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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

The Florentine Catasto of 1427

As I continue to develop my podcast, I will be thinking about ways to align this blog with the podcast. Towards that end, this particular post relates to topics currently being discussed in the most recent episodes of the I Take History With My Coffee podcast. Beginning with Episode #18, I focus upon the history of Florence at the end of the 14th century through the 15th century. Not only do I examine the political situation in Florence at the time, but also take a look at the emergence of humanism as an intellectual movement, and its impact upon the cultural reawakening called the Italian Renaissance. All episodes of the podcast can be found at this link as well as on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other platforms.

In 1427, Florence undertook an exhaustive survey of its populace and their possessions. This remarkable effort set Florence apart, making it one of the very few states in Europe, alongside Venice, to systematically illuminate all its citizens, extending even to the youngest members of society.

The meticulous and diligent work of the clerks resulted in a comprehensive snapshot of Florentine society. The census encompasses both the humble and the influential, the impoverished peasants, and the proud patricians, all documented alongside their respective belongings, whether modest or opulent. The records showcase diverse voices: some bemoan the behavior of tenants or landlords, others boast of their commercial reputation, while others still lament the hardships of warfare, aging, or crop failures. Tuscany is unique in the European landscape of the fifteenth century. What truly sets the Catasto apart from other contemporary fiscal surveys is its vastness, diversity, and accuracy. It captures around 60,000 households and over 260,000 individuals. This monumental undertaking not only inventories movable and immovable assets but also assigns systematic evaluations to them. As a testament to the Florentine and Italian Renaissance, the Catasto retains uniform information on the region's wealth, economic activities, and demographic traits, all within the same registers.

During the 14th century, Florence transformed significantly, evolving from a medieval town into a thriving hub of trade, commerce, and cultural innovation. By 1427, Florence had solidified its position in the European economy. Industries like textiles, banking, and luxury goods drove its prosperity. Over time, Florence's public finances grew impressively, even amid challenges like plagues, wars, and financial crises. In the early 1300s, the city's annual income was about 780,000 pounds, demonstrating substantial financial resources despite adversities.

Florence's prosperity and financial growth were marked by shifts in taxation methods. In the 14th century, wealth transitioned from land ownership to liquid capital, resulting in indirect taxes known as gabelles. By 1338, these gabelles contributed three-quarters of government revenue while direct land taxes declined. Notably, the direct tax, the Estimo, was suspended in the city in 1315 due to negative associations with despotic regimes. In rural areas, the Estimo tax persisted but declined due to plague, oppression, and concentration of land ownership.

Florence adopted a strategy of citizens lending money to the government to address wartime funding needs. This innovative approach helped acquire funds for war without harming commerce, a crucial element of Florence's prosperity. The affluent citizens of Florence were compared to "barns of money" by humanist Poggio Bracciolini, reflecting their role in providing financial resources for the government. This concept mirrored barns of wheat, which sustained the populace. Citizens lent money to the government through the Monte (“The Mountain”), the institution in charge of managing public debt.

Between 1423 and 1428, Florence faced financial challenges due to a renewed conflict with Milan. The government imposed numerous forced loans, but returns fell short. Despite efforts to incentivize payments, revenue and public trust declined. Voices within the government called for fiscal reform, advocating for fair assessments and efficiency. These included prominent families such as the Albizzi and the Medici. On May 24, 1427, the government enacted the "Law of the Catasto" in response to war, financial strain, and public dissatisfaction. This marked a significant step toward modern fiscal practices, addressing transparency and efficiency in taxation. The Florentine government's adoption of the Catasto was influenced by the city's history of budgetary surveys and the methods of other Italian cities, particularly Venice.

