Monday, August 26, 2013

"Get 'em drunk and then trash the flag!"


This is a post about military strategy.  Mind you, military strategy is not really my thing.  In fact, when I read books with lovingly written, detailed battle scenes in them, I tend to skim those parts, looking for the really necessary bits (who won, who was brave and who was cowardly, who was clever and who was stupid, who's dead) and then, armed with the requisite information but not drowned in the particulars, I get on with the story. 

But I did find one example of a seriously clever bit of medieval mayhem that intrigued me.  It has to do with the lead-up to the famous Battle of Montaperti, in which the outnumbered army of Siena somehow managed to inflict a resounding defeat on the Florentines on September 4, 1260.  And it involves two men who were fighting on the same side.

Battle of Montaperti

Siena, which was of a Ghibelline persuasion, was aided by German mercenary troops sent by King Manfred of Sicily, natural son of the late great Emperor Frederick II and the closest thing to an imperial voice to be found at that time.

Manfred of Sicily

Also assisting were the Ghibellines from Florence, exiled from their city, many of them temporarily resident in Siena, under the formidable leadership of the commander Farinata degli Uberti.

Farinata degli Uberti

These are the two guys we're interested in here.  If you look at the literature and the contemporary and near-contemporary histories, you'll find Farinata described as proud, arrogant, heretical, great-souled, partisan, unbending, courageous.  He certainly was one of the mightiest opponents the Guelfs of Florence ever had to deal with.  When the Guelf party finally achieved its ascendancy, the Uberti were not only banished from the city for decades - explicitly excluded from future amnesties and pardons - but their properties were torn down, and the vast open space that resulted (rare in the crowded Italian cities of that time) was never built on again - today it is the Piazza della Signoria.

Manfred, on the other hand, was described as handsome and blonde, of noble appearance, and courtly in his manners.  In the case of this particular story, "blonde" may be the most important attribute.  He was the son of Frederick and his beloved Bianca Lancia, who Frederick may or may not have married when she was on her deathbed, and he spent most of his life squabbling with close relatives over various titles.  But that's another story, if not several.

(Actually, Farinata was blonde, too.  That's where the name 'Farinata' comes from - it means his hair was the color of ripe wheat.  His birth name was Manente.)

The situation, according to chronicler Giovanni Villani (1280-1348, so he was close to being contemporary), was this:

 All was not mellow between Siena and Florence.  (It seldom was, actually.)  The disgruntled Florentine exiles (who were Ghibellines, remember?) living in Siena, under the leadership of Farinata, decided to send a delegation to Manfred to ask for military support to help them win back Florence.  They sent a contingent of their finest, staunch Ghibellines all (and thus, loyal supporters of Manfred, who was the emperor's son).  But Manfred ignored them.  He made them wait, and wait, and wait.  He had other irons in the fire, and helping the Florentine exiles was not his highest priority, Ghibellines or not.

The ambassadors, who had hoped to come away with 1,500 horsemen to shore up their cause, became impatient and decided to go home.  But as they were leaving, Manfred promised them a paltry 100 horsemen, German mercenaries.  The ambassadors were inclined to refuse such an insulting offer, but, being prudent, they first consulted with Farinata.  I don't know whether Farinata was part of the delegation or whether they had to send a messenger to him, but in any case, they got their answer.

And what did the proud Farinata say?  Did he urge them, as they must have expected, to turn up their noses at such an insulting offer?

No.  He said, according to Villani, "Be not dismayed, neither refuse any aid of his, be it never so small.  Let us have grace of him to send his standard with them, and when it be come to Siena we will set it in such a place that he must needs send us further succour."

The plot thickens.

So, Manfred, probably relieved not to have an argument on his hands, gave them the 100 horsemen (whose salaries the Ghibellines in Siena would, of course, have to pay), and he let them carry his standard, which bore this device:


When the Florentine Ghibs returned to Siena with this meager force,"great scorn," says Villani, "was made thereof by the Sienese, and great dismay came upon the Florentine refugees" who had definitely hoped for something better.

We've now arrived at May, 1260, and Florence is starting to make hostile forays against Siena.  In fact, a large Florentine army wound up camped outside Siena, with its carroccio (a four-wheeled chariot painted red, drawn by a great pair of oxen covered in red cloth, and bearing the great standard of Florence, which was red and white).  Here's a picture of a carroccio, though not Florence's:


By this time the Florentine exiles must have been wondering what Farinata had been thinking.  But thinking he was, and so it came to pass that one day the exiles provided the Germany mercenaries - all 100 of them - with a great feast, including lots and lots of wine.  Let's return to Villani for the particulars:
"Having plied them with wine till they were drunk, in the uproar they incited them to arm themselves and mount on horseback to assail the host of the Florentines, promising them large gifts and double pay; and this was done craftily by the wise, in pursuance of the counsel of Farinata degli Uberti...
The Germans, beside themselves and hot with wine, sallied forth from Siena and vigorously assailed the camp of the Florentines, and because they were unprepared and off their guard, holding as nought the force of the enemy, the Germans, albeit they were but few folk, did great hurt to the host in that assault, and many of the people and of the horsemen made a sorry show in that sudden assault, and fled in terror, supposing that the assailants were more in number."

