Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Spendthrift Brigade

Inferno, Canto 29:  Codex Altonensis, Tuscany, 1350-1410

Dante didn't think much of them, those twelve spoiled rich kids from Siena.  He made that perfectly clear in the Inferno - the relevant page is pictured above.   One can almost imagine the great poet sniffing disapprovingly as he looked down that substantial nose of his at the dastardly dozen - wastrels and profligates all.

"Now was there ever a people so foolish as the Sienese?  Certainly not [even] the French, by far!"  These are the words Dante the poet puts in the mouth of Dante the character, speaking to his guide Virgil as they observe a few unfortunate Sienese in the Inferno.  Then as now, Siena and nearby Florence did not exactly constitute a mutual admiration society.

 They were Dante's contemporaries, the members of the notorious Brigata Spendereccia (also sometimes called the Brigata Godereccia, from the verb "godere" - to enjoy).  Their reputation persists even today, when critics of certain political initiatives in Tuscany invoke the name as a way of saying "Wasteful, careless, irresponsible use of funds."

Who were these young men, and what did they do to live in infamy for the past 700+ years?  This is the season for conspicuous consumption, and in that arena we all have a lot to learn from these fellows.

They are said to have been a group of wealthy young men who pooled their resources - to the tune of 18,000 gold florins apiece.  With the resulting fund of 216,000 gold florins (estimated to be the equivalent of 12-15 million euros today), they purchased a palace and lived like kings until the money ran out.  Like very, very extravagant kings. 

They spent enormous amounts of money on fine dining, with all that accompanied it - entertainment, servants, gold and silver plate and flatware.  They each maintained a sumptuous apartment in their shared palazzo.  They were said to throw the dishes, table-ornaments, and knives of gold and silver out the window after a banquet.  If reports are to be believed, they fried gold florins and served them to one another, and they had their horses shod with silver.  Their food was prepared with the most costly spices, using them in vast excess, perhaps even cooking game birds on a fire fueled by outrageously expensive cloves.

While some of this may well be hyperbole, it's pretty obvious that these young men were out to impress.

Observers differ on how long it took them to exhaust their treasury:  10 months, two years.  No more than that.  One can imagine frantic parents, scrambling to legally emancipate their sons before the entire family fortune was eaten up by debt.  What little we know about the men suggests that some were permanently reduced to poverty, while others managed to make a fresh start and maintain a standard of living that was, if not as ridiculous as the one they had just enjoyed with the rest of the brigata, at least fairly respectable.

There's no shortage of stories about them, but it is surprisingly difficult to pin down exactly who they were.  Historians, Dante scholars, and contemporary or near-contemporary chroniclers have reached different conclusions, and as fascinating as Dante's words are, they do not clarify identities and details.  We do have enough, however, to hazard guesses about the identities of at least five possible members.

Illustration of Inferno, Canto 13:  Giovanni Stradano (aka Jan van der Straet), 1523-1605

The first brigata member that Dante encounters in the Inferno is one Lano of Siena, one of the squanderers, who is being pursued by a pack of ravenous black hounds.  Despairing, he cries out to death to hurry and save him:  "Or accorri, accorri, morte!"  We know it is Lano because his companion, Iacopo di Santo Andrea, calls him by name:  "Lano, not so nimble were your legs at the jousts at Toppo!"  (Dante translations in this post are by Robert Durling.)

So what is this cryptic reference?  For background information we turn to the many Dante commentators who lived close to the poet's own time, and they tell us that Lano is Arcolano di Squarcia Maconi, a member of the Brigata.  Boccaccio further tells us that Lano squandered his wealth.  Impoverished, the young man took part in an expedition against Arezzo in 1288, and when the Aretines ambushed the Sienese, Lano allowed himself to be slain, even though he could have escaped, rather than continue to live in poverty.  This ambush took place at the Pieve del Toppo.  Thus, Lano twice sought death, but in the Inferno there will be no cessation to his torment.

The pursuing hounds are sometimes interpreted as demons, as in this illustration:

Inferno, Canto 13:  Giovanni di Paolo (1403-1483)

The other four Brigata members in the Inferno are made known to us much deeper in Hell, all the way down in Canto 29.   A nasty, scabrous fellow named Capocchio ("Blockhead") tells us about them, though we don't actually see them or hear them speak. 

