Saturday, December 17, 2011

Why White? - A Puzzle, Part 4

We've made progress. As you may recall, in the first Puzzle installment I stated the problems (would Buondelmonte's opponents really have killed him on Easter in 1216, as some chroniclers suggest? Would he in fact have gotten married on Easter? And why does everyone state that he was wearing white?). In the second, I managed to convince myself that he would not have been killed precisely on Easter, partly because there was too much else going on, and partly because it was considered a time of peace and forgiveness. (As Augustine Thompson, O.P., writes, "Cities enforced peace pacts and truces with special rigor during this sacred time." And in the third installment I convinced myself that Buondelmonte was unlikely to have been married on this day, for logistical reasons. (In fairness I must mention Florentine historian Richard Trexler's comment that Gregorio Dati, born in 1362, wrote that marriages were often postponed so that they could coincide with major feast days of the church. But Easter? I still don't think so.)

So why would contemporary (or near-contemporary) chroniclers have written these things if they weren't so, you may ask. Trexler again: "On whatever date an important communal event might have occurred, the historians made it happen on the day of a saint near that event." In other words, liberties were taken. Mistakes were made. Stories were improved. And the murder of Buondelmonte was definitely an important event to the commune of Florence.

So. Why does practically everyone say that Buondelmonte was wearing white? Was it because it was Easter (or near Easter)? Probably not - I've seen mention that people in Florence switched to "lighter" clothing for Easter, but I do not know whether that means lighter in color or lighter in weight. Either way, it's not white. Was it because it was his wedding day? No - white was not a wedding color in Florence in the early 13th century.

In fact, the one mention of people wearing white that I had been able to find was the white-clad Courts of Love that occurred in the spring of 1283, where the Rossi family led Florence's nobles and wealthy families in a two-month-long series of parties, feasts, and dances, supposedly with everybody wearing white. (My current theory is that it was a plot on the part of Florence's laundresses, to drum up business.) But we're exploring 1216, not 1283.

(This white gown, on display in Boccaccio's house/museum in Certaldo and used for festivals, might have been appropriate for Buondelmonte's fateful day, given the blood-red streak down the middle. Perhaps his new bride could have worn something like it.)

But wait! There was an occasion where Florentines wore white, and that was baptism. The infants wore white, and so did their parents and godparents. And it just so happens that in Florence, mass baptisms occurred on Saturday, the day before Easter, at Florence's ancient and well-beloved Baptistery (Dante's "bel San Giovanni"). Here's a photo of the Baptistery from around 1897:

It doesn't look very different now; I just like this picture. (Photochrom print by Photoglob. Zurich, public domain; Flickr administrator or reviewer BotMultichillT verifies Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

My original plan was to digress here and discuss the interesting phenomenon of mass baptisms in Florence, but I've decided to save that for a later post, as it gets somewhat involved. I will indulge myself to this extent, however: though Florence's 13th century baptismal font is no longer in place, it was probably very like the octagonal font still found in the cathedral in Pisa, pictured here:

(Font by Guido Bigarelli da Como. Photo by Jojan, under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

This type of font accommodated several priests, standing inside. The font contains hollow columns of stone, impossible to see here, and there is some controvery over whether the priests stood inside the columns to stay dry and dunked the infants in the water which filled the rest of the font, or whether they stood in the dry center area and dunked the infants in the columns, which were filled with water.

Be that as it may, I had found my answer. Buondelmonte had only to be a godparent, and there he would be, close to Easter, wearing white. But what about the strict prohibition on violence in Easter week?

A little further reading gave me this: During the mass baptism, each infant's forehead would have been wrapped in a band of cloth (called the
corona) to protect the chrism, or sacred oil. And it would remain so, unwashed and unchanged, for eight days, at which time the godparents and parents would take the infant to church, where a priest would wash the child's forehead and also the cloth, which would then be returned to the parents.

Eight days. Which might, depending on how you looked at it, be far enough away from Easter itself to allow Buondelmonte's scheming enemies to carry out their plan and get away with it. And Buondelmonte, as a godparent, would have to be in Florence to complete the rites of baptism by returning the infant to church to have the chrism cloth removed. He's in the right place, at the right time, and now he's wearing white. Bingo.

All I needed to do, then, was to create a young widowed cousin of Buondelmonte's new wife, late in pregnancy when she's first introduced, and have her give birth in time for her infant to be part of the Holy Saturday baptisms. No problem; one's fictional characters are usually happy to cooperate.

Of course, in Florence at that time godparents were rarely chosen from among family members; rather, the very important godparent relationship more often cemented friendships or alliances, or recognized them. But I decided to let my characters be a little eccentric in this way. After all, if they had done everything "just so," I probably wouldn't be writing about them.

A convoluted puzzle, but one that had an answer. Not necessarily the One True Answer, possibly not even the possible answer, but a plausible answer, and one I could live with. In threading my way through to it, I learned more than I realized I needed to about life in Florence in the early 13th century, and you know what? I enjoyed every bit of it. May all our puzzles be as satisfying.

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