IX. THE FREE TOWNS
The Italian communes present, in their sharp vicissitudes of fortune, a spectacle not less dramatic and infinitely more momentous for the general history of Europe. In Italy, as in Flanders, the fair ideal of civic freedom was blurred and defaced by party feuds and personal ambitions, by the fickleness and passion of the mob, by the lust of conquest and the fratricidal jealousies of neighbouring republics. Yet to the influence of this ideal we must attribute both the solidarity of the Italian city-state and the wealth of individual genius which it fostered. The Italian Renaissance was little more than the harvest-time of medieval Italy, the glorious evening of a day which had dawned with the Fourth Crusade and had reached high noon in the lifetimes of Dante and Giotto. In the fifteenth century the aptitudes which had ripened in the intense and crowded life of turbulent republics were concentrated upon art and letters. The leisure and the security which the specialist demands were bought by renouncing the Utopian visions of the past. But the growth of technical dexterity was a poor compensation for the narrowing of interests; the individual was sacrificed to make the artist; and art, too, suffered by the divorce from practical affairs. If we are moved to impatience by the waste of life and energy involved in the turmoils of medieval Italy, we must remember that in no atmosphere less electric would the national energies have matured so early, or piled achievement on achievement with such feverish speed.
The city, from time immemorial the meeting-ground for the best elements in Italian society, had become in the early Middle Ages the one bulwark between the Italian middle-classes and a particularly lawless form of feudalism; and it had served this purpose well. The number of these cities, their population and resources, the luxury of the citizens, the splendour of the palaces and public buildings, were the admiration of all Europe at a time when the Flemish burghers still lived in wooden houses and the Flemish cities were still rudely protected by palisades and earthen ramparts. Nature had done much for Italy. Thanks to the central situation of the peninsula, the trade between Northern Europe and the Mediterranean converged upon her seaports and the Alpine passes which stand above the valley of the Po. The untiring industry of Italian capital and labour made Lombardy and Tuscany the homes of textile manufactures, of scientific cultivation, of banking and finance. In every port of the Levant, the Aegean and the Black Sea, the shipmen and merchants of Venice, Benoa, and Pisa hunted for trade like sleuth-hounds, and fought like wolves to secure a preference or a monopoly. By land and sea the rule of life was competition for territory and trade. War was a normal and often a welcome incident in the quest for wealth; few Italians were free from the belief that conquests are a short cut to prosperity, that trade follows the flag, and that the gain of one community must be another's loss. Within the city walls, class strove with class and family with family. Riot, massacre, and proscription were the normal instruments of party warfare; minorities conspired from fear of proscription, and majorities proscribed in order to forestall conspiracy. Boundless, indeed, was the vitality of republics which, under such conditions, not only throve, but also held at bay the ablest sovereigns and the most formidable troops of Europe.
The best and the worst features of the communal regime are illustrated in the resistance of the Lombard cities to Frederic Barbarossa, the first Emperor who formulated and applied to Italy a scheme of absolutist government. Between 1154 and 1176 the Lombards turned the course of history. They prepared the way for Innocent III to plant his foot upon the necks of kings, and for Innocent IV to destroy the House of Hohenstauffen. That this would be the result of their stand for liberty, neither they nor the other parties to the struggle could foretell. But on both sides it was felt that the greatest issues were at stake. The question was whether Italy should, once for all, accept a German yoke; whether the Papacy should become a German patriarchate; whether free institutions, both in Church and State, should give place to a bureaucracy.
The question did not take this shape from the beginning. When Frederic first intervened in Lombardy he came to protect the smaller cities against the imperialist ambitions of Milan, to restore the public peace, to investigate innumerable complaints of force and fraud. Many of the cities hailed him as a deliverer; against him were only the clients of Milan, or those who, on a humbler scale, aspired to emulate her policy. Even so it was no easy matter to chastise the most insignificant of the contumacious communes; and Milan, who refused point-blank to give satisfaction for her lawless acts of conquests, or even to renounce what she had won, could not safely be attacked.
Two circumstances were against the Emperor. Any war against the Lombards must be a war of sieges; but the military science of the age was more skilful in defence than in attack. And no war could be carried to a prosperous conclusion without Italian help; for it was impossible to interest the German princes in the wars of Italy, or to exact substantial help from them. The first of these difficulties Frederic Barbarossa never overcame. With the second he was more successful in the middle period of the conflict (1158-1162); and it was then that the representatives of Lombard independence were most nearly overwhelmed.