Showing posts with label Holy Roman Empire. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Holy Roman Empire. Show all posts

10 June 2024

Mercurino Arborio di Gattinara – politician and cardinal

Lawyer and strategist dreamt of a united Europe ruled by the Emperor

As adviser to Emperor Charles V, Gattinara wielded huge influence
As adviser to future Emperor Charles V,
Gattinara wielded huge influence
Influential statesman and political adviser Mercurino Arborio di Gattinara was born on this day in 1465 in Gattinara in Piedmont.

Gattinara became Grand Chancellor to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and, despite being a layman who had never been ordained as a priest, he was created a cardinal.

He was one of the most important men active in politics of his time and he set out to centralise power in Germany and make the Holy Roman Empire a moral and political arbiter for all the kingdoms and principalities in Europe.

Born in his family’s home in Gattinara, he was the eldest son of Paolo Arborio di Gattinara and Felicità Ranzo, who was from an important family in Vercelli.

After his father’s death, Gattinara had to interrupt his studies for financial reasons and went to Vercelli to practise with his father’s cousin, who was a notary.

He was able to resume his law studies at the University of Turin after marrying Andreetta Avogadro and using her dowry to pay for his studies. After obtaining his doctorate, he practised law in Turin.

In 1501, he became adviser to Duchess Margherita of Hapsburg, the daughter of Emperor Maximilian 1 of Hapsburg. Margherita was married to Duke Philibert II of Savoy and the work he did for her enabled her to obtain for the rest of her life the administration of Romont, Villars and Bresse. The Duchess appointed Gattinara as tax lawyer and president of Bresse.

Charles V was crowned Emperor in 1530
Charles V was crowned
Emperor in 1530
When King Philip of Castile died, he left six young children, among whom was the future Emperor Charles V. Margherita, who was their aunt, asked Gattinara to organise their education on behalf of their grandfather, the Emperor Maximilian. 

Margherita was also given the task of governing Burgundy by Emperor Maximilian and on her behalf, Gattinara began negotiations that would lead to the formation of the League of Cambrai.

He also wrote an operetta dedicated to the young Charles, in which he presented his theories on universal monarchy.

After Charles became King of Castile and Aragon, he appointed Gattinara as his adviser. When the Emperor Maximilian I died, Gattinara ensured Charles had support from the prince electors for his accession to the imperial throne.

Gattinara was the adviser to Charles V during the Italian Wars between 1521 and 1526 and he reorganised the imperial army and its finances. He wrote a treatise on good government and was created a cardinal in 1529, despite having no background in the church. 

After Charles V was crowned emperor in the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna in 1530, Gattinara left Italy to attend the Diet of Augsburg, which was convened on the emperor’s behalf to quell growing religious tensions in Europe.

Gattinara died in Innsbruck while he was on the way to Augsburg on June 5, 1530.  His remains were taken to Gattinara and buried in the parish church of San Pietro.

He had worked up to 18 hours a day to fulfil his vision of a united Europe and he could express himself in Italian, Spanish, French, German and Dutch, skills which were particularly appreciated at the court of the Emperor Charles V. 

The Torre delle Castelle overlooks Gattinara
The Torre delle Castelle
overlooks Gattinara
Travel tip:

Gattinara is a small town in the province of Vercelli in Piedmont, about 35km (22 miles) northwest of the city of Novara, whose province it borders. Situated in the lower part of the picturesque Valsesia, it has an historic centre where the Church of San Pietro, the last resting place of Mercurino di Gattinara, is situated. The church dates back to 1147. The town is known for its prestigious red wine, Gattinara, which has been given the status of DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita). The town is overlooked by the massive Torre delle Castelle, all that remains of an ancient mediaeval fortified complex built around the 11th century, which tops a hill to the northwest of the town. The tower has become a symbol of the town.

The Mole Antonelliana is an unmissable feature of the skyline of Piedmont's capital, Turin
The Mole Antonelliana is an unmissable feature
of the skyline of Piedmont's capital, Turin
Travel tip:

The University of Turin, where Mercurino di Gattinara studied for his degree, is one of the oldest universities in Europe, founded in 1406 by Prince Ludovico di Savoia. The main university buildings are in Via Giuseppe Verdi, close to Turin’s famous Mole Antonelliana, an architectural landmark first conceived as a synagogue, before being bought by the city and declared a monument to national unity. Designed and started by architect Alessandro Antonelli in 1863, but not completed until 1889, it rises to a height of 167.5m (550ft). A lift, which was originally installed in 1961 during celebrations to mark the centenary of the Italian Unification and renovated in 1999, allows visitors to reach a panoramic terrace 85m (279ft) above the ground to take in extraordinary views of the city and the surrounding Alps.

Also on this day: 

1918: The death of writer and composer Arrigo Boito

1940: Italy enters World War Two

1959: The birth of football coach Carlo Ancelotti



21 February 2020

Raimondo Montecuccoli – military commander

Brilliant tactician who outwitted his opponents

Raimondo Montecuccoli, depicted in this 1650 engraving, was a renowned military strategist
Raimondo Montecuccoli, depicted in this 1650
engraving, was a renowned military strategist
Raimondo, Count of Montecuccoli, a soldier, strategist and military reformer who served the Habsburgs with distinction during the Thirty Years’ War, was born on this day in 1609 in Pavullo nel Frignano, in what was then the Duchy of Modena and Reggio.

As well as being Count of Montecuccoli, Raimondo also became a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire and the Duke of Melfi in the Kingdom of Naples.

He was born in the Castello di Montecuccolo and at the age of 16 began serving as a soldier under the command of his uncle, Count Ernest Montecuccoli, who was a general in the Austrian army.

After four years of active service in Germany and the Low Countries, Raimondo became a captain of infantry.

