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Collection II
Volume I, Unit 8
by Giovanni Cerni

Barbarossa the Leper

Barbarossa the Leper (Volume I. Unit 8)
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Barbarossa the Leper

... unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing! No, not for a king,
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damn’d defeat was made.
Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii

Those souls suffering from leprosy are living
in Purgatory even while on Earth,
and for this reason their suffering
is holier than the ordinary person’s.
Lepers exist in a place between life and death:
they are still alive, but are separate
from mundane existence.
—from a Medieval text

Il Duce di Canossa, Barbarossa Corleone, shifted in his narrow bed and awoke. The collar of his hairshirt was tangled in his bright-red beard, his namesake. All the better that he had a full beard now; if only it could cover all of his face so he would resemble an orangutan. Anything not to look like the thing he was now…

These were his thoughts for six long years, before he met me, Lucio Della Causa. He had thought being a leper was the end of a life, that any fate was better than seeing one’s face slowly turn into a putrid cauliflower. If the sin-filled yet beckoning gates of a woman’s womb were the instrument of man’s entry into this world, what a punishment it was to suffer an egress"If the sin-filled yet beckoning gates of a woman's womb were the instrument of a man's entry into this world, what a punishment it was to suffer an egress from it by means of rotting slowly from the outside in!" from it by means of rotting slowly from the outside in! Yes, Barbarossa Corleone, the man with the heart and ruddy mane of a lion* had been punished many lifetimes’ worth for all his sins in this one. And there was much to be punished for…

* * *

In the waning hours of a December afternoon in 1095, the young Signor Corleone was sitting over cold peppered-spinach-and-fava-bean stew in the dining hall of his castle. He was steaming over the affairs at Canossa. Much food for thought, but no appetite.

A generation ago, the Margraves of Canossa were accorded respect, he thought. And not just because they were rulers of a border province, had more money, more power, more weapons and better fortifications than their neighbors. After all, this was Canossa, where eighteen years before, Henry IV – the Holy Roman Emperor himself!—had occasion to abase himself before the Pope, traversing the Alps barefoot and waiting three full days before the castle gates until Gregory VII received him, lifting his first excommunication. Ah! The subsequent ones Henry would lift himself, with a sword—with Rome overrun by his troops and Gregory fleeing. But Barbarossa was getting ahead of himself.

That first return of Henry into the cold-comfort arms of Gregory’s Church was brokered by Barbarossa’s Mother, Matilda of Tuscany and Canossa, La Gran Contessa herself. Henry left the castle immediately after taking communion, but the Pope stayed on at Canossa for better than a month, allowing himself a leisurely zigzag through the Tuscan towns on his way back to Rome, in her company.

Barbarossa was still stewing over his once-steaming stew. Rumors sprang up immediately after I was born. For it was nine months, to the day, after that fateful communion—rumor had it that I, Barbarossa Corleone, was the illegitimate son of Pope Gregory VII. Ha! Rumors be damned! To me, it was a given.

Barbarossa was made to suffer for such a parentage. When Henry sacked Rome seven years later, Henry installed Clement III, the Antipope. Clement was a stand-up guy who advocated"When Henry sacked Rome..., Henry installed Clement III, the Antipope. Clement was a stand-up guy who advocated indulgences and concubines for bishops." indulgences and concubines for bishops. Not surprisingly, he was against celibacy for priests, but, then again, Gregory was for it, and… where did Barbarossa come from?

Ha! When Henry was excommunicated for the third time—there was a second excommunication in the interim, but after the first one the rest are mere tick bites—he unseated Gregory and installed his puppet, Clement III. But when he himself fled Rome, Henry ravaged Matilda’s possessions in Tuscany, avenging her support of the man Barbarossa whisperingly called Father in his evening prayers. How could she have done otherwise? Some say she was supporting the Pope, but I know why she stayed with Gregory to the last.

It was her marrying that punk Welf that led me astray. His nickname was Welfhardt the Fat, for God’s sake. And he was 17. Of course, I was five years younger than him—but that’s the point! And I would be his red-headed stepchild?! Still, it wasn’t until he betrayed Mother this spring that I made up my mind to avenge Father’s defeat, to uphold his blessed memory.

