Part 2: "The modern West breaks free from the Middle Ages"

How opera told stories from the medieval world

(from 500 to 1500)

Part 2 of “Opera: the Autobiography of the Western World” is in 12 chapters. Below are the 12 chapter headings, each with a subheading in italics. Also included is the table at the start of each chapter. This sets the period of myth/history covered, and lists the main operas mentioned.

Dante presenting his poem

Dante presenting his poem ‘The Divine Comedy’ to the City of Florence (fresco on the north wall of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence; Domenico di Michelino, 1465).

Chapter 13

The end of the Norse gods

For Wagner, Ragnarök was a metaphor for humanity learning to live free from the flawed ideas, ideologies and institutions it had inherited from the past

The history The operas
c 500-600 A runic inscription on the Nordendorf I fibula, found in Bavaria in 1843, refers to the Norse gods Odin and Thor Wagner The Ring of the Nibelung (1876)

Chapter 14

Arthurian legend

Wagner seeks the essence of humanity in primal mythical stories

The history The operas
542, England According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, King Arthur dies Wagner Tristan and Isolde (1865), Wagner Parsifal (1882)

Chapter 15

Islam and chivalry

Europe stops viewing itself as a Christian fortress defended by knights wearing chainmail

The history The operas
712, Spain Roderich (Rodrigo), last Christian Visigoth king of Hispania, dies fighting Islamic invaders Handel Rodrigo (1707)
732, Tours, France A Christian army defeats an Islamic army at the Battle of Tours Schumann Genoveva (1850)
15 August 778, Pyrenees Hruodlandus (Roland/Orlando) is killed while returning from a campaign against Islam Handel Orlando (1733)
1057, Spain The warlord known as El Cid defeats an Islamic stronghold at Zaragoza Massenet Le Cid (1885)
17 October 1571, Gulf of Patras A Christian naval coalition defeats an Islamic navy at the Battle of Lepanto Massenet Don Quichotte (1910)

Chapter 16

Coronations in Germany, Italy and Russia

The rise of militant nationalism between the fall of Napoleon and 1945

The history The operas
24 May 919, Germany Heinrich I, viewed in later centuries as the first king of Germany, is crowned Wagner Lohengrin (1850)
2 February 962, Italy The Pope declares Heinrich I’s son (“Otto the Great”) emperor of a new Holy Roman Empire Montemezzi The Love of Three Kings (1913)
11 June 980, Russia Saint Vladimir of Kiev, first Christian ruler of Russia, is crowned Glinka Ruslan and Ludmila (1842)

Chapter 17

The Crusades

The modern West turns against religiously inspired warfare

The history The operas
July 15 1099, Jerusalem Jerusalem falls to the army of the First Crusade Monteverdi The Battle of Tancred and Clorinda (1624), Handel Rinaldo (1711), Verdi The Lombards at the First Crusade (1843), Verdi Jerusalem (1847)

Chapter 18

Pope Urban IV invites a French army to invade Italy

The modern West turns against theocracy

The history The operas
6 January 1266, Rome The French Pope Urban IV gives sovereignty of southern Italy and Sicily to the King of France’s brother Wagner Tannhäuser (1845)
26 February 1266, Italy Sponsored by the Pope, the French army defeats and kills Manfred, son of the Emperor Frederick II Bellini The Pirate (1827), Bellini The Capulets and Montagues (1830), Wagner The Ban on Love (1836), Wagner’s sketch for an opera about Manfred
29 October 1268, Naples The French army beheads the 16 year old grandson of Frederick II Verdi The Sicilian Vespers (1855)
March 30, 1282 Palermo Sicily rises up against the occupying French army, triggering the War of Sicilian Vespers

Chapter 19

Pioneers of democracy

The modern West celebrates uprisings against autocracy

The history The operas
15 November 1315, Morgarten Pass Swiss freedom fighters defeat the army of the Holy Roman Empire, creating the foundations of the Republic of Switzerland Rossini William Tell (1829)
September 24 1339, Genoa The merchant Simon Boccanegra becomes the first Doge of the Genoese Republic Verdi Simon Boccanegra (1857, revised 1881)
August 1, 1347, Calais The citizens of Calais score a moral victory over King Edward III of England Donizetti The Siege of Calais (1836)
20 November 1347, Rome Cola di Rienzo, on defeating an alliance of old Roman families, tries to end the Holy Roman Empire and reinstate the ancient Roman Republic Wagner Rienzi (1842)
17 April 1355, Doge’s Palace After leading an uprising against the old Venetian aristocratic families, Marino Faliero (Venice’s 55th Doge) is executed Donizetti Marino Faliero (1835)

