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Charlemagne in Italy.

Charlemagne's conduct towards the vanquished Lombards was, on the whole, generous and statesmanlike. By assuming the title of king of the Lombards he showed that it was not his object to destroy the nationality of the countrymen of Alboin, nor to force them into one people with the Franks, Had his own son Pippin lived and transmitted his sceptre to his descendants, there ought possibly have been founded a kingdom of italy, strong, patriotic and enduring.

Thomas Hodgkin (1831-1913), who published this assessment of Charlemagne's Italian legacy in 1897, was of that British generation which lived excitedly through the creation of an Italian national state. Indeed, he was writing his most celebrated work, Italy and Her Invaders - a monumental eight volume history of Ostrogothic, Lombard and Frankish involvement with Italy - whilst it was taking shape, and his reaction to political events coloured many passages besides the one above. It may strike us today as strange, when most modern scholars place Carlomagno a very poor third behind Charlemagne and Karl der Grosse, that he should have portrayed Charles as the man who nearly founded Italy almost exactly eleven hundred years before. Perhaps by exploring the views of ninth-century historians it is possible to test his old hypothesis.

The example of Charlemagne is not as irrelevant to us as it may initially seem. We too have witnessed a tumultuous political situation in Italy in recent years when it has seemed that Italy as an agreed political unit might disappear. Many Italians are questioning the usefulness of their modern state and, according to those on the right in the north, it is the country's medieval past that should provide a model: a regionalised polity, with a much reduced role for national institutions. To some, a return to such decentralisation seems possible within the wider political framework of the European Union. Consequently, it is appropriate to investigate putative parallels with the ninth century, when Italy was incorporated by Charlemagne into the Europe-wide empire of the Franks, a fact which easily might have sharpened existing regional identities based on ethnic and cultural divisions and given them definable political shape. it is from this perspective that the comments of contemporary historians, both Franks and non-Franks, on the events of their own time and the man who came to embody the spirit of the age are so revealing.

Charlemagne's fame has endured to our own time, an extraordinary process which, since the history of his memorialisation is quite complex and reads differently from one author to another, has elicited less comment from historians than it deserves. A simple opposition of myth and reality is not very helpful - it is hard for us to know who to believe. Instead, it is easier to discuss representations of him at a given place and time.

Educated Franks were writing about Charles soon after he died in 814. The most startling case is Einhard (c.775-840), an influential lay member of Charles' court, whose Life of Charles the Great Emperor (Vita Karoli magni imperatoris) was written between 829 and 836. Through it Einhard wanted to exalt the Charlemagne of great and deservedly glorious memory' who had been good to him. From the surviving early manuscripts it appears that the life was quite widely known, although less in Italy than in Frankia. Indeed, there are no surviving Italian manuscripts at all, although one is mentioned in the earliest library catalogue of the monastic community at Bobbio (itself heavily Frankish influenced in this period). This is an important point: it would appear that italian readers did not know Einhard's panegyric of Charlemagne and perhaps they did not want to.

Nevertheless, Einhard and his audience wanted to know about Italy and, considering that Einhard probably never went there whilst Charles was alive, he is relatively well-informed about Charles' exploits there, to which he devotes a fair proportion of his narrative. From this it is clear that Charles regarded italy as his most significant conquest and, given what Italy did for his posthumous reputation, he can only have been right. The most famous passage is, of course, that alluding to Charlemagne's coronation as Emperor in Rome on Christmas Day, 800:

He, therefore, came to Rome to restore the condition of the church, which was terribly disturbed, and spent the whole of the winter there. It was then that he received the title of Emperor and Augustus, which he so disliked at first that he affirmed that he would not have entered the church on that day - though it was the chief festival of the church - if he could have foreseen the design of the Pope.

Einhard explained that Charles' relationships with Rome and the Romans had a special significance for him, his father and his sons. He gave many gifts to St Peter's basilica and attempted 'to restore to the city of Rome her ancient authority'. Einhard understood very well that Charlemagne's conquest of the Lombard kingdom (which had been created over the previous two centuries) was a significant fact in the history of the Frankish people and their special relationship with God, his first apostle St Peter and his earthly representatives, the popes. Frankish rulers had been involved with Italian politics from this perspective for well over a century before the crushing defeat which Charlemagne finally inflicted on the Lombard kings in 773-74. On most of these occasions the Franks were fighting the Lombards on behalf of the papacy.

