Sunday, May 26, 2013

Building a House (Part II)

Last week's post dealt with the things a writer has to know to design a (fictional) house in Florence, mid-13th century.  It asked questions such as these:  What were houses made of?  How big were they?  How many floors?  How were they heated?  What different types of rooms were there?  Where did people sleep?  Where were things stored?  What were the windows like?

The answers to these questions are sometimes surprising, sometimes very difficult to find, and almost always vary tremendously depending on whether we're looking at the home of a wealthy noble, a comfortably-well-off artisan or businessman, or a poor person.  To see what conclusions we came to, look here.

This week I want to take a look at how homes in the city affected other people - neighbors, passersby, people conducting business.  Thus, we'll be looking at such things as the use of space, the availability of water, waste disposal, keeping animals, and the ever-present danger of fire.  

Last time, we took a look at the way homeowners expanded their limited living space by building sporti - little added rooms, or balconies, that jutted out from the house well above street level.  Because these robbed the streets of light and created a hazard (see the painting above, where part of a balcony has crumbled onto the street below), they were heavily taxed and eventually outlawed altogether, though some examples survive even today.  Even while building such structures was permitted, laws usually existed to prevent them from starting low enough on the building that a man on horseback could not pass beneath, for example.  Streets were very narrow, with the two sides quite close together, so one can imagine religious processions or ceremonial occasions, with standard-bearers having to dodge overhanging balconies so they wouldn't snag their banners on the supports. 

If goods were delivered to the house via the street door, this activity clogged the street and got in the way of passersby.  Some houses would have had access via a back door, or through an alley, but any congestion in the street could make it at least temporarily impassable.

And of course it was not only private homes accepting deliveries that clogged the street.  Many of the larger houses rented out their ground floor space to shops and businesses, like this one (shown here with a roof as if it were a single-story building, but in fact more likely to be the ground floor of a house):

Shops, too, had to receive deliveries, and they also tended to draw customers who would transact their business while standing in the street.

Houses were dark, many of them cramped for space, and much of life was lived outdoors when the weather permitted.  Generous homeowners placed benches in front of their houses so that  people could sit and rest.  Customers took up the space in front of shops, children played in the streets, goods were conveyed, people walked and rode through on their way to other destinations.  City laws made an attempt to control congestion in the streets, limiting, for example, what furnishings shop owners could place in the street and how far away from their shopfronts, but one senses that it was a losing battle.

Another form of encroachment on the streets occurred when houses were built with outside staircases.  This example, from Rome, does not take up a great deal of extra space, but such stairways could block an alley between two buildings or jut out into the street.

One of the questions that crops up, to which I find few answers, is where did people park their horses?  Certainly we know that stables existed in the cities; private palaces might well have their own, and animals and stall space could be rented from the public stables.  If someone rode to a shop or to someone's home, the horses would have to be left in the street while they conducted their business; palaces had iron rings built into their walls for tying horses.

City laws attempted to control the problems of crowding and animal waste by requiring citydwellers to contain their animals in some way rather than letting them run loose, or by limiting the hours during which merchants working the market could keep draft animals within the city's walls, or by requiring the responsible party to clean up animal waste within a certain period of time.  In practice, of course, animals were ubiquitous.  Pigs, in particular, star in many humorous stories about 13th century city life.  One famous example is the tale of the famous (and famously good-natured) painter Giotto di Bondone, who, when tripped up by a pig in the street, just grinned and picked himself up, commenting that he probably owed the pig one, having used so many pig bristles in his paintbrushes.

Another legal restriction that tended to limit the number of animals in the city was a limit on how long hay, straw, and other fodder could be kept within the city (allowing, typically, a supply adequate for one day and one night), but this was primarily because the dust and chaff from such fodder was a fire hazard.

More about fire later, but the thought of it reminds us of the citydwellers' need for water.  Locating cities on rivers facilitated laundry, milling, and many other needs of the citydwellers, but in Florence, even situated as it is on the Arno, much of the water to private homes came from wells.  The crowded space made this a danger, as it meant that waste-disposal pits were often located dangerously close to wells, and contamination frequently occurred (not that the river was exactly pristine either, what with the discarded waste materials from butchers, tanners, dyers, and other industries).

