As we prepare, almost 800 years on, to speak of the life of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, we can’t help thinking of Italian pop idol Lucio Battisti’s song about his clever friend who knew how to fix everything, needing nothing but a screwdriver to work miracles.
Frederick was, first and foremost, a genius: he knew how to govern, to plan visionary buildings (suffice it to think of Castel del Monte), to write a treatise on falconry. He avoided falling into traps by practising the savvy art of diplomacy and when he could not avoid honouring his promise to the Pope to go on a crusade, instead of waging war on the Sultan of Egypt, he came to an agreement with him, a feat facilitated by the fact that the Emperor spoke Arabic fluently. Between one negotiation and another, he would spend his time philosophising with Islamic scholars, something much frowned upon by fundamentalists on either side. In any case, during his reign, all Christians were afforded free access to Jerusalem. Not only did Frederick found the “Sicilian School of Poetry”, but he also wrote love poems himself. We could continue by mentioning how, in 1224, he founded the first state university in Naples so as ensure his kingdom would be able to count on an army of jurists (these too, like the friend in the song, would be able to fix anything – albeit in a different way and with different tools).
We’ll stop here, though with a flicker of regret. After him, southern Italy has never had such a loving king, one so brilliant, so zesty and so full of beans as Frederick the “Wonder of the World” – which is how this exceptional sovereign was known far and wide.