Tuesday, June 25, 2013

1333 and 1966, Florence - Some Striking Parallels

Two plaques in via San Remigio, showing how high the floodwaters came in 1333 and 1966

"L'Arno è fuori!"

The Arno is out.  Out of its banks, out of bounds, out of control.  Thus did some frightened person sound the alarm at 7:00 in the morning on November 4, 1966, alerting the band of Franciscans in Florence's great church of Santa Croce that the escaped waters were barreling toward them.  The river had broken through, and a torrent of water, already tainted with oil and debris, was about to inundate Florence's lowest-lying neighborhood.

It was to be a disaster, a citywide tragedy, resulting in more than 30 deaths and enormous hardship and loss of property, including damage to irreplaceable works of art and to vast numbers of ancient books and historical records.  But it was not unprecedented.

Leonardo da Vinci:  Deluge over a city, from The Nature of Water

Rewind exactly 633 years, to the same date - November 4 - in 1333.  Here's Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani, an eyewitness, writing of that flood:
By Thursday noon, November 4, the Arno had swollen so vastly at Florence that it covered the whole plain of San Salvi... And at the first sleep of night the water washed away the city wall above the Corso de' Tintori... Thereupon the whole volume of the flood rushed into the city with such fury that it filled all Florence.... And when [the statue of] Mars had fallen and all the houses between the Ponte Vecchio and the Carraia bridge had come down and all the streets on both banks were covered with ruins--to look at this scene was to stare at chaos.  (Translation by F. Schevill)
There had been other floods in the intervening years, many of them, but these two remain the most devastating.  

When we approach November 4, 2013, the 47th anniversary of one disaster and the 680th anniversary of the other, I will perhaps blog at length about these floods, but today I want to focus on one small aspect of both events and observe some striking parallels.

How would you feel if you were a prisoner, locked in your cell, and you heard that dreaded cry:  "L'Arno è fuori!"? 


Had you been a prisoner in 1333, your prison would have been Le Stinche, a relatively new institution (proposed in 1297, and still under construction in the early years of the 14th century).  You might have been incarcerated for true criminal activities, but you might just as well find yourself behind those formidable walls for being in debt, or for being an unruly slave or child, imprisoned at the will of your master (or father) to coerce you into more desirable behavior.  Le Stinche was a complex of one- and two-story buildings, a little northwest of Santa Croce and on low ground. 

Le Stinche

A prisoner entering Le Stinche had to stoop to get through the low door, a posture which gave rise to the ironic phrase "Fagli riverenza" (make a reverence, or bow), meaning "Now you've done it; soon you'll be in Le Stinche."

A man "makes his reverence"

Was it charity that caused the leaders of Florence to remember the unfortunate prisoners, even as the waters washed over the whole city and began to rise?  Was it the knowledge that a mass drowning of people (who, despite their incarceration, were Florentine citizens) would not go over well with the public?  Or was it, perhaps, the awareness that in such a situation the city could lose 500 lire in fines, and private creditors could lose 600-1000 florins? 

Whatever the reason, the city's Priors of the Guilds and the Gonfaloniere di Giustizia sent the four prison wardens a sealed decree, via two messengers:  release the prisoners from their cells and get them up to the roof. 

The Blessed Ranieri, freeing poor prisoners

The wardens complied, with some misgivings.  Eleven men made their escape, out somewhere into the parish of San Simone, by jumping from the rooftop.  For the others - whose ranks included any prisoners housed in the infirmary to recover from punitive amputations or the loss of an eye - help was slow in coming, but it did come, and in time.  The prisoners were removed from the area and temporary housing was found for them, just as it was found for all the other refugees forced from their homes. 

Life would not return to normal for a long time; the mills (located, naturally, on the river) were inundated, and the grain supplies destroyed.  Food was scarce; so was living space.  Estimates of the number of dead go as high as 300 (or 3000, depending on whose chronicle you read), and the number of animals who died was said to be ten times the number of people.  It would take the vast sum of 150,000 florins to rebuild.  Had the prisoners been left in their cells, the number of human casualties could easily have doubled. 


If you were a prisoner in Florence in 1966, your prison would be Le Murate, a former convent whose name means "walled," or "walled up" - equally applicable to cloistered nuns or to prisoners.   No longer a prison, today Le Murate hosts films, art exhibits, concerts, poetry readings, and other cultural activities.

