Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact:Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews      entry Aug 2011

Everything is related to Naples 
  Number 150 in this series. Link to all items here.

Carmina Burana & the  WH_ _L      _F      F _ R T _ N _

(If you really need to buy a vowel, go read something else.)

I came across a small item about Frederick II and his founding of the university in Naples.
In a decree issued in Siracusa on Sicily in June of 1224, Fred announced his intention to start an institution for higher learning. He said that the city of Naples had everything: it was spacious and receptive, unlike the abodes of earlier academic models, Bologna and Padua. They were downright dangerous! Why, you could get beaten and even killed on your way into those one-horse towns. They don't do that in Our Kingdom of Sicily. No one messes with Frederick II. (If you wonder why, see this link.) Thus, Frederick called home those who could serve his new university and who owed him allegiance; he also forbade his subjects from going abroad to study (meaning central and northern Italy). The opinion of the writer was that such academic "protectionism" caused the new university to lag behind in such fields as philosophy but did provide a solid education in matters of the law. That is a quibble I am not prepared to debate. The University of Naples still bears the name of its founder.

More of interest to me was the illustration chosen to accompany the article. It was captioned "Miniature showing Frederick II and the Wheel, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich" (image, above). The image had nothing to do with the university! Well, maybe a little bit; you do need some luck to get through, and the image was none other than the best known medieval image of the so-called Rota Fortunae, the Wheel of Fortune, a concept in medieval and ancient philosophy referring to fickle Fate. The goddess, Fortuna, spins the wheel at random, changing the positions and the fate of those on the wheel. Fortune appears on all paintings as a woman; sometimes she is blindfolded. I had seen the image before but had stored it away in that part of my neck-top computer that promises to review things later. I guess now is "later."

The illustration is one of eight such miniatures in an extraordinary collection of medieval poetry called the Carmina Burana, written around the year 1230. The manuscript was discovered in 1803 in the southern Bavarian monastery of Benediktbeuern (in today's Bad Tölz district of Oberbayern). (Carmina=Latin for "Songs"; Burana: a Latinized form of Beuern, short for the name of that monastery. If you are looking for Carmen, the gypsy with the rose in her teeth, she is the nominative singular.) The collection was first published in 1847 as the Codex Buranus. Many of the pieces were written in Medieval Latin, some in Old French or Provençal, and a few in Middle High German. Many sources seem to agree that the poems were written in the Bavarian-Austrian linguistic area. Today the original manuscript is in the Bavarian State Library in Munich. There are 320 poems, the works of 15 different poets. The poems are of fours types: satirical; love and springtime; gambling & drinking; and religious. The gambling & drinking ones have given the whole collection an undeserved salacious reputation. Of the collection, almost 50 of them were apparently meant to be sung; whatever musical notation ever accompanied the texts has not survived. The illustration (above) was originally included within the manuscript; those who published the poems in the 1800s used it, however, as the cover illustration.

The miniature portrays Fortuna seated within the wheel of fortune. Around the wheel, the stages of the rise and fall of "a sovereign" (according to some sources) are shown. At first he rises to the top, but as the wheel turns, he eventually falls to the ground (his crown is dislodged) and then beneath the wheel where he is crushed, symbolizing the impermanence of power and the ups and downs of fate and life. The wheel is inexorable and cruel, perhaps—indeed, it was a medieval instrument of torture—but at least in some less fatalistic interpretations of this Wheel of Fortune, the goddess is not blindfolded and might be holding the spokes as if she were at the helm of a ship, steering a deliberate course through life. That is another quibble I am not prepared to debate.

As to whether or not the monarch pictured at the top of the wheel, enjoying his medieval fifteen minutes of fame, is simply "a sovereign" or, specifically, Frederick II, evidence indicates the latter. The area where the collection was written was in the Holy Roman Empire, ruled by Frederick II at the time and—not to be overlooked—it looks like him; the depiction of the sovereign is virtually identical to other renderings of Frederick from other sources. Of course, it represents all monarchs or even all persons; that is, the great changes in the life of Frederick —from his rise to power and stunning accomplishments to the ultimate extinction of his blood line— happen to all on a greater or lesser scale. (I might like to quibble about that one a bit.)

Recently, of course, Carmina Burana is the title of a well-known cantata by 20th-century composer Carl Orff (1895–1982). It is based on 24 of the poems found in the medieval collection. Interestingly, the famous O Fortuna! choral theme frames the entire work as an introduction and a reprise.

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