Pier della Vigna

Pier della Vigna
(ca. 1190–1249)
   As Frederick II’s chancellor and one of the most powerful statesmen of his time, PIER DELLA VIGNA was also an important literary figure, one of the poets of the “Sicilian school” of lyric poetry, a group responsible for the first court poetry in the Italian vernacular. His apparent suicide inspired DANTE to immortalize him in Canto XIII of the Inferno. Pier was born in Capua. His family was apparently connected with the judicial system, but was of modest means, so that Pier had to make sacrifices to study law at the University of Bologna. In 1220, the archbishop of Palermo introduced him to the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, and shortly thereafter Pier joined Frederick’s court at Naples as a notary. Once at the court, Pier became one of the emperor’s most trusted advisers.He became a judge in 1225 and “protonotary” of Sicily in 1246, and ultimately Frederick’s chancellor in 1249. During the intervening years he was sent on a number of delicate diplomatic missions for the emperor. In 1230 he signed the Treaty of Ceprano, which ended a period of hostilities between Frederick and Pope Gregory IX. In 1231, he also was deeply involved in the composition of the Constitutions of Melfi—a law code that centralized imperial power in Sicily and served as the kingdom’s fundamental law code until Napoleonic times. At Frederick’s court Pier also became acquainted with fellow notary and poet GIACOMO DA LENTINO, and with him was instrumental in adopting the style and themes of the Provençal TROUBADOURS into Italian vernacular poetry. Three of his CANZONI, one SONNET, and part of a tenzone (see TENSO) with Giacomo are extant. All display the influence of the troubadours’ COURTLY LOVE tradition. Pier’s official letters are also an important literary achievement: Written in an eloquent Latin, the letters are one of the most important primary documents for historians studying Frederick’s reign.
   Shortly after Pier’s elevation to chancellor, he was accused of treason—apparently on trumped-up charges lodged by rival courtiers jealous of his influence with the emperor. Convicted and condemned by Frederick, Pier was dragged in chains through the towns of Tuscany as an example to traitors, and ultimately blinded with a red-hot iron. He may have died under torture, but was widely held to have committed suicide in April 1249. He is best remembered as Dante portrayed him: Speaking in the form of a tree in the wood of suicides, the shade of Pier della Vigna proclaims his undying loyalty to Frederick II.
   ■ Goldin, Frederick, trans. German and Italian Lyrics of the Middle Ages: An Anthology and a History. New York: Doubleday, 1973.
   ■ Jensen, Frede, ed. and trans. The Poetry of the Sicilian School. New York: Garland, 1986.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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