Like most city-states of the era, the people of Renaissance Florence were composed of four social classes: nobles, merchants, trade workers, and unskilled workers.
The nobles lived on large estates outside the city walls. They owned most of the city’s land and were influential people. Nobles often served as military officers, royal advisers, and politicians. Baldassare Castiglione described the proper manners of a noble in The Book of the Courtier (1528). Castiglione wrote that a noble must have the training to be an able warrior and social talents such as wit, the ability to dance, and “a certain grace that makes all his activities seem effortless and unconscious.”
The nobles were disdainful of the merchant class, who gained wealth in industries like wool processing, shipbuilding, and banking. Merchants sought to enhance their prestige by taking leadership roles in government positions and marrying into noble families. The merchants became patrons of great artists to gain public favor.
Farinata degli Uberti (died 1264), was an Italian aristocrat and military leader. He appears as a character in Dante Alighieri 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy.
The trade workers of Florence included artisans and shopkeepers. Most artisans belonged to guilds, organizations that established quality standards, set membership rules, and limited outside competition.
The unskilled workers were the lowest class of city workers. These laborers did not have job protection and were dependent on their employers. Workers who violated rules could have their wages withheld or be discharged from their jobs.
As difficult as their lives were, the unskilled urban workers were better off than the peasants who lived in rural areas. The poorest of the peasants were the sharecroppers who worked on land owned by nobles. Life on peasant farms was demanding, and starvation was common.
The Doge’s Palace in Venice, Italy. The palace was the residence of the Doge of Venice, the supreme authority of the Republic of Venice. Today it is a museum.
The Peasant Dance is an oil-on-panel by Flemish renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in c. 1569.
Social classes became less distinct as the Renaissance progressed, and humanist ideas led to increased individual rights. Nonetheless, the class system remained in place in Florence and throughout most of Europe long after the end of the Renaissance.