He was wounded at the storming of New Brandenburg and at the first Battle of Breitenfeld, where he was captured by Swedish soldiers.  After being wounded again at Lutzen in 1632 he was made a major in his uncle’s regiment. He then became a lieutenant–colonel of cavalry.

At the storming of Kaiserslautern in 1635 he led a brilliant charge and was rewarded by being made a colonel.

In 1639 he was taken prisoner by the Swedes during the Battle of Chemnitz and held for two and a half years, but he used the time during his captivity to study military science, geometry, history and architecture.

Montecuccoli returned to Italy in 1642 to fight for Modena in the First War of Castro
Montecuccoli returned to Italy in 1642 to fight
for Modena in the First War of Castro 
After returning to Italy in 1642, Raimondo commanded mercenaries loyal to the Duke of Modena during the First War of Castro.

He served in Hungary, Austria and Bohemia, winning himself the rank of General of Cavalry and his rearguard action at the battle of Zusmarshausen rescued the imperial forces from a disastrous defeat.

In 1657 Raimondo married Countess Margarethe de Dietrichstein. Soon afterwards he was ordered by the Emperor to take part in an expedition against the Swedes and the Cossacks. During this conflict he was promoted to commanding officer of the division.

Between 1661 and 1664 he defended Austria against the Turks and although he had inferior numbers he defeated them so comprehensively they agreed to a 20-year truce. He was hailed as the saviour of Christendom.

As president of the Hofkriegsrat - the supreme imperial war council - in 1668, Raimondo introduced a lighter musket and reduced the numbers of infantry pikemen while increasing the amount of soldiers armed with firearms.

When the Franco-Dutch war broke out he took command of the imperial forces against the armies of Louis XIV and in 1673 he completely outmanoeuvred his rival, the French commander Turenne, before capturing Bonn and joining his army with that of William III, the prince of Orange in what was to have been his last campaign before retiring.

Montecuccoli retired from the battlefield in 1676 and died four years later at the age of 71
Montecuccoli retired from the battlefield in 1676
and died four years later at the age of 71
However, the successes of Turenne in 1674 and 1675 as the conflict continued brought Raimondo out of retirement to fight against him in the Rhine valley. After Turenne was killed, Raimondo invaded Alsace and after winning the siege of Phillipsburg he retired from active service for good.

He spent his retirement working in military administration in Vienna. In 1679 he was made a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire and he was awarded the Dukedom of Melfi by the King of Spain. Raimondo died in an accident in 1680, at the age of 71.

Raimondo Montecuccoli was considered to be a brilliant military theorist and his, Memorie della guerra, published in 1703, profoundly influenced warfare afterwards.  His most important work, Dell’arte militare has been reprinted many times.

In 1934 the Italian navy launched the Raimondo Montecuccoli, a light cruiser named in his honour, which served throughout World War II.

The Castello di Montecuccolo, where Montecuccoli was born more than 400 years ago, can be found at Pavullo nel Frignano
The Castello di Montecuccolo, where Montecuccoli was born
more than 400 years ago, can be found at Pavullo nel Frignano
Travel tip:

The Castello di Montecuccolo where Raimondo Montecuccoli was born, still stands in Pavullo nel Frignano, 42km (26 miles) south of Modena. It was built in the 11th century as a watchtower to protect the area and in the 12th century a fortified house was added to it. New buildings were added over the centuries and in the 15th century the Church of San Lorenzo was built at a lower level than the castle.

The facade of Modena's Duomo, in the city's central Piazza Grande
The facade of Modena's Duomo, in the
city's central Piazza Grande
Travel tip:

The Duchy of Modena and Reggio was an Italian state from 1452 to 1858. The Ducal Palace in Modena, which was built in the 17th century but not completed until the reign of Francis V in the 19th century, now houses a military museum and library. Modena has become famous for the production of sports cars, including Ferrari and Lamborghini, for its balsamic vinegar and as the birthplace of opera singers Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni.

More reading:

Footballer Luca Toni - Pavullo nel Frignano's other favourite son

The Modena news vendor who founded the Panini football stickers empire

How Luciano Pavarotti became one of opera history's greatest tenors

Also on this day:

1513: The death of the pope who commissioned Michelangelo for the Sistine Chapel 

1817: The birth of chocolatier Domenico Ghirardelli

1868: The death of painter and revolutionary Giuseppe Abbati


29 March 2019

Castruccio Castracani - condottiero

Castruccio Castracani was a career soldier who ruled Lucca for 12 years
Castruccio Castracani was a career
soldier who ruled Lucca for 12 years

Mercenary soldier who ruled Lucca 

Castruccio Castracani, a condottiero who ruled his home city of Lucca from 1316 to 1328, was born on this day in 1281.

His relatively short life - he died at the age of 47 - was taken up with a series of battles, some fought on behalf of others, but latterly for his own ends in the conflict between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines that dominated medieval Italy as part of the power struggle between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.

Castruccio's story inspired a biography by Niccolò Machiavelli and later a novel by Mary Shelley.

Born Castruccio Castracani degli Antelminelli, he was from a Ghibelline family and therefore a supporter of the Holy Roman Emperor in opposition to the Guelphs. He was exiled from Lucca at an early age with his parents and others by the Guelphs, then in the ascendancy.

Orphaned at 19, he lived initially in Pisa before moving to England, where he lived for some years and displayed a skill in the use of weapons that earned him victory in some tournaments and won the favour of King Edward I.

A scene from the important Battle of Montecatini in 1315, in which Castruccio masterminded a Ghibelline victory
A scene from the important Battle of Montecatini in 1315,
in which Castruccio masterminded a Ghibelline victory
However, after committing a murder, even though it was for reasons of honour, he was forced to leave England and went to France.

There he served as a condottiero - a kind of mercenary military leader - under Philip of France in Flanders. As commander of the cavalry, he distinguished himself in the clash of Arras and in the defence of Thérouanne in the Flanders War.

After a few years he returned to Italy, where he stayed in Verona and Venice. Later, he fought for the Visconti in Lombardy, and in 1313 under the Ghibelline chief, Uguccione della Faggiuola, Lord of Pisa.

When the German king Henry VII entered Italy to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor, Castruccio supported him alongside Uguccione and in 1314 led the Ghibelline forces back to Lucca, over which Uguccione was given power.

He fought as commander of a part of the Ghibelline army at the Battle of Montecatini in 1315, in which, with the help of the emperor's soldiers, he was the main architect of the victory over the Florentine Guelph League.

A drawing of Castruccio, kept at the  Biblioteca Statale in Lucca
A drawing of Castruccio, kept at the
Biblioteca Statale in Lucca
A rivalry developed between the two leaders, however, which at one point saw Castruccio imprisoned by Uguccione, pending execution. However, following a popular uprising in Lucca and Pisa, Uguccione had to flee, Castruccio was freed and in 1316 acclaimed Captain General of the city of Lucca.

In 1320 the emperor Frederick III appointed Castruccio imperial vicar of Lucca, Versilia, and Lunigiana. When the emperor Louis IV entered Italy to be crowned in Rome, Castruccio became one of his most active advisors.

In 1325 he defeated the Florentines at Altopascio, and was appointed by the emperor Duke of Lucca, Pistoia, Volterra and Luni. Two years later he captured Pisa, of which he was also made imperial vicar. He was by now one of the most powerful men in Italy.

Louis appointed him Count of Latran, Duke of Lucca, in 1324 with rights of succession for his heirs, and a senator of Rome.

But, subsequently, his relations with Louis became less friendly and he was afterwards excommunicated by Pope John XXII in the interests of the Guelphs.

The title page from Mary Shelley's novel, published in 1923
The title page from Mary Shelley's
novel, published in 1923
Castruccio died in Lucca on September 3, 1328, stricken with a sudden malarial fever as he prepared to take up arms against Florence. His left his empire disorganized and easy prey for the Florentines, who soon recaptured most of his holdings.

The story of Castruccio is said to have inspired Machiavelli, who published his biography, entitled La vita di Castruccio Castracani da Lucca, in 1520.

Three centuries later, the English writer Mary Shelley published a novel, in 1823, called Valperga: The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca, in which the condottiere’s armies threaten the fictional fortress of Valperga, governed by Countess Euthanasia, the woman he loves, who faces a dilemma over whether to choose him or political liberty.

It was taken at the time to be a love story but was later recognised as a sophisticated commentary on the right of autonomously governed communities to political liberty in the face of imperialistic encroachment.

More than four kilometres of walls, upon which work began in 1513, surround the city of Lucca
More than four kilometres of walls, upon which work
began in 1513, surround the city of Lucca
Travel tip:

Lucca is situated in western Tuscany, just 30km (19 miles) inland from Viareggio on the coast and barely 20km (12 miles) from Pisa, with its international airport.  It is often overlooked by travellers to the area in favour of Pisa’s Leaning Tower and the art treasures of Florence, 80km (50 miles) to the east, yet has much to recommend within its majestic walls, where visitors can stroll along narrow cobbled streets into a number of beautiful squares, with lots of cafes and restaurants for those content to soak up the ambiance, but also a wealth of churches, museums and galleries for those seeking a fix of history and culture.   The Renaissance walls, still intact, are an attraction in their own right, providing a complete 4.2km (2.6 miles) circuit of the city popular with walkers and cyclists.

The Rocca Ariostesca at Castelnuovo di Garfagnana in Tuscany, about 50km (31 miles) north of Lucca
The Rocca Ariostesca at Castelnuovo di Garfagnana in
Tuscany, about 50km (31 miles) north of Lucca 
Travel tip:

Today, there remain many historical relics, especially fortifications and castles, that are linked with Castruccio Castracani. These include the Rocca Ariostesca at Castelnuovo di Garfagnana in the Lunigiana area, which Castruccio had substantially enlarged in the early 14th century, the fortress at Serravalle Pistoiese, the fortress of Sarzanello, near Sarzana, the Tower and Arch of Castruccio Castracani at Montopoli in Val d’Arno and the Rocca Arrighina, named after his son Arrigo, in Pietrasanta. The Augusta Fortress he built in Lucca in 1322, which had 29 towers and four access gates, with one side attached to the city walls, was demolished in 1370 on the orders of the Council of Elders. The Palazzo degli Anziani was built in its place.

More reading:

Federico da Montefeltro - the art-loving condottiero

Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, last of the great condottieri

How the Battle of Meloria sparked the decline of Pisa

Also on this day:

1825: The birth of the blessed Francesco Faà di Bruno, advocate for poor

1888: The birth of aviation pioneer Enea Bossi

1939: The birth of actor Terence Hill, star of hit TV show Don Matteo

(Picture credit: Rocca Ariostesca by Sailko; via Wikimedia Commons)


25 December 2017

Charlemagne – Holy Roman Emperor

Christmas Day crowning for the Pope’s supporter

Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor
Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor
Charlemagne, the King of the Franks and the Lombards, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on this day in 800 in the old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

He was the first recognised emperor in Western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier and has been referred to as the ‘father of Europe’ because he united most of Europe for the first time since the days of the Roman Empire, including parts that had never been under Roman rule.

Charlemagne was the son of Pepin the Short and became King of the Franks when his father died in 768, initially as co-ruler with his brother Carloman I. When Carloman died suddenly in unexplained circumstances it left Charlemagne as the sole, undisputed ruler of the Frankish Kingdom.

He continued his father’s policy towards the papacy and became its protector, removing the Lombards in power from northern Italy and leading an incursion into Muslim Spain. He also campaigned against the Saxons, making them become Christians or face the death penalty.

Charlemagne was Holy Roman  Emperor for 14 years
Charlemagne was Holy Roman
Emperor for 14 years
In 799, Pope Leo III was violently mistreated by the Romans and fled to the protection of Charlemagne in Germany.

Charlemagne escorted him back to Rome and, rather than letting him be tried for his alleged crimes, had him swear an oath of innocence on December 23.

Two days later Charlemagne attended the Christmas Day mass in St Peter’s and as he knelt at the altar to pray, the Pope placed a jewelled crown upon his head, declaring him to be Emperor of the Romans.

Some historians say that Charlemagne was ignorant of the Pope’s intentions and did not want a coronation.

Others say Charlemagne was well aware the coronation was going to take place and could not have missed seeing the bejewelled crown waiting on the altar when he knelt in front of it to pray.

In crowning Charlemagne, Pope Leo III effectively ignored the reign of the Empress Irene of Constantinople. Since 727 the papacy had been in conflict over a number of issues with Irene’s predecessors in Constantinople. Relations between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire were to remain difficult, leading to an eventual split in the 11th century.

In 813 Charlemagne crowned his son, Louis the Pious, as co-emperor. The following year he fell ill with pleurisy and died on 21 January 1814. He was buried that same day in Aachen Cathedral.

The last Holy Roman Emperor to be crowned by the Pope was Charles V in 1530. The final Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, abdicated in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars, which led to the final dissolution of the Empire.

The crown of Charlemagne
The crown of Charlemagne
Travel tip:

After Charlemagne had successfully besieged the city of Pavia in 773, he is said to have had himself crowned with the Iron Crown of Lombardy in 774. This crown was famously placed by Napoleon on his own head in the Duomo in Milan in 1805. The crown is a circlet of gold with a central iron band, which according to legend was beaten out of a nail from Christ’s cross. The crown is kept in a Chapel in the Cathedral of Saint John in Monza, a city to the north east of Milan, which is famous nowadays for its Grand Prix racing circuit.

St Peter's Basilica in Rome
St Peter's Basilica in Rome
Travel tip:

Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman emperor in the old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This stood from the fourth to the 16th centuries where the present-day Basilica stands in Vatican City. The old Basilica was built where the crucifixion and burial of Saint Peter took place by order of Emperor Constantine I in 318 and it took about 30 years to complete.


21 December 2017

Strife-torn Rome turns to Vespasian

Elevation of military leader ends Year of Four Emperors

Vespasian, the ninth Emperor of Rome
Vespasian, the ninth Emperor of Rome
The ninth Roman emperor, Vespasian, began his 10-year rule on this day in 69AD, ending a period of civil war that brought the death of Nero and encompassed a series of short-lived administrations that became known as the Year of the Four Emperors.

Nero committed suicide in June 68 AD, having lost the support of the Praetorian Guard and been declared an enemy of the state by the Senate.

However, his successor, Galba, after initially having the support of the Praetorian Guard, quickly became unpopular.  On his march to Rome, he imposed heavy fines on or vengefully destroyed towns that did not declare their immediate allegiance to him and then refused to pay the bonuses he had promised the soldiers who had supported his elevation to power.

After he had several senators and officials executed without trial on suspicion of conspiracy, the Germanic legions openly revolted and swore allegiance to their governor, Vitellius, proclaiming him as emperor.  Bribed by Marcus Salvius Otho, the Roman military commander, members of the Praetorian Guard set upon Galba in the Forum on January 15, 69AD and killed him.

Otho was named as Galba’s successor but the Germanic legions were unhappy and persuaded their leader to march on Rome and claim power. Defeated in the Battle of Bedriacum, which took place in an area close to today’s city of Cremona, Otho committed suicide, having been emperor less than three months.

The make-up of the Roman Empire in 69AD
The make-up of the Roman Empire in 69AD
Now Vitellius was declared emperor but his extravagance in power drove the imperial treasury close to bankruptcy and when he began the torture and murder of both moneylenders and opponents of his regime it was clear he would struggle to retain power.

Meanwhile, Vespasian, who had acquired kudos as a military leader during the invasion of Britain in 43AD and had been charged by Nero with quelling the Great Jewish Revolt of 67AD as the appointed commander in Judaea, was building a powerbase in the east, where he had the support of the legions in Syria and Egypt.

With the eastern legions behind him, he marched on Rome. At the same time, the Danubian legions in the north declared their support for him and an army led by Marcus Antonius Primus scored a spectacular victory over Vitellius’s army in the Second Battle of Bedriacum.

Back in Rome, Vitellius desperately offered bribes in the hope of rallying some support and when this failed he had no option but to flee.  Before he could escape Rome, however, he was captured by Vespasian’s army and killed on December 20.

The Colosseum in Rome was begun by Vespasian and  completed by his son, Titus
The Colosseum in Rome was begun by Vespasian and
completed by his son, Titus
The Senate accepted Vespasian as emperor the following day and he remained in control for 10 years until his death in 79AD, probably from dysentery.

He did not take up office in Rome until 70AD, at first remaining in Egypt to consolidate his power base and quell the opposition that still existed there from pockets who had supported to one or other of his predecessors. His son, Titus, meanwhile, completed the job he had been given to restore order in Judaea.

When Vespasian did move to Rome, he reformed the financial system and initiated several ambitious construction projects, including the Flavian Amphitheatre, better known today as the Roman Colosseum.

As a response to the revolts of 68–69, Vespasian introduced strict rules of conduct to strengthen army discipline. Also, through his general, Agricola, Vespasian continued imperial expansion in Britain.

After his death, he was succeeded by his eldest son, Titus. It was the first time a Roman emperor had been succeeded directly by his own natural son and the period of their combined rule, along with that of Titus's brother, Domitian, became known as the Flavian dynasty, after the family name of Flavius.

Calvatone is home of the La Bine Nature Reserve
Calvatone is home of the La Bine Nature Reserve
Travel tip:

The Battles of Bedriacum are thought to have taken place close to the present-day village of Calvatone, about 35km (22 miles) east of Cremona in Lombardy.  The area is well known for the protected area known as La Bine Nature Reserve, an area of marshland either side of the Oglio river that is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, featuring many aquatic mammals and birds in particular.

Travel tip:

Rome’s Colosseum, built of travertine, tuff, and brick-faced concrete, was the largest of all the Roman amphitheatres. Construction began under Vespasian in 72AD and was completed by his son, Titus, in 80 with further modifications were made during the reign of Titus’s younger brother, Domitian (81–96), the three emperors who made up the Flavian dynasty. It is estimated the Colosseum could hold up to 80,000 spectators.  It is thought that, having been known first as the Flavian Amphitheatre, it became known colloquially as the Colosseum because of its proximity to a colossal statue of Nero.

16 July 2017

Vincenzo Gemito - sculptor

Neapolitan who preserved figures from local street life

Gemito's statue, Il giocatore di carte, so impressed Vittorio  Emanuele II he placed it on permanent display in a museum
Gemito's statue, Il giocatore di carte, so impressed Vittorio
Emanuele II he placed it on permanent display in a museum
Vincenzo Gemito, one of the sculptors responsible for eight statues of former kings that adorn the western façade of the Royal Palace in Naples, was born on this day in 1852.

The statues are in niches along the side of the palace that fronts on to the Piazza del Plebiscito, displayed in chronological order beginning with Roger the Norman, also known as Roger II of Sicily, who ruled in the 12th century, and ends with Vittorio Emanuele II, who was on the throne when his kingdom became part of the united Italy in 1861.

Gemito sculpted the fifth statue in the sequence, that of Charles V, who was the Holy Roman Emperor from 1519 to 1556 and, by virtue of being king of Spain from 1516 to 1556, also the king of Naples.

Born in Naples, Gemito’s first steps in life were difficult ones.  The son of a poor woodcutter, he was taken by his mother the day after his birth to the orphanage attached to the Basilica of Santissima Annunziata Maggiore in the centre of the city and left on the steps.

He was brought up by a family who adopted him after two weeks at the orphanage. It is thought that his adoptive father, an artisan, encouraged him to work with his hands and even before the age of 10 he was working as an apprentice in the studio of Emanuele Caggiano.  He was enrolled into the Naples Academy of Fine Arts when he was 12.

Gemito's Il pescatorello
Gemito's Il pescatorello
Gemito was known for the outstanding realism in his work, as can be seen in his sculpture Il giocatore di carte – the Card Player - which he created when he was only 16, which depicts a boy seated with one leg crossed, the other bent so that the knee is level with his chin, scratching the side of his head with one hand while he contemplates the cards he holds in the other.

It was such an impressive piece of work that after it has been exhibited for the first time in Naples, the King, Vittorio Emanuele II, purchased it and had it placed on permanent display in the Museo di Capodimonte.

Where many other sculptors created romanticised figures or works of fantasy, Gemito was fascinated by what he saw around him, on the streets of Naples, and it was everyday scenes that were his inspiration.  Another brilliant example of his eye for detail, especially for facial expression and natural poses, was Il pescatorello – the Fisherboy – which shows a boy, his fishing rod tucked under his arm, looking down at the fish he has just caught, which he clutches to his chest with both hands.

Gemito moved to Paris in 1877, where he forged a friendship with the French artist Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier and created new works in various media, exhibiting in major salons and galleries, and at the Universal Exposition of 1878. It was at the Paris Salon - the official exhibition of the Paris Academy of Fine Arts – that his Fisherboy was unveiled, a work greeted with such acclaim that he won widespread fame, as well as lucrative commissions for portraits.

He remained in Paris for three years before returning to Naples. He settled on the island of Capri for a short time, where he married.

The Royal Palace in Naples, with the eight statues inset in niches along the frontage overlooking Piazza del Plebiscito
The Royal Palace in Naples, with the eight statues inset in
niches along the frontage overlooking Piazza del Plebiscito
Back in Italy, Gemito constructed his own foundry on Via Mergellina in Naples, where he revived a Renaissance process for using wax for bronze casting.

The commission to create a marble statue of Charles V, to be erected as part of the changes made by Umberto I of Savoy to the frontage of the Royal Palace, came in 1888.

It caused Gemito much anxiety. He did not like working with marble and suffered a crisis of confidence, doubting his ability to produce a statue that would meet expectations. He finished the job but became so depressed he suffered a mental breakdown. He became a virtual recluse, living in a one-room apartment and several times being admitted to a mental hospital.

For the next 21 years he produced only drawings and did not resume his sculpting career until 1909. 

In 1911, by which time he had turned to using gold and silver, he created another masterpiece, a severed head of Medusa in partial gilt silver, which again was notable for the realism of expression and the intricacy of detail.

In 1952, Gemito’s life was commemorated in an Italian postage stamp issued to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth.

The waterfront at Mergellina, with Vesuvius in the distance
The waterfront at Mergellina, with Vesuvius in the distance
Travel tip:

Mergellina is a coastal area of city of Naples, technically in the district of Chiaia, standing at the foot of Posillipo Hill and facing Castel dell'Ovo.  It was once a fishing village entirely separate from Naples but was incorporated into the Naples metropolitan area in the early 20th century.  Today it has an important tourist harbour for ferries from the islands of Ischia, Capri and Procida and points on the Campania mainland. It is also a popular area for seafood restaurants.

Almost always thronged with tourists, the  bustling Piazzetta is at the heart of Capri town
Almost always thronged with tourists, the
bustling Piazzetta is at the heart of Capri town
Travel tip:

Capri, an island situated off the Sorrentine peninsula on the south side of the Bay of Naples, has been a popular resort since Roman times.  In the 19th and early 20th century, it was a place to which many wealthy intellectuals and authors were drawn. Norman Douglas, Maxim Gorky, Graham Greene and Axel Munthe were among the authors who chose to live there for parts of their careers.  It has been a magnet, too, for figures from the entertainment world. The English singer and actress Gracie Fields spent many years at her villa there; today, the American singer Mariah Carey has a property on the island.  Tourists are drawn to Capri town, the pretty harbour Marina Piccola, the Belvedere of Tragara  - a panoramic promenade lined with villas - the limestone sea stacks known as the Faraglioni, the Blue Grotto and the ruins of Roman villas.

6 June 2017

Maria Theresa - the last Holy Roman Empress

Italian noblewoman was first Empress of Austria

Maria Theresa of Naples and Sicily
Maria Theresa of Naples and Sicily
Maria Theresa of Naples and Sicily, the last Holy Roman Empress and the first Empress of Austria, was born at the Royal Palace of Portici in Naples on this day in 1772.

She was the eldest daughter of Ferdinand IV & III of Naples and Sicily (later Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies) and his wife, Marie Caroline of Austria, through whom she was a niece of the last Queen of France, Marie Antoinette.

Named after her maternal grandmother, Maria Theresa of Austria, she was the eldest of 17 children. Her father was a son of Charles III of Spain and through her father she was a niece of Maria Luisa of Spain and Charles IV of Spain.

Although she had a reputation for pursuing a somewhat frivolous lifestyle, which revolved around balls, carnivals, parties and masquerades, she did have some political influence, advising her husband about the make-up of his government and encouraging him to go to war with Napoleon, whom she detested.

She assumed her titles after she married her double first cousin Archduke Francis of Austria on September 15, 1790.

Francis became Holy Roman Emperor at age 24 in 1792 after the two-year reign of his father Leopold. Francis feared that Napoleon could take over his personal lands within the Holy Roman Empire, so in 1804 he proclaimed himself Emperor Franz I of Austria.

Maria Theresa's husband, Francis, after he became Emperor Franz I of Austria
Maria Theresa's husband, Francis, after
he became Emperor Franz I of Austria
Two years later, after Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Austerlitz, the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved. Therefore, Maria Theresa was the last Holy Roman Empress and the first Empress of Austria.

She and Francis were quite different personalities, Francis a serious statesman compared with Maria Theresa, who was regarded as a sensuous beauty with an easy-going manner.

The marriage lasted 17 years until Maria Theresa’s death and it said that the union was happy one, yet some accounts suggest this was not quite the case.

In a diary entry during a visit to Vienna, Hedwig Elizabeth Charlotte of Holstein-Gottorp described Maria Theresa as a jealous woman:

“The Empress is reputed to be so jealous that she does not allow him to take part in social life or meet other women. Vicious tongues accuse her of being so passionate that she exhausts her consort and never leaves him alone even for a moment. Although the people of Vienna cannot deny that she is gifted, charitable and carries herself beautifully, she is disliked for her intolerance and for forcing the Emperor to live isolated from everyone.”

Maria-Theresa was also accused of indifference towards the fate of her parents when French revolutionaries swept into Naples in 1799, forcing her father to flee to Sicily aboard the British admiral Horatio Nelson’s ship, HMS Vanguard.

Maria Theresa's father, Ferdinand I
Yet in her life of self-indulgence in Vienna, she was an important patron of Viennese music.

She commissioned many compositions for official and private use. Joseph Haydn wrote his Te Deum for chorus and orchestra at her request and composed numerous masses to celebrate her reign. She also helped further the careers of Paul Wranitzky and Joseph Leopold Eybler, a composer of sacred music.

Maria Theresa died after giving birth to her 12th child. Towards the end of the pregnancy, she fell ill with pleurisy. Her doctor induced premature labour. The child was delivered but died after only one day. Maria Theresa did not recover and passed away aged just 34.

She was buried in the Imperial Crypt in the Franzensgruft, where she rests today alongside her husband and his three other wives.

The Royal Palace at Portici, where Maria Theresa was born
The Royal Palace at Portici, where Maria Theresa was born
Travel tip:

Maria Theresa was said to have been born at the Royal Palace at Portici, one of four palaces used by the Bourbon royal family during their rule of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the others being at Capodimonte, Caserta and in the centre of Naples, overlooking Piazza del Plebiscito.  The Portici palace, near the remains of the Roman city of Herculaneum, was built in 1738 as a private residence and a palace to receive foreign officials. Today it is the home of Botanic Gardens operated by the University of Naples Federico II and Accademia Ercolanese, a museum of objects found on the Herculaneum archaeological site.

The Roman city of Herculaneum is very well preserved
The Roman city of Herculaneum is very well preserved
Travel tip:

Herculaneum – locally Ercolano – like Pompeii was an ancient Roman town destroyed by 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius. It is one of the best preserved ancient cities. Unlike Pompeii, the deep pyroclastic material which covered Herculaneum preserved wooden and other organic-based objects such as roofs, beds, doors and food. It had been thought that the town was evacuated before the eruption but in recent years some 300 skeletons have been discovered nearby.

6 May 2017

The Sack of Rome

Mutinous army of Holy Roman Empire laid waste to city

Imperial forces attack Rome
Imperial forces attack Rome
An army loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, laid siege to the city of Rome on this day in 1527, at the start of the Sack of Rome, a significant event in the conflict between Charles and the so-called League of Cognac that had profound implications for Rome’s wealth and power.

Rome at the time was part of the Papal States, who at the behest of Pope Clement VII had joined the League of Cognac – an alliance that included France, Milan, Florence and Venice – in an effort to stop the advance of the Empire, which had its centre of power in the Kingdom of Germany, into the Italian peninsula.

After the Imperial Army had defeated the French at Pavia in the Italian War of 1521-26, it would have been a logical step for Charles to march on Rome but the attack is said to have come about not through any planned strategy but after a mutiny among his troops, many of whom were hired mercenaries, after it became clear there were insufficient funds available to pay them.

Pope Clement VII, depicted by Sebastiano del Piombo in 1531
Pope Clement VII, depicted by Sebastiano
del Piombo in 1531
Aware of the rich treasures they could seize if they stormed Rome and overthrew Clement VII, 34,000 Imperial troops, an army made up of Germans, Spaniards and Italians, demanded that their commander, Charles III, Duke of Bourbon, led them towards Rome.

They left Arezzo in Tuscany on April 20 and, with the army of Florence distracted by an uprising against the Medici, proceeded without too much resistance to the walls of Rome.

The walls were substantial physically but poorly defended. Under the command of Francesco Guicciardini, the city’s garrison numbered only 8,000 men, including the 2,000-strong Swiss Guard.

They had the advantage of artillery around the perimeter of the city but though the Duke of Bourbon was himself shot dead - legend has it by the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini - the ferocity of the Imperial soldiers overwhelmed the defending army, which crumbled rapidly. The invaders swept into the city, killing almost everyone they encountered, armed or otherwise. By sunset, Rome was under their control.

The Pope’s personal protection amounted to 189 of the Swiss Guard, who fought bravely on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica. All but 42 were killed but they created enough delay to allow Clement VII to escape along a tunnel, the Passetto di Borgo, into the fortress of Castel Sant’Angelo.

There he was besieged as the pillage of the city began. The Protestant Landsknecht – the 14,000 strong German core of the Imperial troops – are said to have harboured a particular hatred for Catholic Rome and its Renaissance treasures. Churches and monasteries, as well as the palaces of prelates and cardinals, were looted and destroyed. The rampaging soldiers would spare lives and properties only in return for ransom payments.

Clement VII escaped to Castel Sant'Angelo along a secret passage while the Swiss Guard fought on the steps of St Peter's
Clement VII escaped to Castel Sant'Angelo along a secret
passage while the Swiss Guard fought on the steps of St Peter's
Meanwhile, on May 8, Cardinal Pompeo Colonna, a personal enemy of Clement VII, entered the city, accompanied by peasants seeking to avenge the devastation to their land by Papal armies.

Clement surrendered in June, agreeing to pay a huge ransom and hand over substantial territory to Charles V, who was said to be shocked by the brutal conduct of his troops but happily accept the advantage he had gained.

The defeat effectively marked the end of the Roman Renaissance, damaging the papacy's prestige.  An estimated 6,000 to 12,000 people were murdered and the population of Rome declined in the years following from 55,000 to 10,000.

The pillaging lasted nine months, ending when there was no one left to ransom and food supplies ran out.  Ironically, many Imperial soldiers themselves died from from diseases caused by the large number of unburied bodies in the city.

Today, in commemoration of the Sack and of the Swiss Guard's bravery in protecting Clement VII, May 6 is the designated day each year for new recruits to the Swiss Guard to be sworn in.

The view across Rome from the Gianicolo hill
The view across Rome from the Gianicolo hill
Travel tip:

The Gianicolo – or Janiculum – is one of the hills outside the walls of ancient Rome from which the 1527 attack was launched. Today it provides one of the best locations to enjoy a scenic view of the centre of the city and its domes and bell towers. The Gianicolo itself is the home of the church of San Pietro in Montorio, built on what was once thought to be the site of St Peter's crucifixion. A small shrine, the Tempietto, designed by Donato Bramante, marks the supposed site of Peter's death. The hill is also the location of The American University of Rome, Pontifical Urban University, and Pontifical North American College. Other notable buildings include the Palazzo Montorio, residence of the Ambassadors of Spain, and the Villa Lante al Gianicolo, designed in 1520 by the Mannerist painter and architect Giulio Romano.

The swearing-in ceremony for the papal Swiss Guard takes place in the courtyard of San Damaso on May 6
The swearing-in ceremony for the papal Swiss Guard
takes place in the courtyard of San Damaso on May 6
Travel tip:

The protection provided to the pope by the Swiss Guard goes back to a 15th century alliance between Pope Sixtus IV and the Swiss Confederacy, which in turn resulted in the Swiss supplying a contingent of 200 mercenaries to be based permanently at the Vatican at the request of  PopeJulius II. The defence of the pontiff in 1527 remains their most significant military action. The loss of the 147 guards killed on the steps of St Peter’s is marked each year with a ceremony in the San Damaso courtyard inside the Apostolic Palace, open to members of the public, at which the year’s input of new recruits to the Guard are sworn in.

More reading:

Francesco Guicciardini - statesman, military leader, historian

How Rome was founded

Preacher Girolamo Savonarola's 'war' on the Renaissance

Also on this day:

1895: The birth of silent movie star Rudolph Valentino

27 January 2017

Trajan - Roman emperor

Military expansionist with progressive social policies

This bust of the Emperor Trajan, one of many, can be  found in the Royal Baths Park in Warsaw, Poland
This bust of the Emperor Trajan, one of many, can be
found in the Royal Baths Park in Warsaw, Poland
Marcus Ulpius Traianus succeeded to the role of Roman Emperor on this day in 98 AD.  The 13th ruler of the empire and known as Trajan, he presided over the greatest military expansion in Roman history, the consequence of which was that in terms of physical territory the empire was at its largest during his period in office.

