Last Updated on 2023/10/13
Guelphs and Ghibellines: Faction Rivalries in Medieval Italy
Burckhardt writes in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy:
“During the Middle Ages, cities, families, and peoples of the West had mutually attacked each other with scornful and derisive names, in which there was mostly a more or less distorted basis of truth. However, since ancient times, Italians have been known for their ability to discern and point out the moral differences between cities and towns, and between regions; their entirely local patriotism, perhaps more lively than that of any other people in the Middle Ages, created a special literature very early on and allied itself to the idea of glory (1).”
Burckhardt’s statement captures one of the most immediate characteristics of the struggles among Italian communal cities: at the root of the clashes between different urban realities lies a strong cultural peculiarity.
The first effect is an almost infinite sequence of wars and skirmishes, occasional battles, random scuffles with significant consequences, which bloodies Italy for almost three centuries. It is also necessary to remember that such conflicts always accompany and add to the internal disputes that violently shake life within the city walls. On the other hand, during this period, war is in the air, permeating every activity and every thought of man. The word “war” comes from the Germanic “werra”, which refers not so much to the open field battle between opposing armies, but to the private brawl related to political struggle and even more to the clash between groups whose main driving force is revenge.
The outcome of feuds and internal brawls is certainly not secondary: in homage to a practice that is felt to be natural, in every center, the defeated party ends up asking for help from neighboring rivals, deepening and amplifying contrasts that imperceptibly lose their initial local connotations to assume less decipherable ones, and that tend, in a tortuous and not at all simple way to interpret, to overlap with problems of politics that, with a stretch, could be called “international.”
It is within this context that the concepts of “Guelph” and “Ghibelline” and the related factional struggles, all imported into Italy at the end of the thirteenth century, must be analyzed. These terms are now devoid of any ideological content and constitute nothing more than “a system of aggregation used by the various adherents to achieve personal projects of hegemony. (Pirani)”
Their opposition designates and at the same time masks religious, political, and economic struggles that often have no precise and immediate ties with the conflict between the Papacy and the Empire.
Already around 1355, the famous jurist Bartolo da Sassoferrato demystifies this opposition in his Tractatus de guelphis et gebellinis, where he states that the two denominations concern neither the Church nor the Empire, but only the factions found in a city or a given territory. This is undoubtedly true: however, this does not prevent organized interests from consolidating into uniform behaviors, which tend to endure over time and be transmitted through generations with progressive enrichment of language and myth. In these struggles, groups and alignments often fight to the death, claiming to refer to values that start from very similar premises while, at the same time, trying to highlight their respective differences.
Avenging honor and spilled blood, reclaiming ancient prestige, and raising proud flags on castle towers and palace gates are acts that function as strong motivations around which to aggregate one’s cultural identity, and at the same time as pretexts for keeping the perpetual conflict between factions alive.
These factions, moreover, find solid bases in family groups, firmly rooted in cities for centuries, with multiple branches, strengthened by dynastic continuity, numerous alliances, and loyal clients.
Therefore, it happens that purely political reasons are intertwined, if not obscured, by less rational caste pride; but it can also happen that family feuds lead to clashes related to the stormy relationships between the papacy and the empire; both issues ultimately intertwine with the major questions that trouble Europe.
Over time, the terms Guelph and Ghibelline take on a more densely “political” meaning, based on which the former feel obliged to support France, and the latter to support the imperial cause, especially when Charles V assumes such dignity. Essentially, the use of the term Guelph and Ghibelline only indicates belonging to one faction rather than another.
Absolutely indicative of the double level, local and universal, on which the struggle between the Papacy and the Empire was lived, is the symbolism entrusted with the task of recognizing the opposing parties. Medieval man lives in a forest of symbols, where flags, arms, and emblems have fundamental importance; far from merely representing, these symbols participate in an essence and act as the glue that binds the community engaged in the struggle.
In the 1400s, for example, in Lombardy, Guelphs wear white feathers on the right temple and a flower on the right ear, and their officers wear a white band; Ghibellines, conversely, have red feathers and flowers on the left temple, and their officers display a red band.
A century later, in Romagna, where the time for revenge merges with eternity, Guelphs still overlap gold medals on the right ear, sewing them to caps and helmet plumes; their opponents place the same signs on the left, and everyone intends to show their enmities in this way.
This ante litteram opposition between “right” and “left” is synthesized in a report – quoted by Alberi – by the secretary of the Serenissima Giangiacomo Caroldo on the state of Milan in 1520:
Ghibellines wear the pen and division on the left hand, and the Guelphs on the right; and for this wearing of pens, many homicides have been committed. And so, on the first day of May, Guelphs plant elm trees and other male-named trees in front of their houses, and Ghibellines plant female-named trees, according to the vernacular, such as the oak. The arms of the Ghibellines have a black eagle above; those that are of colors and metal, always the color surpasses the metal; and in the Guelphs, the metal surpasses the color, that is; if a weapon were half gold and half blue, the Ghibelline would have gold on the left side and the Guelph on the right side… Those weapons that have figures of animals and other paintings according to nature are Ghibelline, such as the black eagle on a golden field, but without wings, in a blue field. The Fregosi carry the weapon half black and half white, the black above; the Martinenghi of Brescia carry the red eagle and are Guelphs; the Trivulzi carry gold and green sticks, starting from the gold on the right side; … the Gonzaga family, Ghibelline, carries four black eagles; the Este family, Guelph, carries four white eagles; the Carrara family was Guelph (2).
In reality, as Alexander Lee states in “The Evil Renaissance,” the historical period examined by the biographical dictionary appears as a world of shadows acting in the same way: no difference distinguishes the actions of unscrupulous merchant-bankers, from those of nepotist popes and those of mercenary captains, mostly brutal, corrupt, venal, depraved, and violent men, united in the pursuit of power, wealth, and “glory” (however it could be understood) at any cost. And yet, in contrast, many of these individuals are capable of playing a leading role in creating an era of cultural rebirth and artistic splendor, in which an extraordinary degree of civilized refinement is achieved, still defined as the age of beauty.
In this context, an important aspect is provided by the way justice is conceived. Death by hanging often indiscriminately befalls the “terrazzani” (not the soldiers) who dared to oppose powerful forces. Equally bloody are the methods related to the killing (through hanging or beheading depending on social rank) of those classified as traitors. The mutilation of their corpses involves quartering with the subsequent display of the quarters in highly visible parts of the city, or the raising of their heads on a tall spike: all conceived both as a spectacle for the numerous people attending and as a representation with educational purposes.