By William Landon, Northern Kentucky University
In the late summer of 1529, the city of Florence prepared for a siege. While it is dangerous to ask ‘what ifs’ in the discipline of history, one still wonders how things might have played out had the Florentines taken the fight to the Prince of Orange’s army rather than retreating to the protection of Florence’s fortified walls. Nonetheless, what did follow was a 10-month siege of Florence costing 52,000 human lives, the majority among what we would call ‘noncombatants’.
The Imperial Army, under the leadership of Philibert de Chalon, the Prince of Orange, entered Tuscany from the south. Francesco Carducci, the gonfaloniere, and his advisors decided not to engage Orange’s army, allowing Perugia and Arezzo to fall without a skirmish.
Orange’s army of roughly 30,000 men made camp just outside of Florence’s southern walls. After enduring several artillery barrages from the Florentines, Orange pulled his army out of artillery range.
When the Prince of Orange realized the full extent of Michelangelo’s new fortifications of Florence, and that breaking into the city would be impossible, he decided, prudently, to wait.
His request for a second army was eventually agreed to by Charles V, and it arrived within a few weeks. Florence was surrounded, and it faced another, more lethal enemy.
Plague and Food Rationing
Plague arrived in the city, almost certainly brought back by soldiers shepherding supplies to its citizens.
While historians can’t be sure of Florence’s population at the start of the siege, when the sizeable refugee population is taken into account, a conservative estimate is 90,000 souls. In the following months, plague and/or starvation killed an estimated 30% of the besieged Florentines.
And, as 1529 gave way to the winter and spring of 1530, the situation had become dire. Food, water and all daily needs were rationed. Even so, the steadfastness of the Florentines shocked and impressed their assailants. Every able person took part in the war effort.
The Florentines even made several successful sorties, which, because of their unexpected nature, inflicted heavy losses on the northern imperial army.
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While the main force of Florence’s army was billeted in the city, the Florentines had kept several smaller forces at strategic locations in Tuscany. One Florentine would later become an Italian of legendary status: Francesco Ferrucci and his army retook the city of Volterra, which had fallen to the Imperial Army.
In so doing, however, Ferrucci had left Empoli, one of the last strategic strongholds that remained under Florentine control. It fell to the empire, officially ending hopes of ever reopening a supply line to Florence.
In July of 1530, Ferrucci was able to get a dispatch to Florence. Therein, he proposed to the republic’s war commission that he should march his army of roughly 3,000 men and a few hundred cavalry to Rome, where he would put the city to the sack if Pope Clement did not agree to terms with the republic.
His request was rejected, but he was given authorization to bring his army back to Florence, in hopes that a decisive and victorious engagement would break the siege.
Ferrucci and Orange
By this time, Ferrucci and his army were in Pisa, where Ferrucci fell ill. He recovered, but the delay in his troop movements had been enough for spies to report his intentions to the Prince of Orange. As Ferrucci’s army headed west to Florence, Orange’s army, which was equal to Ferrucci’s, headed north to cut off Ferrucci’s advance. They met at Gavinana near Pistoia.
Ferrucci and Orange both died that day—August 3, 1530—Orange on the battlefield and Ferrucci, gravely wounded, taken prisoner and run through with a pike.
Before news of Ferrucci’s death and the complete annihilation of his army reached Florence, the city’s citizens prepared to attack the relatively small imperial army that had been left to guard the city. A breakout assault would be unexpected, and Florence had superior numbers.
Word of Ferrucci’s death and the defeat of his army reached Florence the next day. Even so, the Florentines believed that with the Prince of Orange dead, the imperial forces could be beaten.
A Threat from Within and Without
Yet, Malatesta Baglioni and his mercenary army refused to take part in the proposed sortie. Hundreds of native Florentine militia members mutinied, joining Baglioni’s army. And, when the republican government sent emissaries to relieve Baglioni of his civic duties, he had one of them killed.
Threatened now from within and from without the city, the Florentines were left with two choices: Allow their city to be sacked and its sick and malnourished citizens to be put to the sword or surrender. The government chose the latter.
Florence Avoids Complete Ruin
On August 12, 1530, after a nearly ten-month siege, ambassadors from the Florentine Republic were received at the imperial camp, where they capitulated. On the 13th of August, the republic’s Great Council met for the last time in Florentine history. The imperial army demanded what amounted to a bribe of 80,000 florins not to sack the city.
Charles V kept his word, but he ordered his army to remain at Florence’s walls for another month. They did not depart until the end of September 1530.
Even though Florence had avoided complete ruin, the full extent of the city’s human losses proved terrifying. Nearly 8,000 Florentine soldiers had lost their lives, and an additional third of the city’s population had died from either disease or malnutrition.
Common Questions about the Siege of Florence
Nearly 8,000 Florentine soldiers had lost their lives, and an additional third of Florence’s population had died from either disease or malnutrition.
Ferrucci and Orange both died on August 3, 1530. Orange on the battlefield and Ferrucci, gravely wounded, taken prisoner, and run through with a pike.
The imperial army demanded what amounted to a bribe of 80,000 florins not to sack the city.