Heraldry in Italy during the Middle Ages and Renaissance

by John A Goodall, FSA Coat of Arms no 37, January 1959.

The Historical Background

The neglect of this field of heraldic studies by English writers is at once both surprising and understandable. Surprising because, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, we possess the largest single collection outside Italy of the applied arts of the medieval and renaissance periods, and understandable because of the paucity of published sources for its study.

In order to understand the development of heraldry in Italy, the history of the country must be considered. The late D. L. Galbreath summarised the main sources in his masterly survey of European heraldry in Chambers’ Encyclopedia published in 1950. This shows that the rolls of arms, usually the heraldists prime authority in the Middle Ages, are excessively rare and that few seals have survived. Although the scarcity of the latter is in part due to the widespread use of notarial documents the published seals from the Vatican Archives, and unpublished examples in the Public Record Office, suggest that a complete survey of the Italian Archives might well be fruitful. As a result of this the student is left with the monumental heraldry of the public buildings and churches and a few specifically Italian sources such as the Sienese tax-book covers, the illuminated Venetian Chronicles and promessi of the Doges. While the Siena book covers have often been published the collection of the monumental heraldry has been somewhat neglected despite the fact that it forms an unsurpassed corpus of heraldic art in its changing styles from the thirteenth century.

When Italy emerged from the period of chaos ensuing upon the final collapse of the Roman Empire in the West it was divided into three parts which developed in different ways. First in the North was the Lombard Kingdom incorporated by Charlemagne into his Empire and ruled with varying degrees of efficiency by his successors. Next in central Italy were the States of the Church reaching from the region of the river Po in the North East down to the borders of Naples. Finally in the South were the Lombard duchies of Spoleto and Benevento while the Byzantine Emperors long retained a precarious hold on some coastal towns as well as the Exarchate of Ravenna until the Norman conquest of the eleventh century.

By about the second decade of the twelfth century the future pattern of the city states, pro-imperial or pro-papal (after the thirteenth century to be known as Ghibelline and Guelf) and almost continually engaged in internecine strife, was set. Another factor, which touches directly on our subject as well, was the economic revival which gave to the towns, and particularly to the ports, of northern Italy an undoubted preeminence as the middle-men of Europe with the Levant. With the details of the later history of these states we cannot, for reasons of space, be concerned here. The map reproduced in fig. 1 shows the main political divisions of Italy in the fifteenth century with a few of the towns.

Nobiliar theory and Heraldic capacity

Before turning to the consideration of the origins and development of the use of arms in Italy the question of the underlying theory of nobiliar and heraldic capacity must first be investigated. F. L. Ganshof has pointed out, in his book Feudalism, that in Italy feudalism as known in northern Europe did not exist. This was true even of the Norman and Angevin kingdoms of Naples-Sicily where special forms were evolved at an early date. Certainly the practice of trade was not regarded as ignoble and the concept of heraldic capacity was accordingly enlarged at a very early date.

The fifteenth century humanist Poggio, in his dialogue On Nobility, surveys the usages of the different regions of Italy (I quote from the summary of Burckhardt in his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 1955, p. 219): “In Naples they will not work, and busy themselves neither with their own estates nor with trade and commerce, which they hold to be discreditable ; they either loiter at home or ride about on horseback. The Roman nobility also despise trade, but farm their own property; the cultivation of land even opens the way to a title; it is a respectable but boorish nobility. In Lombardy the nobles live upon the rent of their inherited estates; descent and abstinence from any regular calling constitute nobility. In Venice the ‘nobili’, the ruling caste, were all merchants. Similarly in Genoa the nobles and non-nobles were alike merchants and sailors, and only separated by their birth; some few of the former, it is true, still lurked as brigands in their mountain castles. In Florence a part of the old nobility had devoted themselves to trade; another, and certainly by far the smaller part, enjoyed the satisfaction of their titles, and spent their time, either in nothing at all, or else in hunting and hawking.” Indeed in Florence, after the disturbances of the noble factions in the thirteenth century, the possession of a title or nobility was a bar to public office. The evidence of the surviving seals shows clearly that in the second half of the thirteenth century, in Florence, Lucca, and Siena the practice of commerce was no bar to the bearing of arms. It is likely, therefore, that Poggio’s picture of the nobility in his day holds true in its broad outlines for the whole period with which we are concerned.

