Friday, May 25, 2012

In Search of the Etruscans - Part 4: Orvieto

Cippus:  Head of a Warrior, from Crocifisso del Tufo necropolis, Orvieto

Orvieto (Velzna to the Etruscans, Volsinii to the Romans) was one of the  important Etruscan cities that flourished in the seven centuries before the Common Era.  Later a thriving medieval city and then a refuge for popes in the Renaissance, Orvieto is dramatically situated on top of a steep butte formed of volcanic tufa, giving it spectacular views from all sides.

View from Orvieto

At the foot of a sheer cliff on the north side of the city is the Crocifisso del Tufo necropolis.  Only partially excavated, the necropolis consists of over 100 rectangular chamber tombs laid out in orderly streets, sharing walls with their neighbors like townhouses or apartments.  Originally each was closed with a stone door, and an appropriate cippus, like the one shown at the top of this post, placed atop the tomb, which was sealed with clay and earth.  Each tomb entrance is carved with the name of the person interred there.

Row of tombs, Crocifisso del Tufo

Tomb entrance

These are small tombs, most meant to hold a single body, and the townhouse-style graves do not contain frescoes like those at Tarquinia.  They did yield some grave goods, however, such as the oddly lovable gorgon pictured below, and there are some nearby tombs that are larger, more elaborate, and painted, like the Golini 1 tomb, whose frescoes have been detached and are on display in Orvieto's archaeological museum. 


The Etruscan city of Velzna stood apart from the burial area, as was typical.  Velzna was probably located where the modern city of Orvieto stands, which has limited archaeologists' ability to conduct excavations.  Bits of Etruscan buildings do survive, however, such as the fragments of the Temple of Belvedere, below.

Temple of Belvedere

The walk from the city of Orvieto along the steep wall and down to the necropolis below is quite spectacular.

On the way down to the necropolis

 One can look down and see the straight lines of the necropolis, divided into tidy avenues.

Crocifisso del Tufo, from path above

Even the carved names above tomb entrances have yielded quite a bit of information about Velzna.  For instance, it must have been a very multicultural city:  names are not only Etruscan, but Greek, Latin, Umbrian, and even Gothic. Maybe it was that cosmopolitan flavor that inspired me to sit on the grass among the tombs scribbling haiku into a small notebook.

Necropolis at foot of cliff, with Orvieto in background
Heavy with time, crumbling, still, forgotten.
Yet a lizard scampers. 

Ancient names carved over web-screened portals.
Birdsong, trees in blossom.

Row of tombs
In this house of ancient dead
I whisper "Permesso," and descend.

The modern city of Orvieto sits atop a sort of tufa mesa which is riddled with tunnels and caverns.  Many of them were dug by the Etruscans, and then later expanded and stabilized by their medieval descendants.  These spaces include deep wells, to provide water for the city perched so high above ground level, and channels for moving that water to where it was needed.

The tour of Underground Orvieto, which is well worth taking if you get the chance, points out other spaces which may have been Etruscan in origin but were used by medieval people as wine storage and a place to press olive oil (two things that benefited from the constant temperatures underground), and for dovecotes - the birds would nest in niches in the cliffs beneath the city's walls, and all the residents then needed to do to procure a squab dinner was go into their basement and take the young birds out of the nest.  (As our guide pointed out, the birds no longer inhabit those niches:  "Maybe they don't like tourists," she said, "or maybe they got smarter.")

Underground caverns

Olive press, which used to be powered by a donkey


Wine storage (reconstructed)

I have many pictures of the modern city of Orvieto (well, mostly medieval, but it's all relative), and I will do another post soon with those.  I don't really have much in a research motif to say about later Orvieto, but it is a fascinating city, and really, the pictures are too good not to use them.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Where there's a will

Last will and testament of Folco Portinari, January 1287 (or 1288)

I have just spent the day studying the last will and testament of Dante's mother-in-law.

(Now, before you mutter "Get a life!" and turn away, please do remember that this is supposed to be a blog about research.)

I am actually quite amazed at how much you can learn from a document of this sort, written in medieval legalese as it is. 

