Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Jimmy the Rat (or, A mercenary, a nobleman, and a ladies' man)

On October 6, 1308, the Florentine knight Corso Donati was slain by a Catalan mercenary while trying to flee the city after being sentenced to death for insurrection.  

Much could be written about the complex politics that led to this fatal moment, but this time I wanted instead to see if we could answer this question:  who was that Catalan who drove a spear into Corso Donati's throat?

A quick internet search yielded the name Diego della Ratta (also known as da la Rapta, de la Rat, da la Racta, de Larach).  Diego was a Spanish nobleman, and in the year 1308 he was working for the Florentine government as marshall, commanding 250-300 Catalan mercenary soldiers.

Is he the man in the picture above?

Well, no, probably not.  The internet is not omniscient, and a little digging around among less glib but more reliable sources told me that the guy on the other end of the spear was probably actually Diego's young brother-in-law, Berengario Carroccio.

However, I couldn't learn much about Berengario, other than that he was a valorous warrior who was to distinguish himself later, in the Battle of Montecatini, in 1315.

But I found quite a bit about Diego, and since Diego was the commander, Berengario would have been acting on his kinsman's orders.  Therefore I think it's legitimate to take a look at Diego in this context.  

First, though, let's take a closer look at the actual event.  

Some sources say Corso deliberately fell from his horse, knowing full well that he would be killed, because he did not wish to be dragged back to Florence to face his accusers.  Having tried unsuccessfully to bribe his captors, he chose to sacrifice his life.  Once he was down, the Catalan speared him in the throat.

Other sources say that the spearman struck Corso and knocked him off his horse, whereupon he died.  

In Dino Compagni's record (and Dino was a contemporary of Corso and Diego), we learn that Diego's brother-in-law Berengario arrived after Corso had been captured by the other mercenaries, and that although the others urged him to kill the prisoner, he refused.  But "he was sent again, and this second time he struck messer Corso in the throat with a Catalan lance and then another blow to the flank, and knocked him to the ground.  Some monks carried messer Corso to the abbey [San Salvo], and there he died..."

Who would have sent Berengario "again"?  In all likelihood, that decision was made by Diego, who might have been with his troops on the spot, or might still have been back in the city (it isn't far away).

So, what was this Spaniard doing in Italy, anyway?   What made him leave Barcelona and come, first to southern Italy and then to points north?

Beginning of the War of the Sicilian Vespers

 It all goes back to the War of the Sicilian Vespers, which began in 1282 when the Sicilians reacted against one insult too many and revolted against their French ruler, Charles I.  Although the Sicilians succeeded in slaughtering the French with a certain dogged thoroughness, they did not manage to achieve self-governance.  The pope wanted them to take Charles back (Charles ran the show from Naples, so he did not get personally caught up in the massacre), but Pedro III of Aragon had other ideas.  The upshot was that Sicily passed from French rule to Spanish.

Pedro III arrives in Sicily

This began an influx of Spaniards into Italy.  Diego seems to have come to Italy in the retinue of Iolande (Yolanda, Iolanda) of Aragon, who was coming to Naples to wed Robert of Anjou, Duke of Calabria and heir to the throne of Naples.  This was part of a deal to have the House of Aragon stick to Sicily and leave the Kingdom of Naples to the French.  


Iolande, who was Manfred's daughter and therefore granddaughter to Frederick II, did not live to become queen of Naples.  Diego, however, seems to have become firmly established on Italian soil; his first wife, Domicella, was a lady of the court of Iolande's successor, Sancia di Maiorca, Robert's second wife, who did become queen when Robert became king in 1309.

Even before that, Diego had become a trusted deputy to Robert.  He served as Robert's vicar in the Romagna for a time; he was active for years in Tuscany, present at the siege of Pistoia in 1306, and active in opposing Emperor Henry VII (in whom Dante vainly placed his hopes for Florence and his own return from exile) in 1311.  He accrued prestigious military titles and became a member of the Italian landed nobility as well as the Spanish (he passed along the title of Count of Caserta to his son Francesco, Caserta being in Robert's duchy of Calabria).

Dante suggests that Diego and his Catalans are greedy (Paradiso VIII); Giovanni Villani calls them a group of "valient and renowned men of war."

But titles and general descriptions aside, it's Giovanni Boccaccio - as it so often is - who unerringly shows us the man.  


Boccaccio was the author of an extraordinary book of short stories called the Decameron.   His premise is that a group of ten young people, alarmed by the terrifying progress of the plague in Florence in 1348, flee the city, and spend ten days amusing each other by telling stories:  one each, per day - 100 stories; hence, the Decameron.

The storytellers of the Decameron

In his third story on the sixth day, Boccaccio tells a tale which splashes a bit of mud on both Diego and on Florence's bishop, messer Antonio d'Orso (or Antonio degli Orsi), bishop from 1309-1321, so this tale takes place at least a year after Corso's death).

Tomb of Bishop Antonio d'Orso

Messer Diego della Ratta, Boccaccio tells us, was the Marshall of King Robert.  He was handsome, and very much a ladies' man.  He was most attracted to a young married woman, who happened to be the bishop's brother's niece.  Diego had heard that the lady's husband was corrupt, so he made an arrangement to pay the man 500 gold florins for possession of the lady for one night.  But Diego took some small-value coins and had them gilded, so that they looked like florins but were of much less value, and with that he paid the man.  He enjoyed his night with the lady, against her will.  The story of the false coins became widely known, and the joke was on the corrupt husband.  The bishop wisely pretended to know nothing about it, though he and Diego were often in each other's company.

On one occasion during the Feast of San Giovanni, the two men were looking over the ladies who were lined up to watch the palio, a horse race always run to celebrate the feast day of Florence's patron saint.  The bishop saw a young woman, monna Nonna de' Pulci, beautiful, clever, and recently married.  He pointed her out to Diego, and then when they came closer to the woman, the bishop asked her, "Nonna, what do you think of this man?  Could you win him over, do you think?"  Rather un-bishoplike behavior, one might have thought.

Nonna, understandably, felt that her reputation was at stake, thanks to her uncle's brother.  Knowing - as everyone did - the story of the unfortunate woman sold for small change, she replied,

"Sir, it's unlikely that he could win me over,  but if he did, I'd want to be paid in real money."  

Both the bishop and Diego realized they had been bested, so they rode on without another word.

And with that, we too will allow the lady the last word, and leave this tale of the discomfiture of the man behind Corso Donati's death.

Images in this post are in the public domain, with the exception of the photo of Caserta, which is licensed to photographer Kris de Curtis via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, and the photo of Bishop Antonio's tomb, licensed to Sailko via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, both from Wikimedia Commons.


Melisende said...

Tinney, wonderful story of a rather convivial rogue! Must share - hope you don't mind.

Tinney Heath said...

Thanks, Melisende. I think "convivial rogue" is an excellent description of Diego! I appreciate your sharing the post.

Kathryn Louise Wood said...

Your research does so much to bring these folks to life for us. Love the lady's retort and can just picture it. Historical research is akin to solving mysteries and you are an excellent detective!

Tinney Heath said...

Thank you, Kathryn! It makes me happy to know that other people also enjoy these tales of people in the distant past. I always find myself searching for the human story in any bit of history, and I love it when I can piece something together from the surviving records.