by Roderick Conway Morris

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Biblioteca Vaticana
De arte venandi cum avibus (On the Art of Hunting with Birds) by Frederick II (left),
mid 13th century

Riding Into the Fire: The Rich Legacy of Frederick II's Reign

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 30 March 1996


Frederick II pulled off one of the greatest diplomatic coups in history. In 1229, after more than a hundred years of strife and slaughter, without a shot being fired or drop of blood spilled, he quietly took possession of Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem and the surrounding area from the Muslims following a negotiated settlement that promised equal treatment and freedom of worship to the followers of both religions.

Since Frederick had been twice excommunicated by the Pope, first for not fulfilling his vow of undertaking the Crusade quickly enough, then for going ahead with it without the permission of the Pontiff (who meanwhile had invaded the absent monarch's Italian territories), Frederick was obliged to crown himself king of Jerusalem - a kingdomless title he had inherited by marriage - in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as no priest dared to defy Rome's ban on him and officiate. This incident summarizes Frederick's entire life.

Although he had much to offer Christendom, he could never reach a satisfactory accommodation with successive popes, and was eventually excommunicated so many times that he himself may have begun to lose count.

Of German and Norman stock, and grandson of Frederick I Barbarossa, Frederick was born in Iesi, near Ancona, in 1194. While his possessions, as Holy Roman Emperor, straddled the Alps, embracing domains in both Germany and Italy (he was also king of Sicily), it was in the peninsula that he saw his most signal triumphs and defeats - and where he presided over and nurtured the first Italian Renaissance.

'Frederick II and Italy,' an exhibition at Palazzo Venezia until April 30 is a belated tribute to him. It was originally scheduled to coincide with the 800th anniversary of his birth.

If somewhat thin in terms of quantity of really first-class exhibits, the show does, however, serve to draw attention to an outstanding figure, the physical and monumental remains of whose rule, such as his arcane, almost futuristic, octagonal fortress of Castel del Monte near Bari and tomb in the Cathedral at Palermo, still do not really do justice to the man and his cultural impact.

Frederick's Sicilian and southern Italian court had a distinctly Oriental flavor, a factor that rendered it all the more obnoxious to the papacy, but which assured its openness to Islamic and Jewish influences. Frederick knew half a dozen languages, including Hebrew. He also showed tendencies toward polygamy, fathered a number of illegitimate children and had eunuchs in his service. Whether, as his detractors claimed, he actually maintained a harem is doubtful. Leading figures welcomed into Frederick's sophisticated and cosmopolitan circle included Michael Scot, translator of Aristotle and of the learned commentaries on him by the Muslim scholar Averroes, and Leonard of Pisa, who brought Arabic numerals and algebra to the West.

Frederick kept a menagerie of weird and wonderful animals, and was himself the author of a scholarly and sharply observant falconry treatise 'On the Art of Hunting with Birds.' Beautiful and lively illuminated manuscripts of this work appear in the part of the show devoted to scientific, philosophical and literary texts, by far the strongest section in terms of authentic contemporary material.

But Frederick is best remembered in Italy as a literary patron. It was at his court, as Dante recognized, that Italian literature was born. Frederick wrote verses in Italian and his principal poet, Pier delle Vigna, invented the sonnet form. Indeed, it is likely that, deviating from convention in vernacular poetry, lyrics were first written there to be read rather than sung to music.

Frederick's wide-ranging intellectual vision is also represented in the thoroughly comprehensive legal code he drew up. In 1224, he established the University of Naples, the first state-sponsored school of higher education of its kind. This institution, not unlike a French grande école, was different from other medieval European universities in that its primary purpose was not to produce schoolmen, theologians, lawyers or even physicians (there was already an important medical school at Salerno that Frederick actively supported), but highly educated public administrators. And, interestingly enough, though today's Naples University naturally has wider purposes, it would still perhaps meet Frederick's approval as an international center of Oriental studies.

The most original part of the show is devoted to the massive twin-towered Capua Gate that Frederick erected spanning the Volturno River, dividing his territories from the papal states to the north. It was demolished in 1557, but some interesting symbolic sculptural and architectural features have survived and are displayed and interpreted here. The chronic and wasteful struggle with the papacy that blighted Frederick's career was never resolved. He died, apparently a disillusioned man, in 1250.

Four years later Pope Innocent IV was buried in the San Gennaro Cathedral in Naples, priding himself that he had at least crushed 'the enemy of Christ, that serpent Frederick.'

In 1266, Frederick's popular illegitimate son, Manfred, was betrayed and killed in battle. Manfred, who was described by Dante as 'biondo e bello,' blond and handsome, had succeeded his father on the throne of Sicily in 1258 and continued his enlightened policies.

And in 1268, Frederick's 17-year-old grandson, Conradin, was at the urging of Clement IV beheaded in Naples, whereupon the Hohenstaufen line became extinct.

The resonance of Frederick's character and achievements is evident in the rumors that persisted for a century after that he was still alive and waiting in a cave to re-emerge and inaugurate a golden age of peace and justice. Another legend related that he had last been seen riding into a boiling sea with 5,000 knights on his way to the fiery crater of Mount Etna.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024