Legitimacy: A Crisis and a Promise (c. 1250–c. 1340)

Pilgrimages in 1300

Imagine a German pilgrim in 1300 taking advantage of the jubilee year proclaimed by Pope Boniface VIII (c. 1230–1303; pope 1294–1303) to travel over the Alps to visit Rome. The crusty old pope had promised the remission of one’s sins in return for a truly contrite confession by those who elected to make a pilgrimage to the Holy City that year, thirteen hundred years after the birth of Christ. Although his jubilee appears to have been an innovation, it was enough of a success that later popes regularly repeated it. They saw it as encouraging religious enthusiasm and stressing papal leadership in the West. It also enhanced the city of Rome’s reputation as a goal of pilgrims and pilgrimages. For a German the idea of a pilgrimage would have been familiar, as it had been a popular form of piety and religious fervor across the Middle Ages. Many made short trips to nearby holy shrines. But there was also a well-established circuit of more demanding pilgrimage routes that by the thirteenth century were equipped with inns and hospitals – serving as lodgings for travelers and pilgrims – that because of their popularity offered the relative security of traveling in groups with fellow pilgrims.

Actually, a generation or so earlier a German chronicler, the Franciscan monk Albert of Stade, wrote a chronicle that spanned the history of the world from the creation to his own day, but as he neared the present his story became more complex, including a section presented as a dialogue between two imagined characters, Birri and Firri. In the midst of discussing the genealogies of ruling German families, Firri abruptly asked Tirri, “My good Tirri, I want to go to Rome, give me an itinerary.” A willing and able interlocutor, Tirri proceeded to outline for Firri not one but several routes that would take him from Stade in northern Germany to Rome.

Had he not been an imaginary character Firri most likely would have been dead by the jubilee year of 1300, but we can imagine his equally imaginary son Felix making the pilgrimage for Boniface’s celebration by following Tirri’s suggested routes – routes that were rather different from the modern, for, of course, even roads have their history; and while all roads may lead to Rome, the paths they follow have changed over time. That definitely was the case for pilgrimage routes, as pilgrims had little reason to visit big towns and some good reasons to avoid them. Perhaps more importantly, while modern roads tend to prefer valleys and flats to hillsides and ridgelines, in 1300 the reverse was true. Valleys tended to be marshy and their rivers difficult to cross, whereas hillsides and ridgelines usually were drier and the streams that crossed them more easily forded. Many towns and hospices that put up pilgrims also tended to be located in these higher areas, in part because they were more easily defensible, in part because medieval roads passed close by. In sum, following in the imagined footsteps of Felix, son of Firri, we can begin to imagine a rather different land and world that was the home of the Rinascimento, and, taking a few liberties with the possibilities of imagined trips, we can also point out some of the important sites he would have passed along the way.

The idea of the pilgrimage, of course, was deeply ingrained in the culture of the day. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written at the end of the fourteenth century in England, provides perhaps the best-known imaginary account of one. Chaucer’s pilgrims journeyed through England from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury and along the road told lively and human stories to pass the time. Not all pilgrimages in the fourteenth century were so down-to-earth. Perhaps encouraged by that same jubilee year of 1300 as our Felix, Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) took his readers on a personal and at the same time universal pilgrimage of self-discovery not to Rome, but rather through the spiritual realms of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven in a work that would come to be known as the Divine Comedy.

At first, Dante’s pilgrimage might seem a completely different kind of travel, set outside of the time and space of this world in a place to be known only after death. Yet one has only to glance at his travels through Hell with his ancient Roman guide, the long-dead Virgil, to recognize that that other time and space was deeply interwoven with the world, the people, and the quotidian conflicts of his day. Essentially this was because for Dante and his contemporaries the material world and life in it were deeply interwoven with the spiritual world; in essence they were not two separate realities, as in the modern imagination, but present together as closely related dimensions of the same Christian world in which all were merely pilgrims passing through this life. Thus our imagined Felix was traveling through a physical world that a modern traveler might still recognize even with all the material changes that more than seven hundred years have wrought; yet a modern traveler would only glimpse hints of that other, spiritual dimension that Dante and Felix lived in, largely lost today. Nonetheless, that dimension was as real and important as the physical one, and we will have to stretch our imagination to appreciate how it added a much wider range of encounters to our pilgrim’s travels and the life of the day.

Of course, Felix’s ultimate goal, the Holy City, was first and foremost for him a spiritual space with a very practical spiritual goal – the remission of sins promised by the pope and the jubilee. And along his pilgrimage path the spiritual world he passed through was in many ways as important as the physical cities or lands encountered. Right from the start, the Alps that Felix had to traverse to reach Italy would have taken him into the high mountains with some of the most dramatic peaks and beautiful alpine vistas of Europe. One wonders, however, if he would have seen their spectacular heights, dark pine forests, stark rock faces, and their often raging torrents in terms of the beauty of nature, or if he would have experienced them as a series of spiritual challenges testing his Christian commitment to winning salvation. Although Tirri recommended a more roundabout route, perhaps the most direct one that he discussed was the mountain road over the Alps often taken by Germans traders, the Brenner Pass. Ascending from the town of Innsbruck, it peaked out at a relatively low altitude of less than 5,000 feet and then descended the Val Pusteria past Trent and on to Verona.

One of the most often read early accounts of climbing in high mountains, in this case in the south of France, was written just a few years later by the noted poet Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304–1374). In a letter to his confessor Petrarch described his climb up the 6,000-foot Mount Ventoux, a wild terrain that above the tree line has a lunar quality, with vast fields of broken rock making climbing difficult, and that still today attracts visitors for its sweeping vistas. His account of his climb provides an interesting perspective on how one admittedly atypical person of the day saw the mountains, although Ventoux was not a pass, but rather a commanding peak. Petrarch describes the impressive views from the summit with enthusiasm, but he too thought of himself as a pilgrim; thus he soon turned to his manuscript of Saint Augustine that he had carried up the mountain. Eschewing the view and reading Augustine, he evoked the spiritual dimension of his climb, which he understood primarily as a spiritual assent in the grander pilgrimage that was a Christian’s life. This world with its beauty offered seductive pleasures and dreams of glory – one might say ascents of pride – that as he read he confessed had seduced him, but the journey that mattered, the real journey, was through spiritual space to God. The beauty of the mountains, then, was merely a pilgrim’s path to the beauty of God.

Perhaps Felix would not have thought so deeply about his mountain pass, and almost certainly he would not have been weighted down by a manuscript of Saint Augustine as he trudged over the Brenner. Nonetheless, as we imagine his pilgrimage it would be well to remember that he was prepared to see what he encountered in significantly different ways than a modern traveler would. His climb would have been long and slow, following the fast-flowing rivers that had carved the valleys through the mountains that created the pass. And there would have been plenty of snow on the peaks that year of 1300, because it seems that the long warm period that had typified the high Middle Ages and helped to make possible the great population growth across Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was ending. Some climatologists hold that the fourteenth century was actually the beginning of a mini–ice age that peaked in the sixteenth century, although there is considerable debate about its precise dating and nature. We do know that a few years later, from 1315 through 1318, Europe was inundated by heavy rains and cold summers that virtually wiped out summer crops and caused widespread famine. Contemporaries also reported that summer growing seasons had become less productive and more uncertain, an observation apparently confirmed by archival records.

As Felix descended from the Brenner, he would have noted that the mountains became more densely populated as he followed the Adige River down past the towns of Bolzano, Trent, and Rovereto to Verona at the foot of the mountains. Tirri had recommended cutting west over lower passes to Lake Como and down to Milan, but that was more a merchant itinerary than the most direct route to Rome. He also suggested that one could cut east in the mountains and then turn south to Padua and Venice on the Adriatic coast. But descending to Verona was the most direct route. Verona, like most of the cities of the north of Italy, he would have found larger and more alive with economic bustle and social turmoil than he was accustomed to in the north. With a population hovering in the 30,000 range spilling out beyond its medieval walls, it may well have been the largest city he had ever seen (see Table I). Its main basilica, which dominated the smaller buildings around it in the winding medieval streets, was a twelfth-century Romanesque masterpiece dedicated to the city’s patron saint, San Zeno, reportedly its first bishop. Dominated by a high bell tower reaching over 200 feet into the sky, it and the cathedral were probably among the first things Felix noted as he approached and passed through the ancient Roman arch, the Arco dei Gavi, which still stood astride the old Roman road he had followed down from the Brenner.

Table I. Largest Italian Cities (1300, 1500, and 1600)






























































































Note: In 1300, of the twenty-two cities in Italy that had populations over 20,000, nineteen were in the northern half of the peninsula, with only three in the south: Rome, L’Aquila, and Naples.

Confirming its ancient Roman heritage and its glory, and dwarfing all the modern buildings of the city, was the outsized Roman amphitheater. One of the largest constructed in the ancient world, it measured over 500 feet in length and 350 feet in width. Although it was in serious disrepair, it remained an impressive and haunting monument to a powerful world that had been lost. The main square, the Piazza dei Signori, rebuilt by the della Scala family, signori (lords) of the city in the thirteenth century and with a number of palaces that testified to their power and magnificence, would have impressed as well. One can imagine that our imagined Felix in Verona already was beginning to realize that the urban world of Italy in its magnificence, wealth, and Roman heritage was different from the largely rural world he had left behind. That would become clearer yet as he traveled on and encountered the numerous large urban centers that typified the north of Italy. Certainly there were a few cities in northern Europe of similar grandeur, but Verona was just one among dozens in Italy and far from the richest or grandest.

Leaving Verona, Felix faced several choices as the wide Lombard plain cut by the Po River and other river systems that came down from the Alps and flowed eastward to the Adriatic Sea lay open before him. Whichever way he traveled he would have found the densely populated, rich, fertile plain virtually without major forests, unlike his homeland. Almost all the arable land was farmed, with extensive systems of small canals and dikes to control and take full advantage of the abundant water that bathed the plain. Cutting almost directly south following the Mincio River he would have reached Mantua, a striking city that seems to float on a small body of water, with the Apennines Mountains (visible on a clear day) forming a backdrop to the south. Luigi Gonzaga would take control of the city in 1328 and begin a Gonzaga rule that lasted until 1707. From there he could have continued due south through lesser and more difficult Apennine passes to Pistoia or Lucca in Tuscany, or he could have continued eastward to where the Mincio entered the Po River, the main waterway of the Lombard Plain that stretched from the French Alps and passes in the west to the Adriatic Sea in the east. Following the Po east he would have reached Ferrara, which, as Tirri noted, commanded the eastern fords over that mighty river, and from there could have journeyed south to Bologna and the main passes over the Apennines – a mountain chain that divides the north of Italy from the center before swinging southward below Bologna to divide the center and south of the peninsula.

Before heading south, however, Felix might have been tempted to visit some of the other cities of the Lombard plain recommended by Tirri. He had spoken highly of the rich grouping of cities dominated by Milan and Pavia in the central plain, where in a fairly small area more than one million people lived, supported by the rich agricultural wealth of the area and a wide range of artisanal activities. The other and perhaps more convenient route from the Brenner involved cutting east in the mountains near Trent and descending to the plain at Padua, one of the most important university cities of Italy. From there it was a short day’s journey to the great commercial island city, Venice, on the Adriatic Sea. Safely isolated in its lagoons off that sea, the city commanded the main shipping routes to the rich lands of the Middle East and the Eastern Roman Empire, which still existed, centered in Constantinople. A short side trip to the north from Venice would have brought our pilgrim to Treviso, famous along with Padua for its love poets and rich culture. Again we are talking about large cities by the standards of the day, with Padua and Treviso boasting around 35,000 inhabitants and Venice more than 100,000, making it one of the largest cities in Europe. Padua, as a noted university city, was also well populated with northern students of all ages; thus our pilgrim might well have been more comfortable there as the city was used to dealing with German speakers. The same would have been true of the larger and more cosmopolitan Venice. There, rather than students, there was a large German-speaking population made up of traders and middlemen engaged in both commerce between Italy and the north and the lively Venetian trade with the Eastern Empire centered in Constantinople and the Middle East.

