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A Signoria (Italian pronunciation: [siɲɲoˈriːa]; from Signore [siɲˈɲoːre], or Lord) was an abstract noun meaning (roughly) 'government; governing authority; de facto sovereignty; lordship' in many of the Italian city states during the medieval and renaissance periods.

The perennial "power vacuum" of medieval Italy

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.

Later, Imperial orders such as the Carolingians, the Ottonians, and Hohenstaufens also managed to impose their overlordship in Italy. But their successes were as transitory as Justinian's and a unified Italian state remained a dream until the nineteenth century.

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. These — and the descendants of the Lombards — who became fused with earlier Italian ethnic groups — conspired against, fought, 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 commune

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.

Indeed, 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.

Types of Signoria

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 this 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 which are similar to manorial lordships and, like them, were established in Norman times. With the abolition of feudalism in Sicily in 1812, some of these holdings became baronies. More often, a barony consisted of several signorie.

Origins of the word Signoria

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

For example, the word Signoria was sometimes used in Renaissance times to refer to the Government of the Republics of Florence or of Venice - as in Shakespeare's Othello where 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 Signoria referred to specific organs or functions of the state. The Signoria of Florence was the highest executive organ, while the Signoria of the Republic of Venice was mainly a judicial body.

See also