History of Florence

History of Florence



The history of Florence begins with the establishing of the Roman Florenzia colony in the mid-1st century BC. However, Florence itself is even older than this. Several centuries before the arrival of the Romans to Florence, the Etruscans, a people originating from central Italy, established themselves in the hills where Fiesole stands today. At the time, the Arno Valley was a big swamp, completely inaccessible to anyone.
In 218 BC, Hannibal attacked Italy, crossing the valley along with his army. His soldiers were annihilated by sickness, while Hannibal himself lost an eye in the process. Meanwhile, not a single Roman soldier attacked him in the dangerous swamp.

The history of Florence starts in the year 63 BC. During a civil war, an ambitious nobleman by the name of Katilina, attempted to gain power. However, his army was defeated near the town of Pistoia. Fiesole, a city which fought of Katilina’s side, was destroyed, and its inhabitants deported from the hills to the valley where the Romans created a fortified village, Florenzia. The village got its name from its creator, a Roman centurion by the name of Fiorinus. The name Florenzia is of Latin origin, meaning “the city of flowers” or “blooming city”. The new village, situated in the fertile valley (the Romans had dried the swamp out) grew quickly and prospered in the centuries to come, up until the invasion of Barbarians, when Florenzia survived the assault and the fall of the Empire. It was only after 1000 CE that Florenzia completely recovered from the blow it experienced at the beginning of the medieval era.

In the late medieval era, Florence regained its economic importance and its administrative autonomy. In 1115, it became a consular municipality, one of the largest “municipalities” (free cities or states), choosing its own institutional and state leaders, but still vowing obedience to the Pope and the Holy Roman Empire.

In the 13th century, a large clash between the Papacy (Guelfs) and the partisans (Ghibellines) shook the Empire. For years, Florence was engulfed by civil wars. After the ultimate defeat of the Ghibellines, families who supported their cause were exiled (the demolition of the Ghibelline Palace was followed by the construction of the new city hall and square, known today as the Piazza della Signoria, in its place). Soon after, however, the Guelfs divided into two separate factions and started clashing with one another. Florence was characteristic for its economic prosperity, as well as its many enemies, but the city gained many friends as well, the most loyal among them being from Arezzo, Pistoia, Pisa and Siena. While Florence was mostly sided with the Guelfs, the rest of Italy was on the Ghibellines’ side.

In 1260, after the great defeat at Montaperti, Florence was defeated, but still managed to defend itself against the forces of Siena. In 1289, Arezo was conquered in the Battle of Campaldino, a battle which saw the participation of the great Florentine poet, Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321). Dante, a poet and writer, actively participated in Florentine politics, but was forced into exile after the defeat of his faction. In his masterpiece, La Divina Comedia, many historical characters and events from the political turmoil can be seen. This was a time of conflict between Florentine citizens, families who came from villages, nobility and merchants, as well as between the rich and the poor, the workers and the landowners.

In the meantime, a strong banker family accumulated more and more power and money, which let it become the only family who ruled over the city from the year 1434, the House of Medici.
The most important member of this famous dynasty was Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449 – 1492), who ruled over Tuscany for half a century as Italy’s first prince of Renaissance, a protector, poet, humanist, politician and one of the main proponents of Humanism. Respected by all, Lorenzo was a skilled diplomat, capable of maintaining the fragile peace between states. After his death in 1492, the enemies of the Medici family tried to inherit his power.

Girolamo Savonarola (1455 – 1498), a Dominican priest, tried to reveal the corruption happening within the church to the public, criticizing the people in power at the same time. In 1497, Savonarola was imprisoned by the orders of Pope Alexander VI, and was executed the following year at the Piazza della Signoria. The Medici family returned to Florence, but were promptly exiled once again. Florence was still participating in the bloody wars against France and Spain, with both countries fighting for power over Italy. Cesare Borgia, a violent son of a corrupt Pope, attempted to conquer Florence, but was ultimately unsuccessful. After years of conflict, Florence was finally conquered by the Spanish Army under Charles V in 1530. The Medici family finally managed to regain power in Florence after this: Cosimo I Medici (1519 – 1571) became the new Duke of Florence and a loyal Spanish ally. Cosimo finally managed to conquer Siena in 1555, Florence’s historical adversary, thus becoming the Grand Duke of Tuscany. In the following two centuries, Florence experience an era of peace and prosperity, which ended with the last ruler of the Medici Dynasty in 1737, which left the throne without an heir. The new governors, the Austrian Lorraine family, brought about “enlightened” reforms, which banned torture and, in 1785, the death penalty (Tuscany is the first country in the world to ban capital punishment).

After the French Revolution, Florence was under Napoleon’s rule for fifteen years. The city participated in wars, rebellions and was temporarily a part of France. In order to return to their previous state, the Lorraine family regained power in the city, but the political climate changed. Many intellectuals from Florence fought for the independence and unity of Italy. During the First Italian War of Independence (1848 - 1849) many students and professors from the Universities of Florence, Siena and Pisa lost their lives in the battles of Curtatone and Montanara. In 1859, the Lorraine family was exiled and Florence became part of the newly-established Kingdom of Italy.

In 1865, the capital was moved from Torino to Florence and this lasted until the liberation of Rome in 1870. During those years, the medieval city walls were demolished, the city territory expanded and the capital of Tuscany wan industrialized.

During World War Two, Florence was occupied by German troops. The city didn’t suffer any major damage, but its historical bridges, all except the Ponte Vecchio, were demolished. After the war, Florence became one of the most developed and popular tourist sites in Italy.

In 1966, the Arno river flooded the city, flowing through the city center and damaging various art treasures that Florence has. However, a restoration soon began and Florence regained the status of one of the most beautiful and visited cities of the world.

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