Venice would certainly have seemed to Felix a very different place. First, of course, unlike most medieval cities in both northern Europe and the rest of Italy, it was a city without walls. Built on islands, it sat about two miles from the mainland in the midst of lagoons, bodies of shallow water and swamp, trapped by long, thin islands (lidi) from the open Adriatic Sea. The shifting channels of those lagoons made it almost impossible for anyone but locals to get to the city, thus obviating the need for walls and making the city seem to float on the water. In fact, Venetians liked to speak of the lagoons themselves as their walls. Felix would undoubtedly have been impressed by the richness of the markets that clustered around the Rialto Bridge that spanned the Grand Canal at its center. Then as now it might have seemed that one could buy virtually anything there as well as along the streets that led from the Rialto to Saint Mark’s Square, the ceremonial heart of the city. Ironically, a few of those goods may have come from as far away as China then (and more than a few today).

Arriving in Saint Mark’s Square, if Felix had not already been impressed with the spiritual atmosphere of the merchant city – with its many churches, shrines, and plaques that lined the streets and squares named for local favorite saints and martyrs – the glorious basilica, shimmering with its golden decorations in the slanting rays of a late afternoon sun, would have reminded him that this was very much a spiritual city as well as a commercial one. He may not have been aware that this great church, dedicated to the apostle Saint Mark, featured a series of mosaics that expressed claims of an apostolic foundation that paralleled that of Rome, claims that proclaimed the city as virtually as important and holy as Rome itself. But it would be hard to imagine his not being impressed with the church’s grandeur and the way those mosaics and interior spaces evoked the spiritual world of the city.

Looking to the right as he faced the cathedral, Felix almost certainly would have been struck by the magnificence of the doge’s palace, the seat of the Venetian government. Although the palace had not yet gained its full Rinascimento majesty, it was still impressive. Before it lay the open harbor area, the Bacino, bustling with larger seagoing galleys unloading their cargoes or negotiating with city officials the transit taxes required by Venice. Next to the palace in the smaller open square that faced the lagoon he may also have seen a body or two of executed criminals hanging between the two columns that are still there, known as the Columns of Justice. Justice was such an important part of the Venetian vision of what government offered that its execution commanded a highly visible place at the heart of the civic and spiritual space of the city. There the offending members of society were literally cut off, both physically and spiritually, from the urban world.

As Felix walked on through the city he would have noted that although it seemed to be on the water, there were still richly dressed merchants who rode their horses through the narrow walkways and over the bridges that were ramped to make riding in the city possible. Later in the fourteenth century riding horses would be forbidden, and most bridges would quickly gain steps. He would also have noted that in many of the small squares of the city, locals still planted crops – one reason that, then as now, the squares of the city were called campi (fields) rather than piazze (squares). In addition most of these campi featured impressively decorated wellheads where local lower-class women and servants could be seen gathered, drawing fresh water and gossiping. These highly evolved wells collected and saved the rainwater that provided a major supply of fresh, clean water, as the lagoons were largely salt water. Salty lagoon water was actually a plus as it restricted the breeding of disease-carrying mosquitoes. Unfortunately, the freshwater streams and rivers that flowed into the lagoons tended to create marshy freshwater areas that provided dangerous mosquito breeding grounds. As a result, when the freshwater content of the lagoons became too great, malaria became a major problem for the city. Already well before Felix’s visit the city had begun to oversee the ecology of the lagoon using dredging, man-made canals, and swamp clearance to maintain enough salinity to limit mosquitoes.

Moving through the city Felix may well have also realized that the islands of the city were actually largely man-made. Well into the fourteenth century Venetians were still filling in areas where there were mudflats just below the shallow surface of the lagoon in order to create new land for building. After the level of the land was raised above the level of high tide, the unstable surface of a new island was rendered steady enough for building by driving into the mud trunks of trees ferried down to Venice from the not-too-distant Alps – those trunks are still the support of most of the city. We might wonder if Felix would have noticed the smell of the city. Of course, all cities smelled rather strongly at the time, as wastes of all kind, including human, still tended to be dumped directly into the streets. The better-organized cities had gutters that ran along the edges of streets where rainwater or at times water supplied by people living there washed the wastes out of the city. Obviously, even with such systems, in most Italian cities strong odors remained a regular part of urban life. Yet as this was the norm, it may be that our pilgrim simply did not notice. Venice, however, had a more efficient waste disposal system as most wastes were dumped directly into the canals, where the incoming and outgoing tides essentially cleansed the city.

In this context it might be noted that baths and bathing were more popular in the urban centers of Italy than in much of the rest of Europe, so the real smell difference of Italian cities may have been in the relatively less odorous nature of their inhabitants in contrast to those of the north – although baths in urban Italy were still more likely to come at weekly or longer intervals. Speaking of baths, however, our pilgrim would probably have been aware that baths were not just for bathing. If Felix wandered off from the Rialto bridge into the warren of little islands and narrow streets leading to the large campo of San Polo, at the heart of Venice he would have come across a series of baths (stue) that would momentarily have given him the opportunity to forget the spiritual nature of his pilgrimage, for, like many baths at the time, they were noted for their sexual services as well. Being German and perhaps suspicious of baths, he could also have skipped the bath and simply visited the nearby communal house of prostitution sponsored by Venetian government. Such government-sponsored houses were provided in most Italian cities, offering sexual services at modest prices. He could also have sampled the independent sex artisans who often practiced their craft in the streets around the more popular churches and campi of the city. Perhaps, ironically, even in this we see the close intermixing of the commercial, material, and spiritual in this island city.

But leaving our imagined pilgrim’s potential deviations from his spiritual path to the imagination, from Venice he would have cut across low, marshy country often covered in dense fog and swarms of mosquitoes, arriving once again at Ferrara, a city of approximately 36,000, with its fords over the Po River. This was the first city that our traveler encountered that was supposedly ruled by the pope, as the northernmost outpost of what were vaguely recognized as the Papal States. In Ferrara, however, the pope’s rule was usually more theoretical than real as papal power had largely been usurped by powerful local families. After Ferrara, heading south Felix would have soon reached the slightly larger city of Bologna, with a population of at least 40,000, once again theoretically controlled by the papacy. There he would perhaps have been impressed by the way it too was dominated by students and professors, for along with Padua’s the university there was one of the most famous of Italy and Europe, particularly noted for the study of law. In a more modest way the city was also a commercial hub as it sat athwart an important north-south road that crossed the Apennines on the way to Rome and the south.

But what almost certainly would have most impressed him about the city as he crossed the last fields of the rich agricultural plains and saw it backed by the Apennines rising to the south was the way the city itself seemed to be forested by a number of high towers. The highest was the Asinelli, which in 1300 was probably only a little over 230 feet high, but which within the century would grow to more than 320 feet. Earlier in the thirteenth century the city probably had well over a hundred such towers, but the second half of the century had seen a number come down, either due to the difficulty of keeping them standing or because of civic initiatives to tear them down. Those initiatives were in response to one of their primary purposes; for they had been used as urban fortifications for fighting within the city, usually between urban-living noble families and the leaders of the popolo. In an attempt to pacify the city many had been torn down, but certainly not all, and a few have even survived, giving the city its own modern leaning towers, although they are much higher and less ornate than the more famed Leaning Tower of Pisa. Actually, many of the cities that Felix visited had once had their own forests of towers, most of which had come down in the second half of the thirteenth century as part of a more general attempt to pacify the cities of north and central Italy.

Felix would probably have been most impressed with the university area at the center of the city, which was frequented by large numbers of foreigners, including many from German-speaking lands. There were virtually no university buildings per se, but professors or groups of students rented quarters to hold classes, and the streets were alive with students of all ages. Much of the center had porticoed walkways that allowed street life to continue when it rained or snowed or when the summer sun became too hot. A large concentration of male students, merchants in transit on the Roman roads to and from the south, and a sizeable contingent of clerics associated with the university also meant that once more the city offered a wide range of illicit pleasures, and again our pilgrim had the opportunity to forget his spiritual quest and sample more earthly ones if tempted.

Leaving Bologna, Felix again faced a choice. He could follow the line of the Apennines southwest toward the Adriatic, passing numerous small cities on the narrow coastal plain before cutting over the Apennines on one of the old Roman roads that still crossed the mountains down into central Italy. This coastal region was commercially dominated by Venice, but the whole region was at the time hotly contested by local lords fighting among themselves for local power; the papacy, trying to assert ancient claims; and Venice, attempting to secure its interests. Given these uncertainties, our pilgrim might have been better off following the road from Bologna over the Apennines directly southwest to Florence, a distance of only sixty miles as the crow flies, but more difficult to traverse than that distance might suggest.

Assuming he took that route to Florence, when Felix descended into Tuscany, he found himself in one of the most densely populated areas in Europe in 1300, both in the countryside and in the cities. Florence was rapidly rising to prominence in the region, boasting a population of approximately 95,000, which made it again one of the largest cities of Europe. The older banking center of Siena, southwest of Florence in the hills, may have been even larger, however, with a population that peaked at about 120,000 around 1300 and would fall dramatically over the next three centuries. The port city of Pisa followed, with a population of close to 40,000. The cloth-producing city of Lucca along with Arezzo, Pistoia, Prato, and Cortona all had from ten to twenty thousand souls. When one considers that at this same time there were only five cities in the north of Europe with more than 40,000 inhabitants, while Tuscany alone had two cities with populations hovering near 100,000 along with a heavily populated countryside, it is not hard to imagine that once again Felix would have been impressed by the sheer numbers of people and the size of the urban centers he encountered.

As he descended the last hills to Florence he would have found the city located toward the end of a fairly broad valley carved by the Arno River. Once again the towers that had perhaps once been the most notable aspect of the city had largely been cut down, and the great cathedral church dedicated to Santa Maria del Fiore (that today dominates the city skyline and is more commonly known as the Duomo) had only recently begun construction and was still a little more than a century and a great architect, Filippo Brunelleschi, from completion. Again the city was littered with churches, shrines, and Roman remains, some real, others imagined. The Baptistery of San Giovanni, which stood before the rising cathedral, for example, was widely believed to originally have been a Roman temple dedicated to Mars. Actually, however, it was built on late Roman ruins and only begun in the eleventh century. As the name implies, the Baptistery was used for baptisms, and our poet Dante began his pilgrimage through life with his baptism there, like most Florentines.

Passing through the center of the city Felix would once again have been impressed with the markets that opened up lively spaces in the narrow warren of medieval streets and perhaps have noticed the noxious smells of the chemicals used in producing luxury woolen cloth, which was becoming one of the mainstays of the city’s economy. As Florence gained access to better-quality wool, that proto-industry would grow apace, and artisans producing luxury cloth would number as many as 30,000 in the first half of the century, according to the very number-conscious Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani. Interestingly, Villani claimed that one of the things that motivated him to write his chronicle was his own pilgrimage to Rome for the jubilee of 1300; thus one might imagine that our imagined pilgrim Felix and this chronicler shared some of the same experiences. Be that as it may, most of the shops and workplaces for cloth production clustered near the Arno River, which bisected the city. For much of the year the river was too shallow to support significant shipping westward to the Tyrrhenian Sea, always a handicap for the city as a commercial power. But the river was seen as well suited for dumping the many polluting wastes of cloth production, which undoubtedly did not add to the attractiveness of the city or its general health. Felix may not have noted the countinghouses and banks that were already becoming some of the richest in Europe serving the papacy, but he would have had trouble missing the illicit world at the heart of the city, which again featured a municipal house of prostitution and very lively baths and inns.