Wealthier households had private wells, perhaps located in the space behind the house, a sort of outdoor courtyard which might also house the kitchen (see last week's post) and a garden and possibly chicken coops or pigpens.  Citydwellers lacking private wells had to use the public fountains and wells, some of the former still supplied by surviving remnants of Roman technology.    Naturally, laws evolved to regulate such usage.

I don't have a Florentine example, but perhaps if I did, it would be similar to the laws drawn up to protect Perugia's magnificent Fontana Maggiore:

In Perugia, the city provided "five or seven stone basins," filled with water so that people taking water from the fountain might first wash their vessels.  Violators risked a fine of 5 soldi.  Thirteen copper vases were provided for filling vessels, or for drinking.  It was stipulated that no man could harass any woman going to collect water, either while she was on her way, while drawing water, or while returning home with it.  Taking barrels to the fountain to fill directly was strictly forbidden; not only barrels but any other "oiled, musty or dirty vessel" was prohibited.  People could not bathe or wash clothes in the fountain, and workmen were not permitted to use fountain water to mix mortar or for any other such purpose.  The city also mandated the placement of two cisterns, one inside the wall and one outside, at each of the city's gates.  Water was too vital for its availability to be left to chance, and every effort was made - at least in the statutes - to keep the water supply clean and wholesome.

Thinking about water in the medieval city naturally suggests questions about what happened to waste water, and to solid waste material, both from humans and from animals.  Cities had various types of drainage systems in place, sometimes involving underground channels, sometimes ditches running alongside streets, but there was no ideal way of disposing of such waste material, and everything depended on the compliance of the city's residents, who, after all, had limited options.  Laws prohibited dumping such materials in the streets or in the rivers, but these laws were reiterated so often that it is apparent that the problem continued.

Some homes had latrines.  These might drain directly into a cesspit behind the house, or in between two houses.  Records exist of neighboring households sharing the use of a latrine situated between the two houses, and also sharing the costs of having the cesspit cleaned when necessary.  The illustration below, from Boccaccio's Decameron, shows the unfortunate Andreuccio, who has fallen through a flimsy floorboard in such a makeshift latrine and wound up in the waste collection area down below.

(Presumably the brick wall shielding the waste area from the street has only been stripped away, dollhouse-style, for purposes of the illustration, and would actually have been a complete wall, to contain odors and unpleasant sights.)

Houses without latrines would be equipped with chamberpots, or possibly closestools, which might be situated in a curtained-off area for privacy.  The closestool below is 17th century, but the earlier versions can't have been very much different.

And finally, citydwellers had to remember constantly the danger of fire.  Houses were packed closely together, and many were of wood.  Even houses of brick and stone had a lot of wood involved in their construction - walls, floors, beams, stairs, furnishings.  And open fires were the only source of heat and method of cooking.  You will recall from the previous post that kitchens at this time tended to be located outside of the home, in the back, or else at the very top of the house, to try to minimize this danger.

The shops on the ground floors of many homes, however, might require a source of fire for their business (chandlers, cookshops, bakeries), or they might require the presence of flammable materials (chandlers again, apothecaries).  Stables had flammable feed on the premises; warehouses were packed with materials that would burn.  The medieval city was vulnerable.  Fire was also used as a weapon, when families or factions declared war on one another and took their battles to the streets of the city.  Arson, involving Greek fire, was the cause of a swath of destruction in 1304 that destroyed many homes and churches; the many wax votive images offered in thanks and kept in Orsanmichele helped fuel that fire.

The Great Fire of London was, of course, much later than the time period we're talking about, yet it was an example of a fire raging out of control in a pre-industrial city.  This is what citydwellers feared:

And from time to time their fears were realized.  

So many things to think about, as we try to understand the way people lived in a different time and place.  Yet the study is fascinating, and we learn unexpected things by making the effort to understand what - exactly - it would be like to have lived there, and then. 

Images in this post are either in the public domain or are our own photos, with the exception of the house in Rome with the outside staircase, which is licensed to Lalupa via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license (Wikimedia Commons).

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Building a House (Part I)

I'm building a house.  Three of them, actually - and they're just a few doors from each other, all along one street in Florence.  In the mid-13th century.

