December 26, 2011

The Eighth Wonder of the World: Frederick II Hohenstaufen King of Sicily; Holy Roman Emperor

Federico II di Svevia, Palazzo Reale, Napoli 
Photos by New York Scugnizzo
By Niccolò Graffio

“It is very obvious, and no more than natural, for princes to desire to extend their dominions, and when they attempt nothing but what they are able to achieve they are applauded, at least not upbraided thereby; but when they are not able to compass it, and yet will be doing, then they are condemned, and indeed not unworthily.” – Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince, III, 1513

The Kingdom of Sicily, founded by Roderigo (Roger) II on Christmas Day, 1130 passed to his fourth son Guglielmo (William) I upon his death on February 26th, 1154.  Growing up, Guglielmo had little expectation of ever becoming king.  Over the period of 1138-48 his three older brothers (Roderigo, Tancredo and Alfonso) all died under different circumstances, dramatically changing his fortunes.

Alas, Guglielmo had never been prepared for the rigors of kingship, and so his reign was but a shell of his father’s.  His time on the throne was marked by foreign invasions (in which he lost his father’s North African possessions) and by intrigues and revolts at home.  His last years were peaceful, him having made his peace with Pope Alexander III, who was installed in the Lateran Palace in November, 1165 under the protection of Norman guards.

With Guglielmo’s death on May 7th, 1166 his kingdom passed to his second son, Guglielmo (William) II, called the Good.  Though this Guglielmo was only 11 years old when he ascended the throne, and preferred to spend his time holed up in his palace devoting himself to carnal pleasures, his reign was markedly more aggressive, both diplomatically and militarily, than that of his father.  

Guglielmo II tried unsuccessfully to regain his father’s lost possessions in North Africa.  Failing this, he turned his attention to the Egyptian Sultanate of Saladin, whose own troops were threatening the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.  In July, 1174 Guglielmo II dispatched 30,000 troops to Alexandria, Egypt.  Saladin’s arrival shortly afterwards, however, forced them to withdraw.

In a move that would one day prove disastrous for Norman rule of the Kingdom of Sicily, he signed a peace treaty (Treaty of Venice) with the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa in July, 1777.  This treaty paved the way for 15 years of peace and prosperity for Sicily.  To cement it, Guglielmo II allowed his young aunt Constanza (Constance), daughter of King Roderigo II of Sicily, to be taken in marriage by Frederick’s son Henry (later Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI).  As part of the alliance, Guglielmo II required a general oath be taken to Constanza as his successor in the event he died without any heirs.
Another look at Federico II di Svevia, Palazzo Reale, Napoli 
Following this, he next took advantage of turmoil in the Byzantine Empire to invade that place.  Durres, a city in what is now Albania, was captured on June 11th, 1185.  He subsequently captured the Ionian islands of Corfu, Cephalonia, Ithaca and Zakynthos.  The important city of Thessalonica was captured in August, 1185.  With his troops marching on the capital of Constantinople, victory looked imminent for Guglielmo, but in an unexpected turn, Emperor Isaac Angelus personally led his troops to victory against the invaders at the Battle of Strymon (September 7th, 1185).  The Sicilians were forced to retreat from Thessalonica and four years later King Guglielmo II abandoned his Byzantine possessions.  

He next prepared his forces for a general invasion of the Holy Land.  Historians believe this was in anticipation of him playing a major part in the upcoming Third Crusade (1189-92).  His navy was able to keep the eastern part of the Mediterranean open for Frankish vessels sailing to the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, and Guglielmo’s forces were able to force Saladin’s armies to retire from their siege of Tripoli in the spring of 1198. 

King Guglielmo II died on November 11th, 1189 leaving no children.  The mantle of kingship was assumed by Tancredo, illegitimate son of Roderigo III, Duke of Apulia (who was the eldest son of King Roderigo II of Sicily).  Tancredo had previously joined an insurrection against Guglielmo II but was pardoned on condition he voluntarily went into exile, to which he agreed.  When Guglielmo died, however, he rebelled and proclaimed himself King of Sicily in the spring of 1190.  His cause was supported by the Royal Chancellor, Matteo d’Ajello and the official class.  Most of the Sicilian nobles, however, supported the rival claim of Constanza and her husband, Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI.

Tancredo’s reign would be short-lived and tumultuous.  Shortly after proclaiming himself king, his kingdom was invaded by King Richard I of England, who was on his way to join the Third Crusade in the Holy Land.  Richard demanded the release of his sister, Joan, who had been the wife/queen of Guglielmo II.  Shortly after his predecessor’s death, Tancredo had had Joan imprisoned.  Richard demanded her release along with her dowry and inheritance.  His claims were bolstered by the presence of France’s King Philip II and his armies.  

Tancredo ultimately agreed to Richard’s demands, in return for Richard and Philip recognizing his right to Sicily and peace between the three kingdoms.  When the foreign rulers and their armies left for the Holy Land, Tancredo next turned his attention to the threat brewing in the north.

Here, however, Tancredo ran into much greater trouble.  In April of 1191 Henry and his wife Constanza were crowned Emperor and Empress of the Romans by Pope Celestine III.  With this under their belts, the two then invaded Southern Italy to solidify Constanza’s claim to the Kingdom of Sicily which they claimed was her right as the posthumous daughter of King Roderigo II of Sicily by his third wife Beatrix of Rethel.