The document pictured above is a different will, that of Folco Portinari, the Florentine banker and philanthropist (and father of Dante's beloved Beatrice) who died on December 31, 1289.  It predates the will I want to talk about by about 25 years, and it is useful for purposes of comparison.  (It also gives away many times more money, and even establishes and funds a hospital - one which still exists in Florence.) 

Dante may have doted on Beatrice, but he married Gemma Donati.  Betrothed in early 1277, when Dante was only twelve, the two probably wed and set up their household in the mid to late 1280s.  Their families were neighbors, and even owned neighboring properties in the rural areas around Florence.  The two children (and also Beatrice) grew up living only a few doors apart.

Gemma's mother, the author of the will, was Maria.  We do not know the surname of the family she was born into, but she married messer Manetto Donati, a member of a prominent and powerful Florentine magnate family, who died sometime after 1304.  (The title "messer" means that Manetto was a knight; "ser" generally refers to a notary.)

Let's first take a look at what I knew about Maria before I studied her will:

I knew who she married (see above).  I knew that she had at least two children, Gemma and her brother Teruccio.  I knew that she lived at least until 1315.

And that's about it.

And now?

I know that she had two other sons, both already deceased in 1315, when she wrote the will, and that they both had children.  I know that by this time she was a widow.  I think that she had paid for the funeral of one of her sons, and was now absolving his heirs from that debt.  (My grasp of medieval Latin is not all it might be.)

I know how much money Dante and his brother owed on at least three debts for which Maria's husband had co-signed.  I know who got her bed, sheets, and tablecloths.  I know that she gave money to clothe paupers.  I know that she added a codicil three months later, threatening to disinherit Teruccio if he didn't stop nagging a certain Rinaldo to pay back a debt he owed to the late Manetto.

I think that in addition to Gemma she had another daughter who predeceased her, and that daughter in turn had a daughter.  (If this was not so, then the young woman is Maria's niece, and not her granddaughter.)  I know she knew how to price and set up a sale of land, and to arrange things so that her heirs would do things the way she wanted.  I know that she dictated the terms of this will to a notary named ser Opizzo di ser Pipino da Pistoia, and I know the names of the churchmen and laymen (seven of them) who served as her witnesses.

I know that this was done at the small church of Santa Maria in Campo, located near the cathedral and baptistery of Florence.  Santa Maria in Campo was the seat of activity for the diocese of Fiesole, a nearby town, because Pope Gregory IX had given the Florentine church to the Fiesolans to make up for some of the property Florence had taken from them.  I know that Maria requested burial in the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella, though some other family members were interred in their local parish church and some in the cathedral.  Perhaps her husband had been buried in Santa Maria Novella, or perhaps she had an affinity for the Dominican mendicants. 

Santa Maria in Campo
And as a result of all this, as well as a couple of tangential forays into sorting out the different types of currency and reading a bit about charitable bequests, I feel as if I know Maria, at least a little.  I think she must have been devoted to her family, financially astute, no-nonsense, capable, fair, conventionally but not excessively religious, and probably quite up to the task of being a respected matriarch to an occasionally contentious family.  I think she was both generous and practical.

Her generosity:  at least some of those charitable bequests were probably legally mandated for anyone wanting to file a will in Florence, most notably her donation of 5 soldi toward building and maintaining Florence's city walls.  Others, such as 20 soldi for the benefit of poor persons incarcerated in the prison called Le Stinche (who were dependent on charity even for basic necessities) and the casting of a new bell for a church, may have been mandated, or may have been her own idea.  She made a donation (10 soldi) to the hospital Folco Portinari founded in his will (above).  But most of these are small amounts of money.  Her real generosity was directed toward her family.

She left Gemma 300 lire piccioli (a money of account, at this time worth approximately 150 gold florins if we use the exchange rate from 1296, which we will since it's the closest year to 1315 that I can find a rate for right now).  At the time Maria wrote her will, Dante had been exiled from Florence for over a decade, and there was no particular reason to believe he'd ever return (he didn't) and be in a position to pay his debts or help his family.  So Maria explicitly forgave Dante's family's obligation to pay some debts for which Manetto had co-signed, thereby transferring the responsibility to her heirs.  Those debts were for 480, 90, and 46 gold florins, respectively.  (The largest of these was not fully settled until 1332.)

