Thursday, February 2, 2012

Exercising Your Imagination, Part 2

Last time, we saw the unfortunate Ricoverino de' Cerchi injured in a street fight in Florence on May Day, 1300. We used the example of this incident to illustrate some of the differences between Florence then and Florence now, and to show how someone trying to envisage the past needs to make a huge imaginative leap to picture things the way they used to be.

We posited that Ricoverino's friends, alarmed at the fact that his nose had been cut off, would have hurried to take him to his home, some distance across the city (the altercation occurred in Piazza Santa Trinita). While his assailants took refuge in the palazzo of the Spini family (now the Ferragamo shoe store), Ricoverino, aided by his friends, would have made his way home, no doubt bleeding profusely. They would have skirted the southern edge of the marketplace (now the neon-infested Piazza della Repubblica) and headed east.

As they approached the home neighborhood of the Cerchi and the Donati (the families that led the two opposing factions involved in the brawl), they would have passed the ancient round tower called La Pagliazza, a women's prison, so named because of the straw pallets the women slept on.

Today, La Pagliazza houses a luxurious hotel - Hotel Brunelleschi - and you could easily pay several hundred euros a night for a room or a suite there, not to mention access to their cocktail lounge and their workout center. A far cry from desolate women sleeping on straw pallets.

Likely they would have passed Orsanmichele, which at that time housed two things of importance: a grain market, and an image of the Madonna which was said to work miracles. Worship and commerce coexisted in this extraordinary space, which at that time was an open loggia, not the dignified building of today graced with statues in niches. Had Ricoverino's nose been saved, a nose-shaped votive offering of wax might have been given to Orsanmichele (or, failing that, his family might have chosen to give a votive offering in thanks for his survival). These wax offerings were the reason Orsanmichele turned into a torch in 1304, when men involved in the same partisan dispute that harmed Ricoverino would set a fire that consumed much of that central part of town. Here we see Orsanmichele then (the grain market) and now:

Perhaps, as this rowdy retinue reached his street, Dante would have come out of his house to watch. His house was probably not the rebuilt structure which houses the Dante museum today, despite its name (Casa di Dante); some claim that he was born in the building that now houses the trattoria Il Pennello:

I've eaten in Il Pennello. The pasta is very good; when I mentioned this to a friend, she observed, "Well, of course it was. They cooked it al Dante."

And what of Dante's love and inspiration, the lovely Beatrice? Her family (the Portinari) had a palazzo only a few steps away from Ricoverino's family's home, in a building that is now the Banca Toscana:

Appropriate, since her father Folco Portinari was a wealthy banker. Those of you who read Part 1 might recall that he was the man who founded the hospital Santa Maria Nuova, which is still in operation today. Beatrice, however, had died a decade before this incident, though some of her many siblings might have peered out to see what was going on.

And what about another woman in Dante's life, his wife, Gemma Donati? She might well have had an interest in Ricoverino's plight. Her family was one of the noble families most involved in the partisan strife, and her cousin Corso was the leader of the Donati faction (which included the guys holed up in the shoe store). She is said to have been born in the building that is now another hotel, the Albergo Firenze:

At long last Ricoverino's friends would manage to get him to his home. The Cerchi owned many palaces and houses in the area, and we cannot be sure that the one shown below was his home, but it certainly belonged to his family and would have been well known to him, and he would have lived either in this building or nearby.

The Cerchi palazzo today houses study abroad programs from Kent State and Penn State Universities, but in his day Ricoverino did not have access to student health services, so his family would have called a doctor in to see to him.

Images in this post: Photos of La Pagliazza, Orsanmichele, and the Palazzo de' Cerchi are by Sailko, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. Photo of the Banca Toscana released to public domain by photographer (Mattes). Orsanmichele grain market from Biadaiolo Codex. Photos of Il Pennello and Albergo Firenze by Tim Heath.

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