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Italy in the 11th and 12th centuries


Otto II
Otto II

Otto and his successors, known as Ottonians, followed Charlemagne in claiming the inheritance of the original Roman emperors. They had already built a strong state in Germany, but Otto II made Rome his principal residence. Soon, however, the German emperors encroached on the power and authority of the pope. The conflict over who had the right to appoint bishops came to a head during the papacy of Gregory VII in the 11th century.

The growing rivalry between the popes and the emperors gave the towns and local rulers in northern Italy opportunities to assert their own independence. During the 11th and 12th centuries many Italian cities began to develop extensive trade networks. The wealthiest were in northern Italy, in particular Venice and Milan. These and other northern cities became the distinctive feature of Italy’s history throughout the Middle Ages. They reflected the survival of the urban institutions of the Roman Empire and the relative weakness of feudalism in northern Italy.

Developments in the south were very different. In 982 Otto II attempted unsuccessfully to drive the Saracens out of Sicily. Early in the 11th century Christian rulers in the south recruited Norman warriors returning from pilgrimage to the Holy Land, who proved more effective. The Saracens surrendered Bari in 1071 and Catania and Palermo in the following year. The Norman conquests ended Byzantine, Lombard, and Arab rule in southern Italy. On Christmas Day 1130 Norman ruler Roger II was crowned king in Palermo, Sicily, with papal approval. His kingdom was known as the Two Sicilies because part of it was the island of Sicily and part was on the Italian peninsula.

The Normans based their rule in southern Italy on feudalism, as they also did in England.

Although the feudal system survived in Sicily, the Normans were deposed in 1194 when Emperor Henry VI of the German Hohenstaufen family invaded their kingdom. Under his son Frederick II Sicily reached its greatest importance. Frederick II’s court in Palermo was the most important in Europe, and it became a meeting point for Christian, Byzantine, and Arab cultures. From Palermo, Frederick ruled his extensive Italian and German possessions, so that the imperial dream of ruling the whole of Italy came close to realization. But this was never to be. After the death of Frederick II, the Hohenstaufen empire in southern Italy quickly unraveled. The popes, jealous of their powerful neighbor to the south, encouraged Charles of Anjou, brother of the king of France, to contest the throne. He became Charles I, king of Naples and Sicily, in 1265, briefly establishing the house of Anjou in Sicily. French rule was deeply resented in Sicily, and in 1282 a popular uprising known as the Sicilian Vespers forced the Angevin rulers to abandon Sicily. The throne was then offered to Spanish king Pedro III. The Angevins continued to rule in Naples until the next century.

Concordat of Worms
Concordat of Worms

The German emperors also faced opposition in northern Italy. When Frederick I, known as Frederick Barbarossa, attempted to force the northern cities into submission, they responded by forming the Lombard League, which in 1176 was victorious at the Battle of Legnano. Under the terms of the Peace of Constance (1183), the emperor granted the northern cities virtual autonomy. As the power of the emperors declined, many northern cities began to turn to the pope as protector.

During the 12th century the role of the pope as the supreme leader of all Catholics had been strengthened. The papal court, or Curia, in Rome was recognized throughout Catholic Europe as the principal court for resolving political as well as ecclesiastical disputes. Rome had also become a center for pilgrims from all over the Christian world, who brought wealth to the city. The 12th-century popes successfully challenged interference by political rulers, and at the Concordat of Worms in 1122 the emperor gave up the right to elect the pope. That right passed to the college of cardinals. Pope Innocent III convoked the Fourth Lateran Council, which was held in Rome in 1215 and attended by 1,200 bishops and abbots from all over Europe. It issued regulations regarding all aspects of Catholic life. Strengthening such initiatives were calls for greater emphasis on spiritual and institutional reform that came from Saint Francis of Assisi and led to the founding of the Franciscans and other mendicant orders. The new emphasis on spirituality gave the popes and the church greater authority. In addition to heading the Christian church, the pope was ruler of the Papal States in central Italy. Most popes were also members of powerful political families. The papacy was thus involved in Italian political conflicts, and the popes found valuable allies in cities and rulers who opposed the emperor.

Frederick II made a final attempt to crush the papacy and its allies, but he was unsuccessful. These struggles left the cities of northern and central Italy divided between supporters of the German emperors, known as Ghibellines, and supporters of the papacy, known as Guelphs. "Italy" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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