Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Exercising Your Imagination, Part 1

Ricoverino de' Cerchi

I write about Florence, and I've been lucky enough to make several trips to that storied city, for research and for pleasure (and for the pleasure of research). But Florence is not only a city of the past; it is a living, vibrant city of today, as well. And sometimes, even when the little piece of history you're looking for is still there, it has been transformed into something unrecognizable.

When I tried to follow the path of the protagonist in my book about the murder of the knight Buondelmonte and the factional split behind it, I found several ancient buildings still right where they ought to be, but now serving utterly different functions. Two examples: the church of Santo Stefano hosted a turbulent meeting of one of the families involved and their kith and kin in the year 1216, but today it's a library:

Santo Stefano

And the formidable tower of the Amidei family, from which my protagonist witnessed the murder, is still there. Like other defensive towers in Florence, it was truncated by order of law in 1250 to a less threatening height. It now houses a jewelry store, but still has its commanding view of the Ponte Vecchio:

Amidei Tower

The unfortunate fellow shown at the top of this post, one Ricoverino de' Cerchi, was involved in an altercation at the Piazza Santa Trinita on Calendimaggio, 1300. Women had been dancing in the piazza to celebrate the day, and among their audience were roving bands of youths from the two opposing factions, that of the Donati and that of the Cerchi.

Because, as chronicler Dino Compagni says, the young are easier to deceive than the old, the devil made use of them to cause trouble. The two factions came to blows. Ricoverino's nose was severed, and the members of the other faction dashed away to take refuge in the palazzo of the Spini family, one of whose members may have struck the offending blow.

So where is this Spini palazzo? Quite near the piazza - just a short sprint - except that now it's a Ferragamo shoe store and shoe museum.

Were this situation to occur today, the young hotheads would probably be mounted on Vespas, and they would have a chance to do some serious shoe-shopping while they waited for things to calm down.

Pre-Ferragamo Italian shoes

But what of poor, nasally-challenged Ricoverino? (Alas, he seems to be known to history only for losing his nose. At least Tycho Brahe managed to do a few other things as well as lose his.) Where did his friends take him? To the nearest hospital? Was there such a thing as a hospital?

Yes, there was. But a hospital at that time did not mean what it means today. Hospitals at this point in Florence's history mostly existed to serve an elderly or poor population (ill or not), and to accommodate travellers, though one could glimpse the beginnings of our modern concept of hospitals as places for the sick to go. Folco Portinari, the father of Dante's beloved Beatrice, founded a hospital in 1288 at the behest of a servant, Monna Tessa, who according to some versions of the tale used to bring ailing and destitute people home to care for them, thus convincing the wealthy banker Folco that if he wanted his house back, he ought to create someplace else for those unfortunates to go. That hospital is still active today. Here, pictures of the Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova from the 1430's and from the present.

So, probably not to a hospital. Likely Ricoverino's friends would have taken him home, which meant traversing quite a bit of the city. (The Donati and the Cerchi, bitter enemies that they were, were close neighbors, and also neighbors of Dante.) One possible route would have skirted the marketplace, Florence's huge and chaotic center of everyday commerce, which was razed in the 1800s and turned into a modern piazza, resulting in the loss of many historic buildings in the area. Here's a picture of the market before its demolition, and of the piazza today.

For now, let's leave Ricoverino and his friends making their way past the market and toward home, and next time, we will take a look at past and present in his (and Dante's) neighborhood.

Images in this post: Ricoverino is from an illustrated copy of Villani's Nuova Cronica, Chigi codex, L. VIII.296, Vatican Library; the dancing women are by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, a detail of the fresco Allegory of Good Government on the walls of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena; the old view of Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova is by Bicci di Lorenzo (Consecration of the new church of St. Egidio by Pope Martin V in September 1420); the old market is by Fabio Borbottoni, 1820-1902 (View of Ancient Florence). All of these are in the public domain. The photos of the Ferragamo Shoe Museum and the Ospedale are both by Sailko,licensed under the Creative Common Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported; and the photo of Piazza della Repubblica is by Maksim, under the same license. Sailko and Maksim photos from Wikimedia Commons. Other photos by Tim Heath.