The origins and development of heraldry, i. Civic Arms

To commence the study of heraldic origins in Italy with civic arms may cause some surprise but it rests upon good reasons. It must be remembered that the continuity of urban life there was never broken, as it was in Britain, and that from the eleventh century onwards many of the communes exercised the regalian rights in northern Italy to an extent almost unknown in the north of Europe. Considering this in conjunction with the knowledge that the use of a device or arms personal to the bearer was but a late development in the use of territorial insignia for military purposes it may not seem so strange.

When Pope Leo II, in 754, sent the keys of St. Peter’s tomb to Charlemagne as the token of his investiture with the office of Patricius and Dux Romanorum he also sent the vexillum of the city to signify the transfer of temporal authority. This probably resembled the classical signum, the strip of red cloth below the traverse of the standard, under which at a later date the papal troops are known to have mustered. More striking evidence is found about 940 when Alberic, having seized the control of the the city of Rome from his mother, the infamous Marozia, proceeded to organise the civic militia in twelve regiments, corresponding to the twelve ‘regions’ of Rome and commanded by Banderesi or standard-bearers. It is evident that these standards, to be of any use in the battlefield, must have borne different designs, but nothing seems to be known of their duration. Certainly from 1059 when Nicholas II created William of Montreuil the “armed advocate or standard-bearer of the Roman See” there must have been a recognisable banner pertaining to the Church or Papal State, and its subsequent appearances and development have been worked out by D. L. Galbreath in his book Papal Heraldry.

Leaving these shadowy premonitions of future developments it is certain that when Archbishop Heribert invented the Carroccio in about 1036 for the war of the people of Milan against the Emperor Conrad precedents were not lacking. A bas-relief carved in 1171 on the Porta Romano of Milan depicts a band of soldiers returning to the city led by a civilian bearing a staff tipped by a cross formy with a gonfanon charged with a Latin or long cross also formy.1 Is this perhaps intended to represent Heribert returning from one of his campaigns ? It is certainly not without significance to note that the later arms of the city were Argent a cross Gules.

The carroccio was a four-wheeled cart with the banner of the commune flying from a mast set in the middle of it and was speedily adopted by other communes in Lombardy and Tuscany. In form it was not unknown outside Italy — the standard of Richard I as described in the Itinerarium … Gesta Regis Ricardi is of the same type as is that illustrating the battle “of the Standard” fought against the Scots in 1138 in Roger of Hoveden’s chronicle (B.M. Arundel MS. 150). In the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries most of the communes in the North acquired several coats of arms which were used for different purposes. The Florentine arms are described in great detail by Giovanni Villain in his chronicle which was started on his return from the Jubilee at Rome in 1300. Extensive selections have been published in English and the work is a primary authority for the study of Italian civic heraldry.

In common with all other Italian local historians of the period Villani refers the origins of the city to the Roman period and describes how the Florentine, Perugian, Viterboan, and Orvietan arms were devised then along with those of the city of Rome. (Bk. I, c. 40). The arms used by the sesti (sixths — i.e. wards) of Florence are then described (Bk. III, c. 2) together with all the banners carried when the city went to war (Bk. VI, c. 40). Many of these do not seem to have long survived in use and need not concern us here.

The banner of the carroccio, described as “dimidiated white and vermilion”, is shown in an illuminated manuscript of the chronicle to be a long gonfanon per pale argent and gules (Fig. 2). It is said (Bk. IV, c. 7) to derive from the arrival of the people of Fiesole at Florence in 1010 after the sacking of the former. The arms of the city, properly speaking were originally Gules a fleur de lis fleurencée Argent but in 1251, after the defeat of the Ghibelline party, “the Guelfs who remained in the lordship of Florence, changed the arms of the commonwealth of Florence;… they now made the field white and the lily red; and the Ghibellines retained the former standard, but the ancient standard of the commonwealth dimidiated white and red, … never was changed.” (Bk. VI, c. 43). There seems here to be some inconsistency for when describing earlier (c. 40) the order for going to war he states that the Pavise bearers bore both varieties.

