season one

Episode 6: King Walt

A fresco of St. Anne and the expulsion of Walter of Brienne, today in the Palazzo Vecchio.

Facing famine, plague, an unending war, and an economic recession, the Florentines resort to handing the keys over to a French nobleman with a glamorous but mostly empty title. Meanwhile the Medici, although still lurking in the shadows from our point of view, manage to establish themselves as populists during the chaos and violence to come.

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So I’ll fess up. The title of this episode is a bit of a flight of fancy. There never was a King Walter of Tuscany, although not from a lack of trying on Walter’s part. Walter started out as a signore of Florence, but he made a big push to become the lord of Florence. Quite possibly, his goal was to establish his own hereditary domain in Tuscany. Instead, Walter was sent packing, and Florence would never again experiment with inviting some foreigner to become signore.

Up until then, Florence had been really lucky with its signores. First, fully consciously or not, they made the wise move of installing signores who were part of foreign dynasties, so they didn’t really have their own power bases in Tuscany. Also, they had their own dynastic claims, which probably gave them outside obligations that could interfere with Florentine interests but it also meant they might be less motivated to seize the opportunity to make Florence their own private property. True, at various points, it seemed likely that one of their signores might still try their luck at dismantling the power of the republic, but still, circumstance and occasionally just good ol’ death stepped in and prevented any signores from overstaying their welcome. Walter of Brienne, though, proved to be the exception, and such an exception that, even though the reign of King Walt only lasted a year, it left a mark on the memory of the republic.

But let’s rewind a bit. Like I talked about before, the time around 1300 was a good one to be a Florentine. Giovanni Villani, who on top of being our chronicler was also a banker, wrote:

“At this time magnificent churches, cathedrals, and monasteries of all kinds were built. There was no citizen, of the nobility or the pololati, who had not erected a grand and rich home in the city or did not establish in the countryside an expensive and lovely villa.” 

Villani might have been exaggerating, but elsewhere he actually quantified Florence’s good fortune, claiming that Florence had 80 banks, 100 apothecaries, 146 bakeries, and 680 judges and notaries, and 30 hospitals with 60 doctors and 1,000 beds for patients.

However, this golden age was soon enough followed by what Gene Bruckner calls a “time of troubles.” Of course, part of this time of troubles was due to politics and war. See, last time we talked about Castruccio Castracani, the signore of Pisa who also managed to get the Holy Roman Emperor, Ludwig IV, to name him duke of his home city of Lucca. Castruccio’s death and the fact he had no one to succeed him except very young children hit Lucca especially badly. Control of the city that had once been a major rival to Florence passed through various hands, at one point literally getting auctioned off to a Genoese citizen. Eventually Lucca was taken by the signore of Verona, Mastino della Scala II.

When another one of Mastino’s territories, the city of Parma, rebelled against him and cut Lucca off from the rest of his little empire, Mastino decided to cut his losses and auction Lucca off. Sadly, we don’t know much of what the citizens of Lucca themselves thought of their home getting sold off over and over again. Anyway, Florence beat out its eternal enemy Pisa in the auction and purchased Lucca. Florence sent a team of envoys and magistrates to bring the city into the Florentine hold. Among them was one Medici, a Giovanni di Bernardino de Medici, although we know little about him or his relation to the Medici we mentioned before. Pisa, however, being sore losers sent an army out to besiege Lucca. The Florentines actually came close to routing the Pisans, but they turned the tables at the last minute.

In desperation, the Florentines did what they usually did in times of mental crisis: ask for help from the royal family of Naples. Unfortunately, King Robert managed to dig up his own claim to the city of Lucca. Here’s a brief passage from Leonardo Bruni’s History of Florence that really highlights just how cynical medieval politics could be:

“But the king’s only response was to send out envoys under royal authority to plead with the Pisans to stop laying siege to Lucca, a city that in earlier times had been absolutely his and that had now been restored to him by the Florentines. But this empty demand of the king was mocked by still emptier words from the Pisans. For it elicited no response except that the Pisans sent envoys of their own to negotiate the matter, while they prosecuted the siege of Lucca more obstinately than before.” 