Leaving Florence, our pilgrim would once again have faced a decision about which road to follow. One route would have taken him west down the Arno River valley to the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea, where he could have boarded a ship for Rome. If he followed that route he would have passed through a rich agricultural plain and a number of flourishing smaller cities such as Pistoia and Lucca until he reached the important medieval trading city of Pisa, which no longer sat on the coast. It still had access to the sea because the Arno, by then navigable, traversed it just before flowing into the sea. That, however, was a mixed blessing as Florence was becoming more and more anxious to control its port and the city. Those Florentine desires, along with a series of unsuccessful and costly naval wars with its commercial rivals, Venice and Genoa, meant that the city’s glory days were on the wane. Genoa, a much more powerful merchant city, perched precariously to the north along the coast of the Tyrrhenian where the Alps swept down to the sea, was yet another major city of the peninsula. With a population of about 100,000, along with Florence, Siena, Milan, and Venice it made the peninsula home to five of the largest and richest cities in Europe in 1300 (see Table I).

But Felix was headed south, and if he opted for the coastal route from Pisa to Rome, which had once been the ancient Roman Via Aurelia, he would have been hampered by marshy terrain and a number of fast-running rivers tumbling down to the sea. Aside from Roman ruins and the occasional small town or fishing village, the coast, especially in the south of Tuscany, was the least populous area in the region, with the exception of the mosquitoes that thrived there along with malaria.

Tirri recommended that from Florence south the best route involved reentering the hills below the Arno and moving on to the rich hilltop banking town of Siena, with its beautiful churches and its flourishing republican government, which was still a major stopover on the main medieval road north to the coast and north to France or south to Rome. A major banking rival of Florence, Siena would be another victim of that city’s determination to dominate all of Tuscany and eliminate what were seen as local rivals. The city’s hilltop location, which had offered an important defensive advantage in more turbulent medieval times, was also becoming an impediment to its continued economic success. Its heights did not offer the water resources necessary for cloth production – a key to the wealth of cities like Florence and Lucca – nor were they easily accessible for trade. In sum, the city’s best days were coming to an end.

Working his way south along the ridgelines of the hills beyond Siena, Felix should have found traveling relatively easy on the primary pilgrimage route to Rome. But let’s imagine that he opted to leave the hilltops to cut back to the old Roman road, the Via Cassia, to the east following the Tiber River valley to Rome. He probably would have intersected that road just south of the urban center of Orvieto, yet another hilltop town and an especially impressive one, built atop high cliffs that seem to rise directly out of the valley. Its excellent defensive position, rich hinterland, and proximity to Rome made it a city that was especially popular with thirteenth-century popes seeking a secure base in the heart of the territories that the papacy attempted to rule in the center of Italy. In fact, it had become the place where Pope Nicholas IV (1227–1292; pope 1288–1292) and Pope Boniface VIII maintained their papal bureaucracy or curia, as it was called, in an attempt to avoid the often-violent tenor of life in Rome. Once again the city was in the midst of building a majestic new cathedral dedicated to the Virgin that was begun by Pope Nicholas in 1290, which would not be completed until well into the next century.

Still a little over a hundred miles from Rome, our pilgrim was now on the last stretch to the Holy City and one-time capital of the Roman Empire. It would be difficult to be sure what he expected as he approached that city. As it was already famous for its worldly ways and corruption, he might secretly have been anticipating some more questionable illicit pleasures on the order of what Florence and Venice had offered. Or he might have been hoping that for the jubilee year the eternal city would have put on its best face, offering a powerful spiritual experience in an impressive capital that had transformed the ancient metropolis into the mother city of the great Church that oversaw Christian life in the West. Finally, after several months of travel, what lay before his eyes as he crossed the old Roman Milvian Bridge into the city was something starkly different – a town of 20–30,000 souls camped in the ruins of the ancient capital that had once hosted more than a million, with much of the land within the old Roman walls given over to farming and grazing. Pressing the capacity of the urban fabric of this city-in-the-ruins were reportedly close to 200,000 pilgrims, who swarmed the city in enthusiastic response to the pope’s jubilee year. Ironically, in what was merely a large town Felix encountered once again one of the largest cities in Europe, albeit only a momentary one.

As our pilgrim arrived from the north, a number of imposing Roman ruins would have risen above the low houses and ubiquitous churches of the city. To his left would have loomed the massive structure of the Coliseum, flanked by ruins of the Roman Forum and the Quirinal Hill, once home to imperial palaces and now given over largely to pasture. Further on, the gigantic structure of the Pantheon, now a church dedicated to the Virgin, rose above the town. Across the Tiber on a slight rise stood Old St. Peter’s Cathedral, where the apostle Peter was buried, and hard by it the Papal Palace, a complex that would be heavily remodeled in the Rinascimento, although major remodeling had already been begun by Popes Nicholas III (1210–1280; pope 1277–1280) and Nicholas IV with an eye to showcasing the magnificence of the papacy and the Church. The remains of the Mausoleum of Hadrian lay to the right and in front of the Papal Palace, on a bend of the Tiber, as Castel Sant’Angelo, it now served as a fortification for the papacy in times of frequent civil strife. It also loomed over the main bridge that crossed the river connecting central Rome to the area around Saint Peter’s and the Papal Palace. The main cathedral church of Rome, Saint John Lateran, located on the other side of the city just up the hill from the Coliseum, however, was the official residence of the popes and the foremost church of Western Christianity. According to tradition the original Lateran Palace, an ancient Roman administrative building, had been donated to the papacy by the Emperor Constantine early in the fourth century and had become the official residence of the popes and cathedral Church of Rome.

Felix, notwithstanding his presumed disappointment at the ruined state of Rome, would certainly have visited Saint John Lateran. There he would undoubtedly have visited the pope’s chapel, the Sancta Sanctorum, and perhaps finally been impressed. The chapel, which had been rebuilt after an earthquake in 1278 by Nicholas III, contained the Acheropita, the reputed true portrait of Christ. Nicholas had taken advantage of the rebuilding to decorate the chapel with frescoes that portrayed the stories of the various holy relics housed there and eschewing modesty for glory, had included a large fresco of himself flanked by the apostles Peter and Paul, the legendary founders of the Roman Church, presenting a model of his chapel to Christ with his own hands (Illustration 1.1). Significantly, Peter, the founder of the Roman Church, helps lift it in offering; thus the first bishop of Rome and the current bishop offered the chapel to the founder of the Christian era, Christ. Nicholas was claiming to move in very exclusive spiritual first circles. Gold mosaics, rich marble columns, and vaults all added to the impressiveness of a chapel that emphasized that Rome, for all its ruins and lack of grandeur, was still the place where ancient Christianity and the modern came together and where modern popes still drew on the power of the apostles, Peter and Paul, and Christ himself to rule the world.

1.1. Nicholas III Kneeling with Saints Paul and Peter before Christ, 1277–80, Lateran Palace, Rome. Photo: Mondadori Portfolio/Electa/Art Resource, New York.

If Felix visited the other great churches of the city he would have seen such messages reinforced repeatedly with recently commissioned frescoes and mosaics. If he missed the message, he may have had it confirmed verbally by Pope Boniface from his Benediction Loggia, recently added to the Lateran Palace, where he blessed those who had come to Rome in his jubilee year to celebrate the glory of the Church. The loggia, built with ancient Roman columns, again featured sculptures of the apostles Peter and Paul and rich decorations that included the pope’s own family’s coat of arms and baldachins (ceremonial umbrellas that harked back to imperial heraldry), thus intermixing the Christian, Roman, and recent Roman family themes that underlay his power and claims to be able to remit the sins of pilgrims with his jubilee. Perhaps we should leave our imagined pilgrim, Felix, there at the end of 1300, imagining his own spiritual renewal and his return trip north through the prosperous urban world of Italy and its flourishing society, so unlike his homeland north of the Alps.

Dante and the Right to Rule

Felix and his pilgrimage, although hopefully providing a taste of the urban world of Italy around 1300, can hardly hope to match the poetry of Dante’s pilgrimage of spiritual self-discovery through realms of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise in his Divine Comedy. Yet that apparently very different world turns out to be not so distant from the one Felix journeyed through; for it too was deeply intertwined with both the ancient and the modern, the spiritual and the material, and pullulating with the urban life of the early 1300s – for the dead characters that Dante encountered on his pilgrimage, especially in Hell, are alive with the urban world that Felix encountered in Italy. The people he might well have encountered on the streets or in the inns of Florence, drinking a cup of wine and arguing over politics, are there suffering for their sins and talking with the poet as he passes by, still very much involved with that world. Dante even lets his readers know that a similar fate awaited Boniface VIII, who had proclaimed Felix’s jubilee, when he died.

Suggestively, our prophet of the end of the world, Joachim of Fiore, reappears in the Comedy as well, but in what might seem an unlikely place. For he does not appear in Hell, where one might expect to find someone who prophesized the destruction of the Church and papacy, but rather in Paradise, where Dante the pilgrim, working his way toward his ultimate beatific vision of God, encountered beatified churchmen on their way to becoming saints. Among others encountered there were two noted thirteenth-century figures who did become saints, Saint Bonaventure (1221–1274; canonized 1482) and Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274; canonized 1323). Dante apparently placed Joachim in this august company because he still saw much promise in his prophecies – referring to him as “Joachim, Calabrian by birth, endowed with all the gifts of prophecy.” The poet’s enthusiasm may well have been influenced by a continuing Joachite tradition in Florence, where in the last decades of the thirteenth century radical leaders of the more spiritual wing of the Franciscans preached at the Franciscan Church of Santa Croce. Evidently Dante was impressed by their vision of a more spiritual age soon to arrive, where love of God would replace love of money and all would live together in much the same beatific reverence for the Divinity that he evoked in the final cantos of his depiction of Paradise.

Dante took up this issue of how people might live together in peace and harmony as good Christians in this world in a more systematic way in his less often read De monarchia (On Monarchy). Written in Latin, probably sometime around the first years of the second decade of the century, it seems today like a curious work on the cusp of the Rinascimento. Heavily based on the thinking of Aristotle and Aquinas and frequently employing a dialectical form of argumentation associated with late medieval scholasticism, it was written in a late medieval Latin that would later be criticized for its lack of classical forms. Nonetheless, its most central arguments were based on claims that called for a political rebirth of an ancient Roman imperial ideal. And throughout the work Dante’s political and closely related religious vision turned not on new political or religious programs, but instead on a return or a rebirth of the political world of that crucial first time when both the Roman Empire and the Christian Church were founded.

In fact, Dante remarked early in that work that he had once been surprised at how easily the ancient Romans had conquered first their neighbors and eventually the world. But as he reflected on that success, thinking about military tactics and other, more traditional explanations, suddenly he realized that he had foolishly missed what had really happened. Roman success was actually an important part of God’s larger plan for history. The success of Christ and Christianity required a world empire that made possible the spread of his message and his Church. That the two times overlapped, then, was not an accident; rather, it was by divine design, and that divinely ordained first time was for Dante a truly special time that needed to be reborn in the present. As a result, Dante based his political and religious remedies for the problems of his day on a return or rebirth of the political and religious order of that special first time when the Roman Empire and the Christian Church were founded – a Rinascimento.

In this way Dante also answered one of the most fundamental questions of political and social life: by what right does one person or one group rule over others? Today we are so inured to government and its claims of authority that we seldom ask that fundamental question. But that was not always so. And it was especially not the case in the early years of the Rinascimento, when local governments in Italy, usually centered in the flourishing urban centers like those visited by Felix, had little formal right to rule and faced many competitors for power, both within the cities and beyond their walls. As a result, the right to exercise power over others, to rule, was a matter of deep and ongoing uncertainty that significantly colored the way in which governments and other competitors for power presented themselves, claimed authority, and attempted to organize and control society. In turn, to a great extent the vision of the legitimate power of government (the competitor that eventually won) that developed in those cities lives on, the significant and largely unquestioned rationale of a modern vision of government and the state that in many ways was discovered in the Rinascimento.

