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(1) An organ of municipal self-government in Italian communes of the 13th and 14th centuries; also called priorato.
(2) A synonym for tyranny; a political system in a number of city-states in northern and central Italy from the mid-13th to the mid-16th century. All civil and military power was concentrated in the hands of one ruler—the signor (tyrant). The transition from the elective joint government of the commune to the signory took place amid a bitter and inconclusive struggle between the popolani and feudal lords. The struggle eventually led to the establishment of dictatorships that supported the interests of both the leaders of the popolani and the feudal lords, for example, the Visconti in Milan, or of the feudal lords alone, for example, the house of Este in Ferrara.
The signor received full power with the title of vicar, which was conferred by the pope or the Holy Roman Emperor. Initially the dictatorship of a tyrant was established for life; it later became hereditary. Supported by moderately powerful and minor feudal lords, the signors protected trade and industry, restricted the rights of major feudal lords and the clergy and the privileges of certain cities, and introduced uniform systems of laws and taxation.
Although the real power was in the hands of the signors and their councils, the commune members were only gradually replaced by the signors’ appointed officials. By the mid-15th century, many signories were absorbed by larger ones as a result of continuous wars. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the rulers of the larger signories were granted the titles of duke and marquis; thus the duchies of Milan, Tuscany, and Ferrara and the mar-quisate of Mantua were formed.
E. V. BERNADSKAIA