The political scene of Dante's Tuscany was dominated by the comuni. (This is the term generally used to refer to the central and northern Italian cities which in the thirteenth century developed as independent and self governing political units.) Their social organisation and governance was based not on feudal relationships but on ideas of social and corporate representation. The Tuscan comuni of Florence, Siena and Pisa were not only amongst the most important and powerful comuni in Italy, but also amongst the most important and powerful cities of Europe.
More broadly, the politics of late mediaeval Europe was dominated by the fraught relationship between papacy and empire. In the thirteenth and fourteenth century, the papacy was making unprecedented claims not only to spiritual but also to political authority, thus clashing against the political supremacy of the Empire. Europe was thus broadly divided between those who supported the Emperor and those who supported the Pope - the former generally referred to as 'Ghibellines', the latter as 'Guelphs'.
Italian cities also took their sides as either Ghibelline or Guelph, and entered into conflict with each other; not only for local supremacy but also to further the cause of Emperor or Pope. Early in the thirteenth century, leading Florentine families split in their support for the Guelph and Ghibelline causes leading to decades of civic and political strife over which faction was to govern Florence. In 1260, Florence - which at the time was under Guelph control - was defeated by its Ghibelline neighbour Siena at the Battle of Montaperti (recalled in Inferno X and XXXII). After Montaperti, leading Guelph figures were exiled from Florence and the city was governed by the Ghibellines. In 1266, however, the Guelphs came once again to gain control the city. Soon after, Florence began to be torn by new internal strife, again caused primarily by conflicts between leading families. As a result Florence came to be divided between Black Guelphs and White Guelphs. Although both groups were nominally Guelph, the Blacks were closer to the cause of the Pope, the Whites to that of the Emperor.
Dante was amongst the Whites and played a prominent role in the White attempt to distance Florence from the political influence of Pope Boniface VIII. With the help of Boniface, however, the Black Guelphs were able to restore their control over Florence, and exile leading White figures, including Dante himself. While in exile, Dante's hopes were raised by the election of Henry VII of Luxembourg as Emperor in 1308. Dante believed Henry would be able to restore the right balance between imperial and papal authority, as well as political stability throughout Europe. His hopes were dashed, however, by Henry's sudden death in the summer of 1313.
© Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson