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In historical research, a form of rule that was widespread in the communes of northern and central Italy between the 13th and 15th centuries is referred to as a signoria ( signory ) . Signoria denotes the government by a gentleman ( signore ) at the head of an assembly of decision-makers, which often did not come from the nobility, but from the local patriciate . Signoria was usually also called the council assembly that elected the signore and other officials.

This article deals with the general form of this city government, special forms of the Signoria can be found in the historical Republic of Venice and the historical city government of Florence , see Gonfaloniere .


The communes in medieval Upper and Central Italy (except in the Papal States and also not Venice) were initially under de iure of the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire from the 10th century . However, since individual families from the people became more and more influential through craft and trade, there were open power struggles for government sovereignty in many communities. The magnate appointed by the emperor was often subject to the popolo , the organized citizenship.

With the death of Emperor Frederick II at the end of 1250, the imperial administration in Imperial Italy began to collapse . The struggle between the Ghibellines and the Guelphs , which had already raged during the Staufer's lifetime, intensified . The equation of “Ghibellines” with “loyal to the emperor” and “Guelfen” with “hostile to the emperor” is only partially correct. Even the Guelfs in Florence split into two groups around 1300. Often the name only served as a mark of different groups in a municipality. Social problems also played a not insignificant role, since the power of the consular families, which traditionally played an important role, was called into question by “climbers”, for example from the merchant class. The group of the Ghibellines was usually recruited from groups that wanted to benefit from imperial rule. This affected the feudal lords in their encounter with the power of the communes or weak communes threatened by expanding neighbors. In the contemporary state wings, the Monarchia and, in places, the previously published work Convivio by Dante Alighieri offer reactions to the decline, combined with the hope for a renewal of imperial power.

A direct consequence was an increase in both violence within certain communes and in fighting between different cities in imperial Italy. To solve this problematic situation, the transfer of powers to the Signor was repeatedly used and new procedures such as the conclave were established in order to fill offices independently of external influences and internal party disputes. These could be occupied by leaders of the most important group in the municipality, by respected, preferably neutral people from the municipality, by clerics or even strangers. Since Venice did not belong to the empire and was otherwise neutral in the power struggles within and between the Italian communes, Venetian nobilhòmini were often appointed to rulers in the city, to which Venice's reputation for having a very correct and well-functioning legal system contributed. The Signor was expected not only to restore peace and order in the commune, but also to establish social peace through the participation of the “climbers” in political power in the commune.

An early form of the Signoria was established by Ezzelino da Romano , but without Ezzelino having gained any support in the city itself. The first formal legal urban signory was finally given in 1264 to Obizzo II. D´Este in Ferrara by the commune in a solemn plenary meeting - however arranged by Obizio. After the death of Frederick II, signories were erected in Verona , Mantua and Milan , among others , mostly by families who were present both in the contado (the surrounding area) and in the city itself. The formal security of the respective signor was often carried out through the clothing of the important offices of the Podestà and the Capitano del popolo several times in a row or sometimes for life.

In order to obtain additional legitimation of power, the new rulers often tried to get a vicariate from the Pope or the Roman-German Emperor. Above all, Henry VII's move to Italy (1310 to 1313) ensured an expansion of the form of rule of the signory to include other municipalities, as Henry often relied on local people to protect the imperial interests. A well-known example of this are the Visconti in Milan. Other Ghibellines continued the fight against the Guelphs after the emperor's death in August 1313 and established their own dominions in the following years (see, for example, Castruccio Castracani ). Heinrich's grandson Charles IV partially confirmed these vicariates on his Italian campaigns. In some cities the Signor assured himself that his office would actually be inherited by the population, so that in isolated cases dynasties were formed. As a result of these factors, the traditional communal institutions disappeared into insignificance in the period that followed. The prince set up his own administrative apparatus in their place and also dissolved the militias in favor of mercenary associations devoted to him. However, a signory was by no means formed in all communes, some of which were also divided by internal disputes, as the exceptions Genoa , Siena and Lucca show. The regaining of the full authority of the municipality in the event of the disavowal of the signore or the extinction of his dynasty was not excluded.

By the 15th century , a number of cities became so powerful that they became autonomous regional states. Neither the empire nor the pope succeeded in suppressing this development by force. Instead, they distributed privileges and titles of nobility in order to bind the signory to themselves. Only Cesare Borgia succeeded in doing so with great success .

Many cities thus became hereditary principalities . Others were swallowed up by the large territorial states that successfully expanded in the 15th century ( Duchy of Milan , the Republic of Venice , Duchy of Florence (later Duchy of Tuscany ), Kingdom of Naples and the Papal States ).

See also: History of Italy


  • John Larner: Italy in the Age of Dante and Petrarch, 1216-1380. Longman, London et al. 1980, ISBN 0-582-48366-2 ( A Longman History of Italy 2).
  • M. Lunari: Signories and principalities . In: Lexicon of the Middle Ages . Vol. 7, Col. 1891-1894 (literature).
  • Michael Jones (Ed.): The New Cambridge Medieval History . Vol. 6, Cambridge 2000, especially chap. 15 ( Italy in the Age of Dante and Petrarch ), pp. 442ff.
  • Philip Jones: The Italian City-State. From Commune to Signoria. Clarendon Press, Oxford et al. 1997, ISBN 0-19-822585-7 .


  1. In word origin from Latin senior , d. i. "the older", "the lofty"
  2. Volker Reinhardt : The Renaissance in Italy. History and culture . CH Beck, Munich 2002, p. 44.
  3. This was an official designation that had been used since the 12th century for a person who assumed leadership in a commune previously ruled by consuls. In the signory, a podestà was also sometimes appointed, whose tasks were now largely of a technical nature.
  4. This represented the interests of the popolo vis-à-vis the Podestà, and was often responsible for leading the “military” of the commune.
  5. See William M. Bowsky, Henry VII in Italy , Lincoln 1960, especially p. 96ff.