Palazzo Reale, Napoli 
Naples came under siege, but put up a spirited resistance that was bolstered by the presence of the fleet of Margarito of Brindisi, the last Grand Admiral of Sicily.  Malaria forced Henry to withdraw the bulk of his forces, and for a time Constanza actually became a hostage of Tancredo, having been turned over to him by the people of Salerno. Imperial soldiers aided her in escaping, however, and she fled north of the Alps.

Tancredo won some victories over Henry’s garrisons, but his death in Palermo on February 20th, 1194, a few days after the death of his young son and co-ruler Roderigo III, left the kingdom effectively leaderless.  When Henry VI returned at the head of his huge armies (paid for by his ransoming of King Richard I of England) the regency of Guglielmo III was vacated and Siculo-Norman rule over the Kingdom of Sicily came to an end, beginning the reign of the House of Hohenstaufen. 

Hohenstaufen rule over the Kingdom of Sicily as a whole was unremarkable for the period.  Most of the kings this line produced simply didn’t reign for very long. The single exception was an extraordinary character in Medieval Europe who left an indelible mark on the history of Southern Italy.

Federico II di Svevia (Frederick II Hohenstaufen) was born on December 26th, 1194 in the town of Iesi near the city of Ancona in what is now Italy. His father was Henry VI; King of Germany & Sicily as well as Holy Roman Emperor.  His mother was Constanza (Constance) of Hauteville, wife of Henry VI and Queen of Sicily in her own right being the posthumous daughter of King Roderigo II, founder of the Regno.     

Federico’s rule as sovereign was challenged almost from the time he was born.  He had been elected King of the Germans at the age of two in Frankfurt am Main and immediately his rights in Germany were disputed by his father’s brother Philip of Swabia and another claimant to the throne, Otto of Brunswick.  When Frederick’s father died a year later his mother had him recalled to Palermo where on May 17, 1198 he was crowned King Federico I of Sicily.  To secure his throne in the Mediterranean, she had herself proclaimed his regent, renounced all his claims to the German throne and Holy Roman Empire, and then sent his German counselors packing.

Constanza would die on November 27th, 1198.  In her will she made Pope Innocent III her son’s guardian.  It was her wish that her son be raised a Sicilian monarch and nothing more. She could not possible foresee the events that would follow her death.  Innocent appointed Cencio Savelli (later Pope Honorius III) as Federico’s tutor.  

However, Markward von Annweiler, an ambitious ministerialis, invaded the Kingdom of Sicily with the help of Philip of Swabia and a fleet of Genoese ships in 1200.  He seized the young Federico, ruling in his place as regent until 1202 when he died.  The regency was subsequently assumed by another German captain named William of Capparone who ruled until he was replaced by Gualtiero da Pagliaro (Walter Palearia) who remained regent until young Federico came of age in 1208.

Numerous legends exist of Federico’s life growing up in Palermo.  It is known he was a polyglot who spoke no less than six languages (Latin, Sicilian, Greek, French and Arabic).  Interestingly, there is no record of him ever having learned to speak German.  His mother Constanza’s desire that he should grow up to become a Sicilian monarch seems to have born fruition.  As historian William Harvey Maehl would write of him centuries later, "To the end of his life he remained above all a Sicilian grand signore, and his whole imperial policy aimed at expanding the Sicilian kingdom into Italy rather than the German kingdom southward.”  Truth be told, his actions would show he was really uninterested in Germany.

Palazzo Reale, Napoli 
Upon receiving his throne he set about to restore order in the Regno, which was now under the control of rebellious barons as well as Genoese and German adventurers.  Otto of Brunswick, King of the Romans and of Burgundy, was proclaimed Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Innocent III in 1209.  He backed the cause of the rebellious barons in Sicily, hoping to exploit the troubles there to one day add the Regno to his domains.  Towards that end he invaded Calabria.  He also marched on the city of Rome itself, seeking to assert his authority over that of the Holy See. 

Pope Innocent III reacted furiously upon hearing the news!  In September of 1211 at the Diet of Nuremberg a group of rebellious nobles, angered by Otto’s neglect of the Imperial domains in Germany, elected Federico in absentia King of the Germans in opposition to Otto.  Innocent in turn had Otto excommunicated.  In response to this, Otto was forced to return to Germany.

Federico was crowned King of the Germans on December 9th, 1212 in the city of Mainz, but he exercised real power only in the south.  Otto, despite his excommunication, continued to exercise the powers of king and emperor in the north.  However, his influence had begun to wane.  He died on May 19th, 1218.  The German princes, with the blessing of Pope Innocent III, again crowned Federico King of the Germans on July 23rd 1215.  With the death of Otto no one remained in his way to becoming emperor.  He was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Honorius III (Innocent’s successor) in the city of Rome on November 22nd, 1220.

As part of the deal he made with the Holy See for the crown of emperor, Federico renewed his vow to take up the Cross against the infidel in the Holy Land the following year (which he did not do).  He also gave secular power to prosecute heretics in his domains to the Roman Catholic Church.

His bowing to ecclesiastical authority was apparently due more to political considerations than a sincere piety.  Writers of the time claim Federico was a religious skeptic who frequently made shocking if not outright blasphemous statements concerning Catholic sacraments and dogma.  One controversial account stated he called Moses, Jesus and Mohammed the three greatest frauds of all time!  These utterances would provide fodder for his enemies at the Papal court and earned him the moniker stupor mundi (Lt. “Wonder or astonishment of the world”).

