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The Battle at the Hill of Death

montaper.jpg (24140 bytes)
The Battle at Montaperti: Illumination in a codex by Gianni di Ventura (Biblioteca Cummunale, Siena)

What links the beautiful Tuscan town of Sienna with Dante's vision of hell? The answer lies in an act of treachery that decided the course of the bloodiest battle in medieval Italian history.
In 1260, the town of Sienna, in northern Italy, was prosperous as never before. Sienna's fortune was an accident of geography, for it straddled the great Francigene Road, the major highway that lead from Rome northward toward the heart of the Holy Roman Empire. The taxes reaped from merchants that travelled the Francigene Road had spawned a mercantile industry that made it the envy of its neighbours, an envy that spawned a fierce rivalry with neighbouring Florence.

And in the fragmented politics of thirteenth century Italy, such commercial rivalry could easily flare into bitter warfare.

Among the many factions that vied for power in northern Italy, two families shared the centre stage; the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. The Guelphs, who stood for Papal supremacy, currently held sway in Florence, and Ghibellines, who stood for the Emperor, were the masters in Sienna.

In 1258, the Guelphs succeeded in expelling from Florence the last of the important Ghibellines, who fled to their brethren in Sienna. The Guelphs followed this victory with the murder of Tesauro Beccharia, Archbishop of Vallambrosa, who was accused of plotting with the Ghibellines for their return.

In the thirteenth century, Italy as we know it today did not exist. In the South, the Kingdom of Sicily (which incorporated most of southern Italy) was ruled by King Manfred, the illegitimate son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Central Italy was under the nominal rule of the Pope, who vied with the Emperor for the hearts and minds of Christian Europe. But the north of Italy was a fractious and shifting collection of city states, ruled by petty tyrants and warlords and dominated by the competing interests of Pope and Emperor.

The rivalry came to a head two years later when the Florentines, supported by their Tuscan allies, moved an enormous army, 35,000 strong, towards Sienna. To defend themselves, the Siennese called for the help of King Manfred of Sicily, who provided a contingent of crack German cavalry. Altogether, they could only raise an army of 20,000 to face their foes, and the situation looked grim. But the Ghibellines of Sienna had a plan, a plan that was to epitomise the bitter warfare of the time. A plan that would be immortalised for all time in Dante's terrifying verse.

The two armies clashed at the hill of Montaperti, outside Sienna, on the morning of September 4th, 1260. The bloody struggle continued all day: the Florentines, despite their superior numbers, were unable to clinch victory over the determined Siennese. As evening approached, and the Florentines exhausted themselves on their opponent's defensive lines, the Siennese launched their counterattack, lead by the Count of Arras. It must have seemed a reckless act of desperation to the watching Florentine commanders. What they were to discover was that the counterattack was just the beginning.

It was a signal to a member of the Florentine army, a man named Bocca degli Abati. Although Bocca fought for Florence alongside the Geulphs, he had, like many in this complicated war, mixed allegiances. In fact, Bocca was a Ghibelline.

At the sight of Siennese counterattack, Bocca raced towards the standard bearer of the Florentine cavalry. With a blow from his sword, he severed the standard bearer's hand, and the Florentine standard dropped to the ground.

In the military strategy of the day, the standard was all important. Troops on both sides dressed identically, and so the standard served as reference, a way of knowing where your leader was, and the he was safe and still in command.

The loss of their standard caused the Florentines to panic. From within their ranks, hundreds of Florentine Ghibellines seized the moment to rise up and attack their compatriots. To accompany this the main Siennese army launched a ferocious onslaught. The Florentines fled, pursued by their enemies who hacked them down in their thousands. It is estimated that over 15,000 men died that day.

Dante (who was himself a Ghibelline) discovered the details of this act of treachery as he trawled the Florentine archives in the fourteenth century, and he reserved a place for the turncoat Bocca in the frozen wastes of the ninth circle of Hell. You can read what Dante made of Bocca in this chilling section of his poem, and you can find out more about Dante's connection with the politics of Tuscany in this article from the Department of Italian Studies at Brown University.

The full story of the bloody background to this terrible battle is told by Giovanni Villani, a Florentine merchant and historian who was born in 1277, some 17 years after the battle of Montaperti. You can read an extract from his chronicle on the web. For a short article summarising the history of Sienna, follow this link.

Incidentally, if the Ghibellines and the Guelphs seem unfamiliar to you, you may be familiar with yet another two members of these families, for whom the bitter faction-fighting was to spell doom for their ill-fated romance. I am talking, of course, of the famous Romeo Montecchi, a member of the Ghibelline faction, and Juliet Capuleti, of the Guelphs.

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Copyright 2001 Dr Tom J Rees. All rights reserved.