Fight in Bologna ca. 1369, created ca. 1400 by Giovanni Sercambi
The Guelphs and Ghibellines (Guelfi e Ghibellini) were two rival factions involved in a long-running power struggle in Medieval Italy. The Guelphs took their name from the House of Welf (a Bavarian dukedom), and the Ghibellines were named from the German battle rallying cry “Wibellingen” (from Swabia’s Waiblingen Castle). It’s believed these names were introduced to Italy during the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.
What began as a fight between Germans in 1125 spilled over into Italy, along the same party lines. Guelphs supported the Pope, and Ghibellines backed the Holy Roman Emperor. Guelphs usually came from wealthy merchant families, while Ghibellines derived their income from agriculture.
Guelphs were mostly centred in areas where the Emperor was more of a threat to local interests, whereas Ghibellines usually lived in places where enlargement of the Papal States was a bigger threat. Small cities also tended to go Ghibelline if the nearest large city were Guelph. However, sometimes traditional Ghibelline cities backed the Pope.
Long after the Pope and Emperor had patched things up, the conflict continued at a heated pace.
Diorama of the 1289 Battle of Campaldino, Copyright Sailko
The names Guelph and Ghibelline weren’t much used till about 1250, and then only within Tuscany. It was more common to call them the “Church party” and “Imperial party.”
Their power struggle, and the sharp lines between factions, were most keenly felt in Florence (Firenze) and Genoa. In Genoa, Guelphs were called Rampini (grappling hooks), and Ghibellines were Mascherati (masked). Besides fighting one another, they also eventually began fighting German influence in Italy.
Things came to a bloody, brutal head at the Battle of Montaperti on 4 September 1260. The Ghibellines brought 17,000 troops, and the Guelphs came with 33,000. Over 10,000 soldiers were slain in this bloodiest of all Medieval Italian battles, and another 15,000 were taken hostage. Four thousand more went missing, and everyone else fled for their lives.
Battle of Montaperti, 13th century, created by Giovanni Villani
The Battle of Campaldino was fought on 11 June 1289, with over 1,700 casualties, 2,000 hostages, and many wounded. Dante, age 24, took part in this fight, but panicked and fled during the first, most violent assault.
Trouble was far from over after the Guelphs’ decisive victory at Campaldino. Though they now had full control of Florence, they began their own infighting and split into Black and White factions. Black Guelphs backed the Pope, and Whites opposed Papal influence.
According to legend, it all began when someone yelled at his nephew for throwing a snowball. A few days later, the nephew hit his uncle. The uncle didn’t think it was a big deal, but his son Focaccia did. Focaccia went after his cousin, cut off his hands, and killed his cousin’s father. All because of a petty little fight about a snowball.
Dante became a White Guelph, though he nevertheless was sent on a diplomatic mission to Rome in 1301. While he was away, Black Guelphs seized control of Florence, tried him on phony charges in absentia, sentenced him to exile, and ordered him to pay a huge fine (which he never did). They also declared he’d be burnt at the stake if he tried to return home.
Another battle was fought in Zappolino on 13 November 1325, after months of border clashes and property destruction. The Ghibellines brought 5,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry to the fight, and the Guelphs came with 30,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry. There were about 2,000 casualties.
Because the Ghibellines had won the battle, they experienced an increase in power, popularity, and fortune. Then, in 1334, Pope Benedict XII threatened everyone with excommunication if they used either the Guelph or Ghibelline name.
Finally, these divisions were rendered obsolete during the Italian Wars of 1494–1559. The political landscape had changed too radically.