On the flip side he was enamored by intellectual pursuits, and actively promoted them.  The Byzantine Greek and Islamic scholars he came into contact with while growing up in Palermo appear to have instilled in him an appreciation of the sciences.  He seems to have been particularly fascinated by the refractive properties of water, as demonstrated by correspondence he sent on this matter to Arab scholars.

He was also different from most other Holy Roman Emperors in that he spent relatively little time in Germany, despite his German heritage on his father’s side.  In fact, other than using its resources to help increase his power in Italy, he doesn’t seem to have had any real interest in Germany at all!

His neglect of his German holdings would have far-reaching consequences for that area of Europe.  According to modern historians, the many concessions he made to German princes severely weakened his hold on that area of his empire and delayed German unification for centuries

His apathy towards Germany was in no small way due to the influence of his mother, who saw to it his upbringing would keep him centered in the Mediterranean.  It would bear a wonderful fruit!  Under his aegis, the Sicilian language became the first Italio-Romance language to blossom through the use of literary form.  This was particularly apparent in his promotion of the Sicilian School of Poetry.  No less than Dante Alighieri praised the school for its contributions to literature and it would have a profound effect on later Italian writers.

While Federico excelled in his promotion of the arts and sciences, his physical appearance apparently left something to be desired.  The Syrian scholar Abu-Muzaffar wrote the following based on second-hand testimony of him: “"The Emperor was covered with red hair, was bald and myopic. Had he been a slave, he would not have fetched 200 dirhams at market."

Federico’s reign was troubled nearer to home as well, for his policies eventually put him into conflict with Pope Honorius III.  The source of the conflict was Federico’s attitude towards the Church.  He viewed himself as a direct successor to the ancient Roman emperors and therefore (in his mind, anyway) considered himself the supreme ecclesiastical authority as well.  This did not sit well with the Holy See.

As mentioned previously, in return for being crowned King of Germany (King of the Romans) he had promised the Pope he would mount a Crusade against Islam.  In particular the Pope wanted an invasion of Egypt.  Federico sent forces there under the command of Duke Louis I of Bavaria.  Egypt at the time was still under the command of the Ayyubid dynasty founded by Saladin.  At the time of this, the Fifth Crusade, the Ayyubid dominions were under the control of Saladin’s nephew, Sultan Al-Kamil.  Louis’s forces joined up with the armies of other Crusaders.  

However, delays caused by the anticipation of the arrival of Federico himself resulted in the Papal Legate, Cardinal Pelagius, foolishly turning down Al-Kamil’s offer of a restoration of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem to the Crusaders in return for their withdrawal from Egypt.  The whole expedition ended in disaster!  Pope Honorius III furiously blamed Federico’s hesitance for it; an opinion shared by much of Christian Europe.

In an attempt to assuage the hostility he had incurred in the halls of power of the Church, and also to shore up his crumbling influence in northern Italy (thanks to a reformation of the Lombard League), Federico agreed to a compromise proposed by Honorius.  He also gave to the Teutonic Order territories that would later become East Prussia that they might use in their prosecution of the so-called Northern Crusade against pagan peoples living along the southern and eastern shores of the Baltic Sea.  Nevertheless, the damage had been done, and for the remainder of his life Federico would have problems with his enemies in the Holy See.

In August, 1225 he married Yolande of Brienne (later Queen regnant Isabella II of Jerusalem), daughter of John of Brienne, who became King of Jerusalem by his marriage to Yolande’s mother, Queen Maria of Jerusalem.  She would bare him two children: a daughter who died in infancy, and later a son, Conrad, born April 25th, 1228.  She died shortly after giving birth to him.

Not too long after marrying Yolande, Federico deprived her father John of Brienne, of all his rights as king and had them transferred to him.  In August, 1227 he again took up the Crusader’s sword and set sail for Jerusalem.  Three days out, however, he was seized with an illness and was forced to return.  Due to his hesitancy during the Fifth Crusade it was believed by many (including the new pope, Gregory IX, himself no fan of Federico) the Emperor faked his illness to avoid honoring his commitments.  The testimony of the head of the Teutonic Knights, Hermann von Salza, as to the veracity of Federico’s illness mattered none.  On September 29th, 1229 Pope Gregory IX excommunicated the Emperor for failing to honor his promise.

That Federico eventually sailed again from Brindisi for the Holy Land in June, 1228 did not help matters; in fact, they made them worse!  As someone excommunicated from the Church, Federico was prohibited from leading a Crusade until he set things right with the Pope.  Failing to do that brought upon his head a second excommunication.  

He reached Acre in September and found himself in trouble, for none of the local authorities and most of the members of the military orders would not cooperate with an excommunicate.  Further complicating things was the fact his own force was too small to carry on warfare against the enemy.  He wound up negotiating a truce with Sultan Al-Kamini which gave the city of Jerusalem, along with the towns of Bethlehem and Nazareth to the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  In return, the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque would remain in Islamic hands while the city of Jerusalem would remain unfortified.

This truce did not sit well with the other Crusaders and it infuriated the Holy See!   Charges were levied that Federico used the truce as a ploy to increase his own power in the region.  In any event, by 1244 Jerusalem was lost to a new Moslem invasion.

While he was away in the Holy Land, his regent Rainald of Spoleto provoked a war with the Papal States by invading the Marche and the Duchy of Spoleto.  In retaliation Pope Gregory IX raised an army and invaded Southern Italy, reaching as far as the Emperor’s own home region of Puglia!  Federico arrived in time to take command and turn back the Papal invasion, ending his dispute with the Pope with the Treaty of San Germano in middle part of 1230. 