But I didn’t know immediately how to do it. To distract myself, I threw myself into the study of masonry—Barbarossa swirled a wooden spoon through the lifeless stew—adding a floor on top of the main hall to accommodate my martial-arts practice. I invented the flying buttress"... I threw myself into the study of masonry... adding a floor on top of the main hall.... I invented the flying buttress in the process of construction, an elegant architectural solution to the problem of the additional load on the walls..." in the process of construction, an elegant architectural solution to the problem of the additional load on the walls, and when the master mason who tutored me in the building arts had the gall to claim that it was his invention, I dispatched him to my cellar torture chamber, where he was daily shot arms-first out of a miniature cannon and straight into a wall, so that he may learn of the different ways in which flying buttresses may come into contact with walls.

Well, that’s his side of the story. I was that master mason and I remember things differently.

After I was imprisoned, I didn’t mind that he took credit for my invention. All I wanted was to be set free. I beseeched"All I wanted was to be set free. I beseeched him, begged him for mercy, but all he said was, 'I am the Duke of Canossa and my decision is as immutable as the rules of the Universe.' " him, begged him for mercy, but all he said was, ‘I am the Duke of Canossa and my decision is as immutable"All I wanted was to be set free. I beseeched him, begged him for mercy, but all he said was, 'I am the Duke of Canossa and my decision is as immutable as the rules of the Universe.' " as the rules of the Universe.’ He was a proud one…

I was assiduous"I was assiduous in my practice of the martial arts, practicing for five hours daily, even on heavily-scheduled torture days..." in my practice of the martial arts, practicing for five hours daily, even on heavily-scheduled torture days, when instead of contiguous"... on heavily-scheduled torture days, ... instead of contiguous torture times, with prisoners going in one after another, they scheduled simultaneous sessions. How could I be present at each one if they all happen at the same time?!" torture times, with prisoners going in one after another, they scheduled simultaneous"... on heavily-scheduled torture days, ... instead of contiguous torture times, with prisoners going in one after another, they scheduled simultaneous sessions. How could I be present at each one if they all happen at the same time?!" sessions. How could I be present at each one if they all happen at the same time?! The idiots! In the cellar they stayed, this time as torturees.

A few levels beneath the cellar, I had an elaborate labyrinth"... I had an elaborate labyrinth built, in which the Devil himself would have gotten lost..." built, in which the Devil himself would have gotten lost, and had it stocked with fierce beasts and even fiercer former torturers—now prisoners. I spent prolifically"I spent prolifically on arms, amassing a huge cache of them and keeping meticulous records of the kind and number of each weapon. Such a pile of killing devices was never seen in all of Italy..." on arms, amassing a huge cache"I spent prolifically on arms, amassing a huge cache of them and keeping meticulous records of the kind and number of each weapon. Such a pile of killing devices was never seen in all of Italy..." of them and keeping meticulous"I spent prolifically on arms, amassing a huge cache of them and keeping meticulous records of the kind and number of each weapon. Such a pile of killing devices was never seen in all of Italy..." records of the kind and number of each weapon. Such a pile of killing devices was never seen in all of Italy or, for that matter, the Ancient Empire, and I had to add yet another floor on top of the main hall. More flying buttresses.

For all these reasons, the castle and surrounding lands gained a certain notoriety"... the castle and surrounding lands gained a certain notoriety.... And... it seems to be I who was bringing all this ill fame to my family...", but, then again, it had been there since my birth. And since it seems to be I who was bringing all this ill fame to my family, I knew that I must… That I would do something drastic.

A generation ago, the Margraves of Canossa were accorded respect, but with that traitorous nincompoop fleeing from Mother to side with Henry, that pathetic operator, what reason had I to stay in Canossa any longer?

“I had tried to bear this farce of a marriage as best I could during those six long years,” Barbarossa told me later, his face deformed by rage and his disease. What he wanted to do was to find “that fat wort Welfhardt,” whisk him to the torture chamber, and have his way with him. But something had changed; that wouldn’t do anymore. He was tired of all the torture.

“Besides,” he reasoned, “getting my hands on him would do little good. I had to wipe my family’s besmirched name clean by serving God’s holy purpose. Now, they say that I’m mercurial" '... they say that I'm mercurial: a quicksilver character whose mood is liable to change in a heartbeat. Some would call me capricious for the same reason.' ": a quicksilver character whose mood is liable to change in a heartbeat. Some would call me capricious" '... they say that I'm mercurial: a quicksilver character whose mood is liable to change in a heartbeat. Some would call me capricious for the same reason.' " for the same reason. Well… perhaps. But when I find something that I know is right, my certitude" '... they say that I'm mercurial: a quicksilver character whose mood is liable to change in a heartbeat.... But when I find something that I know is right, my certitude in that course is absolute.' " in that course is absolute. Therefore I resolved that I would cover my armor in white vestments, with a crimson cross emblazoned, and would set out to liberate Jerusalem, as a Knight of the Crusades!”

