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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

The Florentine Feud

"And for this cause we have narrated thus extensively the origin of this beginning of the accursed White and Black parties, for the great and evil consequences which followed to the Guelf party, and to the Ghibellines, and to all the city of Florence, and also to all Italy."

Giovanni Villani, Nuova Cronica, 14th century

In Tuscany, the first of May is traditionally known as Calendimaggio, a festival to celebrate the arrival of spring. It is a festival that goes back to Medieval Italy. In Florence, in 1300, a group of young men from two of the city’s prominent families rode through the streets along with hundreds of friends and supporters. The problem was that the two families, the Cerchi and the Donati, were rivals. The two parties arrived at the piazza in front of the Basilica of Santa Trinta, where they watched a group of women dancing in celebration of Calendimaggio. Then, as Leonardo Bruni, the 15th century Florentine chronicler, described, the members of the two rival families “started glaring at each other; then, as their horses mingled, they started to shove one another; and finally a brawl began. Swords were drawn, and wounds inflicted on both sides.” Violence escalated, and it was with great difficulty that the fight was broken up.

Basilica of Santa Trinta, Florence, Italy

This was not a random act of violence by some ill-tempered youth. Factional strife had been commonplace in Florence throughout the 13th century nor was it confined to Tuscany. The hatred between the Montagues and Capulets in Shakespeare’s Verona was the reality for much of the Italian peninsula. These factions had their roots in the power struggle between the German Holy Roman Emperors and the Papacy. But allegiances were influenced by local politics and the ambitions of the leading families of the various Italian city-states, notably Milan, Florence, Rome, and Venice.

Since the 12th century, a key question in Medieval Europe was where spiritual and temporal power resided. For the most part, the German emperors sought to consolidate both in the person of the emperor, making the pope subordinate. The papacy, of course, insisted that the pope was the spiritual head of Christendom while the emperor was only the secular leader. The emperor could not influence the church's affairs and was subject to the pope's authority. When Emperor Henry V, the last of the Salian dynasty, died in 1125, two rival houses emerged for the imperial crown. The House of Welf was a family of dukes centered in Bavaria, and they had supported the opposition to the former dynasty. On the other side were the Hohenstaufens, the dukes of Swabia. They were related to the Salian dynasty and considered themselves the legitimate heirs to the crown. Civil war broke out between the two contenders. In this conflict, the Welfs sought the protection and support of the papacy. The war, though, confirmed Conrad III of Hohenstaufen as emperor.

This struggle spilled over into the Italian territories. Two factions arose, one pro-imperial and one pro-papacy. The rallying cry of the Hohenstaufens was “Wibellingen,” a significant family fortress. This became Ghibellino in Italian. The Welf supporters were known as Guelfo in Italian. Therefore, Ghibellines were the imperial party. Italy was not unified then but fragmented among the different city-states, known as communes. A central imperial policy had always been to consolidate power among the emperor’s holdings in northern Italy. The city-states were fiercely independent and generally resisted such attempts to subjugate them to imperial authority. In time, the opposition party, the Guelphs, became associated with the papacy and as leaders in preserving Italian independence. The rivalries between city-states, personal ambitions, religion, and class divisions complicated this. Overlaying this was the conflict between the emperor and pope, and then, often with the invitation of the Italians, the interference of the French monarchy. Constant warfare would overtake the peninsula.

In Florence, the two parties would struggle to control the Florentine government. As each faction gained power, it brought successive rounds of exiles, seizure of property, and executions. In 1250, Emperor Frederick II died, leaving his illegitimate son, Manfred, King of Naples and Sicily, as the apparent successor. At that point, it seemed as if Manfred could unite all of Italy under the Ghibellines. Pope Urban IV offered the imperial crown to Charles of Anjou, the youngest son of King Louis VIII of France. (In theory, the emperor was elected by the nobility and consecrated by the church, but in practice, it was a complicated, often messy affair, with several different steps and rituals. Perhaps the subject of a future blog.) As Charles of Anjou gained victories in Italy, it meant that the Guelphs were now in complete control. Florence became a Guelph stronghold, and little by little, Tuscany was cleared of Ghibelline adherents.

