by Roderick Conway Morris

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Under Frederick II, the First Rebirth of Roman Culture

By Roderick Conway Morris
RIMINI, Italy 4 July 2008
National Archeological Museum, Naples.
An onyx cameo of the deities
Poseidon and Athena (c. 40-30 B.C.),
once in Frederick II's collection.



In December 1231, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II passed through Rimini. An inscription commemorates the event, noting that his entourage included 'elephants, camels and other monstrous beasts.' Other contemporary sources describe his peripatetic court traveling with lions, leopards, lynxes and panthers, with their Saracen keepers; apes, giraffes and bears; and ostriches, peacocks, Syrian doves and all kinds of birds of prey.

Accompanied by scholars, poets, musicians, artists, craftsmen and his Muslim mercenary bodyguards, Frederick - called 'stupor mundi,' the astonishment of the world - moved around his domains, which at their peak stretched from Jerusalem, through Sicily and Italy to Germany beyond the Alps.

Such teeming cavalcades of exotic beasts had not been seen since the heyday of the Roman Empire. And it was Frederick's intention to revive the glories of Rome's past in every respect, an ambition that ultimately foundered in the titanic struggle between the empire and the papacy.

The extraordinary and sometimes underestimated legacy of Frederick's reign between 1220 and 1250 is the subject of 'Exempla: The Rebirth of the Antique in Italian Art, From Frederick II to Andrea Pisano,' at Castel Sismondo, where it continues until Sept. 7. This thought-provoking display brings together 90 rare sculptures, cameos, coins and books, tracing the revival of ancient skills in general, and particularly by Nicola Pisano, his son Giovanni, Nicola's pupil Arnolfo di Cambio, and their artistic heirs, notably Andrea Pisano.

The era of Frederick's rule has justifiably been described as the 'first Renaissance.' However, whereas the later Italian Renaissance flourished primarily in the center and north of the peninsula, this first flowering had its origins in Sicily and the south, the epicenter of Frederick's empire, from which this free-thinking, multilingual emperor (apart from several Western tongues, he also knew Hebrew and Arabic) conducted his affairs.

There is no question that Frederick was a genuine lover and connoisseur of the arts, but he was also alive to their importance in promoting imperial policy. Italy was littered with the remains of ancient buildings and sculptures, which had routinely been recycled as building materials. During this period, the use of these remains became more discriminating, and they began to inspire artists to imitate and emulate them.

Under Frederick's patronage the search was now on for antique pieces of the highest quality. In 1240, Frederick issued what was perhaps the first government permit for an archaeological excavation, clearly hoping to acquire some fine pieces for himself.

Lions, apart from those in his menagerie, had a special significance. Frederick's Norman forebears on his mother's side had already employed antique marble lions as potent symbols of their dominion in southern Italy, and as emperor he continued using them to represent the nobility of his own rule as emperor.

Frederick revived the Roman portrait bust and profile portrait relief. In 1238, the emperor held an ancient-style triumph in Rome to celebrate his crushing defeat of his rebellious Lombard subjects, at which he was declared the 'second Caesar Augustus.' A monument was erected to his victory on the Capitoline Hill, decorated with profile reliefs, and some of the fascinating line-up of portraits on show, most from private collections, almost certainly come from this dispersed memorial.

To create the statuary, decorative art and luxury artifacts necessary to project in visual form the magnificence of his rule, Frederick established imperial workshops. One of the most fruitful was at Castel del Monte. The astrological, cabalistic codes embodied in this unique octagonal fortress will probably never be elucidated, but its groundbreaking gateway echoing Greco-Roman temple fronts is a forthright example of the admiration of antiquity.

Muslim craftsmen were an established feature at the courts of Frederick's Norman precursors, and he too welcomed them. They had special expertise in cutting difficult and hard materials, such as rock crystal, onyx and porphyry, skills that were turned to the production of exquisite cameos, inspired by classical models. Cameos, ancient and modern, were particularly prized in the milieu of this cultivated but itinerant court, being both expressions of refinement and easily portable.

Also noted in the workshops was the presence of artists from north of the Alps - some, no doubt, from Frederick's domains in Germany, others from France. The innovations of these northern Gothic practitioners in sculpting and in giving new expressiveness to the human figure also left their mark on Nicola Pisano and his fellow Italian artists. This north-south dialogue anticipated, too, the exchanges between Italy and northern Europe that played a vital role in the later Renaissance.

The level of sophistication of the artifacts, both antique and newly made, is well attested here by, for example, a wonderful first-century B.C. cameo of Poseidon and Athena, once in the emperor's treasury, and a 13th-century cameo of Hercules slaying the Nemean lion, carved at his court. The latter carving has much in common with a vigorous second-century A.D. sculpture of the same subject also present, and such juxtapositions between full-scale sculptures and cameos illustrate the constant and stimulating interchange in the representations of the human figure between these two art forms.

Nicola Pisano may have begun his apprenticeship as a maker of cameos. His 'Head of a Young Woman' here is cut from pyrite, a very hard stone. He went to Pisa, probably during the 1240s (his son Giovanni was born there in around 1245). Here he was initially dubbed Nicola de Apulia (from Puglia), recording his southern origins. In Pisa he was exposed to additional classical works in and around the cathedral, including early Christian sarcophagi, as well as further French Gothic influences.

These elements Nicola triumphantly absorbed and reinterpreted to forge the revolutionary new personal style of his pulpit for Pisa's Baptistery. This complex combination of architecture and multifigure sculpture was based on a homily by the then-resident archbishop. He signed this sermon in stone Nicola Pisanus ('the Pisan'). So precious was this masterpiece that the church authorities of his adopted city, in Holy Week, ringed it with armed guards lest it be damaged. Giovanni's pulpit for the Cathedral was less fortunate. It was dismantled after a fire in 1595, and suffered further harm through restoration.

The influence of Nicola, his son Giovanni, who developed a strong and distinctive style of his own, Nicola's onetime pupil Arnolfo di Cambio and their followers spread from Pisa to Siena, Florence, Pistoia and on to Perugia, Bologna, Orvieto and Rome. In due course, this continually evolving school had a profound effect on the painters of the region, especially Giotto.

None of Frederick's grander, classically inspired monuments survived. His artistic and cultural contributions were for centuries obscured by the damnation of his memory by the Catholic church. Dante placed him in the sixth circle of hell, eternally burning in a fiery tomb along with other Epicurean heretics.

At the end of the exhibition is Andrea Pisano's 'The Invention of Sculpture,' a panel carved for Giotto's campanile for Florence's duomo, nearly a century after Frederick's death. It depicts an ancient Greek sculptor carving a statue of a male nude. And the spirit of the art-loving emperor who presided over the first great rediscovery of the classical arts is still palpably present in it.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023