Thursday, August 16, 2012

Comic Opera, or Medieval Tabloid Fodder?

Scene from Gianni Schicchi

 Both, actually.

Opera fans know Gianni Schicchi as a one-act comic opera by Giacomo Puccini, written in 1917-18 and with a libretto by Giovacchino Forzano (an Italian dramatist whose later association with Benito Mussolini and the fascist regime irreparably damaged his career and reputation).

Giacomo Puccini

 Operas are notorious for ending with one or more dead characters, but this charming little work begins with one.  It's set in Florence in the year 1299, and it tells the story of how Gianni Schicchi, a clever man with a gift for mimicry, successfully impersonated the just-deceased Buoso Donati in order to dictate a will that left the deceased's estate to his family.  Buoso's family had recruited Gianni to help them out because Buoso's actual will gave most of his money to the church - not an unusual thing to do when someone reached the end of his life believing that he had practiced usury, and thus had to make amends for the sake of his soul.

In the course of enriching Buoso's family, Gianni managed to enrich himself quite a bit as well, leaving money and possessions to himself (while disguised as a dying Buoso).  Buoso's relatives could hardly object without giving away their own part in the deception, so the mimic and those who employed him all profited, with only the church losing out.

The opera also adds a love story between Gianni's daughter Lauretta, who is in need of a dowry, and Rinuccio, a relative of Buoso's, whose family opposes the match.

Florence Easton as Lauretta, December 1918

 Hijinks ensue, including hiding Buoso's body and putting Gianni Schicchi in the dead man's bed and clothes, the better to fool the notary.  Various members of the Donati family take turns secretly proffering bribes to Gianni, each wanting a larger cut of the inheritance.  Naturally Gianni outsmarts them all, pulls off his performance brilliantly, provides his daughter with a generous dowry, courtesy of the late Buoso, and they all live happily ever after.

I've known this opera for years, and I'm embarrassed to say how long it took me to realize that it was talking about real people and - very likely - a real incident, or at least a very venerable and persistent urban legend.

I know a little something about the Donati family around that time.  They've been a focus for my research for years:  Gemma Donati, who married Dante, and her tempestuous cousin Corso, a knight and a leader of the Guelf party, who came alarmingly close to becoming the Signore of Florence.

The Donati were numerous, their clan consisting of lots of different branches.  They were old nobility in Florence in Dante's time.  The contemporary chronicler Dino Compagni (see recent post) said of the Donati, comparing them to the nouveau riche
Cerchi clan, that they were "of more ancient lineage, but not so rich."

So - where else, besides an early 20th century opera, can we find this story?

It all goes back to Dante.  (In this blog, it usually does.)  Dante placed Gianni Schicchi in the Inferno, Canto XXX, the Circle of the Impersonators.  There the wretched Gianni has been driven mad with rage, and he "ran biting in the manner of the pig when the sty is opened."  (Translation by Robert M. Durling.)

Gianni Schicchi in hell
As Dante watches, Gianni sinks his teeth into Capocchio, another damned soul, whose body was burned at the stake in Siena in 1293 for his alchemical pursuits, which is how he finds himself among the falsifiers in Dante's hell.

One suspects Dante may not have appreciated the humor in Gianni's escapade.  All Dante tells us of Gianni Schicchi is that he acquired "the queen of the herd" by posing as Buoso Donati and dictating a will.

We know the Gianni Schicchi story, as it turns out, from several early commentators on Dante's Divine Comedy.  They tell us that Gianni Schicchi and Simone Donati (Buoso's son, or in other versions his nephew) conspired to commit their fraud, that Simone hid Buoso's body, and that Gianni willed himself Buoso's prize mare (some say she-mule).

The chronicle the opera libretto is based on was written around 1400 by a person known as Anonimo Fiorentino.  His chronicle stood out among others for the wealth of historical background he provided about the persons and events Dante wrote of.

A page from Anonimo Fiorentino's commentary on Dante's Commedia
Digression alert:  Some of you know that I enjoy employing automatic translation from time to time, amusing myself with the garbled results.  It is said that the Anonimo Fiorentino was not particularly strong in literary analysis, but someone writing about him apparently was, to judge from this automatically-translated quote:

"...but well clear, even to a hasty reader of ancient exegetical tradition as long as practical, the character of its own cento undoubtedly the work, although the definition, because the methods of commentary and the usual technical compilatoria of the middle, does not imply a priori a value judgment."  Very - um - professorial, I'm sure.

End digression, and back to our friend Anonimo.

Anonimo tells us that Gianni Schicchi was from the Calvalcanti family.  Although the opera libretto suggests that the Donati considered Gianni to be their social inferior, the Cavalcanti were a wealthy and distinguished family, including knights.  Guido Cavalcanti, Dante's "first friend,"  poet and intellectual, was the son of a knight, and certainly he moved in the highest social and political circles of Florence in the latter part of the thirteenth century.

