City-states in Italy

The typical 13th-century city-state was a republic administering a territory of dependent towns; whether it was a democracy is a question of definition. The idea of popular sovereignty existed in political thought and was reflected in the practice of calling a parlamento, or mass meeting, of the populace in times of emergency; but in none of the republics were the people as a whole admitted to regular participation in government. On the other hand, the 13th century saw the establishment, after considerable struggle, of assemblies in which some portion of the male citizenry, restricted by property and other qualifications, took part in debate, legislation, and the selection of officials. Most offices were filled by men serving on a rotating, short-term basis. If the almost universal obligation of service in the civic militia is also considered, it becomes clear that participation in the public life of the commune was shared by a considerable part of the male population, although the degree of participation varied from one commune to another and tended to decline. Most of the city republics were small enough (in 1300 Florence, one of the largest, had perhaps 100,000 people; Padua, nearer the average, had about 15,000) so that public business was conducted by and for citizens who knew each other, and civic issues were a matter of widespread and intense personal concern.

The darker side of this intense community life was conflict. It became a cliché of contemporary observers that when townsmen were not fighting their neighbours they were fighting each other. Machiavelli explained this as the result of the natural enmity between nobles and "the people - the former desiring to command, the latter unwilling to obey." This contains an essential truth: a basic problem was the unequal distribution of power and privilege, but the class division was further complicated by factional rivalry within the ruling groups and by ideological differences - Guelfism, or loyalty to the pope, versus Ghibellinism, or vassalage to the German emperors. The continuing leadership of the old knightly class, with its violent feudal ways and the persistence of a winner-take-all conception of politics, guaranteed bloody and devastating conflict. Losers could expect to be condemned to exile, with their houses burned and their property confiscated. Winners had to be forever vigilant against the unending conspiracies of exiles yearning to return to their homes and families.

During the 14th century a number of cities, despairing of finding a solution to the problem of civic strife, were turning from republicanism to signoria, the rule of one man. The signore, or lord, was usually a member of a local feudal family that was also a power in the commune; thus, lordship did not appear to be an abnormal development, particularly if the signore chose, as most did, to rule through existing republican institutions. Sometimes a signoria was established as the result of one noble faction's victory over another, while in a few cases a feudal noble who had been hired by the republic as its condottiere, or military captain, became its master. Whatever the process, hereditary lordship had become the common condition and free republicanism the exception by the late 14th century. Contrary to what Burckhardt believed, Italy in the 14th century had not shaken off feudalism. In the south, feudalism was entrenched in the loosely centralized Kingdom of Naples, successor state to the Hohenstaufen and Norman kingdoms. In central and northern Italy, feudal lordship and knightly values merged with medieval communal institutions to produce the typical state of the Renaissance. Where the nobles were excluded by law from political participation in the commune, as in the Tuscan cities of Florence, Siena, Pisa, and Lucca, parliamentary republicanism had a longer life; but even these bastions of liberty had intervals of disguised or open lordship. The great maritime republic of Venice reversed the usual process by increasing the powers of its councils at the expense of the doge (from Latin dux, "leader"). However, Venice never had a feudal nobility, only a merchant aristocracy that called itself noble and jealously guarded its hereditary sovereignty against incursions from below.