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State Cash Resources and State Building in Europe 13th-18th century

 | 
Katia Béguin
, 
Anne L. Murphy

Political Construction and the Management of Public Resources

No Debt without Taxation. Fiscal Policy, Institutions and Politics in Italy 1350–1700

Luciano Pezzolo

Texte intégral

Introduction

  • 1 Douglass North and Barry Weingast, ‘Constitutions and commitment: the evolution of institutions gov (...)
  • 2 David Stasavage, Public debt and the birth of the democratic state: France and Great Britain 1688–1 (...)

1Over recent years scholars of financial history have been widening and developing their scope and methods. The neo-institutional approach has certainly contributed to an understanding of the logic of financial systems and shed new light on the intricate relationships between institutional structure and economic performance.1 The question of sovereign debts and their credibility has been analyzed from different standpoints and in a comparative perspective. This has allowed an explanation of why some governments borrowed at higher cost than others. Several elements have been cited: constitutional structure, the power relations among elites, geopolitics and military pressure, as well as the size of states.2

  • 3 Perry Anderson, Lineages of the absolutist state, London, Verso, 1974, pp. 169–172.

2This chapter explores the relations between constitutional structure and taxation by comparing four states in late medieval and early modern Italy: the duchy of Savoy, the republic of Venice, the Florentine state and the kingdom of Sicily. As it is well known, Venice and Renaissance Florence were republics; the former maintained its character until the end, in 1797; the latter became a grand duchy in 1530 and was integrated into the new national state in 1859. These two polities have been studied as models of the political and economic history of medieval and Renaissance Italy. Venice was a republic run by an oligarchy with strong commercial interests in overseas trading and a wide empire in the eastern Mediterranean sea. Beginning in the fifteenth century, it also formed a territorial state in the Italian mainland. Florence also was a place where traders and bankers were the usual protagonists of economic and political life; and like Venice, it built a territorial state in most of Tuscany. Unlike Venice, however, Florence faced political turmoil, factional struggles, revolts and the rise of a ruling family, the Medici. The other two cases considered are Piedmont and Sicily, the former a principality and the latter a kingdom subjected to the Aragonese and later the Habsburg crowns. The history of Piedmont is traditionally linked to that of the Savoy dynasty that was to lead the process towards the unification of Italy during the Risorgimento. The duchy has long been considered the Italian version of European absolutism, resembling both French and Prussian features.3 Sicily, on the other hand, has traditionally been regarded as a typical peripheral area, both in political and economic terms; this island, however, successfully managed to resist pressure from distant centres, whether Barcelona, Madrid or Rome.

3Table 1 shows the main characteristics of the regions considered in terms of urban population.

Table 1. Urbanization rate (cities with more than 5,000 inhabitants)

Piedmont

Veneto

Tuscany

Sicily

1300

31.1

48.0

1400

15.0

30.0

1500

20.8

21.0

49.6

1600

14.0

22.8

19.0

72.6

1700

13.1

18.2

18.5

63.0

Sources: Paolo Malanima, ‘Italian cities 1300–1800. A quantitative approach’, Rivista di storia economica, vol. 14, 1998; Domenico Ligresti, Popolazione, insediamenti, territorio nella Sicilia moderna 1505–1806, Catania, Amara, 2000, p. 296; Andrea Zannini, ‘Sempre più agricola, sempre più regionale. L’economia della repubblica di Venezia da Agnadello al Lombardo-Veneto 1509–1817’, in Giuseppe Del Torre and Alfredo Viggiano (ed.), 1509–2009. L’ombra di Agnadello: Venezia e la Terraferma, Atti del Convegno internazionale di studi, Venezia 14–16 maggio 2009, Ateneo veneto, 197, 9/I, 2010, p. 144.

  • 4 Stephan R. Epstein, An island for itself, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 50 and pp (...)
  • 5 See, for example, Maurice Aymard, ‘Un bourg de Sicile entre XVIe et XVIIsiècle: Gangi’, Conjonctu (...)

4At first glance, one of the most important differences between Sicily, the two republics and Piedmont is the weight of cities. Veneto and to a less extent Tuscany are territories where cities mark the landscape, while in Piedmont few centres have typical urban functions. As far as Sicily is concerned, since the Middle Ages the island has shown a significant rate of urbanization; the urban structure is characterized by large centres (even developing two capitals, Palermo and Messina) and a striking presence of medium-sized cities and so-called agro-towns (borghi).4 These agro-towns, however, were not mere rural centres, for they presented a fairly articulated social and economic hierarchy.5

5Moreover, in Sicily and Piedmont there were representative institutions, the parliaments, whose composition was the traditional one, three estates representing clergy, feudatories and domain cities. In Tuscany and Veneto, however, ecclesiastics, cities, feudatories and rural institutions had no political assembly (except for the parliament of Friuli in the eastern part of the Venetian mainland), but, as we shall see, this does not imply that they had no bargaining power.

6Some data concerning the four states can help to delineate their financial trends (table 2).

Table 2. Per capita state income of Piedmont, Venice, Florence and Sicily, 1500–1700, in grams of silver

Piedmont

Venice

Florence

Sicily

France

England

1500

31

17

7

11

10

1550

27

22

8

12

1600

32

37

54

24

15

16

1650

46

53

14

58

35

1700

42

54

18

45

83

Source: L. Pezzolo, Mars and Pluto. War and finance in Italy, 1350–1700 (forthcoming).

