THE cathedral in Siena stands at the top of the city’s central Campo, around which are grouped the spectacularly beautiful Renaissance buildings of civil and religious authority, including the architectural wonders that are the two slender towers, the Torre Mangia standing on its own and its twin which rises out of the Palazzo Pubblico. Scotland seems far away from this Tuscan town, but there is a surprise in store. Few visitors to the famous twice-yearly horse race, the palio, will bother to do more than glance inside the medieval cathedral, and fewer still will visit the Piccolomini Library, the side-chapel named after one of the great families of the city. The cycle of frescoes on the walls were executed by the Renaissance master, Pinturicchio, to celebrate the life of the greatest member of that family, Aeneas Piccolomini (1405-64), who became Pope Pius II. The second of the series shows Aeneas, long before he became Pope, being received by King James I of Scotland in the Great Hall of the Royal Palace in Edinburgh.

The Latin inscription explains that, for this occasion, Aeneas had been dispatched by the Council of Basle to intercede with the King of the Scots. There is no point in looking for Arthur’s Seat or Edinburgh Castle or any other recognisable feature of the Scottish capital, for although this encounter did take place in 1435, the setting depicted is the fruit of the artistic vision of Pinturicchio, imagined in accordance with the conventions and motifs of High Renaissance art, and displaying the splendour expected of a princely residence. The king sits on a throne on a raised dais, while behind him are arranged the courtiers and prelates who would frequent a royal palace, all dressed in the fashionable finery of 15th-century, aristocratic Italy but unlikely to be worn in Scotland.

Inside the painting the scene is framed by a marble arch, with the columns decorated in minute and delicate detail, while behind the monarch a still waterway with what look like gondolas can be glimpsed, and on its shore luscious greenery and shrubbery stretch towards a point where land and sky touch. Pinturicchio belonged to the generation which perfected the techniques of perspective. There is no more unexpected portrayal of Scotland in all art, and nowhere else has the country looked more radiant. What arid pedant dare question its authenticity? The figure on his feet facing the throne, caught in the act of gesticulating to make his point, is plainly Aeneas. The inscription informs us that he is shown as an orator, one of the many attainments required of a Humanist at that time, but what was he saying? What was his mission? On this subject, there is no agreement.

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The two protagonists were remarkable figures, and should have had much in common. James I had spent almost eighteen years in captivity in England, having been captured when he was eleven years old, en route for France and safety from the strife of contemporary Scotland. He was treated well by the English court, was educated there and even fought on the English side in the 100 Years’ War, coming up against a Scottish army on the French side, a situation Rona Munro dramatises in the first of her James Plays (2014). While still held hostage, he fell in love with his future wife, Joan Beaufort, and wrote The Kingis Quair, a love poem which drifts off into realms of fantasy. (See Alan Riach’s essay “Love is all you need” in The National, January 21 2019.) James’s early biographers record that he had a great love of literature.

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So too had Aeneas, who had already written poetry in both Italian and Latin, and who would go on to write many works of theatre, history, fiction as well as a treatise on the “Nature and Care of Horses.” His principal work was his Commentaries, an autobiography written in Latin in the third person, presumably on the model of Julius Caesar’s histories. This book is the main source of information on his time in Scotland, and the pages on those days are judged by his biographer, RJ Mitchell, as the liveliest of all in the autobiography.

Some months before travelling to Edinburgh, Aeneas had entered the employ of Cardinal Albergati, and followed him to the Council of Basle and then Arras, where he was appointed envoy to the Scottish king. He is evasive about the purpose of his embassy, saying that he was “to restore some prelate to the king’s favour,” but it is more likely that with the long war between England and France underway he was tasked with having Scotland invade Northern England to relieve the pressure on their French allies. Scotland had more or less withdrawn from the war on the continent and had temporarily abandoned the Auld Alliance after the rout of its army at the battle of Verneuil in 1424.

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AENEAS travelled to London, but the attention of spies made it impossible to proceed overland, so he returned to Calais to hire a vessel. The voyage did not go smoothly and storms drove the ship off course almost to the coast of Norway, and no sooner had that tempest abated than another blew up, leaving Aeneas in fear for his life. He swore an oath to the Virgin Mary that if he landed safely he would make a pilgrimage barefoot to her nearest shrine. The ship did berth safely at Dunbar, but it was midwinter and the nearest shrine containing the statue of Our Lady of Haddington was at Whitekirk, some eight miles distant. Presumably when he made the pledge, he was thinking of the milder climate of Tuscany, but he kept his word. He arrived in a pitiable state, but his feet would no longer support him and he had to be carried to the next destination. As a memento of Scotland, he suffered from rheumatism for the rest of his life, and spent much time and money engaging the best doctors of the day to relieve his agony.

In Edinburgh, poet may have met poet, but Aeneas and James did not get on well. Aeneas wrote that James had “clear and piercing eyes,” but added that he was “plump and overburdened with fat.” It is customarily concluded that the mission was a failure, but Scotland did enter the war in 1436 with a siege of Roxburgh Castle which was held by pro-English forces. Whether this was a consequence of Aeneas’s pleading it is impossible to say.

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HE left a vivid but often baffling account of what he saw in Scotland. He was well-travelled and was a shrewd observer, but he was not unduly impressed by the state of civilisation or conditions of life he found during his visit. It is a cold land, he wrote, unsurprisingly, where they produce no wine of their own and consider bread a delicacy. Scotland and the north of England were, in his view, “rude, uncultivated and unvisited by the winter sun.” In a later book, Europa, written after spending some time in Germany, he noted that the lower orders in Nuremberg enjoyed better conditions of life than the king of Scotland. The Scots were poorly educated, although he did agree that the men are brave.

Aeneas was more interested in the women, and was pleasantly surprised at their relaxed sexual mores, noting that they are “white and beautiful, and easily won.” He added that “to kiss a woman means less here than to touch her hand in Italy.” Being not yet in holy orders he was not restrained by concerns over celibacy, and plainly did not spend all his time on courtly or diplomatic duties. Years later, in a letter to his father, he admitted he had got a woman pregnant, but the baby died after a few days. Aeneas bore the loss with stoicism, or downright callousness, consoling himself with the thought that “more lambs die than sheep”. When he was elected Pope, he felt obliged to recant on his earlier activities and writings, which included the erotic tale “Two Lovers”, and invited the faithful to choose Pius and reject Aeneas.

As a Humanist, if not quite a universal man, he had an insatiable curiosity. “There are two Scotlands, one cultivated, the other wooded with no open land,” he wrote, and was intrigued to find that there were two languages in use. Those who live in the second land “sometimes use the bark of trees for food,” he discovered, but he was equally astonished to see that the Scots could burn stones. A further remark was that “crows are rare and therefore the trees in which they nest are royal property.” He went on a special trip to a spot where he had been told that when a certain fruit fell on the water, it turned into a species of barnacle goose. He was disappointed to find that this was a lie, and although he recorded that this might be the case in Orkney, nothing was going to induce him to travel so far north.

But there is one judgement which rings down over the centuries. He does not reproduce dialogue or discussion, but did include one insight: “In conversation, nothing gives the Scots greater pleasure than to hear the English abused.” How primitive!