Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Eyewitness to the Turn of the 14th Century

Dino Compagni anima i fiorentini alla concordia (Antonio Pucinelli, 1856)

Dino Compagni was a Florentine, a contemporary of Dante, and he provided an invaluable service to all future historians of Florence by writing a lucid and colorful chronicle of his city in the turbulent decades bridging the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  As we shall see, he was in a remarkably good position to do so, for his was not the account of an observant outsider, but that of a man who was passionately involved in the politics and the great events of his time.  In fact, we can pretty much forget about "fair and balanced" here - Dino was a member of a particular political party, of several specific councils and governing bodies, and was an articulate proponent of governance by the popolo instead of the old nobility (at a time when popolo meant prosperous merchants and guildsmen, not the day laborers and woolcarders and other unskilled and low-paid workers who made up the bulk of Florence's population). 

He served his city as a council member and a Prior, and he had, in fact, been one of the men who helped shape Florence's governing priorate, in the 1280s.  He served his guild and his confraternity as an officer, and was only the third man in Florence to hold the city's high office of Gonfaloniere, or Standard-Bearer of Justice.  He was one of the men whose duty it was to implement the anti-magnate laws that so enraged the nobles in 1293 (the Ordinances of Justice), and he was an eloquent, if not always successful, peacemaker.  The painting above shows Dino attempting to reconcile two warring factions in a dramatic meeting he had convened in the Baptistery in 1301.

His political career had its ups and downs.  He shared Dante's party affiliation (the White Guelfs), and he very nearly shared Dante's fate - exile from Florence for life - when Florentine politics surged against them both and the Black Guelfs took the ascendancy.  The only thing that protected Dino was that he was serving as one of the city's six Priors at the time (and was forced to resign early, while a priorate of the opposite political persuasion was put in place instead), and a law protected him from judicial proceedings for a year after serving in that office.  Dante too had been a Prior, but unfortunately for him he had served a little more than a year previously, and so the poet was caught up in the political rancor and vindictiveness that followed the upheavals of 1301. 

Dino's history of Florence, shown above, is probably the book I lose the most in my research.  You may think this is a typo, and that I meant use the most, but while it is certainly a book I use frequently, I did mean lose.  I don't know why, but I simply cannot keep track of this book.  I keep finding it, after long searching, buried under a pile of papers someplace.  Fortunately it is available online, both in Italian and in an earlier English translation.  But I need my copy, which is heavily annotated, and it seems determined to escape.  (By the way, any quotes from Dino in this post will be from this version of the book, which is Daniel Bornstein's excellent translation.  Assuming I can find it.)

Dino's Cronica begins (after a brief prologue detailing the events of 1216 that are the subject of my first novel) in the year 1280 and extends through 1312, ending on a note of combined exasperation and hope - Dino believed that the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry of Luxembourg, who was then in Italy, would come to Florence and make peace at last, and Dante, from his exile, shared that hope.

Here's Dino's blockbuster ending:  "Such is our troubled city!  Such are our citizens, obstinate in evil-doing!  And what is done one day is condemned the next.  Wise men used to say: 'A wise man does nothing which he regrets.'  In that city and among those citizens, there is no act so praiseworthy that it is not considered to be the opposite and blamed.  There men kill one another and evil is not punished by the laws, for if the evildoer has friends and money to spend he is freed from the crime he committed."  There is something disturblingly modern about all of that.

He finishes with this:  "Oh wicked citizens, who have corrupted and spoiled the whole world with bad practices and illicit profits!  You are the ones who have brought every bad habit into the world.  Now the world is beginning to turn against you:  the emperor and his forces will seize and plunder you by sea and by land."

But Henry died near Siena in 1313, before he got as far as Florence, so it was not to be.  Dino, having little choice, retired from politics and turned his attentions back to his business activities.