Maria left her bed (shades of Shakespeare!), with all her sheets, coverlets, mattress, and a chest - probably the long low wooden chest that sat alongside the bed, to hold household items -  as well as two tablecloths and two towels to Bartola, daughter of Bartolo Scambagni.  So who was Bartola? 

In the Italian translation of the will, Bartola is described as Maria's "nipote", which can mean either niece or granddaughter.  The original Latin should clarify things (the word is "nepti", which my dictionary says means granddaughter), except that medieval notaries were perfectly capable of latinizing an Italian word, so we still are not sure.  If Bartola was a granddaughter, then Gemma must have had a sister.  Bartola's mother is not named; the example of Folco's will, above, suggests that it would have been usual for the testator to identify a sibling as such, so if Bartola's father Bartolo had been Maria's brother, she might well have said so.  It's a puzzle, and I don't know the answer.  I am guessing Bartola is a granddaughter, but I don't really know. 

In any case, Maria must have had a care for the young woman's welfare, because she also left her a tract of partially-wooded land outside Florence, worth about 150 lire (75 gold florins, if we apply the same rate of exchange).  We know its worth because she also offers her three official heirs (more about them next) an opportunity to purchase the property from Bartola during the first year after her (Maria's) death, if they so choose, at a price of 50 lire apiece.  The land is described very precisely:  it is bounded on one side by the property of Giuducci Donati, on another by the Giuochi heirs, on a third by Giani Aldobrandini, and on the fourth by a ditch.  You can't miss it.

Maria's bequests included money for her granddaughters (Lina, Giovanna, and Maria, daughters of the late Neri), presumably for dowries and quoted in gold florins, and also gifts of land to all of her grandsons.

Her remaining property was to be divided three ways:  her son Teruccio; her grandson Niccolo', the son of her deceased son Foresino; and the three sons of her deceased son Neri:  Gherardo, Manetto, and Silvestro, sharing equally in their father's third of the estate.

Those are the main features of Maria's will.  She also compensated her executors and paid a modest amount for masses to be said for her soul.  No doubt she  compensated the notary too:  ser Opizzo di ser Pipino da Pistoia, the son of another notary.

To do anything legal in Italy at that time, you had to have a notary.  Paintings of St. Francis's famous pact with the wolf that had been terrorizing the Umbrian town of Gubbio often include the notary, standing by to make an official record of the agreement.  No doubt once he had taken down the necessary information, he would then make three copies, get the wolf's pawprint on all of them, and file one with the city, keep one for his records, and hand the other to St. Francis (or maybe the wolf).

Notary at the ready
Maria's will reveals more details, but I think that what we have here is enough for us to begin to see this medieval woman as a human being, and to deepen, at least a little, our understanding of her world.  For that, it's well worth wading through legal jargon.

Images in this post:  Folco Portinari's will is printed in the book Chiesa di Santa Margherita detta Chiesa di Dante, by Giovangualberto Ceri and Roberto Tassi.  Other pictures are in the public domain.

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Tough Nut to Crack

Recently, I asked an innocent question.  "So tell me," I said to my friend, who is a historical re-enactor with a flair for cooking up scrumptuous medieval feasts to feed lots of people, "how did people shell all those almonds in the middle ages?  With all the recipes for almond milk, or using almonds as thickeners, what did a one-cook kitchen do?"

"I have no idea," she breezily replied.  "But I'll ask some people who might know."  And she then passed my query, my innocent question, along to a group of people eminent in the same historical recreation group, to see what light they could shed on the matter. 

Now, to be fair, I failed to mention in my query that I'm interested in learning this because I'm writing a book set in Florence in around 1300, so it shouldn't have surprised me that most people immediately assumed I was talking about England.  (We're communicating in English, right?  So it must be about England.  This happens to me a lot.)

