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A signoria (Italian pronunciation: [siɲɲoˈriːa]; from signore [siɲˈɲoːre], or "lord"; an abstract noun meaning (roughly) "government; governing authority; de facto sovereignty; lordship"; plural: signorie) was the governing authority in many of the Italian city states during the medieval and renaissance periods.


Perennial "power vacuum" of medieval ItalyEdit

In the sixth century AD, the Emperor Justinian reconquered Italy from the Ostrogoths. The invasion of a new wave of Germanic tribes, the Lombards, doomed this attempt to resurrect the Western Roman Empire, but the repercussions of Justinian's failure resounded further still. For the next thirteen centuries, whilst new nation-states arose in the lands north of the Alps, the Italian political landscape was a patchwork of feuding city states, petty tyrannies, and foreign invaders.

For several centuries, the armies and exarchs, Justinian's successors, were a tenacious force in Italian affairs, strong enough to prevent other powers such as the Holy Roman Empire or the papacy from establishing a unified Italian state but too weak to drive out these "interlopers" and re-create Roman Italy.

No ultramontanian empire could succeed in unifying Italy or in achieving more than a temporary hegemony because its success threatened the survival of medieval Italy's other powers: the Byzantines, the Papacy, and the Normans. They and the descendants of the Lombards, who became fused with earlier Italian ethnic groups, conspired and fought against and eventually destroyed any attempt to create a dominant political order in Italy.

It was against this vacuum of authority that one must view the rise of the institutions of the signoria and the communi.

Signoria versus the communeEdit

In Italian history the rise of the signoria is a phase often associated with the decline of the medieval commune system of government and the rise of the dynastic state. In this context the word signoria (here to be understood as "lordly power") is used in opposition to the institution of the commune or city republic.

Contemporary observers and modern historians see the rise of the signoria as a reaction to the failure of the communi to maintain law-and-order and suppress party strife and civil discord. In the anarchic conditions that often prevailed in medieval Italian city-states, people looked to strong men to restore order and disarm the feuding elites.

In times of anarchy or crisis, cities sometimes offered the signoria to individuals perceived as strong enough to save the state. For example, the Tuscan state of Pisa offered the signoria to Charles VIII of France in the hope that he would protect the independence of Pisa from its long term enemy Florence. Similarly, Siena offered the signoria to Cesare Borgia.


The composition and specific functions of the signoria varied from city to city. In some states (such as Verona under the Della Scala family or Florence in the days of Cosimo de Medici and Lorenzo the Magnificent), the polity was what we would term today a one-party state in which the dominant party had vested the signoria of the state in a single family or dynasty.

In Florence, the arrangement was unofficial, as it was not constitutionally formalized before the Medici were expelled from the city in 1494.

In other states (such as the Milan of the Visconti), the dynasty's right to the signoria was a formally recognized part of the commune's constitution, which had been "ratified" by the people and recognized by the pope or the Holy Roman Empire.

The term is also used to refer to certain small feudal holdings in Sicily similar to manorial lordships and, like them, were established in Norman times. With the abolition of feudalism in Sicily in 1812, some of the holdings became baronies. More often, a barony consisted of several signorie.

Use of wordEdit

In a few states, the word was sometimes used to refer to the constitutional government of a republic rather than the dictatorial power exercised by an individual tyrant or dynasty.

For example, the word was sometimes used in Renaissance times to refer to the government of the Republics of Florence or of Venice, as in Shakespeare's Othello in which Othello says:

"Let him do his spite:
My services which I have done the signiory
Shall out-tongue his complaints"
- (Act one, scene one)

Occasionally, the word referred to specific organs or functions of the state. The signoria in the Republic of Florence was the highest executive organ, and the signoria of the Republic of Venice was mainly a judicial body.

List of signorieEdit

City Family Period Allegiance Notes
  Monaco Grimaldi
1287–1612 Guelph Gained independence from Genoa in 1287.
Titled Princes of Monaco since 1612.
  Milan Della Torre
1259–1277 Guelph Deposed by Ghibelline party, led by Visconti.
1277–1302 Ghibelline Took over Milan after Battle of Desio in 1277.
Deposed by Della Torre in 1302.
Della Torre
1302–1311 Guelph Deposed and exiled by Emperor Henry VII's forces.
1311–1395 Ghibelline Re-enthroned by Henry VII in 1311.
Titled Dukes of Milan since 1395.
  Mantua Bonacolsi
1272–1328 Variable Overthrowed by a Gonzaga-led army in 1328.
1328–1433 Ghibelline Titled Margraves of Mantua since 1433.
  Verona Della Scala
1282–1387 Ghibelline Overthrowed by a Visconti-backed revolt in 1387.
  Treviso Da Camino
1283–1312 Guelph Overthrowed by a conspiracy in 1312.
  Padua Da Carrara
1318–1405 Guelph Overthrowed by Venice's forces in 1405.
  Ferrara Este
1209–1471 Guelph Titled Dukes of Ferrara since 1471.
  Modena 1336–1471 Titled Dukes of Modena and Reggio since 1471.
  Bologna Pepoli
1337–1350 Guelph Overthrowed by Visconti army in 1350.
1401–1506 Ghibelline Overthrowed by Pope Julius II's foces in 1506.
  Ravenna Da Polenta
1275–1441 Guelph Overthrowed and exiled by Venice's forces in 1441.
  Forlì Ordelaffi
Ghibelline Declined due to conflicts inside city.
Pacefully deposed in 1480.
1480–1499 Guelph De facto a satellite of Milan since 1488, under regent Caterina Sforza.
Overthrowed by Cesare Borgia's forces in 1499.
1499–1503 Guelph Ruled over all Romagna, with Cesare as Duke of Romagna.
1503–1504 Ghibelline Line extincted in 1504.
  Pesaro Malatesta
1285–1445 Guelph Overthrowed by a Sforza-led coup in 1445.
  Rimini 1295–1500 Overtheowed by Cesare Borgia's forces in 1500.
  Cesena 1378–1465 Line extinction in 1465.
  Urbino Da Montefeltro
1213–1234 Ghibelline Titled Counts of Urbino (the Dukes) since 1234.
  Lucca Quartigiani 1308–1316 Guelph Overthrowed by a Antelminelli-led coup in 1316.
1316–1328 Ghibelline Overthrowed by Guelph party in 1328.
Guinigi 1400–1430 Guelph Deposed by the restoration of the Republic in 1430.
  Florence Medici
Guelph Titled Dukes of Florence since 1532.
  Pisa Della Gherardesca
1316–1347 Ghibelline Deposed and replaced by Gambacorta family in 1347.
Gambacorta 1347–1392 Guelph Overthrowed by a conspiracy in 1392.
1392–1399 Unclear Overthrowed by Visconti forces in 1399.
1399–1406 Ghibelline Overthrowed by Florence's forces in 1406.
  Siena Petrucci
1487–1529 Ghibelline Pacefully deposed by republican institutions in 1529.

See alsoEdit