West of the Veneto the famous cities of Lombardy ruled the plains between the Po and the Alps: Mantua, Cremona, Brescia, Bergamo, Como, Milan, Pavia. South of the Po, in what is now Emilia, were Modena, Reggio, Parma, Piacenza; lovers of Italy will not resent these sonorous litanies. Between Lombardy and France the province of Piedmont enclosed Vercelli and Turin; and south of these Liguria bent around the gulf and city of Genoa. The wealth of the region was the gift of the Po, which crossed the peninsula from west to east, carrying the commerce, filling the canals, watering the fields. The growth of industry and trade gave these cities the wealth and pride that enabled them generally to ignore their nominal sovereign, the German emperor, and to subdue the semifeudal lords of their hinterland.
Usually a cathedral stood at the center of these Italian towns, to brighten life with the drama of devotion and the spur of hope; near it a baptistery to mark the entry of the child into the privileges and responsibilities of Christian citizenship, and a campanile to sound the call to worship, assembly, or arms. In the neighboring piazza or public square peasants and craftsmen offered their products, actors, acrobats, and minstrels performed, heralds cried their proclamations, citizens chatted after Sunday Mass, and youths or knights engaged in sports or tournaments. A town hall, some shops, some houses or tenements helped to form a guard of brick around the square. From this center ran the crooked, winding, climbing streets, so narrow that when a cart or horseman passed, the pedestrians dodged into a doorway or flattened themselves against a wall. As the thirteenth century progressed and wealth grew, the stucco houses were roofed with red tiles, making a pic turesque pattern for those who could forget the odors and the mud. Only a few streets, and the central square, were paved. Around the city ran a towered and battlemented wall, for war was frequent, and a man had to know how to fight if he cared to be other than a monk.
The greatest of these cities were Genoa and Milan. Genoa—la superba, its lovers called it—was perfectly placed for business and pleasure, rising on a hill before a sea that invited commerce, and sharing in the warm climate of a Riviera that reached out to Rapallo on the east and San Remo on the west. Already a busy port in Roman days, Genoa developed a population of merchants, manufacturers, bankers, shipwrights, sailors, soldiers, and politicians. Genoese engineers brought in clear water from the Ligurian Alps by an aqueduct worthy of ancient Rome, and raised a gigantic mole out in the bay to give her great harbor security in storm and war. Like the Venetians of this epoch, the Genoese cared little for letters or art; they spent themselves in conquering competitors and exploring new avenues for gain. The Bank of Genoa was almost the state; it lent money to the city on condition of collecting the municipal revenue; through this power it dominated the government, and every party that came into office had to pledge loyalty to the Bank.20 But the Genoese were as brave as they were acquisitive. They cooperated with Pisa to sweep the Saracens from the Western Mediterranean (1015–1113), and then fought Pisa intermittently until they shattered their rival’s power in the naval battle of Meloria (1284). For that last conflict Pisa called all men between the ages of twenty and sixty, Genoa all between eighteen and seventy; we may judge from this the spirit and passion of the age. “As there is a natural loathing between men and serpents,” wrote the monk Salimbene, “so is there between the Pisans and the Genoese, between the Pisans and the men of Lucca.”21 In that engagement off the coast of Corsica the men fought hand to hand until half the combatants were dead; “and there was such wailing in Genoa and Pisa as was never heard in those cities from their foundation to our times.”22 Learning of this disaster to Pisa, the good men of Lucca and Florence thought it an excellent time to send an expedition against that unfortunate city; but Pope Martin IV commanded them to stay their hands. Meanwhile the Genoese pushed into the East, and came into competition with the Venetians; and between these two rose the bitterest hatred of all. In 1255 they contested the possession of Acre; the Hospitalers fought on the side of Genoa, the Templars for Venice; in that battle alone 20,000 men fell;23 it destroyed Christian unity in Syria, and perhaps decided the failure of the Crusades. The struggle between Genoa and Venice continued till 1379, when the Genoese suffered at Chioggia the same culminating defeat that they had inflicted upon the Pisans a century before.
Of the Lombard cities Milan was the richest and most powerful. Once a Roman capital, she was proud of her age and her traditions; the consuls of her republic defied the emperors, her bishops defied the popes, her people shared or sheltered heresies that challenged Christianity itself. In the thirteenth century she had 200,000 inhabitants, 13,000 houses, 1000 taverns.24 Herself loving liberty, she did not willingly concede it to others; she patrolled the roads with her troops to force caravans, withersoever bound, to go to Milan first; she ruined Como and Lodi, and struggled to subjugate Pisa, Cremona, and Pavia; she could not rest until she controlled all the commerce of the Po.25 At the Diet of Constance in 1154 two citizens of Lodi appeared before Frederick Barbarossa and implored his protection for their town; the Emperor warned Milan to desist from her attempts upon Lodi; his message was rejected with scorn and trampled under foot; Frederick, eager to subdue Lombardy to imperial obedience, seized the opportunity to destroy Milan (1162). Five years later her survivors and friends had rebuilt the city, and all Lombardy rejoiced in her resurrection as a symbol of Italy’s resolve never to be ruled by a German king. Frederick yielded. But before he died he married his son Henry VI to Constance, daughter of Roger II of Sicily. In Henry’s son the Lombard League would find a more terrible Frederick.