Object lessons: the eagle of the crusader emperor who was a friend of Arabs

Frederick II, Wonder of the World, is a star of the British Museum’s Sicily show, closing next week

Hardly a day goes by without someone laying a red rose at the foot of the great porphyry tomb in Palermo cathedral of a man who died 766 years ago. Emperor Frederick the Great, Stupor Mundi—the Wonder of the World—is still a man to inspire romantic admiration, but also nostalgia for a time when Arabs and Christians lived together companionably in the West.

Frederick II was of the German dynasty, the Hohenstaufen, born to be Holy Roman Emperor. This meant that he would be ruler of the whole of central Europe and most of Italy, but he grew up in Palermo, some say almost on the streets.

He spoke Arabic because the Arabs had been in Sicily for 400 years, and life, art and scholarship were still full of their influence; Latin because he was educated and in those days the whole of literate Europe spoke Latin; Greek because the ties between Greece and southern Italy were strong; German because it was his mother tongue; French because it was the language of chivalry and of the Normans, who had also been rulers of Sicily; and Sicilian Italian, a language that was just emerging at the time.

This extraordinary man went to the Holy Land as a crusader but sought out Arab scholars, built a castle of such mathematical perfection that it has been chosen to symbolise Italy on its modern coinage, studied falconry and philosophy, was a law-giver who protected the people of all faiths under his rule.  

He could have been the subject of the whole of the British Museum’s exhibition on Sicily instead of just a part of it, but if you intend to catch the show before it closes on 14 August, do not miss his part, and look for some small works of art that are as remarkable as the rest of Frederick’s life, because they are out of time, in the sense that they confounded art historians for generations.

Everyone knows that the ancient Romans made exquisite cameos, carved in the layers of semiprecious stones with images of the gods and emperors. Until recently, it was thought that this craft had died out with the Roman Empire itself, to be revived only in the 15th century by that rediscovery of the classical past called the Renaissance.

But as in so many other things, Frederick confounds our segmented vision of history. He saw himself as a direct descendant of the Roman emperors, as he made clear in his coinage, with its eagles and his head in profile, crowned with laurels, declaring him to be “Caesar Augustus Emperor of the Romans”, and in the cameos he had carved for himself by craftsmen who, we now think, had survived at the Byzantine and Arab courts. 

There is a Leda and the Swan, a Hercules and the Lion, and a magnificent imperial eagle, as imposing as anything the Romans could produce. The magic of his memory lives on.

• Sicily: Culture and Conquest, until 14 August 2016, British Museum, London