7It goes without saying that these data must be considered fairly tentative due to the high degree of uncertainty regarding fiscal documentation. The trajectories depicted in table 2 show a general increase of central revenues, which however underestimate the real growth of the fiscal burden on subjects. Municipal taxes, duties in services and kind and government taxes collected at local level that did not make their way into the central coffers represented a substantial portion of the fiscal weight. That said, one can see that the rate of growth is different. Over the period considered, Venice did not succeed in doubling its revenue while Sicily did, and Florence tripled its revenue just in the sixteenth century. The apparent heavy burden on Tuscan taxpayers is probably also due to the relatively small demographic size of the state. It is also interesting to note that an international comparison shows the good performances of Piedmont, Venice and (presumably) Florence.

I. The Duchy of Savoy-Piedmont

8The territories of the duke of Savoy stretched from the areas of the current French Savoy and Switzerland to Nice and to the western part of the Po valley. A lack of homogeneity was the most evident feature of the duchy: each territory enjoyed a specific relationship with the duke, following the process of state formation. The presence of seigniorial powers was widespread, for most of the valleys and rural communities were under the jurisdiction of feudal lords. There were few cities controlling their surroundings (the so-called contado) and some communities were directly under ducal control. Of course this mosaic was reflected in the fiscal field as well. A wide array of privileges, immunities and exemptions characterized the fiscal and administrative geography of the state. First of all, the ecclesiastical land was exempt from direct taxation, and this accounts for the weak role of the clergy in the parliaments. Instead, it was the cities and the domain communities that were the most important interlocutors of the duke in the parliament, as they paid most of the taxes requested by the duke.

  • 6 Alessandro Barbero, Il ducato di Savoia. Amministrazione e corte di uno stato franco-italiano, Bari (...)

9Like everywhere, the prince could rely on specific financial resources, his domain, first, as well as some revenues from duties on trade and consumption. In case of need the parliament alone could grant permission to raise an extraordinary tax, the subsidy, which was collected by agents of feudatories and communities. Although information on late medieval Piedmont is scarce, one gets the impression that the financial health of the duke was quite poor. In 1449, the war against the Milanese condottiero Francesco Sforza proved disastrous, due to heavy financial constraints.6 It is no surprise that during the late phase of the Italian Wars the duchy was easily conquered and kept by the French (1536–1559).

  • 7 Helmut Koenigsberger, Estates and revolutions, Ithaca (NY), Cornell University Press, 1971, pp. 19– (...)
  • 8 Matthew Vester, ‘Fiscal commissions, consensus and informal representation: taxation in the Savoyar (...)
  • 9 Luciano Allegra, La città verticale. Usurai, mercanti e tessitori nella Chieri del Cinquecento, Mil (...)
  • 10 Matthew Vester, ‘Territorial politics and early modern “fiscal policy”: taxation in Savoy 1559–1580 (...)

10When Emmanuel Philibert, the new duke, arrived in 1559 to rule his territories, a new history of the Savoyard state began. After having played a remarkable political role, thanks to the ducal power’s weakness, between the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries, after 1560 the assembly of the three Piedmontese Estates was never officially convened;7 nevertheless, informal meetings and negotiations between the duke and local elites lay behind the ducal decrees.8 In 1560 the new duke attempted to improve his revenues. Initially the government decided to raise the rate of the salt tax by negotiating with feudatories and communities. The legitimacy of the tax relied on a customary duty, so no one could complain about ‘novelties’. But the levy proved difficult and some communities preferred to pay a lump sum rather than to buy the salt from the monopoly. In 1561 the salt tax was transformed into a fixed subsidy, the tasso. It was expected to yield annually 200,000 gold scudi for the following seven years. The duke justified the new imposition by claiming that it was much fairer than the salt tax. The new tax provoked a struggle between feudatories, clergy and communities, as well as between urban groups. Everyone attempted to shift the burden onto those who until then had been enjoying immunity. The merchants and artisans of Chieri, for example, managed to avoid the assessment of their movable wealth on the occasion of the levy.9 The tasso, however, reduced by half of the original amount, was renewed in 1567 for another twelve years; and in the meantime the duke imposed further excises.10

  • 11 Felice Amato Duboin (ed.), Raccolta per ordine di materia delle leggi, cioè editti, patenti, manife (...)

11The tasso followed the path of many other extraordinary taxes that governments over time changed into regular revenues. Like many other examples, this obligation was not a pure direct tax. Communities could actually exploit various sources (direct taxes, poll taxes, excises, tolls) to meet government demands. And, like other tax revenues, the tasso was used by the government to raise loans. A part of the yield was earmarked to pay interest to lenders until the principal was paid back. A few years after the first levy of the tax, the duke assigned portions of the yield to both reward some people and pay the creditors’ interest. Progressively, a significant portion of the tasso was alienated. Besides creditors, taxpayers wanting to free themselves from that burden were allowed to pay a capitalized amount; furthermore, a person could buy the right to collect the tax from communities. Seventeenth-century data show that about one-third of the yield had been alienated. In the late seventeenth century nearly half of the public debt was funded from the tasso; and half its proceeds had been sold to purchasers.11 Thus, between the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the most important revenue of the duke was increasingly undermined due to alienations, appanages, pensions and grants.