Farther north in Germany Federico’s son Henry (by his wife Constanza of Aragorn) had triggered a political crisis with the German princes.  The Emperor had to go to Germany, force his son to renounce the throne and all his lands, and then imprison him.  Nevertheless his power in Germany remained greatly weakened.

After this he turned his attention to the Lombard League.  Pope Gregory IX tried in vain to prevent Federico’s invasion of Lombardia.  The Emperor won a crushing victory over the Lombards November 27, 1237 at the Battle of Cortenuova, virtually destroying their combined armies!   The second Lombard League dissolved shortly after this, and all but the cities of Milan, Brescia, Piacenza and Bologna submitted to Imperial authority.  In celebration Federico held for himself a triumph in the style of the ancient Roman emperors.  At this point he was at the height of his power! 

Unfortunately for him, this victory would prove to be short-lived, for his hubris over his upset victory clouded his judgment.  He demanded the total surrender of the remaining warring cities, which they refused.  He in turn refused any attempt at negotiations, even though the city of Milan was willing to send him a considerable sum of money.  His attempt to capture the city of Brescia met with failure and by October, 1238 he was forced to withdraw his forces from the city.  

Further clouding his earlier victory was the fact Pope Gregory IX again excommunicated him in the early part of 1239.  Angered by this, he responded by expelling members of the Franciscan and Dominican orders from Lombardia.  Furthermore, Enzio of Sardinia, an illegitimate son of his, as Imperial vicar of northern Italy invaded the Papal States.  Federico used this opportunity to attempt an invasion of the Republic of Venice in order to destroy it.  His goal was to unite the entire Italian peninsula under his rule, including the city of Rome, thereby restoring the Imperium Romanum.  His attempts ultimately failed, however, and he was forced to return to his possessions in Southern Italy.

On August 22nd, 1241 Pope Gregory IX died.  Federico’s attempt at extending an olive branch to the Holy See accomplished nothing, and the two maintained a state of belligerency.  On June 25th, 1243 Sinibaldo Fieschi was elected Supreme Pontiff as Pope Innocent IV.  Due to the fact he came from a noble Ligurian clan, and that some members of his family were sympathetic to the Imperial cause, Federico was hopeful this would be a positive sign.  His hopes were dashed forever, however, when the new pope revealed himself to be an even more bitter and resourceful foe of the emperor than any of his predecessors!
Federico II di Svevia, Palazzo Reale, Napoli
Innocent was not content with merely continuing the policies of previous popes in attempting to increase papal power; he also worked tirelessly to bring ruin upon Emperor Federico himself!  In 1243 the city of Viterbo, located 50 km north of Rome, rebelled against him.  Federico laid siege to the city but was unsuccessful.  Innocent prevailed upon him to withdraw his troops from the city.  

The pope also sent large amounts of money to German princes in an attempt to undo Federico’s power in Germany.  In May, 1246 Heinrich Raspe, the Landgrave of Thuringia, was elected anti-king.  On August 5th of that same year he managed to defeat an army led by Federico’s son Conrad, but died later that year before shoring up his victory.  The following year William II, Count of Holland and Zeeland was elected anti-king in opposition to Federico and held the title until his death. 

In June of 1247 the city of Parma in Lombardia rebelled against Imperial authority.  Federico’s son Enzio appealed to his father for aid who responded by laying siege to the city.  However, while the Emperor was away from his camp one day on a hunting expedition his forces came under a heavy assault by the rebels, who utterly routed his army!  Pope Innocent IV, now emboldened by this turn of events, made plans for an invasion of Sicily itself.  In the meantime rebellious communes in Marche, Spoleto and Romagna threw off the Imperial yoke and declared themselves independent.  Though he was eventually able to recover these territories plus Ravenna as well, his position in northern Italy remained tenuous.

Through cunning, resourcefulness and sheer force of will Federico was able to block Innocent’s attempt to invade Sicily by almost annihilating Papal forces at the Battle of Cingoli in 1250.  His reversal of fortune, however, came at great personal cost.  In February of 1249 he had discovered his prime minister, Pietro della Vigna, was embezzling from him and possibly plotting against him as well!  Dismissing him from his post, he had Vigna blinded and thrown into a dungeon in Pisa where he committed suicide a year later.

In addition, he lost not one but two of his sons (Enzio of Sardinia and Ricardo di Chieti) over the course of a single year.  Ricardo had been killed in battle and Enzio captured by Federico’s enemies, who kept him in bondage until his death.  Nevertheless, Federico managed to regain much of his power in Germany thanks to several victories his son Conrad, King of the Romans, won over William II of Holland and Zeeland.

On December 13th, 1250 at Castel Fiorentino in his beloved Puglia Emperor Federico II died peacefully in his sleep from complications due to dysentery.  In his will he magnanimously proclaimed that all the lands he seized from the Holy See to be returned, as well as prisoners freed and taxes reduced.  The stipulation was that such acts did not in any way threaten the security of the Empire.

However, less than four years after his death, his son Conrad would likewise die, in his case of malaria.  His death would mean the end of the Hohenstaufen dynasty and the beginning of what came to be called the Great Interregnum; a period when no one would claim undisputed control of Imperial dominions in Germany until Rudolph of Hapsburg was proclaimed King of the Romans on September 29th, 1273.

