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.

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