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The Guelphs and Ghibellines (English pronunciation: [gwɛlfs], [gɪbəliːnz]) were factions supporting the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, respectively, in central and northern Italy. During the 12th and 13th centuries, the split between these two parties was a particularly important aspect of the internal policy of the Italian city-states. The struggle for power between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire had arisen with the Investiture Conflict, which began in 1075 and ended with the Concordat of Worms in 1122. The division between the Guelphs and Ghibellines in Italy, however, persisted until the 15th century.
Guelph (often spelled Guelf; in Italian Guelfo, plural Guelfi) is an Italian form of Welf, the family of the dukes of Bavaria (including the namesake Welf, as well as Henry the Lion). The Welfs were said to have used the name as a rallying cry during the Battle of Weinsberg in 1140, in which the rival Hohenstaufens of Swabia (led by Conrad III) used Waiblingen, the name of a castle, as their cry. Waiblingen, at the time pronounced and spelled somewhat like "Wibellingen", subsequently became Ghibellino in Italian.
The names were likely introduced to Italy during the reign of Frederick Barbarossa. When Frederick conducted military campaigns in Italy to expand imperial power there, his supporters became known as Ghibellines (Ghibellini). The Lombard League and its allies were defending the liberties of the urban communes against the Emperor's encroachments and became known as Guelphs (Guelfi).
The Ghibellines were thus the imperial party, while the Guelphs supported the Pope. Broadly speaking, Guelphs tended to come from wealthy mercantile families, whereas Ghibellines were predominantly those whose wealth was based on agricultural estates. Guelph cities tended to be in areas where the Emperor was more of a threat to local interests than the Pope, and Ghibelline cities tended to be in areas where the enlargement of the Papal States was the more immediate threat. The Lombard League defeated Frederick at the Battle of Legnano in 1176. Frederick recognized the full autonomy of the cities of the Lombard league under his nominal suzerainty.
The division developed its own dynamic in the politics of medieval Italy, and it persisted long after the direct confrontation between Emperor and Pope had ceased. Smaller cities tended to be Ghibelline if the larger city nearby was Guelph, as Guelph Florence and Ghibelline Siena faced off at the Battle of Montaperti, 1260. Pisa maintained a staunch Ghibelline stance against her fiercest rivals, the Guelph Genoa and Florence. Adherence to one of the parties could therefore be motivated by local or regional political reasons. Within cities, party allegiances differed from guild to guild, rione to rione, and a city could easily change party after internal upheaval. Moreover, sometimes traditionally Ghibelline cities allied with the Papacy, while Guelph cities were even punished with Papal interdict.
Contemporaries did not use the terms Guelph and Ghibellines much until about 1250, and then only in Tuscany (where they originated), with the names "church party" and "imperial party" preferred in some areas.
At the beginning of the 13th century, Philip of Swabia, a Hohenstaufen, and his son-in-law Otto of Brunswick, a Welf, were rivals for the imperial throne. Philip was supported by the Ghibellines as a relative of Frederick I, while Otto was supported by the Guelphs. Philip’s heir, Frederick II, was an enemy of both Otto and the Papacy, and during Frederick’s reign the Guelphs became more strictly associated with the Papacy while the Ghibellines became supporters of the Empire, and of Frederick in particular. Frederick II also introduced this division to the Crusader States in the Levant during the Sixth Crusade.
After the death of Frederick II in 1250 the Ghibellines were supported by Conrad IV and later Manfred, while the Guelphs were supported by Charles of Anjou. The Sienese Ghibellines inflicted a noteworthy defeat on Florentine Guelphs at the Battle of Montaperti (1260). After the Hohenstaufen dynasty lost the Empire when Charles of Anjou executed Conradin in 1268, the terms Guelph and Ghibelline became associated with individual families and cities, rather than the struggle between empire and papacy. In that period the stronghold of Italian Ghibellines was the city of Forlì, in Romagna. That city remained with the Ghibelline factions, partly as a means of preserving its independence, rather than out of loyalty to the temporal power, as Forlì was nominally in the Papal States. Over the centuries, the papacy tried several times to regain control of Forlì, sometimes by violence or by allurements.
