MoboReader> Literature > Women of the Romance Countries

   Chapter 2 No.2

Women of the Romance Countries By John R. Effinger Characters: 31331

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The Neapolitan Court in the Time of Queen Joanna

If you drive along the beautiful shore of the Mergellina to-day, beneath the high promontory of Pausilipo, to the southwest of Naples, you will see there in ruins the tumbling rocks and stones of an unfinished palace, with the blue sea breaking over its foundations; and that is still called the palace of Queen Joanna. In the church of Saint Chiara at Naples, this Queen Joanna was buried, and there her tomb may be seen to-day. Still is she held in memory dear, and still is her name familiar to the lips of the people. On every hand are to be seen the monuments of her munificence, and if you ask a Neapolitan in the street who built this palace or that church, the answer is almost always the same-"Our Queen Joanna."

Who was this well-beloved queen, when did she live, and why is she still held in this affectionate regard by the present residents of sunny Naples? To answer all these questions it will be necessary to go back to a much earlier day in the history of this southern part of the Italian peninsula-a day when Naples was the centre of a royal government of no little importance in the eyes of the medi?val world.

Some three hundred years before Joanna's birth, in the early part of the eleventh century, a band of knightly pilgrims was on its way to the Holy Land to battle for the Cross. They had ridden through the fair provinces of France, in brave array upon their mighty chargers, all the way from Normandy to Marseilles, and there they had taken ship for the East. The ships were small, the accommodations and supplies were not of the best, and it was not possible to make the journey with any great speed. Stopping, as it happened, for fresh stores in the south of Italy, they were at once invited by the Prince of Salerno to aid him in his fight against the Mohammedans, who were every day encroaching more upon the Greek possessions there. Being men of warlike nature, already somewhat wearied by the sea voyage to which they were not accustomed, and considering this fighting with the Saracens of Italy as a good preparation for later conflicts with the heathens and the infidels who were swarming about the gates of Jerusalem, they were not slow to accept the invitation. While victory perched upon the banners of the Normans, it was evident at once that for the future safety of the country a strong and stable guard would be necessary, and so the Normans were now asked to stay permanently. This the majority did with immense satisfaction, for the soft and gentle climate of the country had filled their souls with a sweet contentment, and the charms and graces of the southern women had more than conquered the proud conquerors. Just as Charles VIII. and his army, some hundreds of years later, were ensnared by the soft glances of soft eyes when they went to Italy to conquer, so the Normans were held in silken chains in this earlier time. But there was this difference-the Normans did not forget their own interests. Willing victims to the wondrous beauty of the belles of Naples, they were strong enough to think of their own position at the same time; and as the French colony grew to fair size and much importance, they took advantage of certain controversies which arose, and boldly seized Apulia, which they divided among twelve of their counts. This all happened in the year 1042.

It may well be imagined that Naples at this time presented a most picturesque appearance, for there was a Babel of tongues and a mixture of nationalities which was quite unusual. After the native Neapolitans, dark-eyed and swarthy, there were countless Greeks and Saracens of somewhat fairer hue, and over them all were the fierce Normans, strangers from a northern clime, who were lording it in most masterful fashion. The effect of this overlordship, which they held from the pope as their feudal head, was to give to this portion of Italy certain characteristics which are almost entirely lacking in the other parts of Italy. Here there was no free city, here there was no republic, but, instead, a feudal court which followed the best models of the continent and in its time became famed for its brilliancy and elegance. Without dallying by the way to explain when battles were fought and kings were crowned, suffice it to say that, early in the fourteenth century, Robert of Taranto, an Angevine prince, ascended the throne of Naples, and by his wisdom and goodness and by his great interest in art and literature made his capital the centre of a culture and refinement which were rare at that time. This was a day of almost constant warfare, when the din of battle and the clash of armor were silencing the sound of the harp and the music of the poet, but Robert-Il buon Rè Roberto, as he was called-loved peace and hated war and ever strove to make his court a place of brightness and joy, wherein the arts and sciences might flourish without let or hindrance.