Friday, January 27, 2012


Pieter Claeszoon

I'm sure I'm not the only writer who has acquired a talisman or two to help the writing flow. I don't mean a good-luck charm, but rather something to serve as a tangible link between the writer and her subjects.

If you are writing historical fiction that is primarily biographical, it might be a picture of your subject, something that evokes that individual for you. While it could be even better to have an object once owned by the subject (though in the picture above, the writer may have gone a bit too far with this), that often is not possible. Most of us are not in a position to own a necklace of Cleopatra's, or Leonardo's original notebooks (though the facsimiles might serve), nor do we have a Giotto fresco on the walls of our writing room. So, we do the best we can.

For me it's about connecting with a time and place, and pictures are a logical starting point. I keep a file of pictures of medieval architecture, for example. Also, I play - by which I mean both listen to and perform - music appropriate to my setting. But as evocative and atmospheric as these things are, they are not quite talismans. The link is general, not specific.

I wanted something Dante and his family could have touched. Ruling out some sort of daring heist at the Museo Casa di Dante, it seemed that a coin might be the best bet. True, I would never know whether any of my subjects actually had come in contact with a particular coin, but the time and place, at least, would be right, and the possibility that my subjects had held the coin in their hands was a real one.

So I shopped. First I found a replica of Florence's gold florin (first minted in 1252 and historically important to the economy of all of Europe for a long time thereafter). It was in a museum catalogue in the form of a pair of cufflinks. Having little need for cufflinks, I took them into my favorite lapidary shop and had them made into earrings.

The earrings were nice, but I wanted something real, not just a copy. A knowledgeable and interesting numismatist sells his wares at the Medievalist Conference in Kalamazoo, Michigan every year, and since I didn't care about finding something in mint condition, I was able to locate an affordable denaro from Ravenna, minted somewhere around 1300.

Dante ended his life in Ravenna (in 1321), so this seemed a good bet. Good, but not perfect, because I wanted something from Florence.

But so does everybody else, so it was hard to find. I did, however, manage to acquire a Florentine quattrino (a coin worth four denari) from somewhere between 1300-1422. A little late, but not bad. It has the traditional Florentine emblems of a fleur de lis on one side and John the Baptist on the other (hard to see, and he's not upright in this picture, but he's there).

Again I got one in cruddy condition (technical term...) and didn't have to spend much. Just as well, because I intended to handle these things - a numismatist's nightmare.

Then I found myself wondering what these coins were worth, and what Dante might have spent them on. This turned out to be a mind-bogglingly complex question (who knew?). Florence's system of actual, physical money existed alongside a roughly parallel system of money-of-account, used for computations but not actually represented by coinage. These systems diverged, sometimes wildly, at different points. And the smaller coins were devalued - silver was mixed with base metals - to different extents at different times. Sometimes the coinage was linked to that of certain other cities, sometimes it wasn't. Nomenclature was confusing, surviving records incomplete. The new (in 1252) gold florin was originally equal to the lira, which was worth 20 soldi, each in turn worth 12 denari (hence the quattrino is worth one-third of a soldo), but by 1279 it was already worth 30 soldi. Between 1252 and 1321 (the year of Dante's death) the value of the denaro (penny) fell by about 50%. Rich people - let's call them the 1% - thought and spent in florins, but poor people (the 99%) were at the mercy of the unkind fluctuations of the soldo and the denaro.

But what would these coins have bought? Is it possible to look at a snapshot in time and get an idea of prices? Because of all the complexities, it is hard to be exact, but it is probably safe to say that during Dante's adult lifetime a quattrino would have bought, for example, a loaf of bread.

Of course, though the government could and did regulate the price of a loaf of bread, its size and weight would fluctuate with the price of grain.

A few points of reference: for the years 1289-93, an unskilled worker might earn a monthly wage of 50 soldi (600 of those little denari, or 150 quattrini). For that same period, his food costs would be about 35 soldi, and lodging, clothing, and other necessities added up to about 8. He
comes out ahead to the tune of 7 soldi. If, however, he has a wife and two children, his food costs rise to 83 soldi and other needs to 16, for a total of 99 soldi, or almost twice as much as he earns. A staio of grain
(16.9-17.6 kilograms) would cost him 7 soldi and 5 denari; a baril of wine (40.7 liters) purchased in 1286-7 would set him back 6 soldi; he'd pay 2 soldi 3 denari for an orcio (28.86 kilograms) of olive oil.

