Man, I hate it when they do that…

This morning a tweet from Janus Medioevo caught my attention: It announced a “rarissimo ritratto di Federico II di Svevia” [“a very rare portrait of emperor Frederick II”], and contained a link to an article about a 13th century fresco in the church of Santa Margherita in Melfi, in Southern Italy:

The Three Living and the Three Dead, Melfi, Santa Margherita, second quarter of the 13th century (?)

What the fresco shows is without doubt a (fragmented) depiction of the Three Living and the Three Dead, one of the most popular stories in late medieval art and literature. Originating in 13th century France, it is a moralizing exemplum about three noblemen who happen to stumble upon three corpses, and while the corpses are of course dead, they still have the gift of speech and address the Three Living, saying: “We once were what you are, you will be what we are.” Which is a medieval corpse’s way of saying: “Remember that you’re mortal, now go and repent, behave well, and give your money to the church.” This tale became popular pretty quickly, and from the mid-13th century onwards it began to appear in wall-paintings all over Italy – as is attested by this fine painting from Atri cathedral:

The Three Living and the Three Dead, Atri, Cathedral, c. 1260 (Image © Abruzzesenato, via Wikimedia Commons)

So it’s not unusual that we should find it in Melfi too. What’s unusual though – if we believe the aforementioned article (and a host of other online sources) – is that in Melfi the Three Living are supposedly rendered as portraits of Frederick II, his wife Isabella of England and his son Konrad. Frederick himself is apparently supposed to be the bearded fellow who appears to be leading the gang (for a more detailed image see here). As the article emphasizes, this is truly “una perla, data l’assenza dei ritratti dell’Imperatore” [“a pearl, considering the absence of (other) portraits of the emperor”]. Well, technically there are other images of Frederick II, like this one…

Frederick II, from: De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus, Biblioteca Vaticana, Pal. lat 1071, late 13th century (Image © Thuresson, via Wikimedia Commons)

… in that famous treatise on falconry, De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus, written by Frederick himself. But all of these other depictions of the emperor merely show him as an idealized, prototypical ruler and may therefore not be described as “portraits” in the modern sense of the word. They certainly don’t give us decisive clues regarding his actual physical appearance.

All of this then begs the question: If we don’t know what Frederick really looked like, how can we identify him in the Melfi fresco? And the straightforward answer to this would be: We simply can’t.

But there may, of course, be circumstantial evidence to back up the portrait-hypothesis. So let’s go and check. First and foremost, there could be inscriptions identifying the figures – but there aren’t. Then, there could be the Imperial coat of arms – negative again. Or, the supposed Frederick could at least be marked out as emperor or ruler of any sort by wearing a crown or other regalia – but he isn’t.

As I found out after browsing the interwebs for some time, the crucial bit seems actually to be the fact that the figure in question is depicted with a falcon upon his wrist; on the homepage of the tourist guides of Venosa I found this piece of information about the painting:

“L’imperatore svevo è raffigurato in abiti di falconiere, è così che gli abitanti di Melfi erano abituati a vedere il proprio imperatore, quando al mattino usciva dal castello di Melfi per praticare il suo sport preferito:  la caccia con il falcone.”

[“The Swabian emperor is represented in the vestments of a falconer, (and) it is in this way that the inhabitants of Melfi were used to see their emperor, when, in the morning, he would egress from Melfi Castle to exercise his favourite sport: falconry.”]

Now, it is true, of course, that Frederick was known for his love of falconry and that the figure in the painting is shown as a falconer. But the problem is: Noblemen dressed as falconers are just part of the standard iconography of the Three Living and the Three Dead. The written versions of the story usually begin something like “Once upon a time, three noblemen went out hunting…”. And the painted versions of the story almost always show at least one of the Three Living with a falcon upon his wrist! (For some very fine examples see here or here or here. And if you look closely at the image above, you’ll realize that even in the fresco at Atri the leader of the Living has a falcon upon his hand.) So, nope, the falconer outfit is not something that can be seen as pertaining specifically to Frederick II, either. As I said, it’s just the iconographic standard in 13th to 15th century depictions of the story!

