1902 Encyclopedia > Italy > Italian History - The German Emperors

(Part 33)


Italian History - The German Emperors

Berengar gained nothing by his act of obedience to Otto. The great Italian nobles, in their turn, appealed to Germany. Otto entered Lombardy in 961, deposed Berengar, assumed the crown in St Ambrogio at Milan, and in 962 was proclaimed emperor by John XII. at Rome. Henceforward Italy changed masters according as one or other of the German families assumed supremacy beyond the Alps. It is one of the strongest instances furnished by history of the fascination exercised by an idea that the Italians themselves should have grown to glory in this dependence of their nation upon Caesars who had nothing but a name in common with the Roman Imperator of the past.

The first thing we have to notice in this revolution which placed Otto the Great upon the imperial throne is that the Italian kingdom, founded by the Lombards, recognized by the Franks, and recently claimed by eminent Italian feudatories, virtually ceased to exist. It was merged in the German kingdom; and, since for the German princes Germany was of necessity their first care, Italy from this time forward began to be left more and more to herself. The central authority of Pavia had always been weak; the regno had proved insufficient to combine the nation. But now even that shadow of union disappeared, and the Italians were abandoned to the slowly working influences which tended to divide them into separate states. The most brilliant period of their chequered history, the period which includes the rise of communes, the exchange of municipal liberty for despotism, and the gradual discrimination of the five great powers (Milan, Venice, Florence, the Papacy, and the kingdom of Naples), now begins. Among the centrifugal forces which determined the future of the Italian race must be reckoned, first and foremost, the new spirit of municipal independence. We have seen how the cities enclosed themselves with walls, and how the bishops defined their authority against that of the counts. Otto encouraged this revolution by placing the enclosures of the chief burghs beyond the jurisdiction of the counts. Within those precincts the bishops and the citizens were independent of all feudal masters but the emperor. He further broke the power of the great vassals by redivisions of their feuds, and by the creation of new marches which he assigned to his German followers. In this way, owing to the dislocation of the ancient aristocracy, to the enlarged jurisdiction of a power so democratic as the episcopate, and to the increased privileges of the burghs, feudalism received a powerful check in Italy. The Italian people, that people which gave to the world the commerce and the arts of Florence, was not indeed as yet apparent. But the conditions under which it could arise, casting from itself all foreign and feudal trammels, recognizing its true past in ancient Rome, and reconstructing a civility out of the ruins of those glorious memories, were now at last granted. The nobles from this time forward retired into the country and the mountains, fortified themselves in strong places outside the cities, and gave their best attention to fostering the rural population. Within the cities and upon the open lands the Italians, in this and the next century, doubled, trebled, and quadrupled their numbers. A race was formed strong enough to keep the empire itself in check, strong enough, except for its own internecine contests, to have formed a nation equal to its happier neighbours.

The recent scandals of the papacy induced Otto to deprive the Romans of their right to elect popes. But when he died in 973, his son Otto II. (married to Theophano of the imperial Byzantine house) and his grandson, Otto III., who descended into Italy in 996, found that the affairs of Rome and of the southern provinces were more than even their imperial powers could cope with. The faction of the counts of Tusculum raised its head from time to time in the Eternal City, and Rome still claimed to be a commonwealth. Otto III.'s untimely death in 1002 introduced new discords. Rome fell once more into the hands of her nobles. The Lombards chose Ardoin, marquis of Ivrea, for king, and Pavia supported his claims against those of Henry of Bavaria, who had been elected in Germany. Milan sided with Henry; and this is perhaps the first eminent instance of cities being reckoned powerful allies in the Italian disputes of sovereigns. It is also the first instance of that bitter feud between the two great capitals of Lombardy, a feud rooted in ancient antipathies between the Roman population of Mediolanum and the Lombard garrison of Alboin's successors, which proved so disastrous to the national cause. Ardoin retired to a monastery, where he died in 1015. Henry nearly destroyed Pavia, was crowned in Rome, and died in 1024. After this event Heribert, the archbishop of Milan, invited Conrad, the Franconian king of Germany, into Italy, and crowned him with the iron crown of the kingdom.

