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Medieval Italian Cities
In the days of the Roman Empire, Italy had been a country of excellent cities. Following the decay of the Empire and the coming of the Lombards, these cities went into decline. However, something of the old character of the Roman administration must have remained, for feudalism never got a firm grip upon Italy and was thrown off by that country first and with ease. In the 9th century, Italian cities surrounded themselves with walls for defense. Their government was in the hands of bishops.

In the 11th century, the cities threw off the rule of the bishops and constituted themselves as communes, headed by elective consuls (consuls first appeared in Asti in 1095). Consuls, varying in number from 2 to 20, were the executives. An elected council (credenza) was an advisory body. The parliament (parlamentum, concio) was a gathering of all the citizens - really a mob. Although this organisation looks modern and democratic, it was weakened through the persistence of local, class feuds. Every town had its noble class, its bourgeois proprietor class, and its proletariat.

Emperor Frederick Barbarossa tried to break up the Italian communes, but was defeated by them at Legnano in 1176 and was compelled to grant them independence at Constance in 1183.

To reduce local feuds, cities (after 1200) appointed an official called podestā (from potestas, power). The Podestās were chief magistrates with very wide powers. To secure some representation for themselves, the guilds now formed organisations which were called commune de popolo (people's commune), headed by the capitano del popolo (captain of the people). Whereupon civil war usually broke out within the cities. The party of the podestā sought support from the Emperor and called itself Ghibelline. The popular party clung to the Pope and called itself Guelf.

Civil wars lasted until 1300, when most cities had lost their liberties and were ruled by tyrants.

Contributed by Gifford, Katya
11 July 2001

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