Friday, July 12, 2013

Nasally challenged in the middle ages and Renaissance

Detail of a portrait by Domenico Ghirlandaio

The gentleman above may well have a perfectly healthy and functional nose.  He certainly has a nose, which will not be true of everyone we discuss here.  

Why, you may well ask, am I writing a blog post about noses in the middle ages and the Renaissance?  I have no idea.  I just work here.  I should probably be writing a chatty wrapup of the recent Historical Novel Society Conference in Florida, as just about everyone else who attended has done, but for some reason best known to my subconscious, I'm doing noses instead.

I was thinking the other day about various situations in which prominent people of those times sustained injury to their noses, or experienced other nasal difficulties.  I came up with examples of noses damaged through various forms of combat, including street brawls, tournaments, fistfights, and duels.   Noses are vulnerable.  They're right out there in front, easy to reach, tempting targets.  This is why helms came to include nasal protection, like this:

Human noses were not the only vulnerable ones; it's astonishing how many statues, from classical times forward, have been deprived of that facial feature.  Of course, when combat involves a statue, the contest is inherently one-sided (unless, of course, the statue manages to fall on its opponent, in which case it wins - by a nose?)

Here are the various orphaned noses in a collection at the Nasothek in Copenhagen:

Nasothek, Copenhagen

 I do not intend to say much about the unfortunate people whose noses were amputated or mutilated for punitive reasons, a form of disfigurement often (though not always) reserved for women.  The high middle ages was not the first or the last period where this form of barbarism was practiced; the Byzantines were hard on noses, as were the Franks and many others.  Prostitutes and women convicted of adultery were among the victims, as were women victimized during wartime (cf. the poor women who were expelled from Pisa while that city was under siege from the Florentines because they were considered "persons of little value" - the enemy captured them, cut off their noses, and sent them back, where the starving Pisans, who didn't want extra mouths to feed, refused to readmit them, and the injured women, according to one chronicle, had to scavenge for grass to eat outside the city walls, unable to go forward or back).  This grotesque punishment is still inflicted on women in various parts of the world in our own time.

Poor women and their children, expelled from their city (but with their noses)

But to move on to individual examples of combat-related nasal victimization, let's begin on the first of May in the year 1300, in Florence (which, as many of you know, is usually where I end up).

Ricoverino de' Cerchi loses his nose

Dino Compagni, the Florentine chronicler who was a contemporary of Dante, has this to say about the incident which cost poor Ricoverino his nose:

Because the young are easier to deceive than the old, the devil - that sower of evils - made use of a band of youths who used to ride around together.  These youths gathered for dinner one evening, on the first of May, and they grew so arrogant that they decided to confront the Cerchi band and use their fists and swords against them. - Dino Compagni, translated by Daniel E. Bornstein
The young men, who were followers of the Black Guelf party led by Corso Donati, did indeed confront their White Guelf counterparts (followers of Vieri dei Cerchi) that evening, at a dance where the young women were celebrating the coming of spring.  The two sides clashed, and someone - probably Piero Spini, but no one knows for sure - slashed Ricoverino's nose.  If Compagni is to be believed, the devil made him do it.  The Donati followers then took refuge in the Spini palace (which, by the way, is now the Ferragamo shoe store), and vendettas and much partisan mayhem ensued.  A disfiguring blow to the face was a very serious insult indeed.

Tournaments, that popular but risky form of sport and entertainment, were also hard on noses.  One prime example is Federico da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino (or, as my husband always calls him, Mister Nosejob).

 Prior to his ducal career, which began in 1450 and lasted until his death in 1482, Federico was one of Italy's most formidable condottieri (leaders of elite bands of mercenary soldiers).  A brilliant military strategist, he and his nose survived some significant battles, but the latter succumbed to the aftermath of a tournament misfortune in 1450, an incident which cost him his right eye and a job opportunity.  He had been offered a job by Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, but the loss of his eye made him unacceptable to the duke.  Instead, he took employment with Alfonso V of Aragon, King of Naples, to fight for him against Florence.  Federico, who understood the danger from assassination attempts, had surgeons remove the mangled bridge of his nose, thus enabling him to use his remaining eye to see anyone approaching him from either side.  Because of the disfiguring scar on the right side of his face, Federico is always pictured in profile, left side showing (as above). 

Another nose that survived violence, albeit in altered form, belonged to the great artist Michelangelo Buonarroti.   As a student in his teens, Michelangelo apparently criticized the work of his fellow student Pietro Torrigiano once too often, and the hotheaded Torrigiano hauled off and punched him in the nose, breaking it.  Michelangelo's self-portraits, as in this head of Holofernes, and drawings of him, as in this drawing by Giulio Bonasone, show the damage:

Head of Holofernes (Michelangelo)
Michelangelo, by Giulio Bonasone

Both Michelangelo and Torrigiano were students in an arts academy whose patron was Lorenzo de' Medici.  Some accounts of the incident state that Torrigiano fled, fearing Lorenzo's wrath.  Certainly Torrigiano's own wrath continued to be a problem for him:  while working in Spain, he mutilated his own artwork in a fit of rage against a patron, the Duke of Arcus, who was unwilling to pay Torrigiano what the artist thought his work was worth.  The duke then reported him for heresy on the grounds that he damaged a holy image, and the unfortunate Torrigiano ended his life in the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition.  (No doubt he didn't expect that.)

Vasari says that the art Torrigiano created and then damaged was a Virgin and Child; other accounts say it was his Saint Jerome.  Saint Jerome, however, is still on display in a museum in Seville and appears to be in good shape, so it seems likely that Vasari was right.

Torrigiano's Saint Jerome

I'm going to step outside of Italy for a moment to bring you a famous example of a nose lost in a duel.  That nose belonged to the great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, whose work formed the basis for some of Johannes Kepler's most significant discoveries.

Tycho lost it (the nose) in a duel that was supposed to settle a quarrel between Tycho and his cousin Manderup Parsberg, who had argued over a mathematical formula while attending a wedding banquet.  (I guess every wedding has to have its unfortunate incident.)  This occurred on 29 December in the year 1566, in Rostock, Germany, where Tycho was a student.

Apropos of absolutely nothing, I'd just like to mention that Tycho Brahe was the proud owner of a pet elk, who met an unfortunate end when it got into the beer at a party, became inebriated, and fell down the stairs.  (Don't you just hate it when that happens?)

Tycho Brahe

If you look carefully at the portrait above, you can see the great astronomer's false nose.  Some have said it was made of gold, others silver, still others copper.  A 2012 analysis by Czech and Danish researchers of a small bone sample suggested that the nose was made of brass, though it's been suggested that he had more valuable noses (gold and silver) for special occasions. 

Not every problematic nose could be blamed on fighting.  Remember Lorenzo de' Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent), mentioned above in connection with Michelangelo?  His nose looks normal, if a bit Richard Nixon-esque, but he had no sense of smell whatsoever.  He was said to be perfectly okay with that, given the plethora of unpleasant odors that surrounded him in the city.

Leonardo da Vinci's sketch of Lorenzo

And finally, let's close with a look at one of the most famous Italian noses of all time:

Images in this post are in the public domain, except for the statue of Pinocchio, which is licensed to Sailko via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons, and the photo of the statue of St. Jerome, licensed to Tirithel via the same type of license, same source.

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