These coins were small change. They wouldn't have bought much; they were probably the sort of "spare change" Dante might have dropped into a beggar's bowl. And yet, they take me back to a distant time and place and give me a tangible, physical link with the people I write about, and to me, that's worth many a gold florin.

Images in this post: all Wikimedia Commons images (still life, four illustrations from the Tacuina sanitatis) are in the public domain. Coin photos by Tim Heath. The Tacuina sanitatis is a medieval handbook on wellness, based on an 11th century Arab treatise by Ibn Butlan of Baghdad.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Contractions: We Use Them, Do We Not?

14th century manuscript of Dante's Commedia
This post addresses one of my pet peeves in historical fiction. It is a sort of compositional caveat, or a stylistic stricture, or perhaps a grammatical grump (or grouse, or gripe, raising the question of whether there's something onomatopoetical in that "gr" sound).
It's about contractions. I see so many books set in the more-or-less distant past that eschew the use of contractions, as if no one had invented them yet, or as if our ancestors had not been clever enough to abbreviate their discourse in this way, or were too exalted and dignified to do so.
Take, for instance, this snippet of dialogue, as one might find it in a contraction-free historical novel:

-Why will you not answer the question I have asked you?
-I do not know. Methinks I am afeared that I will lose your good opinion and you will not esteem me more.
-Do not worry. It is surely wisest always to speak the truth.
-And yet I cannot but fear you will be angered.
-Cannot you see that I will not rest until I learn the answer?
-Still I fear you will become wroth. Perchance you will also become wroth if I do not give you the answer you are seeking.
-Think you so?

Now try this version:

-Why won't you answer the question I've asked you?
-I don't know. I believe it's because I'm afraid I'll lose your good opinion and you won't esteem me any more.
-Don't worry. It's surely always best to speak the truth.
-And yet I can't help fearing you'll be angry.
-Can't you see that I won't rest until I learn the answer?
-Still, I'm afraid you'll be angry. Maybe you'll also be angry if I don't give you the answer you're seeking.
-Do you think so?

Of course, one could go further:

-Why won't you answer?
-I dunno. I guess I'm afraid you won't like me any more.
-Not to worry. It's best to just say the truth.
-And yet I can't help thinking you'll be mad.
-Can't you see that I won't relax until you answer me?
-Still, I'm afraid you'll be really pissed off. Maybe you'll be pissed off anyway, if I don't answer you.
-Ya think?

