hypothesis about the intersection of communal politics and the beginnings of Florence’s new Cathedral at the end of the thirteenth and through the first third of the fourteenth century. True as it certainly is that the Cathedral was largely funded by the commune and built by a works committee (Opera) that was ultimately placed under the supervision of the Wool guild (the Arte della Lana), it is particularly important to recognize that the proposal for a new Cathedral emerged during the popular government of the 1290s when the commune was in the hands of the guild community – the guildsmen, merchants, shopkeepers, and notaries who did not come from elite families and who constituted the class the Florentines called the popolo. Having first established control of communal government during the so-called Primo Popolo of 1250-60, the popolo resurfaced in 1266-67 to organize seven guilds into a political federation, and again in 1282 with an expanded alliance of twelve guilds to institute the priorate of the guilds as the commune’s chief executive magistracy. Elite families dominated the priorate for the next decade, but a still larger federation of twenty-one guilds retook power in 1293 and promulgated the Ordinances of Justice, which put government in the hands of mostly non-elite representatives of this wider guild community.