12From 1600 to 1713 the duchy was involved in thirty-eight years of war and in nineteen years of minor conflicts; one year in every two was marked by military commitments. It is no surprise, therefore, that the seventeenth century had been labelled as a period of ‘extraordinary finance’. In 1659 a military subsidy was levied theoretically for just one year, but it was to last until 1700, when it was eventually changed into an ordinary tax. Two years earlier the duke had established another tax, the so-called imposition of the 308,000 lire, which followed the same path of the tasso and the military subsidy, becoming an ordinary obligation. Although these three taxes seem to support the view of a growing absolutism of the Savoyard state, it is worth stressing some limits of the dukes’ fiscal policy. First, the tasso, which basically represented a sort of matrix for the following taxes, was a quota tax, that is, every community had to pay a given amount – set through negotiations between the government and the community. Second, the community could choose which financial resources to use to meet the government’s demand. Cities with a high degree of commercial activity could exploit duties on trade and consumption, while rural centres had to rely on consumption and land. The choice of course reflected the power relations within the community. Third, the new tax did not rely on any survey of land property, so over time the distribution of the burden did not change whereas the structure of property did. Fourth, wide areas of immunity (mostly concerning feudal and ecclesiastical land) were untouched. Last, but not least, the levy needed the elites’ consent. It was they that acted to limit the potential novelty of the tasso, for they managed to provide the ducal Treasury with a regular financial flow in exchange for relative freedom in distributing the tax burden among subjects.

II. The Kingdom of Sicily

  • 12 William Armstrong Percy, ‘The earliest revolution against the “modern state”: direct taxation in me (...)
  • 13 Stephan R. Epstein, ‘Conflitti redistributivi, fisco e strutture sociali (1392–1516)’, in Francesco (...)

13Unlike Piedmont, Sicily, the largest Mediterranean island, underwent several changes of rulers, from the Arabs and the Normans to the Angevins, the Aragonese (1282–1516) and the Spanish Habsburgs (1516–1713). Some long-term elements characterized the Sicilian fiscal system. The late medieval structure had its roots in the age of Frederick II, when the most important tax, along with duties on consumption and trade, was the collecta or generalis subventio. Based on a rough estimate of population and wealth, it could be levied only on specific occasions: for the defence of the kingdom, the crowning of the king, the investiture as knight of the king’s son, and the marriage of the king’s daughter or sister. During the Angevin (1266–82) and the following Aragonese rule this tax became de facto an ordinary one, with some limits.12 Until 1477, in fact, the maximum amount the king could raise as colletta was 5,000 onze, a sum set as far back as in 1268. In addition, an annual colletta was accepted by feudatories and cities only in 1439. In the 1440s a new era in Sicilian fiscal history started; in 1446–1447 the parliament granted a subsidy (donativo) of 150,000 florins for six years, and in 1452–1453 another 200,000 florins were approved for twelve years. The difference between the traditional colletta and the donativo was merely a political one: the former was regarded as an arbitrary obligation, while the latter represented the outcome of political bargaining between Sicilian elites and the king.13 During the Alfonsine period the relations between crown and elites became more complex, because urban society was becoming more and more articulate and provided the king with a powerful interlocutor along with the traditional feudal nobility.

14The new atmosphere and the changing power relations on the island supported the increasing royal demand for money. Beginning in the mid-fifteenth century, the parliament approved all the requests of the king, granting conspicuous amounts for the foreign policy of the Aragonese and later the Habsburgs. As figure 1 shows, throughout a period of two-and-a-half centuries the parliament increased by fifteen times the amounts (in silver) offered to the king. Between the second half of the fifteenth and the mid-sixteenth century the sum doubled (from nearly one to two tons of silver), the amount tripled in the 1630s (to 8.8 tons) and then grew dramatically in the 1640s (over 14) and reached about 16 tons in the second half of the seventeenth century.

Figure 1. Amounts granted by the Sicilian parliament, 1446–1700, kg of silver

Figure 1. Amounts granted by the Sicilian parliament, 1446–1700, kg of silver

Sources: Data, converted into silver, taken from V. D’Alessandro, ‘La Sicilia dal Vespro a Ferdinando il Cattolico’, in La Sicilia dal Vespro all’Unità, Turin, UTET, 1989, pp. 40–41; S. Di Matteo and F. Pillitteri, Storia dei Monti di Pietà in Sicilia, Palermo, Cassa di risparmio V.E. per le province siciliane, 1973, p. 22; A Giuffrida, La finanza pubblica nella Sicilia del ‘500, Caltanisetta, S. Sciascia, 1999, pp. 125–127; D. Ligresti, Governo e territorio nella Sicilia moderna, Catania, CUECM, 1997, Appendix 1.

  • 14 Helmut Koenigsberger, The practice of empire. The government of Sicily under Philip II, Ithaca (NY) (...)
  • 15 Antonino Mongitore, Parlamenti generali del regno di Sicilia, I, Palerme, Presso P. Bentivenga, 174 (...)

