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.

And don't forget the other blogs!

6 comments:

Melisende said...

I wonder if Corso is one of the "good" villains that the love and hope to find maybe some redeeming features - or he is just a total medieval monster - or both - a contradiction, an enigma, a fascinating character.

Karin Cox said...

What a fascinating and conflicted character. It must have been a challenge to write his story. Thanks for sharing.

Marsha Lambert said...

Corso sounds like quite a complex person. Would love to read more about him.

katie said...

Thank you for sharing your knowledge about Corso!

Nyki Blatchley said...

That's fascinating. Italy in Dante's time isn't a period I really know a great deal about, so it's great to get a snapshot of an intriguing figure. Of course, many of the most memorable figures of history, such as Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon, seem to be people of conflicting extremes.

Tinney Heath said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone. I'm just now looking in on this, because we had unexpected guests for the past couple of days. Conflicted, complex, intriguing, an enigma - yes, I'd agree with all of that. Many of his contemporaries would have gone with the medieval monster idea, except of course for the part about not knowing that they were medieval... but the chroniclers, striving to be fair, couldn't quite leave it at that. Corso is popping up (as a 7-year-old child, and believe me, he's being quite a terror!) in the book I'm writing now.