Venice Claims Equality with the Pope and Emperor

Leaving Dante’s vision behind for a moment and turning to the often bloody conflicts over who would rule that worried him and his contemporaries, we could discuss virtually any of the dozens of city governments that existed in the fourteenth century in the center and north of Italy. Yet Venice stands out for its powerful defense of its republican rule (with a significant future) and also because it was often in the forefront of political developments. In the middle of the fourteenth century the chief executive officer of the city’s government, the Doge Andrea Dandolo (1306–1354; doge 1343–1354), wrote a chronicle that narrated the story of how Venice had developed from a humble group of scattered settlements lost in the lagoons of northeastern Italy into a major international power famed for its wealth and international trade. A central part of his account was a largely mythic tale of Venice’s crucial role in an archetypal medieval power conflict in 1177 between the papacy and the empire. The pope at that time, Alexander III (c. 1105–1181; pope 1159–1181), according to Dandolo, had earned the wrath of the powerful Roman emperor, Frederick I Barbarossa (1122–1190; elected emperor 1152; crowned 1155–1190) because he had blocked Frederick’s claims to imperial territory in Italy, declaring that it belonged to the papacy.

Although Barbarossa’s name did not refer to his barbarous ways, according to Dandolo his response to the pope’s interference was a barbarous war that forced the pope out of Rome and harried him across Italy until finally he found refuge in Venice. And while from the emperor’s point of view it was a just war, from the pope’s perspective the Church was completely within its rights in attempting to block his imperial designs in Italy. The issue was as simple as it was contentious: both rulers had deeply legitimate claims to rule the Italian peninsula; both intended to defend them; and at this level Dandolo’s largely mythic account reflected an actual ongoing contest between popes and emperors.

The imperial claims were relatively straightforward. Frederick claimed to be the legitimate successor of the ancient Roman emperors who had conquered and ruled virtually the whole world. Actually, of course, even at ancient Rome’s point of maximum expansion it was a more modest empire, but still impressive, encircling the Mediterranean Sea and stretching northward into the great Germanic forests of Europe, even reaching for a time the midlands of England and extending eastward into the Middle East. The Emperor Constantine (272–337; emperor 306–337) early in the fourth century had split the empire into an eastern half ruled from the city he had built and named for himself, Constantinople, and a western half ruled from the old capital, Rome. Progressively overrun by invading tribes from the north and overwhelmed by its own bureaucratic and economic travails, the Western Empire ceased to exist for a time as a political entity, but it endured as a political ideal. Thus toward the end of the eighth century when a line of powerful Germanic rulers, the Carolingians, conquered most of Europe, including much of the Italian peninsula, and sought somehow to legitimate their rule beyond the naked power of their armies, a renewal of the Roman Empire in the west, led by them as emperors, seemed perfect.

On Christmas Day 800, perhaps the most powerful of the Carolingians, Charlemagne (Charles the Great), was crowned Roman emperor by the pope at a mass in Rome. Charlemagne later claimed to have been surprised by the pope as the latter rather hurriedly slammed the imperial crown on his head and proclaimed him emperor while he knelt at the altar. Perhaps true, but his story also served his purpose of portraying himself as an innocent victim of papal plotting – a useful claim for the powerful eastern emperor who was not enthusiastic about competition from a new western emperor and renewed empire. In the end, however, Charlemagne and his successors fostered an imperial revival in the west that is sometimes called the Carolingian Renaissance, a rebirth of ancient Roman culture in the ninth century. This Carolingian revival was short-lived, for Europe was ravaged by new invasions from the north (Vikings), the east (Hungarians), and the south (Muslims) and the Western Empire disappeared again, only to be revived by a new group of northern German rulers, the Ottonians, in 962, when Otto I was crowned emperor in Rome. Following that revival, however, the empire in the west continued down to the time of Frederick and on through the Rinascimento. Thus Frederick could claim that he was the legitimate representative of the ongoing Roman Empire and the ultimate political authority in the west. Of course, his claims were one thing, the political realities of actual rule another. Still, claiming the legitimacy of being the true heir of the great Roman Empire was a powerful tool in asserting authority and was difficult to deny, especially when an emperor like Barbarossa showed up with a powerful army.

Theoretically, papal claims to rule Europe were, if anything, even more compelling. At the simplest level, of course, in a Christian society, the pope as God’s representative on earth (his vicar) could claim authority over all Christians. Still, there were many texts in the Bible that called upon the leaders of the Christian community to defer to governments and, quite specifically, to Roman emperors. Those texts did create problems for papal claims to rule. Also, of course, popes tended to lack the armies based on feudal levies of noble warriors that were needed in order to compete when theory gave way to violence, as it did all too often. Yet the papacy did have strong claims to political power and, impressively, they were based on concessions of such power made by emperors to the papacy. The most noted of these was the famous Donation of Constantine, actually a forgery of the eighth century. The Donation related another mythic event: supposedly the Emperor Constantine – the same emperor who divided the empire and build Constantinople – after converting to Christianity developed leprosy, one of the most feared diseases in medieval Europe. Constantine asked the pope at the time, Sylvester (pope 314–335), to pray to God to free him from this devastating malady.

And, of course, as happens in powerful myths, the pope’s prayers were answered. Constantine quickly recovered. Out of gratitude, and in recognition of the fact that the pope really was the ultimate power on earth, a fact made clear by his miraculous cure, Constantine donated his rule of the empire to the papacy. Sylvester, however, more interested in his spiritual mission and guiding the Church, although he accepted the donation gave it back to the emperor to rule, but crucially contingent upon his and future emperors being good shepherds of their Christian subjects. Behind the pious resolve to protect Christian subjects, the import was clear: emperors ruled in this world only so long as they lived up to the requirements of God’s vicar on earth, the pope. In the end, however, it was popes who had the ultimate right to rule; for even political power had been donated to them by Constantine. Of course, this was all too good to be true for the papacy, and (as already noted) it was not. The Donation would be demonstrated a forgery, as we shall see, by the noted scholar of the classics Lorenzo Valla in 1440. Actually, much earlier Dante had expressed his reservations about the validity of the Donation in his De Monarchia. Apparently never doubting the legend itself, he had taken an interesting tack that was much in line with the powerful legal arguments being marshaled in the widespread debates about who had the right to rule in the early fourteenth century, arguing that as emperor, Constantine did not own the empire, thus he did not have the legal right to give it away.

Returning to Doge Dandolo’s account of the conflict between Frederick I Barbarossa and Alexander III: although largely mythic, it reflected a deeper perceived truth, that the empire and the papacy were the two recognized legitimate powers of the time and frequently in conflict about who would actually dominate the west. Frederick was so successful in the 1170s in his attack on Alexander that, according to Dandolo, he drove the pope from Rome and harried him across Italy, always about to capture him and bring the long conflict between empire and papacy to a disastrous end for the pope. Fortunately for Alexander, however, Venice came to his rescue, offering him protection and a safe haven in their island city. Actually, much of Dandolo’s portrayal of the founding and rise of the city, following earlier mythic accounts, stressed how the city, safe in its lagoons, had served repeatedly as a haven for the oppressed. Thus taking in the pope was just another example of that ongoing theme.

This time, however, Venice decided to offer more than a haven. Donating money and its ships to aid the papacy, the city raised a great armada and, in a major naval battle, defeated Frederick. No matter that the great battle apparently never happened (Frederick’s actual major defeat was on land, at the Battle of Legnano in 1176 at the hands of a league of Lombard cities), for the purposes of Dandolo’s mythic account it was one of the greatest Venetian victories. Matched against one of the most powerful emperors of the recent past and defending one of the most important popes of the day, Venice triumphed.

Dandolo, following earlier chroniclers, reported that the pope, in thanks for this support, took a gold ring from his finger and gave it to the doge, Sebastiano Ziane, to marry the sea with his blessing on the annual feast of the Ascension. Actually, this ritual marriage to the sea was a much older practice, but by tying it to Venice’s great victory and the pope’s gift and blessing, a major civic ceremony that celebrated Venice’s special relationship to the sea, merchant power, and commercial wealth was given a deeper spiritual significance and weight. It was a significance that was aggressively emphasized in the fourteenth century as the city competed with Italian rivals to dominate the Adriatic Sea and the Mediterranean. In fact, our chronicler Dandolo as doge at midcentury every year sailed out into the Adriatic, where, after being blessed with holy water and biblical verses read by priests, he cast his gold ring into the waves to renew the city’s marriage vows with the sea, proclaiming “We wed you Sea in the name of a true and everlasting dominium.” Suggestively, with a ceremony rich in gender and marital symbolism, the doge as the patriarch of the city and its government wed the female sea so crucial to Venetian prosperity and survival, recreating yearly a special blessed family that in its way regularly produced many fruitful offspring for the city, in terms of both commercial wealth and important foodstuffs. Here we have a fictive corporate body, government, that, incarnate in the Doge, performed like a person, married and reproduced the wealth that sustained society and thus earned its legitimacy.

After their naval victory, according to Dandolo, a peace was negotiated between the pope and the emperor with the help of Venice. Once again in reward for the city’s support the pope awarded Venice a special sword that was displayed ever after in civic processions as a sign of the doge’s and the city’s judicial power to literally cut out offending members of society. As providing justice was one of the most important functions of government across the period, the gift of a sword from the pope was a powerful sign of the right of the doge and Venice to exercise this central aspect of rule. Swords, however, had deeper implications when conferred by popes, because a very popular medieval sword metaphor held that there were ultimately two swords that ruled the world, the pope’s and the emperor’s. Thus the gift of a sword from the pope could be and was seen as a much more direct conferral of governing authority. One begins to understand why this largely mythic and largely false account of what was, from the perspective of the mid-fourteenth century, a distant medieval event had become for Dandolo such an important part of his history of the city.

After a number of other highly symbolic gifts were conferred on the Doge, continuing the celebration, the pope, the emperor, and the doge traveled down the eastern coast of the peninsula to Ancona – another important trading city at the time. There Dandolo related that the thoughtful populace of the city brought out large umbrellas (Baldachini) to protect the pope and the emperor from the hot Mediterranean sun. Reporting a seemingly minor detail, the Doge interrupted his narrative to note that the pope, when he saw the umbrellas, stopped everything to order, “Bring out a third umbrella for the Doge of Venice, whose merits deserve it, because he has freed us from tribulations and placed us in a cooling place which the umbrella well signifies.” Once again we have slipped into the world of a mythic explanation for a civic ceremonial, and the deeper truth is in the details – for on this seemingly insignificant detail was built perhaps the most powerful and audacious claim for the legitimacy of Venetian rule. At the simplest level Dandolo was demonstrating with a seemingly innocent moment that the pope had implied that Venice was the equal of the pope and the emperor. While the others present at the ceremony humbly suffered the sun’s heat, the three great powers and leaders of the world were protected from it and granted the dignity that they deserved – crucially, a dignity they equally deserved. The pope not only recognized this, he commanded it, and the defeated emperor acquiesced.

It might be objected that this was merely a moment of empty ceremony. But ceremony struck deep in the premodern world, illustrating for all the central connections and deeper meanings of things that were often masked by the helter-skelter of everyday life. In a world without mass media or printing, ceremony was one of the crucial areas where deeper cultural values were communicated or impressed upon a larger population – a perfect place for expressing and demonstrating the legitimacy of governments. If there is any doubt about this, the ongoing history of the Baldachin should lay it to rest. Across the Rinascimento the doge on ceremonial occasions invariably appeared in public under the Baldachin, a sign of his right to rule and of Venice’s claim to equality with the papacy and the empire. Tellingly, in the Doge’s palace in the hall where the Great Council of the city met, the city also decorated the walls of the chamber with the signal moments of the Venetian past. Among those pictures a prominent place was given to this mythic event, with a depiction of the three great powers of the world at Ancona under their Baldachins. And although the fourteenth-century version was destroyed by fire, in the late sixteenth century a new series of paintings was done in the chamber, with prominent place given to a painting by Girolamo Gambarato portraying the scene of the pope ordering a third umbrella for the doge. Even if it was imaginary, the moment was too important to forget.