At times, though, a peaceful Frankish takeover was attempted. Charlemagne first became directly involved with italy as a result of the attempt by his mother, Bertrada, to marry him, in 770, to the Lombard princess Desiderata, daughter of the last Lombard king, Desiderius. Frankish and Italian sources alike skirt around the reasons for this marriage, but it seems that Bertrada wanted to end the uncertain political situation in Frankia, which had arisen after the death of her husband Pippin in 768. Charlemagne and his older brother Carloman had started to compete for pre-eminence in Italy soon after this, as is demonstrated by the grants made by each of them in 769, 770 and 773, to the strategically-placed monastery of Novalesa in the Alps, which controlled access to Lombardy from Frankia. Charlemagne repudiated his new wife a year later. This must have been very controversial - Einhard does not know why and other sources disagree. The most likely reason would seem to have been the hostility of Carloman to the match. The result was of great future importance: a Lombard-Frankish alliance was never to be.

The Frankish military conquest was protracted. At the request of Pope Hadrian, Charlemagne invaded in the summer of 773 and had defeated Desiderius by June 774, when Pavia, the Lombard capital, fell. Most contemporary accounts refuse to glamourise these events. Einhard provides a sober commentary on some of the greatest military successes of Charles' long reign: Desiderius' defeat, the suppression of Hrodgaud's rebellion in 775-76, and the fearful struggle with the Lombard prince Aregis of Benevento in 786-87. Exceptional military prowess was a theme expected by an aristocratic audience and later, when such qualities seemed a thing of the past, Notker of St Gall, in his On Charles the Great written about 884, turned it all into an unstoppable epic, with Charlemagne at the head of a fierce iron-clad army. The sober view is more plausible.

At the end of 780 Charlemagne travelled to Italy with his young wife Hildegard and their three children: Louis, Pippin and Gisela. They spent Christmas in Pavia, presumably in the royal palace with its many reminders of Lombard rule, and then travelled to Rome where they celebrated Easter with Pope Hadrian. The Royal Frankish Annals (a contemporary account) report that:

... there the Lord Pippin, the son of the great Lord King Charles, was baptized by Pope Hadrian, who was also his sponsor. The two sons of the Lord King Charles were anointed kings by the same pontiff: the Lords Pippin and Louis [Louis the Pious], the Lord Pippin to be king of Italy and the Lord Louis to be king of Aquitaine. On his return journey the Lord King Charles came to the city of Milan, and there his daughter, the Lady Gisela, was baptized by Archbishop Thomas, who was also her sponsor. From Milan he returned to Francia.

781 was a fateful year in Italian history. By virtue of his children's baptism, Charlemagne entered into a relationship of co-parenthood with the pope and the archbishop of Milan. Hadrian's letters to Charlemagne from this year onwards address him as spiritual co-father (spiritali compatri), a link which was deliberately created around events of extreme political significance. His son Pippin (777-810), aged three, was made King of Italy by virtue of papal anointing, and as a direct result of this decision Italy retained its identity as a separate kingdom when it could easily have been swallowed up by Frankia.

At the same time Charlemagne began to administer the new kingdom. A capitulary, or list of ordinances, was promulgated at Mantua which sought to extend Frankish legal custom to Italy, and four charters were issued (more than in any other year of Charlemagne's rule) to the bishop and inhabitants of Comacchio, to the bishop of Reggio Emilia and to monasteries in Sesto and Brescia. In each of these Charles uses his new title: 'Charles by the Grace of God King of the Franks and the Langobards and Patricius of the Romans'.

Once Charles had established Pippin as his agent he could concentrate on what really interested him about Italy: its antique culture, embodied in the city of Rome which Charlemagne visited whenever he could. There he funded several new buildings, particularly the palace alongside St Peter's, as well as new decorative schemes for churches (notably the famous portrait of him with Leo III). Like many visitors Charles wanted to take a bit of Rome back home with him, and Einhard reports that he had columns and other material symbols of Romanitas brought to Aachen from Ravenna.