The Florentines, however, took a second look and realized they had just been attacked by a mere handful of inebriated Germans, so they turned around and fought them after all, despite that ignominious beginning.  Not a single German survived.

The triumphant Florentines, having captured Manfred's banner, proceeded to drag it through the camp on the ground and then carry it back to Florence.  It was not long after this that the Florentine army returned home, at least for the time being.

Was Farinata distraught at this treatment of his Germans and of Manfred's banner?  Not our ├╝ber-Ghibelline.  Everything was going exactly according to plan.

Because - wait for it - no way could Manfred sit still for this insult.  That was his very own banner, after all.  Enraged, he sent 800 German horsemen at his own cost (with a little help from the Sienese) for a period of three months, along with Count Giordano, his marshall, to lead them.  All these men, with horses, equipment, etc., arrived in Siena by the end of July, and there was much rejoicing.

More stuff happened before the Battle of Montaperti actually took place, but this shrewd move on Farinata's part was what made the difference.

So in this case, military strategy had nothing to do with shield walls, well-placed archers, heavy artillery, careful deployment of cavalry and infantry, or any of the other things generals traditionally do.

It was simply, "Get the Germans drunk, send them off to do something suicidal, and make absolutely sure the banner gets trashed."   That much, I can understand.

Images in this post are in the public domain, with the exception of Manfred's device, which is licensed to Adelbrecht via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

An Interview with Polonius



You know you're getting older when you attend a performance of Hamlet and find yourself thinking, "You know, that Polonius guy was actually pretty smart.  Maybe if the others had listened to him, they could have reduced the body count in the last act."

Yes, the aging and gray-bearded courtier at the Danish court may have been known for longwindedness and unsolicited advice, but he did have a few things going for him.  For example, this time I noticed what an insightful literary critic he was.  

In this scene, Polonius is reading aloud to the king a letter which Hamlet has sent to Polonius's daughter Ophelia.  He reads, "'To the celestial and my soul's idol, the most beautified Ophelia -'" and then interrupts himself to take issue with the wording.

"That's an ill phrase, a vile phrase - 'beautified' is a vile phrase," he observes. 

That got me to thinking:  since the blogosphere abounds in advice to aspiring writers, why not interview the good Polonius to see if he has any words of wisdom for those trying their hand at the craft of writing?  So I invented an Aspiring Writer (AW) to ask Polonius whatever questions he/she felt would be most useful, and here are the results:

AW:  Welcome, Polonius!

Polonius:  Well be with you!

AW:  Um - you, too.  Do you think you will really be able to help me with my writing and marketing?

Polonius:  Hath there been such a time - I'ld fain know that - that I have positively said 'Tis so,' when it proved otherwise?

AW:  Well, not as far as I know.  Okay, then, let's get started.  First, I just want to make sure you understand that my book is all polished and ready to go, and that people tell me it's great.  Why, my mom says it's the greatest novel she's ever read!  What more could I possibly need, right?

Polonius:  Some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial.

AW:  But it isn't just Mom.  I submitted it to a bunch of agents, and the only reason most of them didn't take it was that it didn't meet their current needs and it's a tough market.    One of them even said I was a strong writer and he loved my concept!

Polonius:  You speak like a green girl, unsifted in such perilous circumstance.  Do you believe his tenders?  Marry, I'll teach you:  think yourself a baby; that you have ta'en these tenders for true pay, which are not sterling.  Tender yourself more dearly.

AW:  There was even one who said that if I could shorten it and make the characters more well-rounded and fix the pacing and get a professional edit done by a company he'd recommend, he might be willing to look at it again.

Polonius:  These blazes giving more light than heat - extinct in both, even in their promise, as it is a-making - you must not take for fire.

AW:  Maybe you're right.  Speaking of agents, if you were one, what genres would you want to read?

Polonius:  Tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited.

AW:  I see.  You know, I was wondering if it's possible that 396,000 words is a bit too long for a manuscript.  What do you think?

Polonius:  I do think - or else this brain of mine hunts not the trail of policy so sure as it hath used to do - that I found the very cause.  Brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes.


AW:  I also wanted to ask you about these ads I've been getting lately, from editorial services and companies that have heard great things about my book and want to help me self-publish.  Should I take them up on it?