The war with Pisa dragged on and drained the government’s coffers. But the war wasn’t the only chain dragging the city down. There was a famine followed by a plague around 1340. And the economy was dealt a body blow. The  international banking firms of the Bardi and Peruzzi, both based in Florence, were both on the brink of going bankrupt. Part of the reason was the war with Pisa’s drain on the economy. Also, they both made the same mistake of investing heavily in King Edward III of England, who was busy fighting the so-called Hundred Years War and trying to claim the throne of France. The war had been going badly. And Edward III, under pressure from his xenophobic advisors who weren’t too happy about their king owing tons of English gold to a bunch of Italians, would repudiate his debts. This would leave the Bardi 900,000 florins in the black and the Peruzzi out 600,000. As most of us probably learned in our own lifetimes, though, it’s rarely the rich who have to reap the consequences when their bad decisions wreck an economy. While the Peruzzi and the Bardi stayed afloat as two of Florence’s richest families, more than 500 smaller banks and businesses went down with the ship.

Although all of this would happen later, the worsening recession already made the Signoria of Florence desperate enough that it set up a special committee composed of respected bankers to try to fix the crisis. One of their recommendations was to prop up another signore who could cut through the medieval equivalent of red tape. Luckily, a suitable candidate had just arrived in Florence from Naples and volunteered himself: a nobleman from France, Walter VI of Brienne.

Walter’s patrimony was the county of Brienne in central France. However, his ancestors made out well in the aristocratic marriage market and ended up inheriting a couple of territories in the kingdom of Naples. Their best get was Walter’s grandmother, Isabelle de la Roche, who was the heiress to the Duchy of Athens – yes, that Athens. After the catastrophic Fourth Crusade where a bunch of crusaders headed to Egypt ended up looting Constantinople and claiming the Byzantine Empire for themselves, the Duchy of Athens was one of the feudal states the crusaders carved out for themselves from the old empire. Even after Constantinople was retaken by the Byzantines, the Duchy of Athens remained standing. It was a nice inheritance, but unfortunately Walter VI’s father, who was of course named Walter V, had gotten into a dispute with the Byzantines. Walter tried to hedge his bets by recruiting a band of mercenaries, the Catalan Company. Unfortunately, either because he couldn’t pay them in full or because he picked a really peculiar time to be frugal, he offered only to pay and give lands to the leading members of the company. As you might expect unless your name is Walter V of Brienne, this caused the Catalan Company to turn on him. Curiously enough, for a band of mercenaries, the Company seemed more than willing to negotiate with him, but Walter pushed for a fight. As you might expect since he needed mercenary help in the first place, he lost badly, and the Catalan Company actually seized control of most of the duchy. Only two towns on the Aegean coast and the illustrious title itself remained in Walter’s hands. Unfortunately, Walter VI would inherit both the empty title and his father’s negotiating skills.

This was all in the future, though. In the present, Walter may have looked like a good candidate. He had political and military experience. He had ties to Florence’s valuable ally the kingdom of Naples without being a royal with his own stake in Lucca. And he must have given the Signoria convincing reassurances, although we don’t know exactly what they were. So, in 1342, Walter of Brienne was appointed signore. Now, to be fair, we don’t really have an account of what happens next that’s sympathetic to Walt. Then again, given that his reign as signore would last less than a year and ended in a revolt, maybe it’s okay if we trust the traditional accounts in this case.

Bruni sums it up best, in the way only a patriotic Florentine could:

“Being a Frenchman and used to the ways of France, where the common people are considered to be almost slaves, he laughed at the authority of the guilds and guildsmen, and thought it absurd that the will of the multitude should rule a city.” 

Now in terms of results Walter wasn’t that good a despot, but he did have a strategy other usurpers and would-be tyrants have used throughout history. First, he started by scapegoating the members of the previous regimes. Many magistrates and diplomats involved in the Lucca debacle were put on trial on trumped up charges, among them collaborating with the government of Pisa. Among them was Giovanni de’ Medici, who was charged and beheaded.

Next, Walter was careful to win over segments of the population, specifically the old nobility and the working class. Considering that this was a government dominated by the rich bourgeois, this was a stroke of genius that caught the ruling elite of the republic in a pincer movement. Of course, it was natural for the nobility to side with the Walter of Brienne. Not only would the nobility welcome a chance to stick it to the anti-aristocratic merchant regime, but they probably did like the idea of having a duke in charge, even a duke with a mostly empty title.