These centuries of feudal rule had, perhaps, given the people of Naples a somewhat different temper from that possessed by the people in other parts of Italy. There had been a firm centre of authority, and, in spite of the troubles which had rent the kingdom, the people in the main had been little concerned with them. They had been taught to obey, and generally their rights had been respected. Now, under King Robert, the populace was enjoying one long holiday, the like of which could have been seen in no other part of Italy at that time. The natural languor of the climate and their intuitive appreciation of the lazy man's proverb, Dolce far niente, made it easy for them to give themselves up to the pleasures of the moment. All was splendor and feasting at the court, and the castle Nuovo, where the king resided, was ever filled with a goodly company. So the people took life easily; there was much dancing and playing of guitars upon the Mole, by the side of the waters of that glorious bay all shimmering in the moonlight, and the night was filled with music and laughter. The beauty of the women was exceptional, and the blood of the men was hot; passion was ill restrained, and the green-eyed monster of jealousy hovered over all. Quick to love and quick to anger, resentful in the extreme, suspicious and often treacherous, Dan Cupid wrought havoc among them at times most innocently, and many a colpo di coltello [dagger thrust] was given under the influence of love's frenzy. But the dance continued, the dresses were still of the gayest colors, the bursts of laughter were unsubdued.

The fair fame of the court of Naples had gone far afield, and not to know of it and of its magnificence, even in those days of difficult communication, was so damaging a confession among gentlefolk, that all were loath to make it. Here, it was known, the arts of peace were encouraged, while war raged on all sides, and here it was that many noble lords and ladies had congregated from all Europe to form part of that gallant company and shine with its reflected splendor. King Robert likewise held as feudal appanage the fair state of Provence in southern France, rich in brilliant cities and enjoying much prosperity, until the time of the ill-advised Albigensian Crusade, and communication between the two parts of Robert's realm was constant. Naples was the centre, however, and such was the elegance and courtesy of its court that it was famed far and wide as a school of manners; and here it was that pages, both highborn and of low estate, were sent by their patrons that they might perfect themselves in courtly behavior. The open encouragement which was accorded to the few men of letters of the time made Naples a favorite resort for the wandering troubadours, and there they sang, to rapturous applause, their songs of love and chivalry. Here in this corner of Italy, where the dominant influences were those which came from France, and where, in reality, French knights were the lords in control, the order of chivalry existed as in the other parts of Europe, but as it did not exist elsewhere in Italy. Transplanted to this southern soil, however, knighthood failed to develop, to any marked degree, those deeper qualities of loyalty, courtesy, and liberality which shed so much lustre upon its institution elsewhere. Here, unfortunately, mere gallantry seemed its essential attribute, and the gallantry of this period, at its best, would show but little regard for the moral standards of to-day. No one who has read the history of this time can fail to be struck with the fact that on every hand there are references to acts of immorality which seem to pass without censure. As Hallam has said, many of the ladies of this epoch, in their desire for the spiritual treasures of Rome, seem to have been neglectful of another treasure which was in their keeping. Whether the gay gallant was knight or squire, page or courtier, the feminine heart seems to have been unable to withstand his wiles, and from Boccaccio to Rabelais the deceived and injured husband was ever a butt of ridicule. Of course, there was reason for all this; the ideals of wedded life were much further from realization than they are to-day, and the sanctity of the marriage relation was but at the beginning of its slow evolution, in this part of the Western world.

But within the walls of the huge castle Nuovo, which combined the strength of a fortress with the elegance of a palace, it must not be supposed that there was naught but gross sensuality. Court intrigue and scandal there were in plenty, and there were many fair ladies in the royal household who were somewhat free in the bestowal of their favors, sumptuous banquets were spread, tournaments for trials of knightly skill were held with open lists for all who might appear, but in the centre of it all was the king, pleasure-loving, it is true, but still far more than that. He it was who said: "For me, I swear that letters are dearer to me than my crown; and were I obliged to renounce the one or the other, I should quickly take the diadem from my brow." It was his constant endeavor to show himself a generous and intelligent patron of the arts. The interior of his palace had been decorated by the brush of Giotto, one of the first great painters of Italy, and here in this home of luxury and refinement he had gathered together the largest and most valuable library then existing in Europe.

