As an ostentatious symbol of their power, medieval rulers across Europe adopted the Roman tradition of maintaining collections of exotic animals, often gifted from North African and Middle Eastern rulers. When he conquered Palermo, Henry VI also captured a giraffe and camels that became the basis of his menagerie, and his son Frederick II built on this to establish the most extensive and best known collection of the era. His collection included numerous camels, leopards, hunting falcons (on which he was an expert), lions, panthers, ostriches, apes, horses, peacocks, and pheasants. He had at least one elephant, given to him by the Sultan of Egypt in 1229, that was famed across Europe. Frederick understood the propaganda potential of his beasts. They traveled with his army and had pride of place in grand processions he used to mark victories or impress prominent visitors. When he traveled to Germany in 1235 to suppress a rebellion led by his own son, he left his army behind but brought his Muslim bodyguards and menagerie to impress princes with his worldiness and authority. As the accounts below suggest, Frederick’s menagerie left an indelible mark on audiences and burnished his public image.
Processions of exotic creatures, as used in his 1235 journey through Lombardy, witnessed by the chronicler Salimbene of Parma, impressed locals, and reports spread as far as Germany. The centerpiece of the procession was an elephant topped with a wooden tower (pictured above). But his menagerie also had military uses. As Salimbene notes, Frederick deployed his elephant in battle alongside his considerable Saracen forces.
1235 […] In the same year, the Lord Emperor Frederick sent an elephant to Lombardy which many dromedaries and camels, along with many leopards, gyrfalcons, and hawks. They passed through Parma, as I saw with my own eyes, and stopped in the city of Cremona.
[Note in Italian] Even in the year 1231/2, Mainardino da Imola had seen the emperor travelling with many animals that were unusual to Italy: elephants, dromedaries, camels, panthers, gerfalcons, lions, leopards, white falcons, and bearded owls.
F. 245c [It is recorded] that the Emperor took Monchiero, and that he had many Saracens in his army, and that he brought his elephant into the battle. Upon elephants, there is much information in the book of the Macchabees and the story of Alexander the Great, and also in the book on properties composed by Brother Bartholomew, an Englishman belonging to the Franciscan Order, wherein he discusses elephants.
1237 On the eleventh day, a Sunday, they fought in battle over the castle of Monchiero. On the following day, the army of the Emperor besieged Monchiero from both sides, and bombarded it with catapults and two trebuchets. On the tenth day before the end of the October, a Thursday, the men of the castle gave themselves up to the Emperor, and were led away and placed into prisons. The Emperor had many Saracens in the aforementioned army.
Source: Salimbene of Parma, Cronica, Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Scriptorum, Vol. 32 (Hannover: Impensis Bibliopolii Hahniani, 1905-1913), 92-94. Translated by Astrid Khoo.
Brunetto Latini, Dante’s teacher, noted in his entertaining Book of Treasure that the residents of Cremona long remembered Frederick II’s procession, not least because of the extraordinary elephant he included in his menagerie.
The elephant is the largest known animal. Its teeth are ivory and its nose is called a trunk and looks like a snake. It uses this beak to take its food and put it in its mouth. Because the trunk is filled with ivory it is so strong that it breaks whatever it strikes. And the inhabitants of Cremona say that [Emperor] Frederick II brought one there that was sent to him from India by Prester John, and they saw it hit a loaded donkey with its snout so hard that it threw it into a house.
Source: Brunetto Latini, Li Livres dou Tresor, translated by Alexia Yates (Paris: Imprimerie Impériale, 1863). 242.
In 1245, so reported an anonymous Veronese chronicler, Frederick II came to town with the following list of creatures.
1210 […] Frederick came to Parma until the vil*** […] and on another day he came to Verona and lodged at the monastery of Saint Zeno. He brought with him one elephant, 24 camels, and 5 leopards. On the eighth day of June he went back to Villafranca di Verona, and on another day within the month of June he made for Cremona. There, the dukes of Marano and Austria spent eight days with him.
Source: “Noti die storia veronese,” Nuovo Archivio Veneto volume VI, part 1 (Venice: Coi Tipi dei Fratelli Visentini, 1893), 129. Translated by Astrid Khoo.
In 1247, Flavio Biondo reported on the exotic people and animals in Frederick’s camp in Vittoria, near Parma. This was just before Frederick’s forces were decisively defeated by papal forces.
The city of Vittoria even saw beasts, which Italy had not seen since the theatrical games during the existence of the Roman empire: elephants, dromedaries, panthers, lions, leopards, lynxes and white bears. Our theologian asserts that he also saw dogs, which were on one hand horrible in size and appearance, but on the other hand marked by extreme cowardice; he also saw birds that were both savage and tame. Frederick had obtained different birds from those common in Italy, in which are included falcons, kites, serpent-eagles, and white gyrfalcons, which befitted his imperial majesty: huge bearded owls were also seen. To all this Frederick added both local women and then prisoner women, all most beautiful. For the use of these women, who were guarded by a flock of bodyguards, he arranged arboretums, vineyards, gardens, and land parcels with villas by the most elegant city of Vittoria.
 According to Du Cange this is a (loosely defined) hapax legomenon – only found in descriptions of Frederick II’s processions.
Source: Paul Scheffer-Boichorst, Zur Geschichte des XII. und XIII. Jahrhunderts. Diplomatische Forschungen (Berlin: Ebering, 1897), 286. Translated by Astrid Khoo.
Frederick II impresses with his processions (ca. 1230s) by Jeff Bowersox, Astrid Khoo, and Alexia Yates is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://blackcentraleurope.com/who-we-are/.