The blank walls of Le Murate, today a cultural and art center
By dawn on the morning of November 4, prisoners - released from their cells - were huddled on the roof.  The jail's governor and his family, less fortunate, remained trapped.  They were eventually released by a group of seven prisoners, who also aided other prisoners who needed help to get out of their cells and to safety.  (Those men who rescued the governor later were pardoned by the President of the Republic, Giuseppe Saragut.  One of their number was a member of a Roman crime family, called by his nickname "Zanzarone" - the Big Mosquito.) 

By mid-morning, some of the men had swum away, clinging to debris.  One man drowned.  One clung to the top of a traffic signal, and was pulled into an upper story window by people who tossed him a rope made of knotted sheets.  They housed him and fed him for several days, not knowing he was a prisoner, until the police came looking for him.

There had been 83 prisoners in all.  Some of them helped to rescue other stranded Florentines.  When the waters receded, many pitched in at first-aid stations and soup kitchens, just as the other people in the neighborhood were doing.  And the people in the neighborhood, in their turn, took the prisoners in and housed them.  Only three did not later turn themselves in:  the man who drowned, and two others who ran but were eventually recaptured. 

Thus, we can find parallels between the two watery disasters, so many years apart, and spare a moment of gratitude that these two groups of prisoners were not left to drown in their cells.

To see a slideshow of the 1966 flood, click here

Images in this post:  The photos of the plaque and of Le Murate are by Sailko, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, via Wikimedia Commons.  Other images are in the public domain.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

... that Death had undone so many.

From Church of St. Vigilius of Trent (detail)

"I had not known that death had undone so many."  So said Dante, early in his journey through the Inferno, as he watched the vast numbers of damned souls move slowly toward their final abode.  He was not speaking of the horrible effects of the Black Death in Florence in 1348 - Dante died in 1321 - but the phrase certainly could be applied to that as well.

We don't know how many died in that awful summer, but modern estimates hover around the 60,000-70,000 range, reducing a population of 110,000-120,000 to around 50,000.  Marchionne di Coppo Stefani, who was twelve years old that year, wrote in his chronicle that 94,000 people died between March and October.

It is hard to get one's mind wrapped around those numbers.  More than half of the population, even by the more conservative estimates.  Some say it was three out of five people - old, young, male, female, rich, poor.  In this post I want to introduce you to a few of them, just a list of men (and one woman) whose names and histories we still know, and who ended their lives in that terrible epidemic during that terrible summer.  Not all are Florentines, but all have connections with Tuscany. 

Illustration from Boccaccio's The Decameron
Keep in mind that in the fifteen years before the plague hit, Florence had been through a devastating flood, a rebellion against a despot, a major bank failure affecting the city's major banking companies, and a failed harvest resulting in scarcity, soaring prices, and starvation.  Misfortune was no stranger to the city on the Arno, but nothing could have prepared the citizens for the Black Death.

Giovanni Boccaccio's extraordinary collection of 100 short stories, The Decameron, begins with the premise that ten young people are leaving the city together to flee the plague.  They will pass their days in the countryside amusing themselves with music, dancing, and storytelling.  In the illustration above, you can see the young men and women preparing to leave, and in the background you can see bodies prepared for a mass burial.  Boccaccio's introduction to The Decameron remains one of the most chilling eyewitness descriptions of the epidemic that has come down to us.  It is difficult to read dispassionately even now, 665 years later, as he writes of wife abandoning husband, brother forsaking sister, and parents fleeing from their children, leaving their loved ones to die alone, all for fear of contamination.   

Of the death toll, which he estimated at over 100,000, he has this to say:

Oh, how many great palaces, beautiful homes, and noble dwellings, once filled with families, gentlemen, and ladies, were now emptied, down to the last servant!  How many notable families, vast domains, and famous fortunes remained without legitimate heir!  How many valiant men, beautiful women, and charming young boys, who might have been pronounced very healthy by Galen, Hippocrates, and Aesculapius (not to mention lesser physicians), ate breakfast in the morning with their relatives, companions, and friends and then in the evening dined with their ancestors in the other world!  (Translation by Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella)

But now, to our short list of plague victims from the summer of 1348:

A quartet of artists who lost their lives in 1348 may be among the best-known of this list of 1348 decedents.  Ambrogio Lorenzetti, his older brother Pietro Lorenzetti, and two of Pietro's followers (also both students of Giotto), Bernardo Daddi, and Maso di Banco all succumbed to the Black Death in that year, impoverishing Florence's vibrant artistic scene.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, born in Siena, was considered extremely original in his painting style.  His work was innovative in that he experimented with perspective, approached physiognomy in a style we tend to associate with the Renaissance, and studied classical antiquity.  The extraordinary fresco below, the Allegory of Good Government and Its Effects on Town and Country, may still be seen in Siena's Palazzo Pubblico.  Ambrogio was about 58 when the plague took his life.