When Petrarch was at the age of thirty-six he received a letter from the Roman Senate, asking him to come to Rome that they might bestow upon him the poet's crown of laurel. Before presenting himself for this honor, however, to use his own words, he "decided first to visit Naples and that celebrated king and philosopher, Robert, who was not more distinguished as a ruler than as a man of learning. He was indeed the only monarch of our age who was, at the same time, the friend of learning and of virtue, and I trusted that he might correct such things as he found to criticise in my work." Having learned the reason of the great poet's visit, King Robert fixed a day for the consideration of Petrarch's work; but, after a discussion which lasted from noon until evening, it was found that more time would be necessary on account of the many matters which came up, and so the two following days were passed in the same manner. Then, at last, Petrarch was pronounced worthy of the honor which had been offered him, and there was much feasting at the palace that night, and much song, and much music, and much wine was spilled.

Not the least attentive listener in those three days of discussion and argument was the Princess Joanna, the granddaughter of the king, his ward and future heir. For in the midst of his life of agreeable employment, Il buon Rè Roberto had been suddenly called upon to mourn the loss of his only son, Robert, Duke of Calabria, who had been as remarkable for his accomplishments-according to the writers of chronicles-as for his goodness and love of justice. Two daughters survived him, Joanna and Maria, and they were left to the care of the grandfather, who transferred to them all the affection he had felt for the son. In 1331, when Joanna was about four years old, the king declared her the heiress of his crown; and at a solemn feudal gathering in the great audience room of the castle Nuovo, he called upon his nobles and barons to take oaths of allegiance to her as the Duchess of Calabria; and this they did, solemnly and in turn, each bending the knee in token of submission. With the title of Duchess of Calabria, she was to inherit all her father's right to the thrones of Naples and Provence.

As soon as she came under his guardianship, the education of the small Joanna became the constant preoccupation of her kindly grandfather, for he was filled with enthusiasm for the manifold advantages of learning, and spared no pains to surround the little duchess with the best preceptors in art and in literature that Italy afforded. All contemporary writers agree that the young girl gave quick and ready response to these influences, and she soon proved her possession of most unusual talents, combined with a great love for literary study; it is said that, at the age of twelve, she was not only distinguished by her superior endowments, but already surpassed in understanding not only every other child of her own age, but many women of mature years. To these mental accomplishments, we are told that there were added a gentle and engaging temper, a graceful person, a beautiful countenance, and the most captivating manners. And so things went along, and the old king did all in his power to shield her from the corrupting influences which were at work all about her. In that he seems to have been successful, for there is every reason to believe that she grew up to womanhood untainted by her surroundings.

Various forces were at work, however, which were soon to undermine the peace and tranquillity of the gay court, and plunge it into deepest woe. It should be known that by a former division of the possessions of the royal house of Naples, which had been dictated by the whim of a partial father, the elder branch of that house had been allotted the kingdom of Hungary, which had been acquired originally as the dowry of a princess, while to the younger branch of the house Naples and Provence had been given. Such a division of the royal domain had never satisfied those of the elder branch of the family, and for many years the rulers of Hungary had cast longing eyes upon the fair states to the south. The good King Robert, desiring in his heart to atone for the slight which had been put upon them, decided to marry Joanna to his grand-nephew Andreas, the second son of Carobert, King of Hungary, thus restoring to the elder branch of the family the possession of the throne of Naples without endangering the rights of his granddaughter, and at the same time extinguishing all the feuds and jealousies which had existed for so long a time between the two kingdoms. So the young Hungarian prince was brought to the Neapolitan court at once, and the two children were married. Joanna was but five years old and Andreas but seven when this ill-fated union was celebrated, with all possible splendor and in the midst of great rejoicing. The children were henceforth brought up together with the idea that they were destined for each other, but as the years grew on apace they displayed the most conflicting qualities of mind and soul.