I'm working on my next historical novel, and I need to design, decorate, and furnish at least three houses:  one for the family of a well-to-do (but not noble) notary; one for a wealthy and powerful family with an ancient and honorable (and noble) surname and a knight in residence; and one humble house for the family of one of the servants of the people in the first house.  The time:  1260-ish.

And it's been much, much more difficult than I ever would have guessed.

What's the problem, you may say.  You want to know what medieval houses were like?  Just look it up.  I wish it were that easy, but alas, it is not.  Information is ambiguous as to date and place, missing altogether, or contradictory.

A city official's house in Macerata (1373)

When a historian flags a "first known mention" of something, is it brand new as of that date?  Or has it been around for years, and this is just the first mention of it that survived?  (Think inside shutters, wall fireplaces.)  We don't know.  We can't know. 

When a writer groups all of Italy together (or worse, all of Europe), you've got a problem:  Venice beat Florence to chimneys and wall fireplaces, probably by quite a bit, and it's likely that the places with a harsh climate that spurred them to cover their windows did so before the more temperate areas got around to it. 

When a writer groups the entire 13th century together, and possibly throws in the 14th for good measure, you've got another problem.  When you find a great reference in Boccaccio, who was writing a hundred years after my time period, you don't know whether he's writing about something that was innovative in his lifetime, or something that had been around forever.

As for the iconography, Villani, for example, is a chronicler who is only slightly later than our target time, but the surviving illustrations of his work are from even later - so do they reflect the reality of the times being written about, or the illustrator's contemporary reality?  

But at the end of the day (lots of days, actually) there are certain conclusions we can draw.  Unfortunately for those of us who like things definite and tidy, there are also certain things we will probably never know.

Florence is not lacking in Renaissance palaces, and they are lovely and interesting.  But medieval houses they are not - not even medieval houses for the upper crust - and they simply don't tell us much about those earlier dwellings.  In Florence one can still see streets that retain a medieval flavor, but not so many buildings that date from before the Renaissance.   (This is because of the ravages of time, of World War II, of floods and fire, of misguided modernization, and because of those very same Renaissance houses, which after all had to be built somewhere.)

Elsewhere in Tuscany

Even when medieval buildings survive, the insides have been gutted and rebuilt so many times that there is little left to go on, as we attempt to recreate how people lived in Florence in 1260.

But we do have some paintings, book illustrations, descriptions in literature, estate inventories, detailed legal documents concerning property and property division, and some archaeological evidence, so we do the best we can with what we've got.

I drew up a list of questions for myself, never dreaming that it would be such a mega-project to find the answers.  Here are the first ones, if you'd like to come along with me on this research journey:

First question:  How much living space did they have?  In the countryside, Tuscan farmhouses were considered spacious compared to those in Lombardy.  They (the Tuscan houses) ranged from 33 feet to 39 feet in length, and 16 to 20 feet in width (with a very high ceiling, which could accommodate a loft).  That's a maximum of 780 square feet.  Not a lot - and in the city, there was less space.  In the 13th century, the population was exploding - people were flocking in from the surrounding countryside, and everyone wanted to live within the walls, for safety and for convenience. 

So people built up when they could, creating the formidable defensive tower-houses that embodied the power of the nobles, or just creating more living space for more people above what had been there before:

When they couldn't build up, they built out.  That's how you get those jutting-out additions you see in the street scene above:  balconies, add-ons, sporti as the Italians called them - they blocked the light from the street below, and they had to be constructed of lightweight material and propped up, but they did give that precious little extra bit of living space.  Sometimes a balcony, or a sort of bridge, connected two nearby houses, far above street level (a way to seek safety in the home of a friend or family member if your own home was under assault, an all-too-common situation in those days).

How many floors?  It varied.  Typically the ground floor of any multi-storied building was devoted to storage and/or commercial space - a shop rented out (or belonging to the homeowner who lived above); storage for comestibles; perhaps a guest bedroom, or a space for invited guests to come inside - but not too far inside.  The staircase up to the family's living quarters began on the ground floor; access to it in some homes could be denied by a stout door with a bar and a lock.  (Outside staircases also existed; see next week's post for more about those.)  The main living area would be the piano nobile, or one floor up.  In a larger house, there might be additional chambers above that level.  But Florence was still full of single-story, ramshackle wooden shanties, housing those of the poor who at least had their own homes, instead of renting a room or two in a larger building. 