But what do we know about Dino as a man?  This is a question I always find myself coming back to.  I am fascinated by the larger currents of history, but I try never to forget that men and women shaped those currents, human beings not unlike ourselves who lived in very different times.  It is not easy to find personal details about people in this time period.  Records are incomplete, and centuries of war, floods, modernization, and just plain human error have taken their toll.  And yet, some fascinating tidbits always remain.  That's one of the perks of this research of which we speak.  There's always a good story to be found, if you look hard enough.

We don't know Dino's year of birth, but the various guesses suggest that he was born between 1246 and 1255, which would make him approximately 10-19 years older than Dante.  He was a Florentine, not of a noble family (though his mother was a daughter of Manetto Scali, a family of some importance), but fairly prosperous.  He was an amateur poet who does not seem to have impressed anyone much with his efforts; he addressed a sonnet to Guido Cavalcanti, Dante's "first friend," a nobleman and a poet himself.  (In this sonnet he suggests that Guido and his class give up their pretensions to nobility [and with them the violence and turbulence of their peers] and embrace the social values of merchants and guildsmen.  It is a bit difficult to imagine the likes of Guido reading this and saying, "Oh, right!  Great idea!  I'll get right on that.")

Emblem of Por Santa Maria (at Orsanmichele)
Professionally, Dino was a successful merchant and a member of Por Santa Maria, the guild representing retail cloth dealers and silk merchants.  Their emblem is shown above.  He served as one of the four consuls of the guild (a six-month term) on at least six different occasions.  Por Santa Maria ranked at that time ranked just below the top three elite guilds (Calimala, or cloth finishers;  Lana, the wool guild; and Cambio, or bankers and moneychangers). 

Dino's confraternity was that of the Madonna of Orsanmichele, founded in 1291.  Orsanmichele, which had been the city's grain market for some years, had an image of the Virgin Mary on a pillar, and when that image was perceived to work miracles, beginning in the early 1290s, the confraternity was formed.  Confraternities, or lay religious brotherhoods, abounded in Florence and in other Italian cities in the 1300s, and by the late 1200s many were already in place.  Some of them involved penitential self-flagellation among the members, but Orsanmichele and others were laudesi companies, which means that the members gathered in the evening at a church or shrine and sang songs in praise of the Virgin.  Confraternities provided many benefits for their members:  help during illness, financial assistance, funeral rites and regalia, help for widows and orphans of members, and more.  Many filled a role as charitable institutions.  Dante's father-in-law, messer Manetto Donati, was an officer of Orsanmichele, as was Dino.

Dino, though a White Guelf, had family connections with the Blacks by marriage.  Filippa, his first wife, received a bequest from Andrea da Cerreto, a former Ghibelline turned Black Guelf.  Andrea was, in fact, one of the Priors who replaced Dino and his colleagues in November of 1301.  And Dino's second wife, Francesca, came from a Black Guelf family, including some who were prominent in the party.  This was not at all an unusual situation for Florentines of the time.  Many a house was divided between the parties.

Giano della Bella
Dino was an enthusiastic supporter of Giano della Bella, a prominent and idealistic Florentine nobleman who took the part of the popolo against the magnates.  Giano was instrumental in drafting anti-magnate legislation which effectively disenfranchised the hereditary nobility, decreeing that only members of guilds could take major offices in Florence.  This naturally angered the knights and their powerful clans, who said (with some truth) that they, as the military arm of the city, were charged with protecting Florence, yet were no longer allowed a role in her governance.  The knights' enmity toward Giano della Bella eventually forced him out - out of office and out of the city - in 1295, and Dino found himself politically on the outside looking in, for several years. 

Incidentally, Dino gives us something much better than that dry summary of Giano's political fortunes.  Dino's account is rich with descriptions of Giano and his wife fleeing the mob across rooftops, of the people dragging kindling up to the palace of the podesta' to burn the door, and of prominent Florentines breaking into cabinets in the public buildings and destroying legal documents pertaining to cases brought against them.  Passions ran high, and the people on the streets were manipulated by both sides.