A careful analysis of the court life during these youthful days will reveal the fact that its essential characteristics may be summed up in the three phrases-love of

literary study, love of gallantry, and love of intrigue; it so happens that each of these phases is typified by a woman, Joanna representing the first, Maria,-the natural daughter of Robert,-the second, and Philippa the Catanese, the third. Much has been said already of Joanna's love for study and of her unusual attainments, but a word or two more will be necessary to complete the picture. Her wonderful gifts and her evident delight in studious pursuits were no mere show of childish precocity which would disappear with her maturer growth, for they ever remained with her and made her one of the very exceptional women of her day and generation. Imagine her there in the court of her grandfather, where no woman before her had ever shown the least real and intelligent interest in his intellectual occupations. It was a great thing, of course, for all the ladies of the court to have some famous poet come and tarry with them for a while; but they thought only of a possible affaire d'amour, and odes and sonnets descriptive of their charms. There was little appreciative understanding of literature or poetry among them, and they were quite content to sip their pleasures from a cup which was not of the Pierian spring. Joanna, however, seemed to enter earnestly into the literary diversions of the king, and many an hour did they spend together in the great library of the palace, unfolding now one and now another of the many parchment rolls and poring over their contents. Three learned languages there were at this time in this part of the world, the Greek, the Latin, and the Arabic, and the day had just begun to dawn when the common idioms of daily speech were beginning to assert their literary value. So it is but natural to assume that the majority of these manuscripts were in these three languages, and that it required no small amount of learning on Joanna's part to be able to decipher them.

Far different from this little princess was Maria of Sicily, a woman of many charms, but vain and inconstant, and satisfied with the frivolities of life. Indeed, it must be said that it is solely on account of her love for the poet Boccaccio, after her marriage to the Count of Artois, that she is known to-day. Boccaccio had journeyed to the south from Florence, as the fame of King Robert's court had reached him, and he was anxious to bask in its sunlight and splendor, and to bring to some fruition his literary impulses, which were fast welling up within him. And to Naples he came as the spring was retouching the hills with green in 1333, and there he remained until late in the year 1341, when he was forced to return to his home in the north. His stay in Naples had done much for him, though perhaps less for him personally than for his literary muse, as he plunged headlong into the mad whirlpool of social pleasures and enjoyed to the utmost the life of this gay court, which was enlivened and adorned by the wit of men and the beauty of women. Not until the Easter eve before his departure, however, did he chance to see the lady who was to influence to such a great degree his later career. It was in the church of San Lorenzo that Boccaccio saw Maria of Sicily, and it was a case of love at first sight, the coup de foudre that Mlle. de Scudéry has talked about; and if the man's word may be worthy of belief under such circumstances, the lady returned his passion with an equal ardor. It was not until after much delay, however, that she was willing to yield to the amorous demands of the poet, and then she did so in spite of her honor and her duty as the wife of another. But this delay but opened the way for an endless succession of gallant words and acts, wherein the art of coquetry was called upon to play no unimportant part. Between these two people there was no sincere friendship such as existed later between Boccaccio and Joanna, and they were but playing with the dangerous fire of passion, which they ever fanned to a greater heat.

Philippa the Catanese, as she is called in history, stands for the spirit of intrigue in this history; and well she may, as she has a most wonderful and tragic history. The daughter of a humble fisherman of Catania in Sicily, she had been employed by Queen Violante, the first wife of Robert, in the care of her infant son, the Duke of Calabria. Of wonderful intelligence for one in her station, gifted beyond her years, and beautiful and ambitious, she won the favor of the queen to such a degree that she soon became her chief attendant. Her foster-child, the Duke of Calabria, who tenderly loved her, married her to the seneschal of his palace and appointed her first lady in waiting to his wife; and thus it happened that she was present at the birth of Joanna, and was the first to receive her in her arms. Naturally enough, then, King Robert made her the governess and custodian of the small duchess after her father's death. This appointment of a woman of low origin to so high a position in the court gave offence to many of the highborn ladies there, and none could understand the reason for it all. Many dark rumors were afloat, and, although the matter was discussed in undertones, it was the general opinion that she had been aided by magic or sorcery, and the bolder spirits said that she was in daily communication with the Evil One. However that may be, she was faithful to her trust, and it was only through her too zealous scheming in behalf of her young mistress that she was brought to her tragic end.

