Guilded in Florence

From apprentice and journeyman to master

Jane Fortune
March 22, 2007

Once the life-blood of Florence, the traditional artisan has all but disappeared because of industry and the bureaucracy of unions. These days, apprentices with no experience have to be paid, whereas with guilds, only the master was paid to teach the secrets of his craft. Today, few masters can afford to pay apprentices, and the artisan tradition is becoming a lost art. In the 13th and 14th centuries, guilds laid the financial foundation of Florence as it is today and were the center of economic activity giving the city its stability and prosperity.


The guilds (arti) were traditionally male organizations, composed of merchants, artisans, and craftsmen. The skilled middle class, all with similar social, political and economic leanings, formed these guilds to protect their mutual interests. Much like today’s unions, each guild had a set of rules, elected its own officials and had individual treasuries. Each guild had a representative in city government whose function was to regulate trade and industry. Guilds were major public patrons of art and provided funding for charity. The oldest and most wealthy were the wool guilds (della lana and della calimala), which employed 30,000 workers and had 200 workshops at the beginning of the 14th century. The most important guild was that belonging to judges and notaries.


To become a guild member, one had to learn a trade and apprentice to a guild master. Guild masters needed apprentices for assistance and apprentices needed masters for education. Since young men could not apprentice to their fathers, parents would pay for their child (between the ages of 7 and 13) to apprentice and learn the rudiments of a trade. This could usually take anywhere from two to seven years. Next, the apprentice progressed to ‘journeyman’, a day worker, who earned a salary. He was considered competent in his craft and could travel, as for hire. To become a ‘master’ one had to produce a ‘masterpiece’, which had to be accepted by the guild members. Once accepted, the person received the title of ‘master craftsman’ and could take on apprentices of his own.


In 14th-century Florence, only guld members could vote and were eligible for political office. Guild members were those who ‘worked with their hands’. Unskilled workers, known as ciompi, were not part of any guilds and could not hold a civic office. Eventually, these workers revolted and started a guild of their own. Learned gentlemen, called ‘those who did not work with their hands’, were not members of guilds, either. They were involved in one of the seven liberal arts: grammar, logic, music, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy.


Not all guilds were equal. Florence had seven ‘major’ guilds, called arti maggiori and 14 ‘minor’ guilds, or arti minori. The wealthiest and most powerful men in Florence belonged to the major guilds: Arte della Calimala (wool merchants); Arte della Lana (wool manufacturers); Arte dei Giudici e Notai (magistrates and notaries); Arte del Cambio (bankers); Arte della Seta (silk weavers and metal workers); Arte dei Medici e Speziali (physicians, pharmacists and, originally, painters, who later formed their own guild) and Arte dei Vaiai e Pelliccia (skinners and furriers).


The 14 minor guilds grouped together the smaller craftsmen/businessmen. They had less political clout and social status. The 21 guilds were very competitive, but they included only a small percent of the population and thus were eventually forced to yield much of their original power. The strength of guilds declined in 16th century, and they were abolished in 1807 by Pius VII.


I just read an interesting historical thriller by Giulio Leoni, called The Mosiac Crimes. The story is set in Florence in the 1300s. Dante Alighieri, a newly elected prior and the main character, investigates the brutal murder of a master artisan. Guilds abound in this novel.

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