Frederick’s will left the Empire to his son Conrad IV, and appointed his illegitimate son Manfred regent of Italy. Revolts against Manfred broke out almost everywhere in Italy. Naples, Spoleto, Ancona, Florence submitted to papal legates; “let the heavens rejoice and the earth be glad!” exclaimed Innocent IV. The victorious Pope returned to Italy, made Naples his military headquarters, moved to annex the Regno to the Papal States, and planned a less direct suzerainty over the northern Italian towns. But these cities, while joining the Pope in his Te Deum, were resolved to defend their independence against pontiffs as well as emperors. Meanwhile Ezzelino and Uberto Pallavicino held several of the cities in fealty to Conrad; neither of these men had any respect for religion; heresy flourished under their rule; there was danger that all northern Italy would be lost to the Church. Suddenly young Conrad, with a fresh army of Germans, came down over the Alps, reconquered disaffected towns, and entered the Regno in triumph-only to die of malaria (May, 1254). Manfred assumed charge of the imperial forces, and routed a papal army near Foggia (December 2). Innocent was on his deathbed when the news of this defeat reached him; he died in despair (December 7), murmuring, “Lord, because of his iniquity Thou hast corrupted man.”
The rest of the tale is a brilliant chaos. Pope Alexander IV (1254–6) organized a crusade against Ezzelino; the tyrant was wounded and captured; he refused doctors, priests, and food, and died of self-starvation, impenitent and unshrived (1259). His brother Alberigo, likewise guilty of brutalities and crimes, was also captured, and was made to witness the torture of his family; then his flesh was torn from his body with pincers, and while he was still alive he was tied to a horse and dragged to death.49 Christians and atheists alike now ran to savagery, except for the gay and charming bastard Manfred. Having defeated the papal troops again at Montaperto (1260), he remained for the next six years master of South Italy; he had time to hunt and sing and write poetry, and “had not his like in the world,” said Dante, “for playing of stringed instruments.”50 Pope Urban IV (1261–4), despairing of finding in Italy a corrective for Manfred, and perceiving that the papacy must henceforth rely on France for protection, appealed to Louis IX to accept the Two Sicilies as a fief. Louis refused, but allowed his brother, Charles of Anjou, to receive from Urban the “kingdom of Naples and Sicily” (1264). Charles marched through Italy with 30,000 French troops, and routed Manfred’s lesser force; Manfred leaped amid the enemy and died a nobler death than his sire’s. In the following year a lad of fifteen, Conradin, son of Conrad, came down from Germany to challenge Charles; he was defeated at Tagliacozzo, and was publicly beheāded in the market square of Naples in 1268. With him, and the death of the long-imprisoned Enzio four years later, the House of Hohenstaufen reached a pitiful end; the Holy Roman Empire became a ceremonious ghost, and the leadership of Europe passed to France.
Charles made Naples his capital, established in the Two Sicilies a French nobility and bureaucracy, French soldiery, monks and priests, and ruled and taxed with a scornful absolutism that made the region long for a resurrected Frederick, and inclined Pope Clement IV to mourn the papal victory. On Easter Monday of 1282, as Charles was preparing to lead his fleet to conquer Constantinople, the populace of Palermo, their hatred unleashed by the insulting familiarity of a French gendarme with a Sicilian bride, rose in violent revolt and killed every Frenchman in the city. The accumulated bitterness may be judged from the savagery with which Sicilian men ripped open with their swords the wombs of Sicilian women made pregnant by French soldiers or officials, and trampled the alien embryos to death under their feet.51 Other cities followed Palermo’s lead, and over 3000 Frenchmen in Sicily were slaughtered in a massacre known as the “Sicilian Vespers” because it began at the hour of evening prayer. French ecclesiastics in the island were not spared; churches and convents were invaded by the normally pious Sicilians, and monks and priests were slain without benefit of clergy. Charles of Anjou swore “a thousand years” of revenge, and promised to leave Sicily “a blasted, barren, uninhabited rock”;52Pope Martin IV excommunicated the rebels, and proclaimed a crusade against Sicily. Unable to defend themselves, the Sicilians offered their island to Pedro III of Aragon. Pedro came with an army and a fleet, and established the House of Aragon as kings of Sicily (1282). Charles made futile efforts to recapture the island; his fleet was destroyed; he died of exhaustion and chagrin at Foggia (1285); and his successors, after seventeen years of vain struggle, contented themselves with the kingdom of Naples.
North of Rome the Italian cities played Empire against papacy and maintained a heady liberty. At Milan the Delia Torre family ruled to the general satisfaction for twenty years; a coalition of nobles under Otto Visconti captured office in 1277, and the Visconti, ascapitani or duci, gave Milan competent oligarchic government for 170 years. Tuscany—including Arezzo, Florence, Siena, Pisa, and Lucca—had been bequeathed to the papacy by the Countess Matilda (1107), but this theoretical papal tenure seldom interfered with the right of the cities to rule themselves, or to find their own despots.
Siena, like so many Tuscan towns, had a proud past, going back to Etruscan days. Ruined in the barbarian invasions, it revived in the eighth century as a midway stop on the road of pilgrimage and commerce between Florence and Rome. We hear of merchant guilds there in 1192, then of craft guilds, then of bankers. The House of Buonsignori, founded in 1209, became one of the leading mercantile and financial institutions in Europe; its agents were everywhere; its loans to merchants, cities, kings, and popes totaled an enormous sum. Florence and Siena contested the control of the Via Francesa that connected them; the two commercial cities fought exhausting wars with each other intermittently from 1207 to 1270; and as Florence supported the popes in the struggles between Empire and papacy, Siena supported the emperors. The victory of Manfred at Montaperto (1260) was chiefly a victory of Siena over Florence. The Sienese, though fighting against the pope, ascribed their success in that battle to their patron saint, the Virgin Mother of God. They gave Siena to Mary as a fief, placed the proud legend Civitas Virginis on their coins, and laid the keys of the city at the feet of the Virgin in the great cathedral which they had dedicated to her name. Every year they celebrated the feast of her Assumption into heaven with a solemn and stirring ceremony. On the eve of the festival all the citizens, from the age of eighteen to seventy, each holding a lighted candle, formed in procession, according to their parishes, behind their priests and their magistrates, marched to the duomo, and renewed their vows of fealty to the Virgin. On the feast day itself another procession came—of representatives from conquered or dependent cities, villages, and monasteries; these delegates too marched to the cathedral, brought gifts, and repeated their oath of allegiance, to the commune of Siena and its Queen. In the city square, Il Campo, a great fair was held on this day; goods from a hundred cities could be bought there; acrobats, singers, and musicians performed; and the booth provided for gambling was second in attendance only to Mary’s shrine.
The century from’ 1260 to 1360 saw the apogee of Siena. In those hundred years it built the cathedral (1245–1339), the massive Palazzo pubblico (1310–20), and the lovely campanile (1325–44). Niccolô Pisano carved a lordly fountain for the duomo in 1266; and by 1311 Duccio di Buoninsegna was adorning Sienese churches with some of the earliest masterpieces of Renaissance painting. But the proud city undertook more than it could finance. The victory of Montaperto was fatal to Siena; the defeated Pope laid an interdict upon the town, forbidding the entry of goods or the payment of debts; and many Sienese banks failed. In 1270 Charles of Anjou incorporated the chastened city into the Guelf (or Papal) League. Thereafter Siena was dominated and outshone by her ruthless rival in the north.