As the two children, Andreas and Joanna, grew up to maturity, it became more and more apparent that there was no bond of sympathy between them. Andreas had as his preceptor a monk named Fra Roberto, who was the open enemy of Philippa, and her competitor in power. It was his constant aim to keep Andreas in ignorance and to inspire him with a dislike for the people of Naples, whom he was destined to govern, and to this end he made him retain his Hungarian dress and customs. Petrarch, who made a second visit to Naples as envoy from the pope, has this to say of Fra Roberto: "May Heaven rid the soil of Italy of such a pest! A horrible animal with bald head and bare feet, short in stature, swollen in person, with worn-out rags torn studiously to show his naked skin, who not only despises the supplications of the citizens, but, from the vantage ground of his feigned sanctity, treats with scorn the embassy of the pope." King Robert saw too late the mistake he had committed, as the sorrow and trouble in store for the young wife were only too apparent. To remedy, so far as was in his power, this unhappy condition of affairs, he called again a meeting of his feudal lords; and this time he had them swear allegiance to Joanna alone in her own right, formally excluding the Hungarians from any share in the sovereign power. While gratifying to the Neapolitans, this act could but excite the enmity of the Hungarian faction under Fra Roberto, and it paved the way for much intrigue and much treachery in the future.

When King Robert died in 1343, Joanna became Queen of Naples and Provence at the age of fifteen; but on account of her youth and inexperience, and because of the machinations of the hateful monk, she was kept in virtual bondage, and the once peaceful court was rent by the bitterest dissensions. Through it all, however, Joanna seems to have shown no special dislike to Andreas, who, indeed, was probably innocent of any participation in the scheming of his followers; Petrarch compares the young queen and her consort to two lambs in the midst of wolves. The time for Joanna's formal coronation was fixed for September 20, 1345, and some weeks before, while the palace was being decorated and prepared for this great event, the young couple had retired to the Celestine monastery at Aversa, some fifteen miles away. Joanna, who was soon to become a mother, was much benefited by this change of scene, and all was peace and happiness about them, with nothing to indicate the awful tragedy which the future held in store. On the night of September 18th, two days before the coronation was to take place, Andreas was called from the queen's apartment by the information that a courier from Naples was waiting to see him upon urgent business. In the dark corridor without, he was at once seized by some person or persons whose identity has never been made clear, who stopped his mouth with their gloves and then strangled him and suspended his body from a balcony. The cord, however, was not strong enough to stand the strain, and broke, and the body fell into the garden below. There the assassins would have buried it upon the spot, if they had not been put to flight by a servant of the palace, who gave the alarm.

This deed of violence gave rise to much suspicion, and the assertion is often made that Joanna had at least connived at her husband's unhappy end. Indeed, there is a story-which is without foundation, however-to the effect that Andreas found her one day twisting a silken rope with which it was her intention to have him strangled; and when he asked her what she was doing, she replied, with a smile: "Twisting a rope with which to hang you!" But it is difficult to believe the truth of any of these imputations. If she were cruel enough to desire her husband's death, and bold enough to plan for it, she was also intelligent enough to execute her purpose in a manner less foolish and less perilous to herself. Never, up to this time, had she given the slightest indication of such cruelty in her character, and never after that time was the slightest suspicion cast upon her for any other evil act. How, then, could it be possible that Andreas had been murdered by her order? Whatever the cause of this ferocious outbreak, the Hungarian faction, struck with consternation, fled in all directions, not knowing what to expect. The next morning Joanna returned to the castle Nuovo, where she remained until after the birth of her son. During this period of confinement, she wrote a letter to the King of Hungary, her father-in-law, telling him what had taken place. In this epistle she makes use of the expression:

"My good husband, with whom I have ever associated without strife;" and she declares regarding her own sorrow: "I have suffered so much anguish for the death of my beloved husband that, stunned by grief, I had well-nigh died of the same wounds!"

