Wednesday, July 3, 2013

When the experts get it wrong

The experts get it wrong.  It happens, and more often than you'd think.  And I'm not talking about Wikipedia, which for all its usefulness is a notoriously unreliable source in many instances.

I've read (glanced at, skimmed) many blog posts and articles about how to do research for historical fiction.  Most of them merely state the obvious:  travel to your location if possible, read eyewitness accounts, read contemporary reports, study pictures - photos if your period is recent enough, depictions in painting or sculpture if it isn't.  (So who exactly isn't going to think of these things?  Imagine saying, "Wow!  Maybe I should actually try to learn something about my time period and location.  What a concept!")

And one thing they always tell you is to pick up booklets and other information at museums.

See the picture at the top of this post?  That is one such booklet, English version.  It comes from the Museo Casa di Dante (Museum of Dante's House) in Florence.  (This house is not, in fact, Dante's; he probably lived nearby, and it's possible that an earlier version of this massively-reconstructed building once belonged to his brother.)

Museo Casa di Dante

The little booklet lists the museum's many exhibits, and I imagine it's probably mostly accurate when it cites sources and describes the documents and images on display.  But toward the end, it shows this "illustration from Giovanni Villani's chronicle, Rome, Vatican Library, Chigian Vatican Codex, L. VIII 296, 14th century."  It is captioned "The Battle of Campaldino (June 11, 1289)."

This is not the Battle of Campaldino.  And it's not 1289.  They have cited the correct manuscript, and it's true that if you want a picture of Campaldino, you'll be disappointed if you seek it here (the artist has shown the battles of Montaperti, Benevento, Tagliacozzo, and others, but there's a definite lack of Campaldino).

But this image depicts the deaths of messers Corso Donati and Gherardo Bordoni in an incident from 1308.  There are plenty of links between Dante and Corso Donati, so it seems distinctly odd to see this particular illustration mislabeled in this context.

Even had this picture not been properly captioned and described elsewhere, the heraldry would give it away:  Corso (the man in red) has a shield in the Donati red and white, personalized by a star, and Gherardo has fallen on a shield bearing the device of the Bordoni family.

Bordoni arms
Donati arms

Corso was Dante's political nemesis, and was the one calling the shots when Dante was exiled.  Corso was Dante's wife's cousin, and the brother of his close friend Forese.  Dante showcased Forese and his sister Piccarda in the Divine Comedy, and included a furious reference to an unnamed man who was obviously Corso, dragged to death behind his horse.  (Although the Commedia supposedly takes place in the year 1300, Dante was actually writing after Corso's death.)

Corso was an ambitious man, and he locked horns with others who could be similarly described.  I've written much more about him here.  When the wheel of fortune turned against him in 1308, he found himself besieged in his home by his political adversaries.  The hoped-for support did not arrive - there may have been some treachery involved - and Corso was suffering from a severe attack of gout, which limited his ability to fight back, though he was a skilled warrior.  Finally, when his enemies broke through the barricades that Corso and his allies had defended for the better part of a day, Corso fled, riding hell-bent-for-leather out of the city.  With him was his faithful companion, Gherardo Bordoni.

Catalan mercenaries, in the employ of the city (and of his enemies), caught up with the gout-ridden Corso and took him prisoner.  He promised them much money to let him go free, but they were determined to return him to Florence and to their employers.  According to Villani, Corso then let himself fall from his horse, and when he was on the ground, one of the Catalans pierced him through the throat with a lance - a mortal wound.  He was taken to a nearby monastery, where he died.  So, not quite being dragged by his horse, but allowing for a bit of exaggeration, Dante wasn't far off.

And Bordoni?  His end was perhaps a bit more personal.  Gherardo Bordoni was overtaken by Boccaccio Cavicciuli at the Affrico River, and slain.  His hand was cut off by Boccaccio's son, taken to the home of messer Tedici degli Adimari and nailed to the door.  (You can see the severed hand in the picture.)  There was bad blood between Tedici and Gherardo, and now dripping blood as well. 

All of which does rather leave me wondering how much I can trust the little museum booklet.

And it's not just little books for sale in museums.  A scholar whose expertise I would never question still managed to assign one of the Conti Guidi to the wrong political party, which would have infuriated him no end.  I blame that one on the similar names of two cousins, and possibly an editorial snafu.

Years ago, in my first flush of enthusiasm about doing musicological research, I was avidly reading a book by a scholar who informed me that the early medieval innovation of writing in three parts rather than two gave many more opportunities for the use of triads.

I thought about this.  A triad is three notes, right?  And this guy wants me to know that you're more likely to get triads with three lines of music than with two?

I think I could have figured that out All By Myself.

That was my first epiphany about doubting the experts.  (Not that he was wrong, exactly, but still.)  And I remain deeply grateful for the painstaking work of historians, without which I would be flying blind in what I do.  But now, after years of stumbling across errors, oversights, omissions, and examples of belaboring the obvious, I think the only safe position is - Caveat lector!

If anyone would like to share examples of catching the experts with their scholarly pants down, please feel free to share in the Comments section.

Images in this post are in the public domain with the exception of the photo of Museo Casa di Dante, which is licensed by Sailko via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons, and the Bordoni coat of arms, which is licensed by Kunstifi via the same type of license, also Wikimedia Commons.


Shauna Roberts said...

I was at the citadel of Blaye in France a few weeks ago. Inside the citadel are the ruins of a castle, one of several things that sat on the site before the citadel was built. I was interested in the long history of use of this site, so I collected the tourist brochure and bought two books at the museum.

The date of construction of the castle varied among the three sources, as did the date of destruction and the cause of destruction.

Luckily, I was not planning to write a story set in the Middle Ages at the castle because I would have needed to go back to original sources and learned Old French to find out the truth.

Julia H. West said...

Alas, I have no great tales of finding experts wrong, but I will say a little something in defense of those who State The Obvious. I have discovered that Readers can often be less astute than one might have imagined (or hoped). So it's a kind of CYA (blanket your burro) to put obvious things like that in, even though the writer might not really want to, all things considered.

Tinney Heath said...

Shauna - I see what you mean; that could be very frustrating. And I suspect it happens a lot. Thanks for providing a good example.

Julia - I know you're right, and I should be more patient (never one of my virtues, I fear). It's one reason I'm not a good teacher. Still, readers do have some responsibility to practice critical thinking. Writers can't cover everything for everyone - we'd never accomplish anything new if we tried to. I guess it's always a matter of finding a balance.

Emmalyn said...

This can also happen in a more general way. Most medieval history book written in the first two thirds of the 20th century, even those written by experts of their time, are now generally considered by current university historians to be more wrong than right, I had seen the torture equipment display at the Tower of London a long time ago, and came back later to find it closed. At the time, I thought that the violence suggested by it was now seemed inapprpriate. A histoy professor told me, no, it was deemed mostly bad guesswork on the use of the equipment displayed. Some was obviously wrong when I saw it the first time. Other items...who would know?