Capocchio says, in response to Dante's remark about the Sienese (above):

"Except for Stricca, he knew how to spend moderately,
    and Nicholas, who first discovered the rich custom of cloves, in the garden where that seed takes root,
    and except for the crew for whom Caccia d'Asciano used up his vineyard and his great farmlands, and to whom Bedazzled displayed his wisdom."

Taking the four one at a time, let's start with Stricca.  

Again, the commentators provide much fascinating background. Modern interpreters tell us that Capocchio's description of Stricca's spending as moderate is ironic, though I would have thought sarcastic was a better term.  Who was he?  Several persons with the same or similar names have been suggested.  Most popular is the idea that he was the son of Giovanni Salimbeni, which is to say, a member of one of Siena's most prominent families, and that the next man on our list, Niccolò, was his brother. 

However, there are those who hold that Stricca was of the Tolomei family (another prominent Sienese clan), in which the name Baldistricca (Stricca for short) recurred.  

Assuming that he was the Salimbeni Stricca, he was probably a city official (despite his youth and profligacy), and he served as podestà in Bologna (in 1276 and again in 1286, a lucrative position that could have gone a long way toward reestablishing his fortune), and possibly in other cities as well.  We know little more about him.

His brother Niccolò, however - if brother he was - is known as the clove guy.  That is to say, he's the one who either (depending on how you read it) stuffed gamebirds with the wildly expensive spice, or grilled them over a fire composed of cloves, or simply had his meat cooked with a lot of cloves.

Niccolò was either a Salimbeni or a Bonsignori.  Again, we're not certain, though most commentators say Salimbeni.  If the former, then he was Stricca's brother, assuming Stricca was a Salimbeni and not a Tolomei; if the latter, then he wasn't.  It appears there may have been two men by that name, and of those two families, in the Brigata.  Also, just to complicate matters, there may have been more than one brigata.

I rather arbitrarily favor the idea that he was of the Bonsignori clan, if only because I have a bit more information about him if that is the case.  If this is true, he was a knight, a staunch Ghibelline, the warrior who captained the Sienese at the battle of Castiglion d'Orcia in 1279, a supporter of Henry VII of Luxembourg, and he lived an active life at least until 1314, which is the last we hear of him.

A recipe book by Niccolò's cook has survived the centuries.  It's entitled "Il libro delle vivande trovate dalla brigata" (the book of foods for the brigata) and includes recipes "per dodici ghiotti" (for twelve gluttons).

Next comes Caccia d'Asciano, whose historical identity doesn't seem to be quite as controversial as the previous two.  Caccia (short for Caccianemico) was the son of a knight, messer Trovato degli Scialenghi.  "Caccianemico" is one of those gloriously descriptive Italian names that means something like "Hunts his enemy."  We know of Caccia only that his spendthrift ways cost him (and his family) a vineyard and other lands in Asciano, near Siena. 

And finally, there's l'Abbagliato.  This nickname is usually translated as "Bedazzled," though at least one modern scholar thinks the intent was closer to "Sucker."  Be that as it may, l'Abbagliato historically was Bartolomeo dei Folcacchieri.  His brother was known as a comic poet.  We know of l'Abbagliato that he was once fined for drinking in a place where it was forbidden, and that later he played a leading role in Sienese politics and often served as podestà in other cities.  He died in 1300. 

All of that dining must have required some drinking, too
So.  We don't know who all of these men were; we don't know with certainty that all of them were in the brigata; we don't know that there was only one brigata.  And yet, the legend persists.  Perhaps it would have persisted even without Dante, at least locally; we'll never know.

The poet Folgore da San Gimignano also wrote of a similar brigata (and may have been a member), but he was born in 1270, so he must have been writing about a later group, although the idea of lavish spending on fleshly pleasures seems to have carried through. 

So, as you do your holiday shopping and worry about the state of your credit cards, remember the brigata, and then you can feel fiscally virtuous by comparison.

Images in this post are in the public domain by virtue of expired copyright, except for the photo of  cloves, which has been released into the public domain by the photographer.

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