3.24. Niccolò Machiavelli: The controversial Secretary 3.24. Niccolò Machiavelli - den kontroversielle statssekreteraren

Mikael Hörnqvist on the introduction of the new militia in Florence in 1506

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The best available account of how the new militia was introduced in Florence is in Francesco Guicciardini's Storie fiorentine, written before 1512. Guicciardini here relates how Piero Soderini let himself be persuaded by Machiavelli, "in whom he had great confidence," to reform the Republic's militia and to return the city to the military orders of the past. Preparations had been made for the new ordinances, Guicciardini writes, but:

since it was necessary for the reputation and conservation of a thing of such proportion that it passed through the council, and considering that it was a new and unusual thing, which the people would not support without first having seen some proof of it ... the Gonfalonier began, with the authority of the signoria, but without consultation, to enroll soldiers in the contado ... in the city nothing was done, because it was such a new and unusual thing that it had to be conducted little by little.

Guicciardini emphasizes thus the fact that Soderini took the decision to initiate the project without first summoning the leading citizens to a pratica, as was the established practice. He gives no clear indication, though, whether the idea to begin the venture without going through the traditional channels originated with Soderini or Machiavelli.

After the proposal had won the support of the signoria, Machiavelli was dispatched on 30 December 1505 to the Mugello and the Casentino regions to enroll, equip and exercise conscripts aged fifteen to forty. Through the correspondence between him and the Ten, the Florentine war committee, one can follow the early development of the project in some detail.

In his first report, dispatched from Borgo San Lorenzo on 2 January, Machiavelli commented on the progress made and the local population's reaction to a new militia ordinance. Most villagers who had been summoned to the enrollment turned up quite willingly, while those who failed to present themselves had not done so mainly out of fear of being assessed for new taxes. In the local podesteria, he estimated that it would be possible to recruit about 180 men of good quality. The general reception of the militia was also encouraging: "This thing pleases all the citizens I have encountered here, and everyone counts on it to succeed; and for my own part I believe so more than ever, under the condition that one here applies that diligence that the task of reforming a province demands." On 5 February, Machiavelli wrote to the Ten from Pontassieve, complaining about the problems he had met with recently in Dicomano and San Godenzo. In the podesteria of Dicomano he had after great hardship been able to recruit 200 men, but this number would eventually have to be reduced considerably. The difficulty of the undertaking, he attributed to the inveterate disobedience of the people of the region and to the hostile relations between the various villages. His excuse at the end of the letter breathed frustration: "I have not been able to do these things more quickly, and he who believes otherwise, should try it himself, and he will see what it means to bring together peasants and men of this sort." In their reply of 6 February, the Ten accepted Machiavelli's excuse while emphasizing the urgency of the matter. A letter of the same date addressed to him by Marcello Virgilo, the secretary of the First Chancery, that Piero Soderini was following the progress of the militia with keen interest and that the project now had begun to gain support among the citizenry.

In spite of the progress achieved in the contado and the positive reactions of the rural population, strong opposition continued in the city. During February influential citizens convened in several pratiche to discuss the arming of the countryside. According to the chronicler Cerretani, many of the assembled were opposed to the innovative idea for the simple reason that the city's past rulers had refused to adopt this policy. In the face of this conservative opinion, Piero Soderini argued that a new militia ordinance would not only lessen the city's dependence on hired troops and on the French, but also increase its chances of recovering Pisa. Soderini's view won the day and the talks resulted in the decision to create an infantry force of twelve thousand men. Five constables with experience from serving under Paolo Vitelli were appointed, and five battalions (bandiere) of two hundred men each were officially set up in the Valdisieve and the Mugello regions.

On 15 February 1506, a display of four hundred infantry men from the Mugello took place in the Piazza della Signoria in the course of the traditional Carnival festivities. The event was a great success, and the diarist Luca Landucci could enthusiastically report that it had come to be viewed as "the most beautiful thing ever to have been arranged in the city of Florence." The discipline of the peasants and their colorful white and red uniforms, the traditional colors of the Florentine popolo, appear to have made a particularly strong impression on the audience. From Landucci's account we also learn that the fundamental principles underlying the project now had become public knowledge: "And these were soldiers who were to stay at home under obligation, until need arose for them to be deployed; and in this way it had been ordered that many thousands should be created in the entire contado so that there would be no need of foreigners."

On 21 February, Leonardo Bartolini wrote to Machiavelli from Rome congratulating him on his achievement: "Concerning the new militia, I am very glad that it is turning out as well as you indicated to me in the past. If it is helped along as is its due, I judge that it will turn out to be a wonderful thing and I shall be very happy when I see it completed, both for the good of the public and also because it is your invention." Around this time, Machiavelli wrote to Cardinal Soderini exhorting him to persuade his brother, the gonfalonier, to place a forceful and severe military captain in command of the militia. The cardinal, who approved of the idea, passed on Machiavelli's recommendation in a letter of 4 March. The gonfalonier promptly heeded the advice, and shortly afterwards the notoriously cruel Spanish condottiere don Michele di don Giovanni da Coriglia da Valenza, better known as don Michelotto, was contracted to lead the newly created militia. Guicciardini relates how Piero Soderini charged Machiavelli to seek out beforehand the opinions of leading members of the reggimento such as Giovanbattista Ridolfi, Piero Guicciardini and Francesco Gualterotti. But when it turned out that they opposed the appointment of the Spaniard, the Gonfalonier took the proposal before the Eighty, where it was passed after a third ballot.' Due to strong opposition from the ottimati, the original plan to appoint don Michelotto bargello del contado had to be abandoned, though, and on 1 April he was elected capitano di guardia del contado e distretto di Firenze instead by the Eighty. The Spaniard was soon called into action. After a series of poor performances by the militia battalions at the Pisan front, Machiavelli wrote on 12 June to inform Giovanni Ridolfi, the Florentine commissioner at the camp in Cascina, that don Michelotto and a company of one hundred men were to be dispatched there to reinforce the militia and to inspire fear in the Pisans.

Mikael Hörnqvist: "Perché non si usa allegare i Romani: Machiavelli and the Florentine militia of 1506," Renaissance Quarterly LV:1 (2002), pp. 148-91; quotes from pp. 154-57.

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© 2002 Mikael Hörnqvist
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