Guelphs and Ghibellines

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Guelphs and Ghibellines

(gwĕlfs, gĭb`əlēnz, –lĭnz), opposing political factions in Germany and in Italy during the later Middle Ages. The names were used to designate the papal (Guelph) party and the imperial (Ghibelline) party during the long struggle between popes and emperors, and they were also used in connection with the rivalry of two princely houses of Germany, the Welfs or Guelphs, who were dukes of Saxony and Bavaria, and the HohenstaufenHohenstaufen
, German princely family, whose name is derived from the castle of Staufen built in 1077 by a Swabian count, Frederick. In 1079, Frederick married Agnes, daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, and was created duke of Swabia.
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 (the name Ghibelline is supposedly derived from Waiblingen, a Hohenstaufen castle). The rivalry between the German families, both of which had large holdings in Swabia, dates from their rise to power under Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. The struggle began in earnest with Henry the ProudHenry the Proud,
c.1108–1139, duke of Bavaria (1126–38) and of Saxony (1137–38). A member of the Guelph family, he inherited the duchy of Bavaria and enormous private wealth.
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 and his son and successor, Henry the LionHenry the Lion,
1129–95, duke of Saxony (1142–80) and of Bavaria (1156–80); son of Henry the Proud. His father died (1139) while engaged in a war to regain his duchies, and it was not until 1142 that Henry the Lion became duke of Saxony.
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, and last flared up with the election of Otto IVOtto IV,
1175?–1218, Holy Roman emperor (1209–15) and German king, son of Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony. He was brought up at the court of his uncle King Richard I of England, who secured his election (1198) as antiking to Philip of Swabia after the death of Holy
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 as Holy Roman emperor. In Italy the party names were perpetuated by two rival factions that for many years plunged the country into internal warfare. The names were first used in 13th-century Florence to designate the supporters of Otto IV (a Guelph) and the Hohenstaufen Frederick II (a Ghibelline). The terms, however, soon lost their original significance. Among the Ghibellines were Ezzelino da RomanoEzzelino da Romano
, 1194–1259, Italian Ghibelline leader (see Guelphs and Ghibellines) and soldier. After 1232 a faithful supporter of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II against the pope, he held Verona, Vicenza, Padua, and other cities.
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, Castruccio CastracaniCastracani, Castruccio
, 1281–1328, duke of Lucca. His early life was spent in exile. After his return he was made captain (1316), then lord of Lucca (1320) for life. In the political wars that plagued Italy in the 14th cent.
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, Della Scala of VeronaVerona
, city (1991 pop. 255,824), capital of Verona prov., Venetia, NE Italy, on the Adige River. It is a transportation junction and a major industrial and agricultural center, with noted annual agricultural fairs.
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, the MontefeltroMontefeltro
, Italian noble family. Its members were noted patrons of art and traditionally opposed the papacy in the struggle between Guelphs and Ghibellines. The county of Montefeltro (created c.1154) included parts of Romagna, the Marches, and San Marino.
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 family of Urbino, and the Visconti family of Milan (although Milan itself was Guelph). Unlike the noble families, towns seldom had fixed party loyalties, although Milan, Florence, and Genoa were usually Guelph; Cremona, Pisa, and Arezzo were usually Ghibelline. Venice remained neutral. In Rome the Ghibellines were represented by the pope's enemies, notably the Colonna family, and by the republicans. In S Italy the terms were rarely used, although the Angevin kings of Naples were strongly Guelph. In Florence, after the Ghibellines had finally been expelled in the late 13th cent., the Guelphs soon divided into Blacks and Whites. By the 15th cent. the names fell into disuse. At no time did either party clearly represent any particular political doctrine or social class.


See O. Browning, Guelphs and Ghibellines (1894); T. F. Tout, The Empire and the Papacy, 918–1273 (8th ed. 1924, repr. 1965); R. E. Herzstein, ed., The Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages (1966).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Guelphs and Ghibellines


(Italian, Guelfi and Ghibel-lini), political factions in Italy in the 12th to 15th centuries that arose in connection with the attempts of the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire to consolidate their domination in the Apennine Peninsula. The Guelphs took their name from the Welfs, dukes of Bavaria and Saxony and rivals of the German dynasty of Hohenstaufens. They united the opponents of the empire (primarily tradesmen and craftsmen) under the banner of the pope in Rome. The Ghibellines apparently took their name from Waiblingen, the ancestral castle of the Hohenstaufens. They united the supporters of the emperor (chiefly the nobility). The programs of these factions became complicated and arbitrary in the course of the struggle. Their social composition also changed, and the orientation of individual social strata depended to a considerable degree on specific circumstances. Thus, in Bologna, Milan, and Florence the tradesmen and craftsmen adhered to the program of the Guelphs, and the nobility adhered to that of the Ghibellines. However, in Pisa, Siena, and a number of other cities the tradesmen and craftsmen joined the camp of the Ghibellines. This is explained by the fact that in rival cities the tradesmen and craftsmen adhered to the program of the Guelphs.

On the whole, however, the enmity of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines reflected profound contradictions between the circles of tradesmen and craftsmen and the feudal nobility. This social antagonism became confused with the struggle of the cities for independence from the empire, the papacy, and foreign states. From the 14th century in Florence and several other Tuscan cities the Guelphs divided into the Blacks and the Whites. The Blacks united elements of the nobility, while the Whites became the “party” of the wealthy townsmen. The White Guelphs had real power in Florence, and they had their own palace, which has survived to this day. The weakening of the political role of the empire and papacy in the 15th century brought the end of the struggle of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines.


Batkin, L. M. “O sushchnosti bor’by gvel’fov i gibellinov v Italii.” In the collection Iz istorii trudiashchikhsia mass Italii. Moscow, 1959.
Gukovskii, M. A. Ital’ianskoe Vozrozhdenie, vol. 1. Leningrad, 1947.
Rutenburg, V. I. Narodnye dvizheniia v gorodakh Italii: XIV-nach. XV vv. Moscow-Leningrad, 1958. Pages 145-66.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Guelphs and Ghibellines

perennial medieval Italian feuding political factions. [Ital. Hist.: Plumb, 42–43]
See: Rivalry
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Santagata gives a thorough rendering of the strife between the Guelf and Ghibelline factions in Dante's Italy, the former the party of the pope, the latter that of the Holy Roman Emperor, the conflict having begun, in Italy, during the reign of Frederick I (1152-1190) of the House of Hohenstaufen.
This theme, which not long ago deserved the attention of political scientists such as Hendrik Spruyt, is closely connected with the problem of factions: in particular with the survival of the Guelf and Ghibelline parties, whose relevance to the Italian political system during the Renaissance has been pointed out in several recent studies.
This overview is also useful for understanding the historical matrix from which emerged Dante's Comedy, a work which may also be read as coming out of the tradition of tenzoni or "paper wars" waged between Guelf and Ghibelline poets.