Florence then dominated Europe with her bankers, from Flanders to Constantinople. Genoa and Venice were the queens of all the known seas; it was then were upreared to Heaven in every Italian city cathedrals and bell-towers that still remain the marvel of the world; our religious enthusiasm then gave St, Francis of Assisi to Christianity; Italian poetry at a leap had overwhelmed the Provençal; Guido Guinizelli and Guido Cavalcanti had proved it . . . But all that counted nothing for Dante. He saw but one thing: that the political unity of Christian society was broken; that the Roman Emperor lived beyond the Alps and that Italy had ceased to be "il giardin dell'Impero", the garden of the Empire.
And as he thought so did others, less lofty in spirit but equally sincere. Giovanni Villani living in the luminous life of Florence only knew that one must "greatly fear the judgement of God". Another Villani saw nothing about him but "grave dangers and destruction", and the anonymous chroniclers echo them: the Chronica Astensis deplores that "semper Lombardia in malo statu fuit".
Two centuries later, in full sixteenth century, this discontent, which almost recalls that of the prophets of Israel, deepened even more, not without reason, since the "italiane tempeste" -- to use the expression of one of the Villani -- had become more miserable with the invasion of the foreigners; but above all because all the great writers of the sixteenth century were children of the Renaissance and in consequence felt even more profoundly, if it is possible, than the generation of the time of Dante and Petrarch, the distance which separated their fallen Italy from the ideal times of the Pax Romana.
Not one of the historians who, like Machiavelli, loved Italy so ardently, deigned to bring into the light from the pages of the old chronicles, the marvellous day in 1170 on which the Italians, all of them, except the priests, the blind and the dumb, swore on their baptismal fonts this oath:
"In the name of the Lord, Amen. I swear on the Gospel that neither directly nor indirectly will I make peace or treaty or pact with the Emperor Frederick or his son or his wife, nor with any other person of his family; in good faith, with all my means, I will try to prevent any army, little or great, of Germany or of any other land of the Emperor's beyond the Alps, from entering Italy; and if an army should enter, I swear to make war upon the Emperor and on all his, until the said army goes forth from Italy; and I will cause my sons to swear the same as soon as they reach the age of fourteen years."
This oath was carried out and became history at the battle of Legnano, one of the most shining pages of the struggle for liberty among the young peoples of Europe. Battle and victory, but truth to tell without definite consequence; but this too was due to our universalist character: all Italians maintained the oath, they fought the German King who attempted to violate their liberty and their privileges, but their efforts drooped when the German who was also Roman Emperor spoke in his decrees of the splendour of Rome of which he called himself the heir.
Thus is explained the character of the wars waged by the Italians; they were all defensive: never did the Lombard League decide to prevent an Emperor from crossing the Alps, or to follow him beyond the Brenner after having defeated him. Therefore the Germans always chose a favourable moment to cross the Alps, "cum omni pace", and to fall in surprise on the rich plains of the Po; then beaten, they saved themselves retreating beyond the Alps. The danger, immense for the Italian cities, was almost non-existent for the Germans, who had learnt that the Italians only claimed the right to defend themselves.
Such a history might seem a miserable business, and one might indeed think it such since it is the basis of the stupid assertions which have placed Italian valour in doubt. In reality, however, such a history bears witness to a collective moral superiority, which would be enough, if it were generally spread through the world, to prepare a Europeless unhealthy and less quarrelsome.
Some years after Legnano, in 1179, in the same plains which were the site of that battle, was begun the work, gigantic for that time, of the canal of the Ticino. And the canal of the Muzza too -- the greatest in Europeuntil the end of the nineteenth century was begun after another battle, that of Casorate, with another Emperor, Frederick II, in 1239.
It was then that a hundred cities of Italyinscribed in their Statutes the right of free transit even across the property of the nobles, for water for irrigation, to bring water to the fields of the most humble village; a right which, outside Italy, landowners, staunch in the idea of the absolute rights of property, have fought successfully even till yesterday.
It was about the same time, in 1236, that Bologna,first in Europe, gave freedom to all the serfs of her glebe; the elected representatives of the people decreed, "on pain of death", that no longer should any man be kept as a serf; and all the serfs, men and women, were redeemed by the Commune and set free, the nobles retaining their lands alone.
No Italian historian has ever thought to bring into the light facts of this kind with which the old chronicles are filled, except one, Carlo Cattaneo; but that sovereign independent spirit was a republican federalist, between Cavour, monarchist and unificator, and Mazzini, unificator and republican.