Pietro della Vigna

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Pietro della Vigna, (also Pier delle Vigne, Petrus de Vineas or de Vineis; c. 1190–1249), was an Italian jurist and diplomat, who acted as chancellor and secretary (logothete) to Emperor Frederick II. Accused of lèse majesté, he was falsely imprisoned and committed suicide soon after.[1] He is mentioned in The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri.

The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides, c. 1824–7. William Blake, Tate. 372 × 527mm. Shown is a scene from the Divine Comedy: Dante and Virgil discover Pietro's body encased in a tree.

Life and work[edit]

He was born at Capua in humble circumstances and studied law at Bologna. Through his classical education, his ability to speak Latin and his poetic gifts, he gained the favour of Frederick II, who made him his secretary, and afterwards judex magnae curiae, councillor, governor of Apulia, prothonotary and chancellor. The emperor sent him to Rome in 1232 and 1237 to negotiate with the pope; to Padua in 1239 to induce the citizens to accept imperial protection; and to England in 1234–1235 to arrange a marriage between Frederick and Isabella of England, sister of King Henry III of England.

He proved a skilful and trustworthy diplomat, and he persistently defended the emperor against his traducers and against the pope's menaces. But at the First Council of Lyon (1245), which had been summoned by Pope Innocent IV, Pietro della Vigna entrusted the defence of his master to the celebrated jurist Taddeo of Suessa, who failed to prevent his condemnation.

Pietro della Vigna was a man of culture. He encouraged science and the fine arts, and contributed much to the welfare of Italy by his legislative reforms. He was also the author of some vernacular poetry, of which two canzoni and a sonnet are still extant.

His letters, mostly written in the name of the emperor and published by Iselin (Epistolarum libri vi, 2 v., Basel, 1740), contain much valuable information on the history and culture of the 13th century. A collection of the laws of Sicily, a Tractatus de potestate imperiali, and another treatise, On Consolation, in the style of Boethius, are also attributed to him.

The Guelphic tradition accuses Pietro della Vigna, as well as the emperor and the court, of heresy. It was even stated, probably without any foundation, that they were the authors of the famous work, De Tribus Impostoribus, wherein Moses, Christ and Muhammad are blasphemed.

Imprisonment and suicide[edit]

In the year 1249 members of the royal household attempted to poison Frederick. Frederick had Pietro imprisoned and chained like a dog in Pisa. After a year in prison he was visited by the Emperor; he was unable to communicate or defend himself as the Emperor had his eyes ripped out; the Emperor and his entourage left. Unable to bear the disgrace, della Vigna fell to his knees with his hands outstretched and begged for mercy, before smashing his head on the stone floor, until his brains rushed forth from his cracked skull. {TH}

In The Divine Comedy[edit]

As a suicide, he appears as one of the damned in the Woods of Suicide in The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, Circle VII, ring ii, Canto XIII: Violent against self. Vigne reveals his identity to the travelers Dante and Virgil: "I am he that held both keys of Frederick's heart/ To lock and to unlock; and well I knew/ To turn them with so exquisite an art."

Dante's portrayal of della Vigna emphasises his skill as a rhetorician. His syntax is complex and tangled, like the thornbushes. At one point, Dante echoes it: "I think he thought that I was thinking" (John Ciardi translation). In placing him among the suicides rather than the traitors, Dante is affirming that della Vigna was falsely accused.

In the 19th century, William Blake illustrated the Divine Comedy and depicted della Vigne in The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Richard Barrie Dobson. "Pietro della Vigna". Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages 2. 

References[edit]

  • Huillard-Bréholles, Vie et correspondence de Pierre de la Vigne (Paris, 1864)
  • Presta, Pier delle Vigne (Milan, 1880)
  • Capasso and Ianelli, Pier delle Vigne (Caserta, 1882)
  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  • Peter de Vinea - Catholic Encyclopedia article