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The 13th century was arguably the darkest period of Italian history, marked by bloody struggles between rival political factions. The 15th century (the so-called Age of Warlords) was likewise replete with unscrupulous Italian despots who ruled with a refined cruelty, from Giangaleazzo Visconti to Cesare Borgia, but at least it was also a time of great creative achievement — the Renaissance.

In contrast, the 13th century was generally a time of unmitigated violence. Entire families were expunged in escalating blood feuds reminiscent of vendettas among the Mafia families in more recent times. The tragedy of Romeo Montecchi and Juliet Capuleti (made famous by William Shakespeare’s play in 1595) took place in that time.

The game of power made every northern Italian town a theater of civil wars. A family backing a particular political party often controlled a neighborhood adjacent to one controlled by a family belonging to a rival party. The year 1198 saw the beginning of two such political parties–the Guelphs and Ghibellines. (The Montecchis were Ghibellines; the Capuletis were Guelphs.) The names are of German origin. At that time, German emperors also reigned over Italy, through a parallel kingdom built up by the Unrochingi, which by 888 was the first dynasty of the world whose rulers wore crowns considered holy by the Church.

The Guelphs became the upholders of papal supremacy, while the Ghibellines supported the political claims of German emperors and kings of Italy. Later, the Guelphs split into two factions: the Blacks (extreme Guelphs) and the Whites (moderate Guelphs). Ghibellines came to be regarded as the party of noblemen, Black Guelphs the faction of the upper middle class, and White Guelphs the faction of the lower middle class. The truth, however, was that all of those parties and factions steadily degenerated into gangs without any ideology who fought for the hegemonic ambitions of their own bosses to control local businesses and rackets.

In the middle of the 13th century, northern Italy, the so-called kingdom of Italy, was a myriad of independent city-states–more than 60, not counting smaller villages and excluding the independent republic of Venice. Central Italy was made up of the Papal States, from which the popes vied for rule over European Christendom with the Holy Roman Empire.

Southern Italy and the island of Sicily made up the kingdom of Sicily, whose ruling Norman Altavilla dynasty was replaced in 1194 by the Swabian dynasty–officially through a joyful marriage, but also by killing all the upholders of the Altavillas who did not agree with the change. As a child, William III, the last offspring of the Altavillas, was maimed by the Swabian thugs and then disappeared (it seems he died in what is now western Austria). An unusual fiefdom within the Sicilian domain was the town of Lucera, which was an autonomous Islamic republic allied with the Swabians.

In 1258, King Manfredi I ruled over southern Italy and also in northern Italy, where he was regarded as the chief of the Ghibelline Party. In Italy, his allies included Ezzelino da Romano, the powerful tyrant of Venetia, called the ‘Son of the Devil’ because of his violent temperament. Ezzelino, who married into the Swabians, ruled over a large territory and threatened all of his neighbors. Moreover, as a Ghibelline he controlled the strategic road to Germany. Manfredi, who controlled a kingdom that was supposed to have been ruled by his nephew Conradino (Little Conrad), had stolen the crown. He then set his ambitions on becoming ruler over Germany and northern Italy. Manfredi was heavy-handed when it came to domestic politics; in southern Italy, he defended his power by sweeping away all opposition. His foreign politics were just as unscrupulous. Hoping to improve relations with the papacy (the popes hated the Swabians), he supported Pope Alexander IV when the latter decided to eliminate the tyrant Ezzelino, who was Manfredi’s brother-in-law. The Guelphs’ crusade against Ezzelino, who they represented as a tyrant who scorned God and all human beings, was made up of the Papacy, Venice, Milan, Ferrara, Padua, Mantua and Cremona. At the Battle of Cassano d’Adda, fought on September 19, 1259, Ezzelino was wounded, defeated and arrested. He died in the prison of Soncino a few days later. His entire family was subsequently killed.

After Cassano d’Adda, the relationship between the papacy and Manfredi did not permanently improve. The struggles also continued between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, especially in Tuscany, where the hatred between Florence (Guelph) and Siena (Ghibelline) escalated. Both towns wanted hegemony over Tuscany.

The Sienese, who knew that the Florentines wanted to destroy their town, asked Manfredi for help. In December 1259, Manfredi sent a force of 800 German knights and some Muslim noblemen from Lucera, led by his brother, Giordano d’Anglona.

In April 1260, Florence organized a great coalition to smash the Sienese. Jacopino Rangoni, the mayor of Florence, soon had 12 generals and nearly 35,000 soldiers at his disposal. All of the males of Florence aged 15 through 70 took up arms, and they were joined by troops from Genoa, Piacenza, Bologna, Lucca, Pistoia, Prato, Arezzo, Volterra, San Gimignano and the papal towns of Perugia and Orvieto. From smaller towns and from Germany, upholders of Conradino also came to fight. There were even Sienese fighting–exiled Guelphs who wanted to take power in their own town.