How many rooms, and how were they allocated?  Not very many rooms, not even in the grandest houses.  (And there were plenty of people who rented and lived in a single room.)  The one division you see, whenever division is possible at all, is that of sala and camera (living room/dining room, or the house's more public area; and the bedchamber or chambers, the house's more private area).  This illustration from Boccaccio's Decameron neatly illustrates the sala/camera distinction:

Rooms might be divided by wooden panels, or even by cloth hangings, rather than by actual walls.   At the wealthiest end, individuals (even husband and wife) might have their own bedrooms, and the man of the house might have a private study.  At the poorer end, there might have been one bedchamber for everyone to share. 

How were they heated?  In the case of the poorest houses, the question should be were they heated.  And the answer is, probably not.  While wealthier homes had at least one hearth, maybe two, and individual rooms could be heated with charcoal braziers (a sort of medieval space heater), the danger of fire in the city was substantial, and people who were renting a single room were likely going to have to make do without a source of warmth.  No heat, no kitchen, no laundry or bathing facilities.  Just that room.  Windows (see next question) were not glassed, and in fact at this early date they often would not even have been covered with cloth.

In the houses where heat was an option, it was still an imperfect system.  This date (1260) is too early for wall fireplaces with chimneys (this is a somewhat controversial point, but there really doesn't seem to be much evidence of an external chimney system in Florence at this time).  Smoke could be vented through louvred windows, though imperfectly.  A "central hearth" could be relocated to a spot next to a wall, with a fire-resistant reredos behind it, and the smoke channeled toward a window, or it could remain in the more primitive central position.  I suspect that the fireplace shown here, in an illustration nearly 200 years later than our time period, is not attached to a real chimney, but is using the cone to direct the smoke out through a vent in an external wall.  With older houses placed very close together, it must have been quite difficult to retrofit them with external chimneys; thus, there was a period of time when newer houses built by artisans were probably more comfortable and livable than the much older ancestral homes of the nobility, which were still cramped fortified towerhouses, no matter how carefully updated.

In this illustration, the woman cooking birds on a spit is cooking them near the hearth, but they are actually suspended over a portable brazier (note the handle):

What were the windows like?  Like holes in the wall, mostly.  Poor homes might have few small windows, possibly with no covering at all, though some sort of rough wooden shutter on the outside (which may or may not have fit the space well) would have been likely.  Wealthier homes might have had barred windows on the ground floor, to guard against uninvited guests; other windows would have had external shutters, but this is still a bit early for many homes to have the ingenious, intricately-designed hinged and modular inside shutters that came along a bit later and allowed people to control air flow and light much more precisely than the binary, open-shut method that was all they had before.  Certainly no glass in home windows at this time, and even the stretched- and treated-cloth coverings would not have been common.  (That doesn't mean that clever people didn't jury-rig solutions that would have made their lives easier and more pleasant.) 

The house shown below (which is in Friuli) may well be medieval, but had it been in Florence, it almost certainly would not have had such a big window at the ground level.  I suspect that the window is not original to the building, though the stonework around it suggests that it may have been.

What about the kitchen?  Those who rented a single room didn't have one, obviously.  Some families rented more than one room in a building (though they were lucky if the rooms were on the same floor and near each other), but they often didn't have kitchen access, either.  Due to the ever-present danger of fire, kitchens at this time were typically located outside the house, in an area behind the building in a little outbuilding, to contain the risk of fire.  But this is also during the time when many homes, particularly the wealthier ones, were adding a kitchen at the top of the house (again, to minimize the risk of fire).  Rudimentary cooking could be accomplished over any sort of hearth, of course, and very few private homes had an oven (bakeries provided bread, or baked the bread and pies that cooks prepared at home and brought to the bakery or cookshop to be baked). 