As soon as her strength would permit, Joanna summoned a council of her advisers and signed a commission giving Hugh de Balzo full authority to seek out the murderers and punish them. Suspicion at once fell upon Philippa the Catanese, and upon other members of her family, as her hatred of the Hungarians was well known, and her past reputation for intrigue and mystery only added strength to the accusation. Philippa, who, since the death of King Robert, had been created Countess of Montoni, was now more powerful than ever at the court, and seemed to invite the danger which was hanging over her, in the belief that no harm could touch her head. But her calculations went astray, as Balzo appeared one morning at the palace gate, produced evidence incriminating her and her intimates, and dragged them off to prison, where they were put to death in the most approved Neapolitan fashion-with lingering torments and tortures. From that day the character of the young queen underwent a most decided change. Hitherto she had been gay, frank, and confiding, now she became serious and reserved. She had always been gracious and compassionate, and rather the equal than the queen of those about her,-according to Boccaccio's description,-but treachery had come so near to her, and her trusted Philippa had proved so vile a character, that she never after gave her entire confidence to any person, man or woman.

Some two years after the death of Andreas, for reasons of state, she married her second cousin, Louis of Taranto, a brave and handsome prince of whom she had long been fond. But she was not to be allowed to enjoy her newly found happiness in peace, as her domains were soon invaded by Louis, the elder brother of Andreas, who had recently ascended his father's throne as King of Hungary, and who now came to avenge his brother's death and seize Naples by way of indemnity. Joanna, deserted by many of her nobles in these dire straits, and not knowing what to do,-as her husband seems to have played no part in this emergency,-decided upon flight as the only means of safety, and, embarking with her entire household in three galleys, she set sail for Provence, where loyal hearts awaited her coming. There she went at once to Avignon, where Pope Clement VI. was holding his court with the utmost splendor; and in the presence of the pope and all the cardinals, she made answer in her own behalf to the charges which had been made against her by the Hungarian king. Her address, which she had previously composed in Latin, has been called the "most powerful specimen of female oratory" ever recorded in history; and the Hungarian ambassadors, who had been sent to plead against her, were so confounded by her eloquence that they attempted no reply to her defence.

In the meantime, Naples, in the hands of the invaders, had been stained with blood, and then ravaged by the great plague of which Boccaccio has given us a picture. Revolting at length under the harsh measures of the Hungarian governor who had been left in charge by Louis, the Neapolitans expelled him and his followers from the city, and sent an urgent invitation to Joanna to return to her former home. Right gladly was the summons answered, and with a goodly retinue of brave knights who had sworn to die in her service she returned to her people, who welcomed her homecoming with unbounded enthusiasm. Now the court resumed its gayety and animation, and again it became, as in the days of King Robert, a far-famed school of courtesy. Alphonse Daudet gives us a hint of all this in his exquisite short story entitled La Mule du Pape, where he tells of the young page Tistet Vedene, qui descendait le Rh?ne en chantant sur une galère papale et s'en allait à la cour de Naples avec la troupe de jeunes nobles que la ville envoyait tous les ans près de la reine Jeanne pour s'exercer à la diplomatie et aux belles manières [who descended the Rh?ne, singing, upon a papal galley, and went away to the court of Naples with the company of young nobles whom the city (of Avignon) sent every year to Queen Joanna for training in diplomacy and fine manners]. There was further war with the Hungarians, it is true, but peace was established, Sicily was added to Joanna's domain, and there was general tranquillity.

Twice again did Joanna marry, urged to this course by her ministers, but death removed her consort each time, and in the end she was put into captivity by her relative and adopted child, Charles of Durazzo, who had forsaken her to follow the fortunes of the King of Hungary, and who had invaded Naples and put forth a claim to the throne, basing it upon some scheming papal grant which was without legality. Charles had her taken to the castle of Muro, a lonely fortress in the Apennines, some sixty miles from Naples, and there, her spirit of defiance unsubdued, she was murdered by four common soldiers in the latter part of May, 1382, after a reign of thirty-nine years. So came to an end this brilliant queen, the most accomplished woman of her generation, and with her downfall the lamp of learning was dimmed for a time in southern Italy, where the din of arms and the discord of civic strife gave no tranquillity to those who loved the arts of peace.

* * *

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares