Genealogy of the Scales Family

The Italian Connection and Beyond

The della Scala Family in Northen Italy
In the late 12th century, one Jacopino della Scala (d.1215) appears in the historical record as an Italian wool trader. By astute networking, he became Imperial Vicar in Ostiglia and Podestà (high ranking official) of Cerea, both places near Verona in Northern Italy. It seems that he can be traced back to his great-grandfather Balduino della Scala (d.aft.1169) and that he is a distant ancestor of King George I of England and Winston Churchill.
We have discussed earlier how the noble Scales line in England derived from the Norman Hardwin de Scalers, whose was Hardouin d’Escaliers in the original French. In Latin documents this was rendered Scalariis or Scalis. The name is Scandinavian in origin (from the original Norse skáli). The Latin form of the della Scala family name was also rendered de Scalis. A common origin of the Norman and Italian names therefore seems a strong possibility.
Scala means staircase or ladder in Italian and the family adopted the ladder as an emblem purely because of this homophonic connection. Escalier is also the French for staircase and Scalae the Latin for staircase or ladder. The connection exists in English as well, scale meaning to rise in steps (e.g. up a mountain) or an incremental measure (e.g. in music).
Scandinavian Origins
The della Scala family were of German origin and, more precisely, of Lombard stock, who in turn were of Scandinavian origin. A German form of the name, common today, is Schaller. The della Scala name, like the Scales name, can therefore be traced back to the same Scandinavian origins.
The Lombards originated in southern Scandinavia and occupied parts of northern Germany in the early Christian era. By the end of the 5th century, they had reached the Danube, where they faced a number of wars with the local tribes. They were finally victorious in 552 under their king Audoin. He led his people almost unopposed into northern Italy, which had been left severely depopulated by the Gothic War (535-554). By 572, they had conquered all of the Italian cities north of the river Po and established a Lombard Kingdom. At its zenith in the 8th century under its ruler Liutprand, this included parts of central and southern Italy. However, they were pushed back to the margins in 774 following defeat by the Franks under Charlemagne.
The Lords of Verona
It wouldn't have been quite so interesting to pursue the della Scala connection were it not for the fact that the family, beginning with Jacopino's son Mastino I (1260-1277) are of considerable historical significance. Mastino was elected Podestà of Verona, an office tranformed into a permanent lordship by his predecessor. Mastino in turn made the position a family inheritance in 1263 and thus were born the Lords of Verona. The family name became the more germanic Scaliger or the Scaligeri.
Mastino II (1329-1351), great-great-great-grandson of Mastino I, was the richest and most powerful prince of his generation in Italy. At the peak of his power in 1336, he held a vast swathe of northern Italy, including the cities of Belluno, Treviso, Vicenza, Padova, Verona, Brescia, Parma and Lucca. By 1340, he had lost it all, apart from Verona and Vicenza, in a war against a league of his powerful neighbours to the south.
The Scaliger line descended through six more Lords of Verona to Antonio I (1362-1388). In times that were generally pretty bloody anyway, these latter lords outdid themselves in tyrannical behaviour and a series of fratricides. One of the murderers, Cansignorio (1340-1375), did at least beautify Verona with palaces, bridges and aqueducts. Antonio's behaviour proved his downfall when Gian Galeazzo Visconti (1351-1402), 1st Duke of Milan, made war on Verona and the Veronese people deserted him, putting an end to the Scaliger domination in 1387. Antonio fled to his his wife's father's dominions in Ferrara and Ravenna where he died in 1388. The line ended when his son died before becoming a teenager.
Of the remaining della Scalas, some non-noble descendents of cadet lines remained in Verona. Nothing further is known of them. The longest surviving branch consisted of the descendents of Cangrande II, who took advantage of their friendship with the Wittelsbach family in neighbouring South Tyrol and took refuge at the court of the future Emperor Sigismond. In 1404, the family failed in a bloody attempt to recapture Verona. Several family members held important ecclesiastical and administrative posts in Germany and Italy in the early 15th century.