Allegory of The Effects of Good Government, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena

Pietro Lorenzetti, Ambrogio's older brother, worked in Florence, Assisi, Cortona, and Pistoia, as well as in Siena.  His work showed Giotto's influence, and he may have worked in Duccio's workshop, possibly alongside Simone Martini.  Pietro was 68 when he died.

Pietro's masterwork was his fresco cycle in the lower church of the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi:

Lower level, Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi

Bernardo Daddi, a follower of Pietro Lorenzetti, had been apprenticed to Giotto.  His birth year is unknown, but he may have been in his 60s when he died.  Below you will see his Madonna in the tabernacle at Orsanmichele in Florence.  It's a repainting of a celebrated image of the Madonna that Florentines believed worked miracles, an image which did not survive the terrible fire of 1304.  Daddi's is actually the second repainting of the original; the image's miracle-working properties were supposed to have transferred from the original image to its later versions.

Image of the Madonna, Orsanmichele, Florence

Maso di Banco, another follower of Pietro (and another pupil of Giotto), is known to us via Lorenzo Ghiberti's autobiography.  Maso's frescoes in the Florentine church of Santa Croce were considered to be his major works.  One is here:

Santa Croce, Florence
The poet Petrarch was not a plague victim himself, but he lost two close friends and the woman he loved that summer.  

Francesco Petrarca
Cardinal Giovanni Colonna, of the powerful and influential Colonna family of Rome, is listed here primarily as a friend and correspondent of the Tuscan poet, but he was quintessentially Roman and in fact died in Avignon, where the papacy was at that time located.  He served under Popes Benedict XII and his successor, Clement VI.  He was possessed of a fine legal education, and he is remembered for persuading Pope Clement VI to send Franciscan friars to preach the gospel in Armenia.  He was 53 when he died.

Tomb of Giovanni d'Andrea
Petrarch's other friend, Giovanni d'Andrea, had an authentic Tuscan connection, for he was born near Florence. He was a legal scholar and a professor of canon law at Padua, Pisa, and Bologna.  He was said to have been very short of stature, causing Pope Boniface VIII to believe he was kneeling, and to repeatedly ask him to rise, to the amusement of the cardinals present.  He had two daughters, both of whom predeceased him:  Novella, who was so skilled in canon law that she could teach her father's lectures in his absence (and so beautiful that she lectured from behind a curtain so she would not distract the students), and Bettina, herself a legal scholar and professor of canon law at Bologna.  He died in his mid-seventies.

Laura de Noves

But it may have been Petrarch's great love and inspiration, Laura, whose loss was most devastating to the poet.  It is thought that Laura de Noves was Petrarch's Laura, though scholars are still not certain.  That Laura was only 38 when she died in 1348, the youngest of our list of victims.  She was married to Count Hugues de Sade, an ancestor of the Marquis de Sade.  She was the daughter of a knight, Audibert de Noves, and his wife Ermessenda, born in Avignon.  Petrarch had loved her and celebrated her in his poetry since he first saw her, aged 17 (and already married for two years). 

Simon of Cascia and Rita of Cascia

The plague took a remarkable pair of religious men, the Blessed Simon of Cascia and his mentor the Blessed Silvester of Valdisieve.  Simon, who entered the Order of Augustian Hermits when young, was an ascetic who preached in Florence, as well as in other cities.  He rejected all episcopal appointments, yet he was sought after as a confessor, spiritual advisor, and preacher.  He worked to reform prostitutes, founding a house of penance for them.  In Florence he established a woman's convent and also a refuge for unmarried mothers.  His written work is said to have influenced Martin Luther.  He died at 53 years of age.

