Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Historical Puzzle (and a Possible Solution) - Part 1

When I set out to write my first book, I didn't have much to go on. The story of Buondelmonte, the 13th-century knight whose hot temper and headstrong behavior set in motion the chain of events which resulted in the split between Guelfs and Ghibellines in Florence, existed only in fragments, in the works of medieval historians who were writing - at the earliest - seventy years after the fact. Yet this split had long-reaching implications for all of Italy. To this day, you can look at castles and public buildings and know instantly whether their builders were Guelf or Ghibelline: just look at the crenellations.
Squarish crenellations mean Guelf, and swallow-tail mean Ghibelline. (The short and oversimplified version is that the Guelfs supported the Pope and the Ghibellines supported the Emperor, but in point of fact, more often than not people simply sorted themselves out along the lines of local conflicts, and those labels were often rather arbitrary.)

The most detailed version of Buondelmonte's story we have was written by a chronicler known as the Pseudo-Brunetto Latini (because, as you may have guessed, for many years scholars believed it was written by the real Brunetto),
in the very early 13th century. In it we hear of how a jester, entertaining at a feast to celebrate a knighting, angered a knight by snatching away the knight's plate of food. The knight (messer Uberto degli Infangati) responded furiously, and was reproved by another knight (messer Oddo Arrigo de' Fifanti). The conflict escalated, turned into a fight, and finally messer Uberto's dining companion, messer Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti, knifed Oddo in the arm.

In the ensuing hubbub, Oddo's family and friends decided that they would offer a niece of Oddo's as a bride for Buondelmonte, to restore peace. Buondelmonte agreed, but was later persuaded by a lady, monna Gualdrada Donati, to wed her lovely daughter instead. This he did, and the family of the jilted girl and their allies came together to decide what to do to restore honor. Finally they decided to declare a vendetta against Buondelmonte, and on Easter morning of the year 1215 they enacted it, slaying Buondelmonte on the Ponte Vecchio at the foot of the statue of Mars.

Other chroniclers took up this story, changing some details, leaving out others, adding still more. Most start with Buondelmonte's betrothal to Oddo's niece and omit the underlying reasons for that marriage contract. Some said that Buondelmonte was murdered on his wedding day, some said it was afterwards. Most mention Easter. Some say that Gualdrada simply flagged him down on the street and proffered her daughter, others say that she sent for him, still others suggest that there was already an informal arrangement in place between them. Some say that Gualdrada was the wife of Forteguerra Donati, others that she was a widow. Some say that Buondelmonte's Donati bride was with him when he died, some say he was alone. Some imply that the great rift was one side's fault, others attribute it to the other, depending on their own politics, for this conflict had a long half-life.

Dino Compagni, Dante's contemporary, wrote his version around 1310-1312 (and Dante also alluded to the story, though he assumed his audience already knew the tale well and gave no details). Giovanni Villani, writing around 1330-1340, gave a fairly detailed account. Marchionne di Coppo Stefani (aka Baldassare Bonaiuti) wrote about it in the mid-1380s, and the earliest brief mention (of the surviving chronicles, anyway) may have been that of Ricordano di Malispini, writing in the 1280s.

Machiavelli gave his version, too, writing in the 1520s. Later Florentine historians have included the tale, and it even crops up in a short-lived Donizetti opera (though the music was actually from his Maria Stuarda, refitted to a new libretto after the King of Naples decided he didn't want to see anybody royal getting beheaded on stage).
Donizetti was committed to his original story, so Buondelmonte only got one performance.

So what's the puzzle, you may wonder? Seems fairly simple. But certain things in the chronicles gave me pause, and to learn what they were and how I chose to resolve them, you'll need to come back for Parts 2 and 3 (and maybe 4) of this series. More soon, as we explore the question of "Easter? Really?"

Portraits, tombstone, statues, in order of appearance: Brunetto Latini (the real one), Dino Compagni's tombstone, Giovanni Villani, Niccolò Machiavelli, Gaetano Donizetti. Dino's tombstone and the statue of Villani are photographed by Sailko and available under Creative Commons license; all others are US-PD (public domain because copyright has expired).

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