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Dante: His Times and His Work By Arthur John Butler Characters: 25835

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

Mention was made, in the last chapter, of the "Guelf" party, and this, with its opposite, the party of the "Ghibelines," fills the entire field of Italian politics during Dante's life, and indeed for long afterwards. It would be impossible in the space of these pages to follow up all the tangled threads which have attached themselves to those famous names; but since we may be, to use a picturesque phrase of Carlyle's, "thankful for any hook whatever on which to hang half-an-acre of thrums in fixed position," a few of the more prominent points in the early history of the great conflict shall be noted here.

As every one knows, the names originally came from Germany, and to that country we must turn for a short time to know their import.

About seven miles to the north-east of Stuttgart, in what is now the kingdom of Wurtemberg, is a small town called Waiblingen, where was once a stronghold, near the borders of Franconia and Suabia (or Alemannia), belonging to the Franconian dukes. Conrad, often called "the Salic," head of that house, was raised to the throne of Germany and the Empire in 1024. His line held the imperial crown for just a century, in the persons of himself and three Henries, who are known as the second, third, and fourth, or third, fourth, and fifth, according as we reckon their places among Roman Emperors or German Kings; Henry III. (or IV.) being famous as the great opponent of Pope Gregory VII.; Henry IV. (or V.) interesting to us as the first husband of the daughter of Henry I. of England, renowned in English history as the Empress Maud. The last Henry died childless in 1125. But the Franconian line was not extinct. Half a century or so before, Bishop Otto of Freising tells us "a certain count, by name Frederick, sprung from one of the noblest families of Suabia, had founded a colony in a stronghold called Staufen." Staufen, better known as Hohenstaufen, is a lofty hill about twenty miles from Waiblingen, and within the Suabian frontier. Frederick had been staunch to Henry IV. in his time of greatest difficulty, and received as his reward, together with the dukedom of Suabia, which the house of Z?hringen had forfeited through disloyalty, the hand of the Emperor's daughter Agnes. By her he had two sons, Frederick, who succeeded to his own duchy of Suabia, and Conrad, who received from his uncle Henry V. that of Franconia, including no doubt the lordship of Waiblingen. At Henry's death Frederick and Conrad, being then thirty-five and thirty-three years old respectively, were the most powerful princes of the Empire. Henry had designated Frederick as his successor; but the electors thought otherwise. At the instance of the Archbishop of Mainz, between whom and the Hohenstaufen there was no love lost, and, as it would seem, not without pressure from Lewis VI. of France, whom Henry's death had just saved from having to face an alliance between England and Germany, they chose Lothar, Duke of Saxony.

We will now quote Otto of Freising once more. "Up to the present time," he says, writing of the year 1152, "two families have been famous in the Roman Empire, about the parts where Gaul and Germany meet, the Henries of Waiblingen, and the Welfs of Altdorf." The Welfs go back to by far the greater antiquity. They probably did not originally belong to the Bajovarian stock, for we read elsewhere that they had "large possessions in the parts where Alemannia meets the Pyren?an Mountains," as Otto usually designates the Alps west of the Brenner. This Altdorf is a village near Ravensburg in Wurtemberg, between Ulm and Friedrichshafen. We first meet with the name in history about the year 820, when the Emperor Lewis I., "the Pious," married as his second wife Judith, "daughter of the most noble Count Welf." Somewhere about the middle of the tenth century, a Rudolf of the race was Count of Bozen. His son Welf took part in the insurrection of the Dukes of Worms and Suabia against their step-father Conrad II., "the Salic," and lost some of his territories in consequence, Bozen passing to Etiko, an illegitimate member of the same house. The family must have soon been restored to the imperial favour, for before 1050 Welf III. appears as Duke of Bavaria.

