Gautier de Brienne

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Gautier de Brienne: Duke of Athens

Walter VI of Brienne (Gautier de Brienne), better known as the Duke of Athens, was a French nobleman invited to Florence in 1342 to help the Florentines defeat Pisa and gain possession of Lucca, a neighboring town. Described by the Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani as cruel, cunning, avaricious, proud, and dictatorial, the duke was criticized by many for his tyrannical rule.

In 1326, Walter first came to Florence to serve as the vicar of Charles, the Duke of Calabria, for several months. He returned in 1342 in the wake of unusual turmoil in the city following an economic crash, which was precipitated by King Edward defaulting on loan payments to Florentine banks funding his war against France. After leading the victorious fight against Pisa, Walter was offered the title of Capitano da Guerra. Walter persuaded the Florentines to increase their offer and, much to the chagrin of Guelf leaders, this savior of the city was appointed Podestà for life.

Initially, the politically dominant patricians supported him and hoped that the Duke would preserve their power against pressures from the impotent magnate and working classes. But, when Walter instead provided greater rights and privileges to the city’s traditionally disenfranchised laboring classes, the upper guildsmen of Florence turned against their Podestà. Walter sought to equalize the tax burden and to recover communal rights and properties from the hands of the rich poplani grassi and magnate. He appointed special officials to do this and authorized them to keep a register in which were inscribed all of the commune’s property and rights (“bona et iura”). His policies, however, were more than an attempt to reform the state’s economy; they were intended to weaken the power and authority of the greater guildsmen. The last straw came on June 24, when Walter permitted a newly formed guild of unskilled wool workers to lead the annual parade on St. John’s Day, a symbolic gesture that infuriated Wool Guild officials. Walter now threatened the fragile social and economic equilibrium of guild leadership that had been carefully constructed over three generations.

Stoked by a conspiracy that emanated from inside the Wool Guild, a mob surrounded the Palazzo Vecchio on Saint Anne’s Day, July 26, 1343. After a brief siege, the Florentines deposed Walter, forced him into exile, killed members of his French retinue, and ransacked their homes. Saint Anne’s Day was declared a public holiday and was honored for generations thereafter.


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