The kings of the potenze and the census of 1610: poverty, charity and the carnivalesque in Florence
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July 17, 1610 was a census day in Florence. But this census was quite unlike those of 1551, 1561 and 1632, the surveys of population and property meticulously produced by the ducal state and now the core of DECIMA’s ongoing HGIS project. The 1610 census was unique. It was carried out on the orders of Grand Duke Cosimo II, but the data was generated by the population itself, by territorial brigades known as the potenze or “powers” of Florence.
The potenze – 45 of them, pinned to DECIMA’s Buonsignori map – were informal groups of working men whose collective identities were underpinned by a shared neighbourhood or occupation. In the first instance, they belonged to the early modern world of carnivalesque festivity, a world ‘turned upside down’. At festive moments, the artisans and labourers of the potenze, each with their own king, mustered at their streetcorner residenze, flying banners, beating drums, organising feasts and occasionally jousting. They marched around the borders of their kingdoms, re-asserting their festive sovereignty – especially over their wealthier “subjects”, from whom they expected, sometimes demanded, the payment of “tribute”.
By 1610, the potenze had been a fixture on the Florentine public stage for well over a century. They had always been patronised attentively by the Medici, who saw in these rituals of status inversion – which offered a form of civic representation to the politically and economically marginalised – a means of creating social peace and cultivating lower-class loyalties. In the duchy, some of the most elaborate festivities took place when a Medici heir was born: the renewal of the duchy also became a time to renew the civic contract between the ducal state and the urban “states” of the potenze.
July 1610 was one such occasion, the birth of a son to Cosimo II (the future Ferdinando II). As was customary, the grand duke made cash gifts to the men of the potenze – 800 scudi in this case. However, ordering them to first carry out a census of their kingdoms was entirely new. Each brigade was told to report not only men, but also women and children under 12 within their jurisdiction. The Captains of the Parte Guelfa, the ducal magistracy that ran public festivity, charged two servants with gathering the data, and after they collated it their final census report offered totals of 17,935 men and 31,671 women and children – 49,606 lives, out of a population of roughly 70,000 [Figure 1]. Once the men of the potenze had received their 800 scudi, according to “the quality and condition of each potenzia and the number of persons”, the ducal government went further, spending a further 800 scudi on “bread for alms”, and a week later 14,000 piccie (six small rolls) were handed out to the women and children, distributed at the major churches of each quarter.
What did the numbers the potenze submitted – included in the DECIMA layer for each brigade – represent? A couple of potenze appear to have included only the brigade itself, but the overwhelming majority understood they were meant to report the wider kingdom, as the Crow at the Ponte alla Carraia (32) made explicit when it said it had 130 men “to make festivities”, but 340 men in all, adding that “the rest will be good for other necessary occasions”. In most cases we should not take these figures as door-to-door counts. They were estimates, possibly exaggerated given that the ducal gift was linked to numbers. Some people must have been estimated twice: several occupational brigades were based in city-centre workshop enclaves, though most of their constituents would have lived in neighbourhood kingdoms elsewhere. For example, the wool labourers at Orsanmichele (12), who reported “around 800 [men], all on the roll of the sacred crown and republic of the Woolbeaters”. Or the haberdashers of the Diamond beside the Piazza della Signoria (28), who told the Parte their kingdom contained 60 shops of various artisans, plus 30 shops representing “all the haberdashers”, for a total of 450 men and 40 boys.
Overall, it appears the potenze, in keeping with both the intent of the census and carnivalesque tropes, sought to estimate only those whom they considered the “poor” of Florence, mainly artisans and labourers like themselves. Several brigades were explicit about this, a couple were emphatic. The grand master of the Swallow (4), a carpenter, reported that “I have made a diligent research of the territory of my potentia, of the men, women, boys and girls”, arriving at a total of 1,690. He then added: “From which I judge there to be 400 well-off people, which deducted from 1690 leaves 1,290”. Meanwhile, the baker king of the Whip at San Felice in Piazza (42) submitted a total of 1,300, “not having taken note of those that live in the Palazzo of His Most Serene Highness [Palazzo Pitti], which is under its own Signoria, nor of many other gentlemen”.