At his death, without issue, in 1055, he was succeeded by the son of his sister, who had married Azzo II. of Este. This Welf IV. fought on the side of Henry IV., against the revolted Saxons at the Unstrut, but soon rebelled himself. He became for a time the husband of the "great Countess" Matilda of Tuscany. Through him and his son Henry, "the Black," the line was maintained; and though during the period at which we have arrived the head of the family for several generations bore the name of Henry, it is usually spoken of as "the house of the Welfs,"[9] and the name is borne by some member of the family at most times. At the accession of Lothar II. the head of the house was Henry, surnamed "the Proud." With him the new emperor at once made close alliance, giving him his daughter Gertrude in marriage. Henry's sister Judith was already married to Frederick of Suabia, but he sided with his father-in-law, and a struggle began which lasted for ten years, and in which the Hohenstaufen brothers had not entirely the worst of it. Conrad was actually anointed at Monza as King of Italy; but in the end, through the intervention of St. Bernard, peace was made, and lasted during the few remaining months of Lothar's life. At his death in 1137 Conrad was elected. His first act was to take the duchy of Bavaria from Henry, and bestow it on Leopold, the Marquis of Austria, his own half-brother, and whole brother to Bishop Otto, the historian. Henry died very soon, leaving a young son, afterwards known as Henry "the lion," and a brother, Welf, who at once took up the quarrel on behalf of his nephew. He beat Leopold; but when, emboldened by this success, he proceeded to attack the Emperor, who was besieging the castle of Weinsberg, in Franconia, he suffered a severe defeat. At this battle we are told the cries of the contending sides were "Welf!" and "Waiblingen!" Why the name of an obscure fortress should have been used as a battle-cry for the mighty house of Hohenstaufen, we shall probably never know; it may be that it was a chance selection as the password for the day. However that may be, the battle-cries of Weinsberg were destined to resound far into future ages. Modified to suit non-Teutonic lips, they became famous throughout the civilised world as the designations of the two parties in a struggle which divided Italy for centuries, and of which the last vibrations only died down, if indeed they have died down, in our own day.

Of all faction-wars which history records, this is the most complicated, the most difficult to analyse into distinct issues. The Guelfs have been considered the Church or Papal party; and no doubt there is some truth in this view. Indeed, there seems to have been some hereditary tradition of the kind dating from a much earlier generation; long, in fact, before the Ghibeline name had been heard of. When, as we have seen, Countess Matilda of Tuscany, the champion of Gregory VII., was looking out for a second husband, she fixed upon Welf of Bavaria, presumably the "dux Noricorum," who, as Bishop Otto tells us, "in the war with the Emperor, destroyed the cities of Freising and Augsburg." Their union did not last long, for Matilda seems to have been hard to please in the matter of husbands; but the fact of his selection looks as if he had been a persona grata with the Papal See. It is somewhat significant, too, that Machiavelli regards the contest between Henry IV. and the Papacy as having been "the seed of the Guelf and Ghibeline races, whereby when the inundation of foreigners ceased, Italy was torn with intestine wars." Yet we may shrewdly suspect that it was not so much any special devotion to the Church, as the thwarted ambition of a powerful house, which made the Welfs to be a thorn in the side first of the Franconian, then of the Suabian Emperors.[10] At any rate, when a representative of the family, in the person of Otto IV., at last reached "the dread summit of C?sarean power," the very Pope, whose support had placed him on the throne, found himself within little more than a year under the familiar necessity of excommunicating the temporal head of Christendom. Still, in Italy no doubt the Guelfs, politically at any rate, held by the Church, while the Ghibelines had the reputation of being, as a party, at least tainted with what we should now call materialism. It will be remembered that among the sinners in this kind, who occupy the burning tombs within the walls of the city of Dis, Dante places both the Emperor Frederick II., the head of Ghibelinism, and Farinata degli Uberti, the vigorous leader of the party in Tuscany, while the only Guelf who appears there is one who probably was a very loose adherent to his own faction.

Less justified, it would seem, is the idea that the Guelfs were specially the patriotic party in Italy. No doubt the Popes at one time tried to pose as the defenders of Italian liberties against German tyrants, and some modern historians, forgetting the medi?val conception of the Empire, have been inclined to accept this view. But when it suited his purpose, the Pope was ready enough to support an "anti-C?sar" who was no less a German, or even to call in a French invader. The truth is that at that time (and for many centuries afterwards), no conception of "Italy" as a nation had entered into men's minds. We do not always realise that until the year 1870, the territory, well enough defined by Nature, which forms the modern kingdom of Italy, had never, except indeed as part of a far wider Empire, owned the rule of a single sovereign. Patriotism hardly extended beyond the walls of a man's own city. Even Dante feels that residence in Lucca, Bologna, or Verona is an exile as complete as any, and that his only patria is Florence, though it may be safely said that to him, if to any living man, the idea of an Italian nation had presented itself.