The intervention of this man, Heribert, compels us to turn a closer glance upon the cities of North Italy. It is here, at the present epoch and for the next two centuries, that the pith and nerve of the Italian nation must be sought; and among the burghs of Lombardy, Milan, the eldest daughter of ancient Rome, assumes the lead. In Milan we hear for the first time the word Gomune. In Milan the citizens first form themselves into a Parlamento. In Milan the archbishop organizes the hitherto voiceless, defenceless population into a community capable of expressing its needs, and an army ready to maintain its rights. To Heribert is attributed the invention of the Garroccio, which played so singular and important a part in the warfare of Italian cities. A huge car drawn by oxen, bearing the standard of the burgh, and carrying an altar with the host, this carroccio, like the ark of the Israelites, formed a rallying point in battle, and reminded the armed artisans that they had a city and a church to fight for. That Heribert's device proved effectual in raising the spirit of his burghers, and consolidating them into a formidable band of warriors, is shown by the fact that it was speedily adopted in all the free cities. It must not, however, be supposed that at this epoch the liberties of the burghs were fully developed. The mass of the people remained unrepresented in the government; and even if the consuls existed in the days of Heribert, they were but humble legal officers, transacting business for their constituents in the courts of the bishop and his viscount. It still needed nearly a century of struggle to render the burghers independent of lordship, with a fully organized commune, self-governed in its several assemblies. While making these reservations, it is at the same time right to observe that certain Italian communities were more advanced upon the path of independence than others. This is specially the case with the maritime ports. Not to mention Venice, which has not yet entered the Italian community, and remains a Greek free city, Genoa and Pisa were rapidly rising into ill-defined autonomy. Their command of fleets gave them incontestable advantages, as when, for instance, Otto II. employed the Pisans in 980 against the Greeks in Lower Italy, and the Pisans and Genoese together attacked the Saracens of Sardinia in 1017. Still, speaking generally, the age of independence for the burghs had only begun when Heribert from Milan undertook the earliest organization of a force that was to become paramount in peace and war.

Next to Milan, and from the point of view of general politics even more than Milan, Rome now claims attention. The destinies of Italy depended upon the character which the see of St Peter should assume. Even the liberties of her republics in the north hung on the issue of a contest which in the 11th and 12th centuries shook Europe to its furthest boundaries. So fatally were the internal affairs of that magnificent but unhappy country bound up with concerns which brought the forces of the civilized world into play. Her ancient prestige, her geographical position, and the intellectual primacy of her most noble children rendered Italy the battleground of principles that set all Christendom in motion, and by the clash of which she found herself for ever afterwards divided. During the reign of Conrad II., the party of the counts of Tusculum revived in Rome ; and Crescentius, claiming the title of consul in the imperial city, sought once more to control the election of the popes. When Henry III., the son of Conrad, entered Italy in 1046, he found three popes in Rome. These he abolished, and, taking the appointment into his own hands, gave German bishops to the see. The policy thus initiated upon the precedent laid down by Otto the Great was a remedy for pressing evils. It saved Rome from becoming a duchy in the hands of the Tusculan house. But it neither raised the prestige of the papacy, nor could it satisfy the Italians, who rightly regarded the Roman see as theirs. These German popes were short-lived and inefficient. Their appointment, according to notions which defined themselves within the church at this epoch, was simoniacal; and during the long minority of Henry IV., who succeeded his father in 1056, the terrible Tuscan monk, Hildebrand of Soana, forged weapons which he used with deadly effect against the presumption of the empire. The condition of the church seemed desperate, unless it could be purged of crying scandals—of the subjection of the papacy to the great Roman nobles, of its subordination to the German emperor, and of its internal demoralization. It was Hildebrand's policy throughout three papacies, during which he controlled the counsels of the Vatican, and before he himself assumed the tiara, to prepare the mind of Italy and Europe for a mighty change. His programme included these three points :o—(1) the celibacy of the clergy; (2) the abolition of ecclesiastical appointments made by the secular authority; (3) the vesting of the papal election in the hands of the Roman clergy and people, presided over by the curia of cardinals. How Hildebrand paved the way for these reforms during the pontificates of Nicholas II. and Alexander II., how he succeeded in raising the papal office from the depths of 'degradation and subjection to illimitable sway over the minds of men in Europe, and how his warfare with the empire established on a solid basis the still doubtful independence of the Italian burghs, renewing the long neglected protectorate of the Italian race, and bequeathing to his successors a national policy which had been forgotten by the popes since his great predecessor Gregory II., forms a chapter in European history which must now be interrupted. We have to follow the fortunes of unexpected allies, upon whom in no small measure his success depended.