In large part, this interest can be explained by emulation of the Roman emperors. But Charlemagne's cultural interest in Italy was not focused on Rome alone. Other once important imperial centres had to be made Frankish, Milan being the best example. Milan was one of the largest and most strategically important towns in the north of italy and Charlemagne had to win over its leading men if his conquest was to be lasting. As we have seen, he did this in the most meaningful way possible, by entering into spiritual kinship with Archbishop Thomas through the baptism of his daughter Gisela. We may surmise that her baptism took place in the vast font of Santa Maria, the cathedral where Augustine had been similarly baptised by Ambrose in 387. This fact can hardly have been lost on the royal family and may have reminded Charles that one of those desirable prizes which Italy had to offer him was direct contact with important saints, through their shrines and relics - and not simply in Rome. This alliance with Thomas, who had ruled the see of Milan for over twenty-five years, marked the start of a long Carolingian involvement with this ancient, rich diocese.

When Thomas died in 783 it was hardly a coincidence that Peter, a Frankish friend of Alcuin (Charlemagne's theological adviser), was appointed in his place. Peter proceeded to found a monastery adjacent to the basilica where Ambrose, who had built the church, was buried in 397. The foundation was soon confirmed by royal charter in April 790, a document which stressed the overriding importance of the proper observance of St Benedict's Rule (its first abbot took the name of Benedict). This monastery was the first in italy founded next to a sub-urban basilica, which was a long-established Frankish habit, and it was also the only one founded with the consent of Charlemagne. Its fortunes apparently flourished as a result of Frankish court patronage: Pippin was buried here in 810 and the see of Milan figured in Charlemagne's will.

Whether there was opposition to Charlemagne in Milan is now impossible to tell. Perhaps all that remains of local resistance to Frankish appropriation of the most special cult site of northern Italy is the late tradition (recorded by the Milanese chronicler Landulf Senior in the late eleventh century) that Charlemagne had attempted to abolish the city's own liturgy and baptismal customs, which had supposedly been handed down from Saint Ambrose and known as the Ambrosian Rite. This raises some interesting questions about Frankish concern for late imperial north Italian culture which await further research.

Other issues are raised by the story of Milan. One is Charles' dealings with Italian monasteries. Eighth-century Lombard kings had been generous supporters of religious communities and by the 770s some of these were already rich and politically powerful, a fact which caused Charles to proceed cautiously. Historians have generally agreed that the extent to which Charles had a coherent religious policy towards Italian monasteries is questionable. Although he was interested in St Benedict and requested (and received) a copy of the original text of his Rule from the pope, it seems unlikely that Charlemagne and Alcuin tried to enforce the observance of the Rule throughout Italy. His gifts to monasteries demonstrate that, although he issued more charters in favour of monasteries than any other type of institution (twenty charters out of a total of thirty-seven), he was not very generous either with lands or rights. Three communities were patronised more frequently than the others: Farfa, Nonantola and Novalesa. Even Montecassino, the custodian of the Benedictine tradition, obtained only one grant in 787.

Frankish sources, whose worth Hodgkin and most others value over non-Frankish writers, tell us much about Charlemagne in Italy. Hodgkin chose his themes under the influence of the concerns of his time. Italy and her ethnic, political and cultural identity, in the singular, interested him most. And Rome - the capital of Italy from 1870 - was at the very centre of the entire puzzle. But Hodgkin and his sources tell us less about Italian reactions to Charlemagne, particularly in regions far from Rome, like Lombardy. Historians are now much less inclined to present their work as representing a single reality, in the way that Victorian historians did and so it follows that there are numerous other ways of approaching this important time in Italy's history. A brief review of some ninth-century Italian historical writing shows reactions rather different to those of Einhard.

The way in which local writers came to represent Charlemagne is a complex and neglected cultural phenomenon. That he was a favourite subject in a range of genres (history, verse, epic) until well into the early modern period is well established. But how his Italian contemporaries saw him is hardly known. Authors writing whilst he was still alive tend to be fairly favourable. Most famously, Paul the Deacon, a Lombard monk at Montecassino, wen to Frankia and wrote histories and poems for Charles. But he shied away from continuing his history of the Lombards beyond the death of King Liutprand in 744, perhaps because he did not want to relate the defeat of his people. This was left to his various continuators.

