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“Italy. 12th century AD. Northern Italy is ruled over by a German emperor Frederick I Hohenstaufen, known as ‘Barbarossa’. His dream is to conquer also Central and Southern Italy, thus reviving the ancient empire founded by Charlemagne. But in the North a young man from Milan has formed an army of 900 young men from different cities: the ‘Company of Death’. The young man’s name is Alberto Da Giussano. His dream is to defeat the Emperor and to regain freedom for the Northern lands.”

That’s the prologue text to Barbarossa (aka Sword of War, 2009, dir. Renzo Martinelli), a modest little Italian film about Emperor Frederick I’s conflict with the Lombard League, an alliance of northern Italian city-states seeking to achieve a measure of autonomy within the Holy Roman Empire. That prologue text is also a reasonable summary of most of the film, as it turns out.


The Holy Roman Empire

The film focuses on one of the more confusing elements of medieval political history, the complex relationship between northern Italy and the Holy Roman Empire. To simplify a fairly complex history, on Christmas Day, 800 AD, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans, an action that was seen as reviving the western half of the old Roman Empire. When his grandsons dismembered his empire (usually termed the Carolingian Empire), one grandson got the eastern portion, compromising a large chunk of what is today western Germany. Another grandson got the imperial crown and an awkward strip of land running from the Low Countries to northern and central Italy. But that state broke apart over the next generation or two, with the result that the imperial crown eventually passed to the German portion of the old Empire, and with it a claim to rule northern and central Italy. This conglomeration of Germany and much of Italy eventually came to known as the Holy Roman Empire (whose name was clearly chosen to confuse as many 21st century college history students as possible, at least to judge from the exams I get).

The Holy Roman Empire

The Holy Roman Empire

Unfortunately, imperial control of the Italian portions of the Empire was generally a problem. The emperor’s powerful base was always in Germany, and the Alps were a significant obstacle to the effective extension of control over northern Italy. Additionally, northern Italy had a large number of city-states that resented imperial authority and preferred to be as autonomous as possible. A further complication was that much of central Italy was a state ruled by the Pope (termed ‘the Papal States’), and the popes also naturally wanted to be as politically independent as possible. And thanks to the precedent set in 800, the pope had the unchallenged right to perform the imperial coronation that legitimized the emperor’s claim to his title.

The result was a centuries-long simmering conflict in which the Holy Roman Emperors sought to control northern and central Italy as much as possible while the pope and the various city-states of the region wanted to minimize that control. But naturally, some people in these city-states felt their best interests lay in supporting the emperor rather than their fellow citizens. After the mid-11th century, there was a growing tendency for the pope and the emperor to be political opponents. The result was a long series of wars of varying intensity and a shifting constellation of political factions supporting one side or the other.

In 1158, Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (“Redbeard”) succeeded in forcing the city-state of Milan into submission and convened the Diet of Roncaglia, a meeting of imperial representatives that declared the emperor to have the right to impose taxes and tolls over northern Italy; Barbarossa also begin to replace the podestas, the governing magistrates, of various northern Italian communities. The Milanese refused to accept this ruling and resisted, but Barbarossa defeated the city in 1162 and ordered it completely destroyed and its residents scattered in all directions. The Milanese, however, managed to retain enough communality identity, however, that they were able to reform.

Frederick I Barbarossa

Frederick I Barbarossa

In all of this, one of Barbarossa’s most important allies was Cremona, a hated rival of Milan. But Barbarossa unwittingly alienated the Cremonese by demanding hostages from them. As a result of this, Cremona began to nurture a conspiracy of resistance to the emperor that led to the formation of the Lombard League in 1164, an alliance of various city-states in Lombardy (roughly, northern Italy). The idea behind the League was that the various member states would avoid attacking each other, and to provide military and diplomatic support. In 1167, a re-established Milan joined the League.

The Lombard League

The Lombard League

The emergence of the Lombard League was a disaster for Barbarossa, who was no longer able to play off the various member cities against each other, and he was forced to withdraw from Italy, despite having been able to force Pope Alexander III to submit to him. But he returned in 1174, and enjoyed initial success, conquering the smaller towns of Susa and Asti. But then he laid siege of Alessandria but was unable to take it; Milanese forces helped force him to retreat.

Frederick received German reinforcements, including a very large force of knights. Frederick rode to meet them, and then led them back toward Pavia, where his main force was located, but the Milanese intercepted him before the two armies could meet up, and the result was the Battle of Legnano. The Milanese had built a carroccio, a traditional battle-wagon used by many of the Lombard cities. The carroccio carried a standard for the city, as well as an altar, and it acted a focal point and command center for the Milanese troops, most of whom were infantry. In particular, the Milanese employed a unit of infantry with the rather dramatic name of the “Company of Death”. According to Milanese tradition, the company was founded by Alberto da Giussano, a notary and podesta of Milan and included 900 men. Historians are now mostly agreed that da Giussano was probably a fictional figure created by 14th century Milanese authors, and the Company of Death may have had as few as 300 men.

