In this page:
The Papacy in the Hands of Two Families
The Investiture Controversy
Attempts to Form a Municipal Power in Rome
Pope Alexander III and Emperor Frederick Barbarossa
Emperor Otto III and Pope Sylvester II's dream of re-establishing a universal empire on the hills of Rome vanished
in 1001, when they were forced to flee the Eternal City, due to a rebellion of its citizens led by Gregory, Count of Tusculum, an ancient town above Frascati. Otto died a few months later while he was
trying to conquer Rome. Sylvester II managed to return to Rome where he died in May 1003 under mysterious circumstances. He was buried in S. Giovanni in Laterano:
his bones were said to crackle and the tomb marble inscription was said to sweat when a pope was close to death.
Henry II, the new emperor, cousin of Otto III, was too busy trying to consolidate his power in Germany to interfere with Roman affairs. The Crescenzi family were behind the election of the three popes who were appointed after Sylvester II, but in 1012 the Counts of Tusculum installed their candidate (the son of the ruling count) and for more than thirty years the papal throne was occupied by members of that family: Benedict IX, one of these popes, is remembered because he was pope three times: elected a first time in 1032, he was forced to flee Rome in 1044 and to eventually agree on a sort of abdication; he was installed again as pope in 1045, but he sold his title after just 21 days; he returned to the papal throne in 1047, but in 1048 he had to leave it at the request of Emperor Henry III, who had greatly reduced the power of both the Crescenzi and the Counts of Tusculum.
S. Giovanni in Laterano: coat of arms of Pope Sergius IV designed by Francesco Borromini
During this period of turmoil an event took place which in the
long run would have far reaching consequences, in a way still influencing us today, almost one thousand years later.
In 1009 the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah profaned the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The pope at that time was Sergius IV, regarded as a puppet in the hands of the Crescenzi. He is thought to have issued a bull (a papal edict) calling for the liberation of Jerusalem.
Pope Alexander VII was appointed in 1655 and soon after he commissioned to Francesco Borromini a new tomb for Pope Sergius IV, who had been buried in the floor of S. Giovanni in Laterano. The decision had some political motivations: the Ottomans, after having occupied several towns on the island of Candia (Crete) in 1645-48, were trying to seize its capital: the pope sent ships and supplies to help the Venetians and he asked the Christian nations to do the same: for this reason he thought it necessary to honour his predecessor who first had called for a united action against the Muslim threat. Pope Sergius IV had very humble origins and at that time very few families had a coat of arms, so Borromini created a crest for him. His family name was Bocca di Porco (pig's mouth), a not very appropriate name for a pope, so he was renamed Boccapecora (sheep's mouth) and a sheep was placed in the upper part of the coat of arms; the lower part was decorated with six stars (a heraldic symbol of Pope Alexander VII, whose six mountains and a star were placed at the sides of the coat of arms).
In 1049 Emperor Henry III enforced the election of Pope Leo IX, an appointment which was well received by the Romans: at the request of the emperor, the new pope started a process of reformation of the Church and in particular of the rules to be followed for the papal election, which was completed by his immediate successors. The emperor wanted
to free the papal election from the undue meddling of the most powerful Roman families, but eventually
the rules which were established reduced also the influence of the emperor in the matter.
Pope Nicholas II (1059-61) decreed that the election of the pope should be reserved to the cardinal deacons, whose choice was then submitted for the approval of the other cardinals: the pope was to be considered regularly appointed even though he would not have taken possession of his charge as Bishop of Rome (see a page on the papal transition process). With relatively minor changes this process is still used for the papal election.
At the death of Pope Nicholas II the imperial court (Emperor Henry IV was still a boy) tried to interfere with the election of the new pope, but the cardinals who had appointed Pope Alexander II, maintained their position and the German clergy supported it. The candidate chosen by the court had to give in.
Pope Gregory VII (1073-85) continued the reformation process started by his predecessors and in 1074 he took a strong stance against married bishops and priests. The celibacy of the clergy was loosely complied with, especially north of the Alps, where many members of the clergy were appointed by the emperor.
By condemning the married priests Gregory automatically interfered with the imperial prerogatives: the investiture controversy had begun. Gregory excommunicated the emperor who had not stopped appointing new bishops. He sought the help of Matilda, Countess of Tuscany and in January 1077, while staying at her castle of Canossa, he imposed on Henry (who had arrived at the castle walls) three days of penance outside the castle gates, prior to uplifting the excommunication.
S. Pietro: relief in the monument to Matilda of Canossa designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and executed
by Stefano Speranza: Emperor Henry IV kisses the slipper of Pope Gregory VII in the presence of Countess Matilda
The first monument erected in S. Pietro was dedicated to Matilda, countess of Tuscany, whose possessions included also
Reggio, Modena, Mantua, Brescia, and Ferrara. In 1633 Pope Urban VIII arranged the transporting of her body from Mantua to Rome and he commissioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini to design a
monument to be placed along one of the minor naves. At that time Europe was torn by the
Thirty Years' War (1618-48), a conflict between Protestants and Catholics: in the first phases of the war Bohemia had been returned to the Catholic faith,
but the Swedish intervention in 1630 opened a new phase of the conflict.
By honouring Countess Matilda (Bernini portrayed her with a staff in hand), Pope Urban VIII meant to endorse the concept itself of religion war. A second political motivation in the pope's choice was related to the assumed testament of Matilda, according to which she had bequeathed her possessions to the Church. The pope was at loggerheads with the Farnese family who denied the papal rights to the Duchy of Castro and that of Parma: the celebratory inscription at the base of the monument explicitly (Liberalitate Celeberrimae) makes reference to her testament, which was seen as supporting the papal point of view.
A third reason behind the monument had to do with artistic aspects. Pope Urban VIII had reserved to his own monument and to that of Pope Paul III the apse of the basilica: the monuments to the future popes were expected to be placed in the minor naves in niches inside the pillars supporting the ceiling. It was an awkward space to be filled because of its excessive height. Bernini was asked to design a monument which could set a pattern: he divided the available space into four layers: a sarcophagus decorated with a relief; two putti holding an inscription; the statue of Matilda; two putti holding a coat of arms (see the monument in an external link): with some adjustments this approach can be seen in many other monuments.
While Gregory and Henry quarrelled about their respective rights, a new power had emerged in southern Italy. That part of the country was under
the often nominal Byzantine rule: the dukes who actually controlled it were vassals of the emperor, but often they fought each other. They recruited as mercenaries some Norman nobles with their troops; towards the year 1045 the Norman leaders established their own small duchy in the inland territories of southern Italy. In 1047 they were joined by what the Byzantines called a robber-band led by Robert d'Hauteville, who eventually was surnamed Robert Guiscard (Cunning),
due to the cleverness shown in building his own kingdom in a few years and even threatening to conquer the Byzantine Empire: he died in 1085 on the island of Cefalonia in a village still called Fiscardo after him, while he was preparing to land on the Greek mainland.
Robert, by playing the Byzantine dukes one against the other and by switching alliances, achieved a predominant role in southern Italy. In 1059 Pope Nicholas II, who wanted to eradicate the Byzantine influence from that region (in 1054 the Patriarch of Constantinople had split from the Roman Catholic Church), appointed Robert duke of Apulia and Calabria and his brother was appointed duke of Capua; in addition Robert was appointed duke of Sicily, at the time in Arab hands.
Pope Nicholas was acting on territories not included in the so called Donation of Constantine, he was claiming his investiture prerogative Urbi et Orbi (on the City of Rome and on the whole world). By 1076 Robert had established his rule on the whole of southern Italy, with the exclusion of Benevento (a fief of the Church) and he had conquered most of Sicily, including Palermo.
