by Roderick Conway Morris

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The 'Count Dracula' of the Veneto

By Roderick Conway Morris
BASSANO DEL GRAPPA, Italy 27 October 2001
Uffizi, Florence
Ezzelino III by Cristofano dell'Altissimo,
late 16th century



The reputation of the Ezzelini in the Veneto is somewhat on a par with that of Count Dracula's in Transylvania. Ezzelino III was variously described by the Vatican as 'a poisonous scorpion,' 'the forerunner of the Antichrist,' 'a savage beast in the guise of a man' and many centuries later his allegedly bloodthirsty and demonic character is still the stuff of legend.

The Da Romano family, who took their name from one of the castles they came into possession of, but also dubbed the Ezzelini after the first name Ezzelino conferred on a succession of first-born males, were powerful warlords in this region from the late 11th century until their sudden demise in 1259. Their trustiest fortress was this pretty town at the mouth of a gorge out of which the Brenta flows onto the plains on its way from the Alps to the Adriatic.

The Ezzelini's prominence in this strategically, politically and economically influential part of the peninsula made them leading protagonists in the monumental struggle between the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperors.

The supporters of the former came to be called the Guelfs and the latter the Ghibellines. Indeed, so seriously did Pope Alexander IV take Ezzelino III as Public Ghibelline No. 1, that he declared a crusade directed against him personally, offering indulgences to whoever took up arms against him equal those promised to those who volunteered to fight the infidel in the Holy Land.

Despite the unsavoriness of the Ezzelini's image, later historians have sometimes seen them as prototypes of the cultured, art-loving despots of the Renaissance. And, whatever their misdeeds, for today's burghers of Bassano they were at least 'our despots,' and the town is now hosting a colorful exhibition devoted to them: 'The Ezzelini: Lords of the Marches at the Heart of the Empire of Frederick II,' which continues at Palazzo Bonaguro until Jan. 6.

The Ezzelini were not native to this area, coming originally from the lands of the Germanic emperors to the north. They established themselves here during the 11th century when military adventurers and assorted freebooters - the Normans among them - were carving out fiefdoms in various parts of Europe. One way or another they maintained their allegiance to the German emperors down the generations and ultimately claimed their legitimacy from them.

Ezzelino III was born in 1194, the same year that the future Emperor Frederick II came into this world at Jesi, on the Adriatic coast, and Ezzelino's fate came to depend on him. Frederick was the last of the Holy Roman Emperors actually to rule large swathes of Italy, and Ezzelino effectively became his local governor in the northeast, while exercising considerable freedom of action. But when Frederick II died in 1250, and the Hohenstauffen line was extinguished by the execution of his son Conrad IV in 1254, Ezzelino's days were numbered.

But the papacy was by no means Ezzelino's sole adversary in this extremely violent age, when temporary alliances, the switching of sides, perfidy and treachery were the norm. The burgeoning, independent-minded cities of Padua, Verona, Vicenza and Treviso put up stiff resistance to Ezzelino's attempts to impose his absolute will over them - while being in an almost constant state of war with each other - and it was during these years that they built the huge city halls that still loom over their town centers and even now serve as symbols of civic pride.

That the Ezzelini were ruthless warlords is amply recorded in contemporary chronicles, but the level of their culture and the extent of their patronage of the arts is less certain. The primary obstacle faced by the curators of this exhibition, one of the aims of which is to try to distinguish myth from reality, is that virtually nothing remains of their legacy but their ruined or much altered castles and recently discovered but fragmentary frescoes in Verona and Bassano to link the clan directly with the art and architecture of the epoch, which flourished to a remarkable extent despite the constant conflicts.

In the absence of such material bearing their personal stamp, the show's organizers have been assiduous and energetic in tracking down appropriate artworks and artifacts that give an evocative flavor of this generally unfamiliar period.

There are some intriguing pieces here from 'primitive' wooden crucifixes and a statue of a Christ Riding the Donkey from Verona, which was devoutly believed to contain the bones of the original beast that bore Jesus through the gates of Jerusalem, to a door faced with ceramic tiles and coins unearthed in what appears to have been a secret counterfeiters' workshop.

Most of the information about the Ezzelini that has come down to us today is from literary and documentary sources, which are harder to do justice to in an exhibition. French chivalric poetry and prose set the trend throughout the Western world in this age. But Ezzelino's sister Cunizza achieved enduring international fame, when she jettisoned the rule book of courtly flirtation and platonic romance, ditching her nobleman husband to run off with a troubadour, and ending up in Florence, where she had a string of lovers.

Surprisingly, while Dante in his 'Divine Comedy' encounters her brother in the Inferno, bobbing around in a boiling river of blood with miscellaneous other historical tyrants being tormented by Centaur archers, he meets Cunizza in Paradise. This Botticellian space-maiden informs him that she gladly grants herself absolution for her past sins, before floating off into the celestial void to rejoin the cosmic dance.

Cunizza was the only one of the clan's last generations to come to such a happy end on earth or in heaven. In 1259, Ezzelino was wounded in battle and expired in captivity. His brother Alberico and his family were subjected to a horrifying auto-da-fé. He and his sons were hacked to pieces and his wife and daughters tortured and burned at the stake. And their merciless extirpation left the telling of their story almost entirely in the hands of their enemies.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024