Ghibellines and Guelphs

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The name Ghibellinen ( Waiblinger ) is the name given to the emperor's partisans in medieval Italy , named after the Staufer town of Waiblingen in Württemberg today and the battle cry of the Hohenstaufen . The existence of this name is first attested around 1215 at the time of the Staufer Emperor Friedrich II .

The corresponding opposing group was the Guelfs ( Welfen ), who supported the politics of the papacy and named themselves after the rivals of the Staufer House, the family of the Guelphs . However, the Italian Guelphs also supported the emperor's cause if it was in their interest. Therefore the separation in Ghibellines and Guelphs was by no means always as pronounced as it is sometimes shown. In Florence around 1300, for example, the Guelphs split into the white Guelphs (imperial-friendly Guelphs), who advocated a compromise with the emperor, and the black Guelphs, who pursued a tough policy towards the emperor. Depending on the current government in the communes, supporters of one or the other party were expelled from the city and sent into exile. The famous poet Dante, for example, fell victim to this power politics in Florence . The struggle between the two parties survived the fall of the Hohenstaufen and in the late Middle Ages often only represented different groups within an Italian commune that were hostile to each other.

Historical development

Inner-city struggles played a major role in the history of many Italian cities. Such feuds occurred in almost all Italian cities - with the exception of Venice - and their details are not easy to describe. First of all, there was the great antagonism that ran through the whole country between the “white” Ghibellines and the “black” Guelphs, that is, between the supporters of the emperor and those of the pope. This conflict between Pope and Emperor determined medieval and early modern history for centuries.

With the beginning of the Middle Ages in the 6th century and later increasingly in the 10th and 11th centuries, there was extensive competition for power in the Christian Occident. In addition to the emperor's claim to power, there was that of the pope in Rome.

Although it is regularly claimed that there was a separation between secular and spiritual power, the so-called two swords theory , a clean separation was not always possible. Above all, this should often not be done at all. Charlemagne and Henry IV , for example, did not see themselves only as secular rulers who were elected by and dependent on princes ; on the contrary, they saw their rule as given by God and thus came under the Pope's sphere of influence.

Likewise, it was not the Pope's intention to only concern himself with the so-called salvation of the soul of his subjects. The church had clear secular claims to power, and ultimately the "subjects" were the same as those of the emperor. The Pope was thus not just a spiritual authority. The Papal States caused by expansion of its geographical area and its financial revenues increasing for the opportunity to concretely implement his ideas - even by force of arms.

A dispute over the division of human life between religious and secular principles had turned into a purely political power struggle. One of the central questions was how the hierarchy between Pope and Emperor was to be defined, from which the subsequent question arose, who was allowed to appoint whom - and thus also to depose whom; this dispute is known as the investiture dispute .

This comprehensive dispute between the two groups, the Ghibellines and the Guelfs, i.e. between loyal to the emperor and loyal to the papacy, permeated and influenced all inter-urban and inner-city processes. The polarity between Ghibellines and Guelphs had been an old, traditional pattern since the beginning of the 13th century, in order to shift private feuds of all kinds onto this stage.

Klaus Zimmermanns describes the basic pattern of this situation as follows:

“The rivalry between the Tuscan city-states became embroiled in the power struggles between the emperor and the pope. The emperor tried to limit the cities' urge to expand and to participate in their economic prosperity. The cities, although never formally calling into question the suzerainty of the emperor, refused to pay taxes and to tolerate imperial vicars within their walls. Among the Tuscan cities, Florence , Lucca and San Gimignano mostly pursued a papal-friendly policy against the emperor, especially since the church favored long-distance trade through its international connections. Arezzo , Pisa , Pistoia and Siena, on the other hand, hoped for support from the emperor against the expansionist urge of the Republic of Florence.
Since around 1240 the partisans of the empire were called Ghibellines , those of the Holy See Guelphs . The black Guelfs or Welfs were originally the supporters of the German princely family of the Welfs . It began with Innocent III at the beginning of the 13th century
. For reasons of power politics a member of this family, namely Otto IV. , had awarded the imperial crown - instead of the Staufer Philip of Swabia . The white Ghibellines were originally the people of the Staufer, who were initially called " Waiblinger " after their Swabian hometown . The name "Ghibellines" arose from this derivation over several stages of language development. A family feud between the Buondelmonti and the Amidei in Florence is said to have triggered the formation of the party in 1215 .
The partisans of the Ghibellines were mainly the nobility , while the merchants were on the side of the Guelfs. Both parties were represented in all cities. During the heated disputes in the middle of the 13th century, membership of the party counted more than that of one's hometown. Ghibelline Florentines fought on the side of Siena, Guelfese Sienese for Florence.
The Ghibellines, loyal to the emperor, relied on a power whose ideals of vassalism and empire belonged to the past and whose political and military strength was on the verge of waning. The Guelphs thought in a more contemporary way and gave political power to the wholesale merchants, who had a significant share in the prosperity of the cities. "

This is the historical grid that appears again and again in city histories and that you have to understand in its basic structure once in order to see through the respective subtleties in the individual cities. Medieval Florence, for example, looked different than it does today, even if many buildings from this period have been preserved. “We have to imagine the old Florence as a forest of towers”, as it still exists today in a similar way in San Gimignano. These so-called " gender towers " of the individual patrician families were not regularly distributed over the city area, but united to form family groups. At that time Florence was a city of private fortresses, between which the houses of the petty bourgeoisie huddled in narrow streets.