Where do things get stored?  Items in barrels (wine, vinegar) are usually stored on the ground floor, an area which may be divided into storage rooms.  As the contents are required elsewhere in the house, people bring containers down and take what they need.  Hauling barrels full of liquid up to a kitchen in the top of the house is not a job anyone wants to tackle.  Grain and other relatively nonperishable comestibles can be stored practically anywhere.  It's not unusual to note in inventories that such supplies are stored in bedrooms.  Wherever there's room...  Clothing, household linens, and other items of value can be found in storage chests, which typically surround the bed or line up against the wall of the camera.  The one place you won't find things stored is in those overhanging jetties, or sporti, because they might not tolerate the extra weight.

Where does everybody sleep (including servants, if applicable)?  Depends on how many rooms they have.  Bedrooms are shared; beds are shared.  Bedrooms often have pallets as well as real beds; servants and children may sleep there, or there may be a sort of dormitory for the children in another chamber.  All combinations are possible.  By the way, even the great families at this time had very few servants in residence - perhaps two or three.  That doesn't mean they didn't hire other people for specific tasks:  hauling water, delivering wood, doing the laundry.

What's the house made of?  In Florence, probably brick.  If it's a wealthy person's house, it may have a stone facade.  It may even be built entirely of stone.  It's not unusual to see the first story of a house in stone, and the upper story (or stories) in somewhat less expensive materials.  Poor homes in Florence at this time are still made of wood.

What's the flooring made of?  Again, probably brick for the ground floor.  Depending on the strength of construction, wood or another lighter material may be used for subsequent stories. A poor person's wooden house probably had a dirt floor. 

What about decor?  This only applies to the wealthier homes, of course.  Walls are usually whitewashed; painted decorations may be added, done either freehand or with stencils.  These are most typically geometric patterns and figures.  See the detail and overview below of the Sala dei Pappagalli at the Palazzo Davanzati, a late 14th century palace in Florence, now a museum.  This palace was state-of-the-art a hundred years after our time period, but this particular style of decoration may not have changed much:

Palazzo Davanzati

The wall painting is done in such a way as to suggest a fabric drapery, and indeed wall hangings were an important part of decor on special occasions, but evidence suggests that they were safely stored in chests most of the time.

Floors in these more elaborate dwellings were more likely to have reed mats than scattered rushes, which were more of a country phenomenon at this time in Tuscany (or so say my sources).  Carpets might adorn benches, hang from windowsills on feast days, or cover tables, but they weren't likely to be on the floor.


That's it for Part I.  Join me next week for a look at some of the features of medieval houses that affected not only those who dwelt in the house, but the whole neighborhood:  source of water, how much room does the house take up on the street, what are the fire hazards, how did the residents dispose of waste, how did they get supplies into the house, and where did they park their horses?

Images in this post are in the public domain with the exception of the Palazzo Davanzati pictures, which are licensed to Sailko via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, the picture of the house in Macerata, which is licensed to Abraham via the same license, and the street scene (second picture), to which my husband Tim Heath holds copyright.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Wordplay (Want to play too?)

Francesco Foscari

These days, most of my energy - research and otherwise - is going into my next book.  What that means here, on the blog, is yet another fluffy and whimsical post.  There will be more posts with content, I promise.  But not today.

Some while back, my husband and I were looking at a piece of music written for the installation of a Doge of Venice in the year 1423.  The Doge in question was the redoubtable (if controversial) Francesco Foscari, shown above.  

But this is not a post about Foscari, or about doges, or about Venice.  It's a riff on the concept of installing someone.  Think about it:  a king or queen gets crowned (has a coronation); a president is sworn in; various other public figures probably have other means of officially starting their run in whatever the job in question happens to be.

But "install"?  An odd word, I thought.  Almost as if you were going to plug the guy in, boot him up, and make sure he was attached to a surge suppressor.

Surge suppressor
Then my husband observed, "If the people thought he was going to be a particularly extravagant doge, they could always install a splurge suppressor."

Ready to splurge

And with that, we were off and running.

Venetian doges perform an odd and arcane ceremony in which they "marry" the sea, tossing a ring into the water from a very fancy boat.  What if one of them was likely to get carried away and jump in after it?  You might then need - a submerge suppressor.

And while on an aquatic theme, if the doge's fancy boat (the Bucentaur) happened to stray into dangerous territory, you might need a gurge suppressor.  (Gurge:  a whirlpool, or, as a verb, to swallow up.)

