In Italy the medieval struggle between popes and emperors had promoted the growth of independent communes or city-states, particularly in northern Italy. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the communes were oligarchic republics. The ruling oligarchies, however, were torn by the strife between the pro-papal Guelfs and the pro- imperial Ghibellines. Meantime, something close to class warfare arose between the wealthy, on the one hand, and the small shopkeepers and wage earners, on the other. Dissension grew so bitter that arbitrary one-man government seemed the only remedy.
Sometimes a despot seized power; sometimes he was invited in from outside by the contending factions; often he was a condottiere, a mercenary commander the states had hired under contract to fight their wars. One of the first great condottieri was an Englishman, Sir John Hawkwood, who as a soldier of fortune sold himself to various communes. In the fifteenth century the most celebrated condottieri were drawn from noble dynasties like the Gonzaga of Mantua, or were ambitious plebeians such as Francesco Sforza, who became duke of Milan (r. 1450-1466).
By the fifteenth century the fortunes of war and politics had worked significant changes in the map of Italy. Many city-states that had been important a century or two earlier were sinking into political obscurity. Several small states now dominated Italian politics— Naples in the south, the States of the Church in the center, and the duchy of Milan and the republics of Florence and Venice in the north.
The kingdom of Naples, which included Sicily, had long been subject to foreign domination. In 1266 Charles of Anjou conquered the territory. The kingdom of Sicily revolted (1282) and passed to the control of Aragon, and eventually to the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella. Naples remained under Angevin rule until 1435, when it was taken by Alfonso the Magnanimous of Aragon. On his death it became independent once more under his illegitimate son Ferrante (Ferdinand I, r. 1458-1494). Under Angevin and Aragonese rule the area never fully recovered the prosperity and cultural leadership it had earlier enjoyed.
The States of the Church also experienced a material decline in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. While the papacy was at Avignon, Rome passed to the control of rival princely families; outlying papal territories fell to local lords or despots. The angry Romans, determined to bring the papacy back to their city permanently, intimidated the French-dominated College of Cardinals into electing an Italian as Urban VI.
The new pope alarmed the cardinals by plans for drastic reform, and thirteen of them proceeded to declare his election invalid and chose a rival to rule the church from Avignon, “Clement VII” (r. 1378-1394). (The quotation marks indicate that he does not rank as a legitimate pope and distinguish him from the sixteenth-century Pope Clement VII.) These events inaugurated the Great Schism (1378-1417), when there were two popes, each with his own College of Cardinals—one at Rome, the other at Avignon.
Against the scandal of the Great Schism, the church rallied in the Conciliar movement, which began when both Colleges of Cardinals agreed to summon a general council of five hundred prelates and representatives from European states. The Council of Pisa (1409-1410) deposed both papal claimants and elected an Italian, “John XXIII” (r. 1410-1414). Since neither of the rival popes accepted the council’s actions, there was now a triple split. A second general council, meeting at Constance (1414-1417), finally ended the Great Schism and elected Martin V (r. 1417-1431), a Roman aristocrat, who restored the formal unity of Western Christendom.
On other issues, however, the Conciliar movement was less successful. The Council of Constance tried the Bohemian reformer Jan Hus (c. 1369-1415) for doctrinal heresy and had him burned at the stake in violation of a guarantee of his safety. The movement Hus had started continued until the Hussites were again granted communion at the Council of Basel in 1436. Neither this council nor its successors, which met sporadically until 1449, managed to purge the church of corruption and worldliness.
And their efforts to transform the papacy from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional one by making general councils a permanent feature of ecclesiastical government were thwarted. Nevertheless, important limitations were placed on the pope’s authority. A notable example was the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges, which in 1438 gave the Gallican church a large measure of autonomy.
With the Conciliar movement defeated, the popes concentrated once more on central Italy. Beginning with Sixtus IV (r. 1471-1484), the papacy was held by a series of ambitious men. They were often highly cultivated and very secular as well. They restored Rome as a center of art and learning and began the reconquest of the papal dominions outside Rome. A Spanish pope from the Borgia family, Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503), made notable progress in subjugating the lords of central Italy and breaking the power of the Roman princely families.
Alexander was greatly aided by his son, who employed violence, treachery, and poison to gain his ends. The most redoubtable of these condottieri popes was Julius II (r. 1503-1513). The pontificate of Julius II marked the summit of papal temporal power, which receded thereafter because of the wounds inflicted on the church by the Reformation and the damage sustained by Italy as the battleground in wars between the Habsburgs and France.