First half of the 13th century, we are in a “One Thousand and One Nights”-like palace, in a city rich of mines and mosques, next to the see, amongst barren and sunny hills. In a big room thirty beautiful Saracenic girls are waiting for their master in that golden luxury while they grant themselves malicious chatting and laughters, immerse in incense scent, myrrh, on refined pillows and carpets. The doors would open up revealing a red haired man, cross eyed, non exactly fascinating, escorted by a personal guard wearing a Moorish armor.
Below: the “Harem” painting by Jean-Baptiste van Mour, first half of the 18th century
We are not a Muslim Principality of Northern Africa, nor our man is a Sultan, as he could come across as. We are in Lucera, Puglia and who’s choosing the concubine to lay with is none other than Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and heir of the Germanic Kingdom of Sicily thanks to his mother Constance d’Altavilla. Frederick obtained in 1220 the Imperial throne by his father Henry VI.
Left an orphan at a young age, Frederick was entrusted to the care of pope Innocent III according to his mother’s guidelines, who believed to be able to shape him into a malleable sovereign, devoted to the Catholic Church. The strong personality of the young King dissipates any such a hope though. He formally accepted the influence of his tutor up until his coronation in 1220, then from then on he started behaving as he wished and with it provoking the wrath of the Church up until the excommunication by Gregory IX.
Below: the dream of pope Gregory IX by Giotto, Assisi
The role as a monarch was fitting his temper perfectly, since he was said to be a complete narcissist. One of his primary priorities was restoring the universal power and so politics and reason of state (national interest) prevailed over the emperor’s feelings. The man is stubborn and calculator, with a huge determination in obtaining what he wants. Curious and cultured, he spoke six languages, he was interested in astrology, occult arts, arts and poetry. He revealed himself as a great politician and legislator, not in the reconstruction of the empire which ceased to exist with the victory of the Italian municipalities, but mainly in the ideation of a centralised model of government which anticipare the modern assolutism.
what kind of man was Frederick in his private life though?
Women were for the king nothing but pawns in his political tactics or simple tools of pleasure, exploited to satisfy his uncontrollable lust. He is an extraordinary man both in virtues and vices.
Below: painting of Frederick II with the hawk from his treaty “De arte venandi cum avibus”
That is the great and fascinating contradiction that Frederick II is
Stupor mundi, the wonder of the world for his loyal followers, the Antichrist for pope Gregory IX
When we think about a Medieval Germanic sovereign the immediate picture that appears is the one of a nordic cold prince, who expresses himself with a rough language. In reality Frederick of Hohenstaufen had been submerged in the Mediterranean culture of Sicily and Puglia from a very early stage, where he loved to dwell with his court. He probably spoke vulgar Sicilian and Tuscan dialect better than German, and he was extremely drawn to the Orient. He wove relationships with the Arab Princes and loved to live as an ancient Persian Prince himself, in marvellous courts followed by a bunch of lovers.
Below: Frederick meets the sultan ayyubide al-Malik al-Kamil, illuminated manuscript
Lucera was back then a city entirely populated by Muslim, in a Christian land. After having lost the episcopal seat with the collapse of its cathedral, the emperor filled it up with the Sicilians Muslims who had rose up and for this they had been deported by his order. Almost as if he wanted to say sorry for the too harsh punishment towards them, the King gave them a city where to live openly their religion, customs and traditions. The Muslims of Lucera became his most loyal subjects, and he chose his personal guard and his many favourites amongst them.
Below: the Aulic Chancellor hosted by Frederick II in Favara Palace, Palermo. By his side, many intellectuals, artists and scientists
Throughout Frederick’s life he got married four times, three of which for mere political reasons and only one for love. His partners were for the most part results of alliances and kept only for “royal breeding”. Soon the King put together a copious army of children, fostering the myth of irredeemable libertine.
His first wife is Constance D’Aragon, mature woman, refined and extremely religious. They got married in 1209 on the advice of the pope Innocent III: that was the man’s intention to subject the 15 years of Frederick to the Holy Roman Church and make him a perfect Catholic Christian.
Below: the crown of Constance D’Aragon preserved in the Cathedral of Palermo. Picture by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0
The pontiff desire did not come true as the King started living his life uninhibitedly with a wife 11 years older than him. From this union Henry VII came to life, who later rebelled against his own father trying to overthrow him. As for his wife Constance, she died in 1222.
Below: detail from a miniature of the “Chronica regia Coloniensis” showing Henry VII
His second marriage was set up in 1225 in view of the VI Crusade, once again promoted by the Vatican. The chosen spouse was Isabella II of Jerusalem, daughter of the valiant crusader and King of Jerusalem John of Brienne. The inviting Realm that the daughter had inherited from her father was the main reason for the marriage, which had a tense beginning.
It seems that Isabella, young 13 years old as well as not very attractive and expert in the art of love, let down the demanding Frederick since the first wedding night.
Below: pope Honorius III wed Frederick II, in blue and red clothing and the young Isabella II, wearing a red dress, daughter of John of Brienne, King of Jerusalem. miniature from the 14th century from the “Nuova Cronica” by Giovanni Villani
The consummation of marriage occurred but something appeared scandalous:
the person who did the honours is not Isabella but her cousin, more provocative and uninhibited
The scandal costed to the pope a profitable role in Vatican, for the poor father in law deeply hurt by the event. Apparently the title of King of Jerusalem did not produce much profit.
Isabella died in childbirth giving life to Conrad IV, future King of Germany
In the meantime, during his trips in the continental Empire, Frederick allowed himself some flirts; once, in Germany seduced a German noble woman, Adelheid of Urslingen from whom he has two children: the much loved Enzo, later King of Sardinia kept imprisoned by the Bolognese army during the Fossalta battle.
In Piedmont, while Frederick is a guest of the noble family Lancia in their Castle of Agliano, met up and fell in love of the young Bianca Lancia, that became since the beginning his favourite. With her he had a cohabitation “more uxorio” (as a husband and wife), scandalising the clergy and conformists of that time. They got married together in 1246.
Below: Frederick II meets Bianca Lancia in her Castle of Agliano, represented in an ancient painting
The emperor carried her with him in his Sicilian court and loved her as he never did with anybody else, defining her as “pulcherrima nimis”, literally “the too beautiful one”. Bianca gave him three children: Constance, Manfred and Violante.
Below: Medieval miniature which represents the august couple, Codex Palatinus Germanicus 848, Codex Manesse
Politics and national interest pushed the King into sacrificing his feelings to the contingency of the moment.
Looking for an alliance with England, Frederick sought the hand of Isabella of England, sister of King Henry III. This time though, mindful of his previous unfortunate union with Isabella of Jerusalem, he sent his courtier Pietro della Vigna (In Dante’s Divine Comedy placed in the Woods of Suicide) to the English court, in order to make sure whether the dame was worthy. Isabella was actually a pretty woman and so the wedding was officiated in 1235. The couple had together three children.
Below: Isabella with her husband Frederick II
Isabella soon realised her husband sexual appetites, that was used to granting himself with a few extramarital flings.
In an episode, during a court feast, she surprised him in an orgy not only with his courtesans but with young male dancers. The emperor, once he noticed her in the room, did not react whatsoever and carried on with his activity. The poor Isabella was shocked by the event which led to her isolation in her private rooms. She died in 1241.
Frederick is the man ahead of anybody else, he is accountable to nobody
Extraordinary virtues as well as vices.