Venice, of course, was noted for its lush fabrics, silks and brocades of exquisite design.  If The Ten (Venice's rulers) feared that a frumpy doge might sour their image by wearing clothes made of simple worsted cloth, they could always employ a serge suppressor. 

And if they felt strongly that no more hostelries should be licensed during this doge's reign, they might consider an auberge suppressor.

Should the newly-installed doge be subject to depending overly much on wizards, they could always hook him up to a thaumaturge suppressor.

If they feared that the doge might actually make an alliance with the traditional enemy (that would be Genoa), they might do well to invest in a merge suppressor.  And if instead he seemed overly willing to allow traditional allies to go their separate ways, The Ten might protect their city with a diverge suppressor.

Should the doge be old and feeble and about to keel over any moment, if The Ten wanted to keep the reign going for a while longer, they might need to employ a dirge suppressor.

If they worried about how playwrights might depict the byzantine governmental structure of their fair city, they could always use a dramaturge suppressor.

Not to bring theology into this, but it might behoove The Ten to control the power of the clergy by judicious use of a theurge suppressor.

That last one might prove essential, because as powerful as The Ten were, they probably couldn't have managed a demiurge suppressor. 

Anyway, you get the idea.  Anyone have any more ideas?  If you do, please add them to the comments.  I can't guarantee finding illustrations, but if I do, I'll edit the post and add them. 

Images in this post are in the public domain.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

We have a winner!

The winner of the Heroes and Villains Blog Hop drawing (see last post if you missed it) has been determined.  Five comments, five equal chances to win.  My husband just drew the winning name from a containeroid object of some sort, and that name is -

Nyki Blatchley

Nyki was another participant in the Blog Hop.  He's a fantasy writer and a talented blogger, and I'm pleased that the Hop introduced me to his work.  I will attempt to contact him privately to work out details of prize delivery; if that fails, Nyki, and you see this, please get in touch, via my website if necessary (I'm not into publishing my private email address).  

Thanks to all who read, and especially to all who commented.  Looks like there's another of these Hops, this one specifically for historical fiction, coming up, and I'm considering coming along for that one, too.  I'll keep you posted.

Celebratory image, by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, is in the public domain by virtue of being seriously old.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

In the mold of Catiline

Oh and here is the banner!

Welcome to the Great Heroes and Villains Blog Hop!  With 29 blogs involved, this gives readers 29 chances to win a prize, so by all means take advantage of it - enter here (details next) and then "hop" over to the others (listed below) and see what they have to offer, too. 

The prize on this blog is a copy of my book A Thing Done, either in paperback or as a Kindle or Nook gift from Amazon or Barnes & Noble, winner's choice.  To enter, just leave me a comment, preferably about Corso, and I'll draw a name.  And if you can tell me anything about Corso that I don't already know, I'll enter you twice - as long as whatever you tell me is true and documentable!  (If you come up with something really creative, I might just manage to improve your chances - it's worth a try.  If Amazon can have complex algorithms, so can I.)  I'll draw the winner on Tuesday (the 7th) and post the name here.

Here's my entry - lucky #13 - in the Blog Hop.

Corso Donati - Hero or Villain? 

"...noble of blood, handsome of body, a charming speaker, adorned with good breeding, subtle of intellect... one who gathered many armed men and kept a great entourage... who gained many possessions and rose to great heights:  such was messer Corso Donati... When he passed through the city many cried "long live the Baron," and the city seemed to belong to him." - Dino Compagni, Florentine chronicler, contemporary with Dante (and with Corso), translated by Daniel E. Bornstein

So Corso's a hero, right?

You might think so.  But let's fill in those gaps and see what's been omitted:

"A knight in the mold of Catiline the Roman, but more cruel... with his mind always set on evildoing... who ordered many arsons and robberies and did great damage to the Cerchi and their friends... who because of his pride was called the Baron." 

Corso, then, would seem to be a mixed bag - a complicated man.  He was born in Florence around the middle of the 13th century and died violently in 1308.  Dante hated him, yet his military genius and his courage saved the day for Dante's side at the Battle of Campaldino.

