In the 1200s the Italian peninsula was divided into numerous autonomous states with an extreme variety of political institutions and juridical structures, particularly manifest in the relationships between city-states and surrounding territories. (Florence, for example, which possessed the greatest political and financial strength, controlled a rather limited region and was in constant strife with neighbors such as Arezzo, Pistoia, Lucca, Pisa and Siena.) Indeed, areas of influence and jurisdiction often overlapped in the same centers. Even the smallest social groups had their own specific identity and a certain measure of autonomy. What is more, each individual political entity tended to create its own institutions and acted in accord with or aggressively against other groups. The extreme complexity of such relationships makes it difficult to extrapolate any general socio-political reality of thirteenth-century Italian city-states as a whole. The wars and skirmishes between city-states, individual factions and feudal powers were innumerable. The parties which were in contention over power centers often tended toward mutual annihilation: the losers were exiled, their goods confiscated, their homes destroyed; but in exile, in order to recuperate their power, they made alliances with parties of nearby cities and waged war against their own fatherland. Such behavior created incessant chains of violence and cruelty.
In the first phase of conflict between Frederick II and the Church, two parties formed throughout Italy. These two parties, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, extensively influenced European policy and helped to characterize the whole of the century's history. The motivations underlying the formation of alliances within the two groups, however, cannot be easily summarized due to the idiosyncratic and often contradictory motives of the combatants which ranged from dynastic pride to personal desire for revenge, from economical reasons to political strategies. Often, in the centers in which one of the factions was beaten and utterly destroyed, new factions would spring up among the winners and the fighting would break out anew, bringing even further destruction.
In addition to the Church-Empire dichotomy, the struggle between the classes contributed to foster antagonism between rivals as well. In these confrontations, the established nobility (the magnati, or the grandi ) was pitted against the emerging class of artisans and merchants (the popolo ) who aimed to do away with the privileges and institutions of the nobles and to assume full political power to the complete exclusion of the landed aristocracy. Moreover, the division between merchants and nobles does not wholly coincide with any specific factional lines given the highly heterogeneous nature of ambitions and aspirations. The groups which fought against one another did so largely within the sphere of the feudal tradition and aligned themselves according to shared goals, traditions and hierarchies considered by the participants to be indisputable. In late thirteenth-century Florence, where social mobility was markedly healthier, these divisions lent particular strength to the nascent popolo which consequently elaborated innovative institutions. (Go to 14th Century.)
(G.M., M.P.) Ferroni, Giulio. Storia della letteratura italiana, vol. I "Dalle origini al Quattrocento" (Turin: Einaudi, 1991).