“The scene was set for a kind of Renaissance – two hundred years early.” Professor Castagneto continues, shaking his head. “An enlightened ruler sat on the Imperial throne who was a poet, a great patron of the arts, and was doing his best to re-awaken interest in Greek and Arab learning throughout Christendom. What’s more, a friend of his, and another very learned man, had ascended to the Papal throne. But the Fieschi Pope threw away the chance.”
“How” I asked him “could the Pope have behaved differently?”
“The key to everything was the city-states of Lombardy. At that time Lombardy meant all of northern and most of central Italy. Dante even includes Tuscany in Lombardy in his writing. Well, the city-states had always defended their independence against the Emperor by siding with the Pope. That’s where the Guelph – Ghibelline divide comes from. The Guelphs supported the Pope against the Emperor, and in exchange the Pope safeguarded their independence from the Emperor in matters like taxes and military service. The Ghibellines, the pro-Imperial faction, often had their origins in the landed aristocracy, from the countryside beyond the cities. This was because they depended on the Emperor for the right to possess their fiefs. Every generation of the aristocratic families had to get their titles renewed by the Emperor, otherwise they were not legitimate. Well, the strange thing is that the Fieschis were originally one of these. The Fieschis were part of the family of the Counts of Lavagna, and Lavagna was an Imperial fief: the Emperors had given the Fieschis their title.”
“So why were the city-states the key? I don’t understand.”
“Because by the time of Frederick II, the city-states were more important than the landed aristocracy. They were richer, more influential, they were minting money in their own right, they were controlling more and more of the trade routes. In theory, they were still under the lordship of the Emperor, but only in theory. Frederick ruled in the south of Italy, and he ruled in Germany, but in the middle were the city-states of Lombardy, dividing his realm into two detached parts. He could not truly unite his Empire unless the city-states were with him. But the city-states traditionally sided with the Pope whenever an Emperor became too powerful, like the case of Frederick II. But here we had for the first time two friends on the two most important thrones of Christendom – and one of them was stupor mundi, the Wonder of the World. Can you imagine what could have happened had the Pope had worked with Frederick II, and persuaded the Lombard city-states to co-operate with him? His Empire could have truly been united, and he could have been free to foster culture, learning and the arts on a grand scale from the Mediterranean to the North Sea, for the first time since Charlemagne!”
“Sounds too good to be true.”
“Probably.” Castagneto sips from his glass of vermentino sadly. “After all, a Pope cannot be a Ghibelline, as Frederick himself said. But Fieschi should have tried!” He stabs at an imaginary Sinibaldo Fieschi in the air with his finger. “And he didn’t. He avoided every possible opportunity to make peace with Frederick II, and declared a universal crusade against him. That suited the Lombard city-states down to the ground.”
Truly, it must be said that Frederick II did not make it easy for the Papacy to work with him. In one dramatic moment, just before Sinibaldo Fieschi became Pope, he actually took captive two Cardinals bound for Rome on Genoese galleys, together with their retinues. The conclave that elected Sinibaldo Fieschi Pope was moved from Rome to Anagni out of fear of Imperial attacks, or so it seems. The chronicles say that Frederick II rejoiced when he heard that Sinibaldo had become Pope, but if this is the case, it was wishful thinking, in my opinion.
Research for the Auramala Project has led me and my colleagues deeper into the workings of the medieval church than we had ever expected. To be fair to Sinibaldo Fieschi, he was at the helm of an immense – and immensely complicated – ship that he could not turn around at whim. Even if he had wanted to side with Frederick II, it simply wasn’t his call to make. The church was just too big, with too many vested interests across all of Europe, and too interwoven with all other forms of power, both aristocratic, and city-based. The Church absolutely had to defend its own prerogatives against the Empire, whatever the Pope’s personal feelings about the Emperor in question. In fact, as we shall see over the next few posts, the power of the Fieschi Family to a large degree was built around the prerogatives of the medieval church, and Sinibaldo Fieschi’s own legal writings were all dedicated to preserving this status quo.
Even so, like Professor Castagneto, many have dreamt ardently of the Renaissance that might have been. I dream of it too, though I doubt it was ever anything more than a mirage, even – especially – at the time of Frederick II himself. This is a modern dream of ours that he couldn’t have even entertained at the time, when the very idea of ‘Renaissance’ did not yet yet exist.