15From the early seventeenth century parliamentary grants became the pillar of royal revenues in Sicily; while in the sixteenth century they represented about one-third of state income, in the following century their share increased up to over 40%. At the same time the size of the royal debt increased from 300,000 scudi in 1564 to 2,000,000 scudi in 1640.14 It seems that the yield of the parliamentary taxes was able support the growth of the funded debt quite well. It was clear that the donativo was just used to pay creditors.15 Thus, the fact that consent could be reliably obtained from the parliament allowed the king to exploit the increasing fiscal income as well as raise more and more money from lenders.

  • 16 See the account of Daniele Palermo in Sicilia 1647. Voci, esempi, modelli di rivolta, Palermo, Asso (...)

16Such an effective mechanism, however, broke as the crown increased its requests during the Thirty Years’ War. Until then the island had managed to cope with the royal pressure, but from the early seventeenth century the general economic situation had been worsening. In 1647 revolts broke out throughout the whole island and the very first targets of rioters were the tax collectors, the creditors of communities, and those who were considered to be profiting from the fiscal system.16

III. The Florentine State

  • 17 Anthony Molho, Florentine public finances in the early Renaissance 1400–1433, Cambridge (Mass.), Ha (...)

17The fiscal structure of the Florentine republic shows the typical features of a medieval Italian city. The main ordinary revenues came from duties on consumption and trade, mostly levied in an urban environment, while direct taxation was conceived as an extraordinary device. Between the mid-fourteenth and the early fifteenth century, recurring military needs provoked a dramatic increase in taxation and a gigantic growth of indebtedness.17 In the 1340s the government established a funded debt (Monte Comune) based on forced loans that the Florentine citizen had to pay. The amount requested from the Florentines was determined by tax assessments on their properties and economic activities, of which the famous catasto of 1427 is an astonishing example. The citizens enlisted in the tax registers had to lend to the government and in exchange were entitled to receive an annual return of 5%. Their credits could be negotiated in the market. The ever-mounting cash demands of the government brought about severe difficulties among forced lenders and accordingly in the secondary market of state securities. Fiscal pressure increased and market prices dropped. Many Florentines thus had to sell their credits at a low price in order to obtain money to pay new forced loans. The government, furthermore, allowed citizens either to lend or to pay a lower amount but with no claim to any return. The interest rate was progressively reduced to as low as 1% and paid erratically. Consequently, many Florentine forced lenders were transformed into real taxpayers. Along with forced loans, furthermore, from the 1440s a wave of extraordinary taxes hit the Florentines. During the republican period (1494–1512) a new direct tax on land was levied, which was to last until the end of the grand duchy. It is important to stress that during the ducal rule one of the most important differences that distinguished the urban and the rural taxpayers – that is, direct taxation – faded away. Apparently, the late Renaissance Florentine state was more homogeneous in fiscal terms than the late medieval city-state. We will see in a next section the relationships – if any – between political change and fiscal policy.

IV. The Venetian Republic

  • 18 This section is based on Reinhold C. Mueller, Banks, panics and the public debt 1200–1500, Baltimor (...)

18The fiscal and financial system of Venice resembled the Florentine one. Traditionally the Venetian exchequer relied primarily on indirect taxation, namely duties on trade, consumption and economic activities in general.18 Income from domains (rental of land and property rights, mint, coinage and so on) was rather small. In peacetime the ordinary budget met usual expenses such as officers’ salaries, soldiers and sailors of the fleet, the cost of maintaining the arsenal and the payment of interest on loans. However, peace was a condition that Venice rarely enjoyed. Conflicts, not just with other powers but also with pirates, short but intense campaigns against rebels in overseas territories, tensions on the border with the neighbouring powers, protection from raids and escorts for merchant ships – all of these required Venice to maintain an almost constant state of emergency and mobilization. It is no coincidence that Venice was the first Mediterranean power to rely on a stable fleet, which patrolled the Adriatic from the fourteenth century. Over the early fifteenth century the Serenissima conquered a large portion of the Po valley (up to Bergamo in the west and Friuli in the east) and so its dominion stretched from the western part of Lombardy to the overseas colonies of Cyprus.

  • 19 Richard T. Rapp, ‘The unmaking of the Mediterranean trade hegemony: international trade rivalry and (...)

19It is worth noting that the structure of state income changed significantly throughout the seventeenth century because of the relative decline of the commercial role of Venice in the international market. As taxation on international trade decreased the government increasingly relied on both duties on domestic consumption and the Italian mainland. From 1587 to 1670 the share of central revenues from taxes on trade fell from 36% to 15%, while taxes on consumption increased from 26% to 33%.19

20In principle all the subjects of the Venetian republic were subject to fiscal duty: lay people and ecclesiastics, widows, citizens and peasants, nobles, merchants and landowners. The doge himself had to pay taxes. Within this mass of taxpayers, however, there were significant differences that mirrored the structure of society and the constitution of the state. These divisions distinguished among the capital city, the Italian mainland and the overseas colonies, with different legal traditions and economic, social and political structures. Taxpayers of the city capital and taxpayers of the mainland (the so-called stato da terra) were registered in different tax lists. The latter, furthermore, were subdivided into city dwellers and peasants. Venetian landowners enjoyed particular privileges; they were exempt, for example, from the obligation to provide services for the maintenance of the army in peacetime. Such differences between taxpayers, however, diminished during the last two centuries of the republic.

