The city-state of Florence in the late 13th century was suffering from an imbalance of political and economic power. In its hands, the nobility had concentrated vast powers to the exclusion of the common citizens, who were either ignored or deliberately disenfranchised. Political leaders functioned as the hand-puppets of powerful families–the medieval equivalent of the modern corporate conglomerate or “special interest” group–who pulled the strings from behind the scenes. Demagogues, ever-ready to prey on the innocence or gullibility of the masses, promised what they never intended to deliver; and when they could not deliver, contented themselves with distracting the populace with frights, scares, amusements, or foreign military adventures.
The good of the state, and the needs of the citizenry, were the farthest things from the minds of the nobility; what mattered to them was enriching themselves at the expense of the common good, and extracting an ever-greater share of the food from the common trough. The picture is one that will not be unfamiliar to the informed observer of the modern political scene.
Into this picture stepped the figure of Giano Della Bella (1240–1305). Like many great reformers in history, he himself was a noble who grew disgusted with the avarice and lack of virtue displayed by his class. The historian Leonardo Bruni called him claris quidem maioribus ortus, sed ipse modicus civis et apprime popularis, which means “born of illustrious ancestors, but a citizen both moderate and very much popular in his inclinations.” Some men are born with an innate sense of justice, a feeling that overrides other considerations in their backgrounds; they recoil at the greed and corruption they see around them, and are willing to take steps to change things.
Giano was outraged by both the arrogance of the nobility, as well as the blind inertia of the people, who were willing to sit in silence in the face of shameful servitude. He took to warning the people of Florence that their fates were all linked together, and that if the nobility were successful in pitting one group or faction against another, it would be successful in denying the people their rights:
He thought it was extremely foolish to believe that violence would not eventually come to each man personally. When the first opponents were successfully subdued [by the nobility], such violence would then leap to each man’s roof, spreading like a conflagration. Something had to be done now, so the growth of the evil was not simply allowed in silence. The evil had spread somewhat, to be sure; but it had not yet become so strong that it could not be remedied. But if they [the citizens] neglected their responsibilities any longer, and watched for one man or another to do something, they would in vain be looking for help against a debilitating pestilence (frustra tandem auxilium contra inveteratam pestem optaturos).
Eventually people began to listen to him and appreciate the content of his message. During one famous speech, he told the crowd:
My fellow citizens, I have always been consistent in my thoughts. The more I think about the fate of our republic, the more I become firmer in my belief that it is essential to limit the unrelenting arrogance of the powerful families, or else lose our freedom altogether. I can tell we have reached the point where your patience and your liberty can no longer co-exist (Eo quidem res deductas cerno, ut patientia vestra et libertas stare simul non possint).
I believe that no one with a sound mind would doubt which of these two things you should retain…to me it seems that the liberty of people is contained in two things: its laws and its courts….But when it happens that some are allowed to skirt the laws with impunity, one must conclude that liberty has disappeared….
I believe it is absolutely necessary to increase the severity of punishment for powerful wrongdoers. If you want to shackle a giant and a midget, you do not use, I believe, the same kind of restraints. For the giant, one must use chains and heavy ropes; for the midget, one can use light ropes or thongs. 
The people of Florence were aroused by Giano’s uncompromising talk, the like of which they had never heard before. Eventually a body of laws called the Ordinances of Justice were passed. The historian Bruni tells us that these ordinances targeted about thirty-eight powerful families who controlled the industry and economic life in Florence; the nobility were hit hard by the laws, and the good of the public began to replace what had previously been the good of a small minority. Giano himself was elevated to political power.
But the power of the arrogant oppressor is not so easily deterred; it has a way of lying low, licking its wounds like a beaten cur, and looking for the right opportunity to snatch back what it once lost. Reforms do not remain valid in perpetuity; each generation, if it wishes to preserve its rights, must take care to cultivate and nurture them, so that they do not wither and die from neglect. This was the mistake of the American political system in the decades following the 1950s; as economic prosperity grew to unheard of heights in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the financiers and plutocrats whose greed had plunged the nation into depression in the 1930s were allowed to regain their hold over commercial and political life.
Political leaders shirked their duty to the people in order to be invited to the parties of the rich. Regulations that had been put in place for good reasons began to seem outmoded or irrelevant; greed and arrogance began to be conflated with strength and character; and the public, distracted with endless amusements and license that camouflaged itself as liberty, was paid to look the other way. The result was the catastrophic economic collapse of the early 2000s; and the reforms that have been so desperately needed are still missing. Thus wealth continues to aggregate in the hands of the few, reaching levels never before seen in the nation’s history. Demagogues and charlatans distract the people with slogans and feel-good puffery that do little or nothing to address the root causes of the problems, and the courts and legislatures look for reasons to carry out the designs of the rich. The price for all this will eventually be paid; hubris, as Sallust tells us, ultimately turns inward on itself, and consumes its host.
But let us return to Florence. Giano’s reforms naturally aroused extreme anger with the nobility, who screamed, as they do now, about “confiscation” and “unfairness.” He was not helped by the short memory of the people, who are inclined to forget that hard-won reforms can vanish as quickly as the morning mist if money and power are allowed to concentrate too much in the hands of a few. Giano began to be blamed for riots he had not instigated. The poor wanted him to go farther than he did; the rich, less than he had. The result was that he began to be criticized by both extremes of society; factionalism gathered strength and bided its time.
But here again Giano proved he was the greater man. Not wishing to be blamed as the spark that touched off a civil war, he agreed to go into exile. “I cede to the slanders of my enemies, and permit a place for their jealousies.” (Cedamus potius inimicorum calumniis, et locum invidiae permittamus). It was a cruel ending a man who had done so much for his republic. But it was the choice he made, and in some ways it was a very wise one. Giano had done his duty and had served with distinction, and that had been enough. For he knew that the heart of man is ungrateful, and possessed of a short memory; unless he is confronted with the immediacy of discomfort, he forgets the amplitude and duration of true pain. The reminders are never long in coming, of course.
- Bruni, History of the Florentine People, IV.27.
- Id., IV.28–29.
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