Guelphs and Ghibellines: Medieval Feud

Guelphs & Ghibellines by Oscar Browning
Guelphs & Ghibellines by Oscar Browning

Guelphs and Ghibellines - History

The Guelphs and Ghibellines were groups in Medieval Italy who backed the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. From the 12th to 13th centuries, their rivalry shaped politics, stemming from the Investiture Controversy that lasted from 1075 to 1122. These factions played a significant role in the city-states of Central and Northern Italy.

A 14th-century conflict between the militias of the Guelph and Ghibelline factions in the comune of Bologna, from the Croniche of Giovanni Sercambi of Lucca

A 14th-century conflict between the militias of the Guelph and Ghibelline factions in the comune of Bologna, from the Croniche of Giovanni Sercambi of Lucca

Origins of the Guelphs and Ghibellines Conflict

The conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, which raged throughout medieval Italy, had its roots in the complex political landscape of the time. At the heart of this rivalry was the Investiture Controversy, a bitter dispute that revolved around the question of who held the authority to appoint bishops and abbots. This divisive issue caused deep schisms within society, with one camp supporting the secular rulers’ right to make these appointments and the other staunchly defending the pope’s authority in this matter.

Following the death of Emperor Henry V, a member of the Salian dynasty, the dukes assembled to elect a new emperor. In a move that stoked the fires of this conflict, they chose Lothair III, an opponent of the Salian dynasty, as the new emperor. This decision didn’t sit well with the House of Hohenstaufen, who were closely allied with and related to the former dynasty. Thus, the seeds of discord were sown, and a fierce struggle for power ensued.

Rise of Guelphs and Ghibellines

In the face of growing hostility from the Hohenstaufen faction, Lothair III sought refuge under the protective wing of the pope. To solidify this alliance, Lothair III agreed to cede all Imperial rights to the pope through the Concordat of Worms, further deepening the divide. This political maneuvering led to open warfare within Germany, with those supporting the Hohenstaufen pitted against those aligned with Lothair and the pope.

Following Lothair’s eventual demise, the Hohenstaufen candidate, Conrad III, ascended to the throne, while Lothair’s heir, Henry the Proud of the House of Welf, continued the struggle. The conflict had now taken on a clear identity, with the Hohenstaufen faction known as the Ghibellines and the Welfs becoming known as the Guelphs, defining the two sides of this fierce rivalry. The Ghibellines were aligned with the imperial authority, while the Guelphs lent their support to the papal cause.

Naming of Guelphs and Ghibellines

The naming of these factions, Guelphs and Ghibellines, can be traced back to the events of the Siege of Weinsberg in 1140. The Hohenstaufen faction, led by Conrad III, adopted “Wibellingen,” named after a castle that today is known as Waiblingen, as their rallying cry. In Italian, “Wibellingen” later evolved into “Ghibellino.” Conversely, the Welfs, led by Duke Welf II of Bavaria and Henry the Lion, rallied under the name “Guelph” during the same conflict, marking the origin of these distinctive monikers.

Factional Divide and Lombard League

The Guelph-Ghibelline rivalry extended far beyond a simple power struggle, influencing the political landscape of medieval Italy. Cities facing the direct threat of the expanding Papal States typically aligned with the Ghibellini faction, as they saw the imperial authority as a check on papal influence. In contrast, cities that sought greater autonomy from the Holy Roman Empire generally belonged to the Guelph faction.

One pivotal moment in this ongoing conflict was the Battle of Legnano in 1176 when the Guelph Lombard League decisively defeated Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. As a result of this battle, Frederick was compelled to recognize the full autonomy of the cities within the Lombard League, although he maintained nominal suzerainty.

Continued Factional Struggles

The Guelph-Ghibelline rivalry persisted long after the confrontation between the emperor and the pope had ceased. The alignment of smaller cities often depended on the choices made by larger neighboring cities. For example, the Guelph Republic of Florence and the Ghibelline Republic of Siena found themselves on opposing sides at the Battle of Montaperti in 1260. Likewise, Pisa staunchly upheld a Ghibelline stance, particularly in its rivalry with the Guelph Republic of Genoa and Florence.

Local and Regional Factors

The complexities of the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict extended to the local and regional levels. Party allegiances could differ from guild to guild and district to district within a city. These affiliations could undergo sudden and dramatic shifts, particularly in the wake of internal upheavals. It was not uncommon for traditionally Ghibelline cities to align with the Papacy when it served their interests, while Guelph cities faced interdict and other consequences.

Resolution of the Conflict

The Guelph-Ghibelline conflicts ultimately came to a close in the 14th century as the State and the laity began to withdraw from ecclesiastical interference, ushering in a new era in Italy’s complex and ever-evolving history.

The 13th and 14th Century Struggle

Battle of Montaperti, workshop of Pacino di Buonaguida

Battle of Montaperti, workshop of Pacino di Buonaguida

The Begining

The historical clash between the Guelphs and Ghibellines in medieval Italy marked a tumultuous period of political turmoil and rivalry. It all began at the dawn of the 13th century when two prominent figures, Philip of Swabia, representing the Hohenstaufen dynasty, and Otto of Brunswick, a Welf, became fierce competitors for the imperial throne. This competition was deeply rooted in the Investiture Controversy, a longstanding dispute that had plagued Europe.