He was on familiar terms with popes, kings, and imperial heirs, yet he used a scurrilous street performer (one "Scampolino") to spread calumny about his enemies.  He once attacked the palace of the priors of Florence with crossbows and fire, yet he may well have been the force behind building Florence's great civic palace in the first place, out of civic pride and a spirit of competition with other Tuscan cities.  (See Marvin Trachtenberg's article, Founding the Palazzo Vecchio in 1299:  The Corso Donati Paradox)
Florence's Palazzo Vecchio in an old photo

He engaged in protracted legal battles over money.  One was a tussle with a convent over Corso's sister's inheritance; another with his own mother-in-law, again over money (which always seemed to be in short supply).  When he wasn't invoking the Florentine legal system, he was flouting it - engaging in street brawls, appropriating part of the city's defensive wall for his houses, forcing his way back into the city after being exiled.

Corso (mounted) forcing his way back into the city and releasing prisoners

(The legal battle mentioned above wasn't his only altercation involving a convent.  He pulled another sister, Piccarda, out of her nunnery to marry her against her will to a political ally.  Dante, sympathetic to Piccarda, puts her in the Paradiso.)

Corso removing Piccarda from her nunnery (Lorenzo Toncini)
Dante meets Piccarda in Paradise (Philipp Veit)

He was a passionate Guelf in the days of Guelf-Ghibelline altercations, and later, when the victorious Guelf party split into two hostile factions, he was the leader of the Black Guelfs.  (Dante was a White Guelf, and while we can't link Dante's exile directly with Corso, it was in fact Corso who was calling the shots around the time of that decree.)

Dante in Exile (Lord Frederic Leighton)

He certainly made an impact on history.  No one would deny that he was powerful and charismatic; no one would deny his military skill, or that he inspired deep loyalty in some (and passionate hatred in others).  Words like "ambitious," "restless," "bold," and "violent" abound in historians' descriptions of Corso.

He was accused of killing via poison on at least two occasions:  one was his first wife, a member of the Cerchi family (members of which later became the leaders of the rival White Guelf faction), and the other was an incident where several youths of the Cerchi family were being detained by the city authorities after participating in a street brawl, and several sickened and died after eating a black pudding.

In another disturbing incident involving the Cerchi, Corso's firstborn son, Simone, attacked and killed his own uncle, his Cerchi mother's brother, and was fatally wounded in turn.  

Overt force, plotting and scheming, and godfather-like doling out of favors to clients
were all part of his repertoire.  But in addition to his political activities (!), he was a military hero.

The Battle of Campaldino, at which Dante fought, pitted the Ghibellines of Arezzo against the Guelfs of Florence.  Corso, who was serving as podestĂ  [a sort of mayor or magistrate, hired from another city to avoid any local favoritism] in Pistoia at the time.  He commanded 600 Pistoiese horsemen, but he was under orders to stand fast unless ordered otherwise.  Not Corso's style - he saw an opportunity, and a need, and he led his cavalry into action, which turned the battle decisively in favor of the Guelfs.  In a typical Corso moment, he is said to have announced "If we are defeated, I want to die in battle with my fellow citizens; and if we win, who among us will trouble to return to Pistoia for the condemnation?" (chronicler Giovanni Villani, quoted in Carol Lansing, The Florentine Magnates).

A noted physician of the day, Taddeo Alderotti, wrote a health regimen especially for Corso.  It included advice that Corso must have welcomed (eat fine foods, drink good wine, wear beautiful clothing), as well as some that he may not have (curb your tendency to overdo sexual activity in the summer).  Corso was probably a young man when Alderotti wrote this book, but he did suffer from severe gout later in his life, and probably welcomed all the medical advice he could get.

Let's look in on what two other significant observers of Florence's history had to say about him.

Machiavelli (Tito di Santi)

First, let's listen to the famed political theorist/philosopher and Florentine historian Niccolò Machiavelli.

"Life would have gone on quietly if the city had not been agitated again by the restless spirit of Messer Corso.  To get reputation for himself, he always held opinions contrary to the most powerful men; and whichever way he saw the people inclined, he too turned so that his authority would be more welcome to them.  So he was at the head of all the disputes and novelties, and all those who desired to obtain some extraordinary thing resorted to him. ... For Messer Corso made use of his private forces and authority, and his adversaries, those of the state; but so great was the authority he carried in his person that everyone feared him. ... It was easy to persuade the people of [Corso's alleged bid for tyranny] because his mode of living overstepped all civil bounds."  (Florentine Histories, N. Machiavelli, translated by Laura F. Banfield and Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr.)
Corso seems in many ways to have been a thoroughly modern politician, and he seems to have earned Machiavelli's respect.

