Big Data 1400s Style
Updated: Jun 18, 2022
Big Data 1400s Style
A Florentine Snapshot
It’s 1424 in Florence, the wealthy commercial urban center of Tuscany. Giovanni Bianco (a fictional compilation) has established himself as a successful merchant the city. He is fifty years old and is at the apex of his earning years. He heads the household for six other family members including his wife, four children and his widowed sister.
Two of the children, a boy and girl, reside at home, aged three and five. His eldest son, age 9, has recently left home to begin an apprentice as a merchant. His 12 year-old daughter has just completed her second year of domestic service in a town outside of Florence. Giovanni and his wife are considering what marriage options would be best for her when she turns sixteen. They hope she can marry into a prestigious Florentine family.
During the hot summer months, the bubonic plague spreads rapidly through the urban center and surrounding countryside. Weeks later his two children who live at home and wife succumb to the illness, dying within days of each other. The 9 and 12-year-old survive. Six months later, Giovanni re-marries and one year later his wife gives birth to a son. He prays for the Bianco family lineage to continue with his sons.
This account is fairly typical of a well to do Florentine family concerned with continuance of the paternal line and surviving pestilence and plague. How can we know so much about Tuscan households? Tax records, wills, and memoirs are sources, but in 1427 the Florentine government did something different to remember them by.
1427: A Very Good Art Year
Florence was prosperous and considered a large urban city. Major artworks were completed or in progress including Fra Angelico’s frescoes at San Marco, Masaccio’s ground breaking fresco of the Trinity in Santa Maria Novella and Brunelleschi’s Dome for the Duomo were being constructed.
1427 also marks the year the Florentine government implemented a new tax scheme which left us with significant documents describing Florentine life. Politically, Florence was still ruled by an oligarchy. The Albizzi family dominated the Florentine government as the Catasto was implement a few years before the Medici family ascendancy.
Florence Duomo as seen from Piazzale Michelangelo
The Uber Tax Census
In an effort to create more tax revenue the commune of Florence conducted a thorough population analysis – an uber census, called a Catasto. Due to warfare with neighboring Milan, additional sources of revenue were needed. Badly. The Catasto gives us an excellent idea of what life and the Florentines were like in the early 1400s. Most of the documents pertaining to the Catasto have been well preserved and it is the oldest comprehensive data on households in the Western world.
Each citizen – not only in Florence, but the surrounding towns and countryside controlled by Florence – had to provide a document detailing each household including habitants, dependents, possessions, property, etc. Each household had a 200 florin deductible for each dependent. The government never again attempted another tax census like the one in 1427.
In essence the Catasto measured settled lay peoples, but not all religious orders or clergy. Nearly 60,000 households and 260,000 people participated in the tax census. Although not included in the census, about 7,000-8,000 clergy or religious orders resided in Tuscany (the borders are somewhat different from today, as Siena was independent from Florence at the time).
The Two Percent
Despite the flourishing art scene, there was inequality and uncertainty in the population. Constant warfare with neighboring regions and power struggles mixed with economic uncertainty and plague created great hardship for citizens. There was economic disparity in Florence with one percent owning a quarter of the city’s wealth. About 100 families possessed great political influence and wealth. At the top of the list was the preeminent Strozzi family who built their wealth through banking. A splendid example of their wealth is their commission for the Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano (also known as the Strozzi altarpiece) in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence (1423).
Border with Strozzi Emblem, Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0. This fifteenth century design on silk and linen incorporates the Strozzi family emblem of three half-moons with flames and a falcon. The Latin inscription reads “I wait and so does virtue.” Although in 1427 they were the richest family in Florence, they were later exiled and so the motto is suitable for a family desiring to restore their prestige, which they achieved.
About 60 percent of the Florentines were what we would consider lower class. The wealthiest Tuscans had more than 3,200 florins in assets and families with less than 800 florins gross wealth really struggled. About one third of Tuscans were peasants working the land. A little over two percent of the wealthy controlled half of Florence’s commercial and industrial businesses. In essence, the art was commissioned by a small percentage of the population, along with commissions from religious organizations. However, men did not get richer as they aged. The height of wealth was achieved about age 50; by age 67 a man would have about the same wealth as when he was 35.
The Florentine neighborhood Drago Verde (Green Dragon) on the other side of the Arno river from the Duomo, by the churches Santo Spirito and Santa Maria del Carmine, reported some of the lowest incomes. The 963 households reporting in the Catasto were mostly poor and low socioeconomic standing: artisans, semi-skilled workers in the wool industry and guildsmen. Forty four percent of the Drago Verde households declared zero assets in the Catasto.
Pestilence and Populations
Florence at the time of Fra Angelico and Masaccio was surrounded by protective walls. There was ample open spaces, gardens, vineyards, and non-populated areas, especially near the walls. Part of the reason for the undeveloped spaces was to allow for growth. However, the plagues halted that growth. The population was recovering from devastating losses and growth would not come for another forty years.
Florence was by far the largest city in Tuscany. Tuscany was also the most urbanized region of medieval Europe although it was not the case by the later 1500s. In 1427 Florence had about 38,000 people, while Pisa, the next largest city, had 7,330 inhabitants. Surrounding towns such as Arezzo, Cortona or Prato were much less populated.
The populations of Tuscany were unstable from the after-effects of pestilence. Prato lost more than 75 percent of its population from 1300-1427; the surrounding rural area lost 62 percent. The instability of the population did not deter major art commissions. The population losses of the plague were still deeply felt. A type of census conducted in 1457-1460 showed the countryside population around Florence declined yet another 10 percent. The late 1500s and early 1600s saw a strong uptick in the Tuscan population. Subsequently, Florence saw a population boom from 1427-1552.