Significantly, Venice’s claims to legitimate rule were also based upon other foundational moments than the twelfth-century conflict between Church and empire. In fact, the multiple myths of founding incorporated in Dandolo’s chronicle gave the city an equality with, or even priority over, both popes and emperors. First off, he claimed that the city had been founded by Trojans fleeing Troy after the Trojan War. Obviously this paralleled and undercut the myths of Rome’s founding and special status, as ancient Rome had long ago claimed a similar founding. As if this were not enough, a second and third founding of Venice were claimed, respectively, by refugees from the Roman Empire when it finally fell to invading Germanic tribes and later by Roman refugees when the last vestiges of Roman rule fell to Lombard invaders. These later foundings both suggested that the city deserved to be considered the legitimate continuation of the Roman Empire as much as, or more than, the German claimants from the north.

Even that was not enough: for Dandolo used another founding myth to claim a spiritual and apostolic foundation that had the potential at least to parallel the pope’s claim to rule the Church. The pope based his claim to lead the Church on the assertion that the Bishopric of Rome and thus the papacy itself had been founded by the apostle Peter, who had come to Rome to convert the pagans of the empire and had been martyred there. According to a doctrine that became known as the Petrine Doctrine, Christ, as reported in Matthew 16:18, said to his disciple Peter, “I say unto thee that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.” As the word for rock, “Petrus,” also meant Peter, it was claimed early on that with these words Christ had made Peter the person who would found his Church in Rome and that the bishops who followed him would continue, in a direct line from him, Christ’s rule on earth. In this way the pope’s claim to rule the Church descended directly from the words of Christ and the first time of the Church.

According to Venetian myths retold by Dandolo, repeated ad infinitum in the local chronicle tradition, and celebrated in a myriad of ways, Venice had been founded by its own apostle, Mark, who, on his own mission converting the pagans, one day found himself lost in a storm in what would become the Venetian lagoons, when miraculously there appeared an angel of the Lord who greeted him with the famous words “Pax Tibi Marce” (Peace be with you, Mark) – suggestively, the same words, “Peace be with you,” that the resurrected Christ used when he appeared to his disciples in the Bible. Mark’s angel, however, went on to promise that on the very spot where he was lost a great Christian city and peaceful haven would arise to continue his work of building a Christian society. The famous Lion of Saint Mark representation of the city, with the motto Pax Tibi Marce, became, in fact, a ubiquitous marker of the city’s rule and power. And it can still be encountered throughout the north of Italy and the eastern Mediterranean wherever Venetian power extended in the Middle Ages and Rinascimento (Illustration 1.2). Thus the city had its own apostolic foundation and its own spiritual mission that placed it virtually on a par with Rome and the pope.

1.2. Plaque Pax Tibi Marce. The Lion Gate at Zadar (Croatia). © Hans Georg Roth/CORBIS.

Legitimacy and a Rebirth of First Times

While perhaps the Venetian mythic vision of the origins of its legitimate power and status were more developed than in most other cities, the crucial thing is that similar myths were constructed throughout the cities of Italy and were a significant part of the civic culture of the day. Many a sculptor, painter, or intellectual found employment illustrating in stone, fresco, or on parchment similar legitimating myths. Certain themes, however, predominated. One of the most important was the claim to be returning to an earlier and better first time, usually Roman and/or Christian, although pre-Roman and Trojan/Greek origins were also popular; thus legitimacy usually stemmed from a rebirth of those first times, a Rinascimento. Regularly fourteenth-century urban governments in Italy stressed that they had been founded by ancient Roman emperors. It was an easy claim to make in Italy, as obviously it had been the center of the Roman world, and ubiquitous Roman ruins along with local legends attested to Roman foundations. Local governments frequently claimed a founding by a superior Roman emperor who saw their city as a place well suited to continuing a true Roman society and rule. And once more lurking not-too-hidden behind such claims to imperial foundations was the implicit claim that such cities continued the empire as northern barbarian emperors never could.

Those who did not stress a Roman foundation usually opted for a founding in other superior first times. In fact, most stressed some special way in which they were connected to the first times of Christianity. Perhaps most widespread was the way they emphasized their foundation upon the relics of the great saints and fathers of the early Church. Venice, for example, claimed to have stolen Saint Mark’s body, often with the corpse’s aid, an event retold in virtually every chronicle of the city and an ongoing theme in civic art there. Popular oral and chronicle traditions retold the stories of how relics were brought to their cities during the Middle Ages, often miraculously, and used to consecrate the altars of local churches. In this way the sacred spaces of Italian cities were conceptualized as being literally founded on the bodies of the martyrs and saints of the Church. Much as the papacy had been founded in Rome on the body of Saint Peter, so too local governments claimed their own spiritual foundations that linked their cities directly to the first Church, often augmented by the special spiritual strength of more local and recent saints and martyrs. A great deal of late medieval and early Rinascimento religious art sought to evoke these themes that legitimated and connected the space of particular cities of northern Italy to the more spiritually central spaces of the Holy Land.

By claiming such a spiritual base as well as a founding in the great moments of secular first time, cities essentially covered the crucial bases of their legitimacy from the perspective of Church and government. In the end few could claim, as Venice did, virtually complete equality with empire and papacy, but most cities could and did claim that they shared in the legitimacy of both, sharing the tradition of the former and the spiritual continuity of the latter. And, crucially, their claims were not based upon anything that was new, but rather returned to special first and superior times, especially the glory days of the early Church and Christian martyrs or the great moments of the Roman Empire and its triumphs. Essentially, then, there was nothing new or dangerous in their claims to rule legitimately; once again everything was a return, a rebirth, a reforming of a better, older time, a Rinascimento. And the literature, art, and culture of the day in many ways elaborated on and drove home such lessons.

Still, for all this, strong popes and emperors were difficult to deny, and most governments had to admit that they had to defer to the superior power of both. Thus most cities formally allied themselves with one or the other. In fact, local leaders were often divided over which of the two great powers they should align with, and reflecting this division, two great parties had grown up in Italy: the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Broadly speaking, the Ghibellines supported and in turn derived their legitimacy from the emperor and the empire. The Guelphs did the same with the papacy and the Church. Unfortunately, that “broadly speaking” is crucial, for local variations were highly significant, and by the second half of the thirteenth century in northern Italy local Ghibellines and Guelphs typically were divided primarily over local issues, even if formally they were supposed to be aligned with the empire and the papacy, respectively.

The Demise of the Legitimate World Powers: The Pope

Significantly, shortly after Felix’s imaginary visit to Rome in the actual early 1300s, events undermined the strength of the empire and the papacy in Italy. And with the empire and the papacy largely out of the picture, the question by what right did the cities of Italy rule themselves and who, in fact, had the right to rule became even more pressing. In fact, this remained a significant issue across the Rinascimento, resulting in the working out of many of the basic justifications of governmental authority that go largely unquestioned today – and more importantly at the time, justifications that often deeply affected the way governmental authority was deployed and defended. But theory, then as now, was usually contingent on deeds and more direct uses of power. First, then, we need to look at the events that spelled the demise of both the pope and the emperor in Italy. For that was central to the construction of the new political, cultural, and social realities of a new urban order that might be labeled the first civiltà of the Rinascimento in Italy, even if once again that order and its novelties were not viewed as new, but rather as old and based on the rebirth of first times.

As far as the papacy was concerned, its long medieval conflict with emperors and secular rulers over who should rule found the crusty old Pope Boniface VIII at the turn of the century locked in a fierce struggle with the king of France, Philip IV the Fair (1268–1314; ruled 1285–1314). Although the conflict could be traced further back, the easiest place to begin is with the French king’s desire to secure additional revenues to help finance his ongoing conflicts with two of his most powerful vassals, the duke of Aquitaine (who was also the king of England) and the count of Flanders. Philip looked longingly at the extensive land holdings of the Church in France that in theory could not be taxed, as they had always claimed to be exempt from taxation. Philip, however, had what seemed (at least to him) a clever idea. Earlier popes had created a precedent for taxing Church lands when they allowed secular leaders to do so in order to support their crusading efforts. Actually, this precedent had been extended to wars in Europe, where popes had sometimes been willing to support one side against another and allow the side they favored to label the conflict a crusade. Thus, Philip put pressure on the leaders of the Church in France – often scions of the families of his own nobility – as well as on the pope to allow him to tax ecclesiastical holdings in order to support his wars.

Boniface VIII, however, would have none of this. For many years as a cardinal he had been the real power behind the papacy and a tough supporter of the claims of the papacy against secular rulers; thus he was not about to acquiesce to Philip’s pressure, which he saw as a unilateral attempt to tax his clergy and a dangerous violation of his papal authority. After all, it was one thing when a pope declared a war a crusade and gave a secular leader the right to tax ecclesiastical holdings; it was quite another when a ruler made such a claim on his own. Boniface, reportedly outraged at the affront as well as deeply concerned about the possible precedent, issued the Papal Bull Clericos Laicos (Clerics and Laymen, 1296) – a formal pronouncement with the force of Church law – condemning Philip’s actions. Boniface ruled in the bull that there would be no taxation of clerics or Church lands without papal approval, essentially destroying any hope Philip might have had to tax the Church. But Boniface, not content with making clear his refusal, went well beyond that to make a heated attack on the corruption and misrule of secular rulers in general, an attack clearly intended to intimidate Philip. In essence he had decided to draw a line in the sand in the ongoing conflict between secular rulers and the papacy about who had the ultimate right to rule. And Clericos Laicos made it clear that clerics and the pope came before lay rulers, especially corrupt ones. In the terms of the Donation of Constantine, rulers like Philip were not living up to their required role as shepherds of their flocks, and the pope had the right to revoke their rule.

Philip, however, was perhaps the most powerful ruler in western Europe at the time, and although he was labeled “the Fair,” he was not about to be backed down by the threats of a crusty old pope, nor was he about to be restrained by fair play or more traditional ways of negotiating such conflicts. Thus he launched an aggressive counteroffensive against the pope aimed at crippling him financially and delegitimating his rule. First, he banished Italian bankers from France. This might seem an unlikely ploy, but there was a method to his apparent madness; for it was actually a not very subtle attack on the pope’s treasury. Throughout Europe, Italian bankers collected the Church’s revenues and sent them back to Rome; thus with one stroke, Philip seriously restricted the flow of papal revenues. Moreover, as the major banking houses of Italy held in deposits much of the pope’s wealth and as being exiled from France dangerously undercut their revenues, there was a real possibility that those banks would fail. If they did, the pope would be one of the biggest losers, with much of his wealth going down with them. Needless to say, as a result the great banking houses added their fears of failure to the pope’s immediate financial pinch, pressing Boniface to back down.

In addition to financial pressure Philip attempted to make use of cultural pressure, starting a pamphlet war that attacked the corruption of the Church and the questionable way in which Boniface had become pope. Particularly troubling was the fact that Boniface’s predecessor, Celestine V (1215–1294; pope July–December 1294), had ended his papacy suspiciously. Celestine had been a poor, aged hermit supposedly living in a cave in southern Italy before he was apparently miraculously elected pope by the College of Cardinals. Unfortunately, the miracle largely ended with his election. As pope, he was reportedly a disaster. Not only did he lack political and administrative ability, he failed miserably as the symbolic leader of the Church, being extremely uncomfortable with the splendor and rich ceremonial that surrounded the papacy, a stance that dangerously seemed to reflect radical contemporary calls for a spiritual, propertyless Church and Joachim’s prophecies. Rumor had it that he even refused to use his luxurious quarters or to sleep in his bed in the papal palace, choosing instead to live, sleep, and pray in a closet of the papal suite. More importantly, however, it was widely believed that the future pope, Boniface, had played a major role in convincing Celestine to step down from the papacy – an unheard of and questionable deed for popes. In theory the pope was elected by the College of Cardinals guided by the Holy Spirit, and he ruled until God withdrew his power on Earth with his death. When Celestine stepped down, Boniface was with unseemly quickness elected pope. Shortly thereafter Celestine died, and many wondered whether it was God’s belated Hand or poison that had intervened. Philip, conveniently found the death too convenient, and his suspicions fastened on Boniface .