In 1265, the leaders of the Guelf party, being exiled from Florence, sent ambassadors to Pope Clement IV asking that he might recommend them and their followers to Charles, Count of Anjou, then preparing for his campaign against Manfred of Sicily. Providing them with money: “the Pope required that for love of him the Guelf party from Florence should always bear his own proper arms on their banner and seal, namely the white field with a vermilion eagle above a green serpent, the which was borne and held by them henceforward to our day. Though it is true that the Guelfs added afterwards a small vermilion lily above the head of the eagle”. (Bk. VII, c. 2). The wording is worthy of note and suggests the terms of a grant rendered in oratio obliqua before incorporation into the chronicle. Certainly something must have marked the concession, either a written document, or the delivery of the banner to the ambassadors with a verbal limitation of the grantor’s will and intention.2 Whatever passed between the Pope and the ambassadors in 1265 the Guelfs of Florence continued to use the arms and they are regularly emblazoned with the other coats pertaining to the city.

Two other coats remain to be discussed, the first of these occurred in 1292 when certain merchants, in order to curb the power of the noble factions, introduced the Ordinances of Justice. One thousand of the people, from all the sesti, were on summons to follow the Gonfaloniere di Giustizia, to dispossess any rebellious nobles and raze their fortified palaces. They were assigned the banner Argent a cross Gules (Bk. VIII, c. 1). In 1375 the Priors of Liberty, who directed the wave of republican revolt in that year, devised the arms Gules the word LIBERTAS in bend Argent for their supporters. Although the republics so formed were of short duration the arms continued in use for a long time.

Apart from these arms pertaining to the whole commune of Florence we learn that in 1266 the major ‘Arti’ (mercantile guilds) were assigned arms, and that their example was followed by the minor (craft guilds) in 1282 (Bk. VII, c. 13, 79). As was the case with the arms for the commune and the sesti the use of these arms for the Arti arose from military necessity.


The lis of the State of Florence and the arms of Colonna

The Origins and Development of Heraldry, ii. Personal Arms

It is when we turn to the consideration of the origins and development of family arms that the lack of seals or of any material comparable to the publications of the Historical Monuments Commission in this country becomes most apparent. There is, however, sufficient to indicate the broad outlines of the developments in the use of personal arms.

A tomb in the church of Aracoeli at Rome dating from 1213 has a Norman shield bearing the arms Bendy, on a chief a label of five pendants. During the course of the thirteenth century the first purely armorial seals appear, several of the matrices in the collections at the Ashmolean and British Museums being of this period. An example which can be precisely dated is that of Stefano Colonna in the Vatican Archives used in 1290. This is a triangular shield bearing the well known column (colonna), the canting device of his family.

The thirteenth century also witnessed the adoption of armorial devices by some at least of the merchants. In 1263 the arms of the “Four Provisors” of the Biccherna at Siena were painted on the cover of the tax-book for that year inaugurating that well known and valuable series. At Florence in the same year Raynuttio Ardengi, a merchant of that city, sealed with a shield Barry of eight set between the attires of a

stag’s head. From the end of the same century many seals for the merchant bankers of Florence and other Italian towns are preserved, many in the Public Record Office. Giovanni di Lucca sealed in 1315-16 with a shield bearing a Lion rampant holding a boar’s head pierced by a sword and another boar’s head in sinister chief (E. 43/328). The famous Society of the Bardi of Florence appear to have used a corporate coat based on the arms of the family Or seven lozenges conjoined in bend Gules. For example Dino Forsetti seals in 1338 with Three lozenges conjoined to a bendlet and in 1358 with a Cross. (E. 43/141, 338). The former coat is found on many of the seals of other members of the company whose family arms are known to have been quite different.