Frederick succeeded in driving off the Milanese cavalry, but was unable to break the infantry that was formed up around the carroccio. Although high medieval warfare generally favored knights on horseback, infantry armed with pole-arms was always an effective response to cavalry, as long as that infantry was able to stay information. The Milanese, inspired by a desire to avenge the destruction of their city, had reportedly sworn oaths to die fighting Barbarossa and so were determined to stand their ground and not lose their standard. The stalemate was eventually broken when the Milanese cavalry reformed and teamed up with a cavalry force from Brescia. Frederick’s forces were badly defeated; his bodyguards and standard-bearer were killed and for several days it was thought that Barbarossa himself had perished, until he showed up at Pavia.

Legnano was a turning-point for Frederick. Although he was able to build an modest alliance with Pope Alexander, he was no longer in a position to enforce his authority over Lombardy. Finally in 1183, he signed a treaty with the Lombard League that conceded to them the right to elect their own podestas.

A bust of Frederick I

A bust of Frederick I

As a result, Legnano holds an important place in Italian history. In the 19th century, it became a rallying cry for the movement to unify Italy. For much of the 20th century, there was a Legnano infantry division in the Italian army. The fictional Alberto da Giussano and an allegorical warrior named ‘Legnano’ have both served as symbols of Italian victory over a foreign invader, despite the fact that Barbarossa had a centuries-old claim to be the legitimate ruler of the region and so was not exactly an outsider (although, as a German, he was most definitely a foreigner ethnically).



Despite the title of the film, Frederick I (Rutger Hauer) is really more of a supporting character in this film. He and his wife Beatrice I (Cécile Cassel) spend much of their time organizing their forces or leading attacks against various cities. His goal, he explains, is to pacify northern Italy and then move on to conquer Sicily so he can re-unite what he calls the “Universal Empire”, presumably the old Roman Empire, even though as ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, Frederick could already have claimed to be ruling the Roman state. (Eventually, Frederick married his son and heir Henry to the aunt of King William of Sicily; when William died without sons, Henry inherited Sicily and his son, Frederick II, inherited both states, although the papacy did everything it could to prevent him from unifying the Italian peninsula.)

Rutger Hauer, looking very imperial

Rutger Hauer, looking very imperial

Early on, Frederick has a meeting with his distant cousin the visionary nun Hildegarde of Bingen, who tells him “Beware the water, beware the scythe. The scythe means defeat, the water means death.” The question of what this prophecy means hangs over the whole film. The first half turns out to be a prediction of his defeat at Legnano, The second half, as the epilogue text tells us, refers to the fact that decades later, Frederick drowned during the Third Crusade, having made the mistake of trying to swim in his armor when he was in his late 60s.

Instead, most of the film focuses on the story of Alberto da Giussano (Raz Degan), whom the film presents as very much a real historical figure. He’s the son of a smith, rather than being a notary, who comes to hate Barbarossa after the emperor conquers and levels the city in 1162, killing both of Alberto’s unfortunate brothers in the process. But the real villain of the piece is not Barbarossa, who is actually treated quite fairly in the film. Instead, Alberto must contend with Snidely Whiplash Siniscalco Barozzi (F. Murray Abraham), a treacherous Milanese magistrate who thinks that Milan should support Barbarossa and basically serves to embody the opposite of whatever proper moral choice Alberto makes.

Raz Degan as Alberto da Giussano

Raz Degan as Alberto da Giussano

Barozzi is a fictional character, as far as I can tell, but he can reasonably be seen as a representative of all the Milanese who wanted to accept the emperor as their legitimate overlord. He’s thoroughly demonized, of course, because in action films actual nuance is not acceptable in bad guys; villains must be evil with a capital Eve.

Unfortunately, the film invents two sisters, Eleanora (Kasia Smutniak) and Tessa (Frederica Martinelli). Eleanora, who loves Alberto, is a psychic; she has visions of the future that always come true. Apparently the film has forgotten that it’s supposd to be history and not fantasy, a common problem with movies about the medieval and ancient past. Barozzi is deeply in lust with Tessa, who hates him to the point of eventually becoming a nun to get away from him; unfortunately that works out badly for her, because Barozzi isn’t the kind of villain who will let a little thing like holy orders stop him. And when it doesn’t work out, he decides to burn Eleanora at a witch.

After the destruction of Milan, Alberto becomes a focus on political resistance and the enduring Milanese identity. It is he who essentially persuades the Milanese to rebuild their city. Later, he forges a bunch of iron rings and distributes them to his supporters, who declare themselves the Company of Death, because they’re rather die free than live under Frederick. Then he rallies men from other cities to his cause and persuades them to form the Lombard League to oppose the emperor (remember, Milan wasn’t a founding member of the League.) Everyone gets to shout “freedom!” a lot, because freedom is a lot like moms, apple pie and kittens. Who doesn’t like having some? As the film puts it, “to live one day in total freedom is worth living 100 days in total slavery.” Or did he say 100 years? That would be much more effective rhetorically. The point is that a smidgen of freedom is much better than a bunch of slavery, whatever the exchange rate.