In the end, all this allowed Philip and his pamphlet warriors to suggest that Boniface was at best an illegal pope and at worst involved in the murder of his predecessor. Philip at the same time threatened his French clergy, warning that he would bring them to justice and charge them with treason if they did not pay his tax. Once again he had no right to do this as the clergy were not subject to secular law, only to the law of the Church. Yet even if theoretically Philip should not have been able to try them, the French clergy were acutely aware that Philip and his judges were close at hand while the pope was in distant Rome. Moreover, Philip had the force to carry out his threats against them while the pope had little power to protect them, at least in the short run. In addition, many of the higher-level clergy, coming from important noble families aligned with Philip, and often owing their positions to him, were inclined to support him over the pope anyway; thus, many members of the French clergy also put pressure on Boniface to accept Philip’s demands. Finally, Philip was aware that over a long career in Rome the pope had accrued many enemies among the leading families of the city. Boniface himself was a powerful member of the Gaetani clan, long a force in the Church and Rome. The main opposition to the Gaetani family was led by the Colonna clan, and Philip encouraged the latter to rise up against Boniface and his “illegal” election. Money, along with the suggestion that a Colonna might well become pope if Boniface fell from power, sweetened the deal. Little encouragement was necessary, however, and with the Colonna and their supporters in the streets of Rome, the pope found himself in deep trouble.

In a first moment, then, Philip’s strategies succeeded so well that Boniface was forced to back down and grant him a crusading tax. Obviously he was not happy with this and was anxious for any opportunity to turn the tables on Philip, the Not-So Fair from his perspective. His chance came in 1302 when Philip attempted to try a French bishop on apparently trumped-up charges of treason, again something that legally he could not do. For French bishops the trial demonstrated that Philip felt free to attack them with impunity whenever he wished, and thus many realized that they needed a strong pope to protect their interests, a strong pope like Boniface. Seeing his opening, Boniface called a council of all French clergy to meet in Rome, and if there was any question about whathe had in mind, he immediately suspended Philip’s permission to tax his clergy. As if that were not enough, he virtually declared war on the French king with a new, more aggressive Papal Bull: Unam Sanctam (One Holy Power, 1302). This bull was one of the strongest claims of papal power over secular rulers ever made. It insisted that the pope ultimately held both spiritual and secular power in this world. Taking the old medieval metaphor for power, the sword (which Venice had used in its own claims for power), and insisting that both the sword of secular rule and the sword of spiritual rule ultimately belonged to the pope, he claimed that one holy power (Unam Sanctam) ultimately was responsible for the rule of both the secular and the ecclesiastical realms. With his control of the secular sword the pope claimed the right to cut out the offending members of secular society, with the spiritual sword he claimed the right to cut out of the Christian community the spiritually unworthy. In sum, all power in this world belonged to the pope.

But it was one thing to claim power and another to actually exercise it. Underlining the great gap that often yawns between the two, one of Philip’s henchmen reportedly commented on Unam Sanctam, “My master’s sword is made of steel, the pope’s is made of words.” Unfortunately for Boniface, events were to prove the henchman right. While plans went ahead for the council of French ecclesiastics in Rome, Philip quietly sent a small contingent of his most faithful men to Italy, where they captured the unsuspecting pope at his summer estate north of Rome. Apparently the idea was to haul him back to France to try him there for usurping the papacy and probably for the murder of his predecessor as well. An audacious if totally illegal plan, it almost succeeded. But Philip’s men were largely on their own a long way from France, and the pope’s relatives rallied local supporters and managed to free Boniface. The pope, well into his eighties, apparently never recovered from the shock and died shortly after being freed.

Clearly what the Church needed was a strong pope to stand up to Philip. What they got instead was a weak compromise candidate, who it was hoped would not alienate Philip any further while somehow protecting the Church and the papacy’s traditional prerogatives. The new pope, Benedict XI (1240–1304; pope 1303–1304), took up the crucial issue of the kidnapping of Boniface, immediately excommunicating Philip’s men who had done the deed. The real question remained, however, what to do about Philip. It was clear that excommunication or even any punishment that fitted the crime would lead to retaliation by the king, who had demonstrated that there was little he would not do to protect his power and prerogatives. Thus in the end the new pope ruled that Philip was unaware of the plot and exonerated him. Fortunately for him, he avoided the negative repercussions of that unlikely ruling by dying quickly, once again under suspicious circumstances.

When the cardinals of the Church were called together to elect a new pope, they once again faced the same difficult issue. Would they elect a strong pope to stand up to Philip, or would they elect a pope whom Philip would see as an ally, conceding to his power? This conundrum was complicated by the fact that there had been a long and close relationship between the leadership of the thirteenth-century Church and the kings of France. This meant that a sizeable number of the cardinals in the College of Cardinals electing the new pope were either French or ready to support the French king. Thus a stalemate developed, with a strong group of cardinals wishing to elect an Italian pope who would stand up to the French king, and a virtually equally strong group wanting to elect a French pope or at least a pro-French one. After a long conclave that dragged on for months without electing a pope, a compromise was finally reached with the election of the archbishop of Bordeaux as Pope Clement V (c. 1264–1314; pope 1305–1314). He had something to offer both parties, although it appeared that the anti-Philip group had gained the upper hand – for while he was French, he had been a strong opponent of Philip and a supporter of Boniface.

Appearances were deceptive, as is often their wont, for it seems that in order to win the support of the French faction the archbishop had struck a secret deal to support Philip. Quickly the new pope’s betrayal of his Italian supporters became apparent, and fearing the reprisals of his former allies, he never went to Rome. After several years wandering around he finally settled his papal court and bureaucracy at Avignon, at the time just across the Rhone River from French territory ruled by Philip. The symbolism, at least, was hopeful. Across the Rhone from France, he could claim to be independent of the king, even if he was nearby. But after some weak attempts at independent action, he and his successors at Avignon settled into a fairly close working relationship dominated by the kings and leading families of France.

For Italy the results of this move would be difficult to overestimate. The popes at Avignon were too far from Italy to play successfully the aggressive role that strong popes had once played in the politics of Italian cities, even in Guelph cities that were formally allied with the papacy. This is not to say, as historians once did, that the papacy was totally removed from the power struggles of Italy, but rather that when popes did try to interfere to defend their prerogatives in Italy, they were handicapped by their distance from the action and by their increasing lack of comprehension of the complexity of local politics there. Even the city of Rome slowly slid away from real papal control, as did most of the cities in the Papal States. The exception was the kingdom of Naples, ruled by French Angevin kings, which was officially a fief of the papacy and whose rulers attempted to lead Guelph forces in Italy in part on behalf of the papacy and in part for their own advantage, but with limited success, as we shall see.

More importantly, however, the move to Avignon helped to fan the flames of a series of deeper problems within the Church that significantly altered its course across the Rinascimento. First, the papacy remained at Avignon until 1378; during that period it was much more involved in French affairs than Italian; and French affairs in turn were much more concerned with the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) between France and England and the financial hardships that went along with that conflict. In fact, all seven popes elected while the papacy was in Avignon were French, and by 1378, 113 of the 134 cardinals of the Church were French. When finally, after much campaigning for a papal return to Italy, Pope Urban VI was elected in 1378 promising to move back to Rome, almost immediately a second pope was elected, Clement VI. Clearly in his name there was a promise: like his predecessor Clement V, he was pro-French, rejected the papacy of Urban, and stayed on in Avignon. Thus began what was labeled the Great Schism (1378–1417), a period during which there were at least two competing popes and often more. Evidently this meant that the Church remained weak, and even with a pope in Rome, Italian cities could play one contending pope off against another.

At a deeper level, however, this split and its consequent weakening of papal power meant that those within the clergy who believed that a strong monarchical pope was a mistake could band together with like-minded secular authorities and press for a different organization of the Church. The Conciliar Movement, as it was called, flourished during the period of the Great Schism, pressing the idea that the Church should be led by councils – in some ways not unlike the councils in Italy that advised local rulers and claimed to be the real font of governmental authority in cities like Venice and Florence. For much of the fifteenth century popes had to face stiff competition for power within the Church from the supporters of this Conciliar Movement. Suffice it to say for now that this also limited their ability to press their policies on the cities of Italy, even Guelph ones.

All this division and turmoil within the leadership of the Church also helped encourage the continued development of strong local religious traditions. Local preachers, local religious groups such as confraternities, and even local charismatic figures all encouraged spiritual enthusiasms and holy ways of life that were largely out of the hands of the regular organization of the Church. Moreover, city governments in Italy, which had always stressed their own Christian roots and their role in organizing and promoting a Christian life, took advantage of the weakness of the organized Church to emphasize what might be called their own civic morality – their responsibility and ability to promote a Christian civiltà that in many ways sustained the religious life of their cities. In part this contributed to their claims to rule legitimately by co-opting the claims of the Church to create a Christian society; but in part it also responded to the felt needs that saw governments deeply involved in creating their own holy cities. Thus governments regularly encouraged religious enthusiasm and piety by promoting local civic ceremonials and by commissioning religious art and architecture, a patronage and a local vision that supported and deeply influenced a significant proportion of the art and spiritual life of the Rinascimento.

When finally, in 1417, Martin V (1368–1431; pope 1417–1431) was elected pope and succeeded in having his competitor popes deposed, he faced a tough problem. He found that his power base in Italy was especially weak. Thus he and his immediate successors made what appeared at the time to be a logical and particularly realistic decision: they decided to focus on rebuilding their political and economic power in Rome and the Papal States, in essence to become princelike rulers in the center of Italy. Rebuilding their power there as princes with the wealth to raise armies, they could compete with the secular powers that had for more than a century created havoc at the expense of the Church. But that was not particularly easy to accomplish, for while the papacy was at Avignon and then hamstrung by the Great Schism, local powers in Italy had effectively finished divvying up the Papal States among themselves and were not eager to return what they had gained, often at considerable sacrifice. As a result, for most of the rest of the fifteenth century the papacy, while attempting to limit the Conciliar Movement and regain control of religious reform movements and outbursts of spiritual enthusiasm, put most of its effort into rebuilding a territorial state in central Italy as its base of power, with Rome as its capital, reestablishing the papacy as a princely/monarchical power.

As the fifteenth century wound to a close and the papacy succeeded in this project, the papacy and the papal court became leaders again in a second and more courtly civiltà that in many ways typified the second phase of the Rinascimento. But until then, for more than a century and a half, the cities of northern Italy were largely free to develop with limited interference from the papacy and the central bureaucracy of the Church. On those occasions when the Church tried to interfere or assert its prerogatives against city governments, those governments had a wide range of options and potential allies for neutralizing such attempts. Not quite gone and not quite forgotten, the papacy was a shadow of its former self in Italy for virtually 150 years, leaving ample space for local city governments and local religious enthusiasms to color the first phase of the Rinascimento.

The Demise of the Legitimate World Powers: The Emperor

The demise of the emperor in Italy was equally dramatic and significant. Across the Middle Ages strong emperors had seen the more urban world of Italy, with its cosmopolitan society and its complex economy, as a rich and rewarding area to rule and tax. Thus there was a long tradition of imperial rule, and as late as the middle years of the thirteenth century the Emperor Frederick II had aggressively asserted it, as we have seen. Moreover, in the waning years of that century and the early years of the fourteenth, many in Italy, like Dante, tired of the squabbles within and among the cities of the center and north, actually believed that a strong emperor might bring peace, order, and stability with renewed imperial leadership. Shortly after the papacy settled in Avignon, a new emperor was elected in 1308 who seemed to have the potential ability and the will to do just that, Henry VII (c. 1275–1313; elected emperor1308–1313; crowned emperor 1312–1313). Dante, himself a victim of local power squabbles in his native city, was typical of many when he wrote in exile about Henry and his potential as emperor, “Rejoice O’ Italy … for your bridegroom comes, the hope of the world, the glory of your people, the ever clement Henry, who is Caesar and Augustus.” Behind Dante’s rhetoric, the strength of the Roman imperial ideal shines through with the hope that a new emperor would bring peace and a legitimate order.