The one argument which we can find to support this view lies in the fact that while the chief Guelf names are those of burgher families, many of the leading Ghibeline houses were undoubtedly of German origin. At Florence the Uberti, at Bologna the Lamberti, show their descent in their names. Villani tells us that the Emperor Otto I. delighted in Florence, "and when he returned to Germany certain of his barons remained there and became citizens." The two families just mentioned are specified. So far, then, the Guelfs may be regarded as representing native civic liberties against an alien feudal nobility, and the struggle between the two factions will fall into line with that which at a somewhat later date went on in Germany between the traders of the cities and the "robber-barons" of the country. In this aspect we may see the full meaning of Dante's continual allusion to the sin of avarice, under the image of the "wolf;" an allusion, again, which the original name whence the Guelf party took its appellation would specially point.

How and when the names first appeared in Italy we do not know. The first manifestation of resistance on the part of the cities to the Imperial control was given when Milan withstood Frederick Barbarossa-in defence, it may be noted, of its own right to oppress its weaker neighbours; but during the war which followed, and which was terminated by Frederick's defeat at Legnano, the head of the Welfs, Henry the Lion, was for most of the time fighting on the Imperial side, and though he deserted Frederick at the last, he does not seem to have given any active help to the Lombard League. Yet it may well be that in his defection we have to see a stage in the transition from Welf to Guelf. It is, however, not in Lombardy, but in Tuscany, that the names of Guelf and Ghibeline, as recognised party designations, first appear. Machiavelli says-perhaps by a confusion with the Black and White factions, of whom we shall hear later-that they were first heard in Pistoia; but however this may be, they would seem to have been definitely accepted by 1215, to which year Villani assigns their introduction into Florence.

We have now reached the first date, it may be said, which students of Dante will have to remember; a date which to him, and equally to the sober chronicler Villani, marked the beginning of troubles for the city which both loved as a mother, though to the greater son she was "a mother of small love." The occasion is so important that it ought to be related in the historian's own words:-

"In the year of Christ 1215, one Messer Bondelmonte, of the Bondelmonti, a noble citizen of Florence, having promised to take to wife a damsel of the house of the Amidei, honourable and noble citizens; as this Messer Bondelmonte, who was

a gay and handsome cavalier, was riding through the city, a lady of the Donati family called to him, speaking evil of the lady who had been promised to him, how that she was not fair nor fitting for him, and saying: 'I have kept my daughter here for you,' showed him the maiden; and she was very fair. And straightway falling enamoured of her, he gave her his troth, and espoused her to wife; for which cause the kinsfolk of the first promised lady gathered together, and being grieved for the shame that Messer Bondelmonte had wrought them, they took on them the accursed quarrel whereby the city of Florence was laid waste and broken up. For many houses of the nobles[11] bound themselves together by an oath to do a shame to the aforesaid Bondelmonte in vengeance for those injuries. And as they were in council among themselves in what fashion they should bring him down, Mosca of the Lamberti said the ill word: "A thing done hath an end," meaning that he should be slain.[12] And so it came to pass; for on the morning of Easter Day they assembled in the house of the Amidei by St. Stephen's, and the said Messer Bondelmonte, coming from beyond Arno, nobly clad in new white clothes, and riding on a white palfrey, when he reached the hither end of the Old Bridge, just by the pillar where was the image of Mars, was thrown from his horse by Schiatta of the Uberti,[13] and by Mosca Lamberti and Lambertuccio of the Amidei assailed and wounded, and his throat was cut and an end made of him by Oderigo Fifanti; and one of the counts from Gangalandi was with them. For the which thing's sake the city flew to arms and uproar, and this death of Messer Bondelmonte was the cause and beginning of the accursed Guelf and Ghibeline parties in Florence, albeit that before this the factions among the nobles of the city had been plenty, and there had been the parties I have said, by reason of the conflicts and questions between the Church and the Empire; but through the death of Messer Bondelmonte all the families of the nobles and other citizens of Florence took sides with them, and some held with the Bondelmonti, who took the Guelf side and were its leaders, and others with the Uberti, who were head of the Ghibelines. Whence followed much havoc and ruin to our city, and one may think that it will never have an end if God put not a term to it."[14]

The historian proceeds to enumerate the noble families who joined either side. Curiously enough, they were at first evenly divided-thirty-eight to thirty-eight. Not much is to be inferred from the names, though it is somewhat significant that of those, some half a dozen families in all, whom Villani, himself a Guelf, notes as having only recently attained to nobility, all joined the Guelf party. There seems also to have been a tendency for Ghibeline houses to become Guelf, which is not balanced by any defections in the opposite sense, so that the balance of parties was soon disturbed in favour of the Guelfs. At first, however, though "there was a division among the nobles of the city in that one loved the lordship of the Church, and the other that of the Empire, yet in regard to the state and welfare of the commonwealth all were in concord."