Figure 2: Census of the Cat
(ASF, Cap. di Parte, n.n. 1478, f. 208r)
“On the day of 17 July 1610
Note of the men found under the magnificent potenza of the Cat, numbering five hundred and sixty, 560
I Girolamo di Andrea King of the said potenza confirm what is above
I Domenico di Bastiano vice-king of the said potenza reaffirm what is written above, and in truth I Pietro-Pagolo, tavernkeeper, wrote this because he said he did not know how to write.
Agostino Migliorini one of the said officials affirm what is said above.
chancellor of His Majesty Iacopo Papi.”
As these examples suggest, the census allowed a performance of community, the assertion of a kingdom’s leadership and of its constituency. The report of the Cat (40) was fairly typical [Figure 2]. It begins by declaring that “the men found under the magnificent potenza of the Cat number five hundred and sixty”. This was then signed by its king, the grocer Girolamo di Andrea, two other officials and viceroy Domenico di Bastiano, who brought a tavernkeeper in to write his affirmation for him. The missing piece of the puzzle here is territory. For the potenze, borders were never permanently settled, but instead were sites of dispute, through street battles, sometimes with stones or even swords, and through petition and government arbitration. This was also one of the ways these groups asserted, indeed produced, public identity. In 1610, boundaries were not reported, but thanks to a series of border clashes in 1599 (and with thanks also to DECIMA’s Daniel Jamison) we are able to map out three neighbouring kingdoms in Santo Spirito and to better understand the census reports these same kingdoms submitted eleven years later [refer to the Potenze Boundaries layer on the DECIMA map].
At the heart of these clashes stood the Monarch of the Stone of the Red Land, based at the streetcorner of the Convertite, the convent for reformed prostitutes (39). On its eastern front, the Monarch was in dispute with the Whip (42), probably over via delle Caldaie. The Captains of the Parte Guelfa ruled for the Whip, affirming a territory bounded by Caldaie, Scale (Mazzetta), Romana, and San Giovanni (del Campuccio). On its southern front, the Monarch of the Stone clashed with the Cat (40). In this case, the Parte ruled for the Monarch, giving him the disputed street of via Santa Maria. But this did not entirely resolve the quarrel. A short section of via Chiara (via dei Serragli) remained in question, a stretch once known as via delle Fornaci. In 1610, the continuing tension between these two brigades spilled over into their census reports. These were the only potenze in the entire city to spell out their territorial claims. The Monarch of the Stone listed probably quite accurate numbers for all five streets of his kingdom, including via Chiara. The king of the Cat included a door-by-door count of the disputed “la Fornace” section of via Chiara: 74 men, 90 women and 64 children.
Given what has been outlined above, the 1610 census would seem to portray a deeply embedded and relatively robust civic subculture. But in fact this was a subculture in crisis. In the three decades before 1610, economic decline and pauperisation, especially in the once enormous wool sector of the textile industry, had severely undermined the occupational basis of many prominent potenze. At the same time, Tridentine campaigns of religious and social reform had undercut the moral logic of carnivalesque transactions – in which the brief pomp of rowdy, tavern-based worker kings was imaginatively linked to the humility of the wealthy – and aimed to substitute what were considered sinful behaviours and wasteful expenditures with legitimate acts of charity.
It was in this context that the novel idea to order the potenze to census their kingdoms took shape. The census may have been quite different to the more systematic surveys of the early modern ducal city, yet it was informed by the same ambitious drive to collect big data in pursuit of bureaucratic control and rational welfare. The potenze had always symbolically represented the “poor”, but in 1610 Grand Duke Cosimo II looked to transform the customary carnivalesque exchange with brigades of men into a charitable subvention to the city’s working families as a whole. Indeed, Cosimo II appeared to have little appetite for the civic ritual of Florence’s carnival kings. The Grand Duke banned the brigades from leaving their territories in order to celebrate in the Piazza della Signoria, as they had done throughout the sixteenth century, and later he had the police confisicate all their banners. The story of the potenze certainly did not end there, but, starting with the July census, the summer of 1610 ended up becoming a minor watershed moment for Florentine public culture.
To cite this article: David Rosenthal, ‘The kings of the potenze and the census of 1610: poverty, charity and the carnivalesque in Florence’, published online 2020, in ‘DECIMA’, https://decima-map.net/the-kings-of-the-potenze/.
For a history of the potenze, see David Rosenthal, Kings of the Street: Power, Community and Ritual in Renaissance Florence (Brepols: Turnhout, 2015).