Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Guglielmo Boccanegra: Captain of the People

Genoa, 1490
Guglielmo Boccanegra made a name for himself in Genoese politics of the 13th century. After being an experienced official from a non-aristocratic family, Boccanegra ruled over prosperous yet a divided Genoa. He came to power as Captain of the Popolo or the People elected by the people. His government presided over financial reforms and achieved considerable diplomatic developments. Although his rule was short, he made an impact to the political life of Genoa for centuries.

Genoa – 1250’s

At the dawn of the 1200’s, the Crusade raised many Italian states to prosper as demand for their shipping services increased. Genoa took this opportunity and with the rest of Italians established enclaves in the Levant that served as bases for trade. It did thrived and rivalled with Pisa and Venice. Due to this prosperity, it became a player in Italian politics, especially during the rivalry between the Pope’s Guelf supporters and the Holy Roman Emperor’s Ghibelline faction. It took part in the Lombard League that resisted the advance of Holy Roman Emperor in Italy.

Internally, however, Genoese politics was far from peaceful. It did enjoyed a democratic form of government with the Communes and city councils as well as the podesta or foreign city administrators that also governed the city. But landed nobles and big and wealthy merchants dominated the politics squabbling for dominance over the rest. They either fought for their class interest or for their Guelf and Ghibelline parties that prevailed in Italian political arena.

Guglielmo Boccanegra

As Genoa prospered and the elite fought with each other, a Guglielmo Boccanegra pursued a career in government. He came from a wealthy but none aristocratic family. His family’s wealth allowed him to serve as an official both in Genoa and abroad. In 1249, he served as a consul in the French Commune of Aigues Mortes followed by a stint in Acre in the Levant where he also served as a consul. Finally, in 1256, he made a name for himself in local politics by becoming a member of the city council of Genoa. There he made himself known as a champion of reform and fighter of abuses and corruption. 

Boccanegra’s background and his image fit to lead the rising sector of the Genoese society known as the Popolo – the People.

The People

A new sector began to emerge in Genoa, the social class known as the Popolo – Italian word for People. As to who belonged to the Popolo remained scantly defined, but it simply meant anyone who did not belonged to the nobility or big wealthy merchant class. The Popolo included craftsmen, laborers, and small merchants. The lower strata of the social hierarchy that suffer from the ineffectiveness brought by the mismanagement and infighting of the higher classes.

The Popolo made much of Genoa’s population and contributed tremendously in the city’s economy in terms of labor and manpower. They worked the ships and workshops. They fought the wars and transported trading goods safely. Yet, their share in the government remained little if not non-existence. The pride of nobles and the rich shunned the lesser Popolo to the margins of government. While the nobles, Guelphs and Ghibellines fought each other, the Popolo stood by and felt the mostly negative effects of the conflicts. All things change, however, when the international politics and the economy took a turn.
Guelf and Ghibelline Factions fighting in Bologna
Disillusionment and realization for the Popolo came as the economy soured. The height of the Guelph and Ghibelline Wars during the 1240’s turned the attention of Genoese away from local politics to international conflicts. The wartime economy boosted employment and brought money to the Genoese. But when the conflict ended in 1250, the economy took a slump. Shipping industry shrank and local employment also dropped. Soon major banks in the city left causing sense of economic depression. The Popolo felt the downturn and wanted change. But their lack of political voice led to their anger of the current political establishment. Elsewhere, popolo in different cities already rose up and elected their Captain of the People. Soon, Genoese popolo took the same path.

Guglielmo Boccanegra, Captain of the People

Boccanegra’s tryst with destiny came in January 1257. The Podesta of Genoa Filippo della Torre ended his term and began his journey out of the city when suddenly crowds rioted in the streets. The disgruntled Genoese shouted while in fury “fiat populous” or Power to the People. Soon, the riot became a city wide revolt and they gathered for a meeting in Church of San Siro. There they elected a new council of elders, made up of 32 men with every 4 representing a district of the city. Finally, they choose Guglielmo Boccanegra as the new Captain of the People. Nobles did not move against this outburst of popular movement knowing the end might be bad for them. Some notable families in the city like the Doria and Grimaldi even supported the new regime, beginning the rule of Boccanegra.

Boccanegra moved to the palace of the Richerio Family and set up his government. He had a 10-year tenure ahead of him and in case of his sudden demise during the course, his brother had been set up as his successor. Following that he had a retinue assigned to him which included a knight, 12 guards, 50 man-in-arms assigned to protect him. In addition, 2 notaries and a judge served him in legal matters. A podesta also remained to manage the government bureaucracy. For all this the state paid for his staff while, he received 1,000 lires as salary.

Just as his 1st year in office closed, news from the Levant shook Genoa. Genoa had been involved in a war against Venice in the Levant. The 2 Italian city states fought over for the control of the St. Sabas Monastery in Acre. Genoa sent a large naval task for to cement Genoa’s claim, but in June 23, 1258, the Genoese fleet sailed to a military disaster. The Venetians and their allies destroyed half of the ships. When the news of the defeat reached Genoa, many opinioned that the defeat came as a result of mismanagement of the past administration and absolved Boccanegra of any responsibility. Boccanegra felt the popolo and the whole of Genoa’s desire for vengeance and swore to deliver it. From then on, he focused in strengthening Genoa to defeat its archenemy Venice.

Financial Reforms

He began by reorganizing the city’s finances to replenish the dry coffers. The city’s finance stood poorly as the taxes paid by the lower classes went to the pockets of the upper classes literally. Main reason for this was the city’s debt to the nobles where in exchange for immediate sums of money, they would have a share in the tax revenues. Under Boccanegra, this practice became nulled and void. Boccanegra consolidated Genoa’s debts into a single fund and each one who had once took tax revenue would then receive 8% interest based on the amount they lent to the government for every 2 months. Later on, shareholders of the debt had the privilege of selling their shares. In effect, Boccanegra practiced an early public debt market.

Boccanegra also initiated tax reforms. He began to tax land and trade in small rates. He also imposed dues on consumption of certain goods.

Meanwhile, he also strived to increase trade activity to revive the city’s trade. In 1258, he successfully negotiated an agreement with the Genoese clergy to stop the exaction of tithe from foreign ships and sailors. This was meant to encourage the arrival of traders. In exchange for the cessation of the tithe, the government must pay the church a pension of 100 Lira and annual supply of salt. He also put a stop on toll payments in various key entry points of the city in the same year.


In line with Genoa’s objective of vengeance against Venice and stimulating trade for the economy, Boccanegra improved relations with powerful regional kingdoms. In the Italian Peninsula, he allied with King Manfred of Sicily. Their alliance resulted to modest and fair customs dues for Genoese merchants alongside with loggings for them in ports of Gaeta, Naples, Syracuse, Augusta, Siponto, and Trani. In Pera, an enclave of Genoese became known as Little Genoa. In addition, Genoa gained the license to export Sicilian wheat.

Michael Palaeologus
Relation with Byzantines gave Genoa enormous benefits as well. In 1260, 2 Genoese envoys met with Emperor Michael Palaeologus who ambitioned to reclaim Constantinople and reestablish the Byzantine Empire after its defeat in the hands of the Venetian-instigated 4th Crusade. Genoese and Byzantine negotiations resulted to the Treaty of Nymphaeum on April 28, 1261. Under the treaty, Genoa and Byzantine stood as allies against the same enemy – Venice. It also provided Genoa with trade privileges in exchange for naval assistance to the Byzantine Emperor in form of 50 war galleys. It also allowed Genoese to serve in Byzantine navy. The alliance further strengthen when Byzantine forces with the assistance of Genoese navy led by Guglielmo Boccanegra’s brother, Marino, recaptured the Constantinople. With this victory, Genoa became an important partner of the Byzantine Empire and secured further access to the Black Sea, where it established numerous colonies and trading post.

The alliance and the Treaty became a hallmark of Boccanegra’s rule. It helped to increase trade and employment. It also helped in maintain or furthering of Genoa’s prestige in the international stage as a naval power and a rival of Venice.

For the Popolo

Back in home, Boccanegra made sure to remain a ruler for the people. In government, he included guild masters in deciding matters of the state.

He helped in alleviating unemployment by launching construction projects. In 1260, he launched a construction project for the Palazzo San Giorgio, which was meant to serve as the new government palace. At the same, the construction of the harbor mole, later called, Molo Vecchio, started and meant for revitalizing the city’s harbor.

Fall of the Boccanegra Regime

Although Boccanegra committed great strides in improving Genoa, his regime failed to achieve longevity. As to the cause of Boccanegra’s fall remained obscure as contemporary histories, written by pro-elitist factions in Genoa, silenced. Some recorded Boccanegra’s seeming rising authoritarianism caused support for his regime to crumble. Others believed that his move to allow exiled political opponents to return in 1260 gave rise of opposition to his rule. Regardless, the fact remained that in 1262, Guglielmo Boccanegra’s rule came to an end after nobles deposed him and sent him to exile. The rule of the Podesta returned. After his fall, Boccanegra’s life was obscured, even his death.

Political infighting continued to be a specter hunting Genoa. Nobles fought each other and the Popolo. Guelfs and Ghibelline divide also remained.
Depiction of Simone Boccanegra in
Verdi's Play Simone Boccanegra, 1881
The Boccanegras, although disgraced after the fall of Guglielmo, commanded respect and influence hereafter. Guglielmo’s nephew, Simone Boccanegra, was even elected as Genoa’s first Doge, seeming to be an attempt to form a government same as Venice in hope of capturing also its political stability.

Summing Up

Guglielmo Boccanegra’s rise went as a turning point in Genoese history. His rise saw also the emergence of the Popolo as a political force. He also followed the trend of rising Captain of the People in the region and proved himself competent. Nonetheless, the political tide of the time remained in favor of nobles and the well-off resulting to the fall of Boccanegra’s government. Although his government ended in tragedy, he proved the People as political force to be reckon with. 

Dale, Sharon. Chronicling History: Chroniclers and Historians in Medieval and Renaissance Italy. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University, 2007. 

Epstein, Steven. Genoa and the Genoese, 958 - 1528. n.p., North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

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