City States of Italy

Italy around the year 1000, Verona in blue, th...

Italy around the year 1000, Verona in blue, then under the suzerainty of the Carinthian dukes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Of all the regions of Europe the Italian peninsula was the one where city-states most flourished and abounded.   Many of the cities of the Roman era survived;  they had a proud history and a tradition of self-government. Many of the cities became the seats of Bishops, who were more plentiful in the Italian peninsula than elsewhere, and so these cities remained important, not just within themselves but in the surrounding lands.

In Roman times town and country, urbs and pagus, had together made a community or civitas (it was from civitas that the word city derived).   One reason why the Italian city-states were able to establish themselves and survive was that they, like the Roman urbs, made the surrounding countryside a part of their community:  the contado, the dependent territory of the city, gave it a depth and diversity that most of the German Imperial Free Cities lacked.

This partly came about because many of the aristocrats who held land in the contadi lived in the cities, all or some of the year, whereas in northern Europe nobles tended to live outside, leaving the cities as places of trade and commerce.   There was not the separation of city and country that prevailed in much of Europe:  which is not the same as saying that they were equally valued – it was not easy in most cities for a country-dweller in the contadi to become a citizen.

We may group the Italian city-states in three main categories.

(1) The Byzantine city-states were the result of two invasions in the 6th century.   The first was the Byzantine overthrow of the Ostrogothic Kingdom between the 530s and 550s, an overthrow that had barely time to celebrate its triumph before the Lombards invaded Italy in the late 560s. For nearly 200 years the Byzantines held on to much of central Italy, but in the 750s lost that region.   The Lombard invasion quickly isolated the cities on the Tyrrhenian coast.   They continued to acknowledge the authority of the Byzantine Empire, but inevitably had to look after themselves.

Naples, Gaeta and Amalfi all became virtually independent of Byzantium and their chief magistrates assumed the title of duke.   They remained nominally responsible to the Byzantine governor of Sicily, so that when the Arabs conquered that island in the 9th century, the Empire became even more remote.   The recovery of the Empire on the southern mainland towards the end of that century scarcely affected Naples and the others. What ended their independence was the new power in the south;  by the mid-12th century the Lombard and Byzantine south and the Tyrrhenian cities had all been swallowed up by the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, though in Naples the commune still kept a considerable influence.

There remained one former Byzantine city-state within the peninsula.   The several invasions of northern Italy, including the Lombard in 568, had caused many of the people of Venetia to seek refuge in the lagoons at the head of the Adriatic.   There they continued to acknowledge the Empire, but their isolation, particularly after the Exarchate and its capital, Ravenna, were taken by the Lombards from the Byzantines in 751, meant that Venice, like Naples, had to go its own way.

Its independence lasted, though the early years of the 9th century were perilous as the Emperor Charlemagne and his son Pepin, King of Italy, threatened the lagoon. In 812 however Charlemagne, eager for Byzantine recognition of his Imperial title, recognised Venice as belonging to the Eastern Empire.   As that Empire weakened, Venice had become in practice an independent state by the end of the first millennium.

For nearly eight hundred more years Venice survived, the greatest of the city-states of Italy.

(2) The city-states in the Holy Roman Empire. The lands of northern Italy and of Tuscany had made up the Lombard Kingdom in the Dark Ages, a Kingdom which Charlemagne took over in 774.

It was this Italian Kingdom that the German King Otto brought under his own rule in 961, the year before he was crowned Emperor.   The Emperors inevitably were often absent from Italy, so that they faced the problem of who would exercise their power in their absence.   The old Roman provincial structure had been broken in the 6th century, the Lombards had brought in their own structure, and the Franks had brought in their own men, but the weakness of the Italian monarchy, especially after the death of the last Carolingian Emperor, Louis II, in 875, meant that power became localised.

The German Emperors made use, as they did in Germany, of Bishops. Some Bishops were made Counts just for their cities, the countship in the surrounding areas being held by nobles;  other Bishops were Counts for the city and the region around it.   In some areas – in Tuscany, in the northeast, in Liguria and in the Alps and their foothills in the northwest – nobles were so well entrenched that they ruled as Marquises or Counts.

The cities of northern Italy were prosperous from trade and manufacture.   The 11th century saw a surge in economic activity, and in consequence a search for greater freedom to exploit the economic opportunities further.   Some cities were able to exploit rights previously granted them, others usurped authority;  either way communal government expanded at the expense of the Bishops.   The Bishops were themselves weakened in the later years of the century by the struggle that broke out between the Papacy and the Empire.

As the struggle proceeded, more and more of the Bishops had to acknowledge the rights of the Pope and the Imperial power that they had exercised fell away to the benefit of the communes.

The struggle did great damage to Imperial power in Germany and it was not until the reign of Frederick I – Barbarossa (Red Beard) to the Italians – that an Emperor was ready to reassert Imperial authority in Italy, which meant taking on the communes.   Through much of his reign (1152-90) the struggle raged, until in 1183 by the Treaty of Constance Frederick conceded that the cities of the Lombard League, the alliance that had opposed him since 1167, were self-governing though they in return acknowledged his ultimate sovereignty.

