Search our site:

Click here to find out how to become a totalnannies.com correspondent



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.


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 fusion.

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 Apulia.


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 small industry.

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.

totalnannies.com privacy policy comments disclaimer last updated 24/10/2013 06:58:27   .

Tel:+44 (0)20 85423067. Fax:+44 (0)207 1529598