Florentine Guelphism and the Renaissance
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#1
In looking over the Guelph vs. Ghibelline conflict (which in Italy frankly had nothing to do with the Investiture controversy), you'll find that much unnecessary ideological baggage is attached to this period, and false motivations ascribed to the parties. It is likely best to see these labels of Guelph and Ghibelline (especially as time goes on) as fluid and malleable ideological mantles that were subsumed into the existing class and clan conflicts. In many summaries of the reasons for Dante's exile from Florence I've seen that it was just a conflict of "Black Guelphs who wanted greater Papal power and White Guelphs who wanted lesser Papal power." Any inquiry into that subject is quick to show that the Blacks, in general, required a powerful external protector who would secure their oligarchic reign in the city. In this capacity they really are hardly different from the Ghibellines defeated at Campaldino or the nobility that supported the Hohenstaufens (more on this in the next paragraph). Paraphrasing Burckhardt: "the Papacy was strong enough to keep Italy divided but not strong enough to unite it herself." 

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Outline of 1115-1312:
The Ghibelline attitude in Florence I think can be best summarized as a desire for top-down rule over the many guilds and the whole politic of the city, and for the longest time this was synonymous with support of the Emperor. Lesser nobility upon the death of Matilda of Tuscany (1115) declared that now they answered to the Emperor north of the Alps alone, making them not subordinate to any power in Italy, and it was in this time that Florentine land was reduced to but a few metres outside its city-walls. The Florentines began gradually assembling a city militia and stormed the castles of the nobility who seized Florentine land in the wake of Matilda's passing. Usually the Florentines threatened an ultimatum of either destroying the fort or that the nobles pledge their allegiance to Florence, thereafter being coerced into living multiple months of the year in the city. The descendants of this countryside nobility made to live in Florence tended to either desire to function largely within the confines of city law and to cooperate with the popolo into whom they've been assimilated as praised noble leaders (going as far back as Rome, the plebian class tends to vote for the strong familial names they recognize often times over representatives of their own class) or to rule over the Florentines as a hereditary nobility with the backing of the Emperor. With this in mind I think you can liken these aristocratic Guelphs with names of renown specifically as less pragmatic and less effective analogues to persons such as Solon, Cleisthenes, Pericles, all from the most prestigious familial lineages in their city who nevertheless threw their weight largely behind the "popolo" of Athens, if for nothing else than to prevent civil war within the city, or purely for self-gain on the part of Cleisthenes. The Black Guelphs established as a faction after the Battle of Campaldino desired the pope Boniface VIII as a protector of their oligarchic rule. The memory of Ghibelline crimes in this time was fresh on account of a series of Ghibelline atrocities in a series of back-and-forths between them and the Guelphs. First Frederick of Antioch, a bastard of Frederick II, was installed as podesta in the city and failing to reconcile the two parties he exiled the Guelphs and destroyed their property. Later the Guelphs being restored to power, when they heard of Ghibelline conspiracies to enlist the help of Manfred (another bastard of Frederick II) for the seizing of Florence, they tortured and executed all involved, even a Papal legate (so much for an ideological or legal belief in the supremacy of the papacy). On account of this crime then a coalition of Ghibelline cities (Pisa, Siena, Arezzo) accompanied by Florentine Ghibelline exiles such as Fatarina and Manfred's German knights fought against the Florentines in 1260 at Montaperti and decisively defeated them. Installing another Ghibelline regime in Florence, during this time no doubt the Ghibelline name being smeared even more by the Guelphs by the predictable retaliation.

Later, upon Manfred being deposed by Charles of Anjou, him having come on the invitation of the Pope to seize Sicily from this perceived Mohammedan, the Ghibellines in Florence lost their protector and the city (gradually) returned to the Guelphs yet again. The Ghibellines now detested in Florence, when Arezzo remained true to the imperial cause, Florence, Siena, and Pisa (now all governed by Guelphs) banded together and defeated the Aretines at the Battle of Campaldino in 1280. Through a series of feuds between aristocrats in the city (who at this stage abandoned any petitioning of the Emperor or his associates for aid after the demise of the Hohenstaufen) and merchants and workers, the opposition of Corso Donati and Giano della Bella (him having sought to disenfranchise the aristocrats in Florence) and a general feud between the Donati family and the Cerchi (a White Guelph family of mercantile proclivity), Corso Donati attempted to seize the government in 1300 (the year of Dante's joining of the Priory), and so the Priory exiled the leaders of both the aristocrats and the merchants, della Bella's charge being inciting a riot. The White Guelph exiles (della Bella presumably among them, and leading members of the Cerchi) were promptly recalled but the Blacks, Donati leading them, were not. These aristocrats who sought to overthrow mercantile interests then asked the Pope, Boniface VIII, for aid. In 1301, Charles of Valois (who aided the Florentines by the request of the Pope) and Corso Donati entered Florence and exiled or executed many of the White Guelphs, Dante among them.

Dante, the Guelph, would then later petition Henry VII of Luxembourg, Holy Roman Emperor, to crush the Black Guelphs and consolidate his nominal rule in Italy, and to effectively re-establish the Roman empire in earnest. These Ghibelline hopes all seem to weigh on the assumption that if Tuscany, Lombardy, and Romagna were firmly under the control of the Emperors, then the heights of Rome would soon be restored, and support of the Ghibellines seems most justified in the belief of the necessity of a Roman empire, and in the days of Frederick II the hope that this Empire may really be restored. Dante in De Monarchia speaks of the position of Emperor as being one necessitated and justified by natural law as opposed to any ecclesiastical ruling, saying further that were this office to be the the privilege of the Pope alone to bestow, then the Papacy itself can be seen as an office to gift, and to take away, at the pleasure of a secular ruler. 