21Like Florence, Venice also made heavy use of a system of forced loans. Until the 1370s the level of indebtedness varied both in relation to military involvement and the decision to pay back the money borrowed through the Camera degli imprestiti (Chamber of Loans), the office managing government debt. The third war against Genoa (1378–1381) led to the first severe financial crisis of the state. The payment of interest, until then fairly regular, was suspended; requests for forced loans increased, and prices of the securities in the market collapsed. The heavy tax burden particularly hit the most vulnerable citizens. Since the loans were required from the Venetians whose assets were estimated in the tax registers, those who had not been assessed evidently escaped the obligation of the loan and at the same time were able to buy highly devalued government credits on the market. Consequently, the situation turned in favour of speculators, who had bought, at low prices, securities that subsequently granted a high effective interest rate. The crisis at the end of the fourteenth century opened a long period of decline of the Monte Vecchio: the consolidated debt. The almost continuous wars in Italy and against the Turks in the Levant gave no respite to state finances, and so the interest rate on old government loans decreased progressively, and interest payments also became increasingly sporadic.

22In 1463 the government began to levy the decima (tithe), a direct tax, on a semi-regular basis, which fell on the income mostly from real estate both in Venice and on the mainland, and a tansa, which taxed other forms of revenues (trade, crafts, shops). Previously various extraordinary direct taxes had been decreed, levied mostly on people who were not obliged to lend; beginning in the 1460s, however, the practice became more and more ordinary and institutionalized. The debt crisis had led to the need to seek a means to cope with the increasing difficulties. Thus a mixed system, made up of both forced loans at interest and direct taxes, was set up. The basis of the levy remained the estimo (tax register), a document recording each taxpayer’s income and that should have been updated periodically to reflect changes in taxable wealth. As for the decima, the taxpayer declared his income mainly from real estate, and later the tax authority verified the tax return. The amount of tansa, however, was discretionally determined by a committee that considered the whole income and expenditure of the taxpayer. The system would have worked quite well had the registers been updated regularly. Despite the fact that the law required the redecime (as tax registers were defined in the administrative language of the time) to be filled in frequently, they were completed on only four occasions in the sixteenth century and only once in the following century. Also the taxpayers of the Italian mainland were gradually requested to pay direct taxes. As its overseas interests were progressively threatened by military and economic competitors, Venice moved from a fiscal system centred on the capital city and international trade to a structure that increasingly involved the Italian mainland. The burden of indebtedness therefore shifted from foreign consumers to the taxpayers of both Venice and the subjects of the mainland.

V. Analogies and Differences

23The cases considered here show different political and financial trajectories. In the later Middle Ages the Piedmontese ducal power was quite weak vis-à-vis the feudatories, while the cities played a minor role although they were heavily involved in taxation. Political troubles and the invasion of the French army in 1536 did not eliminate the assembly of the three estates, which continued to work. The arrival of the new duke in 1560 and the concomitant disappearance of the Piedmontese parliament seemed to put the duchy in line with the trends of the major European monarchies. But in the seventeenth century problems of succession dramatically revealed the structural weaknesses of the Savoyard House. A civil war broke out and foreign threats brought about a high degree of uncertainty. Sicily, on the other hand, underwent severe troubles during the fourteenth and the early fifteenth century; after that, however, the political atmosphere was relatively good. Embedded in the Aragonese and later in the Habsburg systems, the island represented the bulwark against the Ottoman threat until the 1570s, as the focus of Habsburgs’ interests shifted to Flanders and northern Europe. Thus, the Sicilian parliament was called upon to support the increasingly enormous efforts of the monarchy in the international arena. Venice also had to meet an almost endless pressure due to political engagements. The formation of the overseas empire in the late Middle Ages was the outcome of a difficult struggle against weak (the Byzantine Empire) and strong (Genoa) competitors; and its defence against the Ottomans in the early modern period created financial strain. On the mainland, the fifteenth century witnessed the emergence of a Venetian territorial state, which was lost for a brief period from 1509 to 1516, and was maintained – with no significant military involvement – until the fall of the republic. Like Venice, Florence also had to spend a great deal of money on constructing a territorial state in the fifteenth century, while after the turmoil of the Italian wars the following centuries were relatively calm. Unlike Venice, however, the Arno city changed the constitutional structure from a republic to a princedom. Military needs – albeit not solely – did influence the fiscal and financial policies of the cases discussed here. My aim, however, is to focus on the relationships, if any, between institutional structure and fiscal performance. So, two major problems arise. First, may we determine a sort of path dependence in fiscal policies? Second, do constitutional differences matter?

  • 20 W. A. Percy, ‘The earliest revolution…’, op. cit., pp. 69–83.
  • 21 L. Allegra, La città verticale…, op. cit., pp. 172–181.