It wasn’t required to note the head of household’s occupation in the Catasto. But for those who did, the most common occupations are noteworthy. Many men were notaries and administrators which were necessary to keep government functioning. The wool and textile industries keep carders, dyers, combers and merchants in the top ten occupations of Florence. Shoemakers were numerous throughout Tuscany. Florence also was the center of luxury goods with goldsmiths, furriers, and silk merchants. The wealthiest occupations were in banking, wool and textiles merchants, lawyers and spice merchants. In terms of wealth, artists ranked just under food services and potters - nowhere near the wealth of merchants or bankers. Michelangelo would turn that around in about sixty years.
Girls and Boys. Men and Women
Girls were often underreported in the Catasto because they simply were not as important and were more invisible. Boys were more likely to be reported with more accuracy because they would grow up to inherit and become wage earners. Children started working outside the home at a very early age. Girls were often sent to household service, sometimes as young as eight years old.
Cassone, Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0. This pinewood and poplar trunk (cassone in Italian) represents a typical marriage chest for wealthy families. Clothing, valuables and household items would be stored in the chest, which was placed in the matrimonial bedroom. Produced in the second quarter of the fifteenth century, it is partially gilded. The cassone would be carried in the wedding procession filled with the bride’s dowry.
Girls were not paid directly but their earnings were collected for their dowries. Marriage occurred at about age 16 and the girls went directly to their husband’s home. In reality girls left their birth homes very early on never to return. This was particularly the case for lower class families. Some girls were sent to the convent, also at a very early age either to take vows, often at age 12 or 13, or remain in the convent until marriage. It is estimated there were about 900 nuns and lay sisters in female monasteries in and around Florence at this time, with many women coming from wealthy families. Girls had two options: religious life or marriage. Widows didn’t always remarry as they could live on their own through rents, with other relatives, or by other means.
Ameto’s Discovery of the Nymphs, Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0. New mothers were presented with gifts like this one. Made in about 1410 by an unknown painter, this tempera on wood tray illustrates a scene from Giovanni Bocaccio’s story of Ameto who discovers nymphs while hunting. The nymphs teach Ameto the meaning of love. Ceramic or wooden trays or bowls were common gifts following childbirth.
Males had more choices than females. Boys were sent to apprenticeships at an equally early age as girls. However, their earnings were sent back to their families until the young men were able to establish themselves independently in their trade. Marriage occurred later for males – about 25-30 years of age. In Florence at the time of the Catasto about 12 percent of the males were permanent bachelors. If men were widowed they re-married quickly. The later age of marriage for males created an increase in prostitution and male same-sex relationships.
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Francesco Sassetti and Son Teodoro, Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0. Francesco Sassetti managed the Medici banks in France and Switzerland as well as serving as a Medici advisor. Completed about 1488, Domenico Ghirlandaio was a popular Florentine painter known for sensitive portrait paintings as well as large fresco cycles. Sassetti would have been a very well to do upper class citizen. His son is about nine years old in the painting. A father-son portrait indicates the importance of patrimonial lineage.
Sometimes war, famine, plague, or out of wedlock pregnancies resulted in unwanted births. Abandoned babies were left at two Florentine hospitals that also served the sick and elderly. Soon a new hospital in Florence called Ospedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents) opened to meet the needs of the population in 1445. About 70 percent of the foundlings were girls. If an out of wedlock male was born, the fathers were more likely to keep them in their households. Newly renovated as a museum, the organization still advocates for children and families today.
In Florence at this time 14% of households were managed by women, mostly widows. Although remarriage was discouraged by the clergy, most lower class women did remarry out of necessity. Only 9 percent of households were headed by women in the countryside.
The household, comprised of a co-residential domestic group related by blood/marriage, is known as the hearth. A larger wealthier family in Florence lived with more relatives, especially those who were bankers, notaries, judges, wool and silk merchants. Most people lived with a male relative since the family basis was patrilineal affiliation - it was a man’s world. Male heirs were essential to the survival of the family line. The importance of patrilineal heritage is evident in Michelangelo’s letters to and from his family and his near obsession with continuing the family name and establishing a high-ranking family. The typical Tuscan head of household was a man in his 50s heading up a household of five or six people.
Six Centuries Later
A study by two Italian economists (Barone and Mocetti) correlated Florentine surnames from the 1427 tax census to 2011 tax records with surprising results. What they found is a high degree of status inheritance across generations. Intergenerational mobility (inheriting money and status across many generations) was significant across about twenty generations, particularly if the 1427 family was well off and the head of household worked in a good profession, such as lawyer, banker, medical doctor, goldsmith or pharmacist. The unique spelling of Florentine names and other data points in their study make a strong case for their research. These select professions produced inherited wealth and greater likelihood that future family members would continue to work in the same profession and maintain family status.
Barone, Guglielmo and Sauro Mocetti. “Intergenerational Mobility in the Very Long Run: Florence 1427-2011. Bank of Italy Regional Economic Research Division, 2015.
Bayer, Andrea, editor. Art and Love in Renaissance Italy. Yale University Press, 2009.
Eckstein, Nicholas. “Addressing Wealth in Renaissance Florence: Some New Soundings from the Catasto of 1427.” Journal of Urban History 32, No. 5, 2006: 711-728.
Herlihy, David and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber. Tuscans and Their Families: A Study of the Florentine Catasto of 1427. Yale University Press, 1985.