On the other side, Siena got additional support from Pisa (a traditional enemy of both Genoa and Florence), Cortona, and the Ghibellines of Florence (the most prominent of whom were Guido Novello and Farinata degli Uberti), who were trying to regain power in the town after 10 years in exile. In sum, the Sienese commander in chief, Aldobrandino di Santa Fiora, had about 20,000 soldiers.

September 4, 1260, a Saturday, would be the bloodiest day of the Italian Middle Ages. The ‘eternal peace’ signed by Florence and Siena on July 31, 1255, was only a memory, and the ongoing duel between those two towns, which had begun in 1140, was about to reach its gory climax. Near Montaperti (the ‘hill of death’), a handful of houses within sight of Siena, civilians prayed in churches for victory.

The Sienese were the first to attack. Both sides concentrated their efforts on conquering the Carroccio of the enemy–the holy wagon that always accompanied medieval Italian armies, where a priest celebrated mass during the battle.

The battle lasted from dawn until sunset. Although the Ghibellines were not as numerous as the Guelphs, they were more aggressive, and Manfredi’s German knights were selected troops. When sunset came and the last attempt of the Guelphs to conquer the Sienese Carroccio failed, some things occurred that finally decided the battle. First, the Count of Arras, a Ghibelline, launched an attack from Monselvoli. Then, a Florentine Ghibelline named Bocca degli Abati betrayed his own army. With his sword, he cut off the hand of the ensign-bearer of the Florentine cavalry, Jacopo dei Pazzi. The Guelphs were taken aback by that betrayal at the critical point of the battle, and while Abati and his allies (hundreds of whom had been waiting for the right moment) were attacking their former comrades-in-arms, the Ghibellines launched their final offensive.

For Florence and her allies, the Battle of Montaperti turned into a disaster. The Guelphs began to flee, and the Ghibellines, made crazy by their success, killed without restraint, including enemies who were ready to surrender. The Arbia Creek became red with Florentine blood. When night fell, 10,000 men lay dead in the field and 4,000 were missing. The Sienese and their allies took 15,000 prisoners and, of course, the Florentine Carroccio.

More than 700 years later, a cippus (monument) at Montaperti reminds passers-by of the tragedy that took place.

The Battle of Montaperti was a short-lived victory. In the short run, Florence became Ghibelline, and Manfredi’s influence over Tuscany grew. But the new pope, Urban IV, called for help from Charles of Anjou, brother of the king of France, a man thirsty for power. Landing in Italy, Charles became chief of the Guelphs and, after his coronation as king of Sicily, he went from Rome to southern Italy to destroy the Swabian dynasty–once and for all.

The big battle took place at Benevento on February 26, 1266. The Anjou cavalry, helped by traitors among the Swabian troops, destroyed Manfredi’s army. The Swabian regime collapsed within a few days of that defeat. The lords of manors who hitherto had always been pro-Swabian, became, as if by magic, pro-Anjou!

Manfredi was killed during the battle, and to this day the location of his tomb is still a mystery. His wife, Queen Elena, was arrested in Trani and died as a prisoner in a castle in Nocera six years later. Her children, separated from their mother, were swallowed up by the Anjou prisons. A new Pope, Clement IV, had called them ‘progeny of snakes.’

Two years later, in 1268, Conradino, the last of the Swabian family, was taken prisoner by the Anjous and was beheaded in Naples, the new capital of southern Italy. Under the Anjou dynasty, southern Italy sank into the darkest feudalism. There was no place for Swabian allies: 34 years after the Battle of Benevento, the Islamic Republic of Lucera was destroyed.

The pitiless end of the Swabian dynasty had other famous consequences. In Florence and in Siena, the Guelphs regained power and started a fierce persecution of the Ghibellines. Also in Florence, the Guelphs split into Whites and Blacks under the Cerchi and the Donati families, respectively. Supported by Pope Boniface VIII, the extreme faction, the Blacks, under Corso Donati, ultimately won out. Among the Whites who felt Donati’s wrath was the writer Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy. Dante, who hated the Blacks, was condemned to death by burning at the stake on March 10, 1302, but he was later able to escape before the sentence was carried out. It is a small consolation, perhaps, that the casualties in Italy’s shameful era of civil strife did not include the ‘father of the modern Italian language.’


This article was written by Marco Picone-Chiodo and originally published in the June 1996 issue of Military History magazine.

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