GUELPHS AND GHIBELLINES. These names are doubtless Italianized forms of the German words Welf and Waiblingen, although one tradition says that they are derived from Guelph and Gibel, two rival brothers of Pistoia. Another theory derives Ghibelline from Gibello, a word used by the Sicilian Arabs to translate Hohenstaufen. However, a more popular story tells how, during a fight around Weinsberg in December 1140 between the German king Conrad III. and Welf, count of Bavaria, a member of the powerful family to which Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony and Bavaria, belonged, the soldiers of the latter raised the cry “Hie Welf!” to which the king’s troops replied with “Hie Waiblingen!” this being the name of one of Conrad’s castles. But the rivalry between Welf and Hohenstaufen, of which family Conrad was a member, was anterior to this event, and had been for some years a prominent fact in the history of Swabia and Bavaria, although its introduction into Italy—in a slightly modified form, however—only dates from the time of the Italian expeditions of the emperor Frederick I. It is about this time that the German chronicler, Otto of Freising, says, “Duae in Romano orbe apud Galliae Germaniaeve fines famosae familiae actenus fuere, una Heinricorum de Gueibelinga, alia Guelforum de Aldorfo, altera imperatores, altera magnos duces producere solita.” Chosen German king in 1152, Frederick was not only the nephew and the heir of Conrad, he was related also to the Welfs; yet, although his election abated to some extent the rivalry between Welf and Hohenstaufen in Germany, it opened it upon a larger and fiercer scale in Italy.
During the long and interesting period covered by Frederick’s Italian campaigns, his enemies, prominent among whom were the cities of the Lombard League, became known as Welfs, or Guelphs, while his partisans seized upon the rival term of Waiblingen, or Ghibelline, and the contest between these two parties was carried on with a ferocity unknown even to the inhabitants of southern Germany. The distracted state of northern Italy, the jealousies between various pairs of towns, the savage hatred between family and family, were some of the causes which fed this feud, and it reached its height during the momentous struggle between Frederick II. and the Papacy in the 13th century. The story of the contest between Guelph and Ghibelline, however, is little less than the history of Italy in the middle ages. At the opening of the 13th century it was intensified by the fight for the German and imperial thrones between Philip, duke of Swabia, a son of Frederick I., and the Welf, Otto of Brunswick, afterwards the emperor Otto IV., a fight waged in Italy as well as in Germany. Then, as the heir of Philip of Swabia and the rival of Otto of Brunswick, Frederick II. was forced to throw himself into the arms of the Ghibellines, while his enemies, the popes, ranged themselves definitely among the Guelphs, and soon Guelph and Ghibelline became synonymous with supporter of pope and emperor.
After the death of Frederick II. in 1250 the Ghibellines looked for leadership to his son and successor, the German king, Conrad IV., and then to his natural son, Manfred, while the Guelphs called the French prince, Charles of Anjou, to their aid. But the combatants were nearing exhaustion, and after the execution of Conradin, the last of the Hohenstaufen, in 1268, this great struggle began to lose force and interest. Guelph and Ghibelline were soon found representing local and family rather than papal and imperial interests; the names were taken with little or no regard for their original significance, and in the 15th century they began to die out of current politics. However, when Louis XII. of France conquered Milan at the beginning of the 16th century the old names were revived; the French king’s supporters were called Guelphs and the friends of the emperor Maximilian I. were referred to as Ghibellines.
The feud of Guelph and Ghibelline penetrated within the walls of almost every city of northern Italy, and the contest between the parties, which practically makes the history of Florence during the 13th century, is specially noteworthy. First one side and then the other was driven into exile; the Guelph defeat at the battle of Monte Aperto in 1260 was followed by the expulsion of the Ghibellines by Charles of Anjou in 1266, and on a smaller scale a similar story may be told of many other cities (see Florence).
The Guelph cause was buttressed by an idea, yet very nebulous, of Italian patriotism. Dislike of the German and the foreigner rather than any strong affection for the Papacy was the feeling which bound the Guelph to the pope, and so enabled the latter to defy the arms of Frederick II. The Ghibelline cause, on the other hand, was aided by the dislike of the temporal power of the pope and the desire for a strong central authority. This made Dante a Ghibelline, but the hopes of this party, kindled anew by the journey of Henry VII. to Italy in 1310, were extinguished by his departure. J. A. Symonds thus describes the constituents of the two parties: “The Guelph party meant the burghers of the consular Communes, the men of industry and commerce, the upholders of civil liberty, the friends of democratic expansion. The Ghibelline party included the naturalized nobles, the men of arms and idleness, the advocates of feudalism, the politicians who regarded constitutional progress with disfavour. That the banner of the church floated over the one camp, while the standard of the empire rallied to itself the hostile party, was a matter of comparatively superficial moment.” In another passage the same writer thus describes the sharp and universal division between Guelph and Ghibelline: “Ghibellines wore the feathers in their caps upon one side, Guelphs upon the other. Ghibellines cut fruit at table crosswise, Guelphs straight down ... Ghibellines drank out of smooth and Guelphs out of chased goblets. Ghibellines wore white and Guelphs red roses.” It is interesting to note that while Dante was a Ghibelline, Petrarch was a Guelph.
See J. A. Symonds, The Renaissance in Italy, vol. i. (1875).