To be fair, I do admit I've changed a little more than the presence vs. absence of contractions, and yet contractions are a major part of the effect. (By the way, I usually tend to prefer the second version, but once in a while I'm tempted by the third.)
We have only to look at a modern transcription of a medieval or early Renaissance song text, for example, to find it bristling with apostrophes. Elisions are more the norm than not - at least this is true in Italian, which is the language I work with most. Perhaps if you're writing in English about English history, it is possible for you to use the exact words your characters would have spoken. But I maintain that if you write in Chaucerian English, you are not going to make it to Amazon's Top 10 anytime soon, so maybe some translation is in order, to keep the sense and flavor if not the exact wording.
My characters are speaking 13th century Italian to one another. No matter what I do, I'm translating. So why would I assume that jugglers and leatherworkers and wool carders and maids would be speaking in florid and unabbreviated phrases without contractions?
We know that people elided their speech. Descriptions of spoken dialogue survive; plays and poems survive; legal records can be particularly illuminating (She said what about her landlord?!?). Let's look at a couple of examples in late 13th century poetry.
Here's a three-line excerpt from a poem ("Gli occhi di quella gentil foresella") by Guido Cavalcanti, whom Dante called his "first friend":
...sì che ciascuna vertù m'abbandona,
in guisa ch'i' non so là 'vi' mi sia:
sol par che Morte m'aggia 'n sua balìa.
(...thus every virtue abandons me, such that I do not know where I am, except that Death has me at his mercy.)
Guido Cavalcanti (the one sitting on the tomb) in an illustration from Boccaccio's Decameron
Seven elisions in this short sample. This poem in its entirety has 24 lines and 25 elisions, of which 9 would probably still be present if it were written in modern Italian.
And what about Dante himself, who was the architect of the Italian language as we know it today?
From "Poscia ch'Amor del tutto m'ha lasciato":
... ell'è verace insegna
la qual dimostra u' la vertù dimora;
per ch'io son certo, se ben la difendo
nel dir com'io la 'ntendo,
ch'Amor di sè mi farà grazia ancora.
(...it is the true sign that shows where virtue resides; for I am sure, if I defend it as well as I intend to, that Love will grant me grace [or pardon] again.)
Dante, by Sandro Botticelli
Only six in this longer excerpt, not counting the title (which is the incipit). Where Dante really pulls out the elisions is in his rather scurrilous exchange of poetic insults with Forese Donati, a set of verses so coarse that scholars in the past sometimes refused to believe in Dante's authorship. Perhaps that fascinating Tenzone will be the subject of a future post.
Translations are mine, though no doubt influenced by those of others.
A caveat here: I was about to quote a delightful poem by Cecco Angiolieri, the supremely irreverent and outrageous Sienese poet (a contemporary of Dante), a poem which is liberally sprinkled with elisions in the transcription I was reading, until I had a chance to look at a manuscript facsimile and saw that all of the supposedly elided words were in fact written out.
Oops. Did that skewer my theory? Were the elisions modern changes, to make the poems scan? Not necessarily.. In the first place, it was not an autograph manuscript, and if Cecco didn't write it himself, and if it was penned perhaps as much as a century after he wrote the original, he can hardly be held accountable for the results. Also, I then went back to facsimiles of manuscripts of Dante's work and Guido's (also not in their own hands), and sure enough, the elisions were there. Not in the form of apostrophes, which are a more modern device, but with the elided words written exactly as they would have been spoken, in this most oral of literary forms.
As you see, it is possible to find documentation for the use of elisions in meant-to-be-spoken medieval Italian. Yet I think my preference for what I consider a more natural dialogue style is not so much because of the poetry or the songs, but because my gut tells me that our medieval predecessors were capable of being just as lazy, crude, casual, imaginative, and in-a-hurry as we are today.
The illustrations in this post are all US-Public Domain by reason of expired copyright.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

At the Sign of the Bedbug

Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims, by William Blake

Having recently spent some time reserving lodging in several cities for an upcoming research trip, I found myself wondering how the people of Dante's time would have managed the task of finding places to stay while travelling. I had some ideas of the rigors of the road ca. 1300, but it was time to find out more about what sort of respite was available.

So many aspects of medieval travel are fascinating, and deserve blog posts of their own, but the amount of material is vast, so I decided this time to limit myself to public inns in Europe, particularly Italy. True, many travellers had the good fortune to stay in private quarters, with friends or friends of friends, and many more took advantage of the hospitality of religious houses along their route; merchants may have been able to stay in guesthouses specific to their nation and/or trade, at least in the cities. But some people had to depend on inns all or most of the time, and others may have sometimes found themselves in places where an inn was the only thing available.

San Giuliano l'ospitaliere

One thing Christian travellers likely would have done was to pray to Saint Julian the Hospitaller (San Giuliano l'ospitaliere) for good lodgings. This very old tradition sprang from a story (probably legendary) of considerable misfortune: Giuliano returned from a hunting trip to find two people sleeping in his bed. Enraged at the thought that his wife was unfaithful, he slew them both, only to find his wife standing there looking appalled. Giuliano's parents had arrived unexpectedly for a visit, she had given them the conjugal bed, and Giuliano had just killed his mother and father, in a scene best described as Lizzie Borden meets the Bates Motel. Horrified and repentant, Giuliano and his wife dedicated the rest of their lives to hospitality, housing and feeding strangers at considerable sacrifice to themselves.

A character in one of Boccaccio's stories in the Decameron says that when he travels, the first thing he does in the morning before leaving his inn is to say an Our Father and a Hail Mary for Giuliano's parents, and then to ask the saint to give him good lodging for the night to come.