Simon frequently sought council from the Blessed Silvester of Valdiesieve, an illiterate monk in Florence, who had worked as a wool carder before entering the Benedictine Camaldolese monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli; once a monk, he served his brothers by working as a cook.  Considered a deep thinker, Silvester was sought out by both scholars and monks for his wisdom.  He was 70 in 1348.

Wool carding

Saint Bernardo Tolomei
Two of the victims tried to help plague sufferers, only to succumb themselves.  Bernardo Tolomei, above, was canonized in 2009.  Sienese by birth, Bernardo built up a reputation as a theologian and a student of both civil and canon law.  He was an army man for a time, serving Rudolph I of Germany.  He was once accused of heresy, but he successfully defended himself  and went on to found a religious order.  When the Black Death made its appearance in the area around Arezzo, Bernardo and his monks cared for the sick.  In 1348 he returned to Siena, where it was believed that the holy monks would be spared from the danger, but Bernardo was among the first to contract the illness and to die.  The painting below shows Bernardo caring for victims.  He was in his mid-70s when he died.

The Blessed Bernardo Tolomei ministering to plague victims

Another man who tried to help was the physician Gentile da Foligno, a professor of medicine who taught at the universities in Bologna and in Siena.  He is said to be the first European physician to perform a dissection on a human cadaver.  He was something of a specialist in diseases involving the urinary tract. 

Bust of Gentile da Foligno
Gentile da Foligno wrote a popular treatise on the Black Death, in which he recommended the drug theriac as a preventative, but the plague took him anyway.  (Theriac, a concoction first prescribed by the ancient Greeks, involved many months of preparation and no fewer than 64 ingredients, including the flesh of a poisonous snake.)

Medieval apothecary selling theriac

As I said above, Dante had been dead for 27 years when the Black Death struck Florence, but it did take the life of one of his sons.  Iacopo Alighieri may have followed his father into exile and been with him in Ravenna at the end of the great poet's life.  He is known for his commentary on his father's work The Inferno, the first of three parts of the Divine Comedy.  Iacopo did not manage to regain possession of his exiled father's property in Florence until 1343, but he was only able to enjoy it for five years until the plague carried him off.  He was probably about 59 at the time.

Dante Alighieri
Another literary figure who died in the epidemic was Ugolino Brunforte.  A member of the Franciscan order of Friars Minor and a member of a noble family of French origin, Ugolino is thought to have written the earliest version of the Fioretti, or Little Flowers of Saint Francis.  This collection of tales about Francis's life comes down to us only in later versions.  Ugolino was made a bishop under Pope Celestine V (the first pope to resign), but Celestine's successor Boniface VIII did not hold him in such high regard and annulled the appointment.  Ugolino was quite elderly, probably in his mid-80s, when he died.  Looking at my notes, I can't figure out what I thought the Tuscan connection was here, but Umbria isn't all that far away, so here he is.

St. Francis with scenes from his life

Andrea Pisano, the sculptor who created the panels on the south door of Florence's Baptistery, worked in Pisa as well as in Florence.  He succeeded Giotto as Master of the Works of Florence Cathedral.  In a typical web of relationships, Andrea's chief pupil was Andrea Orcagna, who designed the magnificent tabernacle in which Bernardo Daddi's Orsanmichele Madonna is housed (see picture above). 

Visitors to Florence tend to cluster around the magnificent doors with the panels sculpted by Lorenzo Ghiberti, the panels Michelangelo referred to as "the gates of Paradise."  Some few of us stubborn contrarians can be found around by the south doors, however, admiring Andrea's work as well.

South doors, Baptistery, Florence
Near to my heart, as a student of Florentine history, is the chronicler Giovanni Villani, who, among other acts of public service to his city, was the superintendent in charge of Andrea Pisano's work on the doors (above).  Villani served Florence as ambassador, prior, head of the mint, inspector of the building of new city walls, and magistrate in charge of provisions during a famine.  His great work of history, the Nuova Cronica, is indispensable for anyone wishing to study medieval Florence.  

Giovanni Villani, loggia of Mercato Nuovo, Florence
Villani wrote of the plague:

The priest who confessed the sick and those who nursed them so generally caught the infection that the victims were abandoned and deprived of confession, sacrament, medicine, and nursing... And many lands and cities were made desolate.  And this plague lasted until _____.
He intended to fill in the ending date later, but poignantly, his own end came first.  His brother Matteo (who eventually died of a later wave of plague) and then his nepher Filippo, Matteo's son, continued his great historical work.