Shifting Allegiances and Papal Conflict

The Guelphs initially celebrated their success in getting Otto crowned as Emperor. Yet, their joy was short-lived as Otto shifted his allegiance, turning against the Papacy. This shift in loyalty led to his excommunication and eventual replacement by Philip’s heir, Emperor Frederick II. The rivalry between the Guelphs and Ghibellines had taken a decisive turn.

Frederick II’s Ambitions and Conflict

Emperor Frederick II, a key figure in this historical drama, set his sights on subduing the defiant cities of the Lombard League. His ambitions sparked a series of confrontations, battles, and bitter disputes. Despite efforts to negotiate peace, Frederick’s actions only intensified hostilities. His ongoing conflict with the Papacy led to multiple excommunications and a complex web of political intrigue.

Conflict Intensifies and New Pope

As Frederick relentlessly pressed forward in Italy, a new Pope, Innocent IV, ascended to the papal throne. Initially, there was optimism for cooperation since the new Pope had relatives within the Imperial camp. However, Pope Innocent IV quickly turned against Frederick, throwing his support behind the Guelphs. This marked a significant shift in the dynamics of the conflict.

Parma’s Rebellion and Imperial Party’s Downfall

The Lombard city of Parma rose in rebellion, delivering a crippling blow to the imperial party. The Battle of Parma would become a turning point, as the Ghibellines were routed, and the Guelphs gained the upper hand. Frederick II’s demise marked a period of transition, as his son, Conrad IV, sought to reclaim lost territories and briefly restore a semblance of peace to Italy.

Post-Frederick II Era and Shifting Loyalties

After Frederick II’s death in 1250, the Ghibellines found renewed support in figures like Conrad IV and King Manfred of Sicily. In contrast, the Guelphs were bolstered by Charles I of Naples. The Battle of Montaperti in 1260, where the Ghibellines of Siena triumphed over the Florentine Guelphs, was a significant event during this phase.

Transition from Ideological Conflict to Regional Alliances

Following the fall of the Hohenstaufen dynasty in 1268, the terms Guelph and Ghibelline shifted from representing the ideological conflict between empire and papacy to identifying individual families and cities. Regional differences and localized loyalties began to play a more substantial role in shaping the ongoing rivalries.

Influence in Key Italian Cities

The division between Guelphs and Ghibellines was particularly significant in cities like Florence, Genoa, and Forlì. In these urban centers, the two factions frequently engaged in power struggles, with the Guelphs often finding their support among the merchant classes, while the Ghibellines leaned towards the nobility.

Distinctive Customs and Conflict Resolution

To distinguish themselves, members of the opposing factions adopted unique customs, serving as visible markers of their allegiances. These included wearing feathers on specific sides of their hats or utilizing particular methods for cutting fruit, solidifying their identities within their respective factions.

Genoa’s Unique Guelph-Ghibelline Conflict

In the Republic of Genoa, the Guelphs were known as “rampini” (grappling hooks), while the Ghibellines were referred to as “mascherati” (masked). The origins of these terms remain somewhat obscure, but they were emblematic of the city’s distinct Guelph and Ghibelline factions. Notably, local families like Fieschi and Grimaldi predominantly supported the Guelph party, while the Doria and certain branches of the Spinola families leaned Ghibelline.

Revolts, Resistance, and Political Shifts

Genoa experienced a series of power shifts. Guelphs initially held sway, followed by Ghibelline revolts led by Oberto Spinola and Oberto Doria. Subsequent political realignments occurred, leading to Guelph families finding refuge in their strongholds and eventually returning to the city’s political landscape, albeit after facing numerous challenges.

The enduring and intricate conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines left a profound impact on the history of medieval Italy. This rivalry shaped the destinies of cities, families, and individuals for generations and serves as a testament to the enduring power struggles and alliances that defined the era.

The Evolution of Guelphs and Ghibellines

The Tuscan Guelphs’ Victory and Internal Strife

Following the resounding victory of the Tuscan Guelphs over their Ghibelline rivals in 1289 at the decisive battles of Campaldino and Vicopisano, a new chapter in the long-standing conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines began. The Guelphs, who had fiercely supported the Papacy against the Holy Roman Emperor’s faction, emerged victorious in these battles. However, this triumph was merely the prelude to a new phase of discord among the Guelphs themselves.

Battle of Campaldino on a fresco in San Gimignano

Battle of Campaldino on a fresco in San Gimignano

Rise of the Black and White Guelphs

Around the turn of the 14th century, the Florentine Guelphs, who had played a pivotal role in the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict, faced internal division that would significantly shape their future. This division led to the emergence of two distinct factions within the Guelph camp: the Black Guelphs and the White Guelphs.

