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.

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