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.


eppingamber said...

Very excited to have found your page! I was searching for Dante and Gemma Donati because I am in a Milton class and am looking for links between the two authors. There is a lot of overlap, even though their lives span about 200 years a part. I was looking at Neoplatonism and how Milton subscribed to that belief. During my research, I found that the idea for "Platonic Love" was developed from a Neoplatonistic concept by Marsilio Ficino, the man who established the Florentine Academy in an attempt to revive Plato's Academy of the Classical era.

Marsilio Ficino defines the term in a letter to Alammano Donati. I was wondering if he had any connection to Dante's Gemma Donati. The gap would be only about a hundred years, so perhaps a great-grandchild?

Any ideas would be helpful!


Ps - I am also glad to have stumbled upon your website as I am an M.A. student in English, and after completing that I plan on obtaining my i.PhD in Medieval Studies. I would love to focus my intention on Dante, as his "Divine Comedy" was the masterpiece that made me choose Medieval Literature.

Pss - I am also a novelist and am planning on using the information I learn in my courses to write fiction. I'll definitely be staying in tune to your blog.

Tinney Heath said...

Hi, Amber. I'm happy to hear from you - always love to chat about the Donati! It was a huge family, with many branches, so a connection is certainly likely, but it may be hard to parse the details. I've spent many hours grumbling over incomplete or contradictory genealogical info about the Donati. A lot of that can be found in this earlier post: If you'd like to continue the conversation, you can reach me through my website.