Sardinia in the late Middle Ages

The Late Middle Ages can be considered to have been particularly interesting in Sardinia with the formation of the Judicates, autonomously governed regions that split up the island in four political entities by 1073. There are still a lot of silent witnesses of this momentous period in history; the romanesque churches, the monasteries, the castle ruins on hill tops, the city walls, the city towergates, the picturesque historical centre of Cagliari (Casteddu or the castle). Many names of towns and villages derived from the economical organization in the countryside, the villa (but this was not the roman villa) like in Villanovaforru, and a few towns like Sassari and Villa di Chiesa (Iglesias) have medieval origins. The four Judicates were however under a great external pressure, and this can still be seen in the architecture, the Pisan style, in the names of Genuese origin like Doria and Malaspina, and ofcourse in the catalan dialect of Alghero that is still spoke today.

The medieval sources

On the history of the Judicates much has been written, especially since the nineteenth century, the Romantic period, because it was an inspiring subject. It even lead to the biggest case of historical falsification of sources in Sardinian history, the false Carte d'Arborea. It has also inspired writers to put too much emphasis on the role of Eleonora d'Arborea in the struggle for independence of Sardinia against the Catalan kings.
There remain many sources, some quite detailed, that permit a more realistic account of the history of Sardinia in the late Middle Ages. The Condaghi, books of the monasteries and churches with annotations, are important testimonies of daily life. For the political history there are many original and copied documents (sometimes even these were falsified in the past) like the letters of the popes of Rome, the archives of the maritime republics of Genua and Pisa, the archives of the Catalan kings, all sources where Sardinia and the Judicates are somehow mentioned 1. Other sources are undoubtedly the paintings and inscriptions, most dedicatory, that can be found in churches and monasteries and archaeological research, which has been underestimated too much in the past.

The Judicates (Giudicati)

From the sources of the eleventh century AD much more is known about the Judicates of Cagliari Torres, Arborea and Gallura. The four reigns were governed by the Iudex (Giudice) who had often close family ties with each other. In fact in many documents two families are mentioned in particular, the de Lacon and the Gunale. The existence of these close family ties was known to the pope who sent letters to condemn the sometimes incestuous marriages. When reconstructing the lineages of the Judicates from the sources there was for example in Cagliari a Iudex called Costantino Salustio de Lacon (1081), in Arborea reigned Torbeno de Lacon (1102) and in Torres Mariano de Lacon (1073) 2.
With the fading of the Byzantine and greek-orthodox influence in Sardinia the popes in Rome intensified their meddling with religious life on the island. One of the consequences of the religious reforms was the large number of donations by the Giudici of churches and lands to the religious orders of the Benedicts of Marseille and of Montecassino recorded in many documents 3.

Sardinia between Pisa and Genoa

Sardinia became one of the major scenes of the competition between the two maritime republics of Genoa and Pisa who had been called in aid to fend of the arabic raids on the island. The records not only show many donations by the Judicate of Torres to religious orders in Pisa, but also mention an agreement (1080-1085) where Pisa benefitted of important privileges. The Judicate of Cagliari followed suit with a similar agreement with Pisa and eventually also the Judicate of Gallura in 1112. In the territory of the Judicate of Torres the religious orders of the Vallombrosini and the Camaldolesi were invited to settle 4.
Just like Pisa Genoa too managed to obtain donations and privileges in Sardinia, both from the Judicate of Cagliari and that of Arborea. In the latter Judicate Comita was Iudex (1131) and his donations to Genoa comprised lands and means that he did not even officially posses which has been seen as a first indication of the ambitions of the Judicate of Arborea to extend it's domination to the whole island. The Judicates tried to balance the power of Pisa and Genoa in Sardinia by extending privileges to the one or the other 5.

In this struggle for power and influence between Pisa and Genoa in Sardinia the popes in Rome played their part by first creating a new church province of Liguria with the island of Corsica and then assigning Sardinia nominally to the church province of Pisa. The struggle for influence of the two towns continued and the Judicates sought support from Pisa and Genoa also for their internal strife. Comita of Arborea tried to obtain the support from Genoa while Gonario of Torres sought support from Pisa. Some historians maintain that Comita was a pawn in the hands of the Genoese to contain the advance of Pisa. After the death of Comita his son Barisone became Iudex of Arborea and it would be this Giudice who would draw eventually the newly rising power of the Mediterranean, the catalan Barcellona, into the game by marrying Agalbursa de Bas.
But first Frederick I Barbarossa intervened, claiming his rights because he had managed to make the duke of Bavaria the marquis of Tuscany. He found pope Hadrian IV and both the towns of Genoa and Pisa opposing him in his claims on Sardinia. Meanwhile Barisone began to harass the Judicates of Torres and Cagliari in an attempt to increase the influence of Arborea. With the help of Genoa he even obtained the title of Rex Sardinae from Frederick I, but not without Genoa lending him a large amount of money to pay off the emperor. Genoa kept Barisone hostage in Liguria under the pretext that he had to pay his debts and used his claims on Sardinia to put pressure on the Judicates of Torres and Cagliari against Pisa. But the emperor decided to grant to Pisa the feudal rights on Sardinia, not without cashing from the town another large sum. It all lead to a sea battle in front of the coasts of Sardinia between Pisa and Genoa where the Tuscan town won a decisive victory over it's rival. Genoa now reverted to politics of appeasement between the Judicates and put pressure on Barisone to waive his rights as king of Sardinia. Pisa and Genoa made peace and agreed practically on a division of spheres of influence on the island, at that point Barisone was allowed to return to Oristano in 1172. The Iudex appeared to be under complete control of Genoa, the town managed to obtain many privileges in the Judicate of Arborea, still it would take only a few years before Barisone started putting pressure again on the Judicate of Cagliari 6.