Inns in the middle ages varied considerably, anywhere from private houses renting out a room or two to large complexes built specifically to house travellers, the latter probably including stables and quite possibly a courtyard to protect the carts, wagons, and other goods of travellers. Inns served rural areas along the most travelled roads, and also clustered around the main roads in cities. Northern Italy, an area with a lot of merchant traffic, had many inns in the middle ages, while Spain was notoriously deficient in them during the same period. Another hot spot for inns was Avignon, at least during the years the papal court was based there. Florence was said to have 235 registered innkeepers in 1353, and as many as 622 by 1394 (though that latter figure included the surrounding area).

Urban inns were subject to a city's laws and regulations. In some cities, innkeepers were among the people not allowed to form guilds (a distinction they shared in Bologna in 1288 with, for example, cheesemongers and barbers). They were generally exempted from laws requiring businesses to close on religious holidays, as they were providing an essential service. (Perugia in 1342 also exempted butchers, spicers, bakers, and smiths. I can understand the emergency need for horseshoes, and maybe even bread, but I'm guessing the spicers and the butchers had a good lobby.) City laws also sometimes dictated the minimum number of rentable rooms an establishment had to have to call itself an inn and serve travellers.

Urban inns also provided long-term accommodations at times, for example for university students, and for construction workers employed in cathedral-building or other long-term projects. Some inns specialized in serving a particular nationality (or at least a particular language group). Many were located near a major market or government buildings, and in Rome they clustered around the Vatican. Inns also could be found just outside the city gates, there to serve the unfortunate travellers who arrived too late to find the gates open.

As for planning ahead, that presented some difficulties. Guidebooks did exist, and word of mouth could give more or less accurate information about distances and the quality of lodgings, but one couldn't just make a reservation over the internet - it was a matter of showing up and seeing if there was room. And since the traveller might well be part of a large group, his own companions might well overwhelm a modest inn's capacity. Of course, in a slow-moving group, with some persons on foot or slowed by heavy carts or other impediments, someone might ride ahead and alert the innkeeper to the customers soon to arrive.

Some inns employed agents to go out and persuade perspective customers to come to their establishment. One of my research sources, a book entitled Travel and Trade in the Middle Ages by Paul B. Newman, tells a story of a pilgrim travelling by boat to Venice. An agent in another boat tried to persuade him to lodge at the inn he (the agent) was promoting, and when the pilgrim said he had already made other arrangements, the agent became so agitated he fell out of the boat.

But suppose you were a medieval traveller, on the road and without any special contacts or affiliations that would take care of your lodging needs. What sort of place could you expect?

Inns provided, at a minimum, a room and a bed and (probably) sheets, someplace to park your horse, a kitchen, and a common room for meals and drink. The room and the bed would probably be shared. If you were lucky and if you could afford it, you might also manage to obtain covers and pillows, cooked food, drink, a fire or brazier, bed curtains to retain warmth and provide a modicum of privacy, food for your horse or other accompanying animals, and maybe even a candlestick. Some innkeepers made loans, rented horses, stored property for travellers, conveyed messages and correspondence, and offered assistance with business if the traveller did not speak the local language. If you were really lucky, the food and wine would be good, the sheets recently washed and relatively vermin-free, and good fellowship and entertainment might lighten your stay.

Chaucer's pilgrims at table

You'd be paying a la carte, and the candle to put in that candlestick - as well as the food, the drink, the firewood, the stabling - would be extra. You might well be carrying your own food with you, to prepare yourself at the hearth fire or in the kitchen, or you might buy local ingredients. The cost of stabling and feeding your horse could easily double your bill. And how would you pay? In a city, the innkeeper could direct you to a moneychanger, and for whatever fee that moneychanger could get away with charging, you'd be able to convert your coins to the local currency. In rural areas, however, the sheer diversity of European coinage (and the fact that it was not standardized by weight or metal content) must have been daunting, for innkeeper and customer alike.

And if you weren't so lucky? The food would be meagre or inedible, the room crowded, several strangers sharing your bed, sheets not washed in recent memory, no fire, no covers, you'd be plagued with bedbugs, fleas, and lice,
some of your fellow guests (never you, of course) might become drunk and belligerant, your belongings were at risk
from thieves, and you might be in a position of having to either pay the innkeeper whatever he demanded or sleep outside, with all the discomforts and dangers that entailed. All in all, it probably paid to talk to as many people as possible and learn all that you could about the lodgings along your route before you ever left home.

