Morris, Roderick Conway: the first rebirth of Roman culture

RIMINI, Italy 4 July 2008

rimini1In 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.

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