The Sovereignty of the Judicates at stake

Costantino, the Iudex of Cagliari, pursued a pro-Pisan policy which he sealed by marrying two of his daughters off to Oberto di Massa and Tedice Donoratico della Gherardesca. A third daughter was given in marriage to Pietro, Iudex of Torres. At the death of Costantino Pietro of Torres made himself the new Iudex of Cagliari, but at that time Pisa and Genoa were again in heavy competition and Oberto di Massa saw his opportunity to take the Judicate of Cagliari by force and make his son Guglielmo di Massa ruler of the Judicate. In the meantime in Arborea the Iudex Pietro, son of Barisone, still heavily burdened with the debt to Genoa was challenged by his cousin Ugo de Bas who wanted control of the Judicate. Pietro was forced by Genoa to share the office of Iudex with Ugo de Bas. Genoa also tried to put pressure on Costantino II of Torres with an agreement signed in 1191 but Guglielmo di Massa attacked the Judicate of Torres. Costantino II and, after his death, his son Comita were forced by Guglielmo to maintain a pro-Pisan policy. Guglielmo married his daughter to Ugo de Bas of Arborea securing for himself the support of this Judicate as well. He failed however to gain control of the Judicate of Gallura because his greatest opponent in Pisa, Lamberto Visconti, married Elena of Gallura, a major setback for Guglielmo in his attempt to control the whole island 7.

Although pope Innocent III had made Sardinia part of the episcopate of Pisa, the popes still considered the island, together with Sicily and Corsica, as part of their worldly power. This was confirmed by the emperor Frederick II in 1219. The popes demanded an oath from the Iudex to recognize their supremacy and they managed to force the reigning Iudex more than once to comply when these needed papal dispensation for the marriages between cousins to safeguard their lineage and their family possessions. Slowly Sardinia became part of the European feudal system. This can be seen not only in the relations of the rulers of the island with the popes, but also in their subordinate relations with the maritime republics of Pisa and Genoa. It inevitably led to the undermining of the sovereighty of the Iudex in Sardinia 8.

The end of the Judicates of Cagliari and Torres

At the beginning of the thirteenth century the family of the Visconti played a crucial part in the Judicate of Cagliari. The Visconti limited the rights of Benedetta di Massa, the first woman to bear the title of Iudex, and they built the castle of Cagliari (Castrum Kalari) that even today is still called the castle (Casteddu). The Visconti also tried to gain control over the Judicate of Torres. When the Iudex of Torres was murdered in the town of Sassari they tried to marry the only heir to the title, Adelasia di Torres, with a Pisan. However the Genoese family of the Doria prevented this by forcing Adelasia to marry the son of the emperor Frederick II, called Enzo. Frederick II tried to renew his rights on the island by making his son Enzo King of Sardinia, but this turned out to be an empty formality. The popes claimed the feudal rights and had every Iudex pledge them loyalty to the church. Adelasia would be the last Iudex of Torres when in 1259 the mighty families of Genoa took over complete control.
After the death of the Judicessa of Cagliari, Benedetta di Massa, strife broke out and the Pisan Chiano di Massa sided with Genoa which brought Castrum Kalari in the hands of the Genoese. This did not take long, an alliance of the Pisan families of Visconti with Guglielmo di Capraia (the Iudex of Arborea of Pisan origin) and Gherardo Donoratico della Gherardesca managed to throw out Chiano and his cousin Guglielmo Cepolla and take over Castrum Kalari again. Soon after that the traditional seat of the Judicate of Cagliari at Sant'Igia at the foot of the castle was demolished. Guglielmo Cepolla would be the last proclaimed Iudex of Cagliari 9.
The north of Sardinia was solidly in the hands of the Genoese families while the south remained under the direct control of the Pisan families.


1 Ortu 2005, p 305-306 for a complete overview of available and published sources; Paulis 2000, p 881-914; Cau 2000, p 313-421;Galoppini 2004, p 145
2 Ortu 2005, p 48-51
3 Boscolo 1978, p 133-137,139; Galoppini 2004, p 148-149; Ortu 2005, p 55-62
4 Boscolo 1978, p 143-145; Galoppini 2004, p 148-149; Ortu 2005, p 62-66
5 Ortu 2005, p 67-71; Boscolo 1978, p 143-145,151-155
6 Ortu 2005, p 109-126; Galoppini 2004, p 149
7 Ortu 2005, p 126-133
8 Ortu 2005, p 135-140
9 Ortu 2005, p 165-179


1. Boscolo, A. 1978: La Sardegna bizantina e alto-giudicale, Sassari
2. Cau, E. 2000, Peculiarità e anomalie della documentazione sarda tra XI e XIII secolo in: Giudicato d'Arborea e Marchesato di Oristano: proiezioni mediterranee e aspetti di storia locale, ed. G. Mele, Oristano, p. 313-421
3. Galoppini, L. 2004, La Sardegna giudicale e catalano-aragonese in: Storia della Sardegna, ed. M. Brigaglia, Cagliari, p. 131-168
4. Ortu, G.G. 2005: La Sardegna dei Giudici, Nuoro
5. Paulis, G. 2000, Il problema dei falsi nella documentazione sarda medioevale e la linguistica in: Giudicato d'Arborea e Marchesato di Oristano: proiezioni mediterranee e aspetti di storia locale, ed. G. Mele, Oristano, p. 881-914

Last updated 06/01/2014

Nuraghe App

Get it on Google Play
©2019 Sitemap Privacy Contact