The Ciompi Revolt: Florence after the Black Death

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Black Death: The World's Most Devastating Plague

By Professor Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University

Florence was especially hard hit by the Black Death. To restore the production of one of Florence’s most important exports: workers had to be brought from outside the city, who were paid well, but did not have a voice in the government. This simmering discontent, along with Florentine government’s attempts to reimpose pre-plague social structures, led to the Ciompi Revolt.

Florence in a 1493, a woodcut from Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle.
The city of Florence underwent huge social changes following the Black Death. (Image: Michel Wolgemut, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff/Public domain)

The gente nuova

The production of wool in Florence was a multi-step process that involved both skilled and unskilled workers, some of whom were represented by powerful guilds and some of whom did not have a voice in city government. Once the first wave of plague had passed, Florence was desperate to bring in revenue by increasing its production of wool and bringing that back to pre-plague levels. In order to do this, it needed more laborers, and it found them out in the countryside.

In 1346, the medieval world was experiencing a population crunch, which meant that people were grateful for any sort of work and stable income that they could find. But in the post-plague world, when laborers were suddenly in demand, this group thought that maybe they should be treated a little better.

So these laborers—who were mostly immigrants to the Florence—were able to make a decent living economically and soon rose in terms of power and status. They came to be called the gente nuova—or new people—and even though they acquired some measure of wealth, they were not able to manage any sort of presence in local government because that was a position reserved for those of aristocratic status.

This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Social Discontent

Coats of arms of the guilds of Florence.
The guilds of Florence held the most power, with the art maggiori being the most powerful. (Image: Istituto Centrale per gli Archivi,/Public domain)

The gente nuova were welcomed in that they provided much-needed labor and a tax base, but they became increasingly discontented, as they were taxed heavily yet had no say in the government that was levying these taxes. The gente nuova found common cause with another disgruntled faction of the citizenry—the arti minori.

The arti minori, or minor guilds, were those guilds that were considered second-tier in the political system of Florence. They had long had a contentious relationship with the arti maggiori. The arti maggiori consisted of seven powerful major guilds, and they were a major force in Florentine government, with some city officials being selected directly from their ranks.

The Ciompi Demands

So there were tensions everywhere. Within the oligarchy that was meant to govern Florence, between the arti maggiori and the arti minori, between the oligarchy and the gente nuova, and between the guilds and the ruling classes and a group known as the popolo minute—literally, the little people—all kinds of artisans whose work was essential, but did not have guild representation.

To put it simply, it was a political and economic mess, and on top of all this, those in power tried to reimpose a pre-plague governance system on those who were living and working in Florence, without really trying to adapt at all to this new reality.

In 1378, what has come to be called the Ciompi Revolt began. ‘Ciompi’ is the word that designated the wool-carders of Florence, but many, many other groups were involved in their revolt. But it started with the Ciompi demanding better representation among the civic officials of Florence.

Learn more about the transformation of economic opportunities after the plague.

The Negotiation

The ruling oligarchy responded in a way that might have worked in a pre-plague world—they made it harder to get into a guild, and they quadrupled the fee that people were required to pay for membership. In other words, instead of becoming more representative in response to these demands, they became more elitist. As a result, some limited violence broke out in late June, with members of the Ciompi and their affiliates attacking some government buildings and letting prisoners out of jail.

In reaction to this, the ruling body of Florence, the Signoria, agreed to talks with the Ciompi. What became clear almost immediately was that the government had no intention of really agreeing to any of the Ciompi’s demands—they were stalling, hoping that eventually, the agitators would get bored or lose interest. They adopted some vague half measures, hoping this would be enough to appease the lower classes, but they were wrong. All it did was make the rebels even angrier.

Learn more about the Black Death in Florence.

The Revolt and Its Consequences

On July 21, 1378, a full-blown rebellion broke out. Thousands of Ciompi and their associates forcibly ousted the members of the Signoria and placed one of their own in the position of Gonfaloniere of Justice. They demanded that the Signoria create three new official guilds and also decree that members of these guilds would hold public office. What they wanted, essentially, was representation for those in the arti minori and for the guildless popolo minuto to be given a guild with a voice in civic affairs.

For three years, the government of the city-state of Florence was run by members of the Ciompi guild. But soon factionalism arose among members of the Ciompi and, in August 1378 fighting broke out among the Ciompi and other guild factions, and the civic leaders were replaced in one of the bloodiest days in Florence’s history. But they were replaced by other members of the lower classes, and the city would continue to be ruled by them until 1382.

Finally, members of the aristocracy were able to rally together and oust the Ciompi and their allies from positions of civic leadership. Once the aristocrats were back in power, they sought both to shore up their position while also going ahead and enacting some of the reforms the Ciompi had wanted—in particular, a change in the tax system. In the extended-term, while the basic structures in place in the political infrastructure of Florence were essentially the same as were in the pre-plague era, the composition, interests, and powers of those bodies were altered greatly by the effects of the plague.

Common Questions about Florence and the Ciompi Revolt

Q: Who were the gente nuova in Florence?

After the Black Death, workers from outside were allowed into Florence in the wool trade. Eventually, these laborers soon rose in terms of power and status. They came to be called the gente nuova.

Q: Why were the gente nuova discontented?

The gente nuova were taxed heavily but they did not have political representation in the government. This led them to feel discontented.

Q: How did the Ciompi Revolt come about?

The wool-carders of Florence, called the Ciompi, demanded better representation among the civic officials of Florence. This only led to the Florentine government making guild rules more stringent. This first led to isolated violence, but became a full-fledged revolt once the Ciompi and their supporters realized that the government would not accede to their demands for equal representation.

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