Henry IV, soon after the 1077 reconciliation with the Pope, was again excommunicated by Gregory for having violated the terms agreed to at Canossa. Gregory supported a rival king, but Henry eventually managed to retain his throne and in 1081 he marched towards Rome: the final clash with Gregory was delayed until March 1084 when Henry entered Rome finding no resistance, arranged the appointment of a new pope and was crowned in St Peter's. Gregory, who was besieged in Castel Sant'Angelo appealed to Robert who in May moved towards Rome with a large army: Henry and his pope abandoned the city and Gregory was reinstated, although he soon discovered that he was now in the hands of Robert and that the Norman influence had just replaced the German one.
The cloister of SS. Quattro Coronati (early XIIIth century)
Robert Guiscard is associated with one of the worst sacks suffered by Rome. The Normans pillaged the city causing the reaction of the population: in the ensuing fights a fire developed which destroyed a vast area between the
Lateran and the Colosseo: SS. Quattro Coronati and S. Clemente were severely damaged: S. Clemente was rebuilt above the old church,
while SS. Quattro Coronati was restructured in 1116 with parts of the old Carolingian church being included in an adjoining monastery.
The whole complex was turned into a small fortress which could resist attempts to sack the church.
The image used as a background for this page shows a nun in one of the courtyards of SS. Quattro Coronati.
The investiture controversy went on between the successors of Pope Gregory VII and those of Emperor Henry IV for another 40 years until
a formal compromise was reached in 1122 in the German town of Worms (Concordat of Worms). The Emperor was acknowledged the right to invest bishops with secular authority in the territories they governed, but not with sacred authority.
The agreement solved the specific quarrel, but not the underlying conflict between the pope and the emperor of who was superior to whom.
The investiture controversy had weakened both the authority of the popes and that of the emperors: very often emperors reacted to papal excommunications by promoting the appointment of a new pope and for almost a century an antipope challenged the authority of that canonically chosen.
A new political subject took advantage of this double weakness: in northern and central Italy many towns claimed their de facto independence from both the emperor and the pope: according to the contingent situation and often in opposition to other nearby towns they supported the pope (Guelph towns, after the name of Countess Matilda's second husband) or the emperor (Ghibelline towns after Waiblingen, a residence of the German emperors).
In Rome paradoxically, a sort of Ghibelline view prevailed: Emperor Henry IV had been well received by the Romans who later blamed Pope Gregory VII for the sack of the city. The influence of the Normans on the popes was resented and while the German emperor was far away, the Normans were almost at the gates of Rome. The true objective of the main Roman families was to curtail the temporal power of the pope and to establish an independent municipal power.
The other Italian towns were ruled by republican institutions, often manipulated by the richest families: the two most important families in Rome, the Pierleoni (whose stronghold was Rione Sant'Angelo and who were of Jewish origin) and the Frangipane (who had transformed the Colosseo into their private fortress), while trying to influence the papal nominations, were somewhat united in reviving the institutions of ancient Rome.
In 1143, a Pierleoni, brother of an antipope, proclaimed the Comune di Roma, which was to be ruled by a Senate of 56 members (4 for each rione). The Campidoglio hill was chosen as the symbol of the municipality. The new institution took a very antipapal stance when a priest, Arnold of Brescia, preached for more democratic rights and forced the incumbent pope (Eugenius III) to flee Rome. His successor Pope Adrian IV (the first and only English pope) asked the new young emperor Frederick I to help him reinstate the papal authority over the City of Rome. Frederick marched towards Rome and captured Arnold who was subsequently hanged and his body burnt. It was the end of the municipal authority of Rome, although attempts to revive it were made in the XIVth century. The popes however understood the lesson and some powers related to the civic administration were entrusted to one or more senators, appointed by the popes, but not belonging to the clergy and the Campidoglio remained a municipal symbol, reserved to some special ceremonies such as the crowning of a poet (today it houses the meetings of the City Council).