24The main characteristics of the Sicilian fiscal system can be traced as far back as the thirteenth century, when Emperor Frederick II levied a general subvention based, at least theoretically, on the assessment of the wealth of each hearth.20 This mechanism was to last for centuries to come. Thus, since the principle of semi-regular direct taxation was rooted in the tradition of the kingdom, the levy of the donativo did not represent a dramatic event. In the Savoyard state, instead, the introduction of the tasso in the early 1560s signified a turning point. Until then, in fact, the subjects had been paying subsidies and grants occasionally, while with the new tax a regular burden was imposed. This novelty in some ways emphasized the new relations between the duke and his taxpayers.21 The tasso thus symbolized the rise of the ducal authority.

  • 22 Giuseppe Petralia, ‘Fiscality, politics and dominion in Florentine Tuscany at the end of the Middle (...)

25The fiscal policy adopted by the Florentine government can be divided into at least two periods: the first half of the fifteenth century witnessed a tough policy aimed at imposing the sovereignty of Florence over the subject communities. The reaction of some cities was as dramatic as the government policy. Arezzo saw riots in 1409, 1431, 1502 and 1529. The famous catasto of 1427 – a massive collection of economic and social data for a new tax assessment – provoked a revolt in Volterra in 1429. Although previously various tax registers had been made, the new census was considered illegitimate and a violation of the agreements between Florence and its subject communities;22 it was an act against a sort of moral taxation of taxpayers. After a severe period of financial strain in the fifteenth century, the Florentine state enjoyed a long period of relative calm, and consequently Tuscan taxpayers had few reasons to complain. Direct taxation of land played a minor role in state revenues, with customs and duties on consumption maintaining their fundamental importance.

  • 23 Giuseppe Del Torre, Venezia e la Terrraferma dopo la guerra di Cambrai, Milan, Franco Angeli, 1986, (...)

26As far as the Venetian state is concerned, throughout the fifteenth century direct taxation became more and more frequent. The government imposed it along with forced loans on Venetian citizens, while the taxpayers of the mainland paid a tax on land almost regularly. In the 1530s, after a severe political crisis which saw Venice lose its mainland for some years, the government established a new tax on land, the ordinary subsidy, which was supposed to fall on landowners on the mainland. This tax triggered a harsh conflict between the cities and the rural institutions with regard to distribution.23 The crucial point was not so much the new tax as its weight according to the structure of land property.

27In short, the kingdom of Sicily had a long tradition of ordinary direct taxation, while the Savoyard duke was able to exploit it only from the 1560s. The two city-states here considered, on the other hand, had met their financial needs mainly through forced and voluntary loans. One of the differences that distinguished urban taxpayers from rural inhabitants was that the latter had to pay direct taxes. From the sixteenth century, however, the fiscal structure of the Italian states changed significantly, for both the tax base and the array of fiscal and financial instruments widened. Thus, the tax systems evolved with regard to economic changes and, above all, with regard to power relations within the states.

VI. Institutions, Consent and Taxation

  • 24 Igor Mineo, ‘Il problema della rappresentanza politica nei regni meridionali italiani del tardo Med (...)
  • 25 See, for example, the refusal of the marques of Sortino to vote for the extraordinary donativo in 1 (...)

28It is no accident that parliaments emerged as ordinary institutions by the middle of the fifteenth century, as princes increased their demand for grants, subsidies and aids. Parliaments thus provided the institutional space for legitimizing the collection of taxes, which tended to assume a more regular character than in the past.24 This, of course, enhanced the bargaining power of the assemblies, for every grant to the crown implied privileges and prerogatives for the representatives. This mechanism, however, eventually favoured the prince, who was enabled to mobilize growing resources. In Sicily the Spanish kings proved successful by relying on the domain cities, which counterbalanced baronial power. Every meeting was preceded by negotiations between royal officers and local representatives, and the former exploited divisions within the latter. Furthermore, rejecting a royal request for subsidy would have been considered an act against the king.25

29The Piedmontese case instead shows an apparent exception. The assembly of estates was a powerful institution between the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries, when the ducal power was weak. As soon as Emmanuel Philibert came to the throne he decided to get rid of the parliament. He first relied on the feudal nobility’s support to persuade the rest of the subjects to accept the tasso. The local elites realized that it would have been inopportune to resist the government’s request, for the new regime opened up opportunities for brokering and social mobility under the duke’s shadow. Accordingly, the role of Turin and its elites grew as main interlocutors of the duke. Informal relations between the duke, the court and local authorities supported the levying of taxes and the mechanism of consent in the Savoyard state.

  • 26 James Grubb, Firstborn of Venice. Vicenza in the early Renaissance state, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins (...)

30Neither Venice nor Florence had an institutional arena such as a parliament; yet the mechanism of legitimization was as strong as in parliamentary states. Beginning in the late twelfth century, the Italian communes had taken up the imperial prerogative to tax; and after that they fought – more or less successfully – against their fiscal competitors (mainly feudatories, communities and, to a less extent, ecclesiastical institutions). The main interlocutors of the two republican governments were local elites. Venice had to cope with powerful urban elites, with strong international connections. In the fifteenth century, the Venetian patriciate in fact chose not to intervene heavily in the fiscal relations between the local powers (cities and rural institutions). This allowed the government to enjoy a sort of fiscal peace and to raise taxes without any particular resistance.26 Likewise, after a period of tough policy, as we have seen, Florence had to mitigate its demands on the subject communities. Venice shows a better result, in terms of fiscal product and political tensions, than Florence, thanks to moderate behaviour vis-à-vis the taxpayers. The taxpayers’ consent was attained through negotiations and bargaining with the urban elites in the fifteenth century, and also, from the early sixteenth century, with the representatives of the rural institutions. The Florentine grand dukes did not favour the establishment of rural institutions and continued to exploit clientage relations with local elites within a context, however, of light fiscal pressure.