* * *

Thus resolved Barbarossa Corleone over his fava-bean stew all those years ago. The decision made, his heart grew light for the first time in six years, and he even finished the beans, which caused the heaviness to return.


Barbarossa Corleone, Margrave of Canossa, husband to many beautiful women, father
to many well-behaved children.

Illustration by Caterina Baldi

He went off to fight in the Crusade, supporting Godfrey of Bouillon, and then, with Jerusalem conquered, endorsing"[Barbarossa] went off to fight in the Crusade, supporting Godfrey of Bouillon, and then, with Jerusalem conquered, endorsing him for the title of King of Jerusalem, which Godfrey refused." him for the title of King of Jerusalem, which Godfrey refused. Then, Baldwin of Edessa, Godfrey’s brother called a meeting of the knights in his spacious tent.

“If my dear elder brother feels that this most high and palmy title is, as he puts it, ‘God’s alone to bear,’ then I will happily accept it on behalf of The Almighty, and pass it on to Him from hand to hand once I pass on and have the chance to meet Him.” At this Baldwin’s knights cheered in approval, raising a raucous roar to high Heaven. Barbarossa could not abide such blasphemy and called out to Baldwin:

“Sir Baldwin! With all due respect—who did invest your Lordship with the right to speak for universal forces, accept their titles, furthermore assume that you would meet them in the afterlife, and indeed take it for granted that they would take anything from you, from whom the Devil has already taken modesty and virtue, with reason sure to follow soon?!”

There was a deathly silence—and then an uproar of such violence among the knights that Barbarossa surely would have been drawn and quartered then and there had Baldwin not held up his hand. Slowly, in the restored silence, Baldwin approached Barbarossa.

“You, Corleone, are a child. A naïve, vain, stupid child. But if you feel you have a special rapport with ‘universal forces,’ as you call them, I wish you every bit of luck in making sure that you appear before them.” Then, Baldwin patted Barbarossa paternally on the cheek. There was almost the glint of a smile in his eyes. “Just remember, my child, the words of our Lord: ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me.’ And I do hope dearly that you will suffer, Barbarossa—suffer greatly.”

That same day Barbarossa left Godfrey’s camp, setting out for faraway Canossa. Halfway to Constantinople, in Antioch, he realized with horror that the seed of Baldwin’s words was borne by the winds of misfortune and had—oh, horror of horrors!—taken most venomous root. It was beyond a doubt: he was chosen for the Scourge of God—leprosy. He hurried back to Canossa, anxious to pray at the Corleone private chapel one last time before the disease made him asocial.

Once back at the castle, he shut himself in his room and spoke to no one, wearing a penitent’s hairshirt, praying constantly, fasting and raging at God for bringing him into this world a bastard and taking him from it a leper. Six long years passed. Then, on awaking one morning in his ascetic’s bed, he thought that he might ease his suffering by releasing his prisoners. Out of the hundreds he left behind when he last entered the torture chambers ten years before, only one man had survived: I, Lucio, the master mason. I chose to stay at the castle. In the dank atmosphere of the dungeon I too had become a leper and, seeing what had become of Barbarossa, I resolved to ease his suffering by keeping him company.

Matilda, La Gran Contessa, showed a nurturing"Matilda, La Gran Contessa, showed a nurturing side Barbarossa never knew existed. Each evening,... she took his grotesquely swollen feet into her diminutive hands to clean his festering wounds..." side Barbarossa never knew existed. Each evening, as she took his grotesquely swollen feet into her diminutive"Each evening, as she took his grotesquely swollen feet into her diminutive hands to clean his festering wounds, [Barbarossa] wept with tenderness and pity, knowing that no other woman's delicate hands would ever touch him..." hands to clean his festering wounds, he wept with tenderness and pity, knowing that no other woman’s delicate hands would ever touch him—indeed, that he would die a celibate. As she washed his wounds, she hummed a beautiful, repetitive melody, simple and sublime, and its gentle cadence"As she washed his wounds, she hummed a beautiful, repetitive melody, simple and sublime, and its gentle cadence soothed the pangs in his heart..." soothed the pangs in his heart, the demons in his brain. I, too, came to sit by his side, and we would talk deep into the night.