Emperor Federico II Svevia is generally considered by modern historians to be the most powerful figure of the Middle Ages to occupy the seat of Holy Roman Emperor.  The centralized, efficient bureaucracy he crafted for his subjects predated that of King Louis XIV of France by centuries.  No less than German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche hailed him as the “first European”.  Nevertheless, his judgment was frequently blinded by his ambitions.  The policies he pursued for short term gains frequently had long term consequences, not the least of which was the dynastic empire he fought tirelessly to expand and maintain was brought to its ruin shortly after his death.  He is included among many as a case study of how both positive and negative qualities can exist simultaneously in a ruler.

Further reading:
• David Abulafia: Frederick II, A Medieval Emperor; Oxford Paperbacks, 1992
• William Tronzo: Intellectual Life at the Court of Frederick II Hohenstaufen; NGW – Studies in the History of Art Series, 1994

December 13, 2011

A Look at Author Geraldine McCaughrean and her book 'Monacello – The Little Monk'

By Lucian

I’ve always been interested in the mythology and folklore of Europe, especially those with a connection to my direct ancestors. In a recent article titled “The ‘Little Monk’ – Exploring 'O Munaciello and His Many Variations” I mentioned children’s author Geraldine McCaughrean. Her book Monacello – The Little Monk, is based on the Neapolitan folk legend Munaciello. In that article I also said, “exploring our ancestral legends for children’s books is a very positive idea and sounds like a lot of fun.”

I thought that Geraldine McCaughrean has done a great job of doing just that, so I decided to look further into some of the other titles that she’s published. I was not disappointed.

In addition to scores of original children’s books, McCaughrean also retells classic stories in children’s format. Many of the titles are connected to the myths and legends of the Greeks and Romans, both of which our ancestors were intimately familiar with. Titles include The Adventures of Odysseus, Persephone and the Pomegranate SeedsDaedalus and Icarus, and a picture book of Aesop’s fables.

Other retellings of European interest include The Canterbury TalesMoby DickThe Questing Knights of the Faerie Queen and, much to my surprise and delight, El Cid.

While I’m primarily interested in Ms. McCaughren’s European themes, she’s also told stories from around the world. She’s written Casting the Gods Adrift: A Tale of Ancient Egypt and Gilgamesh the Hero. Also, no serious children’s library should be without her retelling of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.

Geraldine McCaughren’s books have won dozens of awards in Europe and the United States, including the Carnegie Medal Best Novel winner (1989) for her book A Pack of Lies, and the Parenting Reading Magic Award for Greek Myths (1993). She has written so many good books (over 150) that I couldn’t properly describe them all here, so I suggest visiting her website at for a comprehensive list. She’s also written over 50 short plays for schools.

Her recent book, Monacello – The Little Monk, is wonderfully illustrated by Jana Diemberger. While I find the Neapolitan legend a bit more frightening, the complex character of this conflicted spirit, as well as the general flavor of the legend, is retained in McCaughren’s children’s version. I think we are fortunate, not only to have our folklore preserved in this fashion for the next generation, but to have so highly an acclaimed author to thank for it.

Her forthcoming book, The Wish-Bringer, is a sequel to Monacello – The Little Monk and is illustrated by the same artist, and though my childhood is long behind me, I can hardly wait to read about his next adventure in Naples. 

(Illustrations by Jana Diemberger from Monacello – The Little Monk)

December 12, 2011

An Early Christmas Gift

Neapolitan Angel and placard
By Giovanni di Napoli

Over the weekend I partook in one of my favorite holiday traditions and visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art's annual Angel Tree and Neapolitan Christmas crèche installation. As usual, the museum did a splendid job decorating the towering blue spruce with some of the most beautiful angel ornaments dating from eighteenth-century Naples. At the base of the tree sits the traditional Christmas crib, or presepio, depicting the Nativity. In typical Neapolitan fashion, artistic license was taken in telling the story. In addition to the Holy Family (Mistero) and magi the sprawling diorama shows Orientals, Saracens and characters from all walks of Neapolitan life. If one didn't know any better, with the abundance of figures from Naples, one would think that the Birth of Christ took place in Napoli and not in Bethlehem. 

Unfortunately, no photos of the tree or presepio are allowed so you'll have to visit the museum yourself to see how spectacular it really is.

Afterward, I took the opportunity to view some of the other works from Southern Italy that the museum has to offer. Too many to see in a single visit, I focused most of my attention on the nearby Medieval Art Galleries and European Sculpture Court on the first floor. 
Marble Baptismal Font 
Among the many treasures from the Middle Ages that caught my eye was a large Marble Baptismal Font from the Abbey Church of Santa Maria del Pátir in Calabria. An inscription along the lip reads in Greek: "In the time of the illustrious King Roger [Roger II, King of Sicily], the most holy Luke [first chief abbot of the monasteries in Messina, Sicily], having been appointed to rule the monks, had this vessel made in A.D. 1137." Greek crosses and swirling vine patterns show a fusion of local and Byzantine influences. 