The modern Milanese carroccio

A re-creation of the Milanese carroccio

And then we get to the battle of Legnano, and things get silly. Apparently the actual events, with lots of determined Milanese infantrymen rallying around the carroccio slowly defeating the German cavalry isn’t enough for this film. It needs to be a flashier victory. So Alberto gets this brilliant idea. The infantry can’t kill the knights because the knights are too high up. So to level the playing field, he’s going to put his soldiers in the back of literal wagons and arm them with scythes. That way they’ll be able to slit the throats of the German knights really easily! And of course it works, because….well, I guess because the Milanese are the good guys. Even after the trick is revealed, the German knights just keep riding past the scythe-wagons because apparently their horses only ride in one direction and at one speed, and because none of the knights are smart enough to think that maybe if they attack the unarmored wagon drivers the whole tactic would go straight into a ditch. So the knights just keep riding to the slaughter until the whole thing degenerates into an infantry battle. Alberto catches Barozzi and slits his throat really, really slowly to avenge his dead brothers and loved ones.

Then the epilogue text tells us that Frederick was thought killed and then mysteriously showed up three days later at Pavia. Eleanora totally didn’t get burned as a witch after all because Barozzi’s men didn’t see the clever plot twist coming when they put two dark-haired women in the same cell and then burned one of them with a bag over her head without thinking to ask her name. This serves as an excuse for everyone to shout ‘Freedom!” again, because I guess freedom means never having to cremate your wife. Instead, the film tells us that Alberto and Eleanora lived a long life together and had several children.


The Politics of Barbarossa

The film draws heavily from Mel Gibson’s Braveheart at certain points, particularly with its emphasis on people shouting “freedom!”. Alberto is Wallace and Frederick I is Edward I. But Barozzi is also sort of Edward I, because he’s got this evil lust for the virtuous women of the story. Eleanora gets to be Murron, metaphorically coming back from the dead instead of literally, and she gets to be supernatural after all, because all of her visions come true with 100% accuracy. Perhaps the most obvious comparison of  the Battle of Legnano with the Battle of Stirling Bridgeless, both of which are won with a trick that depends on the good guys not revealing the trick too early. So the film includes a scene in which Alberto gets to shout “Hold! Not yet! Now!” which is pretty damn close to Mel Gibson’s line when his men are about to receive a cavalry charge.

Once I saw the parallels with Braveheart, I immediately began noticing that just like the Scottish movie, Barbarossa also has a meta-level dealing with contemporary politics. Braveheart was filmed in the lead-up to the vote over whether to re-establish the Scottish parliament. Barbarossa doesn’t have quite such an obvious political event to connect to, but it strikes me as more than a coincidence that Alberto da Giussano has been taken as the symbol of the Lega Nord (“Northern League”), a major regional party in northern Italy that advocates for the secession of northern Italy from the rest of Italy, and failing that, for greater independence of the northern cities. The film’s focus on the historicity of the fictional da Giussano, its emphasis on the importance of Milan in the founding of the Lombard League (Milan is the headquarters of the Lega Nord) and its championing of freedom! and independence from control outside of Northern Italy all seem to point toward the film having considerable sympathy with the Lega Nord’s political goals.

Milan's statue of Alberto da Giussano

Milan’s statue of Alberto da Giussano

The film also occasionally dabbles in downright fascist symbolism. The notion of strength through unity is central of da Giussano’s triumph over Barbarossa, both in organizing the Lombard League against him and in keeping his men under tight control at Legnano, but it also happens to be the essential principle of fascism. At one point, as Alberto is trying to persuade people to join the Company of Death, he resorts to having a man try to break a stick, which he does easily, and then try to break a whole bundle of sticks, which he can’t. This bundle of sticks that symbolizes strength through unity is very close to the fasces, the old Roman symbol of strength through unity that Mussolini used as the basis for his theory of fascism (the term directly derives from the fasces).

Barbarossa isn’t a bad film, nor is it a particularly good film. As I said, it’s derivative of Braveheart, which employs many of the same themes more successfully, although it avoids the Scottish film’s rather offensive sexual politics. It’s nice to see a film made about one of the less famous moments in medieval history, and despite its faults, it gets the sequence of events and facts basically correct, apart from its insistence that Alberto da Giussano was a real person who played a critical role in the founding of the Lombard League. The subplots involving Eleanora and Tessa are boring and predictable, as is the film’s insistance that freedom can only be uttered at the top of one’s lungs. And its depiction of Legnano is a truly unfortunate side-trip into Silly Land. But I’ve certainly seen much worse films about the Middle Ages.

Want to Know More?

Barbarossa is available at Amazon under its US title, Sword Of War.

Medieval Italian history can be sort of confusing for the uninitiated because there isn’t a single political narrative, the way there is for, say medieval England. Every major town was its own state, and that makes telling an over-arching historical narrative a bit tricky. I found Edward Burman’s Emperor to Emperor: Italy Before the Renaissance (History and Politics)to be a good place to start when I was traveling in Italy.

If you’re interested in the history of the Holy Roman Empire, one of the classic works on it is Alfred Haverkamp’s Medieval Germany 1056-1273although obviously it only covers part of the Empire’s history. I don’t actually know any good English-language works on Barbarossa; if anyone wants to suggest one I’ll be glad to take a look at it.