In 1282, a new government was organized in Florence, controlled by the artisan guilds of the city. It was a form of representative government where the guilds elected a Council of Priors. The city enjoyed a brief period of peace and prosperity due mainly to the successes of the merchants and bankers. The power shift from aristocrats to a mercantile elite was completed in 1293 with the issuance of the Ordinances of Justice. The ordinances essentially excluded wealthy members of the Florentine nobility who were known as Ghibelline sympathizers and were known for a history of violence from holding public office. Additionally, the law levied severe punishments on any of these families that upset the city’s peace. Many wealthier merchants began aligning themselves with the city’s aristocracy, and the Ordinances of Justice are considered the beginning of a split among the Florentine Guelphs, a split along social and class divisions. By 1300, two factions had arisen again in the city.

Despite being a member of the same aristocracy that the guild leaders wished to reign in, Corso Donati was a highly charismatic figure who engendered the love of the popolani. These non-noble citizens shouted, “Vivo il Barone!” as Donati traveled about the city. The Cerchi family, headed by Vieri de’Cerchi, had emerged as a member of Florence's newly wealthy merchant class. Even before the violent brawl of May Day 1300, tensions between the two families had mounted through perceived slights as each courted the popolani. In 1298, when members of the Cerchi family were detained as guarantors of a relative, they were served a black pork pudding which caused many to become sick, and some died. Rumors spread that Donati had them poisoned.

After this incident, each side looked to provoke the other resulting in the brawl on the piazza during Calendimaggio. The Cerchi not only turned to supporters within Florence but also began to seek allies in neighboring cities. The town of Pistoia, like Florence, was divided into two opposing factions, the Blacks and the Whites. The Cerchi, bankers by trade, decided to join forces with the Pistoia Whites, who had more experience in combat. Calling themselves the White Guelphs, within a year, the Cerchi were able to drive out the Donati and their supporters, now referred to as the Black Guelphs. The Whites seized control of the Florentine government, took over all the government positions, and sent the Blacks into exile. In the meantime, in 1301, a young politician, Dante Alighieri, who had aligned himself with what would emerge as the White Guelph party, had been elected to sit on the Council of Priors, which was the seat of the Florentine republic.

Pope Boniface VIII

While in exile, the Black Guelphs turned to the pope, Boniface VIII, for assistance. Boniface decided this might be an opportune time to gain Tuscan territory. Charles, the Count of Valois and brother of the king of France, had sought papal dispensation to marry the titular empress Catherine of Byzantium. In exchange, Boniface encouraged Charles to come to Italy on the pretense of having him support his former father-in-law in Sicily. But Boniface first sent Charles to Florence to act presumably as a peacemaker. Instead, Charles was to be a military occupier while the Black Guelphs seized control of the Florentine government from the Whites. The young Dante was among those sent to negotiate with Boniface VIII, but the pope rejected their offers. Charles of Valois entered Florence on November 1, 1301, and a reign of terror was unleashed upon White Guelph sympathizers. Dante and others were accused of committing crimes against the state. On March 10, 1302, Dante was made a permanent exile and would face death “at any time come within the power of the commune.”

Dante, the politician, had fallen victim to the factional troubles that had plagued Florence. That experience would inform Dante, the poet. The politics of the city and his eventual exile would set the stage for The Divine Comedy. In that work, he extensively used allegory to make his political statement. But in another piece, De Monarchia, Dante is more straightforward in his political beliefs. Dante was a Guelph, ostensibly a pro-papal position. Yet the actions of Boniface VIII and the resultant mob rule of the Blacks may have brought out more of the imperialist in the poet. In De Monarchia, Dante argues that “life under a monarchy is supremely free.” He is advocating imperialism, one not confined to a particular nation-state. (The concept of a nation-state would have been foreign to him anyway.) Dante perceived more of unified world order under one benevolent ruler, much in keeping with Plato’s ideal of the enlightened king. Power was to be concentrated in one individual. By removing divisions, wars and conflicts ended, and individuals could be free to learn and prosper.

Dante's exile, 14th century manuscript illumination

His experience as an exile tempered Dante’s views. The factional strife that divided not only Florence but all of the Italian peninsula was part of a broader thread that has run throughout history. It is the tension of two opposing philosophies on how we, as humans, should be ruled. We see this repeatedly, for example, with the dichotomy between Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. We see it today in the political arena between those who see authoritarianism as the answer to the world’s troubles and those who firmly believe in democracy. It comes down to what it means to be free and what we, as a society, will sacrifice for security, peace, and stability to prosper. Dante sought to offer his own answers, just like we do today.


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