  • 27 Eugenio Alberi (ed.), Relazioni degli ambasciatori veneti al senato, ser. II, vol. V, 1858, Turin, (...)
  • 28 Domenico Ligresti, Feudatari e patrizi nella Sicilia moderna (secoli XVI–XVII), Catania, CUECM, 199 (...)

31In the kingdom of Sicily and in the duchy of Piedmont feudal institutions had maintained a significant role; local lords had the right to tax their vassals. It is likely that the feudal lords were particularly reluctant to allow the royal tax-collectors to enter their territories. Over time this fiscal competition witnessed ups and downs, according to the relative power of the protagonists and economic conditions. In Sicily, for example, the decline of the land rent in the seventeenth century prompted barons to exert more pressure over their vassals, thus undermining their capacity to pay government taxes. In sixteenth-century Piedmont, feudatories were concerned about the increasing weight of the ducal taxation and the consequent inability of their vassals to afford feudal duties.27 Strong competition over fiscal rights thus seems to have provoked uncertainty concerning governments’ fiscal capacity. Accordingly, weak power centralization is supposed to lie at the root of financial difficulties of states with powerful local powers (feudatories and ecclesiastics as well). This view, however, is not supported by Sicilian and Piedmontese evidence. In Sicily the differences between barons and urban elites were not as marked as we tend to believe.28 Local lords, urban patricians and royal officers created a complex system of interrelations, reciprocity and mutual vested interests, so it is difficult neatly to separate the prerogatives of each group. In the Savoyard state, both urban elites and feudatories realized it was necessary to follow informal paths and to weave clientage links at court in order to achieve advantages and maintain their own prerogatives.

32In short, institutions, whether parliaments or bodies of minor size, did matter in that they represented a space of legitimization, but potential investors, as well as widespread consent, were crucial. The true differences between the states considered are related to the dynamics of power relations and the institutional channels allowing an effective bargain between the social components of the polity. If governments had been willing or able to favour the views of society, then the degree of consent could have grown, with positive effects on both the fiscal efficiency of states and their capacity to borrow at low cost.

Notes

1 Douglass North and Barry Weingast, ‘Constitutions and commitment: the evolution of institutions governing public choice in seventeenth century England’, Journal of Economic History, 49, 1989, pp. 803–833.

2 David Stasavage, Public debt and the birth of the democratic state: France and Great Britain 1688–1789, Cambridge and New York, Cambridge University Press, 2003; idem, States of credit. Size, power and the development of European polities, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2011.

3 Perry Anderson, Lineages of the absolutist state, London, Verso, 1974, pp. 169–172.

4 Stephan R. Epstein, An island for itself, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 50 and pp. 70–72; Anton Blok, ‘South Italian agro-towns’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 11, 1969, pp. 121–135.

5 See, for example, Maurice Aymard, ‘Un bourg de Sicile entre XVIe et XVIIsiècle: Gangi’, Conjoncture économique, structures sociales. Hommage à Ernest Labrousse, Paris, Mouton, 1974, pp. 353–373; D. Ligresti, ‘Popolazione, insediamenti, territorio nella Sicilia moderna. Carte e grafici’, in Giuseppe Giarrizzo and Enrico Iachello (ed.), Le mappe della storia. Proposte per una cartografia del Mezzogiorno e della Sicilia in età moderna, Milan, Franco Angeli, 2002, pp. 56–72; D. Ligresti, ‘Popolazione, insediamenti, territorio nella Sicilia moderna (1505–1806)’, Catania, s. n., 2000.

6 Alessandro Barbero, Il ducato di Savoia. Amministrazione e corte di uno stato franco-italiano, Bari, Laterza, 2002, pp. 68–97.

7 Helmut Koenigsberger, Estates and revolutions, Ithaca (NY), Cornell University Press, 1971, pp. 19–79; A. Barbero, Il ducato…, op. cit., pp. 17–20.

8 Matthew Vester, ‘Fiscal commissions, consensus and informal representation: taxation in the Savoyard domains, 1559–1580’, Parliaments, Estates and Representation, 20, 2000, pp. 59–74.

9 Luciano Allegra, La città verticale. Usurai, mercanti e tessitori nella Chieri del Cinquecento, Milan, Franco Angeli, 1987, pp. 172–177.

10 Matthew Vester, ‘Territorial politics and early modern “fiscal policy”: taxation in Savoy 1559–1580’, Viator, 32, 2001, pp. 280–302.

11 Felice Amato Duboin (ed.), Raccolta per ordine di materia delle leggi, cioè editti, patenti, manifesti… emanati dai sovrani della Real Casa di Savoia, Turin, Stamperia Reale, 1854, vol. 22, pp. 1242–1245.