This state of things did not last long. In 1220 Frederick II. was crowned Emperor at Rome. Up till that time he had been more or less a protégé of the Popes. First Innocent III., then Honorius III., had kept a fatherly eye upon his youth and early manhood, and for a time Church and Empire seemed to pull together. Honorius had, indeed, occasion to write severely to him more than once, but there was no breach of the peace. The accession of Gregory IX., in 1227, changed the aspect of affairs. Before the year was out, Frederick, like most of his predecessors for 200 years past, was under the ban of the Church: and from this time forward there was an end of peace and quiet government in Northern Italy. "Before Frederick met with opposition," Dante makes a Lombard gentleman of the last generation say, "valour and courtesy were wont to be found in the land which Adige and Po water; now may any man safely go that way, who through shame has left off to converse with good men or approach them."[15]

Florence seems to have remained longer than most of the chief cities aloof from the main contest. She had her own wars with Pisa, beginning with a private quarrel at the Emperor's coronation (in which we are expressly told that both parties united), and afterwards with Siena; and the great houses did a certain amount of private fighting; "but still the people and commonwealth of Florence continued in unity, to the welfare and honour and stability of the republic." In 1248, however, Frederick turned his attention in that direction, moved, it may be, by the growing strength of the Guelfs. His natural son, Frederick of Antioch, was sent with a force of German men-at-arms, and after some fierce street fighting, the Guelfs were driven out.

The Ghibeline supremacy was short-lived. Their nobles, especially the great house of the Uberti, became unpopular by reason of the exactions which they enforced; they got beaten in a fight with some of the banished Guelfs at no great distance from the city; and before the end of 1250 a meeting of "the good men," as Villani calls them, or, as we should say, the middle class, limited the power of the Podestà,[16] and appointed a Captain of the People to manage the internal affairs of the city, with a council of twelve Elders. Other important changes were made at the same time, and the new constitution-the third recorded in Florentine history-was known as the "Primo Popolo." The death of Frederick in the same year still further weakened the Ghibelines. Some of them were banished, and the exiled Guelfs were recalled. Peace, however, seems to have been kept between the parties for some time, and when in 1255 Count Guido Guerra on his own account expelled the Ghibelines from Arezzo, the Florentines restored them, and lent the Aretines money to pay a fine which the Guelf chief had inflicted; "but I know not if they ever got it back," says Villani.

Again the compromise proved unstable. Manfred, Frederick's natural son, to whom, during the childhood of his young nephew, Conradin, the championship of the Hohenstaufen cause had fallen, was daily increasing in strength. His orders came to the Ghibelines of Florence to crush the popular party; and the latter, being warned in time, drove out all the great Ghibeline families. Two years later these had their revenge. On September 4, 1260, a date much to be remembered in the history of these times, the banished Ghibelines, aided by eight hundred of Manfred's German horse, seized the opportunity of hostilities between the Florentines and the Sienese to meet their opponents in a pitched battle. This took place on the Arbia, near the fortress of Montaperti, to the east of Siena.[17] The Guelfs were utterly routed, partly, it would seem, through the incompetence of some of the Elders who accompanied the army, and who, civilians though they were, overruled the judgement of the military leaders, and accepted battle under unfavourable conditions; and partly through the treachery of some Ghibelines who, not having been exiled, were serving in the Florentine host. Readers of the Commedia will remember the name of Bocca degli Abati, placed by Dante in the lowest pit of hell.[18]

Sixty-five of the leading Guelf families fled to Lucca, while the Ghibelines entered Florence, and appointed Guido Novello, of the great house of the Conti Guidi, Imperial Podestà. A meeting of the leaders of the party from Pisa, Siena, and Arezzo was held at Empoli, and a proposal was made on behalf of the rival cities, to raze Florence to the ground as a fortified city, and so preclude her revival as a Guelf stronghold. For once, however, a man was found to set patriotism above party. The great Farinata degli Uberti, whose wise counsel and warlike skill had mainly contributed to the victory, rose, with the same magnificent scorn, we may suppose, that Dante afterwards saw him display for the torments of Hell,[19] and let it be known that, so long as he had life in him, he would resist any such measure at the sword's point. Count Giordano, the commander of the Germans, who had convened the meeting, gave in, and Florence was saved.

