In his 2013 novel Inferno, Dan Brown mentions the struggle between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines.
As it was so important for both Medieval Florence and the life of poet Dante Alighieri, we want to briefly explain what this opposition was about.
The terms Guelph and Ghibelline appeared in Florence around 1240. They then spread to Tuscany and throughout Italy.
The term “Guelph” originally referred to the Welfen dynasty, Dukes of Bavaria and Saxony. The term “Ghibelline” referred instead to the Hohenstaufen, Dukes of Swabia and lords of the Weiblingen castle.
At that time, Europe was impacted by an ideological, economic, and political conflict between the Empire—incarnated by Frederick II of Swabia and his successors—and the Church, incarnated by Pope Gregory IX and later by Pope Innocent IV.
We have to remember that Frederick II was King of Sicily (1198–1250), as well as King of Germany from 1212 and then Holy Roman Emperor. The title of Holy Roman Emperor was held in conjunction with the rule of Germany and northern Italy.
Both Frederick II and the Pope wanted universal power.
The Guelphs sided with the Church, while the Ghibellines sided with the Empire.
The struggle between these two forces gave rise to a series of conflicts and alliances among Italian cities, since some sided with the emperor and others with the Pope.
The same city often changed sides, depending on who took power. Members of the opposing faction were also often exiled after a revolution of power, just like Dante.
Sometimes, there could also be different Guelf and Ghibelline factions in the same city.
For example, in Florence after the fall of the Ghibellines, the Guelphs divided into the White Guelphs and Black Guelphs. Dante belonged to the White Guelphs.
In general, the Guelphs were more often victorious. Also, in 1266, the Capetian House of Anjou, which belonged to the Guelph party, took the crown of Sicily.
In any case, Guelph and Ghibelline membership quickly changed from its original meaning and in each city often pointed to a choice according to specific economic interests.
In the middle of the fourteenth century, the jurist Bartolo da Sassoferrato wrote an essay on this issue and said that the two labels were no longer linked to the pope and the emperor so that even an opponent of the Church could define himself as a Guelph and vice versa.
Also, the same person could define himself as a Guelph in one place and as a Ghibelline in another.
The original religious and ideological clash still gave the fight between the two factions an iconography (see the imperial eagle on one side and Christian symbols on the other), as well as a sort of mythology from which propaganda could draw.
Picture by Wikipedia.