Company of the Carroccio
In the wake of the Patarine struggle, the various factions tried to develop a more inclusive government. The archbishop continued to be the nominal leader, but power gradually passed into the hands of laymen. The commune (commune civitatis), first mentioned in a document of 1097, consisted of a popular assembly and an executive council composed of consuls elected from the city’s three factions—capitanei, valvassores, and cives.
By the early twelfth century, political consolidation was accompanied by military and economic expansion. To gain access to central Italy and the Adriatic, Milan attacked Lodi and Cremona; to reach the Ligurian coast, it defeated Pavia; and to secure the Alpine passes, it destroyed Como. Milan’s expansion brought it into direct conflict with Frederick I Barbarossa (r. 1155-1190), who wished to reassert direct imperial rule over Italy. Twice, in 1158 and 1162, Frederick successfully besieged Milan. The second defeat was particularly severe: Frederick ordered the demolition of Milan’s walls, gates, and towers, and the palaces of his principal enemies; moreover, he expelled the entire population, forcing them to live for four years in the suburban areas. Milan’s isolation, however, was only temporary. Growing aversion to imperial rule among the communes of northern Italy soon led to the formation of the Lombard League, whose forces defeated an imperial army at Legnano (1176). By the Peace of Constance (1183) the Lombard communes secured their de facto autonomy from the empire, while still recognizing their de jure sovereignty.
Communal liberty did not, however, put an end to Milan’s social tension. In 1198, the city’s shopkeepers and artisans formed an association known as the credenza di Sant’Ambrogio to protect their political and economic interests. Opposing them was the motta, composed of lesser nobles, wealthy commoners, and merchants; die great nobles for their part remained closely tied to the archbishop. To maintain peace and achieve political reform the Milanese increasingly resorted to the one-man rule of a foreign magistrate, the podestà. The policies introduced by the podestà included protecting the citizenry from arbitrary confiscations by the government (1205); laying the groundwork for the general assessment of properties (catasto); making commoners as eligible for public office as nobles were (1214); codifying customary law (1216); and constructing a new communal palace, or Broletto nuovo (1228). The renewed confidence of the Milanese became evident in 1220 when they not only refused hospitality to Frederick II (r. 1215-1250) as he traveled from Germany to Rome for his imperial coronation, but also opposed his coronation as king of Italy. In 1226, a second Lombard League (strengthened by papal support) was formed against Frederick II. This time the empire prevailed, at the battle of Cortenuova (1237). Within the city, the commoners, fearing reprisals from the nobility who had sided with the emperor, elected a new official—known as the capitano del popolo—to rule alongside the podestà. The first such capitano was Pagano della Torre (1240), who was already prominent as leader of the Credenza di Sant’Ambrogio and a member of the anti-imperial and pro-papal faction known as the Guelfs.
The carroccio was the standard-bearing cart, usually drawn by oxen, of the northern Italian cities. It served as a symbolic focus of patriotism and a rallying point in battle. These carts were meant to unite the divergent social groups within the emerging city-states of Lombardy and Tuscany. Their use (at least as early as 1039) paralleled and coincided with the adoption of civic patron saints and the development of the commune and an independent popolo in many cities. The main purposes of the carts were to accompany a city’s troops on campaigns, to serve as a platform for patriotic or pious harangues and for celebrations of the mass before battle, and to provide a highly visible point of reference for troops during battle. To lose a cart to an enemy was shameful, and captured carts were often treated brutally.
The earliest known Milanese cart was that of Archbishop Aribert (1039). It consisted of “a high wooden pole like the mast of a ship which was fixed to a strong wagon; at the top was a gilded apple and from this descended two ribbons of dazzlingiy white cloth, and in the center a holy cross was painted with our Savior portrayed, his arms extended,” In the later twelfth century Saint Ambrose (the patron saint of Milan) replaced the crucifix, and later still the cloth was scarlet and a gold cross replaced the apple. Three pairs of oxen drew this carroccio, which clearly embodied both ecclesiastical and civic symbolic elements. Soldiers of Cremona and Parma captured the Milanese wagon in 1149, and in 1160 imperial troops killed the oxen, captured the banner, and overturned the cart. When Frederick I Barbarossa captured Milan the next year, he seized the carroccio and ninety-four civic banners as booty. At Legnano in 1176, however, Milanese troops rallied around the carroccio, warding off defeat at Frederick’s hands. When the Milanese invaded the area of Cremona in 1213, they lost both an important battle and their carroccio; and in 1237, at Cortenuova, the Milanese carroccio, after being stripped of its ornaments and reluctantly abandoned by the Milanese army, was taken by Frederick II and sent to Cremona and then Rome, where it was displayed in the Campidoglio.
The carrocci of other cities differed in ornamental detail, but all served the same functions. The wagons, masts, and banners were carefully tended in peacetime and were ritually blessed before use. Peacemaking between rivals within a single city often occurred around the carroccio, and carrocci were exchanged when Parma and Cremona ended their hostilities in 1281. In the 1230s Fra Giovanni preached civic peace and reconciliation from the carrocci of Padua, Brescia, Mantua, and Vicenza, and from that of Verona he declared himself podesta and duke of Verona. Often, legitimate podesta took their oaths of office from the city’s carroccio, and captured cities swore submission from the carroccio of the victor.
Despite their importance in peacetime, carrocci were above all meant to bring together for battle the often fractious elements of the city-state. Both nobles and commoners guarded the carroccio on campaigns, and both were expected to fight to the death to protect it in battle.
By the early fourteenth century, with the advent of professional armies and leaders, the carroccio fell into disuse, so that the historian Giovanni Villani (1275-1348) felt it necessary to describe in detail the Florentine cart which had been captured and burned by the Sienese at Montaperti eighty years before.