by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |

The Counts of Gorizia Brought to Life


By Roderick Conway Morris
LIENZ, Austria 24 June 2000

 

"He is a man who is worse than a woman," sniffily observed Enea Silvio Piccolomini, future Pope Pius II, of Heinrichs IV, Count of Gorizia in 1452. The recipient of this report was the Holy Roman Emperor to be, Frederick III, who coveted the count's estates, and was no doubt pleased when his young Italian secretary went on to detail Heinrichs's social solecisms, which included eating with the cook in the kitchen, wearing shoddy old clothes, exposing his chest, staying up all night boozing and preferring the company of peasants to noblemen.

Sandwiched between the burgeoning Habsburg Empire to the north and west, and the expansionist Venetian Republic to the south, the counts of Gorizia ruled a patchwork of territories that stretched from the eastern Tirol, across present-day southern Austria and northeast Italy and down into Slovenia and Croatia.

Then, as now, this region was where Germanic and Italian cultures met, sometimes harmoniously co-existing, sometimes confronting one another, but constantly acting as a commercial, social, political and artistic point of exchange between north and south, the Teutonic and Latin worlds.

By the end of the 15th century the Habsburgs, who had gained control of the western part of the south Tirol in 1363, completed their long-term aim of absorbing the entirety of this previously autonomous buffer zone. And the decades before local independence was finally extinguished are particularly interesting ones, marking as they do the epoch when the thinking, technology and art of the Renaissance was being diffused throughout a mountainous region that was still profoundly medieval in its organization and outlook.

To bring to life again these fascinating and colorful times, a trio of uniformly first-rate historical exhibitions are being staged simultaneously in Lienz (now in the Austrian East Tirol), Brixen (in the mainly German-speaking Italian South Tirol), and Castel Beseno (in the Italian-speaking Trentino). Under the overall title "1500 Circa" (Around 1500), all three continue until Oct. 31.

The counts maintained dual capitals at Gorizia and Lienz. The charming Schloss Bruck is the venue for "Leonhard and Paola: A Disparate Couple." Leonhard became count in 1462 on the premature death of his brother. Although Leonhard was not quite as farouche as their father, Heinrichs, his surviving bills from Lienz's taverns indicate that he was not averse to a pint or several of beer, and contemporary evidence paints a picture of a medieval man of action not overburdened by courtly graces.

In 1478, after tortuous negotiations, Leonhard married Paola Gonzaga, a well-educated girl, raised in the refined humanist milieu of her father's palace in Mantua. Paola spent most of her time in Lienz (not least because the town was less exposed to Turkish marauders than Gorizia), where she brought a new element of glamour and savoir-faire to the household.

The couple's years together, their pastimes and the cultural life they fostered are the focus of the show's vivid re-creation of everyday existence in this miniature Renaissance court in the Alps, whose days, however, were numbered, since Paola was unable to give Leonhard an heir, and when he died in 1500, his realm passed to the Habsburgs.

Some 100 kilometers to the west is Brixen (Bressanone in Italian), then the seat of one of the region's two semi-autonomous Prince-Bishoprics (the other being at Trento). The former Prince-Bishops' Palace is the setting for "De ludo globi" (Of the Game of the Globes). This show takes its name from a treatise by Nicolo Cusano, who was Prince-Bishop between 1452 and 1458. It described a kind of game of bowls he invented in which the balls were elliptical rather than spherical, to add to the unpredictability of the outcome. Cusano was a humanist with wide intellectual and scientific interests, and his game seems to have been as much a philosophical exercise as an actual sport.

The exhibition takes Cusano as the jumping-off point for an investigation of the changing religious, intellectual and artistic life of the city and region, where Cusano found his attempts at reform met stiff opposition. There are sections devoted to the impact of cartography, printing and the rise of portraiture, which was given new impetus by demand from the rising merchant classes. Several of the portraits, on loan from far and wide, are superb, as is a large Passion triptych from Cologne, showing Cusano kneeling at the foot of the Cross. And sobering is the evidence that one of the first uses the new technology of printing was put to was the mass production of vicious anti-semitic propaganda.

This border region was also the arena of armed conflict, given that Venice was as anxious to have possession of it as the Habsburgs. Thus, the third show "On the Threshold of the Empire" at Castel Beseno, an impressive, newly restored pile just south of Trento, is devoted to military matters and, in particular, the Battle of Calliano.

For nearly a century the Venetians had been edging northwards into this area. Events came to a head in 1487, when a Venetian mercenary army met a force of Germanic knights and pikemen at Calliano on Aug. 10, on the marshy plain below Castel Beseno's walls. Despite their numerical superiority, the outcome was disastrous for the Venetian army, which broke up in disorder, hundreds of men being drowned in the Adige while attempting to flee. Their commander, the 73-year-old veteran Roberto da Sanseverino, one of the most experienced free-lance generals in Italy, was killed in the melee, and his bloodstained suit of armor set up as a macabre trophy in the Duomo at Trento.

The debacle at Calliano marked the last attempt by Venice to seize this contested territory by force, and it was not until 1919 that the Italians succeeded in gaining the region, which they had for so long dreamed of annexing.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016