In order to maintain some thread of continuity through the perplexed and tangled vicissitudes of the Italian race, it has been necessary to disregard those provinces which did not immediately contribute to the formation of its history. For this reason we have left the whole of the south up to the present point unnoticed. Sicily in the hands of the Mussulmans, the Theme of Lombardy abandoned to the weak suzerainty of the Greek catapans, the Lombard duchy of Benevento slowly falling to pieces, and the maritime republics of Naples, Gaeta, and Amalfi extending their influence by commerce in the Mediterranean, were in effect detached from the Italian regno, beyond the jurisdiction of Rome, included in no parcel of Italy proper. But now the moment had arrived when this vast group of provinces, forming the future kingdom of the Two Sicilies, was about to enter definitely and decisively within the bounds of the Italian community. Some Norman adventurers, on pilgrimage to St Michael's shrine on Monte Gargano, lent their swords in 1017 to the Lombard cities of Apulia against the Greeks. Twelve years later we find the Normans settled at Aversa under their Count Rainulf. From this station as a centre the little band of adventurers, playing the Greeks off against the Lombards, and the Lombards against the Greeks, spread, their power in all directions, until they made themselves the most considerable force in southern Italy. William of Hauteville was proclaimed count of Apulia. His half-brother, Robert Wiskard or Guiscard, after defeating the papal troops at Civitella in 1053, received from Leo IX. the investiture of all present and future conquests in Apulia, Calabria, and Sicily, which he agreed to hold as fiefs of the Holy See. Nicholas II. ratified this grant, and confirmed the title of count. Having consolidated their possessions on the mainland, the Normans, under Robert Guiscard's brother, the great Count Roger, undertook the conquest of Sicily in 1060. After a prolonged struggle of thirty years, they wrested the whole island from the Saracens; and Roger, dying in 1101, bequeathed to his son Roger a kingdom in Calabria and Sicily second to none in Europe for wealth and magnificence. This while, the elder branch of the Hauteville family still held the title and domains of the Apulian duchy; but in 1127, upon the death of his cousin Duke William, Roger united the whole of the future realm. In 1130 he assumed the style of king of Sicily, inscribing upon his sword the famous hexameter—

Appulus et Calaber Siculus mihi servit et Afer.

This Norman conquest of the two Sicilies forms the most romantic episode in mediaeval Italian history. By the consolidation of Apulia, Calabria, and Sicily into a powerful kingdom, by checking the growth of the maritime republics, and by recognizing the over-lordship of the papal see, the house of Hauteville influenced the destinies of Italy with more effect than any of the princes who had previously dealt with any portion of the peninsula. Their kingdom, though Naples was from time to time separated from Sicily, never quite lost the cohesion they had given it; and all the disturbances of equilibrium in Italy were due iu after days to papal manipulation of the rights acquired by Robert Guiscard's act of homage. The southern regno, in the hands of the popes, proved an insurmountable obstacle to the unification of Italy, led to French interference in Italian affairs, introduced the Spaniard, and maintained in those rich southern provinces the reality of feudal sovereignty long after this alien element had been eliminated from the rest of Italy.