This was the last gleam of success which the Imperial cause was to enjoy in Tuscany for nearly half a century. Soon after the battle of Montaperti, Urban IV. was elected to the Papal See. He was a Frenchman by birth, "son of a shoemaker, but a valiant man and wise," says Villani. In view of the growing power of Manfred, vigorous steps had to be taken. The exiled Florentine Guelfs had made a fruitless attempt to effect a diversion in Germany, by inciting the young Conradin to oppose the acting head of his house. This old expedient having failed, Urban turned his eyes towards his own country. Charles of Anjou, brother of Saint Lewis, was at that time, next to the reigning sovereigns, the most powerful prince in Christendom, and to his aid the Pope appealed. Himself a man of Puritanical strictness in his life, and devoted to the Church, Charles was ready enough to accept the call, which appealed alike to his principles and to his ambition, and to act as the champion of the Holy See against the dissolute and freethinking Manfred; and the influence of his wife, the only one of Raymond Berenger's four daughters who was not actually or in prospect a queen,[20] was thrown on the same side. After keeping Easter 1265 at Paris, Charles set out, and landed at the mouth of the Tiber in May. In December he was crowned at Rome King of Naples, Sicily, and Apulia. Two months later, at the end of February 1266, Charles and Manfred met near Benevento. After some hard fighting, of which the German troops seem to have borne the brunt, the battle was decided against Manfred by the desertion of his Apulian barons, and he himself was slain. His defeat gave the final blow to the Ghibeline cause in Tuscany. Only Pisa and Siena remained faithful. In Florence an attempt was made to avoid civil strife by the device of doubling the office of Podestà. Two gentlemen from Bologna, Catalano de' Malavolti and Loderingo de' Landolò, a Guelf and a Ghibeline,[21] were appointed, and they nominated a council of thirty-six, chosen from both sides. But this plan did not work well. Party spirit had grown too violent to allow of half measures, and before the year was out the people rose again, and the Ghibelines were banished for good and all.

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[8] It seems proper to say that this chapter was written, and at least some of it printed, before Mr. Oscar Browning's interesting volume, Guelphs and Ghibellines (Methuen), appeared.

[9] It may not be out of place here to correct the vulgar error that "Guelf" is in any sense the surname of our Royal family. The house of Brunswick is no doubt lineally descended from these Welfs of Bavaria; but it has been a reigning house since a period long antecedent to the existence (among Teutonic peoples) of family or surnames, and there is no reason for assigning to the Queen the Christian name of one of her ancestors more than another-"Guelf" more than "George."

[10] Hallam considers that hostility to the Empire was the motive principle of the Guelf party in Lombardy; attachment to the Church in Tuscany.

[11] Observe that the Bondelmonti were comparatively newcomers. They had originally belonged to Valdigreve, and had only lived in Florence for some eighty years at the date of this event. Hence they were looked upon as upstarts, and not properly speaking, nobles at all. See Paradise, xvi. 133-147.

[12] Hell, xxviii. 106.

[13] Possibly "by the Uberti lot."

[14] Villani, Croniche, v. 37.

[15] Purgatory, xvi. 115.

[16] The name Podestà originally denoted the chief authority of a city or county, whether vested in one person or several. Frederick I. established Imperial officers under this title throughout Tuscany near the end of his reign, and for some time the Podestà was regarded as the Emperor's delegate. Before the end of the century, however, they had become municipal officers, gradually displacing the former consuls from the chief position. About 1200 the custom of choosing them from the citizens of some other town than that in which they officiated, seems to have become established; the native consuls being their councillors.

[17] Hell, x. 96.

[18] Hell, xxxii. 81, 106.

[19] Ibid., x. 36.

[20] Paradise, vi. 133.

[21] They seem to have acted on the principle of filling their own pockets, rather than of maintaining order; and are placed by Dante among the hypocrites, in the sixth pit of Malebolge (Hell, xxiii. 103). They belonged to the order of Knights of St. Mary, popularly called Jovial Friars.

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