PODESTA (Lat. potestas, power), the name given during the later middle ages to a high official in many Italian cities. Podestas or rectors were first appointed by the emperor Frederick I. when about 1158 he began to assert his Imperial rights over the cities of northern Italy. Their business was to enforce these rights; from the first they were very unpopular, and their arbitrary behaviour was a factor in bringing about the formation of the Lombard league and the rising against Frederick in 1167.
Although the emperor's experiment was short-lived podestas soon became general in northern Italy, making their appearance in most communes about 1200. These officials, however, were now appointed by the citizens or by their representatives. They exercised the supreme power in the city, both in peace and war, both in foreign and domestic matters, but they only held office for a period of a year. In order to avoid the intestine strife so common in Italian civic life, it soon became the custom to select a stranger to fill this position. Venetians were in special request for this purpose during the 12th and 13th centuries, probably because at this time, at least, they were less concerned than other Italians in the affairs of the mainland. Afterwards in a few cases the term of office was extended to cover a period of years, or even a lifetime.
During the later part of the 12th and the whole of the 13th century most of the Italian cities were governed by podestas. Concerning Rome, Gregorovius says that in 1205 " the pope changed the form of the civic government; the executive power lying henceforward in the hand of a single senator or podesta, who, directly or indirectly, was appointed by the pope." In Florence soon after 1180 the chief authority was transferred from the consuls to the podesta, and Milan and other cities were also ruled by these officials. There were, moreover, podestas in some of the cities of Provence. Gradually the podestas became more despotic and more corrupt, and sometimes a special official was appointed to hear complaints against them; in the 13th century in Florence and some other cities a capitano del popolo was chosen to look after the interests of the lower classes. In other ways also the power of the podestas was reduced; they were confined more and more to judicial functions until they disappeared early in the 16th century.
The officials who were sent by the Italian republics to administer the affairs of dependent cities were sometimes called podestas. At the present day the cities of Trent and Trieste give the name of podesta to their chief magistrate.
The example of Italy in the matter of podestas was sometimes followed by cities and republics in northern Europe in the middle ages, notably by such as had trade relations with Italy. The officers thus elected sometimes bore the title of podesta or podestat. Thus in East Friesland there were podestas identical in name and functions with those of the Italian republics; sometimes each province had one, sometimes the federal diet elected a podesta-general for the whole country, the term of office being for a limited period or for life (see J. L. Motley, Dutch Republic, i. 44, ed. 1903).
Lists of the Italian podestas are given in Stokvis, Manuel d'histoire ; vol. iii. (Leiden, 1889). See also W. F. Butler, The Lombard Communes (1906).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)