These are some of the plague victims whose names and careers are still known to us today.  We even have the exact dates of death of three of them:  Ambrogio Lorenzetti on June 9, Gentile da Foligno on June 18, and Giovanni Colonna on July 3 in that brutal summer.  But let us end our list of well-known plague victims by sparing a moment's thought for the many who died alone and frightened, and whose names are now long forgotten.

Maso di Banco relief (Extreme Unction) for Giotto's campanile

Images in this post are in the public domain, with these exceptions:  Skeletons at top are a detail of a photo licensed to Mattis via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike Unported 3.0 license, Wikimedia Commons; the picture of the Blessed Bernardo Tolomei ministering to plague victims is licensed to Noel Olivier via the same type of license, same source; and the following photos are similarly licensed to Sailko:  tomb of Giovanni d'Andrea, Maso di Banco relief of Extreme Unction; statue of Giovanni Villani in Florence's Mercato Nuovo; and the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

And the Blog Hop winner is....

... Regina Jeffers!   Regina also took part in the Blog Hop.  In fact, she wrote not one but several great posts here on her blog.  A writer of historical and contemporary romance, Regina has an impressive catalogue of novels.  Her website will tell you more. 

Regina, I will try to contact you directly about your prize; should I not succeed in doing so, please get in touch with me (which can be done via my website).  And congratulations! 

Thanks to all who participated - those who commented, and those who read everyone's blog posts.  I know I enjoyed reading other writers' blogs about food in history, and I hope all of you readers did, too.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Fast Food in Medieval Italian Cities

Summer banquet hop copy

Welcome to the Summer Banquet Blog Hop!  With 31 blogs involved, this gives readers 31 chances to read about food in different periods of history, and also to win prizes.  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 one of three things:
  1. A copy of my book A Thing Done, as either a Kindle or Nook gift from Amazon or Barnes & Noble, winner's choice.  
  2. A signed paperback copy, if that's the reader's preference and he/she is in the USA.
  3. If the winner already has my book or doesn't want a copy, I will substitute  Kindle or Nook copies of all four of the short stories I've published with Callihoo Publishing.
To enter, just leave me a comment here on the blog.  I'll draw a winner on Saturday, June 8  and post the name here.  (Becoming a follower of this blog, or already being one, will give you one extra chance to win.)  The winner will then need to provide me with a way to reach him or her, if I don't already have that information.

Onward to the food blog!

Medieval Cuisine Without Cooking:  Have It Your Way

Dante at McDonald's, deciding if he wants fries with that?  Beatrice off to Starbuck's for a mocha latte?  Farinata degli Uberti lunching at Burger King?  (Actually, Farinata might have done that just to get the little paper crown, now that I think about it.)

Well, maybe it wouldn't have been quite like that.  But Italian cities have a rich tradition of food-on-the go.  In ancient Rome, vendors hawked roasted chickpeas in the theatres, people sold pastries on the streets, and you were never far from a caupona like this one in Pompeii, where you can almost see those sunken pots filled with lentil stew and bubbling away over the hot coals below:

That tradition continues into the present.  If you walk down the street in Florence, you can fortify yourself with hot, juicy sandwiches of porchetta or tripe, or hot roasted chestnuts, purchased from vendors with little food stands.  Or you can duck into a shop and come out with a slice of pizza al taglio or a cup of gelato.  The possibilities are endless.

Hot chestnuts for sale

There's even this sort of thing (in the Palermo airport), turning out slices of hot pizza to order:

This tradition of already-cooked street food was not interrupted during the middle ages.  Cookshops, bakeries, taverns, street vendors, market stalls, and shops all catered to the shopper in search of ready-to-eat meals.  If guests arrived unexpectedly (which was likely, since they couldn't exactly text ahead to tell you their arrival time), a quick trip to a cookshop would take care of dinner for all.  There, you could purchase anything from a roast hare or a meat pie or a couple of pigeons to an entire meal, with side dishes and condiments. 

But in this post I don't want to talk about the prosperous host in search of convenience food, or a casual stroller in search of a snack.  I want to give some thought to history's forgotten poor, those people who rented a single room without a kitchen, or kitchen privileges.  How - and what - did they eat?

