Famous Artists, First Reich...800 to 1806, History Highlights

German history has a long running connection with Italy

Kaiser Friedrich II at his court in Palermo, Italy

Another interesting aspect of German history is the long running connection with Italy. For example, there is a statue of German Kaiser Friedrich II …who lived in the 13th century…still being honored today in Naples, Italy. The image here, painted by Arthur von Ramberg, portrays this Kaiser at his court in Palermo, Italy. If you are wondering… how did that happen? I will explain it this way: The histories of Italy and Germany are more linked than most people realize.

The Roman Empire tangled with Germanic tribes for centuries, but by the 300s the Goths severely weakened the Romans. With the Western Empire weakened, other Germanic tribes like the Vandals and the Saxons were able to surge across Roman borders and occupy Britain, Spain and North Africa.

Finally, in 476, the Germanic leader Odoacer deposed the Emperor Romulus Augustulus and thus delivered the deathblow to the once mighty Roman Empire. Odoacer became the first Germanic commander and non-Roman King of Italy in 476, initiating a new era and the end of the western Roman Empire

Attempts by the Eastern Roman Empire to re-take control of the Western Empire led them to enlist Theoderic the Great and his Germanic Ostrogoths to defeat Odoacer. The events around the Battle of Ravenna were used in the Germanic heroic saga of Dietrich von Bern (Theoderic of Verona). The event in which Theoderic kills Odoacer with his own hands is mirrored in the saga. Theodoric became ruler of Italy in a successful partnership with the Byzantine Eastern Roman Empire.

Europe’s ruling Germanic Kingdoms in 526, most notably the Ostrogoths (yellow), Franks and Gepids (green) Westgoths (brown), Lombards and Vandals (purple) …the eastern Byzantine Empire is shown in pink

After Theodoric’s death another long Gothic War (535–554) flared up between the Byzantine Empire and the Ostrogothic Kingdom. The Byzantines reunited Western and Eastern Rome but were weakened and vulnerable from endless fighting and a plague that added to both sides misery.

Byzantine control of Italy was in jeopardy when it was invaded by a new Germanic army, this time the Lombards, who were joined by numerous Saxons, Heruls, Gepids, Bulgars, and Thuringians. By late 569 they conquered all northern Italy and the principal cities north of the Po River. They established a Lombard Kingdom in north and central Italy. Their capital was in Pavia and the region there is memorialized by the current name of the Italian region of Lombardy.

Unfortunately for the Lombards, their leader thrust himself into a dynastic dispute among another Germanic tribe called Franks. As a result, in 774 the Franks, led by Karl der Grosse-Charlemagne, conquered Pavia, deposed the Lombard king, and annexed the Kingdom of Italy (mostly northern and central present-day Italy) to his empire. This meant that German rule of Italy by the Lombard dukes and nobles shifted to other Germans… Franks and Bavarians, although Lombard nobles continued to rule southern parts of the Italian peninsula, well into the 11th century.

King of the Germanic Franks, Karl der Grosse…Charlemagne

The Franks worked closely with Popes in Rome and In 781, Charlemagne codified the regions over which the Pope would be temporal sovereign. This was the creation of the Papal States in central Italy. Soon after this, in the year 800, the Pope crowned Charlemagne with the title Holy Roman Emperor, marking this year as the birth of the First Reich, which lasted for 1000 years, until 1806. Italy was part of this Empire during the Middle Ages.

Karl der Grosse-Charlemagne-crowned Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800

Thus for many centuries, there was a close relationship between the nobility of the Franks, Bavarians and Lombards and the leaders of Italian city states. Until the 13th century, Italian politics were dominated by relations between the German Holy Roman Emperors and the Papacy, with most of the Italian city-states siding with one or the other sides depending on momentary convenience.

Heinrich IV is a good example of this era.…at age 6 he was King of the Romans…meaning King of Germany. Later he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor and also received the Iron Crown of Lombardy to become King of Italy and Burgundy. His reign, however, was repeatedly marked by controversy with the Papacy. Heinrich IV famously was excommunicated because he rejected the new claim that the Pope should have the absolute right to appoint Bishops, not the Emperor, as was the custom at the time. Because of the power of excommunication, Heinrich was forced by his own German Prince Electors to submit to Pope Gregory VII, but his abasement at Canossa can be regarded as a move of policy to strengthen his own position at the cost of a token humiliation to himself.

