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Gattinara, Mercurino (1465–1530)


GATTINARA, MERCURINO (14651530), grand chancellor of the Holy Roman Empire. Mercurino Arborio de Gattinara was born to a noble family in the town of Vercelli, in the territory of Savoy (northern Italy). He received an excellent humanist education, followed by rigorous training in Roman law; the works of Justinian I (ruled 527565) and Dante (12651321) had a particular impact on him. In 1502 he entered the service of Margaret of Austria (14801530), archduchess of Savoy and daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (ruled 14931519). From this point on Gattinara tied his fortunes to those of the house of Habsburg. In 1507 he accompanied Margaret to the Netherlands, where she ruled as regent. From 1508 to 1518 Gattinara acted as Margaret's chief legal adviser and president of Burgundy, an important administrative position. During this period Gattinara was exposed to Burgundian courtly and chivalric traditions, which would be an important influence on his intellectual development. In the Netherlands he also met Margaret's nephew Charles (15001558)the future Spanish king (as Charles I, ruled 15161556) and Holy Roman emperor (as Charles V, ruled 15191556)to whom Gattinara devoted the rest of his life.

In 1518 Charles appointed Gattinara his grand chancellor, a position of great responsibility in both foreign and domestic affairs. For the next twelve years Gattinara was one of Charles's closest advisers. He often traveled with Charles's itinerant court, following his master as he visited the various lands of his multinational empire. In Spain, Gattinara reformed the government's administrative structure and helped create the conciliar system that served the Spanish monarchy for the next several centuries. But Gattinara's greatest legacy was his contribution to the development of a Habsburg ideology of empire.

Gattinara was greatly responsible for the theory and practice of Charles V's empire. He wove together Roman imperial concepts, Burgundian chivalric traditions, and Christian ideology borrowed from his Dutch contemporary Desiderius Erasmus (1466?1536) to create a new understanding of empire, focused on the unique character of Charles V's reign. Through dynastic inheritance, Charles acquired an unprecedented empire that stretched from the Low Countries to Vienna, and thanks to Christopher Columbus and the conquistadores, he also ruled an entire "New World." Many of Charles's subjects, particularly Gattinara, perceived divine intervention in these circumstances. Gattinara saw Charles as a man destined to unite Christendom, defeat the Muslim infidels, and create the earthly paradise. Gattinara wrote a number of propagandistic tracts that cited Scripture as well as classical and legal texts, claiming that Charlemagne (Charles the Great) was about to be outdone by his namesake Charles the Greater and that God was on his side.

It is not clear to what extent Charles himself subscribed to these notions. But it is evident that the emperor heeded Gattinara's advice about the importance of Italy as the strategic and symbolic foundation of his empire. Gattinara revived Ghibellinism, the medieval Italian belief that the Holy Roman emperor represented the highest authority in Europe, particularly in Italy, even including the papacy. He emphasized to Charles that control of Italy was vital to the security and the legitimacy of his empire and that anyone who challenged that hegemony must be crushed. Charles's foreign policies clearly reflected this conviction; in his famous "Political Instructions" to his son Philip II (ruled 15561598), he too stressed the importance of Italy for the Spanish Empire.

Gattinara and Charles did not always agree on everything. In the period 15221525 Gattinara attempted to broaden the executive powers of his office and exert greater influence over the young emperor, causing a strain in the relationship. In 1526 Gattinara became so angry about a proposed peace treaty with King Francis I of France (ruled 15151547), arguing that Charles should put his trust in Italian princes rather than the slippery Francis, that he refused to affix the chancellery seals to the document. The following year he left the court altogether. Nevertheless Gattinara continued to have an impact on Charles's policies. He had encouraged Charles to think of Pope Clement VII (reigned 15231534) as a political antagonist rather than a spiritual leader, an attitude that became useful after imperial troops sacked Rome (1527). Gattinara was responsible for much of the imperial propaganda that followed this event, which argued that the papacy deserved what it got by opposing Charles. Gattinara, however, was also instrumental in arranging the Treaty of Barcelona (1529), which healed the rift between Charles and Clement. The pope was so pleased with Gattinara's assistance that he made him a cardinal.

The peace between Charles and Clement paved the way for Charles's imperial coronation by Clement VII at Bologna (1530). This symbolic triumph marked the culmination of Gattinara's dreams for his master, but sadly he died that same year. Charles did not replace him; he was the last imperial grand chancellor.

See also Charles V (Holy Roman Empire) ; Habsburg Dynasty ; Holy Roman Empire ; Spain .


Brandi, Karl. The Emperor Charles V. Translated by C. V. Wedgwood. London, 1939.

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Headley, John M. The Emperor and His Chancellor: A Study of the Imperial Chancellery under Gattinara. Cambridge, U.K., 1983.

. "The Habsburg World Empire and the Revival of Ghibellinism." In Theories of Empire, 14501800, edited by David Armitage, pp. 4579. Aldershot, U.K., 1998.

. "Rhetoric and Reality: Messianic, Humanist, and Civilian Themes in the Imperial Ethos of Gattinara." In Prophetic Rome in the High Renaissance Period, edited by Marjorie Reeves, pp. 241269. Oxford, 1992.

Michael J. Levin

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