It depended, first of all, on exactly how constrained they were.  If they had a hearth, however modest, or even a brazier for heat, that plus a single small pot would enable at least some basic cookery.  Some things (onions, some vegetables, even eggs) could be cooked directly on the fire, but a pot would make many more things possible:

But many did not have even that limited access to fire.  What then?

The first thing our hypothetical poor guy (let's call him Guido) is going to need is bread.  A meal is not a meal without bread, to Guido and his contemporaries.  (In really harsh times, grain might be cooked in water into a sort of polenta, but really, a city guy like Guido wanted bread.  The lighter in color, the better.)

Bread, in Italian cities of this period, was seldom baked at home.  Even homes with fairly complete kitchens lacked ovens, and while some things could be baked in a covered container over coals, bread really needed an oven.

The people who had ovens were the fornari and the pistori.  In some European cities, laws kept these two kinds of bread providers separate, but it appears that there was considerable overlap in Italian cities.  The fornari were the oven-keepers; they accepted bread that had been kneaded at home, and they baked it for their customers, who often paid them in kind, by leaving some of the bread with them.  They then were able to sell those loaves of bread to other customers, people like Guido who were not equipped to prepare their bread at home (which turned the oven-keepers into pistori, or the people who sold finished bread).

Then, as now, the poorest of the poor were least able to take advantage of the thriftier options.  They paid full price for bread, though it would have been cheaper to purchase grain, have it milled, and prepare the bread at home.  But let's say Guido supports himself with the odd construction job, and doesn't have a lot of extra denari for buying in bulk.  Let's also say that he lives alone, so, given the difficulties of keeping foods fresh without refrigeration, there's no sense in his buying a lot of food ahead of time.

By the way, once those ovens were finished baking bread, they could be used for baking pies and other things - again, often prepared at home, but also prepared for purchase in the bakeshops and cookshops.  Small pies could be purchased from street vendors, too, and it's likely that Guido would buy one of those for his main (early) meal of the day, if he could afford it.  Many different things could be packed into a pie - it was portable and self-contained.  Guido could choose a pie containing fruit, chopped ham, chicken or eel, soft cheese, eggs, or some combination of these ingredients.

If he went to a cookshop to purchase a larger pie, that pie might have a crust that was never designed to be eaten:  a hard container made of flour and water, to serve as a vessel for cooking the contents and then be discarded.  Edible crusts were known and available at this time, though, for those who could afford them:
Si tu veux que du pâté tâte
Fais mettre des oeufs en la pâte.

--Gaces de la Bugne [d. ca. 1383].  As translated in The Medieval Kitchen:  Recipes from France and Italy, by Odile Redon, Françoise Sabban and Silvano Serventi:

If you want a pie that's tasty
Have eggs put into the pastry.

 If Guido couldn't afford a pie, perhaps he could manage a chunk of cheese, a handful of olives, and some fruit, and maybe even salad greens.

His second meal (supper) would be lighter, consisting of whatever was left over from the main meal.  The notary Lapo Mazzei, a close friend of wealthy Pratese merchant Francesco Datini, wrote in the late 14th century that he often took only a handful of olives and a bit of bread at night, and even today, if you've ever bought olives in an Italian street market, you'll understand the temptation to do just that - they are quite wonderful.

Before speculating on what else Guido might have purchased, we need to give a moment's thought to what sorts of things he could keep in his rented room.  Small supplies of wine, oil, and vinegar would keep; certain condiments, of the sort that almost everyone purchased ready-made, could keep, as well.  (Sauces tended to be lean and acidic, so they would last, properly stored.  Francesco Datini used to purchase his savore sanguino from an apothecary:  it was a sauce made of raisins, cinnamon, sandal, and sumach.  He also received an apothecary's bill for such comestibles as orange and citron juice, mustard, pounded almonds, rose-water, chamomile, raisins, spices, and a tart of marzipan.)

An apothecary's shop

 Hard cheese would last for a while, if it could be kept away from mice and rats.  Nuts, olives, many sweets (though these are probably out of Guido's price range), and some vegetables would keep, though most of those vegetables would have required cooking.  Sausage, if he could afford it, could be kept for a while.  Fruit would keep for a short while.  Beyond that, there was no point in buying ahead.

Food was not prepackaged, so Guido would have to find something to carry his purchases in - a basket, cloth bags, a towel, or whatever he could find to keep his purchases safe and separated.

