Aristocratic factionalism, popular rebellions and the relationship between Italian and German culture all combined to ensure the long-term use of the terms ‘Guelph’ and ‘Ghibelline’. Welf, the family name of Bavaria’s dukes, and Waiblingen, the Staufer family’s castle in Swabia, may have been used as rallying cries during the Battle of Weinsberg (1140) fought during the German civil war that broke out when these two great dynasties competed for the imperial title.
The Italian campaigns of Frederick I Barbarossa (r. 1152 – 90) a generation later saw the two terms crossing the Alps and assuming an Italianate form. Barbarossa was a Staufer and his followers, who embraced the cause of the empire, became known as the Ghibellini. Defenders of the Italian cities’ independence adopted the term Guelph as a label describing an anti-Staufer, and hence anti-imperial, position. The papacy’s association with the cities in opposing the Staufer meant that Guelph became a label denoting those who supported the papal cause in general. The words subsequently became part of the internal Italian political struggle and were used as party labels with different cities competing against each other in the late 12th and throughout the 13th century.
Geography and strategy, rather than consistent ideology, determined whether a city should be ‘Guelph’ or ‘Ghibelline’. Either label could be used so long as it helped to define and defend a city’s pursuit of its independence. A city in the north, where the empire was a real threat, tended to be Guelph. But a central Italian city threatened by an expansion of papal territorial power was more likely to call itself Ghibelline. Size as well as regional position determined affiliations. Florence was far enough from Rome to call itself Guelph, and the much smaller Siena – threatened by the expansion of its neighbour – was therefore Ghibelline.
The removal of the Staufer dynasty from the imperial throne in the mid-13th century ended one particular external threat, but Italy’s Guelph-Ghibelline struggle continued. Different occupational groups, guilds and areas within the cities were now using the labels to describe and justify their factionalism, and these vicious conflicts supplemented the traditional intercity struggle. Florence was now riven between the two parties, and it was here that the Guelphs themselves split in reaction to the election in 1294 of Benedetto Caetani as Pope Boniface VIII.
Black Guelphs still supported the papacy, but the White Guelphs, who included Dante Alighieri, opposed Boniface’s particularly aggressive exposition of the papacy’s temporal power. Dante was exiled when the Black Guelphs seized power in Florence in 1302, and his eventual disillusion with the entire political scene supplies the immediate background to his composition The Divine Comedy.