It was the beginning of 1300 and in Italy the battle between Guelphs and Ghibellines was bitter. In those hard times the Divine Comedy was written and the same Dante, while in  Paradise, speaks to the Alto Arrigo, wise man who should have put Italy under the Imperial domination stopping the temporal power of the Church, at that point subject to the Avignon Papacy (1309-1377).

Alto Arrigo was in fact Henry VII of Luxembourg (1275-1313)

He was the the Holy Roman Emperor, descended to Italy in October 1310 and engaged for 3 years in intense political and military battles in the country. He was crowned in Milan as King of Italy with the Iron Crown on the 6th of January 1311 and tried to have Pope Clement V to crown him in Rome, functional validation to the political power of the sovereign. The Pope though retracted its duty, therefore Henry received his celebration in the Lateran on the 29th of June 1312, performed by three Ghibelline Cardinals loyal to the King.

Below: illustration of the coronation of Henry VII Emperor

From Rome he headed towards Tuscany to subjugate the Guelph factions, then, on his way to battle Robert King of Naples, King Henry was hit by an infection of Anthrax. He arrived in Buonconvento, near Siena and there he died. A recent research conducted by professor Francesco Mallegni confirmed the death for arsenic poisoning, which back in the day was used to try and cure anthrax.

The death of the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Italy gave back relief to both King Robert and many other rivals of him

It was the 24th of August 1313 and in Tuscany it was a sweltering day. Carrying the remains of the Emperor back to Germany and not having his body decomposed along the way was an impossible task, so in the village of Buonconvento they tried to look for a solution to the problem. The offal was removed and preserved inside the Altar of St Anthony in the local church while the corpse was fixed in order to still look alive for its journey to Pisa.

Below: the Imperial army in the descent through Italy. Picture taken from the Codex Balduini Trevirensis

The hotness in that period and the nasty smell coming from the coffin and the scourge of the anthrax pushed the servants to stop in Suvereto, where they decided to behead the King, boil the body in order to divide flesh from bones. These were kept in a glass display and then carried to Pisa, where they eventually buried the King, in the Cathedral of the city.

Below: statue of the funeral monument of Henry VII of Luxembourg by Tino di Camaino. Picture by Sailko shared via Wikipedia – licence  CC BY-SA 3.0

As professor Mallegni reported “the body was boiled and divided by the head, which present a higher concentration of arsenic. Although the practice may sound unusual, back then it was very common and was called

Mos Teutonicus

Which translates as “in the German way”. This technique would expect the boiling of the entire corpse up until the spoliation of the meat would occur, which then were either buried or cured. As it happened to King Henry, the offal was frowned upon by the German nobility and for this reason they remained in the church of Buonconvento, where a tombstone would signal its presence up until the 1700.

Below: Henry VII of Luxembourg’s tombstone, inside Buonconvento. Picture by Massimo Telò shared via Wikipedia – licence  CC BY-SA 4.0

The removal of the offal allowed a better conservation of the dead man, even though in the case of King Henry it was not enough to avoid the macabre boiling procedure.

Below: tomb of Henry VII today, Cathedral of Pisa . Picture by LoneWolf1976  shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0

Henry VII did not have 40 years yet when he had arrived in Italy trying to unify the many states under the aegis of the Holy Roman Empire. But after the many fights his dream was shattered, ruining Dante Alighieri’s expectations of an Italy united and peaceful.

Matteo Rubboli

I am a publisher specialised in the digital distribution of culture and founder of the portal Vanilla Magazine. I don't wear a tie or branded clothes, I keep my hair short so I don't have to comb it. That's not my fault but just the way I've been drawn as...

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