The family remained loyal to the Emperor throughout the 15th century and held important positions at court as counsellors, deputies, administrators and diplomats, always dreaming of returning to Verona. Some changed their name to the vernacular von der Leiter. In the early 16th century, the family was involved in Emperor Maximilian I's territorial ambitions in northern Italy, which had no lasting success. A certain Giovanni Teodorico della Scala died in 1598. On his tomb is inscribed: last of the descendents of the della Scala family, died aged 27 without leaving any heir. It appears unlikely that any of this branch of the family survived into the 17th century. For more information, see Associazioni Culturali Scaligeri.
The church of Santa Maria Antica in Verona is adjacent to the elaborate gothic tombs of some of the Scaligeri, principally those of Cangrande I, Mastino II and Cansignorio. Mastino is the Italian for mastiff, and the family seem to have had a thing about dogs. Cangrande continued the obsession. Can comes from the eastern Khan (showing Marco Polo's influence) and so Cangrande means great ruler but also top dog. His tomb is supported by two dogs bearing the Scaliger ladder insignia. The family seem to have had a thing about puns too.
Statue and Tomb of Cangrande I in Verona
Tombs of Cansignorio (left) and Mastino II (right) in Verona
La Scala in Milan
The famous La Scala opera house in Milan has a connection with the della Scala family of Verona. In 1350, Beatrice Regina della Scala, daughter of Mastino II, married Bernaḅ Visconti, Lord of a number of territories around Verona including Bergamo, Brescia and Cremona. Bernaḅ was born in Milan and became Lord of Milan in turn with his two brothers. The marriage for a time provided an important political and cultural alliance between Milan and Verona. Beatrice was patron of the church of Santa Maria della Scala, built in Milan in 1381 and named in honour of her, despite the fact that her husband was hated by the Milanese and held, in common with the della Scala family, a fierce antipathy towards the Pope. The square in front of the church became known as the Piazza della Scala. The church was demolished in 1778 to make way for the present building, known as the Teatro alla Scala after the square on which it is situated. I am grateful to Giorgio Arduini, who wrote to me from Italy informing me of this connection with the family.
Sirmione Castle
Mastino I was probably the founder of the beautiful castle at Sirmione on the southern shore of Lake Garda. There are three other major Scaliger castles on the lakeside. Inverted V-shaped turrets feature on many of the buildings of the Scaliger family and symbolise inverted pope's mitres. The German origins and sympathies of the Scaliger family lead to their being on the side of the Holy Roman Emperor and antagonistic towards the Pope.
Ladder Insignia of the Scaliger Family at Sirmione Castle
The Mediaeval Port at Sirmione
This is a rare surviving example of mediaeval port fortifications, provided for the Scaliger fleet on Lake Garda.
The Castelvecchio and the Ponte Scaligero in Verona
The Castelvecchio and its fortified bridge were constructed by Cangrande II della Scala in 1354-76. The castle is imposing and very austere. The bridge (1354-56) contained the world's largest span at the time of its construction. Its was designed to provide a safe exit northwards in the event of any trouble. It was destroyed by retreating German troops in 1945 and reconstructed in 1949-51.
Malcesine and the Scaliger Castle on Lake Garda
Ladder Insignia of the Scaliger Family at Malcesine Castle
The Hispanic Connection: de la Escalera
I was alerted to a Hispanic connection for the family name by Petr Solar of the Czech Republic. His ancestors (presumably Lombardic in origin) were called Schaller and emigrated to Bohemia from Bavaria. Using DNA matching, he has located a relative in Spain with the name de la Escalera (Escalera is Spanish for stairs and ladder, by the way). The connection with the Norman French d’Escaliers and the Italian della Scala is striking. The name may have arrived in Spain from the Lombards in Germany or Italy.
I discovered a nice little addendum to the Santa Maria della Scala story while looking into the Hispanic connection: the Virgen de la Escalera. It seems that there is a mysterious chapel underneath a staircase inside the old fort of San Juan de Ulua at the port of Veracruz in Mexico. The chapel was apparently dedicated to Our Lady of the Stairway, who was thought to offer protection to sailors. I refer you to the website for further information.
All photos on this page were taken by the author.
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