Aldo, Grasuo, And The Buzzy Legend Of A Medieval Italian Shapeshifter Who Saved Their Lives

Aldo and Grasuo were the names of two wealthy noblemen brothers who reportedly hailed from the Brescia region of Italy in the 7th century. They played a particularly prominent role during the reign of King Cunincpert of the Lombards (r. 688-700), but the brothers’ early relationship with the king began anything but smoothly. Quite the opposite, as Aldo and Grasuo were reportedly natives of Brescia, they became caught up in the machinations of Duke Alahis (ruler of the Trento, Bolzano and Brescia regions of Italy), who tried to usurp power from the king at the beginning of Cunincpert’s reign. Aldo and Grasuo were recruited as leading lieutenants under rebellious Duke Alahis, and they marched alongside the rebel duke to the Lombard capital city of Ticinum (later called Pavia). The rebel army faced little opposition at Ticinum, for King Cunincpert and his forces were reportedly not present to defend the city. Once the rebels were inside the city, however, changes started to occur among Duke Alahis’ ranks. They began to argue about subjects such as strategy and money. In particular, Aldo, Grasuo, and others were reportedly angry that Duke Alahis was siphoning too much loot into his personal war chest, as every solidi coin that was reserved for the war effort was a coin that did not go to the personal wealth of the duke’s bannermen. Unfortunately for Alahis, money squabbles outweighed the duke’s charisma, and the loyalty of some of his lieutenants (including the sibling pair of Aldo and Grasuo) began to wane. When Duke Alahis eventually decided to march away from Ticinum, the brothers chose to break away from the rebel army and defected to King Cunincpert, helping him to quickly retake the capital, Ticinum, that Alahis had abandoned. King Cunincpert’s forces would go on to decisively defeat Duke Alahis at a battle near Bergamo in 689, crushing the rebellion.

Aldo and Grasuo, despite helping to deliver Ticinum into Cunincpert’s hands, were viewed with extreme suspicion by the king. Cunincpert had grounds for his suspicions, as the brothers were, in a sense, doubly treacherous, for they had taken leading positions in a rebellion and then betrayed the rebel leader over a money dispute. Due to these warranted questions of character and loyalty, King Cunincpert’s gut reaction evidently was to consider Aldo and Grasuo as unreliable liabilities. Based upon this assessment, Cunincpert reportedly decided to kill the questionable brothers, either through a formal arrest and execution, or possibly a more secretive assassination plot. Whatever the case, King Cunincpert summoned Aldo and Grasuo to the palace at Ticinum, and it was there that the planned killings were to occur.

Despite King Cunincpert’s preparations, the plan did not go smoothly when Aldo and Grasuo arrived in Ticinum. As the story goes, when the brothers approached the palace, they chanced upon a mysterious one-footed (or one-legged) man who pulled the noblemen aside and warned them that they would surely die if they continued on to their audience with the king. The words of the one-footed man—who would turn out to be pivotal to this odd tale—were convincing to Aldo and Grasuo, who immediately fled to the sanctuary of a nearby church that was dedicated to a martyr named Romanus.

King Cunincpert soon heard the news that Aldo and Grasuo were not coming to the palace, but were instead holed up in the sanctuary of a church. When he learned of this, Cunincpert opened up communications with Aldo and Grasuo through the means of messengers, who carried correspondence back and forth between the two sides. According to local folklore and legend, King Cunincpert was quite open in his messages about planning to kill the brothers, allegedly going so far as to demand that they tell him who tipped them off to the plot. When the brothers responded that a strange one-footed or one-legged man was the one who revealed the secret, King Cunincpert’s response was quite strange.

As the folkloric story goes, while King Cunincpert had earlier been audibly planning the downfall of Aldo and Grasuo, he noticed a fly buzzing around his walls and windows. Cunincpert must have hated bugs, for he allegedly whipped out his knife and began chasing the fly, slashing wildly at the small creature. The fly, so the storytellers told, was able to get away from the knife-wielding king, but not before Cunincpert sliced off one of the fly’s buggy legs.

With this odd fly incident in mind, King Cunincpert supposedly was awestruck by Aldo and Grasuo’s account of the mysterious one-legged figure that divulged the king’s plans. According to the legend, the king concluded that the one-legged man and the one-legged fly had to be the same entity, and that they were either a shapeshifter or a spirit. After this revelation, King Cunincpert allegedly decided to pardon the brothers, and from the fairytale nature of this story, one supposes that Aldo and Grasuo lived happily ever after.

Due to the oddly far-fetched and outlandish ending of the Aldo and Grasuo tale, readers might want to hear how a medieval Lombard historian described the story. Here, therefore, is the account of the incident from the History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799):

“[While Cunincpert and his henchmen were plotting] what way he might deprive Aldo and Grasuo of life, suddenly in the window near which they were standing sat a fly of the largest kind which when Cunincpert attempted to strike with his knife to kill it, he only cut off its foot. When Aldo and Grasuo indeed, in ignorance of the evil design, were coming to the palace, when they had drawn near the church of the holy martyr Romanus which is situated near the palace, suddenly a certain lame man with one foot cut off came in their way who said to them that Cunincpert was going to kill them if they should go on to him. When they heard this they were seized with great fear and fled behind the altar of that church…the king sent to them, seeking to know who he was who had given them the report [of the plot], and he sent them word that unless they would report to him who had told them, they could not find favor with him. They then sent word to the king as it had occurred, saying that a lame man had met them upon the way who had one foot cut off and used a wooden leg up to the knee, and that this man had been the one who told them they would be killed. Then the king understood that the fly whose foot he had cut off had been a bad spirit and that it had betrayed his secret designs. And straightaway he took Aldo and Grasuo on his word of honor from that church, pardoned their fault and afterwards held them as faithful subjects” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, 6.6).

It was an odd tale, indeed. Unfortunately, little else is known about the eventful lives of Aldo and Grasuo. After being involved in the rise and fall Duke Alahis’ rebellion, they apparently lived in paranoia—enough to be scared into seeking shelter in a church, as the above legend highlighted. Perhaps King Cunincpert only wanted to question the brothers and receive new oaths of fealty in that instance. And maybe the message he sent to the church was more of an innocent, ‘what made you think I was planning to kill you’ note, instead of the ‘who outed my actual plot to kill you’ demand that Paul the Deacon insinuated. Whatever the case, King Cunincpert evidently let Aldo and Grasuo go in the aftermath of whatever incident inspired the odd shapeshifter folktale, and some sort of reconciliation took place between the king and the brothers.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Grotesque from BL YT 15, f. 20, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons, Europeana and The British Library).



  • History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.

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