Pietro della Vecchia (c. 1602/1603-1678), an Italian painter based in Venice, painted this unfortunate scene from history. On the right side of the canvas is King Alboin of Lombardy, who became the ruler of his people in the early 560s and continued to rule until around 572. His most famous deed was the role he played in leading the Lombards to Italy, a campaign which began in the year 568. Yet, before he made his great migration, King Alboin conquered a people called the Gepids and killed the Gepid king between 566 and 567. This brings us to the woman dressed in blue on the left side of the canvas. She is Pietro della Vecchia’s representation of Rosamund, the daughter of slain King Cunimund of the Gepids. Rosamund unfortunately became Alboin’s wife either by a failed peace negotiation during the war between the Lombards and the Gepids or through capture and forced marriage after Alboin won the war. Their marriage, understandably, was never warm. Yet, Alboin ensured that no love grew between them by possessing a grisly trophy from his pre-migration war—he was said to have had a chalice built from the skull of Rosamund’s father, the late King Cunimund.
Pietro della Vecchia’s painting is set in Verona, after King Alboin had moved his people to Italy. According to legend, the Lombard king threw a feast there that would cause an irreparable divide between him and his ill-fated bride. Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799) described the supposed scene in his History of the Lombards:
“While he [King Alboin] sat in merriment at a banquet at Verona longer than was proper, with the cup which he had made of the head of his father-in-law, king Cunimund, he ordered it to be given to the queen to drink wine, and he invited her to drink merrily with her father” (History of the Lombards, Book II, chapter 28).
This gruesome event, described by Paul the Deacon and painted by Pietro della Vecchia, caused Rosamund to be justly irate at her husband, and she devoted herself from that time on to bringing about the death of King Alboin. Within a few years, she would successfully orchestrate a plot to assassinate her spouse, killing the Lombard king around 572. As for the skull chalice, Paul the Deacon believed it was an authentic historical item that was possessed by the Lombard royal family up to his own day in the 8th century. He wrote, “Lest this should seem impossible to anyone, I speak the truth in Christ. I saw king Ratchis holding this cup in his hand on a certain festal day to show it to his guests” (History of the Lombards, Book II, chapter 28).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.