If one looks carefully they will discover plenty of objects that are somehow related to Southern Italy, even if the artists themselves were not. For example, gracing the walls of the sculpture hall is a magnificent marble relief of Nessus Abducting Deianira by the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldses. Carved c. 1821, the work was commissioned by Paolo Marulli for his palazzo in Naples. The subject itself also harks back to Southern Italy's rich Hellenic past.
Nessus Abducting Deianira by Bertel Thorvaldses
Of course, a visit to the Met would not be complete without viewing the European Painting galleries on the second floor. In a room dedicated to the Spanish School, next to José de Ribera's Mystic Wedding of St. Catherine and Luca Giordano's Flight Into Egypt, can be found the portrait of King Philip IV of Spain by Diego Velázquez. Besides its masterly rendering, the significance of this painting to those of us who are concerned with all-things Southern Italian is the subject. His Royal Majesty Philip IV was also the king of the vice realm of Naples and it was during his reign that the Neapolitan fisherman Tommaso Aniello (Masaniello) lead a revolt against the Spanish. 
Philip IV (1605-1665), King of Spain by Diego Velázquez
Christmas came a little early for me in the guise of Salvator Rosa's Bandits on a Rocky Coast. Back from loan, this outstanding painting is finally on view again. It was recently part of the "Bandits, Wilderness & Magic" exhibit at the Kimbell Art Museum in Forth Worth, Texas, and prior to that the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, England. I haven't had the opportunity to see this work before, so this was a real treat for me, especially because I'm a huge fan of Rosa's extensive oeuvre. Best known for his evocative landscapes the painting is a fine example of the artist's expertise in this genre. For me, it was the perfect way to cap-off another enjoyable visit to the Met.
Bandits on a Rocky Coast by Salvator Rosa
Photos by New York Scugnizzo
* * *

Coming Soon: The Renaissance Portrait, From Donatello To Bellini

I'm looking forward to the museum's forthcoming exhibit of Renaissance portraiture, which will showcase approximately 160 works in a variety of media, including paintings by the influential Sicilian Master Antonello da Messina. Da Messina's Portrait of a Man (and Christ Crowned with Thorns) is already part of the Metropolitan's permanent collection, so hopefully the curators will acquire different paintings for the show. If so, it would be a rare opportunity to see the Sicilian's works. Back in 2005 the Met exhibited several of his masterpieces—on loan from Sicily—including his Virgin Annunciate, often referred to as "Sicily's Mona Lisa." Perhaps it's a bit audacious of me, but seeing how Antonello's painting is older than Leonardo's I find it odd that the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) isn't referred to as the "Virgin Annunciate of Tuscany." Anyway, maybe we'll get lucky and see something new. 

The Renaissance Portrait, From Donatello To Bellini will open on December 21, 2011 and will run through March 18, 2012.

December 10, 2011

The Best of a Bad Thing: Marshal of Italy, Giovanni Messe

Giovanni Messe
By Niccolò Graffio
“A good general not only sees the way to victory; he also knows when victory is impossible.” – Polybius: Histories; I, c. 125 B.C.
It had been 54 years since the creation of the pseudo-nation of Italy by the intrigues of the Kingdom of Sardinia, “the Prussia of Italy” in 1861 when its amoral royals, the House of Savoy, decided to join in the disaster to Western Civilization known today as the First World War (1914-18).  The Savoy foolishly believed they could turn their nascent state into something resembling an empire.  That they needed help from France to defeat Austria-Hungary just in order to seize Lombardy mattered little to them.  King Victor Emmanuel III deluded himself and his sycophants into believing the small, hodgepodge Kingdom of Italy could rub elbows with the big boys on the international stage.

It takes generations to create and foster a true martial tradition in a country; something even a cursory examination of the history books would show.  Discipline, honor, loyalty and a strong sense of patriotism are all required, and these were sorely lacking in a country where the inhabitants of the northern 1/3 of the country basically leeched off the sweat of the inhabitants of the other 2/3.  A strong and experienced high command is also required; one that is built by promoting on the basis of merit and ability.  

Such was the case with the German Empire, which inherited its military tradition from the old Kingdom of Prussia.  The austere militarism of Prussia had been put firmly in place during the reign of Friedrich Wilhelm I, King in Prussia (1713-40).

No such tradition existed in Italy, however.  The House of Savoia, that mingling of degenerate lines from Saxony and France, promoted their generals mainly on the basis of nepotism and cronyism.  It should therefore come as no surprise the general staff of the Kingdom of Italy should have been regarded in international circles as something of a joke.

The Kingdom of Italy should never have gotten involved in the bloodbath known as World War I.  When it ended, 650,000 Italians lay dead and the economy was in ruins!  All this for several thousand square miles of territory and the greater glory of a monarch who would live to squander the affection of his subjects.

Not all of Italy’s generals were lackluster, however.  After Italy’s disastrous loss at the Battle of Caporetto (Oct. 24-Nov. 19, 1917) due to the massive incompetence of Piedmontese ‘General’ Luigi Cadorna, he was replaced by the abler Neapolitan General Armando Diaz, who reorganized the Italian Army and veritably saved the kingdom by inflicting a mortal wound on the armies of Austria-Hungary at the Battle of the Piave River (June 15-23, 1918).  The bitter irony here is that it took a Southerner to save the hides of his people’s northern conquerors from their own ineptitude.

After the end of World War I, Italy found itself under the iron heel of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini (1922-43).  Mussolini, a tinpot tyrant, had even greater delusions of grandeur than the diminutive monarch he nominally served.  Whereas King Victor Emmanuel III imagined a Greater Italy under his family’s corrupt control, Il Duce envisioned a re-establishment of the old Roman Empire under his autocratic rule!