If we examine the few historical texts certainly written in Italy in Charlemagne's own lifetime, the picture is much the same as that given by Frankish accounts. This is not surprising as the texts in questions were produced by the papacy and by Pippin's court circle. The most important of these texts is the Roman Liber Pontificalis (Book of Pontiffs). In this text each pope's life history is recorded. The eighth-century Lives are contemporary records, made by clerks at the Lateran, all of them anonymous. Unsurprisingly the Lives support papal policy and therefore, represent Charles in a very positive light. Charlemagne appears in the Lives of Stephen II (752757), Stephen III (768-772), Hadrian I (772-797) and Leo III (797-816). In all of these Charles responds to frequent papal requests for Frankish intervention. In Stephen III's Life Charles is termed Patricia of the Romans, a title which he himself used only from 776. Charle is repeatedly commended for his devoutness (as 'the Christian king' in Hadrian's Life). The account of the Frankish invasion given in Hadrian's Life is very favourable. When it was all over Charles went to Rome for Easter in 774:

When His Excellency the kindly king Charles arrived, he kissed every single step leading up to St Peter's holy church, and so came to the pontiff where he was waiting in the atrium at the top of the steps, close to the church doors. He was greeted and they embraced each other: the Christian king Charles held the pontiff's right hand, and in this way they entered the venerable hall of St Peter Prince of the apostles.

Another important witness to early Carolingian rule in Italy is provided by one of the various epitomes and continuations of Paul the Deacon's History of the Lombards, the so called Historia Langobardorum Codex Gothanus, probably written at Pippin's court around 807. As the only sustained contemporary verdict on Charlemagne recorded in an Italian manuscript the first half of chapter nine is worth quoting.

Here was finished the kingdom of the Langobardi and began the kingdom of Italy by the most glorious Charles, king of the Franks, who as helper and defender of Lord Peter, the prince of the Apostle, had gone to demand justice for him from Italy. For no desire of gain caused him to wander, he became the pious and merciful helper of the good; and though he might have demolished everything, he became their clement and indulgent [preserver]. And in his pity he bestowed on the Langobards the laws of his native land. adding laws of his own, as he wished. for the needs of the Langobards; and he forgave the sins of innumerable men who incessantly sinned against him. For which Almighty God multiplied his riches a hundredfold. After he had conquered Italy, he made Spain his boundary; then he subdued Saxony; afterwards he became lord of Bavaria and over innumerable nations spread the terror of his name. But at last, as he was worthy of the Empires honour, he obtained the Imperial crown; he received the dignities of Roman power, he was made the most dutiful son of lord Peter the apostle, and the defended his property from his enemies. But after all these things he handed over the kingdom of Italy to his great and glorious son lord Pippin the great king, and as Almighty God bestowed the grace of fortitude on the father so did it abound in the son ... At the present day by his aid Italy has shone forth as she did in the most ancient days. She has had laws, and fertility, and peace, through the merit of our lord the Emperor, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Who wrote this remains unknown. it is quite likely that the author was Frankish as the Lombards are referred to throughout in the third person, perhaps a cleric in Pippin's immediate circle at Verona. Two points of substance emerge from this account. As a conscious continuation of Lombard history this text is not anti-Lombard; indeed Charles and Pippin are seen more as successors to than supplanters of Lombard rule. This may mean that it was intended for a Lombard audience. However, the author does not refer to the kingdom of the Lombards but prefers the kingdom of italy, clearly acknowledging Italy as a political unit. It is here that Hodgkin's new political identity was in the process of being formed. It was politically short-lived but culturally it never quite went away.

The positive image of Charles presented by the author of the Codex Gothanus did not long survive his death in 814, at least in Italy. As we have seen, Einhard was very favourable and later Frankish authors took a similar approach. Notker's On Charles the Great, written about 884 probably at the request of Charles the Fat, elaborates Einhard's quite restrained account with numerous romantic details and lauds his heroic qualities. By contrast, no extended character portraits of Charles written in Carolingian north Italy have survived, if indeed they were written at all. Those few histories which we have are not especially favourable to Charles, tending instead to flatter Louis 11, his grandson. The so-called Chronicon Brixiense (a monastic annal probably written at Verona in the mid ninth century) demonstrates that knowledge about Charlemagne was already very imperfect (for example, the wrong day is given for his death). The text notes merely how long Charles ruled in Italy and his refoundation of the monastery of Leno near Brescia.

