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PAPACY VERSUS EMPIRE
While the south prospered, the rest of Italy was not so calm.
Following the demise of the Carolingian Empire in 887, warfare broke out
in earnest between local Italian rulers, who were divided in their
support of Frankish and Germanic claimants (all of whom were absentee
landlords) to the imperial title and throne. Italy became the
battleground of Europe, the stage on which rival factions fought for
ascendancy, and refugees flooded into the cities from the devastated
countryside. Many of Italy's medieval hill towns developed in this
period as easily defendable safe havens.
In 962 the Saxon Otto I was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome.
His son, Otto II, and later his grandson, Otto III, also took the same
title, cementing a tradition that was to remain the privilege of
Germanic emperors until 1806.
Inevitably, the two protagonists in the creation of this illusory
successor to the Roman Empire must end up in conflict. The prestige of
the Christian Church based in Rome was doubted by none and its blessing
was considered vital by whomever aspired to the Holy Roman throne.
Competition between Franks and Germanic candidates was intense. The
Church, at least initially, relied on the might of the Holy Roman Empire
to help it pursue territorial ambitions in Italy and clearly resented
the assumption by the northern emperors that papal anointment gave them
pre-eminence in Italy as well.
In the course of the 11th century, a heated contest over who had
the right to invest bishops in Germany brought the popes and emperors to
a stand-off. After Pope Gregory VII (aided by German aristocrats who,
for their own reasons, opposed the emperor) excommunicated Emperor Henry
IV, the latter literally had to come to the pope on his knees to be
forgiveness. Victory in this battle established the clear precedent that
Rome had sole control over the appointment of bishops throughout the
Christian world. Pope Gregory thus not only reinforced the position of
the papacy as the supreme seat of the western Church but won enormous
political power, since the pope would clearly only nominate bishops
friendly to Rome.
This was nevertheless little more than round one. In the following
two centuries imperial armies, on one pretext or another would descend
on Italy with monotonous regularity. This conflict formed the focal
point of Italian politics in the late Middle Ages and two camps emerged:
Guelphs ( Guelfi, in support of the pope) and Ghibellines (Ghibellini,
in support of the emperor). Dante Alighieri, the great poet and writer
whom Italians see as the father of the Italian language, was one of the
casualties of the Guelph-Ghibelline struggle. A dedicated Guelph
supporter, Dante was exiled from his birthplace, Florence, in 1301
because he belonged to the wrong faction.
NORMAN CONQUEST OF THE SOUTH
As popes and emperors duelled in the northern half of the country,
Christian Norman zealots, who had embarked on a successful invasion of
Britain, arrived in southern Italy in the early stages of the 11th
century. They found a highly confusing mix of Muslim Arab rule (in
Sicily and sprinkled about the south), Byzantine Greek city0states and
independent duchies such as Naples and Lombard enclaves in the interior.
Over the following century, the Normans, ably exploiting local
grievances and internecine squabbles, gained control of the south. Roger
II was crowned king of Sicily in Palermo in 1130 and thus a unified
kingdom of the south was created.
The Normans, well outnumbered by the local populace, tended to
assimilate and adapt local culture. The result could be seen in their
architecture, in which elements of Romanesque simplicity, Muslim
elegance and Byzantine decorative splendour all shone through. The
Chiesa di San Giovanni degli Eremiti in Palermo might equally pass as a
mosque or a Greek or Norman basilica. King Roger's magnificent Cappella
Palatina (in Palermo) and the cathedral at Monreale ( just outside
Palermo) are excellent examples of the Norman genius for adaptation and
Norman rule in the south gave way to Germanic claims due to the
foresight of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I (known as Barbarossa), who
married off his son Henry to Constance de Hauteville, heir to the Norman
throne in Sicily. Barbarossa's grandson, Fredrick II, became Holy Roman
Emperor in 1220. An enlightened ruler, Frederick, who became known as
Stupor Mundi ( Wonder of the World), was a warrior and a scholar. A
profound admirer of Arabic culture, he allowed freedom of worship to
Muslims ( as well as to Kews). He studied philosophy and magic, wrote
laws and earned a place in Italian history as one of the country's
earliest poets. In 1224 Frederick founded the University of Naples, with
the idea of educating administrators for his kingdom. As a half-Norman
southerner, Frederick rejected the tradition that Holy Roman Emperor
lived north of the Alps. He moved his exotic, multi-cultural court
(compete with Saracen guard) between Sicily and southern Italy, where he
built several castles, notably the superb octagonal Castel del Monte in
ITALY OF THE COMUNES
While the south of Italy was thus forged into a single kingdom,
albeit frequently shaken by revolt and external attack, the north was
heading the opposite way.
Trade centres such as the ports of Genoa, Pisa and especially
Venice, along with internal centres such as Florence, Milan, Parma
Bologna Padua, Verona and Modena, became increasingly insolent towards
direct imperial control as they got steadily more prosperous on the back
of enterprising commercial expansion in the Mediterranean, banking and
Their growing independence also brought them into conflict with
Rome and the Papal States. In the interminable battles of wits between
papacy and Empire, the city-states of the northern half of Italy would
align themselves or remain aloof as occasion demanded. Frequently a
state would invoke the help of one great power in conflicts against the
other, or against other city-states.
Between the 12th and 14th centuries, these city-states also
developed new forms of government. Venice, for example, was set apart
form the other Italian cities by its Byzantine origins and powerfully
independent commercial empire-building. It developed an oligarchic
'parliamentary' system of government in an imperfect but laudable
attempt at limited democracy.
More commonly, the city-state created a town council (or comune),
a form of republican government dominated at first by aristocrats but
then increasingly by the burgeoning middle classes whose commercial nous
catapulted the cities to increased wealth. The well-heeled families soon
passed from business rivalry to internal political struggles in which
each aimed to gain control of the government (signoria).
This was the highest level of republican government of the
city-states and was particularly prevalent in Florence. The complex
electoral systems and inevitable corruption led most of the city states
to dabble with dictatorship in one form or the other, and murder and
intrigue were never far off. In some of the cities, great dynasties,
such as the Medici in Florence and the Visconti and Sforza in Milan,
came to dominate their respective stages and embark on frequently costly
campaigns of commercial and military expansion. Italian city-state
politics were rarely boring.