The division between Guelphs and Ghibellines was especially important in Florence, although the two sides frequently rebelled against each other and took power in many of the other northern Italian cities as well. Essentially the two sides were now fighting either against German influence (in the case of the Guelphs), or against the temporal power of the Pope (in the case of the Ghibellines). In Florence and elsewhere the Guelphs usually included merchants and burghers, while the Ghibellines tended to be noblemen. They also adopted peculiar customs such as wearing a feather on a particular side of their hats, or cutting fruit a particular way, according to their affiliation.
After the Guelphs finally defeated the Ghibellines in 1289 at Campaldino and Caprona, Guelphs began to fight among themselves. By 1300 the Florentine Guelphs had divided into the Black Guelphs and the White Guelphs. The Blacks continued to support the Papacy, while the Whites were opposed to Papal influence, specifically the influence of Pope Boniface VIII. Dante was among the supporters of the White Guelphs, and in 1302 was exiled when the Black Guelphs took control of Florence. Those who were not connected to either side, or who had no connections to either Guelphs or Ghibellines, considered both factions unworthy of support but were still affected by changes of power in their respective cities. Emperor Henry VII was disgusted by supporters of both sides when he visited Italy in 1310, and in 1334 Pope Benedict XII threatened people who used either name with excommunication. In 1325, the city-states of Guelph Bologna and Ghibelline Modena fought over a civic bucket in the War of the Bucket, where the famous Battle of Zappolino was fought. Modena's victory in this battle, and therefore the war, led to a resurgence of Ghibelline fortunes.
In Milan, the Guelphs and Ghibellines cooperated in the creation of the Ambrosian Republic in 1447, but over the next few years engaged in some intense disputes. After the initial leadership of the Ghibellines, the Guelphs seized power at the election of the Captains and Defenders of the Liberty of Milan. The Guelphic government became increasingly autocratic, leading to a Ghibelline conspiracy led by Giorgio Lampugnino and Teodoro Bossi. It failed, and many Ghibellines were massacred in 1449, while others fled, including prominent Ghibelline Vitaliano Borromeo, who was sheltered in his countship of Arona. Public opinion turned against the Guelphs, and in the next elections the Ghibellines were briefly victorious, but deposed after imprisoning Guelph leaders Giovanni Appiani and Giovanni Ossona. After Francesco Sforza was made Duke by Milan's senate in 1450, many Ghibellines who had fled such as Filippo Borromeo and Luisino Bossi were restored to positions of prominence in Milan.
In the 15th century the Guelphs supported Charles VIII of France during his invasion of Italy at the start of the Italian Wars, while the Ghibellines were supporters of emperor Maximilian I. Cities and families used the names until Emperor Charles V firmly established imperial power in Italy in 1529.
In the course of the Italian Wars of 1494 to 1559, the political landscape changed so much that the former division between Guelphs and Ghibellines became obsolete. This is evident with the election of Pope Paul V (1605), the first pope to bear the "Ghibelline" imperial eagle in chief of his coat of arms.
|Main Ghibelline cities||Main Guelph cities||Variable adherence cities|
During the 12th and 13th centuries, armies of the Ghibelline communes usually adopted the war banner of the Holy Roman Empire—white cross on a red field—as their own. Guelph armies usually reversed the colors—red cross on white. These two schemes are prevalent in the civic heraldry of northern Italian towns and remain a revealing indicator of their past factional leanings. Traditionally Ghibelline towns like Pavia, Novara, Como, Treviso and Asti, continue to sport the Ghibelline cross. The Guelph cross can be found on the civic arms of traditionally Guelph towns like Milan, Vercelli, Alessandria, Padua, Reggio and Bologna.
Some individuals and families indicated their faction affiliation in their coats of arms by including an appropriate heraldic "chief" (or horizontal band at the top of the arms). Guelphs had a capo d'Angio or "chief of Anjou", containing yellow fleurs-de-lys on a blue field, with a red heraldic "label", while Ghibellines had a capo dell'impero or "chief of the empire", with a form of the black German imperial eagle on a golden background.
Families also distinguished their factional allegiance by the architecture of their palaces, towers and fortresses. Ghibelline structures had "swallow-tailed" crenellations, while those of the Guelphs were square.
Coat of arms of the Roberti family of Reggio, with Guelph-style heraldic chief at top
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