This meant that several of them first tried to tell me that almonds were a rare and costly import and a one-cook kitchen wouldn't have used them.  They were considered a spice, I was told.  I was informed that dukes, bishops, archbishops, the pope, and royalty would have been the almond milk consumers.

Florence was a tad short on all of the above except the bishop, but I imagine we could reasonably include a bevy of fabulously-wealthy merchants, and even a few struggling nobles still strutting their stuff to keep up appearances.  But what about our one-cook kitchen?  No scullery maids, no boys to turn the spits, no slave labor.

Right out of luck, you might well conclude.  No almonds for them.  But did I mention that this was Florence? Italy?  As in, they're growing almonds in the back yard?  Surely that makes a difference.  They can hardly be a costly import if you can walk out the door and pick some.

England and Italy:  not the same.  Trust me on this.  Almond trees popped up in vineyards and olive groves, in orchards, in gardens.  Francesco Datini, the famous Merchant of Prato (a close neighbor to Florence), grew almonds, and he didn't make much fuss about it, unlike his much rarer prized orange tree (oranges were just beginning to be seen as far north as the Florence-Prato area).  His apothecaries billed him (in 1406) for almonds, and they were not considered spices - spices appeared elsewhere in the same billing.  (These were, however, probably bitter almonds, used medicinally.  The almonds Datini grew would have been sweet domestic almonds.)

And people needed their almonds.  Almond milk was less perishable than animal milk, and it could be consumed on fast days, when animal products were forbidden to Christians (which could add up to as much as a third of the year).

So how did they shell them?  Let's look at some possibilities:

More online discussion ensued, most of it still centered on whether or not my characters would have used almonds.   A couple of people sketched out ideas for almond-shelling machines, which I thought was rather delightful.  Books were recommended.  Most of the latter centered on England, but a few did mention the Mediterranean.  (I already had all of those books, by the way.)  Nutcrackers, the consensus seemed to be.

Look at the recipes, one of them advised me.  See what ingredients they called for.  (The Italian recipes?  You guessed it - almonds.)  But, others  added, recipe books were for the elite, not the one-cook kitchen. So all the written evidence might not matter anyway.

Stubborn as I am, based on my own reading I remain convinced that almonds were used in relatively modest households in Tuscany.  Not, perhaps, by the poorest of the poor, but certainly not restricted to the richest of the rich, either. And I continue to be frustrated at the it's-gotta-be-England assumptions that I run up against at every turn, such as all the sweeping histories of aspects of the middle ages that confine themselves to that (admittedly fascinating) island, as if the rest of the world didn't exist. 

As a writer you wouldn't wander around in time, would you?  You wouldn't give your medieval people glassed windows before there were such things, or assume a wall fireplace in a time when hearthfires lived in the middle of the room?  You wouldn't have them eating tomatoes or potatoes, or drinking coffee.  You would certainly not assume that life was the same for people before and after the Black Death swept through Europe. 

I maintain that wandering in space isn't any better.  Different climates, different weather (not the same thing), different resources, different politics, different religions, different people running things, different histories, different levels of urbanization, different population patterns. 

But back to the original question:  did any of my sources, books or experts, actually tell me how almonds were shelled?  Of course not.  It was never going to be that easy.  I know how to blanch the little guys and crush them and cook with them, but not how to oodge them out of their hard little shells beforehand, at least not in quantity (remembering that I have the patience of a modern person, not a medieval person).

There were nutcrackers.  There were hammers.  But I can't shake the feeling that somewhere, somehow there was also an economy of scale in use here, one that we just don't know about.  And nobody mentions it because it was all so obvious at the time. 

It's true that almond oil was prepared professionally and sold, generally, not made at home.  But then, somebody - or a lot of somebodies - had to maneuver those almonds out of their shells at some point, didn't they?  Or did they just crush them whole, like olives?