Henry was actually an unusual bridegroom for Italy, with a revealing mix of strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps his greatest weakness was that he had been elected by the imperial electors in Germany because he appeared too weak and poor to be much of a factor there or to threaten the real powers in the area. This was frequently the case, as the German princes and ecclesiastical leaders who elected emperors were usually reluctant to give that power to someone who might use it to their detriment. In this case the person they especially feared was Charles of Valois, the brother of Philip the Fair, king of France. For Philip, not content with having the pope under his thumb at Avignon, also hoped to corner imperial power by pressing the electors to make his brother emperor. If he had succeeded, he would have been more than ever the most powerful ruler in Europe – exactly the reason why many electors were not eager to elect his brother. Enter Henry. From the perspective of many he was a perfect compromise candidate: he controlled little territory in his own right; thus he had limited wealth or military power. But he had grown up at the French court, spoke French, and knew Philip – weak, but perhaps with enough of a French connection to satisfy the French king, he seemed to be just what was needed.

Henry also had another advantage that with time would gain more meaning. Clement V, the new pope at Avignon, was anxious, much like the German electors, not to have Philip’s brother become emperor. If that happened, he feared he would be completely at the mercy of the French king. To a great extent that was already the case, but with a weak emperor he could hope that Philip’s ability to manipulate imperial authority to his own advantage and against the pope would be limited. Thus the pope aggressively backed Henry, which helped carry the day for the election of Italy’s imperial bridegroom-to-be. With Henry as the pope’s choice for emperor, he became a very strange bridegroom indeed. For, as we have seen, many of the local battles for political power in the cities of Italy were being fought out between local groups who proclaimed themselves Guelphs or Ghibellines. Ghibellines, of course, as the traditional supporters of the emperor, had to see Henry as their legitimate overlord and accept him as their leader. But the Guelphs, as the party of the papacy and the Church, who traditionally opposed emperors, were faced with a dilemma – he was the pope’s emperor and was supported by him. In sum, Henry was that rarest of political creatures and bridegrooms from a fourteenth-century Italian perspective: a Guelph-Ghibelline. No wonder Dante was enthusiastic! In his person he seemed to promise an end to the turmoil that had torn apart the cities of Italy, for as a Guelph-Ghibelline, he was the leader of both sides in those conflicts.

There is an interesting lesson in this. To a great degree the labels “Guelph” and “Ghibelline” had been appropriated by local groups contesting local issues as rhetorical ways of adding to their legitimacy. By claiming loyalty to one of the two great powers of the world – the empire or the papacy – they had elevated their struggles by claiming that they were not really fighting for their own interests or power but merely defending traditional authority, thus gaining legitimacy that otherwise would not have been theirs. As such, the claim of legitimacy that went with these labels became a powerful ideology, very useful in building support and claiming the high ground. But at the same time these labels had the potential to become a trap. For culture and ideology can be used to gain and defend power, but from time to time both can claim their due. Simply put, from time to time someone is in the position to demand that such claims actually be met. And in this case that was Henry. When he arrived in Italy as a Guelph-Ghibelline, many localleaders of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines were not particularly eager to give over their hard-won local power to him, but they had little choice. As Guelphs or Ghibellines they were trapped in their ideology and had either to reject it – an option virtually unthinkable – or to accept Henry as their leader and Dante’s bridegroom.

Still, for all his rhetorical and ideological advantages, Henry was severely handicapped by his lack of a real power base, especially in terms of money and military capabilities. Henry, to his credit, realized that to escape those problems he really needed only money. With money he could buy the mercenary soldiers necessary to have a viable army. Although many wars were still being fought with knights who served in return for the land they held from their overlords, following medieval tradition, in Italy battles were increasingly being fought by professional soldiers, often drawn from a financially needy nobility. With money, if clever, Henry could pay mercenaries to do his fighting and perhaps even finance a bureaucracy that could make his rule more effective – and perhaps in the process become a true bridegroom to Italy bringing peace, order, and stability as Dante dreamed. If not that, at least his bureaucracy could effectively milk the rich cities of Italy and make him a wealthy and powerful emperor. And if Henry was unclear about all this, his court was soon awash with exiles, victims of the squabbles in Italy, both Guelph and Ghibelline, eager to help him gain the resources and support needed.

As a result, Henry soon announced that Italy’s bridegroom, a miraculous Guelph-Ghibelline, was on the road to Italy. Unfortunately for Henry, he turned out to be not quite the perfect groom he seemed to be – often the case in weddings, then as now. His promise of peace and stability was compromised by the fact that he also needed to collect taxes and made use of German and French supporters to do so and to help him rule. Most of these outsiders had virtually no understanding of the decidedly different political, social, and economic situation that they had to deal with in the cities of Italy – a clear indication of how distant they had become socially, culturally, and politically from their late medieval neighbors to the north. Henry did have Italian advisors. But most were exiles eager to take revenge on those who had driven them from their cities; not exactly the best sources of information and support for bringing peace and compromise. Moreover, as the Guelphs had been doing better than the Ghibellines in the struggles for power in the Italian cities, most of Henry’s Italian advisors were Ghibelline exiles, which seriously undermined his claim to be a Guelph-Ghibelline. Perhaps most significantly, however, Henry himself had little conception of the complexity of the urban world of northern Italy that he was entering and probably little desire to master the local politics of the myriad of cities that he was supposedly to pacify and rule. In fact, to be fair to Henry, that would have been a monumental task for any ruler, even one with much better local understanding and support.

Nonetheless, things seemed to start out well. In 1311 he went first to Milan, one of the richest cities in the north of Italy with a long tradition of alliance with the emperor. When he arrived, the Ghibellines had recently been driven out of the city, and it was ruled by a Guelph faction led by the powerful Della Torre family. The Della Torre family made a great show of welcoming their Guelph-Ghibelline bridegroom as their legitimate ruler, evidently trapped by the pope’s support for Henry. But soon enough there were signs that all was not well. When the Della Torre family began searching for the Iron Crown that emperors had traditionally worn to signify their rule over the city and the Lombard plain, they claimed that it had been pawned and could not be located. After a suitable frantic search, however, the crown was located, gotten out of hock, and brought back to the city to crown the impatient emperor.

This perhaps too convenient delay allowed more significant problems to surface. Most notably, Henry’s promise of bringing peace and ending the struggles between Guelphs and Ghibellines meant that shortly after he arrived in Milan, he pressed the Della Torre family to invite back to the city their archrivals, the Ghibelline Visconti clan, whom they had just driven out. The idea was that the emperor would bring peace and harmony to the two bitter rivals with a major ceremony in the main square of the city, where the Guelph leader of the Della Torre clan would exchange the kiss of peace with the Ghibelline leader of the Visconti clan. It should have been a perfect symbolic moment: two bitter rivals kissing in the main square of the city, demonstrating to all there and to all throughout Italy that the Guelph-Ghibelline emperor had brought peace and reconciliation as promised. A good ceremonial moment, then, but, of course, it was too good to be true.

Kisses were given, but peace was shattered almost immediately as fighting broke out in the streets of the city between Della Torre and Visconti supporters. Without enough troops of his own to impose order, Henry unwisely chose to enlist the aid of the Visconti to regain control of the situation. The Visconti, in turn, quickly drove the Della Torre from the city. One might say the honeymoon was already, if not over, at least seriously compromised. The lesson was not lost on other Guelph leaders. Henry came promising peace and reconciliation, but the Ghibellines had triumphed in Milan and the hard-won Guelph power there was overthrown. The Guelph cities of the Lombard plain began immediately to organize a league with the aim of driving the emperor out of Italy. They called themselves, not surprisingly, the Lombard League, a name traditionally used by Italian cities banding together against imperial claims. Henry, in turn, forced to rely increasingly on Ghibelline support, raised enough funds to field small armies to face off against league cities. But his successes were few, and his campaigns demonstrated primarily the ineptness of his German and French advisors, along with his inability to match the spending power of the cities of the league. In the end he was saved from complete humiliation by yet another traditional ally of Italians against northern invaders – the summer heat and the diseases that often decimated their armies. His adventure as Italian bridegroom ended when he died of a summer dysentery in 1313 along with many of the men in his small army besieging Florence.

Henry’s tragic marriage and early death demonstrated that those seemingly small and easily taken city-states with their great wealth were not the easy prey they appeared to be to northerners used to thinking in terms of a rural society and armies manned by feudal levies. The key to their strength was their wealth and their ability to hire professional soldiers when necessary to protect their interests, and for that, large territories mattered less than large supplies of money. It also confirmed that the politics and local squabbles of those cities were a dangerous quagmire for emperors and for northern European rulers in general. And it did so in an impressive way, for many saw that Henry’s greatest success there, even with the unique advantage of being a Guelph-Ghibelline, was in dying young. The emperor who had come to build his wealth and power had become instead a victim of that very wealth and power. These lessons were not lost on northern rulers.

Occasionally in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries other emperors ventured south with plans similar to those of Henry, but with limited success. Louis IV (1282–1347; emperor 1328–1347) of the house of Wittelsbach may have had the greatest impact. After a series of wars in the north and considerable confusion there, he managed to gain enough power to venture to Italy to see what he could obtain. Entering Milan in 1327, he asserted his theoretical rights as emperor and overlord of the city and was officially crowned king of Italy – but to little effect, beyond confirming that emperors could be equal opportunity trouble for the rulers of the city. The actual ruler at the time, Galeazzo I Visconti (1277–1328; signore of Milan 1322–1327) was deposed and driven from the city with his support. Galeazzo, in exile, died within the year. But for all that, his son Azzone Visconti (1302–1339; signore of Milan 1329–1339) quickly regained his father’s rule over the city and solidified it by buying from Louis the official title of imperial vicar in 1329 for a price that was reported as either 60,000 or 125,000 florins. In the end, however, he paid only 12,000 florins and settled down to continue Visconti rule. Meanwhile, Louis hurried on to Rome, where he was crowned emperor in 1328. Unfortunately, as Pope John XXII (1249–1334; pope 1316–1334) was his enemy and off in Avignon anyway, he had to make due with a crowning by a Roman noble. Still, he took advantage of his visit and crowning to try to overthrow the pope in Avignon by naming an antipope, but was soon forced to flee the city and Italy with his antipope in tow, having gained a bit of money and his semiofficial crowning as Roman emperor in Rome, and having escaped alive. He did not return.

His successor, Charles IV (1316–1378; officially emperor 1355–1378), and his Italian adventures were even less impressive. Once again his early years in the north were largely occupied with a series of wars against powerful counterclaimants to his rule. But eventually he solidified his power and, ruling from Prague, helped to foster a kind of renaissance there with impressive building projects and patronage of the arts. He first entered Italy in the 1350s, reportedly, without an army, yet still managed to be crowned emperor in Rome in 1355, this time by a cardinal and with the apparent support of the papacy. In fact, unlike Louis, he had good relations with the popes at Avignon and, after hurrying back to the north with his coronation as emperor accomplished, it was as an ally of the papacy that he returned in 1368. That second visit appeared to have the potential to be more important. Urban V (1310–1370; pope 1362–1370), a French theologian, had been unexpectedly elected pope while still just a priest noted for his scholarly interests. As pope, however, he became a vigorous reformer and, as part of his reforming program, decided that the papacy belonged in Rome and that the support of the emperor would aid greatly in that return.

That decision was encouraged by the military successes of the cardinal and general Egidio Albornoz (1310–1367), who had been pressed into service to reestablish papal control in the Papal States in the center of Italy. To consolidate those successes and to heed the numerous calls to return the papacy to Rome, Urban headed to Italy in 1367. And, in a sign of rapprochement between the papacy and the empire, he asked for and secured Charles IV’s support. Charles then returned to Italy as an emperor supporting the pope, and together they entered Rome in the fall of 1368. That might have been a major historical moment, with the emperor reportedly leading the scholar/pope on a humble mule back into the holy city – the empire and the papacy uniting to return the papacy to its proper home. But once again it was too perfect; for it quickly became clear that the pope was not really able to hold Rome, especially as his real military power, in the form of his general, Albornoz, had died, and as militarily Charles was incapable of doingmuch more then lending moral support. Far better at leading a mule than an army in Italy that he simply did not have, Charles wisely fled back to the safety of the north. The pope followed suit soon thereafter, returning to Avignon, and dreams of a papal return to Rome were put on hold.