Several things should have tipped off Mussolini (whom General Italo Balbo once derisively called “a product of syphilis”) as to the logistical problems with this dream, not the least of which was Italy was effectively broke and it costs huge sums of money to modernize a country’s army.  It also didn’t help he inherited Italy’s laughably corrupt and inept general staff.  Mussolini further compounded his problems by throwing his lot in with Adolf Hitler, ignoring Aesop’s sage aphorism to avoid too powerful (and in Hitler’s case, unstable) an ally.

So it was when Adolf Hitler ordered the German invasion of Poland on September 1st, 1939 (without Mussolini’s knowledge or consent), Italy’s would-be Caesar found himself in charge of an antiquated army facing the prospect of going to war against much greater powers.    

The consensus among military historians is that Italy’s best general during World War I was Armando Diaz, a Southern Italian.  As it was with the First World War, so it was with the second one.  

Maresciallo Giovanni Messe was born on December 10th, 1883 in the town of Mesagne, Apulia, Italy.  Due to the paucity of material written about him in English (and my regrettably almost non-existent Italian language skills) details about his early life are scant.

His career in the Royal Italian Army began when he enlisted as a private at the age of 18 in 1901.  A natural born soldier, within a year he had risen to the rank of noncommissioned officer and was part of the Italian expeditionary force sent to China to help suppress the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901).

Upon returning home, he continued to impress his superiors with his intelligence and leadership skills.  In 1910, upon recommendation of his superiors, he attended the Modena Military School and was commissioned on graduating.  He fought as a lieutenant during the Italo-Turkish War (1911-12) and during the conflict was promoted to captain.

As a result of his role in the Italian conquest of what is now Libya, by the outbreak of WW1 Messe held the rank of maggiore (major).

During WW1 Messe was instrumental in the creation and training of the Arditi, elite infantry units that were pivotal to Italy’s success during the war against the armies of Austria-Hungary.  The Arditi were storm troopers who gained notoriety in trench fighting.  As Italian artillery would shell enemy positions, the Arditi would approach carrying nothing but knives and small arms; rifles and carbines were considered too cumbersome.  When the artillery lifted the most daring would lunge into the trenches and kill the enemy at close range in hand-to-hand combat!

As commander of IX Reparto d’Asalto (“9th Assault Section”) Messe distinguished himself at the Second Battle of Monte Grappa (June, 1918) by mounting a successful counterattack against Austrian troops.  He saw action again as an assault unit commander in 1920 fighting in Albania against the nascent state of the King of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia).  

His rise through the ranks plus his numerous commendations earned him notice in high places.  He was appointed aide-de-camp to King Vittorio Emanuele III in 1923 and held that post until 1927.  From that time until the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) he commanded a unit of Bersaglieri and held the rank of Colonel.

When Benito Mussolini foolishly ordered the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 Giovanni Messe was given command of the Celere Brigade (a motorized brigade) and promoted to the rank of Brigadier General.  By the time the war ended in May, 1936 Messe had been promoted to Major General and was put in command of an entire armored division.

In April, 1938 he was put in charge of the 3rd Celere Division.  The following year, after Italy invaded Albania, Major General Giovanni Messe was sent there to assume the post of Deputy Commander of Occupation Troops under General Ubaldo Soddu.  He would not hold the post for very long.

World War II broke out in Europe when Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939.  Given the way Hitler had lied to his ally, Mussolini was initially hesitant about joining the hostilities.  However, after German successes against Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, Mussolini (ignoring advice from his counselors including his own son-in-law and Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano) ordered Italian armies to invade France on June 10th, declaring war on both France and the United Kingdom the same day.

Italy’s tinpot Caesar rightfully worried Germany’s neurotic Fuehrer would eclipse him on the battlefield, so on October 28th, 1940, against everyone’s (including Hitler’s) wishes, Mussolini ordered his ill-prepared troops to invade Greece.

Major General Giovanni Messe was called up from Albania to participate in the invasion.  Italian forces scored a number of early victories.  The Greeks, however, soon turned the tide against their would-be conquerors and the Italians found themselves fighting the Greeks in a stalemate in Albania itself!  

Though Messe was a capable commander, he early on realized the Royal Italian Army was simply not equipped to fight a protracted struggle.  The government was left severely short of cash by both WW1 and the Great Depression, hampering efforts to modernize the military.  Promotion in the military was also still largely the result of cronyism and nepotism.  Capable commanders like Giovanni Messe were the exception, not the rule!  

In addition, Italy was still a fairly poor country and years away from becoming the industrial powerhouse it is today.  Mussolini’s costly invasion of Ethiopia and the large amounts of assistance, both material and military, he rendered to Nationalist forces of General Franco during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) certainly did not help matters, either.  The mismanagement of the Italian economy by corrupt Padanian industrialists and their equally corrupt allies in the House of Savoia left the country in no shape to realize Il Duce’s dreams of a “Fourth Shore”.

Mussolini had personally overseen preparations for the attack on Greece, with disastrous consequences.  He had failed to allocate adequate resources to his army.  He failed to issue winter clothing to his soldiers; foolishly believing Greece would go down easily like Albania (this in spite of one of his generals warning him “The Greeks will resist us like lions!”).  Finally, he ignored the findings of the Italian Commission of War Production, which informed him Italy would be unable to sustain a full year of continuous warfare until 1949!

Greece was forced to send reserves to Italy, leaving its northern flank vulnerable.  On April 6th, 1941 Germany invaded Greece.  On April 20th, Hitler’s birthday, the commander of the Greek forces secretly contacted German forces of his intention to surrender – but only if Italy was not present!  Negotiations allowed Italy to be present on April 23rd.  In return for their surrender, Greek soldiers were not treated as POWs but instead were allowed to return home.  The debacle in Greece would haunt Mussolini and the House of Savoia for the remainder of the war.