Another thing that would have been easy to purchase from street vendors, shops, market stalls, or even a neighbor who kept chickens, was eggs.  Of course, without a way to cook them, Guido was at a disadvantage; yet his plight was so common that I can't believe some enterprising merchants didn't come up with the idea of selling hard-cooked eggs to customers like Guido.

Vendors might be women from the country, selling the produce of their gardens or the cheeses they had made; they might be cookshop apprentices, hawking single-serving versions of the foodstuffs available back in their masters' shops; they might, in fact, be anybody with something to sell.  A partial listing of what Guido would have found in their trays and baskets includes fresh vegetables;  fruits:  melons, apples, pears, peaches, cherries, plums; nuts; smoked herring; vinegar, verjuice, honey, walnut oil, yeast-water for making bread prepared garlic sauce, green sauce, mustard; cooked peas, fried peas, cooked beans; baked goods:  flans, wafers, cakes, bean cakes, pies, and rissoles.

Vendors sold milk (best to buy it early in the day) and cheese and fresh ricotta; they offered sweets such as quince and apple pastes, nougat, pinocchiato (a sweet made with pine nuts), candied citrus peel, candied spices, and dried fruits; and even wafers - though for these last, the statutes in Paris suggested that the art of making them was "very dangerous and difficult to learn."  Guild standards for journeyman status among the waferers stated that candidates had to be able to produce at least 500 large wafers, 300 supplications (a type of wafer often left as an offering on altars), and 200 étriers (stirrup-shaped cookies) in a day.

City laws governed all types of businesses offering edibles.  In Paris in 1268, for instance (yes, I know this is supposed to be about Italian cities, but surviving records are sparse, and we take what we can find), cooked meat could be kept for only three days before selling it or throwing it away.  Laws even governed shopkeepers' etiquette:  if a customer was in front of one cookshop, the owner of another was not permitted to call to him and try to entice him away.

Guido, if he could afford it, could bypass all of this and dine at a tavern.  There he would find a range of comestibles - bread and cheese at the least, with wine, and possibly much more elaborate fare.

Quality no doubt varied.  

But what if Guido had no money?  What if the harvest had been bad, prices were soaring, food was scarce, and the wealthier shoppers bought all that was to be had?  Had he no recourse?

Well, no, actually, not much.  But the cities tried.  They did set up a way to distribute the all-important bread, once things got bad enough.  Hospitals, parish churches, and religious confraternities distributed bread and set up soup kitchens.  But sometimes the problem dwarfed the solution, and the cities saw frightening bread riots, like this one in Siena in 1329:

The price of grain by the staio (unit of measurement, rather like a bushel, but the size of it could vary from city to city) was up to 1 florin, which put grain out of many people's reach.  The government of Florence sent to Sicily for grain and made it available to the public at half a florin per staio, though it was poor quality, mixed with barley.  An armed guard protected the grain, with an executioner's block and axe prominently displayed nearby.  Siena, too, set up an elaborate distribution system.

Bread distribution - not Siena and not 1329, but similarly chaotic

By April 1329, Siena had little grain left to purchase.  It had been a dry year, and people who would normally have sold off their surplus chose instead to keep it, to make sure they could feed their families.  Laws were passed forbidding anyone to leave the city with grain or bread, because people were coming into Siena from the countryside and from neighboring provinces in search of food.  Still, people tried to smuggle bread out.  Two men who were caught with bread in their pack-saddles were arrested, chained on top of a platform, and displayed to the crowd all day (though the chronicle tells us that many felt this was unfair, as the men acted only out of desperate need). 

The Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala had been in charge of bread distribution, but on 12 May the crowds became so desperate and so obstreperous that the hospital, fearing that the hungry crowd might force its way in and raid its stores, locked the doors.  The crowd then surged toward the Campo (Siena's city center), where they ransacked the city's tubs of grain, fighting off city officials with poles and stones as the owners of nearby shops frantically locked up their businesses.   Four of the city's men were killed, but the crowd was finally persuaded to return to the Hospital, where bread distribution resumed.  Later, six of the ringleaders of the crowd were hanged. 

By 20 June the crisis was easing, because Siena too sent to Sicily for grain, and on that day it at last arrived. 

 With that, let's leave Guido to his shopping, wishing him buon appetito and a steady supply of affordable bread. 

Photographic images in this post are our own, and we hold copyright; all other images are in the public domain.

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