S. Maria in Trastevere: detail of a XIIth century mosaic
The beginning of a new attention towards ancient Rome can be observed in the mosaics which decorate S. Maria in Trastevere: Pope Innocent II (1130-43), elected with the support of the Frangipane, had to coexist in Rome with an antipope who represented the interests of the Pierleoni faction: the former resided in the Lateran, the latter in Castel Sant'Angelo. Only in 1138 at the death of the antipope, Innocent II could exert his authority over the whole city. He rebuilt S. Maria in Trastevere, the apse of which was decorated with mosaics portraying Jesus and the Virgin Mary together with saints and prophets; in addition to these sacred figures, the mosaics had also a purely decorative intent and were inspired by themes which were typical of ancient Rome.
Emperor Frederick wanted to restore the imperial power enjoyed by Charlemagne and Otto III, so his initial good relationship with the pope soon turned sour.
He used to sign his letters Frederick, by the grace of God, emperor, thus claiming his authority issued
directly from a divine decision. As a matter of fact he had been elected emperor by the German princely electors in lieu of the six-year-old son of Emperor Conrad III.
In 1158 Frederick, whom the Italians called Barbarossa after his red beard, crossed the Alps to establish his authority over the riotous Italian towns: after a long siege Milan surrendered and its walls were pulled down; but as soon as the emperor returned to Germany the Italian towns rebelled again. They were supported by the new pope Alexander III who in 1160 excommunicated the emperor, who in turn arranged the election of an antipope. Frederick returned to Italy several times, but in 1176 the Lombard League, an alliance of Guelph towns supported by the pope, defeated his army at Legnano: eventually in 1183 Frederick conceded to these towns the right to elect their own magistrates, practically acknowledging their self government. In 1189 he joined the Third Crusade during which he drowned in a small river in the Cilician town of Silifke.
Pope Alexander III reigned for 22 years, but he spent only part of them in Rome, where his security could only be assured by the help of the Normans. While he was seen as the champion of municipal liberties in northern Italy to the point that a town Alessandria was founded to celebrate him, he was not prepared to give up the temporal power in Rome. At his death the Romans threw stones on his coffin.
Il Pincio: 1911 Monument to Alberto di Giussano
The fight against Frederick Barbarossa was seen during the XIXth century Italian Risorgimento
as an anticipation of the fight for national independence against the Austrian Emperor. Alberto da Giussano, the leader of the Italian troops was regarded as a national hero:
during the Roman Republic, Giuseppe Verdi wrote La Battaglia di Legnano, an opera based on this event, the first performance of which took place
at Teatro Argentina in Rome on January 27, 1849.
In 1911 in the frame of the celebrations for the fiftieth anniversary of the national unity, the City of Milan donated to the City of Rome a bronze statue portraying Alberto da Giussano.
It is hard to believe that the same hero who was celebrated as a champion of Italian unity, has now become the symbol of Lega Nord, a racist party, whose leaders promote a continuous hate campaign against the Italians who do not share their views.
The following links show works of art portraying characters and events
mentioned in this page:
Pope Gregory VII, Countess Matilda and Emperor Henry IV German miniature.
Emperor Henry IV at Canossa by Eduard Schwoiser (1826-1902).
Marcello Mastroianni as Emperor Henry IV in the play by Luigi Pirandello.
Death of Emperor Frederick I engraving by H. Vogel.
Next page: Part II: Medieval Rome
IV - The Rise and Fall of the Theocratic Power
Previous pages: Part I: Ancient Rome:
I - The Foundation and the Early Days of Rome
II - The Early Republican Period
III - The Romans Meet the Elephants
IV - Expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea
V - Pompey and Caesar
VI - Augustus
VII - From Tiberius to Nero
VIII - The Flavian Dynasty
IX - From Nerva to Marcus Aurelius
X - A Century of Turmoil (180-285)
XI - From Diocletian to Constantine
XII - The End of Ancient Rome
Part II: Medieval Rome:
I - Byzantine Rome
II - The Iron Age of Rome