The Black Guelphs remained staunch supporters of the Papacy, perpetuating their loyalty to the Church’s influence in the political and social landscape. Meanwhile, the White Guelphs, led by prominent figures like Dante Alighieri, took a contrasting stance. They were critical of the Papal authority, particularly under the reign of Pope Boniface VIII, who was perceived as overly domineering. This division within the Guelphs would have far-reaching consequences for the city of Florence and its political dynamics.

Neutrals and Emperor Henry VII’s Disgust

Amid this turmoil, there were individuals who chose not to align themselves with either faction. These neutrals, as well as those who had no prior affiliations with the Guelphs or Ghibellines, observed the ongoing power struggles with a degree of detachment. In 1310, Emperor Henry VII of the Holy Roman Empire visited Italy and was visibly dismayed by the supporters of both Guelphs and Ghibellines. His disapproval illustrated the widespread impact of the factions on Italian society.

War of the Bucket and Ghibelline Resurgence

In 1325, the city-states of Guelph Bologna and Ghibelline Modena found themselves embroiled in a conflict that would become known as the “War of the Bucket.” This unusual name was derived from a rather peculiar incident involving the theft of a bucket from the city of Modena, which escalated into a full-blown war.

The war culminated in the Battle of Zappolino, where Modena emerged victorious. This unexpected triumph marked a resurgence of Ghibelline fortunes in the region, highlighting the unpredictability of these historical power shifts.

Papal Threats and the End of Guelph-Ghibelline Significance

By 1334, the influence and significance of the Guelph and Ghibelline factions had waned considerably. Pope Benedict XII took a bold step by threatening excommunication for anyone who continued to use either the Guelph or Ghibelline names. This threat was a significant indicator of the diminishing relevance of these once-ubiquitous factions in the ever-evolving political landscape of medieval Italy.


The Ghibelline Resurgence

The term “Ghibelline” saw a resurgence as it continued to symbolize allegiance to the waning Imperial authority in Italy. This resurgence notably occurred during the Italian campaigns of Emperors Henry VII in 1310 and Louis IV in 1327. In a period marked by shifting political allegiances and territorial disputes, the Ghibellines emerged as a force challenging the status quo and advocating for Imperial power.

Guelphs and Their Pro-French Stance

A significant turning point in the Guelph-Ghibelline rivalry came when the Pope granted Sicily, a region in Southern Italy, to the French prince Charles I of Anjou. This decision influenced the Guelphs to adopt a pro-French stance, aligning themselves with the interests of the French monarchy. This shift in allegiance added a new layer of complexity to the ongoing struggle between the two factions.

Ghibellines’ Support for Emperor Louis IV

During the tumultuous era of the Avignon Papacy, Pope John XXII, who supported the French-allied King John of Bohemia, took drastic measures by excommunicating John’s rival, Emperor Louis IV, in 1324. He also threatened heresy charges against the Ghibellines, who rallied behind Louis IV. Their support for Louis’s invasion of Italy and his coronation as King of Italy and Holy Roman Emperor underscored the Ghibellines’ unwavering commitment to Imperial authority.

The Golden Ambrosian Republic

In the city of Milan, known for its historical significance, the Guelphs and Ghibellines found themselves cooperating in the creation of the Golden Ambrosian Republic in 1447. However, the partnership proved to be short-lived as intense disputes erupted between the two factions. In the aftermath, the Guelphs managed to seize power through the election of the Captains and Defenders of the Liberty of Milan. This shift in leadership eventually led to an autocratic Guelph government.

Shifting Fortunes

Over time, the fortunes of the Guelphs and Ghibellines experienced significant shifts. The Ghibellines, who initially held the upper hand, faced a setback when a Guelph conspiracy, led by figures like Giorgio Lampugnino and Teodoro Bossi, failed in 1449. This event led to the massacre of many Ghibellines, causing a change in public sentiment. In subsequent elections, the Ghibellines briefly regained power but were ultimately deposed after imprisoning prominent Guelph leaders, Giovanni Appiani and Giovanni Ossona. With the rise of Francesco I Sforza, who was made Duke by Milan’s senate in 1450, many exiled Ghibellines, including Filippo Borromeo and Luisino Bossi, were reinstated to positions of prominence in Milan.

Modern Revival of the Guelph Party

As history progressed and the political landscape evolved, the division between Guelphs and Ghibellines gradually became irrelevant. This transformation became particularly evident during the Italian Wars of 1494 to 1559, as the dynamics of power and allegiances shifted dramatically. Eventually, with the consolidation of imperial power over Italy by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, in 1529, the distinction between the two factions faded into the annals of history.

Modern Revival of the Guelph Party

In a surprising turn of events, the Parte Guelfa was officially reconstituted on March 25, 2015, as a Christian order and archconfraternity with the primary mission of serving the Catholic Church and the Catholic Archdiocese of Florence. Guided by the Captain-General Andrea Claudio Galluzzo and under the custody of Consul Luciano Artusi, this revival marked a unique connection to the past. The Mayor of Florence established the headquarters of the reborn Guelph Party in the historic Palazzo di Parte Guelfa, rekindling a sense of historical continuity and cultural significance in the heart of the city.


Source: (TheBiflorence, 2021)


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  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, October 24). Guelphs and Ghibellines. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation.

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