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“Would you like to see his head?”: The battlefield and the bishop from 13th century Italy

By Kelly DeVries

There are two adventures associated with this story, and they are separated by more than 725 years. The first, although only for narrative purposes and not chronological, is less important, but sets the context for the second, much more important late thirteenth-century one.

It first begins in the summer of 2016, when Dr. Niccolò Capponi, Florentine count, and superb (and prolific) historian, and I were writing a book on the 1289 Battle of Campaldino, fought between Ghibellines (mostly lords and their retinues in the Arentini countryside and the militia from Arezzo) and the Guelphs (militias mostly from Florence, with smaller contingents from Siena, Pisa, and other nearby towns). More about this battle will be discussed below, but to keep interest spiked: the great Florentine poet, Dante Alighieri, fought in his city’s militia cavalry in the battle and it affected him significantly.

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The location of the battlefield had been guessed at but never firmly located before we wrote our book, published by Osprey in 2018 as The Battle of Campaldino, 1289: The Battle that Made Dante. The battlefield is centered on two landmarks: Poppi Castle, set on a hill overlooking the battlefield, although far from it, is open to the public who can still ascend the many stairs up the central tower to view the countryside (including the battlefield) for miles; and the Santissima Annunziata e di San Giovanni Battista Church of Certomondo.

The battlefield from the Guelph rear lines looking towards the Ghibelline position. Poppi castle is on the hill in the background. Photo by Kelly DeVries

The Certomundo church had been built in celebration of the Sienese Ghibelline victory over the Florentine Guelphs at the Battle of Montaperti in 1260, in which several of the local lads had distinguished themselves. The church would play an important role in the battle, as its unfinished cloister was where the Ghibelline cavalry of Guido Novello Guidi, who was Count of Poppi and owned that aforementioned castle, positioned himself as a reserve, expecting to rush into the battle and determine victory. It was from here, though, that he, taken out of the battle by circumstances on the battlefield, would retreat to the safety of his castle – and would lock the gates to it and the village around it, so that none of his fellow defeated Ghibellines could take refuge there, and thus likely leading the victorious Guelphs to attack it. It was a wise retreat, uncriticized by any contemporaries, as he saved himself and his 150 soldiers whose entry into a battle then lost would simply have wasted their lives. The cloister, never completed, can be seen clearly in Google Earth photos, but lies in the backyard of several houses. Those were inaccessible to Niccolò and I, but so too had been the church before then – although we had been to the battlefield a number of times before then.

That changed with our 2016 visit. By this time we were very secure in our location of the battlefield; as is usual when a secure location of a battlefield is discovered, all the original sources, including the most detailed for Campaldino – written by contemporaries although not eyewitnesses, Dino Compagni and Giovanni Villani, as well as Dante who was there – make complete sense. We had concluded that the Guelph forces had fared so badly initially in the battle, fought with so much ineptitude – including Dante – that they threw the Ghibellines into such an overconfident frenzy that they abandoned their tactical plan – and consequently Guido di Guidi’s reserve – only to discover that their experience and bravado could not defeat the larger Guelph numbers of infantry. Defeat quickly followed, something that all the sources suggest was a huge surprise to the Guelphs as well as the Ghibellines.

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The Castle of Poppi – photo by Kelly DeVries

Chief among the Ghibelline numbers was the bishop of Arezzo, Guglielmino degli Ubertini. There are several unusual traits of this high-ranking medieval ecclesiastic. First, he was a fighting bishop. On the battlefield of Campaldino he is described as wearing his white episcopal surcoat and cape over the mail armor that covered him from head to foot and his white miter perched atop his great helm. He had fought in battles before as bishop, most notably at Montaperti, thus firmly putting to rest the silly notion that medieval ecclesiastics did not take up arms or fought in wars.

Second, he was between 69 and 74 years old at Campaldino, which may be why he was placed in command of the Ghibelline rearguard – the infantry and militia – with more forward lines commanded by younger soldiers, including a group of 12 paladins who provided the Ghibelline vanguard, among whom was the bishop’s nephew, Guglielmo, and the knight whose death would be famously celebrated in Dante’s Paradiso, Buonconte di Montefeltro (who seemed to have followed the fleeing knight, “pierced through” the neck, until he bled out – although Dante may not have seen the corpse which in his poem disappears into the rising floodwaters of a rain-filled river – nearly a kilometer from the battlefield).

Third, Bishop Ubertino was a leader of the Ghibelline forces, those serving on behalf of the German Emperor, against the Guelphs, who served on behalf of the Pope. While it is certainly true that Ghibelline and Guelph motives had become muddled for many years before Campaldino, and these certainly do not fit easily into modern historical paradigms, it was still unusual for a bishop to so openly oppose papal control of Italy. And Ubertino had done this for his entire 46-year reign.

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The Church of Certomundo. Photo by Kelly DeVries

Niccolò and I, wanting to view the gravesite and see what other memorials might be housed within the church to match the plaque that commemorates the battle and Dante’s participation in it attached to its outside, were at the point of giving up on doing so. When across the street – actually the highway between Florence and Arezzo, built atop the Roman road and used in the thirteenth century –  we spotted the owner of a small café. “Give me five minutes,” he responded when asked if he could help; and he soon emerged from the then closed café with the oldest Italian man I had ever met. He carried the largest ring of keys I had ever seen. One of these opened the Church of Certomundo.

It was a beautiful chapel, quaint and with a bolt of sunlight from a high window that pierced it through the middle, giving out a warm feeling, exactly as a medieval chapel should. But the church of Certomundo seemed to add nothing to our research. The burial site was marked only by a cement slab in the floor, obviously placed there much later, with no plaque nor memorial. Then the ancient Italian softly said to us: “would you like to see his head?” A pause followed before Niccolò asked him whose head he was offering to show us. “Why, the head of the bishop, of course” was his answer.  There was no turning this down. So, we went to a small side room, actually the only side room in the chapel, where he opened a large wardrobe, pulled out a simple, unremarkable cardboard box – I wish I had noted what it had been used for previously as the label was prominent – and removed from it a ceramic head made from the excavated skull of the warrior bishop of Arezzo.

The ceramic head made from the skull of Guigliermo degli Ubertino. Photo by Kelly DeVries

Bishop Guigliermo degli Ubertino lost his life sometime during the battle at Campaldino; it is not recorded when. With many others, he was buried in the Church of Certomundo, although he, with his nephew, Guglielmo, and one other whose identity is not known, were buried separately within the church, others, apparently several hundreds if not thousands, were buried outside. We were also shown this site, a distinctly reshaped area to the west of the church, which from other sites I have seen clearly is evidence of a mass burial. (Ground-penetrating radar has found these interments, noting that 17 are buried separately above a mass grave below, but no excavation of the site has taken place.)

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The bishop’s bones are now in the Cathedral of Arezzo, with a nice plaque there. But his head, at least a forensic reconstruction of it, still lies in a simple cardboard box, in an unassuming side room, in the small medieval church of Certomundo, dedicated to one Ghibelline victory but filled with the corpses of a later Ghibelline defeat, on the side of a thirteenth-century battlefield, where a young Dante fought and an old warrior bishop died.

Kelly DeVries is Professor of History at Loyola University in Maryland and Honorary Historical Consultant, Royal Armouries, UK.  He is the author of many works on medieval history, including the recently published 1066: A Guide to the Battles and the Campaigns (co-authored by Michael Livingston). Special thanks to Niccolò Capponi for his help in researching this article.

Top Image: Fresco in San Gimignano from 1292. Photo by Carlomarinobuttazzo / Wikimedia Commons

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