“Barbarossa, do you remember how you used to say to me, ‘You may beseech me, beg for my mercy,’ and then you would say, with pride, ‘but I am the Duke of Canossa and my decision is as unchangeable as the rules of the Universe.’ My dear friend, the rules of the Universe are indeed as unchanging as you believed them to be, and they are still in effect.”

“What do you mean, Lucio?” he asked me.

“Between life and death we must travel the course of a winding labyrinth, a roundabout way to truth. The path is different for each man, but the truth we find in the end is universal, and that truth speaks to us in terms terse" 'The path is different for each man, but the truth we find in the end is universal, and that truth speaks to us in terms terse yet cogent—in few words, but of great significance.' " yet cogent" 'The path is different for each man, but the truth we find in the end is universal, and that truth speaks to us in terms terse yet cogent—in few words, but of great significance.' "—in few words, but of great significance.

“You ask me of destiny, Barbarossa, of fate. You wonder if the Universe sees the bad you have done in this life and is treating you accordingly, or if it is simply meting out that which you were predestined to receive. Well, you may impute" 'You ask me of destiny, Barbarossa, of fate. You wonder if the Universe ... is simply meting out that which you were predestined to receive. Well, you may impute whatever powers of observation or logic to the Universe, but that still does not change The Golden Rule.' " whatever powers of observation or logic to the Universe, but that still does not change The Golden Rule.”

Barbarossa responded, “I know I have done much wrong, Lucio. I tortured innocent people for my own sick pleasure. I killed scores of others simply because they pray to God using words different from mine. Finally, I saw only ill will and treachery around me, not noticing the beauty of Nature and the goodness of people. I saw the world through the narrow visor of my battle helmet, and, in return for my narrowness of mind and blindness to life, I was made a living ghost, an undead wretch—not quite dead and not fully alive.”

“You are a tortured soul, Barbarossa. But your suffering has not been in vain, for you have acquired a scintilla" '... your suffering has not been in vain, for you have acquired a scintilla of insight, and in this hopeful spark there is the seed of your salvation...' " of insight, and in this hopeful spark there is the seed of your salvation from your scourge. If you use your newfound gift, I predict that you will outlive your contemporaries" 'If you use your newfound gift, I predict that you will outlive your contemporaries, living a life as long in wisdom as it will be in years.' ", living a life as long in wisdom as it will be in years.”

As Barbarossa, once my tormenter and now my dear friend, heard these words, he wept the tears of a man finally come to know the meaning of gratitude, a man in harmony with a natural order, and therefore wise. He looked at his mother, La Gran Contessa, and saw in her eyes the first instance of the love and respect he would receive from many women over his inexplicably long and healthy life.

Timeline
1074
Gregory VII unsuccessfully proposes Crusade; excommunicates Robert Guiscard, a Norman duke, for refusing to take part
1076
Gregory excommunicates Henry IV for the first time
Matilda of Tuscany’s first husband dies
1077
Matilda seeks out Gregory and brings him to Canossa, where he may receive Henry
Henry walks to Canossa early in the year to show penance to Gregory VII
Barbarossa is born on Christmas Eve
1080
Gregory excommunicates Henry IV for the second time
1084
Gregory excommunicates Henry IV for the third time (just in case)
Henry enters Rome and installs Clement III as Antipope; Gregory flees; Robert Guiscard hurries to Gregory’s aid
Fearing Guiscard, Henry flees Rome, avenges Matilda’s support of Gregory on his way North by destroying her property
1085
Gregory dies, of exile
1089
Matilda of Tuscany marries for the second time (to 17-year-old Welf V of Bavaria) out of Lust and a desire to further her political interests
1092
Henry’s second time at Canossa; defeat and retreat back to Germany
1095
First Crusade launched by Pope Urban II
Welf V leaves Matilda and sides with Henry
Barbarossa joins Crusade, out of Anger and desire for redemption
1099
The First Crusade climaxes in the siege and capture of Jerusalem by Christian knights, driven by religious fervor and Greed
1100
Clement III dies, of Envy
1106
Henry IV dies, of Pride and antipapal feelings
1115
Matilda of Tuscany dies, from gout
1120
Welf V dies, of Gluttony and Sloth
1177
Barbarossa Corleone, Margrave of Canossa, husband to many beautiful women, father to many well-behaved children, dies on Easter Eve at a ripe old age

___________

* cor leone means ‘heart of a lion’ or ‘Lionheart’ in Italian