Charles of Valois
Despite a five-year lull for Dino personally after Giano's expulsion, he did make a comeback in 1300.  He did his best to reconcile the factions, trying to persuade the Donati faction (Black Guelfs) and the Cerchi faction (White Guelfs) to come to a peaceful agreement, but things had progressed too far for that.  Dino was serving as a Prior again in 1301 when Charles of Valois, brother of the French king Philip IV and dubbed a "peacemaker" by Pope Bonifacio VIII, was on his way to Florence with 500 armed knights.  It was widely known that the Pope (and Charles) favored the Black faction, yet Dino and his fellow priors did everything they could think of to maintain peace.  They polled no fewer than 72 guilds to see if their memberships agreed to allowing Charles into the city.  The reply came back:  all but one guild said, "in speech and in writing, that he should be allowed to come and should be honored like a lord of noble blood - all except the bakers, who said that he should be neither received nor honored, for he was coming to destroy the city."  Prescient bakers.

So Charles entered the city in November of 1301, other Black partisans from nearby cities came as well, and within a few days Corso Donati, leader of the Black faction and exiled at the time, forced his way back into the city, wreaking havoc as he came.  He opened the prisons (see picture below), and his men ran roughshod over the city.  And Charles, who you will recall favored the Black party, did not stop him.  Dino and his fellow Priors rang the city's bells to summon the populace, but "the people were too dismayed to assemble.  Not a single armed man, on horse or on foot, came forth from the Cerchi household." (The Cerchi, remember, were the leaders of the White Guelfs.)

Dino on Charles of Valois:  "Oh good King Louis who was so God-fearing, where is the good faith of the royal house of France, now brought low by bad counsel, not fearing dishonor?  Oh wicked counselors, you have made the offspring of such high royalty not a soldier but an assassin, one who imprisons citizens wrongly, breaks faith, and belies the name of the royal house of France!"

And Dino, not sparing himself or his fellow Priors:  "And so we wasted time, since we did not dare to shut the doors and stop listening to these citizens - even though we distrusted such false promises and thought that they were cloaking their malice with lying words.  We sought to make peace with them when we should have been sharpening our swords."

Corso Donati returns to Florence
Here's Dino on the events of those violent days:  "the men who feared their foes hid themselves in their friends' houses.  One enemy attacked the other:  houses were set afire, robberies were committed, and belongings fled from the homes of the powerless.  The powerful Blacks extorted money from the Whites; they married young girls by force; they killed men.  And when a house blazed, messer Charles asked:  'What is that fire?'  He was told that it was a hut, but it was a rich palace.  And this evildoing lasted six days, for that was how it had been arranged.  The countryside was in flames on every side."

And more:  "Kinship and friendship were worth nothing, new marriages were worth nothing; every friend became an enemy; brother abandoned brother; son abandoned father."

And all of this was presaged by, of all things, Halley's Comet.  Dino:  "That evening a miraculous sign appeared in the sky:  a vermilion cross over the palace of the Priors.  ...This cross remained for as long as it takes a horse to run two laps.  The people who saw this - and I saw it clearly - could understand that God was firmly set against our tormented city." 

Henry of Luxembourg
Forced from office, Dino was never again to be active politically.  He had not yet set his observations down in writing, for it would not have been safe to have his candid observations reach the ears of the people then in power.  It wasn't until 1310, when it looked as if things might turn around once more, that he dared to begin his task.  He pinned his hopes on Henry of Luxembourg (above) and was disappointed.  The Blacks  consolidated their hold on Florence, Dino hid his chronicle away, he died in 1324 as a private citizen, and his work did not attract much attention until 1726.  (Two copies had been made earlier, however - one in late fifteenth century and one in 1514.)

Medieval Florence is rich in stories, and those of us who want to tell them owe a great debt to Dino Compagni, Florentine, political man, chronicler, and reporter.  He told it the way he saw it, and we are all the richer for his efforts. 

Dino's Florence (and Dante's)
Images in this post:  Photos of the emblem of Por Santa Maria and of the painting by Antonio Pucinelli are both by Sailko, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license via Wikimedia Commons.  Other images in the public domain by virtue of being really old.

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