“Everyone had every reason to be on their guard against each other, so instead of windows there were usually only loopholes through which one could always observe and shoot at the space in front of the narrow, barred doors.” Life in these towers was far from luxurious and only changed later with the advent of palaces in the 15th century. On these palaces, a certain crenellated shape was often attached to the wreath as a distinguishing mark , the dovetail shape in particular becoming known as the Ghibelline pinnacles. Originally, it was more a technical development of the rectangular battlements, independent of political orientation, in order to be able to place a crossbow more safely and aim more precisely.

In the 13th century Florence had more than 150 such towers and they reached a height of up to 70 meters. The Torre Asinelli in Bologna , which is still preserved today, was 97 meters high. The first democratic constitution in 1250 banned building higher than 29 meters, and all private structures were removed to this height. “But not only the purposes of defense and the insecurity of the then common struggle of all against all drove the buildings of the patricians so high, but the narrowness of the space within the old city wall alone was reason enough to build these first skyscrapers of mankind ". Last but not least, the height of the towers was also a matter of prestige for the families.

The clashes between the two groups were sometimes carried out with great destructiveness. In Florence, for example, before the Guelphs left for the battle of Montaperti on September 4, 1260 against the Sienese Ghibellines, their Florentine towers were demolished. But the Ghibellines won the battle and in turn tore down 47 palaces, 198 houses and 59 towers of the Guelphs in Florence and another 464 buildings in the countryside. Other important battles between Ghibellines and Guelphs were the Battle of Cortenuova on November 27, 1237, the Battle of Tagliacozzo on August 23, 1268, the Battle of Campaldino on June 11, 1289 and the Battle of Altopascio in 1325.

The Guelph Party chose the lily as a heraldic symbol , which was derived from the lily coat of arms of the Capetian Karl von Anjou , who, with papal support, fought the Staufer imperial party . The Ghibellines, on the other hand, used the imperial imperial eagle . The lily can therefore be found in numerous coats of arms of former Guelfish-minded Italian aristocratic families or municipalities (for example from Florence and Bologna , here in the tournament collar ), while the double-headed eagle indicates Ghibelline supporters.

Ghibelline cities

Cities with fluctuating affiliations

Guelfish cities

Modern times

The Neoguelfismo designated under the auspices of the Italian Risorgimento until 1850 to carry out the national union under the leadership of the Pope the option. Instead, it took place under the leadership of the House of Savoy and the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont.

Names like Ghibellinia or Guelphia also came up in the 19th century for student associations . With these reference was made to the imperial politics of the medieval Hohenstaufen after the German nation-state was founded in 1871.


  • Franco Cardini : Ghibellines . In: Lexicon of the Middle Ages (LexMA). Volume 4, Artemis & Winkler, Munich / Zurich 1989, ISBN 3-7608-8904-2 , Sp. 1436-1438.
  • Franco Cardini: Guelphs . In: Lexicon of the Middle Ages (LexMA). Volume 4, Artemis & Winkler, Munich / Zurich 1989, ISBN 3-7608-8904-2 , Sp. 1763-1765 (Both articles briefly discuss the research history of the two terms and also provide further literature).
  • Peter Herde : Dante as a Florentine politician (= Frankfurt historical lectures. Vol. 3). Steiner, Wiesbaden 1976, ISBN 3-515-02506-5 .
  • Peter Herd: Guelphs and Neoguelfs. On the history of a national ideology from the Middle Ages to the Risorgimento (= meeting reports of the Scientific Society at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main. Vol. 22, No. 2). Steiner-Verlag-Wiesbaden-GmbH., Stuttgart 1986, ISBN 3-515-04596-1 .
  • Kurt Leonhard: Dante Alighieri in self-testimonies and picture documents (= Rowohlt's monographs 167). Rowohlt, Reinbek near Hamburg 1970, ISBN 3-499-50167-8 , pp. 21-22.
  • Roland Pauler: The German kings and Italy in the 14th century. From Heinrich VII. To Karl IV. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1997, ISBN 3-534-13148-7 .
  • Daniel Waley : The Italian city-states. Kindler, Munich 1969.
  • Klaus Zimmermanns: Toscana. The hill country and the historic city centers. (Pisa, Lucca, Pistoia, Prato, Arezzo, Siena, San Gimignano, Volterra). DuMont, Cologne 1980, ISBN 3-7701-1050-1 .

Web links

Commons : Ghibellines and Guelphs  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Klaus Zimmermanns: Toscana. Cologne 1980, p. 30 - with slight changes.
  2. a b Kurt Leonhard: Dante Alighieri in self-testimonies and image documents. Reinbek near Hamburg 1970, pp. 21-22.
  3. ^ Wilfried Koch : Architectural Style. The great standard work on European architecture from antiquity to the present. Special edition, expanded and completely reworked. Orbis-Verlag, Munich 1994, ISBN 3-572-00689-9 , p. 401.
  4. ^ Stephen Slater, The Complete Book of Heraldry ( ISBN 1843096986 ), 201.
  5. The lily can be found in the coat of arms of the Torriani family , who at times led the Lombard Guelphs, or the Bourbon del Monte Santa Maria family , who even took their name afterwards, while the Gherardesca carry half the imperial eagle.