“This is the splendor of the great Costanza" - “the wonder of the world”, Emperor Frederick II is born in Iesy

26 December 1194, “the wonder of the world”, Emperor Frederick II was born in Iesy near Ancona under rather adverse conditions.

“This is the splendor of the great Costanza,
who from the Swabians' second gust engendered
the one who was their third and final power." (Dante, “Paradiso“)

The birth scene of Frederick II in the tent at Iesi, as imagined by the 14th century chronicler Giovanni Villani

Either she was a nun, requiring papal dispense for marrying the King of the Romans or she was just ugly like a sack full of toads. However, it was highly unusual for a princesse du sang not to be married at the age of 30. That Henry, son of the Holy Roman Frederick Barbarossa, would espouse Constance of House Hauteville, traditional supporters of the Pope, and the lady, or at least her son, about to inherit the throne of Norman Sicily and southern Italy, was probably the worst political nightmare the Holy See could imagine during the High Middle Ages. The happy couple married nonetheless in 1186, Henry and Constance were crowned emperor and empress after Barbarossa’s death in 1191 and with the vast funds gained from the ransom of Richard the Lionheart’s ransom money, Emperor Henry VI was able to finance the campaign to bring rebellious Sicily into the folds of the Holy Roman Empire.

A nun after all? In Heaven, Dante and Beatrice meet Constance de Hauteville accompanied by Piccarda Donati, of all the people, an Italian nun who was forced to renounce her vows (Illustration of Dante's "Paradiso", Canto III, by Francesco Scaramuzza, 1803 - 1886)

After eight years of marriage, Empress Constance was finally pregnant and followed in her husband’s wake to Italy and her native Sicily. When Henry finally was crowned King of Sicily on Christmas Day 1194 in Palermo, Constance had to stop in the town of Iesi near Ancona and was about to give birth, 8 weeks after her 40th birthday, not quite the ideal age for becoming a mother by medieval standards. Anti-Imperial rumours persisted since then, that her pregnancy was either faked or that she was pseudopregnant and, according to popular legend, Empress Constance felt compelled to give birth in public, in a tent on the town square of Iesi. Nonetheless, the rumours that another child was brought in never fell silent, the son of a butcher or a falconer, the latter accusation being not without bitter irony, since the future emperor wrote a famous book on falconry.

Stupor Mundi Frederick II,
Illustration from his book De arte venandi cum avibus
("The art of hunting with birds, late 13th century)

At the age of two, the child was crowned in absence as German king, or King of the Romans as the exact wording had been back in the day, he spent the first three years of his life in Spoleto, then his father the emperor died in 1197, the child was crowned King of Sicily in the following year in Palermo, his mother Constance died the same year and the boy grew up at the Sicilian court under the guardianship of the pope. Allegedly, young Federico roamed through the streets of Palermo, begged for his food and learned his Sicilian and Arabic there. Finally, though, he became one of the most glamorous European rulers of the Middle Ages, Emperor Frederick II. Probably not a philosopher on the emperor’s throne, Frederick was at least a scholar, writing a book about Falconry, occupying the scholars of his own and foreign courts with various scientific questions and brought about a paradigm change in the self-conception of understanding power and rulership in the Middle Ages. Recurring on and newly codifying Roman law, he might have felt like a divine antique emperor, but he did it based on legal grounds that would be groundbreaking for the dawn of the modern age, in Italy and elsewhere. The man Frederick himself, half Sicilian, half Swabian with his Faustian quest for knowledge and absolute power is hard to be up to after centuries of Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment and the national myths of 19th and early 20th centuries. The most fitting description remains the over 750 years old dictum of Frederick II being the stupor mundi, “wonder of the world” and it stands to reason that Frederick was wondering about himself and his various roles himself.

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