Images in this post: Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims by William Blake, San Giuliano l'ospitaliere by Taddeo Gaddi, Giovanni Boccaccio by Andrea del Castagno, the woodcut of Chaucer's pilgrims, and Filippo Bonanni's flea are all US-Public Domain because copyright has expired. The bedbug and the louse have been released into the public domain by the artist, Pearson Scott Foresman (sounds a bit alarming, doesn't it?).

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Was There a Florence Before the Renaissance?

Florence. Could this iconic picture be anywhere else? This is how people think of Florence, the dazzling city of the Renaissance: its cathedral crowned with Brunelleschi's dome, the militant-looking Palazzo Vecchio, the shop-laden Ponte Vecchio spanning the Arno, museums full of glorious art, and magnificent churches and palazzi of gleaming marble facing spacious piazze.

But what if you're writing of an earlier Florence? What if you want your readers to erase from their mental picture that vast dome, the ornate marble facades, and those open spaces and replace them with smaller medieval churches, rusticated stone, houses in wood and brick, and tight urban spaces with everything crammed together and little space to get around? What if you want them to replace those dignified palazzi in their minds' eyes with buildings crowded together and bristling with jetties and balconies that jut out over the street, blocking out the light?

What if you want them to see the city not as the postcards show it, but as Dante would have seen it?

Here's a little exercise: Look at the following pictures of Florence, and try to guess how many of these sights Dante would have seen. Ready? Here goes.

The Duomo

Palazzo Vecchio

Giotto's Campanile

Ponte Vecchio

Loggia dei Lanzi

Michelangelo's David

Schlock shopping

All but that last one look pretty old, don't they? So how many of them would Dante have seen, before his exile in January 1302?

None. In fact, a market stall full of *stuff* might well have been the image that would have been most immediately recognizable to the poet. To be fair, he would have seen earlier versions of some of those structures. He probably saw the earliest beginnings of the Palazzo Vecchio (started in 1299) and of the cathedral (built, beginning in 1296, around the much smaller existing cathedral of Santa Reparata), and he certainly walked across an earlier version of the Ponte Vecchio. But to show you an example of how different Florence was then, here's a schematic comparing Dante's cathedral (Santa Reparata) with Arnolfo di Cambio's plan and with the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore as it is today.

Santa Reparata (red), compared to planned Cathedral (orange)
and actual Cathedral (yellow)

As for the others, he missed the campanile by 32-35 years, the current version of the Ponte Vecchio by 43 years, the Loggia dei Lanzi by 74-80 years, and The David (which, by the way, is nothing at all like The Donald) by 200 years. And that dome atop the Cathedral wasn't finished until 1436, or 134 years after Dante's exile.

So Dante's Florence wouldn't have looked like the picture at the top of this post. What would it have looked like? Here's an earlier picture:

Madonna del Bigallo (ca. 1342)

But even that is too modern. The cathedral is in place (though not the dome). Perhaps these earlier illustrations from Villani's Cronica capture the mood, if not an accurate representation:

And finally, we can gaze upon a building that was in place in Dante's day, and well before: the Baptistery, his "bel San Giovanni." (You can see it in the first Villani illustration above, as well as in the Madonna del Bigallo.) Here it is as it appears today:

Baptistery (San Giovanni)

Dante's Baptistery was surrounded by a graveyard, including many recycled Roman sarcophagi, and of course the buildings nearby were very different, most especially the neighboring cathedral. But this last image is one he would have recognized.

But how do you get readers to shake loose those firmly-ingrained images of Florence in the Renaissance? Put the Author's Note first and hope they read it? Preface all with a banner reading "Abandon all preconceptions, ye who enter here"? If anybody has any ideas on this, please share them. Are you writing about a place people know better from a different time? If you are, how did you deal with that?

Images in this post: Madonna del Bigallo, photo by Sailko, is US-Public Domain because it represents a two-dimensional image whose copyright has expired; Villani illustrations are US-PD (expired copyright); the schematic of the cathedral(s), also by Sailko, is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported; all other photos are by Tim Heath.