The Catasto regulations closely resembled Venetian practices. The word "Catasto" was borrowed from Venice, and many associated techniques were adopted. Although no surviving Venetian survey exists, the regulations of the Venetian Senate from 1411 describe the methods they employed. Venice's Catasto assessed various forms of wealth, exempting specific property and offering deductions for family members. The Florentine Catasto regulations closely mirrored these provisions. Similarities included evaluating multiple forms of wealth, exempting non-income-producing property, allowing deductions for family members, providing favorable treatment to productive assets, and excluding certain household members from the assessment. The Venetian experience and the Tuscan tradition of fiscal surveys equipped the Florentines with practical methods for surveying and assessing wealth. These policies also influenced behavior and social dynamics. For instance, the personal deduction in Florence possibly encouraged a higher birth rate, while exemptions for domicile, tools, and work animals supported productive efforts. The Catasto reflected early manipulation of fiscal policies for desired social outcomes.

The law entrusted the task of surveying to a commission of ten officials known as the Diece Uficiali del Catasto. These officials were chosen through a complex process that combined lot drawings, personal scrutiny, and elections following established Florentine administrative procedures. These officials commenced their duties on May 28, 1427, and although initially given a one-year term, they extended their tenure until the end of June 1428 due to the complexity of the task. Subsequent boards of Catasto officials followed the same pattern, serving for precisely twelve months each during the years 1428-1429 and 1429-1430. This administrative structure persisted until 1434, with the first three boards predominantly responsible for completing the inaugural Catasto, which served as the foundation for subsequent 15th-century surveys. The law mandated that within a year, the Catasto office complete six surveys encompassing city residents, district inhabitants, priests, foreigners, and guilds. Subsequent boards of officials followed similar patterns. By the time the office was dissolved in 1434, they had completed two additional city surveys (1430 and 1433) and had begun but still needed to complete a new Estimo for the countryside for the year 1434.

The Catasto was conceived as a bold solution to the taxation predicament. Initiated by the Florentine government, the Catasto aimed to establish a fair and just taxation system by assessing the wealth and property of each individual in the city. This monumental undertaking responded to the need for a tax system that accurately reflected an individual's economic standing rather than relying on static trade-based taxes. By creating a detailed inventory of every household, property, and value, the Florentine authorities sought to ensure that the burden of taxation was distributed in a way that corresponded more closely to the citizens' economic capacity.

But it can also be seen as a manifestation of the republican values that characterized Florentine society during this era. The republic was deeply invested in promoting social stability and maintaining a harmonious balance between its diverse citizenry. The republic aimed to mitigate potential social tensions and foster a sense of civic cohesion by implementing a system that considered an individual's economic status. The humanistic movement, which emphasized the importance of individual potential and civic duty, was gaining traction during the Renaissance. This movement influenced the political and administrative philosophies of the time, encouraging city-states like Florence to focus on efficient governance, social order, and civic engagement. The Catasto can be seen as a manifestation of these humanistic ideals, as it aimed to create a more just and organized society.

Advancements in record-keeping and bureaucratic systems characterized the early 15th century. The emergence of paper as a writing medium and improved bookkeeping practices facilitated the management of large-scale projects such as the Catasto. This technological progress played a crucial role in enabling the city to undertake the monumental task of cataloging its properties and inhabitants.

The Catasto provides invaluable insights into the hierarchical structure of Florentine society. It categorizes individuals based on their social status, ranging from the nobility and wealthy merchants to artisans and laborers. By analyzing the distribution of wealth across these social strata, historians gain a deeper understanding of the prevailing power dynamics and class divisions. Furthermore, the Catasto sheds light on the city’s physical layout, highlighting the distribution of properties and neighborhoods across Florence.

These records offer a goldmine for researchers interested in unraveling the economic patterns of the Renaissance period. By quantifying the wealth of individuals and families, the register enables scholars to analyze wealth distribution, economic disparities, and mobility within the city. This data can be cross-referenced with other historical records, such as tax records and business transactions, to paint a comprehensive picture of Florence's economic landscape.

David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber's book is still regarded as the most comprehensive analysis of the data gleaned from the Catasto:

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