Almond oil for sale
Almond milk, which is quick and easy to make (once the almonds are shelled, that is), would have been made at home, but it took a lot of nuts.  Our forefathers were an ingenious lot, and our foremothers perhaps even more so, and I still think they must have had some way to speed up the tedious process of breaking into all those little nuts.  I know that some nuts can be briefly boiled, to make shelling easier, but I don't know if that or some other preparatory process was applied to almonds.

So I still don't know how they shelled almonds.  Do you?  If you do, or even if you have a good guess, I'd love to hear about it.

Images in this post:  common (metal) nutcracker and the collection of colorful nutcrackers are both under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 Unported license; all others in the public domain.

Friday, May 4, 2012

In Search of the Etruscans - Part 3: Cerveteri

Fibula (30 cm long, 7th c. B.C.)
Cerveteri (Caere in Etruscan times) is a pleasant Italian town located between Rome and Tarquinia.  At first glance there isn't much to indicate that it was once prominent among the twelve Etruscan metropolises, the southernmost of Etruria's band of coastal cities.  And yet Cerveteri, with its three ancient necropolises, has contributed a tremendous amount to Etruscan archaeology and scholarship.

Banditaccia necropolis, Cerveteri

 Some of Etruria's most spectacular finds come from Cerveteri, having somehow eluded tomb-robbers over the centuries.  The Regolini-Galassi tomb in the Sorbo necropolis, not open to visitors, yielded such treasures as the large fibula shown above, and the two items shown below, all three displayed in the Etruscan museum in the Vatican Museums in Rome.

In the centuries when Rome and Etruria coexisted, before Rome gained the ascendancy and conquered the Etruscan cities and eventually absorbed the Etruscan people, there was a time when Cerveteri was in closer cahoots with Rome than were the other Etruscan cities.  (What exactly is a cahoot, anyway?  Anybody know?)  In fact, in the year 390 B.C., Rome, under threat of invasion from the Gauls, sent the Vestal Virgins to Cerveteri to keep them safe until the danger was past.  In recognition of that service, Rome awarded Caere honorary citizenship (though without voting rights). The special relationship deteriorated not too many years afterwards.

The Banditaccia necropolis
The necropolis at Cerveteri that is open to the public is called Banditaccia, the largest ancient necropolis in the Mediterranean area at about 1,000 acres (not that the visitor is going to cover all of that territory).  This remarkable city of the dead, with its straight avenues, rows of tombs, and tumuli, was built over the course of 600 years.   Graves there range from the Villanovan period (9th century B.C.) to late Etruscan (3rd century B.C.).

It is possible for visitors to enter many of the thousands of tombs in Banditaccia.  Unlike the tombs at Tarquinia, these don't have frescoes, but they do contain interesting architectural elements - carved ceiling beams, columns, and furnishings - thus giving us some hint of what Etruscan homes and buildings may have looked like.  Since the Etruscans built in wood, we have no surviving residences, and only fragments of temples.

Here's a look inside a few of those tombs:

There are many simple tombs, of a single chamber, but the great burial mounds tend to contain more complex family tombs, consisting of a corridor (dromos), a central hall, and perhaps several attached chambers where bodies were laid to rest.

A row of simple "dice" or "cube" tombs

A chambered tomb

One extraordinary tomb, the Tomb of the Reliefs, located in the Banditaccia necropolis, has given scholars a lot of information about Etruscan daily life, because it depicts so many everyday articles carved in relief - coils of rope, tools, utensils, cushions, even house pets.  Everything one could possibly wish for in a well-furnished afterlife.

Tomb of the Reliefs
To sum up the experience of visiting this ancient burial place, I'd like to quote D.H. Lawrence, writing in 1927.  He described his reactions to the Cerveteri tombs thus:

"There is a stillness and a softness in these great grassy mounds with their ancient stone girdles, and down the central walk there lingers still a kind of homeliness and happiness.  True, it was a still and sunny afternoon in April, and larks rose from the soft grass of the tombs.  But there was a stillness and a soothingness in all the air, in that sunken place, and a feeling that it was good for one's soul to be there."

Images in this post:  Tomb of the Reliefs photo released to public domain by the photographer; all others are our own photos.