A much lengthier history was the Hystoriola (Little History) written around 877 by a priest called Andrew in the small hilltop town of Bergamo in Lombardy, most probably at the request of his bishop, Garibald. Two years before, in August 875, Andrew had followed Bishop Garibald and Bishop Benedict (of Cremona) as they led the cortege which brought the body of the Emperor Louis II (great-grandson of Charlemagne) from Brescia, where he had died, to Milan, where he was buried, with much pomp, in the basilica of Sant'Ambrogio. Andrew was fulsome in his praise of Louis, whom modern historians regard as the last powerful Carolingian to rule Italy. Unlike modern writers Andrew, by contrast, is strikingly lukewarm in his assessment of Charlemagne:

Then, having subjugated and ordered Italy, he went to Rome; there he built a palace. Having pacified the land and having given oaths, he conceded to Pippin his son the ruling of italy; then after a short while Karolus returned to Francia, taking two hundred hostages with him, who were the highest born nobles of italy. After a short time they served Charles and they were honoured by him and they returned to their homeland. Pippin died whilst his father was still living. He left a son by the name of Bernard to whom Charles conceded italy. Where before scarcity and hunger had prevailed in Italy as soon as Bernard accepted the kingdom there arrived dignity and abundance and so it remained whilst he ruled. Karolus, having ruled forty-one years altogether since he had ruled six years in Frankia before he invaded italy, died in peace at a great age in the fullness of his days. His name resounded the length and breadth of Frankia as is the case still in our own times. He left his throne in Frankia to Louis his son. He began to be called emperor by the Frankish people.

Andrew's assessment of Charles has always been read by modern historians as simply ill-informed. It is difficult for us to believe that anyone writing in the 870s, with Charlemagne's grandson Charles the Bald still the most powerful ruler in Frankia, could have seen fit to record so little about a man lauded throughout the known world ('his name resounded the length and breadth of Frankia as is the case still in our own times'). The omissions are bizarre, for Andrew neglects most of the events which Frankish writers, such as Einhard and Notker, considered crucial to Charlemagne's rule in Italy: the capture of Pavia from the Lombard king Desiderius in early 774; the suppression of the rebellion of Hrodgaud in 775; the wars with Benevento in 787-88; and, most oddly, Charlemagne's most famed exploit in Italy, his coronation as emperor.

Most historians have, therefore, argued that Andrew simply did not know very much about Charles, which is certainly possible. Bergamo was something of a backwater at this time, as far as we know Charlemagne never went there and the city had no famous sons or daughters. Nevertheless, it seems as likely to me that Andrew did know about Charlemagne but that, in common with most other Italian writers, he did not care to record his memory. Andrew quite openly regarded Charles, whom he does not dignify as `great', as a Frankish king, who rarely came to Italy and whose fame properly lay in Frankia. He knew that Charlemagne was famous 'in our times' north of the Alps, as the evidence of Notker confirms. Andrew is of course writing with hindsight, which he used, perhaps pointedly, to laud the rule of Bernard, Charlemagne's grandson, who rebelled against Louis the Pious and perhaps attempted to divorce Italy from the Carolingian empire, which could not but contrast with Charlemagne's own efforts to make Italy part of this same empire.

On all the evidence Charlemagne's rule in Italy was quickly forgotten by Italians, to be remembered only much later and very imperfectly. What emerges from a brief consideration of the chronicle evidence is the diversity of contemporary and near-contemporary verdicts on Frankish involvement in the peninsula with Frankish writers absorbed by the man and Italian writers by the place. Hodgkin's work is still worth reading for his realisation that Charles could have founded a kingdom of Italy and that his immediate successors very nearly did. What difference that would have made to modern Italian politics is a matter of idle, if interesting, speculation.

With the fact that such a kingdom did not emerge we are on firmer territory. By the later ninth century the Italian peninsula was clearly divided politically and culturally into north, centre and south, as it has since remained. Lombard ethnic identity had been strengthened in the centre and south by war with the Franks and is being reclaimed by the various modern Leagues. And Rome, made sacred for Europe by Charles, regained that ambiguous place at the heart of Italian life which it has had ever since.

FOR FURTHER READING: D. Bullough, The Age of Charlemagne (London, 1965) and Carolingian Renewal (Manchester, 1992); H. Loyn and J. Percival, The Reign of Charlemagne (London, 1975); J.L. Nelson, Politics and Ritual in Early Medieval Europe (London, 1985); G. Tabacco, The Struggle for Power in Medieval Italy: Structures of Political Rule (CUP, 1989); C.J. Wickham, Early Medieval Italy (Macmillan, 1981). Translations of Andrew of Bergamo and the other Italian histories mentioned here are to be included in my book North Italian Histories in preparation for Manchester University Press.

Ross Balzaretti teaches early medieval European history at the University of Nottingham. He has published specialist articles on the social history of the period in Early Medieval Europe, Past and Present and History Workshop.
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Author:Balzaretti, Ross
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Date:Feb 1, 1996
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