Sunday, January 22, 2012

Imagine Lord Rainier I

Try to imagine Monaco as it was when the first members of the Grimaldi family of Genoa set their eyes on it. Instead of apartment buildings, luxury hotels, casinos and rows and rows of yachts imagine rocky, windswept cliffs, one or two towering and ominous castles keeping watch over a mostly empty countryside of farmland and fruit trees while small fishing boats cast their nets in the Mediterranean. From the ramparts of the castle flies the St George cross of the city-state of Genoa where feuding factions have carried on a civil war. This war started as a clash between the Pope and the Holy Roman (German) Emperor and soon spread across the Italian peninsula. The noble lords mostly favored the Emperor since it was by his favor that they gained their titles, the land that went with those titles, the peasants that went with the land and the income those peasants produced for them. The merchant city-state republics of northern Italy mostly favored the Pope, as did families such as the House of Grimaldi. These were self-made people who, by daring voyages of trade and astute business practices, became wealthy and gained status. The Pope was content to leave them to manage their own affairs and this is what made them loyal partisans of the papacy. They feared that under the Emperor they would be able to advance only so far as the ruler in far-off Germany would allow whereas with the Pope they could retain their independence and advance as far as their talents and ambition could take them.

This was the Guelph-Ghibelline feud that split Italy for many, many years. It became so bad people forgot what it had all been about to begin with. Some split into even more radical factions such as the Black Guelphs and White Guelphs. The poet Dante was from a faction more supportive of the Emperor (hence the presence of popes in his Inferno) and families feuded for generations. Shakespeare’s famous tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” was based on two feuding families from this same conflict. In Genoa the pendulum swung back and forth as one faction took control from the other. The House of Grimaldi was in the Guelph camp and their fortunes rose and fell depending on who held power at the moment. When the Ghibelline faction took control of Genoa the members of the Guelph faction such as the Grimaldi and Fieschi families were driven into exile. One of those who had to leave was the famous ancestor of the Princely Family Lord Rainier I. Imagine what a bitter pill this must have been. The Grimaldis, even at that time, had served Genoa for generations, attaining high office as consuls and ambassadors. Now they were fugitives and their former homeland was a hostile country under enemy occupation.

However, Rainier I was not a man to shrink from danger. Along with government offices, the Grimaldi family even then had a history of being sea-faring warriors. Rainier carried on the fight as best he could. We can imagine him, wearing his red and white family colors, standing on the deck of his galley dressed in armor, clenching his sword, the wind blowing sea spray in his face as his vessel plowed through the Mediterranean. Imagine his eyes squinting against the wind, keeping a sharp eye for Genoese galleys but also, in a larger sense, looking for any opportunity to restore the fortunes of his family and gain and advantage over those who had driven him and him from his home. At times he had to accept employment from neighboring royals to stay afloat (in more ways than one) such as King Charles II of Anjou. In his service Lord Rainier gained quite a reputation for skill and daring across the Mediterranean area. Imagine it: an enemy galley is sighted, the course is changed toward it as the men below decks groan with all their strength at the oars to increase their speed. The guns thunder, the galleys collide and Rainier pulls his sword and leads his men in boarding the enemy ship, wrenching it from them in fierce hand-to-hand combat. Quite a far cry from car races, football games and roulette wheels isn’t it?

It may be hard for people today to imagine what the Mediterranean was like back then. Competing states struggled for control among themselves, fighting for a variety of reasons. Additionally, if the threat from your fellow Christians was not enough, on the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea the Muslims ruled a vast though fragmented empire that stretched from the Atlantic ocean to Persia. Stray too far in the wrong direction and Muslim corsairs could see you and your crew killed or sold into slavery. The famous Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, for example, was captured by an Algerian corsair in the Mediterranean and kept as a slave until he was ransomed by his family. All of these were threats that Rainier I had to deal with, the enemies of the House of Anjou he was paid to fight, the Ghibelline faction that were his own enemies, the various raiders who were out for what they could get from any quarter and the Muslim corsairs who were a threat to any Christian ship no matter what flag they sailed under. We can imagine that this environment helped make Rainier I the hardened warrior that he was. Yet, in the one portrait we have of the man, we can see a twinkle in his eye (a familiar one) suggesting a bit of bravado and a more calculating mind than that of a simple mercenary. He was always on the lookout for an opportunity to make a comeback. Eventually, that opportunity came when, thanks to the crafty attack of Francesco Grimaldi, the “Rock” of Monaco was captured for the Grimaldi family who obtained their own land which, in time, would become one of the most glamorous and successful countries in the world.


  1. Very interesting, I am following your blog from Rome, Italy.

  2. Thanks for reading! I do have a side-blog just for Italian topics but the "flavor" is rather different from this one. Hello to all in the Eternal City!


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