What’s even more problematic is the identification of one of the other figures as the emperor’s wife, Isabella of England. I mean, which one is she supposed to be anyway? Both of the other two Living wear the same kind of hooded robe, and both sport the same hairstyle which, by the way, is a rather typical “fancy young man of 13th century Italy”-kind of haircut. Speaking of hair: It would be extreeeeeemly unusual for a married woman to be shown with her hair uncovered! So, frankly, I don’t see any queen in the painting either, just two young 13th century dandies.

As I’ve said, I haven’t read any proper documentation on this painting, only the stuff that’s available online, so I may be missing something. But one thing I can say for certain: Nothing in the image itself suggests that it is anything more than just a standard representation of the Three Living and the Three Dead. And to tell you the truth, I can’t think of any kind of outside evidence that could possibly substantiate the proposed identification – unless, of course, someone comes up with a 13th century document that states “In the church of S. Margherita in Melfi there is painted a portrait of Frederick II”. But if such a document existed, this would be a spectacular, unique piece of evidence and I’m pretty sure that every medievalist art historian would know about it by now… Last but not least, the fact that the identification was first advanced by Lello Capaldo isn’t really helping to dispel my doubts either, since Capaldo is best known for his highly speculative, esoteric reading of Castel del Monte, invoking, among other things, the Baphomet as the key element to the castle’s interpretation

But, of course, offering a “very rare portrait” of one the Middle Ages’ most enigmatic rulers is likely to attract visitors to the site*, so it’s quite understandable that the local tourist authorities in Melfi stick with Capaldo’s hypothesis** even if there appears to be little to no evidence to support it. As understandable as it may be, I still hate it when someone does that (and this kind of thing happens all the time)! Seriously, this kind of both spectacular and speculative identification is one of art history’s equivalents of Bad Archaeology: It belongs in a Dan Brown novel but not in serious art historical discourse.

/End of rant/

All of that said, from what I have seen, the paintings of Santa Margherita in Melfi look pretty fascinating and certainly deserve our attention even if they don’t feature Frederick’s portrait. So you may be interested to hear that the reason these frescos are sort of “big” on the internet these days is that they have recently been restored and the results of the restoration have been presented two days ago. So if you ever make it to Melfi, be sure to include them in your itinerary – I certainly will…


* As is clearly stated in a recent post on the italiamedievale blog: “In particolare nella chiesa rupestre di Santa Margherita (…) vive una delle rare immagini di Federico II, la cui presenza diviene attrattore strategico del monumento.”

** Indeed, as this website testifies, there even is (or at least was) a plaque attached to the church informing visitors about the supposed portrait of Frederick II. Ironically, though, the text on the plaque actually says “… Lello Capaldo… has read the painting… as a portrait of Frederick II and his family…” which sounds a bit like “We don’t really believe this ourselves, but it’s too good to leave it out.”

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2 Responses to Man, I hate it when they do that…

  1. As the article emphasizes, this is truly “una perla, data l’assenza dei ritratti dell’Imperatore” [“a pearl, considering the absence of (other) portraits of the emperor”]. Well, technically there are other images of Frederick II, like this one…

    Here’s three more. I grant you they have the same problems of idealisation as the others, especially given where they were made, but, well, I hate it when art historians forget that paint is not the only portraiture, and these, again, one can at least argue the Emperor commissioned.

    • Thanks for the link! I do confess I wasn’t aware of those coins from Aachen – it’s quite amazing though how different they are from the pseudo-Roman coins Frederick II issued in Italy…

      And you are right, I’m afraid, on a more general level: Much (most?) art historical research is still very much rooted in that 19th century definition of art as something created by the “divine artist” and tends to overlook anything that isn’t considered “high-end”, so things like coins are usually ignored. Fortunately, things are changing in this respect, but it’s a slow process…

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