Next, Dante.  The occasion:  Dante and Virgil have visited the Inferno and are now making their way up through the Purgatorio.  Dante encounters his good friend Forese Donati, Corso's younger brother, who died in 1296.  Dante speaks of his city thus (translation from Canto 24, Purgatorio, is by Robert Durling):

"...for the city where I was placed to live strips itself of goodness day by day and seems bent on sad ruin."

Forese then answers him:

"Believe it... for the one most to blame in this I see dragged at the tail of a beast toward the valley where guilt is never forgiven.  The beast goes faster with each step, ever growing, until it strikes him and leaves his corpse basely disfigured."

Forese is offering a rather melodramatic version of his brother's demise.  (Dante is supposedly writing in the year 1300, prior to Corso's death, and this is therefore supposed to be a prediction, but in fact he is writing after Corso's death in 1308, and Corso has probably already found his way to "the valley where guilt is never forgiven".)  By the way, Dante's wife Gemma was a cousin of Corso and Forese.

16th century portrait of Dante, Florentine school

What was this death like from a historian's point of view?  For that, we'll return to Dino Compagni, who describes how a power struggle within the Black Guelf faction led to Corso's downfall.  Of Corso's enemies (Pazzino de' Pazzi, Rosso della Tosa, and their followers, he says this:

"They feared his proud spirit and energy, and did not believe that he could be satisfied with a share of power."

Quite so.  Corso gathered his followers and incited them, planning (according to Compagni) a government takeover, but Rosso and his friends heard of this.

"Their irate spirits became so inflamed with talk that they could not hold back from havoc.  One Sunday morning they went to the signori, who called the Council and took arms. ... On that same day the popolo went in fury to messer Corso's house.  He barricaded himself in Piazza San Piero Maggiore and reinforced himself with many troops... Messer Corso was badly afflicted with gout and could not bear arms, but he urged his friends on with his tongue, praising and inspiring those who bore themselves valiantly.  But he had few men, for it was not the day he had chosen."

Corso sent for reinforcements from outside the city, but they did not arrive.  A battle ensued, Corso's enemies broke through the barricade, and Corso and his friends fled through the houses, through the nearby gate in the city walls, and out of the city.

The gout-stricken Baron rode hell-bent toward the abbey of San Salvi, but men at arms caught up with him.  At this point, stories differ.  Some say Corso, unwilling to be taken, threw himself to the ground, where a Catalan mercenary rammed a spear into his throat.  Others say he fell.  Dante, above, suggests that he was dragged.  However it was, the mortally wounded knight was taken to the nearby abbey, where he died and was buried.  (He was reburied in Florence three years later, once things had calmed down.)

Death of Corso Donati (in red)

Oh, before I forget, remember that part about how people called him "Il Barone" because of his overweening pride and arrogance?  Every historian I've ever read on the subject has picked up on that.  I think they're wrong.  I drew up a genealogical chart for Corso once, and lo and behold, among his ancestors were a Baroni, a Baroncione, and another ancestor who was nicknamed Barone.  Corso didn't get a fair shake on this one; it was a family name, however well it may have suited him.

To finish, I'll turn the floor over once more to Dino Compagni, who sums it all up:

"He lived dangerously and died reprehensibly.  He was a knight of great spirit and renown, noble in blood and behavior, and very handsome in appearance even in his old age, of fine form with delicate features and white skin.  He was a charming, wise, and elegant speaker, and always undertook great things.  He was accustomed to dealing familiarly with great lords and noble men, and had many friends, and was famous throughout all Italy.  He was the enemy of the popolo and of popolani, and was loved by his soldiers; he was full of malicious thoughts, cruel and astute."
Cruel and astute.  Corso Donati, in all his contradictory glory.  A villain to many, a hero to some, but withal, a complicated human being who continues to fascinate, though he's been dead for over 700 years.  How could a writer resist?

Images in this post are in the public domain by virtue of antiquity.

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