We have seen that Pope Clement IV granted his own arms to the Guelfs of Florence, but the first Pope for whom there is contemporary evidence for th arms actually used by him is Boniface VIII after about 1295. A tablet recording the foundation of an oratory by Tommaso Andrei Bishop of Pistoia in 1296 has two small shields of his arms a Rose or cinquefoil between three roundels. After 1300 the evidence for the use of arms by ecclesiastics of all ranks becomes more frequent and there can be little doubt but that the late date of their adoption when compared with France or Germany is due to the conservative influence of the Roman Curia.


Arms of the Visconti

The external ornaments of the shield

The widening of the concept of heraldic capacity which is found all over Europe in the 13th century accounts, no doubt, for the adoption in the closing years of that century of crowns, crests, tiaras and the like which would indicate the rank of the bearer. The crest apparently deriving from the tournament gear used in Germany in the thirteenth century, where the earliest evidence for its regular use is found, appears in Italy during the 14th century. In 1339 Alberto della Scala sealed with a gothic shield couché surmounted by a pot helm with a talbot’s (?) head for the crest, and, at the same time, Mastino della Scala used a spade-shaped seal with the ladder (scala) of the family arms surmounted by a similar head in a vol without the intervention of a helm. The Visconti of Milan used a crest based upon the biscione (serpent devouring a man) of their arms which is treated in several ways. Luchino Visconti sealed in 1341 with a beautifully designed seal depicting, in a squared quatrelobe, a gothic shield couché surmounted by a pot helm with a demi-serpent and man from the arms in a vol.

A mural painting at Milan, also of fourteenth century date, depicts the same crest but without the vol and with the serpent crowned and a prominent web running down the back of its neck. Yet another variant depicts the entire serpent placed across the helm. Towards the end of the fifteenth century the crest which has hitherto been fairly common on the mural tablets set up to commemorate the terms of office of local officials falls into desuetude. Coronets, originally depicted as a simple circlet of gold adorned with jewels, appear towards the end of the fifteenth century. At first they were only used by sovereign princes but, during the seventeenth century, the whole range of coronets on the usual continental patterns are introduced. The Phrygian cap worn by the Doges of Venice from early times appears as a timbre to some of the shields in an armorial of Venetian families painted in 1426 at the front of Fitzwilliam MS. 301 at Cambridge.

   Supporters are found fairly frequently from the thirteenth century and, as is general on the continent, have no particular limitations placed upon their use. In 1267 Lotto Ugolini, a Sienese merchant, sealed with a shield Barry nebuly set between two birds addorsed and regardant. Francesco Bandini, a merchant from Lucca, used a seal with a shield supported from behind by a wodewose c. 1345. This use of a single supporter, often wearing a crested helm, was fairly common and is found on seals of the Counts of Savoy and on the memorial tablets already referred to.

In the period we are concerned with the only ecclesiastical insignia of rank used were as follows. At first the crossed Keys and then the Tiara alone or combined with them are used by the Popes. The red hat for the Cardinals appears during the course of the fourteenth century and from 1521 the Cardinal Camerlengo uses the pavilion or Ombrellino with the Keys during the vacancy of the Holy See. Patriarchs and Archbishops use the double or single traversed Cross behind their shields from the early fifteenth century. Bishops normally timbre their shields with a Mitre from about 1340 and the Protonotaries Apostolic use the black Hat after about 1450. Their example is followed by the Domestic Prelates of the Curia in the early sixteenth century with the use of a purple Hat. The situation is temporarily confused by the fact that Abbots also use the Mitre from the latter end of the fifteenth century.

    Orders of chivalry are rarely depicted and are generally arranged round the shield or are incorporated in the general design of the door or tomb where they are found. A curious example of their being placed inside the shield is to be found on a stemma from the della Robbia workshops for a member of the Minerbetti family in the Victoria and Albert Museum. This shows a Tuscan shield with the three Swords of the family arms and in chief a small Tiara with the Keys — the emblem of the Equites Aurati S. Petri.


  1. This is illustrated in the Enciclopedia Italiana, art. Araldica, fig. 2, from G. Giulini, Mem. spettanti alla storia . . . delle cittá . . . di Milano.
  2. Since this was written searches in the Vatican Archives have failed to produce any documents relating to this incident