“Shameful! Absolutely shameful!” Professor Castagneto brings his massive fist down on the tagle, making our wine glasses jump. “Sinibaldo Fieschi held the Renaissance back by 200 years, and he did it betraying a friend!” My friend and mentor can get very emotional about history, as though he were personally involved in events that occurred hundreds of years ago. But in this case, many historians would agree with him wholeheartedly. Indeed, if there was ever a moment in time when the Fieschi Family literally changed the fate of civilisation, it was during the papacy of Pope Innocent IV, Sinibaldo Fieschi, and his enmity with Frederick II, ‘stupor mundi’ – ‘the wonder of the world’.
Sinibaldo Fieschi (1190 circa – 1254) was orphaned at a young age, and was raised in Parma by his uncle Obizzo, the bishop of that city. He soon went to study law at the University of Bologna, where a document of December 5, 1223, refers to him with the title ‘magister’, or Master – most likely meaning that he had begun teaching and writing as well as studying. At the same time he already held the title of papal sub-deacon. This was only the beginning of an illustrious career in which he rose to the rank of cardinal and played a major role in diplomacy for a succession of popes, until he became pope himself in 1243. It seems that, during this twenty-year period, Sinibaldo came into contact with, and even became friends with, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.
Sinibaldo Fieschi was a man of immense learning. He personally wrote a large number of legal texts defining the rights and responsibilities of the Papacy. His personal library was rich in texts concerning theology, law and philosophy, many of which later made their way into the library of Luca Fieschi, one of the protagonists of our story, and from his personal library into that of Manuele Fieschi, author of the Fieschi Letter. As pope, Sinibaldo demonstrated awareness of the world beyond Christendom, particularly by sending ambassadors to the Mongol Empire, at that time expanding towards its greatest ever extension. Indeed, he is widely recognised by historians as one of the great medieval popes.
Frederick II (1194 – 1250) was the grandson of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, known universally as ‘Barbarossa’, or Redbeard, and indeed inherited his legendary grandfather’s red hair. He was raised in the Kingdom of Sicily, of which he became king in 1198, at the age of just 4. In reality, his kingdom was not just the island of Sicily, but all of what is now southern Italy, from the Marche region down, with twin capitals in Naples and Palermo. This region was an extraordinary melting pot of cultures. In Puglia and Calabria, once Ancient Greek colonies, the people spoke Greek (some groups of people there still do today). Arab invasions and trading contacts over the years had led to a strong influx of Arabic culture. Norman invasions had also strengthened cultural links with northern Europe – to this day a nickname for people from Reggio Calabria is ‘stock fish eaters’, where stock fish is dried north sea cod. In fact, the Italian word ‘stoccafisso’ itself comes from the same root as ‘stock fish’. Frederick II was a true child of this multicultural kingdom.
Frederick proved to be an enlightened, original and daring (though temperamental) ruler, and many regard his administrative policies as precursors to modern ideals of government. At a time when Baghdad was one of the great cultural capitals of the world, he sponsored the translation of Arabic and Greek works of scholarship into Latin, and personally sent copies to European universities. He invited Arab philosophers to his court and conversed with them in person. He founded the University of Naples. Under his rule, there was the first flowering of the Italian language with the ‘Sicilian Poets’ – one of whom was Frederick himself, for he composed poetry. He is even said to have passed such common-sense laws as ruling against trial by combat on the grounds that the best combattant would win regardless of his guilt or innocence – a far cry from the stereotype of the medieval ruler.
The chronicles claim that Frederick II referred to Sinibaldo Fieschi as a friend. And yet, Sinibaldo was soon to announce a universal crusade against Frederick… (To be continued…)