In the second quarter of the 13th century Barbarossa’s grandson, Frederick II, who was both Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, waged another long struggle to get the northern cities under his control.   The Empire was reduced to a shadow in northern Italy by that struggle and its aftermath, and greatly weakened in Germany.   Only one Emperor thereafter made a substantial effort to get control of his Italian realm:  the attempt by Henry VII (1308-13) to bring peace and order to Italy ended in violence and failure.

Besides the cities of the Po plain, city-states emerged in some of the areas where noble power had been strong:  the west of the northeastern marchlands (at Verona, Vicenza, Padua and Treviso), in Tuscany and in Liguria, where Genoa took over much of the region.   The eastern districts of the northeastern marchlands however remained under noble domination, as did the upper basin of the Po – not just the Alpine districts but also Piedmont, the land at the foot of the mountains.

The city communes were governed by elites – many were led by aristocrats, some were more plutocratic, but all were oligarchies.  The elites could easily break up into factions and civil strife could issue in bloodshed.   Various expedients were adopted to lessen the consequences of partisan politics.   Principal offices were held for short periods, and often were jointly held.   Councils supervised the individual officers.   In times of great factional disturbance one favourite expedient was to appoint an outsider as podestà, to take charge of the government of the city for a short period.   The politics of the country gave opportunities for adventurers to try their hand, like Ezzolino da Romana in the mid-13th century or King John of Bohemia in the 1330s.   The future did not belong to them however.

Many of the cities fell under the domination of more powerful neighbours.   Milan, Venice, Genoa and Florence all acquired substantial territories, and other cities formed part of their contadi.   When Siena, the last great Tuscan rival of Florence, fell under her rule in 1557, a Medici was already Duke of Florence and was soon to be Grand Duke of Tuscany.  The Visconti in Milan, the Gonzaga in Mantua, the Estensi in Modena and in Ferrara, which was in Papal-claimed territory, had all established their lordship in their cities and eventually received a princely title.   The Visconti, the Estensi and the Gonzaga all sooner or later attained ducal rank.  Others had risen to lordship like the Scaligeri in Verona and the Carrarese in Padua, but had fallen to their neighbours.

Venice, never itself actually within the Empire, and Genoa bucked the trend, for though their chief magistrates held the ducal title (as Doge) they were not in practice monarchs.   The government of both cities, the one dominant across northeastern Italy and intruding into Lombardy, the other the ruler of most of Liguria, remained oligarchic.   Both looked to the sea, Genoa was insulated from the politics of northern Italy by the mountains of the Apennino Ligure, Venice, when the rise of principalities threatened her, created a cordon sanitaire on the mainland behind her.

One of the small city-states also survived until the French Revolutionary era:  the Tuscan city of Lucca was not absorbed by anyone else nor did it expand at others’ expense, but remained a city-republic.

(3) The city-states in the Papal-claimed lands.   Across central Italy, stretching from the Tyrrhenian Sea near Rome northeastwards to the Adriatic, lay the lands that had been Byzantine and which the Frankish King Pepin had recognised as belonging to the Pope.   The Popes found it very difficult to hold territory, and most of the eastern lands were held by the Emperors as marches facing south towards whoever controlled the south of the peninsula, from Lombards to Normans.

Like the cities of northern Italy those in the central marchlands sought self-government. Although the cities in the region were at times liable to fall into the hands of adventurers, although most of them were split at times into factions, and although most of them came to be dominated by a single family, the pattern was different from the north.   Whereas the 13th century saw the end of Imperial involvement in central Italy, the Papacy survived.

Even though the Popes were absent for nearly seventy years in Avignon, even though in a little while after the Papal return to Rome two rival Popes emerged, one of them back in Avignon, the Papacy never ceased to be involved in the politics of central Italy, however feeble its influence was.

Successful families, like the Malatesta in Rimini, tended to be powerfully influential rather than utterly dominant.   Communal government might give way to rule by the signor (Ancona was unusual in that genuine communal government prevailed there for years) but the signor was not strong enough to make himself into a prince as happened in some of the northern and Tuscan cities.

Two Dukes did emerge in the regions claimed by the Pope, in Ferrara in 1471 and in Urbino in 1474, but both came into being as Papal fiefs.   The more distant Ferrara belonged to the Este territories and were held by a dynasty of great prestige.   Urbino was much less powerful and it came back fully into Papal hands in 1631, thirty-four years after the extinction of the senior male line of the Este family and the return of Ferrara to the Popes.

The century after the end of the great schism in 1417 saw the Papacy establish its authority more firmly than before in both the city of Rome, ever subject to the struggles of rival factions, and the lands claimed by the Papacy in Umbria, the Marches and Romagna.   The cities of these regions submitted to Papal rule.   The Popes used their wealth to buy the military power they needed and several of the Renaissance Popes were skilful operators in the power politics of the Italian peninsula.

One city-state did survive, shielded from the direct impact of Papal power by the Duchy of Urbino, on part of whose northern border it lay. Even when the della Rovere Dukes died out in 1631 San Marino was allowed to survive, a quaint relic from the once troublesome past, but too small to be a nuisance. Napoleon let it be, united Italy did not drag it in, Mussolini did not seek glory in crushing it.   It remains, the last of the old city-states.

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