12 William Armstrong Percy, ‘The earliest revolution against the “modern state”: direct taxation in medieval Sicily and the Vespers’, Italian Quarterly, 22, 1981, pp. 69–83; idem, ‘The indirect taxes of the medieval kingdom of Sicily’, Italian Quarterly, 85, 1981, pp. 73–85.

13 Stephan R. Epstein, ‘Conflitti redistributivi, fisco e strutture sociali (1392–1516)’, in Francesco Benigno and Claudio Torrisi (ed.), Elites e potere in Sicilia dal Medioevo ad oggi, Rome, Meridiana Libri, 1995, pp. 40–41.

14 Helmut Koenigsberger, The practice of empire. The government of Sicily under Philip II, Ithaca (NY), Cornell University Press, 1969, p. 134; Giovanni Marrone, L’economia siciliana e le finanze spagnole nel Seicento, Caltanisetta, Salvatore Sciascia, 1976, p. 24.

15 Antonino Mongitore, Parlamenti generali del regno di Sicilia, I, Palerme, Presso P. Bentivenga, 1749, p. 86.

16 See the account of Daniele Palermo in Sicilia 1647. Voci, esempi, modelli di rivolta, Palermo, Associazione mediterranea, 2009.

17 Anthony Molho, Florentine public finances in the early Renaissance 1400–1433, Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press, 1971; Elio Conti, L’imposta diretta a Firenze nel Quattrocento 1427–1494, Rome, Nella sede dell’Istituto, 1984.

18 This section is based on Reinhold C. Mueller, Banks, panics and the public debt 1200–1500, Baltimore and London, John Hopkins University Press, 1997; and on Luciano Pezzolo, Una finanza d’Ancien Régime. La Repubblica veneta tra XV e XVIII secolo, Naples, Edizioni scientifiche italiane, 2006.

19 Richard T. Rapp, ‘The unmaking of the Mediterranean trade hegemony: international trade rivalry and the commercial revolution’, Journal of Economic History, 35, 1975, p. 507.

20 W. A. Percy, ‘The earliest revolution…’, op. cit., pp. 69–83.

21 L. Allegra, La città verticale…, op. cit., pp. 172–181.

22 Giuseppe Petralia, ‘Fiscality, politics and dominion in Florentine Tuscany at the end of the Middle Ages’, in William Connell and Andrea Zorzi (ed.), Florentine Tuscany. Structures and practices of power, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 67–69.

23 Giuseppe Del Torre, Venezia e la Terrraferma dopo la guerra di Cambrai, Milan, Franco Angeli, 1986, pp. 77–83.

24 Igor Mineo, ‘Il problema della rappresentanza politica nei regni meridionali italiani del tardo Medioevo’, in Laura Casella (ed.), Rappresentanze e territori. Parlamento friulano e istituzioni rappresentative territoriali nell’Europa moderna, Udine, Forum Edizioni, 2003, p. 324.

25 See, for example, the refusal of the marques of Sortino to vote for the extraordinary donativo in 1615: Francesco Vergara (ed.), Il parlamento di Sicilia del 1615. Atti e documenti, Acireale, Bonanno, 1991, pp. 90–98.

26 James Grubb, Firstborn of Venice. Vicenza in the early Renaissance state, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

27 Eugenio Alberi (ed.), Relazioni degli ambasciatori veneti al senato, ser. II, vol. V, 1858, Turin, Savoia, Giovanni Correr, 1566, p. 6.

28 Domenico Ligresti, Feudatari e patrizi nella Sicilia moderna (secoli XVI–XVII), Catania, CUECM, 1992.

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Amounts granted by the Sicilian parliament, 1446–1700, kg of silver
Légende Sources: Data, converted into silver, taken from V. D’Alessandro, ‘La Sicilia dal Vespro a Ferdinando il Cattolico’, in La Sicilia dal Vespro all’Unità, Turin, UTET, 1989, pp. 40–41; S. Di Matteo and F. Pillitteri, Storia dei Monti di Pietà in Sicilia, Palermo, Cassa di risparmio V.E. per le province siciliane, 1973, p. 22; A Giuffrida, La finanza pubblica nella Sicilia del ‘500, Caltanisetta, S. Sciascia, 1999, pp. 125–127; D. Ligresti, Governo e territorio nella Sicilia moderna, Catania, CUECM, 1997, Appendix 1.
URL http://books.openedition.org/igpde/docannexe/image/3976/img-1.jpg
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Auteur

Luciano Pezzolo is Associate Professor of Early Modern History at the Department of Humanities of the University Ca’ Foscari of Venice. His main fields of research are economic and military history in medieval and early modern Italy. He has recently published: ’The via italiana to capitalism’, in L. Neal and J. Williamson (eds.), The Cambridge history of capitalism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2014; ‘The Venetian economy’, in E. Durtseler (ed.), A companion to history of Venice 1400–1797, Leiden, Brill, 2013; ‘Republics and principalities in Italy’, in Bartolomé Yun-Casalialla, Patrick K. O’Brien and Francisco Comín Comín (eds.), The rise of fiscal states: a global history, 1500–1914, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012, pp. 267–284; (with Giuseppe Tattara) ‘Una fiera senza luogo’: was Bisenzone an international capital market in 16th-century Italy?’, Journal of Economic History, 68 (4), 2008, pp. 1098–1122.

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