Despite his taste for military campaigns - he conquered Dacia (the area now called Romania), Armenia, Mesopotamia, and the Sinai Peninsula - Trajan was seen as the second of the so-called Good Emperors to rule during the years known as Pax Romana, a long period of relative peace and stability.

He was credited with maintaining peace by working with rather than against the Senate and the ruling classes, introducing policies aimed at improving the welfare of citizens, and engaging in massive building projects that were to the benefit of ordinary Romans.

Marcus Ulpius Traianus was born in the Roman province of Baetica, which approximates to the area now known as Andalusia in southern Spain. His father was a provincial governor who then turned soldier, commanding a legion in the Roman war against Jews. He became a consul and then governor, successively, of Syria and Asia.

Trajan served 10 years as a legionary staff tribune before being appointed to the command of a legion in Spain in 89 AD, in which capacity he was sent to help quell a revolt against the emperor Domitian by the governor of Upper Germany. Domitian rewarded him with a consulship.

His rise to emperor followed the assassination of Domitian in a palace conspiracy. Domitian's replacement, Nerva, was childless but adopted Trajan as his successor as someone who seemed acceptable both to the army commanders and to the Senate.

Trajan's Column, built in 113 AD
Trajan's Column, built in 113 AD
Trajan, who had married Pompeia Plotina but, in common with many among the Roman high command, had male and female sexual partners, was a much more active ruler than Nerva had been during his short reign. He immediately began planning for his Dacia campaign, remaining at his governer's residence in Upper Germany for almost a year before returning to Rome to accept the imperial powers.

When he finally did return to Rome in 99 AD, he made generous gifts to the people, distributing cash handouts and giving more poor citizens free grain from the state.  He reduced taxes and began a public fund for the support of poor children in the Italian cities, who had previously had to rely on donations from private individuals.

He saw to it that competent and honest officials administered  the provinces, with special governors appointed to provinces whose cities had suffered financial difficulties.

Trajan undertook or encouraged extensive public works. Roads, bridges and aqueducts were built, wastelands reclaimed and harbours constructed.

Rome, in particular, saw substantial improvements, including a new aqueduct bringing water from the north. An impressive public bathing complex was built on the Esquiline Hill, and a magnificent new forum, designed by the architect Apollodorus of Damascus, at the centre of which was a colossal equestrian statue of the emperor. New streets of shops and warehouses sprang up nearby.

A court flanked by libraries for Greek and Latin books and backed by a temple was developed close to the forum. Trajan’s Column, an innovative work of art that commemorated his Dacian Wars, is still standing. Trajan's ashes were later placed in the column's cubical base. The statue of Trajan on top was removed during the Middle Ages and replaced in 1588 by one of Saint Peter.

Scenes from the Dacian Wars are captured on the  extraordinary bas relief that decorates Trajan's Column
Scenes from the Dacian Wars are captured on the
extraordinary bas relief that decorates Trajan's Column
Away from his civil accom- plishments, Trajan made his mark chiefly by abandoning the policy, established by the first Roman emperor, Augustus, and generally maintained by his success- ors, of not extending the Roman frontiers. In 101, he resumed the invasion of Dacia that Domitian had been forced to abandon, creating a new province that enabled Rome to exploit rich mines of gold and salt.

Trajan’s second major war was against the Parthians. He annexed the Nabataean kingdom, the part of Arabia extending east and south of Judaea, reinstated the pre-Roman king of Armenia previously deposed by the Parthians, annexed upper Mesopotamia and captured the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon.

In 115, Trajan survived the earthquake that devastated Antioch (modern Antakya, Turkey) but not long afterwards decided to leave after revolts had broken out in the newly conquered territories. He intended to return to Rome but did not get there. Aged 64 and in failing health, he died at Selinus - now the southern Turkish resort of Gazipasa.

His ashes were returned to Rome for a state funeral. Just before his death was made public, it was announced that he had nominated Hadrian as his successor.

Travel tip:

Trajan's Column is located in what remains of Trajan's Forum, built near the Quirinal Hill in Rome. The freestanding column is most famous for its spiral bas relief, which depicts 155 scenes from the Dacian Wars.  Standing about 30m (98 feet) in height -  35m including the pedestal - the column is made from 20 colossal drums in Carrara marble, each weighing about 32 tons. Inside the shaft, a spiral staircase of 185 steps provides access to a viewing platform at the top. After construction, a statue of Trajan was put in place on the top but this statue disappeared in the Middle Ages. In 1587, Pope Sixtus V replaced it with a bronze figure of St. Peter, which remains to this day.

The remains of Trajan's Forum, looking towards the  church of  Santissimo Nome di Maria al Foro Traiano
The remains of Trajan's Forum, looking towards the
 church of  Santissimo Nome di Maria al Foro Traiano
Travel tip:

Trajan's Forum, situated in Via Alessandrina, was the last Imperial forum to be constructed in ancient Rome. It consisted of a vast portico-lined piazza measuring 300m (980 feet) by 185m (607 feet), which required parts of the Quirinal and Capitoline hills to be excavated to make a flat area sufficiently large. The main entrance on the southern side was via a triumphal arch surmounted by a statue of Trajan in a six-horse chariot.  Today, only a restored section of the nearby markets - off Via Quattro Novembre - and Trajan's Column remain. A number of columns from the Basilica Ulpia which remained on site have been re-erected.

More reading:

How Emperor Titus rallied support for the victims of Vesuvius eruption

Walk around the forum inspired Edward Gibbon's epic history of the Roman empire

Santa Giustina and the purge of Christians that claimed her life

Also on this day:

1901: The sudden death in Milan of the great composer Giuseppe Verdi

(Picture credits: Warsaw bust by Brandmeister; Trajan's Column by Alvesgaspar; Forum and church by LPLT;  all via Wikimedia Commons)