That said, it seems that Walter relied most on the working class, who were excluded from Florence’s guild system. I talked before about how signores often came to power with the support of the lowest classes, and Walter had at least an inkling of this. Without the permission of the signore, he called that old, traditional deliberative body, the general assembly. You remember the one that lost its political power and was only called in emergencies but still theoretically had the power to settle constitutional questions? That’s the one. And, of course, the only item on the agenda was to declare Walter signore for life.

Now this is where the lack of unbiased sources or sources actually friendly to Walter are a problem. For example, Bruni glosses over all this. Basically he all but explicitly asks, well, what else would you expect from a bunch of plebians? It’s hard to imagine that this wasn’t so much Walter exploiting the people of Florence but the people of Florence finding themselves a weapon to use against the rich jerks who were crashing the economy. No wonder Walter was able to establish himself so dramatically and so quickly. It probably also helped that he brought the war with Pisa to a quick conclusion, getting the Pisans to agree to occupy Lucca for 15 years, after which they swore to grant Lucca its independence again.

Maybe it was exactly these early victories  that made him too cocky. He formed a personal bodyguard made entirely of French troops, which no doubt cost him some popularity in all quarters. He also agitated the guilds by stripping away the signoria of most of its legal powers and made their customary meeting place, the Piazza della Signoria, his personal palace.

There were multiple conspiracies against his life. Then, finally, after a reign of only ten months, King Walt was overthrown in 1343. Villani writes: “On July 26, the Feast of St. Anne, when the ball sounded in the afternoon and the workers left the factories, the Adimari, the Medici, and the Donati had arranged that some ruffians, pretending to be soldiers, were to start fighting together in the Old Market and at Porta San Piero, shouting ‘To arms! To arms!” Everyone was frightened and immediately they all armed themselves, some on horseback, others on foot, shouting, “Death to the duke, long live the people, the republic and liberty.” The duke’s men, hearing the noise, armed themselves and mounted their horses making about three hundred cavalry riding around the Piazza della Signoria. And the Medici, Altoviti, Ricci, and Rucellai seized the exits from the piazza, of which there were more than 12, and erected barriers and reinforced them so that nobody could enter or leave, and all day and night they fought with the duke’s men in the Palazzo della Signoria and in the piazza, where many of them died.”  

Walter was stuck in his palace with his bodyguard while his former subjects raged outside. The leaders of Florence had to sneak him out of the city in the middle of the night to save him and his entourage from being killed on the spot. After fleeing Tuscany, Walter would never again return. Plus whatever curse was put on his dynasty would follow him back to France. He managed to get himself appointed as Constable of France, a position which you Game of Thrones fans might call the French version of the Hand of the King, only to die in the Battle of Poitiers, a catastrophe of a battle that turned the tide of the Hundred Years’ War in England’s favor and even resulted in the king of France, King Jean II, winding up a prisoner of war. He left no direct heirs, so his titles and lands were split up among the sons of his sister.

As for Florence, it took a while for the city to recover from King Walt. The old nobility took advantage of the chaos by forming an alliance with the city’s most powerful banking families, including the Bardi, and forcing through a government that abolished the Ordinances of Justice. This only caused the city to erupt into even more violence. This is where the Medici appear on the scene again, although, as is typical for the stage of the family’s history, their exact contributions to the story are faint. Either acting on sincere political anger or wanting to avenge their distinguished member GIovanni di Bernardino or both, the Medici joined up with a mob of artisans, despite their own high bourgeoisie status. This mob burned down no less than twenty-two of the Bardi family’s villas. Apparently, once the dust settled and a new, pro-Ordinances government was in power, the Medici earned a reputation as one family of bankers that were actually on the side of the people. As obscure as the exact circumstances may be, this would prove to be a huge turning point.

As for King Walt, although in terms of politics did not leave much of a mark on Florence’s history. However, he did become the ultimate boogeyman for the free republic, much like Tarquinius Superbus in ancient Rome or King George III in the United States. Florence made St. Anne’s Day, when the tyrant was expelled, a national holiday and the subject decorated the Palazzo Vecchio. He was a cautionary tale about trusting a strongman who appealed to the masses while not respecting the traditions of the city and the rights of the guilds. If the republic was to be dismantled, it would have to be the work of generations, not months. But we’ll get to that eventually.