In July, 1941 Giovanni Messe was temporarily promoted to Lieutenant General and put in command of a mobile infantry and cavalry unit, Corpo di Spedizione in Russia (CSIR, Expeditionary Corp in Russia).  Days earlier Axis forces had invaded the Soviet Union as part of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s own insane plan for lebensraum (Ger: “Living space”).  

Initially Mussolini had sent 60,000 Italian soldiers for the invasion.  Messe let it be known he felt these forces were woefully ill-equipped and supplied for fighting the infamous Russian winter.  He would not have to worry; by July Italian forces had been bolstered in Russia to 200,000 men with the arrival of the Armata Italiana in Russia, or ARMIR (It: “Italian Army in Russia”).  Less than four months after being sent to Russia he was ordered back to Italy.

Giovanni Messe left the Soviet Union before the nightmare known as the Battle of Stalingrad (Aug. 23rd, 1942-Feb. 2nd, 1943).  Well before this it became obvious Hitler’s delusional dreams of lebensraum in Russia were running into serious trouble.  Wehrmacht forces tried not once but twice to capture the Soviet capital, failing miserably each time during what is now collectively referred to as the Battle of Moscow (Oct., 1941-Jan., 1942).  Stalingrad was Hitler’s last gambit in the Soviet Union and he knew it!

Truth be told, the whole idea behind Operation Barbarossa was ludicrous!  Germany was a mid-sized, relatively resource-poor country (though not nearly as poor as Italy) while the USSR was much larger in both size and available resources (including manpower).  While the Slavs of the Soviet Union chafed under Stalin’s brutal rule, with the coming of Nazi Germany’s racial policies they realized Operation Barbarossa amounted to nothing less than a war of extermination! Axis forces quickly found themselves facing an enemy with nothing to lose!

Italian forces were generally held in low regard by their German counterparts, who often accused them of cowardice.  In truth, Messe’s assessment bore out.  Italian soldiers were given outmoded weapons and equipment and little in the way of supplies.  In addition, Soviet armies preferred attacking Italian, Hungarian and Romanian forces over German ones, exploiting the “weak link in the chain”.  Under these circumstances then, it is small wonder Italian forces often retreated rather than engage the enemy.  In spite of this, they won numerous accolades and distinguished themselves in a number of battles, including the Battle of Nikolayevka (Jan., 1943). 

On the other hand, during the Soviet counteroffensive known as Operation Uranus, secret communiqués between Hitler and his generals at Stalingrad show the Germans used their Italian, Hungarian and Romanian allies as cannon fodder in order to minimize their own casualties.  Though these facts are not kept secret from history buffs, many still cling tenaciously to the belief in the mighty and noble German soldier as well as the cowardly Italian one.  Old, stereotypical myths die hard, I guess.

After being recalled from Russia, Messe was promoted to General on January 31st, 1943.  Thereafter he was assigned to Tunisia to fight against the encroaching American and British forces.  In this capacity, he was put in charge of the Italo-German Tank Army (later renamed the “Italian First Army”), which had previously been commanded by Erwin Rommel, the legendary “Desert Fox”.  

In this capacity, Messe assisted Rommel’s attempt to thwart the advance of the British 8th Army (under General Bernard Montgomery) at the Battle of Medenine (March 6th, 1943).  Axis forces sustained heavy casualties as Montgomery had adequate time to prepare for the assault.  Afterwards German and Italian forces in North Africa under General Messe’s command merely fought for time against an inevitable Allied victory.

On May 12th, 1943 General Giovanni Messe was promoted to the rank of Marshal of Italy.  It was a bittersweet commendation.  The following day the 5th German Tank Army surrendered to the Allies.  With the fall of Tunis and his own army surrounded, Messe had no choice but to surrender himself.

Like so many of our people by that time, Messe was a devoted monarchist who gladly served our enemies in the House of Savoia. After the signing of the Armistice he was made Chief of Staff of the “Italian Co-Belligerent Army”, a fighting force made up in large part of Italian soldiers who were POW’s of the Allies.  He served at this post with distinction until the war’s end.

With the fall of the corrupt House of Savoia in 1946 and Italy being declared a republic, Giovanni Messe lost his taste for army life.  He retired in 1947 after 46 years of distinguished service.  Like many an old soldier before him, he wrote a book about his experiences in North Africa during the war.  He remained popular with the Italian people after the war, parlaying that popularity into a three-year stint in the Italian Senate (1953-55).  He was elected to Parliament again in 1957 as a member of the Monarchial Party.

His greatest post-war endeavor, however, was as President of the Italian Veteran’s Association.  He held this post until his death and during his tenure lobbied the government in Rome for a number of veteran’s benefits.

Maresciallo Giovanni Messe died on December 19th, 1968 at the age of 85.

Messe spent his entire distinguished military career serving men who did not deserve the honor.  First he fought for King Vittorio Emanuele III and then Benito Mussolini.  The failings of both of them are well-documented.  For the life of me, however, I could not find one unkind thing written about General Giovanni Messe.  He achieved a rarity – the respect of friend and enemy alike.  Even after leaving the military he continued fighting for his men; this time to see the country they served provided adequately for them. 

In war and peacetime he always fully deserved the title of warrior.