Medieval Studies Pier delle Vigne
Laurie Shepard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0280


The most powerful official in the court of Emperor Frederick II (1194–1250), Petrus de Vinea or Pier delle Vigne (b. c. 1190–d. 1240) served as judge, diplomat, chancellor, and polemicist, as well as familiaris, or personal advisor to the emperor. A master of the high style of prose, Pier and his colleagues created a political language charged with the majesty and mystery of sovereignty that would remain influential until the early 15th century. The life of Pier delle Vigne before he joined the Magna Curia is largely unknown. His presence in the imperial chancery is first documented in 1224 when he is listed as an imperial court judge (magne imperialis curie iudex), although he entered the service of the emperor in 1221 as “notarius,” an official whose duties were more similar to those of a modern lawyer. Scholars continue to debate Pier’s participation in the composition of important documents from his early years in the chancery, including the proclamation on the origins of princely power in the Proemium to the Liber Augustalis (1231), Frederick’s code of laws for the kingdom. In the 1230s, Pier served as ambassador, representing imperial interests in missions to Pope Gregory IX in 1232 and to England in 1234, where he negotiated the marriage of Frederick and Isabella, sister of King Henry III, and was made an English citizen. Between 1236 and 1248, he was the principal author of important imperial letters and propaganda manifestos, documents that served as powerful political instruments intended to sway public opinion in favor of the imperial cause. In 1243 Pier identifies himself as imperial protonotary, or head of the imperial chancery, and logothete, or spokesman of the kingdom of Sicily, and, as such, Pier’s power was second only to that of the emperor. All concessions by the emperor, negotiations, political statements, and financial matters passed through his hands. His precipitous downfall remains a mystery but is generally explained as punishment for embezzlement and corruption of justice for personal gain. Branded a traitor by the emperor, Pier was arrested in Cremona in 1249 and transported to San Miniato, where Frederick ordered that he be blinded and where he died. In a letter to Count Richard of Caserta, Frederick condemns Pier’s avarice. Today Pier is remembered as Dante’s tortured thornbush in the wood of the suicides, where his soul speaks of an illustrious and loyal career cut short by the envy of other courtiers.

Introductory Works

As an official in the imperial chancery, it is difficult to isolate Pier delle Vigne from the reign of Frederick II, king of Sicily from 1198 and Holy Roman Emperor from 1220. Pier delle Vigne was the emperor’s closest advisor, but his role in the chancery is defined as a master of style, while his judicial and political philosophy are not the object of study. Even the style of letters produced at the chancery is said to be determined by the ideology of the emperor. Accounts of Frederick’s rule are dominated by the emperor’s personality: hailed as “stupor mundi” or wonder of the world by contemporaries, Jacob Burckhardt described Frederick as an illuminated, proto-Renaissance prince. This is essentially the portrait of Frederick in Kantorowicz 1957 and in van Cleve 1972, biographies in which the emperor’s Ghibelline ideology is implicitly associated with rationality and laicism. The analysis is rejected in De Stefano 1978, which explores Frederick’s imperial ideology as theocratic and divinely ordained to restore peaceful society among fallen man. Kantorowicz’s assertion that Frederick established the first modern bureaucracy is challenged in Buth 1970, which offers the best assessment of Pier’s duties in the various offices he occupied. More recently, in Abulafia 1988, Frederick is portrayed as a fairly traditional medieval ruler. Excellent political histories of the rule of Frederick II are provided in Kamp 1995 and in Lomax 2004; the histories are dominated by conflicts between Frederick and the Roman Catholic Church, especially as each power lay claim to territory in Italy, and the emperor’s excommunication and deposition. Kantorowicz and van Cleve both describe the culture of the imperial Magna Curia, a center of intellectual inquiry into architecture, mathematics, agronomy, law, philosophy, and poetry, apparently inspired by the emperor himself. The study of science at the imperial court and the treatise on falconry, De Arte venandi cum avibus (On the Art of Hunting with Birds), by Frederick and his son Manfred, are examined in Haskins 1922. One of Frederick’s enduring achievements, the founding of a new university in Naples, its mission to prepare officials to uphold imperial sovereignty, is assessed in Oldfield 2009. In Powell 1971, the Liber Augustalis, Frederick’s influential legal code for the Kingdom of Sicily (1231), is presented and translated into English.

  • Abulafia, David. Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

    Of the three major English-language biographies of Frederick II, Abulafia is the least impressed by the personal genius of the emperor or the intellectual brilliance of his court, focusing instead on political and economic questions. The historian interprets Frederick’s reign as a continuation of the model established by his Norman ancestors and the emperor as pragmatic and preoccupied with the perpetuation of the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Documentation is not included.

  • Buth, Wilfred Marin. “Piero della Vigna: Bureaucrat.” PhD diss., University of Southern California, 1970.

    The dissertation tests Kantorowicz’s thesis that Frederick II created the first modern bureaucracy and, in the process, explains what we know about the offices within the chancery. Buth concludes that “Frederick’s administration was a bureaucratic system in incipient form” (p. 208). Pier’s roles as an administrator and teacher are fully explored.

  • De Stefano, Antonino. L’Idea imperiale di Federico II. Parma, Italy: Edizione del Veltro, 1978.

    The scholar interprets the Proemium to the Liber Augustalis and other statements of imperial ideology as the expression of Frederick’s theocratic vision of the prince created by direct divine intervention in the affairs of man to liberate mankind from the discord caused by sin.

  • Haskins, Charles Homer. “Science at the Court of Frederick II.” American Historical Review 27.4 (1922): 668–694.

    DOI: 10.2307/1837535

    The scientific interests of the Norman Sicilian dynasty drove investigation of the scientific questions at Frederick’s court. Haskins identifies an intriguing cast of scholars whose work the emperor solicited and collected, including Leonard of Pisa, Peter of Eboli, and the astronomers, mathematicians, and philosophers of the Egyptian sultan Malik al-Kamil. Frederick and his son authored a treaty on falconry, De arte venandi cum avibus, that demonstrates a distinctly empirical bias.

  • Kamp, Norbert. “Federico II di Svevia, imperatore, re di Sicilia e di Gerusalemme, re dei Romani.” In Dizionario biografico degli italiani 45 (1995).

    The article presents an excellent synopsis and appraisal of the complex political history of the rule of Frederick II. Kamp discusses the more objective evaluations of Frederick II and his rule by recent historians like Abulafia as essentially positive, but likely to obscure the admiration and fear of the emperor expressed by his contemporaries.

  • Kantorowicz, Ernst. Frederick the Second, 1194–1250. Translated by E. O. Lorimer. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1957.

    A translation of Kantorowicz’s German-language biography, Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite (Berlin: Bondi, 1927), this portrait of an enlightened emperor whose interests and ambitions knew no limits makes an excellent introduction to Frederick II. Detailed notes with references to sources and bibliography were published as a supplementary volume to the German edition in 1931 (Ergänzungsband), but they are omitted in the English translation.

  • Lomax, John Phillip. “Frederick II Hohenstaufen.” In Medieval Italy: An Encyclopedia. Vol. 1, A–K. Edited by Christopher Kleinhenz, 382–385. New York: Routledge, 2004.

    This chronology of the life and reign of Frederick II rejects the claim that the emperor was a heretic, which was made by his enemies, as well as the exaggerated praise of scholars that Frederick was a “proto Renaissance prince.” The historian characterizes him instead as “a fairly conventional Catholic ruler who persecuted heretics fiercely and took the greatest pride in his success as a crusader” (p. 385).

  • Oldfield, Paul. “The Kingdom of Sicily and the Early University Movement.” Viator 40.2 (2009): 135–150.

    DOI: 10.1484/J.VIATOR.1.100425

    The article offers a judicious examination of the founding of the University of Naples, which shifted the intellectual geography of the court from Sicily to the mainland, connecting centers of learning in Salerno and Capua. Like many other universities in the period, Naples was intended to serve the court. Oldfield also discusses the contribution of scholars from southern Italy.

  • Powell, James M., ed., and trans. The Liber Augustalis; or, Constitutions of Melfi, Promulgated by the Emperor Frederick II for the Kingdom of Sicily in 1231. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1971.

    A clear historical and legal introduction to the first English translation of the Liber Augustalis, which established the prince’s absolute authority in his kingdom, even in relation to the Roman church, and became a model for European autocratic monarchies. At the conclusion of the document, Petrus de Vigna is named as the compiler of the code, but he was not necessarily author of the statement of imperial ideology that introduces the work.

  • van Cleve, Thomas Curtis. The Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen: Immutator Mundi. Oxford: Clarendon, 1972.

    Van Cleve’s biography exalts Frederick, not merely as heir, in Sicily, to a rich and cosmopolitan intellectual tradition, but also for his own intellectual prowess. The historian has been accused of being too partisan in his description of the conflict between the emperor and the Roman Catholic Church, tending to portray Frederick as the defender of secular rights against impending Roman encroachment, and harboring a distinctly Ghibelline point of view.

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