The Iron Crown
von Christian Schaller
Monza – an almost forgotten residential town and coronation site
Almost in the shadow of Milan, the city of Monza is located about 25 kilometres north of the Lombard capital and nestled in the Lambro river valley. Today the municipality has about 125,000 inhabitants and has been the capital of the province of Monza and Brianza since 2009.
However, the proximity to the great metropolis of Milan has never prevented the city from asserting itself as a self-confident residential town and privileged coronation site in its centuries-long and eventful history. The proud history and prestige of the Upper Italian town can be traced back to a single woman: the Bavarian princess Theodelinde, born in Regensburg and around 600 the married queen of the Longobard Empire.
Legend has it that it was thanks to her that Northern Italy converted from the Arian to the Catholic faith. There is, however, definite evidence that she founded a summer residence and a church in Monza, today’s Duomo di San Giovanni, where she was buried next to her husband, the Lombard king Agilulf, when she died in 627.
Almost nothing remains of the early basilica and palace today. After the first jubilee in 1300, the church was rebuilt into its today visible late Gothic basic form. This time the donors were the Visconti, the regents of Lombardy. Just as with the most important medieval secular building in the city, the Arengario (“town house”), which was completed by 1330, the clear influence of Milan is unmistakable on the magnificent facade.
The western front is divided into five parts by six pilaster strips and dominated by a central rose window. The wall panels are crowned by tabernacles, which in turn contain statues. The light-dark colouring of the façade stones can still be considered Romanesque-Pisan in its basic structure. The cathedral of Monza underwent further alterations in the early modern period, including the striking tower until 1606. The interior of the east-facing basilica has three naves from which side chapels branch off to the north and south.
The Longobard queen Theodelinde is depicted in many different ways at Monz Cathedral – for example in the upper part of the portal bezel on the outer facade.
However, one of the chapels dedicated to the original donor deserves special attention. The Cappella di Teodolinda, completely frescoed, can without doubt be considered a highlight of Lombard art.
The Zavattari brothers Ambrogio and Gregorio can be identified as performing artists.
The famous Lombard Zavattari family of painters already worked on the decoration of Milan Cathedral in the early 15th century. The room of the Theodelinda Chapel, completed in 1444, contains 44 scenes, divided into five separate strips. The themes are the history of the Longobards and the construction of the basilica.
A special feature of the frescoes is the omission of the typical Gothic gold ground. Instead, the Zavattari divided the background in the characteristic pastiglia manner. In this technique, depictions are lifted from the flat ground in relief by means of a pasty mass – usually on a chalk base.
In the centre of the room is the altar of the Iron Crown of Lombardy and a sarcophagus which is said to contain the remains of Theodelinde, Agilulfs and Adolars.
Monza’s immense historical importance and the numerous privileges granted to him are testified to by the numerous treasures of great historical, cultural and artistic importance in the extensive collections of the Church Museum and Cathedral Treasure (Museo e tesoro del duomo), a central point of reference for the study of Lombard art and culture.
However, the effect of the pieces there is surpassed by the Iron Crown of Lombardy, which is also kept in the church. This golden votive crown from the early Middle Ages has become a symbol of sacred and secular power over the centuries, which can be considered a source of identity not only for Monza but for the whole of Lombardy.
The Iron Crown of Lombardy
When the Emperor Theodosius died in 395, the Church Father Ambrose gave a famous funeral oration, which has been handed down to this day, to the great promoter of Christianity and last ruler of the entire Roman Empire. The death of Theodosius, however, was also the birth of a legend that would influence Northern Italy for centuries to come.
In his speech Ambrosius also spoke of a valuable crown, which was presented next to the dead emperor. It was made of iron and was originally owned by Emperor Constantine the Great.
With this first mention the formation of legends already began. In contradictory versions, the numerous medieval legends tell about this Iron Crown of Lombardy, which is now in the Cathedral Treasury at Monza.
It reached Theodosius via Constantine, from the Goths King Theoderich to the Franconian King Charles – all these rulers have only the addition “the Great” in common.
The Iron Crown was thus the coronation insignia of the Lombard kings and later for the rulers of Lombardy and all of Italy. The eponymous iron ring inside comes from a cross nail of Jesus Christ himself. The gold ring thus combines secular and sacred power. But the Iron Crown is above all one thing: symbol and myth.
The medieval kings of Italy since Pippin, son of Charlemagne, were not always crowned. Even a firmly established coronation site was missing for a long time. In 1026 Conrad II, the founder of the Salian dynasty, was finally proclaimed King of the Longobards in Milan.
A good hundred years later Conrad III, the founder of the Staufer dynasty, had himself crowned. First this happened in 1128 as counter-king in Monza, followed a few years later by the full coronation in Milan. Both Monza and Milan saw themselves as official and traditional coronation places in equal measure. This status had to be legitimized and extended by granted privileges.
Nevertheless, Conrad III was the first and last medieval king to be crowned in Monza, even though 30 years later, in 1159, King Frederick I designated Monza in a document as the official coronation site.
While the coronation site was in the last instance little more than a secondary instrument for Realpolitik to attribute greater prestige to the coronation, Monza’s existing desire for privileges and prestige was to become an essential building block for the legend of the Iron Crown.
When Henry VII of the House of Limburg-Luxembourg had himself made King of Italy in Milan in 1311, the artist Lando de Senis made a valuable iron crown, decorated with pearls and leaf ornaments. The legend was thus already considered a real story at that time.
The gold ring from Monza was apparently not available at that time, so in short a new insignia was made. A consciousness of authenticity and the only true crown was missing at that time.