Kaiser Heinrich IV… abasement at Canossa

Later, when again excommunicated, Heinrich turned the tables by defeating the Pope’s military allies, both German and Italian, and forced Pope Gregory VII into exile after replacing him with his own anti-Pope. In later life Heinrich displayed much diplomatic ability and was regarded as a friend of the lower orders, capable of generosity and gratitude, and showed considerable military skill and great chivalry.

Heinrich VI of the Hohenstaufen dynasty is also noteworthy in this era. He was the son of the famous Friedrich I. Barbarossa and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor 1191 in Rome. Even though he only lived for 31 years, he was the most powerful monarch in the Mediterranean and Europe, especially after the Sicilian kingdom was added to his personal and Imperial revenues. However, his aims to integrate Sicily into the Empire as a second power base of the Hohenstaufen dynasty were not realized during his lifetime.

Der Staufer Kaiser Heinrich VI. (1165-1197), Sohn Friedrich I. B
Staufer Kaiser Heinrich VI. (1165-1197), son of Friedrich I. Barbarossa, crowned 1191 in Rome. After his death his mortal remains were transferred to Palermo Cathedral in 1198.

When Heinrich’s tyrannical rule as King in Italy spurred a revolt, especially around Catania and southern Sicily, his German soldiers suppressed it mercilessly. Subsequently, Heinrich’s Italian wife, Queen Constance, provoked by his neglect and pitying her countrymen, joined the revolts against him and besieged him in a castle, forcing him into a treaty. Afterwards, Heinrich became ill while hunting and died early at age 31 in Messina, Italy. He died of malaria, although it is also widely believed that he was poisoned. His wife Constance had him buried at Messina, but his mortal remains were transferred to Palermo Cathedral in 1198.

Later historians stress that Heinrich’s early death and the throne quarrel that followed was a major setback for the centralization of the German nation state begun under his father Frederick Barbarossa. Additionally, although the Kaiser’s stern measures in Sicily earned him the reputation of a cruel and merciless ruler, present-day historical research classifies Heinrich VI as a man of his time. Though a capable ruler he had to cope with the centrifugal forces of the disintegrating Empire while at the same time he overstretched the Hohenstaufen realm to an extent that finally could not be kept together.

Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (Kaiser Friedrich II), who was a grandson of legendary Frederick Barbarossa, was very involved with Italy. Due to his father’s death at the age 31, the young Prince Frederick at only 2 years of age was crowned King of Sicily in 1197. In 1212 he was crowned King of the Germans and later crowned as Holy Roman Emperor in 1220. As a Hohenstaufen and grandson of Frederick Barbarossa, he pursued his dynasty’s imperial policies against the Papacy and the Italian city states. He also joined the Sixth Crusade (1228–29), conquering several areas of the Holy Land and crowned himself King of Jerusalem (reigning 1229–43).

Statue Kaiser Friedrich II in Naples

Kaiser Friedrich spent little time in Germany as his main concerns lay in Southern Italy. He founded the University of Naples in 1224 to train future state officials and reigned over Germany primarily through the allocation of royal prerogatives, delegating sovereign authority to ecclesiastical and secular princes. Because he spent so much time in Italy, he wound up making significant concessions to the German nobles, which made princes virtually independent rulers within their territories. These measures increased the fragmentation and decentralized nature of the German Empire for nearly 600 years, until 1806.

Speaking six languages (Latin, Sicilian, German, French, Greek and Arabic), Frederick was an avid patron of science and the arts. He played a major role in promoting literature through the Sicilian School of poetry. His Sicilian royal court in Palermo, from around 1220 to his death in 1250, saw the first use of a literary form of an Italo-Romance language, Sicilian. The poetry that emanated from the school had a significant influence on literature and on what was to become the modern Italian language. In 1224 he founded the University of Naples, the world’s oldest state university… now called Università Federico II.

Although Frederick II ‘s reign led to further decentralization of Germany, one of his decisions had a delayed opposite effect…it laid the groundwork for the future centralization of Germany into the Second Reich in 1871. This very important event during Frederick’s rule was his authorizing the Teutonic Knights, who were crusading in northern Europe, to create their own government…the Monastic State of the Teutonic Order, founded in 1224. This large state existed for 300 years and governed the states along the Baltic Sea, eventually morphing into the Kingdom of Prussia in 1701…the state that re-united Germany in 1871.

After the Middle Ages in Italy, German influence declined, replaced by wars between Italian city-states that became endemic, with German involvement limited to the fact that these wars were primarily fought by armies of mercenaries known as condottieri, bands of soldiers drawn from around Europe, especially Germany and Switzerland.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s