Guelphs vs Ghibellines
Table of Contents:
The Guelph-Ghibelline Rivalry
A combination of factors led to the conflict between Guelphs and Ghibellines in Florence during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Although the aggressive actions of Emperor Frederick I catalyzed the Guelph vs Ghibelline rivalry, it was a young Florentine nobleman named Buondelmonte de’Buondelmonti who caused the local rivalry to spiral into bitter violence.
The terms Guelph and Ghibelline have Germanic origins. The former developed from the house of Welf, a dynasty of Bavarian dukes who fought for the imperial throne through the later Middle Ages. The latter originated from the name of a castle called Waiblingen, the seat of the Hohenstaufen dukes of Swabia and the family that governed the Holy Roman Empire – and the enemies of the Welf family. These terms acquired significance in northern Italy during the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbossa. Frederick advanced south of the Alps in 1175, determined to reassert imperial authority over northern Italy. Fearing a threat to his own political potentcy in Lombardy, the newly elected Pope Alexander III firmly opposed Frederick’s aggressive conquest, resulting in a split peninsula: the Guelphs in support of the papacy and the Ghibellines in support of the emperor. With the help of his Lombard League, Pope Alexander III eventually triumphed over Frederick I at Legnano in 1176, restoring order to the relationship between emperor and pope. However, the rivalry between the two camps continued to simmer all through the region.
This rivalry came to a boil in Florence after a fierce altercation involving several rival families in 1216. According to the chronicle of Dino Compagni (ca. 1310), a Florentine Guelph nobleman Boundelmonte de’Buondelmonti had promised to take as his wife a daughter of a local patrician named Oderigo Giantruffetti. Before the marriage took place, Buondelmonte was offered an alternate bride, the daughter of Madonna Aldruda, a Ghibelline gentlewoman from the Donati house. Although betrothed to another, Buondelmonte accepted this proposal and reneged on his earlier agreement with the Giantruffetti, an action which infuriated Oderigo and his family. Incensed by this act of humiliaiton, Oderigo and his allies vowed to avenge his daughter and set out to Buondelmonte on the day of his marriage. However, a member of the Uberti family intercepted their action and convinced them to murder the treacherous groom instead of merely assaulting him: the assassination forced Florentines to take sides – probably based on pre-existing animosities and alliances between families – which in turn developed into an unending social and political rift that split the city. At this point, officials lost their ability to control rampant political polarization and violence. Florence became a toxic factionalized environment.
As internal conflict plagued Florence, the city ignored imperial authority and followed its own policy preferences, which routinely favored papal political interests. This insubordination angered Emperor Frederick II who advanced into Italy in 1237 on the pretense of quelling this disobedience. In response to the instability in Florence, the Emperor appointed one of his illegitimate sons, Frederick of Antioch, as Podestà of Florence. The arrival of this imperial bastard renewed quarrels among the Florentine aristocracy, thereby worsening the savage disputes between Guelphs and Ghibellines. What had begun as an international crisis between pope and emperor devolved into a local crisis, which then developed into an international affair once again.
Gene Brucker, Florence: The Golden Age 1138-1737 (New York: Abbeville Press, 1983), 116.
Christopher Hibbert, Florence (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993), 13-18.
The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, “Guelph and Ghibelline”, Encyclopedia Britannica.
Daniel Bornstein, Dino Compagni’s Chronicles of Florence (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986), xiv-xx and 6-7.