With this or another, new crown made of iron, probably also Ludwig the Bavarian 1327, Karl IV 1354 and Sigismund 1431 were crowned. In Monza itself there are no records of this crown, the traces are lost as early as the 15th century. Nevertheless, at that time the Iron Crown was already a popular and established symbol of power for the kings of Italy.
The Crown, which is now part of the Monza Cathedral Treasury and is entitled the Iron Crown, was equated with the purely legendary insignia as late as the 19th century.
From an art-historical point of view, the small golden ring indeed combines the tradition of late Roman ruler’s tiaras with Visigothic and early Romanesque elements.
Recent research, however, dates it to the early ninth century – a function as the royal crown of the Lombard Empire, which had already perished at that time, is therefore excluded.
With a diameter of 15 centimetres, its basic use as a headdress also becomes unlikely. The preciously decorated hoop can be classified as a votive crown – a probably Franconian donation to the cathedral of Monza.
It is therefore reasonable to assume that the so-called Iron Crown of today was equated with the crown from the legend only relatively late – namely in the 1450s by the Historia Friderici of Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini.
The power of myth and the claim to northern Italy
Already in the Middle Ages the legend of the Iron Crown was interwoven with great names of history. Throughout the centuries through the early modern and modern age, the myth – now linked with the golden votive ring to Monza – was to continue to cast its spell over important historical figures and European rulers. However, the votive crown was to adorn the heads of rulers only three times in the following period.
The first documented use was in Bologna in 1530 by Charles V, the emperor in whose empire the sun never set. Charles had to struggle with numerous complications. Wars against the Ottomans and France complemented the internal conflicts and the advance of the Reformation.
The Habsburg was the last monarch to be crowned by the Pope and an advocate of the idea of a European-Christian universal monarchy elaborated by his Grand Chancellor. Charles subsequently found himself in competition for hegemony with the French king. When he received the Imperial Crown and the Iron Crown in 1530, he was at the height of his power after major victories in strategically important Italy.
Although the traditional insignia of power were awarded as a logical consequence of Realpolitik, they could also be interpreted as hopeful and forward-looking signs.
However, the following years of Charles V’s reign were to crystallize the impracticability of universal claims and, after his death, became definitively unlikely.
Just under 240 years later, Napoleon Bonaparte’s unexpectedly successful Italian campaign was to become a power factor, hero of the people and bearer of hope in revolutionary-directorial France. He increasingly strove energetically for political influence.
He culminated in talent, ambition, but soon also despotic megalomaniac tendencies. Nevertheless, he initiated essential reforms for France and Europe. The preservation of the Iron Crown one year after his imperial coronation in Paris coincided with the height of his power.
In 1805, Emperor Napoleon I Bonaparte put the Iron Crown on himself at a ceremony in Milan. Already 100 years before, the veneration of the crown as a Christian relic had been established, which was officially allowed in the year 1717 by the Congregation of Rites.
Napoleon also convened the prestigious Order of the Iron Crown to honour both military and civilian achievements. The legitimisation of his achievements required the creation of dynastic structures, for which he unreservedly resorted to structures that he believed had actually been overcome by the French Revolution and instrumentalised old, traditional symbols.
In the following years he achieved great military victories with the peace treaties of Pressburg and Tilsit. His stagnating and defensive system of rule and growing resistance in the conquered territories, however, also caused his ideas of a new order for Europe to fail in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
In 1835, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had still been stimulated by Napoleon, found a thoroughly problematic ruler in Ferdinand I.
As the child of the last emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Francis I, and later Napoleon’s brother-in-law, the Habsburg, who in his childhood was considered difficult to educate and suffered from epilepsy, found himself in a heterogeneous dominion. An imperial coronation was not necessary in the restorative-autocratic Metternich system after the Congress of Vienna.
He was the last ruler to receive the Bohemian Wenceslas Crown and the Lombard Iron Crown – both a mere formal act. Ferdinand I was the last bearer of the gold ring when he was crowned King of Lombardo-Venetia in 1838. The Habsburg Monarchy continued to make use of traditional symbols and staging structures even in the advancing, industrial 19th century. As a monarch considered weak in decision making and incapable of governing, Ferdinand found himself overwhelmed by the growing problems of his time.
After the outbreak of the March Revolution, he resigned himself at the end of 1848 and retired for the rest of his life.
The Order of the Iron Crown, founded by Napoleon, was continued by the Habsburgs and, after the foundation of the Kingdom of Italy, was also taken over by the House of Savoy – but restructured by both rulers.
The Italian kings of the 19th and 20th centuries never wore the Iron Crown, but honoured its symbolic value and the Lombard tradition. In 1878 the crown rested on the coffin of Victor Emmanuel II and in 1900 on the coffin of Umbertus I, who was murdered in Monza. The Iron Crown is regarded as a jewel of art-historical value and a symbol of identity for the city of Monza. It is therefore still a heraldic component of the Monza coat of arms.
Nevertheless, the diverse motives of the three crowned emperors seem to have a similar core: The coronations were a formal act and a logical consequence of the preceding Realpolitik.
Nevertheless, symbol and staging were important for the legitimation of a reign and for the ultimate goal of retaining power in an eventful time of conflict. They were the only emperors to be crowned by what is today known as the Iron Crown of Lombardy. Northern Italy played an important role in the lives of the three crowned heads and their territories. All three pursued a claim to power that was tied to strong ideals typical of their time – universalism, autocracy, restoration.
The award of the imperial crown took place promptly under Charles V, Napoleon I and Ferdinand I, and they were at the peak of their reign for the time being. All three failed in the end and resigned – whether more or less voluntarily. The symbol of the Iron Crown was thus no more than that: an instrumentalised symbol surrounded by a nimbus of secular and spiritual power, which was intended to show the claim to upper Italy, but could never guarantee it.