On June 25, 1183, representatives of Italy’s Lombard League met Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa on Lake Konstanz to receive his signature on a charter promising to respect the effective independence of the League’s component cities, as well as the League’s right to continue defending that independence by force of arms. The League’s victory in the May 29, 1176 Battle of Legnano was the event’s primary military cause. That, in turn, had followed the 1164 formation of the League of Verona which, in December 1167, joined the Lombard League. Earlier that year, representatives of Brescia, Bergamo, Cremona, Mantova, and Milano had met and sworn solemnly to fight together. By no means did the cities give up any of their independence. The League’s very purpose was to maintain its members’ separate prerogatives vis-à-vis an empire that they regarded as centralizing and oppressive.
The details of the League’s military struggle underline the power of dogged local defense over superior forces. Frederick’ fifth descent into Italy had involved some 8,000 troops, mostly cavalry. Devastation in revenge for insubordinate slights was his purpose. His previous campaign had largely destroyed Milano. Now he would destroy Alessandria, built by Milanese refugees. Some 1,000 Milanese pikemen were the Lombard forces’ core, ranged around a cart decorated with the cities’ insignia, on which holy Mass was celebrated. Frederick received some 2000 reinforcements. The German cavalry dispersed the Lombard cavalry. But as the Germans were pressing the pikemen, sworn to fight to the death, the regrouped Lombard cavalry hit them from the rear. Frederick, unhorsed, barely escaped with his life. The Germans panicked and fled.
The battle’s, and the peace’s modern significance begin with Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, La Battaglia di Legnano, first performed in Rome in 1849. A sequel to his Nabucco (Milano, 1842), which had none too subtly conflated Italian hopes of nationhood with the captive Israelites’ lot in Babylon, these operas played no small part in Europe’s 19th-century history. But the 21st-century’s spirit seems very different.
The leading element of today’s Italian government, subsequent to the March 4, 2018 landslide election results, is “The League.” It had begun in 1984 as The Lombard League, and then renamed itself The Northern League. Founded on the site of the 1167 mythical oath that had constituted its ancestor, there it celebrates its birthday each year. Its symbol recalls the cart around which the Milanese pikemen had held off the Germans.
The medieval League’s spirit is very much alive within it, throughout Northern Italy’s cities, and in other parts of Europe as well. It is less the spirit of Verdi’s 19th-century nationalism than of a much older defense of one’s own place and ways against supranational, and even national authorities, never mind foreigners. The League’s overwhelming contemporary popularity in Northern Italy is based on its having ended illegal migration from the Middle East and Africa and on its promise to deport some half million illegal migrants. It is also based on its resistance to policies emanating from Germany directly (as well as through the EU bureaucracy and the European Central Bank) that its constituents regard as injurious and demeaning.
Analogous sentiments rising in Catalonia and Euzkadi, in England and Scotland, in Wallonia and Bavaria, vis-à-vis their countries’ authority, as well as in whole countries against supranational authority, are the hallmarks of our century’s European history.