"Usurpation of a right does not create a right (in reference to the Pope's crowning of Charlemagne); if it did, the same method could show the dependency of ecclesiastical authority on the Empire after the Emperor Otto restored Pope Leo and deposed Benedict." - De Monarchia, iii, 11.

So strong at this point was his loathing of the Florentines and the Black Guelphs backed by the Pope that it was what denied him any chance to return to his home-town, in his exhortation to Henry to seize Florence and rid it of the Blacks completely are the curses and insults that revoked any chance of his return. Henry VII failed Dante and to seize Florence, and the Ghibellines would never again have that city for their own. De Monarchia was also banned by the Catholic church in 1585.

The main query of this post comes down to whether the Renaissance would have occurred if the Ghibellines had won thoroughly in northern Italy, denying thereby the fledgling communes and republics the lawlessness which was first to their disadvantage against the fortified nobility and later to their benefit when these cities were free to grow in wealth, no longer hampered in their rise by the petty nobility of Tuscany nor under the rule of a centralized Roman state. I see these cities as having had a purely internal stimulus for growth, facilitated not by Guelphic ideology, but the conflict of Guelph versus Ghibelline. Did the striving of the independent city-states then in their desire to prove themselves the best and their courting of artists and poets for this purpose function as the source of their flowering (this characterization being the one in which the comparison of Renaissance city-states to the Archaic/ Classical poleis are the most similar), or was it the intellectual environment fostered by Ghibelline rulers such as Manfred and Frederick II? If one of these two positions is admitted then the latter credits the Ghibellines with this cultural advent and the break with the medieval mind while the former credits specifically the Ghibelline-Guelph motivated strife of the city-states, their agonal competition. Would a Hohenstaufen Sicilian-like Kingdom in Tuscany and Lombardy established in the 13th Century then have aborted the developments of the Renaissance or have accelerated them? The fall of Constantinople is a given, but before the fall of the city, Italy was already hungry for relation and study of the ancients, so the Renaissance itself must be viewed as native to Italy with Greece having been a stimulus or catalyst. I haven't covered much of the Hohenstaufen rule of Italy and what that facilitated under Frederick II himself but these points should already be more-or-less known to anyone familiar with the subject of Italian history in this time.
#2
Quote:The main query of this post comes down to whether the Renaissance would have occurred if the Ghibellines had won thoroughly in northern Italy, denying thereby the fledgling communes and republics the lawlessness which was first to their disadvantage against the fortified nobility and later to their benefit when these cities were free to grow in wealth, no longer hampered in their rise by the petty nobility of Tuscany nor under the rule of a centralized Roman state.

I think the answer to your query is no, and I would raise as evidence Sicily. Sicily had all the same materials to work with for a Renaissance, perhaps even more abundantly than northern Italy, and moreover for a longer period of time. There was a century long period under the Normans and later Frederick II in which it was populated by Greeks, had an intellectual court that attracted artists and diverse sources of inspiration, and was materially prosperous. All the same conditions as Northern Italy, except for the tumultuous politics and roving bands mercenaries. It was instead during that century for the most part a well-organized and effective state. And yet no Renaissance arose there.

It's possible that Burckhardt overstates the importance of the condottieri in breaking the medieval slumber, and no direct relationship can be established between them and the environment created by them and the art as such, except insofar as they were natural patrons, which Frederick II also was. However, I do think it's impossible to imagine for instance a Machiavelli and the development of sophisticated political theory without the instability of Northern Italy. 

I'll also add that I don't think it's entirely either-or, Frederick II certainly introduced or facilitated the necessary material for the Renaissance like the Provençal troubadours and he was himself the model of a Renaissance prince.
#3
I'm inclined to agree with Polytropos here. Here is a short paper that I read a year or two ago which makes a similar argument for the proliferation of composers in the HRE and playwrights in Elizabethan England.

Quote:In a sense we are suggesting that the opportunities for Gluck, Haydn, Mozart
and Beethoven have their origin in Canossa in 1077 when Henry IV's submission
to Pope Gregory served to perpetuate the dismemberment of Germany, and in the
submission in Venice, precisely one century later, of Frederick Barbarossa to Pope
Alexander, which confirmed this fate. In the eighteenth century the Holy Roman
Empire included something like 1,800 more-or-less independent German states
(to be contrasted with the less than 200 states on the entire planet recognized by
the United Nations in 1990). It is certainly true that effective power resided in,
perhaps, a half-dozen to a dozen major secular and ecclesiastical dominions, but
the fact is that Germany and Italy, unlike France and the United Kingdom, were
subdivided into a multitude of petty states, each with its own provincial capital,
and each with its own small court in which boredom was a principal concern of the
ruler, and where musical activity frequently served as the main antidote. "Each [of
the many states of the Holy Roman Empire] was headed by an absolute sovereign
princelet, who ... strutted about, affectionately coddling his ornamental army, his
hunting apparatus, and his little orchestra .... Of the kings and dukes, the greater and
richer ones maintained their own opera establishments. These were very expensive,
fancy luxuries, requiring incredibly luxurious stage machinery .... Princelets who
could not afford their own operas contented themselves with keeping little chamber
orchestras" (Loesser, 1954, pp. 4-7).



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