Sunday, September 15, 2013

Epic fail (or, Florence changes the locks)

It happened in November, 1266.  Historian Ferdinand Schevill calls it "a fatal act of pusillanimity".  Historian John M. Najemy says it was "an incomprehensible mistake".  Machiavelli observed that the perpetrator "decided to save himself by fleeing rather than fighting", having "abandoned [the city] out of vileness."

Giovanni Villani, writing perhaps three decades after the event, says that the man in question "had done very foolishly in departing from the city of Florence, without stroke of sword and not driven thence" -- an act which ultimately left him "gloomy and shamed," but "after a thing ill-judged, and worse carried out, repentance is in vain."

So who was the guy who got such consistently bad press, and what exactly did he do, or fail to do?

That would be the Ghibelline leader, Guido Novello.  He is not to be confused with the better-known historical figure of Guido Novello da Polenta, who Automatic Translation would probably render as New Guy of Cornmeal Grits; that was a later Guido.  Nor is he to be confused with his cousin, Guido Guerra, who fought for the opposite side -- though I have seen him so confused, in history books that ought to know better, thus causing the whole Guelf-Ghibelline thing to make even less sense than it actually did, which is going some.

Guido's family was the Conti Guidi, the counts who from ancient times had held sway in the Casentino region (the upper Arno valley in eastern Tuscany).  There they maintained several strong castles, including this one at Poppi, which has a very cool museum about the Battle of Campaldino and is a fascinating place to visit:

This particular version of the castle is a little later than Guido Novello's time, but it was built over a previous fortress and was held by the Conti Guidi.

The Conti Guidi consisted of many families, and by the middle of the 13th century, some were solidly Ghibelline while others espoused the Guelf party.  Their heraldic devices tended toward the use of red and white, and lions of white on red or red on white, sometimes separate, sometimes merged:

In this illustration you see another Guidi device (St. Andrew's cross, quartered, red and white, and no, that's not proper heraldic language), on the flag that's falling from the tower.  Here a Florentine army is destroying another castle belonging to the Conti Guidi, considering it a threat; this incident took place in 1153.  The castle was called Monte di Croce.  (You can see this device also in the illustration at the top of this post.)

Though Guido had some Guelfs cluttering up his family tree, he himself was staunchly, yea even rabidly, Ghibelline (meaning, to oversimplify, one who backed the emperor in the empire's ongoing squabbles with the papacy over various manifestations of temporal power).  He was married to an illegitimate daughter of the late (by 1266) Emperor Frederick II, making him the brother-in-law of Manfred, who at that time was the voice of the empire.  Two of his children were named Federico and Manfredo.  (This reminds me a lot of the scene in Life Is Beautiful, the film set in Italy in 1939 in which the character played by Roberto Benigni is trying to figure out the politics of a man he has just encountered.  The question resolves when the man calls his children:  "Benito!  Adolfo!")

Federico, by the way, ended up in Dante's Purgatorio among the sodomites.

Here's the situation, as briefly as I can tell it (HUGE oversimplification alert):

Guelfs and Ghibellines in Florence have been duking it out (and this is before Florence had dukes) for quite a while, first with one party in power, then the other.  When one party is in power, the other is in exile (at least the more important members are), and the winners are gleefully trashing the homes, businesses, and fortified towers of their absent adversaries.  In 1250, the Primo Popolo, a group of non-noble, non-magnate, and emphatically non-feudal businessmen representing Florence's rising commercial sector took advantage of the chaos and took over the government.  They had a great ten-year run, with many accomplishments, but the nobles who ran the two major parties, whether in town or in exile, never stopped trying to make a comeback.

In 1258, the Ghibellines were in exile, mostly living in the Ghibelline city of Siena.  The Primo Popolo was drawing closer to the Guelf party because war was brewing with Siena over control of nearby territories.  This war, which deserves a bunch of blog posts all of its own, took place in 1260, and to the surprise of the Florentines (and quite possibly everybody else as well), the Ghibellines, including the Sienese and the Florentine exiles, won the day.  Back came the Ghibellines, out went the Guelfs, and the Primo Popolo might as well never have existed.

Battle of Montaperti
Ghibelline rule was harsh and unpopular.  The Ghibelline general who had spearheaded the victory at Montaperti was made vicar-general for all of Tuscany, and he appointed Guido as podestà (mayor and head magistrate) for Florence.  This turned out to be almost as much of a headache as an honor, partly because Guido was stuck with paying and supporting all the German mercenaries who had made the Ghibelline victory possible.  Guido applied drastic taxes, and the Florentine people resented it - and him, and his party.  Eventually  Manfred recalled the general, having need of him in Sicily, and Guido got bumped up to the vicar-general job.  It didn't make his life any easier.

Meanwhile, the Florentine exiles, and their Guelf counterparts elsewhere in northern and central Italy, had not been idle.  They wanted to eliminate the threat of Manfred, and eventually, at the battle of Benevento, they did.  (They also eliminated Manfred.)
Battle of Benevento
They had a lot of help from Charles of Anjou, but that's another story.

So here's Florence, with Guido the Ghibelline in charge, and suddenly the tide has turned in favor of the Guelfs, with Manfred out of the picture.  Guido is desperately trying to hold on.  He waffles between trying to win over the people by restoring some of their privileges (you know, the ones he took away from them in the first place), and trying to stomp on them so hard that they can't offer any resistance.  Nothing was working.  Also, the pope (Clement IV) had insisted on putting two Bolognese nobles, who were also friars of a peacekeeping order, one each Guelf and Ghibelline, in as a sort of podestà committee.

These two had put in place a council of 36 men, nobles and non-nobles, Guelf and Ghibelline, and with a greatly increased representation for the guilds, not insignificantly including a federation and military alliance of the guilds, designed to protect the populace should anyone attempt to take over lordship of the city.  The 36 let some Guelfs back in and arranged some peacemaking marriages between the parties (see my earlier blog posts on that, here and here). 

And that brings us up to the moment:  Guido is hard-pressed for money, he's unpopular, and when the 36 refused to approve a tax to allow Guido to pay off his Germans, he lost his cool completely.  He had assembled a formidable Ghibelline army, drawing on Ghibellines from elsewhere in Tuscany, because he knew he was losing control of the situation.  Now, with this provocation,  Florence's Ghibellines, led by the Lamberti, rioted and assaulted the guildhall where the 36 were meeting.  Villani says they were yelling, "Where are these 36 thieves?  We'll cut them to pieces!"

The 36, quite naturally, ran for their respective homes.  Guelf and Ghibelline forces squared off in the streets.  As Villani puts it, with typically Florentine priorities, "All the shops were closed, and every man flew to arms."

Members of the populace gathered in one spot and started to erect barricades.  Guido's force advanced against the people, and some of his Germans managed to get inside the barricades.  The people, however, defended their makeshift fortress with crossbows and by hurling missiles from towers and houses.  Many of Guido's men died there.

Guido realized he wasn't getting anywhere, so he reversed his banners and headed to the palace where the podestà committee was, and demanded the keys of the gates of the city so he could depart.  He also demanded an escort from among the 36, fearing that the people would attack him with missiles hurled from their houses, and so he had on one side Cerchio dei Cerchi, and on the other Uberto de'Pucci, two great leaders.  The friars yelled from the palace that Uberto and Cerchio should persuade the count to return to his house.  They even promised to pay the soldiers themselves.

But Guido was having none of it.  He wanted out, and out he went, with his Germans and his Ghibellines.  They wound their way around to a gate and as Villani says, "sallied forth," and as they were leaving, "stones were cast upon them", but they proceeded to Prato, where they arrived in the evening of St. Martin's Day, 11 November, 1266.

Why did he go?  Some say he intended all along to return from a more strategic direction - that it was only a temporary retreat.  Others accused him of cowardice.  Villani says that having reached Prato, Guido "perceived that they had done very foolishly in departing from the city of Florence without stroke of sword and not driven thence, and they perceived that they had done ill, and took counsel to return to Florence the following morning."  However it was, the next morning Guido (and his Germans and his Ghibellines) rode back to Florence, armed to the teeth, and demanded entry.

And now it was the Florentines who were having none of it.  Fearing Guido's vengeance, they had agreed not to open the gates.  Florence was surrounded by strong walls and full moats.  The Ghibellines tried to storm the gate, but they were repulsed by crossbows and other missiles.  (See illustration at top of post.)

(Here I am reminded a bit of the taunting scene from Monty Python's Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which can be viewed here:)

As Machiavelli put it, "His plan did not succeed, for the people who had been able to drive him out only with difficulty were able to keep him out with ease."  That's what those walls are for, I guess.

And that was it for Ghibelline control in the city of Florence, henceforth solidly the Guelfest of the Guelf.  Ghibelline power ended, for Guido and all the others, not with a bang but with a whimper.

Images in this post are in the public domain, with these exceptions:  both coats of arms involving lions are licensed to Sailko via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons.

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