In sum, the emperors of the north were largely absent from the complex and contested world of fourteenth-century Italy. The most successful managed to play their cards well enough to officially be crowned emperor, perhaps gain some taxes, bribes, or momentary political advantage, and escape with their lives. But more often they found themselves used as pawns, and frequently relatively uncomprehending pawns at that, in the complex diplomatic maneuvers of local Italian powers. In fact, when Italians looked to the north, they did not tend to look with fear or even with all that much respect for the power of emperors, kings, or nobles. Rather, they were inclined to see the northerners as uncomprehending and backward players whose claims and limited powers could be used to their own advantage in the local political struggles of northern Italy.

Much the same was the case as far as the papacy was concerned. Avignon and the south of France were closer and more involved in the cultural world of northern Italy. But with French popes and French cardinals gaining the preponderance of power in the Church hierarchy, even the top levels of the Church in Italy took on a French tone, with important bishoprics and Church offices often being held by members of the French clergy. Many, facing considerable Italian hostility, did not even take up residence in their bishoprics – following in this the pope’s lead as bishop of Rome living in Avignon – thus further weakening the power of the Church and papacy there. In addition, more powerful cities like Milan, Venice, and Florence took advantage of this situation by insisting on traditional claims that they had the right to nominate their own bishops and even local clergy, with considerable success, although the theory remained that these were merely nominations that had to be approved by the pope. In Rome the great baronial families that had once controlled the papacy were reduced to violently fighting among themselves and with increasingly powerful artisan and merchant groups for power within the city. At the same time the territories theoretically under papal control in the center of Italy, the Papal States, were fairly quickly lost again to locals. The popes at Avignon made the best of an impossible situation. Lacking the local power or support to hold the many small cities in the region that were eager to assert their independence from papal authority, they sold off the rule of most to powerful local families, who officially took over power as vicars of the pope. The result was that beyond moral authority – which itself was widely being questioned, given the reported corruption of the papacy at Avignon – and the strong claims to rule discussed earlier, the papacy had little real power to wield in Italy.

A Third Potential Competitor for Power and Legitimacy in Italy

There was, however, a third power in Italy that dwarfed the cities of the center and north of the peninsula, at least in size, and had the potential to disrupt their claims to rule on their own, the kingdom of Naples. Our imaginary pilgrim, Felix, if he had journeyed on from Rome to the city of Naples, with its 60,000 inhabitants on the coastal plain and hillsides surrounding a beautiful bay and bordered to the south by the still-active volcano Vesuvius, might well have found that city somewhat less strange than those he had encountered earlier. For it was the capital city of a legitimate kingdom, with a strong noble presence and a recent tradition of German leadership. In fact, German emperors had led a cultural and economic flourishing there that had made the region one of the richest in Europe in the late Middle Ages, perhaps most impressively under Frederick II, the not-quite-Antichrist, who had ruled the south of Italy and Sicily united as the kingdom of Sicily. His broader Italian and European ambitions, however, as we have seen, led to a long, bitter conflict with the papacy that did not end with his death. Rather, his illegitimate son Manfred’s hopes of taking over his father’s rule were seriously hampered by a recalcitrant southern nobility and papal attacks on his legitimacy that included the granting of his kingdom as a papal fief to Charles of Anjou, brother of the French king, Louis IX. And in the end they were dashed when Manfred was soundly defeated at the Battle of Benevento in 1266, which rang down the curtain on German rule in the south.

In turn, the Angevins began almost two centuries of French rule (1268–1442) in the south with the support of the papacy as – officially, at least – they held the kingdom as a fief of the papacy, which was happy to see their imperial and Ghibelline enemies finally defeated in the south. Although Charles of Anjou preferred to rule from Naples rather than from Sicily, he attempted to maintain the strong monarchical forms of Frederick and followed, if anything, an even more aggressive policy in the Mediterranean, earning him the enmity of the Byzantine rulers of Constantinople. However, the cost of his aggressive policies, along with his bringing in French nobles to support his rule, led to ongoing conflicts. In fact, in 1282, supposedly triggered by a French soldier’s insult to a Sicilian woman, a general revolt known as the Sicilian Vespers almost toppled Charles and the Angevins from power. Charles managed to maintain control of Naples and the south of the Italian peninsula, but the Sicilians successfully threw off French rule with the aid of the Byzantines and Pedro III of Aragon, who became king of Sicily. As a result, although the Angevins attempted from time to time to regain Sicily, under Aragon Sicily fell more and more into an Iberian/Mediterranean orbit. And eventually the Aragonese would use the island as a base for driving the Angevins from the kingdom of Naples in the fifteenth century, inaugurating a long process of developing Aragonese and then Spanish power in the peninsula, with dramatic results, as we shall see.

But that was still to come. Under the Angevins Naples flourished as an administrative capital of a formally French kingdom with a highly diverse nobility that included newly arrived French nobles, German nobles brought in earlier by German emperors, Normans left over from the Norman conquest of the South in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Lombard nobles from a still earlier period, and even some Greeks and Albanians. And not unlike similar kingdoms in the north of Europe and the Iberian peninsula, those nobilities and their ruling Angevins were heavily involved in the dynastic adventures of the rest of Europe. Thus, for example, Charles I’s son, Charles II, married into the royal family of Hungary, which led to more than a century of diplomatic wrangling and meddling with the affairs of that monarchy. In fact, that ongoing feuding may eventually have contributed to the fall of the Angevins in Italy in the fifteenth century. Also, while the Angevins’ drive to develop a nobility that supported their attempts at centralized rule failed in the long run, it did lead to the alienation of much land that had formerly been controlled directly by the crown. This seriously compromised their revenues and weakened their rule. Thus, in a way, a government that had been relatively strong and effectively centralized under Frederick, across the fourteenth century tended to grow weaker as the nobility grew stronger and as the barons of the realm in many ways came to dominate society.

Economically the kingdom of Naples tended to be a supplier of resources, primarily agricultural, for the north of Italy. Moreover, the Angevins turned away from earlier strong trade relations with Genoa and Venice in order to work more closely with Florentine merchants and bankers, who had a strong connection to their papal overlords and an equally powerful Guelph tradition. Thus Florentine banking houses were a power in the city, and Giovanni Boccaccio, one of the most notable Florentine writers of the fourteenth century, actually worked for a time as a youth in the Bardi bank there. In fact, the Florentine connection meant that the lively court of Naples was anything but culturally isolated from the early Rinascimento. Florentine artists and intellectuals were patronized by the Angevins – the famous painter Giotto, for example, did frescoes for the royal convent associated with the Church of Santa Chiara – and exposure to the more noble and courtly south certainly had an impact on northern writers and painters who visited the city and its court to enjoy Angevin patronage.

But it would be hard to see the kingdom of Naples as deeply integrated into the first Rinascimento, at least as discussed here. Its few urban centers were dominated by a feudal nobility, not an artisan/merchant/banker popolo. Moreover, even the most cosmopolitan urban center, Naples, was more an administrative and transshipment center, not a city that actually produced wealth like Florence, Milan, Venice, and the dozens of other central and northern cities of the peninsula. And finally, the Angevin monarchy, although contested, like the imperial rule it replaced, could claim a legitimate right to rule and its nobility a legitimate feudal right to dominate society, unlike the problematic city-states of the north and their even more problematic popolo. Thus, while in Naples and the south ideals of Roman revival and various visions of returns to earlier first times could be and were evoked from time to time, royal and noble lineage and tales of medieval greatness in distant France did much of the heavy lifting to support Angevin rule and its traditional social order. That would change in the fifteenth century, when the Aragonese replaced the Angevins and began to promote more aggressively a vision of their own revival of ancient Rome that brought their court more into line with the urban courts of northern Italy. In sum, although one would not want to discount the many and often significant connections between the north and south of Italy, in the early Rinascimento the kingdom of Naples was a quite different society and economy on a significantly different trajectory. Culturally there were more similarities, but even in that area much of the culture of the Angevins was more comfortable with late medieval and French Gothic forms than with those of the Rinascimento.

It is true that especially under King Robert the Wise (1277–1343; ruled 1309–1343), the court in Naples was a flourishing center of intellectual excitement that attracted many from the north, especially Florence. Moreover, Robert attempted to play an aggressive role in northern Italian politics as a leader of the Guelph party and may have even harbored designs of uniting all of Italy under his Angevin rule, although recent scholarship has tended to downplay such claims, noting that his periodic interference in the north was determined more by his alliance with the papacy and pursuing papal/Guelph goals there than by any larger designs. Suggestively, Robert spent a good deal of his reign actually living in his territories in France and at the papal court in Avignon. And it is precisely these things that in the end made Naples so different from the urban governments and societies of the rest of Italy. The Angevin kings of the south were largely outsiders, and city-states were willing to use them as they used emperors and popes for their local advantage, but they were not interested in surrendering their local power to them. They could admire and even to a degree ape the manners and refinement of southern nobles, especially those at the impressive Neapolitan court, but they were not particularly interested in giving up to them the leadership and status that they had taken from their own local nobility. And at a deeper level they were not interested in sacrificing their vision of civic morality or an urban/popolo/popolo grosso ideal of virtù in order to be ruled by a French king and his foreign nobility.

Robert’s relationship with Florence provides a good example of this. In 1313, with the city in turmoil and factions of the local Guelph party violently pitted against each other, Robert, as the pope’s Guelph leader in Italy, was asked to become lord of the city. As the emperor Henry VII also threatened the city, he seemed to offer much-needed military support against the increasingly Ghibelline, Guelph/Ghibelline emperor. But Charles, deeply involved with problems of his own in his southern kingdom, never came to rule, and when Henry conveniently died before the walls of the city, a relieved city forgot their momentary lord. In 1325, again in the throes of internal turmoil and a deep budgetary crisis that required serious reform, the city once more appealed to Robert to bring peace to the city. This time, however, he actually sent his son, Charles, duke of Calabria (1298–1328). And unlike his father, whose name and fame more than his actual presence had served Florence a little more than a decade earlier, Charles actually came to rule, imposing tax reforms that were especially unpopular with the upper classes and a noble style of rule that quickly lost its glamour for the popolo of the city. His increasingly unpopular rule was cut short by his death, and Florence heaved a sigh of relief.

In sum, the Angevins of the south, used with caution, could be called upon from time to time, but in the end they were French foreigners from a very different society, even if they were Guelphs and formally the pope’s primary supporters in Italy. In turn, poets, painters, sculptors, and writers could seek royal patronage by traveling to Naples, but understanding that they had left the distinctive urban world of the north behind in order to gain the advantage of royal wealth and patronage. Painters and craftsmen in the Angevin south had to adapt to a more noble and late medieval Gothic style; writers had to adapt to a more noble and royal-centered world; and for all the glory of the royal court in Naples, the underlying rules and deep perceptions of society and culture were different. The cities of the north and center of Italy in the final analysis used the Angevin kingdom much as they used the emperor and the pope, along with northern European rulers more generally, primarily as pawns in their own local power struggles, carefully avoiding deeper entanglements.

In the end, then, the cities of the center and north of Italy that our imagined traveler Felix visited on his pilgrimage to Rome found themselves shortly after his visit largely on their own for slightly more than a century and a half to develop further their own power arrangements, society, and culture. That strange world of bustling cities, violent conflicts, intense religious enthusiasms, and different social values was not about to end to make way for the last age of the Holy Spirit; it was already well along its way on a different path that set it off as the Rinascimento. The Italians Felix met were quite willing to take from their northern and southern neighbors what they saw as useful or attractive for their own society. But they did so increasingly seeing themselves as the superior society and crucially different. The uniquely urban civiltà that they created is what might be aptly called the First Rinascimento (c. 1250–1450).

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