For the sake of clearness, we have anticipated the course of events by nearly a century. We must now return to the date of Hildebrand's elevation to the papacy in 1073, when he chose the memorable name of Gregory VII. In the next year after his election Hildebrand convened a council, and passed measures enforcing the celibacy of the clergy. In 1075 he caused the investiture of ecclesiastical dignitaries by secular potentates of any degree to be condemned. These two reforms, striking at the most cherished privileges and most deeply-rooted self-indulgences of the aristocratic caste in Europe, inflamed the bitterest hostility. Henry IV., king of Germany, but not crowned emperor, convened a diet in the following year at Worms, where Gregory was deposed and excommunicated. The pope followed with a counter excommunication, far more formidable, releasing the king's subjects from their oaths of allegiance. War was thus declared between the two chiefs of Western Christendom, that war of investitures which outlasted the lives of both Gregory and Henry, and was not terminated till the year 1122. The dramatic episodes of this struggle are too well known to be enlarged upon. In his single-handed duel with the strength of Germany, Gregory received material assistance from the Countess Matilda of Tuscany. She was the last heiress of the great house of Canossa, whose fiefs stretched from Mantua across Lombardy, passed the Apennines, included the Tuscan plains, and embraced a portion of the duchy of Spoleto. It was in her castle of Canossa that Henry IV. performed his three days' penance in the winter of 1077; and there she made the cession of her vast domains to the church. That cession, renewed after the death of Gregory to his successors, conferred upon the popes indefinite rights, of which they afterwards availed themselves in the consolidation of their temporal power. Matilda died in the year 1115. Gregory had passed before her from the scene of his contest, an exile at Salerno, whither Robert Wiskard carried him in 1084 from the anarchy of rebellious Rome. With unbroken spirit, though the objects of his life were unattained, though Italy and Europe had been thrown into confusion, and the issue of the conflict was still doubtful, Gregory expired in 1085 with these words on his lips : "I loved justice, I hated iniquity, therefore in banishment I die."

The greatest of the popes thus breathed his last; but the new spirit he had communicated to the papacy was not destined to expire with him. Gregory's immediate successors, Victor III., Urban II., and Paschal II., carried on his struggle with Henry IV. and his imperial anti-popes, encouraging the emperor's son to rebel against him, and stirring up Europe for the first crusade. When Henry IV. died, his own son's prisoner, in 1106, Henry V. crossed the Alps, entered Rome, wrung the imperial coronation from Paschal II., and compelled the pope to grant his claims on the investitures. Scarcely had he returned to Germany when the Lateran disavowed all that the pope had done, on the score that it had been extorted by force. France sided with the church. Germany rejected the bull of investiture. A new descent into Italy, a new seizure of Rome, proved of no avail. The emperor's real weakness was in Germany, where his subjects openly expressed their discontent. He at last abandoned the contest which had distracted Europe. By the concordat of Worms, 1122, the emperor surrendered the right of investiture by ring and staff, and granted the right of election to the clergy. The popes were henceforth to be chosen by the cardinals, the bishops by the chapters subject to the pope's approval. On the other hand the pope ceded to the emperor the right of investiture by the sceptre. But the main issue of the struggle was not in these details of ecclesiastical government ; principles had been at stake far deeper and more widely reaching. The respective relations of pope and emperor, ill-defined in the compact between Charles the Great and Leo III., were brought in question, and the two chief potentates of Christendom, no longer tacitly concordant, stood against each other in irreconcilable rivalry. Upon this point, though the battle seemed to be a drawn one, the popes were really victors. They remained independent of the emperor, but the emperor had still to seek the crown at their hands. The pretensions of Otto the Great and Henry III. to make popes were gone for ever.

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