Ghibellines / Guelfs

Ghibellines / Guelfs
   Party names of the two rival factions that arose in many Italian communes during the wars of the 12th and 13th centuries between the German emperors and the popes. The Ghibellines supported the efforts of the emperors of the Hohenstaufen or Waibling dynasty (the word "Ghibellini" is an attempt to render the latter name in Italian) to establish political control of northern and central Italy; the Guelfs were named for the Welf dynasty of Saxon dukes whom the popes favored in an effort to block the consolidation of imperial power in Italy. Most Italian cities were internally divided by this conflict between popes and emperors. The wealthier classes generally feared that the unstable republican constitutions of the communes would lead to political control by the lower classes and hence to attacks on private property. The Guelf families (by no means limited to the poor) generally favored local independence and looked to the popes for support since the papacy had long struggled to block the incorporation of Italy into a powerful imperial monarchy. Within each city, the struggle was nominally over foreign policy—which side in the larger conflict the local government would support—but in fact the division was also influenced by local family rivalries.
   Each side when it gained the upper hand employed exile, confiscation of property, execution, and assassination in an effort to destroy its rivals. The 13th century was especially bloody as many cities experienced alternating periods of Guelf and Ghibelline control. Although the great struggle between popes and emperors was largely over with the death of the last powerful medieval emperor, Frederick II, in 1250, the factions long outlived the larger conflict that had produced them. Membership in either the Guelf or the Ghibelline party became a matter of family tradition. Rivalry between Guelfs and Ghibellines was one of the sources of the violent struggles for power that eventually caused most Italian communes to abandon their republican constitutions and accept the rule of a signore (dictator) who would suppress internal violence. The struggle between Ghibellines and Guelfs was especially significant in the political development of Florence, one of only two large Italian states that resisted the tendency to accept despotic government. The chaotic experience of mid-13th century, a period marked by foreign intervention, mass exile of defeated factions, and deliberate use of political power to impoverish political rivals, ended in 1267 when, with the aid of French troops, the local Guelfs permanently seized control of the city. The Guelfs destroyed the power of the local Ghibellines by large-scale confiscation of property and imposition of exile. Eventually they adopted a constitution that made it unlawful for any person of Ghibelline political persuasion (essentially, anyone whose ancestors had been Ghibellines) to hold public office. The Guelf political party acted as a sort of shadow government, basing its influence on the party's legal power of declaring individuals or families to be Ghibellines, thus banishing from political activity any politician who seemed to endanger the interests of the wealthy merchant families who dominated both the party and the government.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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