Gianni Schicchi's partner in plotting was Simone Donati, says Anonimo, who calls Simone Buoso's son.  (We will, in a moment, attempt to figure out exactly who Simone and Buoso were, historically.)

We learn from Anonimo that Gianni Schicchi, imitating the late Buoso's voice, dictated to the notary a will in which he left to his dear friend Gianni Schicchi his valuable mule, as well as 500 florins.  Simone attempted to demur, but Gianni was having none of it, and Simone "kept silent out of fear."

So.  Who was this Simone?  Some say it was Corso's father (remember Corso?), a knight, a prominent Guelf, and a man who had served as capitano or podesta in several other cities, a mark of considerable distinction.  That Simone died in the mid-1290s, which would rule out the opera's purported date of 1299.  (Not that one expects much historical accuracy from operas.)  But almost every generation of Donati ever recorded has at least one Simone, and there are also at least three Buosos in two different generations in the thirteenth century.

Since historians claim that Gianni Schicchi was dead by 1282, that pushes our date back even further.  The opera, by the way, states Simone's age as 70, and calls him Buoso's cousin.  The historical Simone-Corso's-father was probably at the very least in his mid-twenties when Corso was born in about 1250.  If we posit that he was born in, say, 1225, and that the incident took place in, say, 1280, he would have been only 55.  (However, had he lived until 1299, he would indeed have been close to 70.)  But hey, it's an opera.  Let's get back to the historical record.

What about Buoso?  There was a Buoso Donati mentioned in a document in 1213; he had no sons.  In the next generation we find two Buosos:  one was Buoso son of Ubertino, who lived at least until 1308; the other was his cousin Buoso son of Vinciguerra, who died in about 1280.  The latter was married to one Adalina.

Kathleen Howard playing Zita, one of Buoso's relatives (1918)
To complicate matters, in the next generation we find Buoso son of Forese, Forese also being the father of Simone-Corso's-father.  (The Donati had a lot of Foreses, too.)  This Buoso was the father of Gasdia and Taddeo.

None of our Buosos has a son named Simone.  How about a nephew?

Why, yes.  Buoso son of Vinciguerra is brother to Forese, who is father to Simone-Corso's-father.  Thus, Simone is that Buoso's nephew.  And that Buoso died in 1280, so he has my vote.

Yet another reason to disbelieve the opera on the date, by the way, is that the Cavalcanti and Donati families were on opposite sides of the political fence by 1299, siding with the White and the Black Guelfs respectively.  Not so back in 1280.

I should note that some historians believe it was Simone's brother Buoso, the father of Gasdia and Taddeo, who died, and Taddeo who conspired with Gianni.

But I think the best case is this:  Buoso di Vinciguerra died in 1280, and his nephew Simone-Corso's-father perpetrated the fraud with the help of Gianni Schicchi, a member of the Cavalcanti family.  Simone would have been at least 55, and his son Corso (who by then was married to a member of the Cerchi family - remember the Cerchi?) was 30 or thereabouts.

What did Dante know, personally, of Simone?  Dante would have known that Simone gave his daughter in marriage to a political foe as part of a peacemaking initiative (it didn't work out very well; the peace didn't last, and Simone's son-in-law was executed); that he was warned by city officials against troublemaking and inconveniencing a parish church on at least one occasion; and that he was said to have forced a young girl to accede to his desires by accusing her father (probably falsely) of horse theft, imprisoning him, and putting him to the torture. All of these things happened before 1280.

And yet, Simone also played a major role in peace negotiations with Cardinal Latino, the papal legate, in 1279-80.  He was known as a skillful warrior and orator, he went on various missions as an ambassador, and he was knighted by the Guelf party for his leadership.  A complex man, Simone had suffered exile for a period in the 1260s, following the Ghibelline victory at the battle of Montaperti, and lost (with his brothers) a great deal of property:  two towers and houses in the parish of Santa Maria Alberghi, and in a nearby rural area another tower, two palaces, and two mills, at a total value of 2200 lire.  

We should bear in mind that these men - Simone and Gianni Schicchi - were almost certainly men Dante knew personally, from his neighborhood, his church, and his political party.  Florence, a major city at that time, was a mid-size town by modern standards, probably approaching a population of 100,000, and most people in the noble or knightly class did know each other.  If Dante believed this tale of Simone and Gianni, there may well have been something to it.  Certainly many other people back then knew the story.

I don't know if this background makes the opera any more enjoyable for you; it does for me.  Here is a clip of a short excerpt:  Gianni is singing to the assembled Donati family, warning them that they dare not expose him because by so doing they would expose themselves to the penalty for fraud:  exile ("like a Ghibelline") and the loss of a hand.

Images in this post are in the public domain.


H Stuart said...

This is fascinating stuff. I had no idea there was an opera about real Donati and their--er--frieYou have presented this material very clearly and enjoyably.

Tinney Heath said...

Thanks! I've been a Puccini fan forever, and the happy coincidence of Puccini and the Donati was a lot of fun to explore. Glad you liked it.