Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Florence, 1289: A knock at the door, a voice bringing news - but nobody there


It happened on June 11, 1289.  The city of Florence waited, tense and anxious, for news from the battlefield.  Some 25 miles to the east, in the region known as the Casentino, a vast Guelf army was squaring off against a Ghibelline force from Arezzo.  Most of the Guelfs were from Florence, but there were also fighters from Pistoia, Lucca, Siena, and Prato.

The two sides were very nearly equal in size:  10,000 infantry each, with the Guelf army possessed of a slightly larger complement of cavalry than the Ghibelline force.  Florence's contribution to the campaign had been some 1600 knights, as well as another 600 mounted warriors from the ranks of the wealthier members of the populace.  (For context, at this point Florence's total population was nearing 125,000, with another 400,000 people living in the surrounding countryside.)

Diorama of the Battle of Campaldino, Casa di Dante

Florence's Priors, the six men holding the city's highest government office, had met with the war captains and the councils before the battle and had had a hand in deciding military goals and strategies, marching routes, and what supplies to carry.  The army had marched away to a great din of bells on June 2, combining with Guelf forces from other cities on its way, covering ground, trashing the occasional castle, camping in the countryside.  As always, messengers arrived regularly in the city with updates on the army's progress.


Now, however, the Priors waited impatiently to learn the results.  Having slept poorly the night before, knowing the battle was coming soon, the priors had returned to their chambers for an afternoon nap in the tower of the Castagna, the spartan tower where they lived during their two-month term, which was due to end in a few days.

Torre della Castagna

It is not entirely clear whether they retired to individual chambers, as would have been the case a few years later, when the city's Priors took up residence in the Palazzo della Signoria (now called the Palazzo Vecchio, or Old Palace), which didn't exist yet in 1289.   In the much older and smaller Castagna, they may have been sleeping in dormitory-like conditions in a single large chamber.

Palazzo della Signoria

Suddenly, in the middle of the afternoon, the exhausted lawmakers heard a loud knock on their doors (or door), and a voice crying, "Arise, for the Aretines are defeated!"


Joyfully, they sprang out of their beds and ran to receive the messenger.

There was no one there.

Their servants had heard nothing.  No one had seen anyone.  The Florentine people marveled, wondering whether this mysteriously-delivered news could be true.  Many said it must be merely rumor.

But when the real, flesh-and-blood messenger arrived around Vespers, the city learned that the news was true indeed, and that the victory had been won at exactly the time the priors had been roused from their rest by the mysterious voice.

Florentine Guelfs outside Arezzo

Giovanni Villani reported this incident, and he tells us that the Priors took all possible measures to discover any natural source for the voice and the knocking, but found none.  He vouches for the truth of this, for he says he saw and heard it himself.

Leonardo Bruni, writing about a hundred years later in his Historiae, was even less skeptical.  He says:
For it is not strange  to believe that the same divine grace by whose favor victory is won, should by the same favor give swift news to those whom he has helped.
 There are a couple of caveats:
  • Giovanni Villani, depending on which birthdate you accept for him, might have been only a nine-year-old at the time, or, at best, a teenager.  He might have been part of the excited crowd outside, but he probably was not in the tower.
  • A slightly earlier chronicler, Dino Compagni, was one of those Priors, and his record of the Battle of Campaldino does not mention the incident.
Did it happen?  We'll never know.  But it makes a good tale for the season.

Happy Halloween!

Images in this post:  Photo of doorknocker is licensed to Massimilianogalardi; photos of diorama and Castagna are licensed to Sailko; photo of Palazzo della Signoria is licensed to Jojan; photo of door is licensed to Xenophon.  All are Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licenses, via Wikimedia Commons.  Pictures of messenger and of Guelfs outside Arezzo are in the public domain.

1 comment:

Kathryn Louise Wood said...

To quote Shakespeare's Hamlet, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Indeed!