Chapter 20

The distant past turns into the recent past

Handel’s perfect, hierarchical ancient world transforms into Verdi’s imperfect, turbulent modern world

The history The operas
20 July 1402, Ankara, Turkey The Mongolian warlord Timur (Tamerlane) defeats the Ottoman Sultan Bajazet Handel Tamerlane (1724)
24 June 1412, Zaragoza, Spain The unsuccessful Compromise of Caspe triggers a civil war in Aragon Verdi Il Trovatore (1853)

Chapter 21


Revolutionary-romantics castigate the recently deceased Republic of Venice for failing to set a good example for modern, reformed political systems

The history The operas
29 May 1453 Constantinople Mehmet II, 21 years old, conquers the Christian Byzantine Empire for Islam
21 July 1456, Venice The son of the current doge of Venice is accused of conspiring with Mehmet II Verdi The Two Foscari (1844)
12 July 1470, Chalcis, Greece Mehmet II conquers Negroponte, Venice’s key trading port in the Aegean Rossini Mehmet II (1820), Rossini The Siege of Corinth (1826)
July 10, 1473, Cyprus After calling on the Venetians to help defend his island from Mehmet II, the last Christian king of Cyprus dies. Cyprus becomes part of Venice’s empire. Halévy The Queen of Cyprus (1841), Donizetti Caterina Cornaro (1844)
1500, Cyprus The navy of Bayezid II, son of Mehmet II, attacks the Venetian colony of Cyprus Rossini Othello (1816), Verdi Othello (1887)

Chapter 22

Crimes of passion

The modern West turns against patriarchal sexism

The history The operas
1284, Rimini, Italy Gianciotto Malatesta, Duke of Rimini, kills his wife Francesca and her lover, his own younger brother Paolo Quilici Francesca da Rimini (1829), Thomas Françoise de Rimini (1882), Rachmaninov Francesca da Rimini (1905), Zandonai Francesca da Rimini (1914)
1418, Binasco, Italy Filippo Visconti, Duke of Milan, has his wife Beatrice di Tenda executed Bellini Beatrice di Tenda (1833)
1425, Ferrara, Italy Niccolò III d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara, has his wife Parisina and her lover, his own illegitimate son, executed Donizetti Parisina (1833), Mascagni Parisina (1913)

Chapter 23

Exploration and conquest

The modern West turns against colonialism

The history The operas
12 October 1492 Christopher Columbus lands in the New World Glass The Voyage (1992)
8 July 1497, Portugal Vasco da Gama sets sail from Lisbon on his first major voyage Meyerbeer Vasco da Gama (1864)
13 August 1521, modern Mexico City, Mexico The Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez defeats Montezuma’s Aztec empire Vivaldi Montezuma (1733), Graun Montezuma (1755), Spontini Fernand Cortez (1809), Sessions Montezuma (1962)
26 July 1533, Peru The Spanish forces of Francisco Pizarro execute the Inca Emperor Atahualpa The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru (masque, 1656), Verdi Alzira (1845)

Chapter 24

Religious fanaticism

The modern West turns against atrocities committed in the name of God

The history The operas
6 July 1415, Constance Jan Hus, critic of the Catholic Church, is burned alive at the Council of Constance Halévy The Jewess (1835)
22 January 1536, Munster After leading a brief theocratic revolution in Munster, the Anabaptist leader John of Leyden is killed Meyerbeer The Prophet (1849)
23 August 1572, Paris French Catholics murder hundreds of Protestant Huguenots in the Massacre of St Bartholomew Meyerbeer The Huguenots (1831)
Dante and Virgil meeting Francesca da Rimini

‘Dante and Virgil meeting Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo in Hell’ (Ary Scheffer 1851; Cleveland Museum of Art).