Polonius:  Do not believe their vows, for they are brokers, - not of that dye which their investments show, but mere implorators of unholy suits, breathing like sanctified and pious bawds, the better to beguile.

AW:   I certainly wouldn't want to get involved with implorators of unholy suits.  Unholy suits sounds like a bunch of CEOs.  Or Congress.  Let's talk a little bit about marketing.  Can you give me a few words of advice about blogging?  What sort of tone should I set?

Polonius:  Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.

AW:  I'd really like to borrow an idea from a fellow blogger, but it wouldn't be plagiarism, because I'd change it some.  I wouldn't mind if he used some of my ideas.  What do you think?

Polonius:  Neither a borrower nor a lender be: for loan oft loses both itself and friend; and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.


AW:  What about using social media?

Polonius:  The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel; but do not dull thy palm with entertainment of each new-hatcht, unfledged comrade.

AW:  Sounds sensible.   What should an author do if he gets a really nasty one-star review?

Polonius:  Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgement.  Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, bear't that th'opposed may beware of thee.

AW:  Should I be writing reviews for my friends?  Sometimes it's a problem, because I can't think of anything good to say.

Polonius:  Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice.

AW:  You wrote a reader review for a friend once, didn't you?

Polonius:  He hath wrung from me my slow leave by laboursome petition.

AW:  I know how that goes.  What about book covers?  My book is actually about a peasant family in Outer Mongolia, but I was thinking it might sell better if it had a beautiful woman on the cover.  Maybe a queen, and all mysterious-like, draped in a cloak - a 'mobled queen,' as your creator would have said.

Polonius.  That's good; 'mobled queen' is good.


AW:  I was wondering what you thought about writing for the market.  You know, like if I abandoned my Mongolian peasant family and went back to working on my draft of Tudor Zombies Meet Mr. Darcy.

Polonius:  This above all, - to thine own self be true; and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.

AW:  Mongolian peasants it is, then.  I have so many more questions -

Polonius:  This is too long.

AW:  Oh.  Well, then, I thank you for sharing your time and your wisdom, Polonius.

Polonius:  God be wi' ye!

AW:  Ye too.



Monday, August 12, 2013

Grandfather of his country: Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici

Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici (1360-1429)

Was Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici really known as the grandfather of his country?

Well, no, probably not.  That would have required some prescience.  But his son, Cosimo de' Medici, was known as Pater Patriae, so I've taken a bit of a liberty.

Cosimo de' Medici, Pater Patriae (1389-1464)

And if we can get away with that, then surely we can refer to Cosimo's grandfather and Giovanni's father, Averardo (called Bicci) de' Medici, as the great-grandfather of his country:

Averardo ("Bicci") de' Medici (?-1363)

"Bicci" seems to have been a common nickname in Florence, though I don't find it associated with a particular given name.  Dante's friend Forese Donati was also known as Bicci, for example.

And before we go any further with Giovanni's life, let's dispense with one bit of business too often neglected - the women, all from wealthy, noble, and influential families.  Averardo (Bicci) was married to Jacopa Spini (the great-grandmother of her country?); Giovanni was married to Piccarda Bueri (grandmother of her country); and Cosimo was married to Contessina de' Bardi (mother of her country, and we even have a picture of her):

Contessina de' Bardi


Today's peek at the Medici family, our Medici-of-the-week, if you will, is Giovanni.  Called the founder of the Medici dynasty, he was certainly the creator of the vast Medici fortunes and the founder of the great Medici banking empire.  Let's take another look at that Bronzino portrait above, because it has caused several historians to wax lyrical.  Don't bother scrolling up; here it is again, reminder-sized.


We are confronted with the homely visage of a shrewd, unimaginative trader as far removed as possible from the traditional conception of a merchant prince.  The most conspicuous feature is the set jaw, the hard effect of which is softened by a general expression of troubled kindliness. - Ferdinand Schevill, Medieval and Renaissance Florence, Vol. II
... shrewd, attractive face, with its kindly, hooded eyes, and thin, expressive mouth above a determined chin stares out apprehensively... - Christopher Hibbert, Florence:  The Biography of a City

Shrewd and kind, they tell us.  Troubled, apprehensive.  Machiavelli tells us that Giovanni was "of a kindly and humane nature" and "very rich."  Further, he had this to say about the totality of Giovanni's life:

He loved everyone, praised the good, and had compassion for the wicked.  He never asked for honors yet had them all.  He never went into the palace unless he was called.  He loved peace, he avoided war.  He supported men in their adversity and aided their prosperity.  He was averse to public plunder and an improver of the public good.  Gracious in his magistracies, he had not much eloquence but very great prudence.  In appearance he was melancholy, but then in his conversation he was pleasing and witty.  He died very rich in treasure but even richer in good reputation and good will. - Niccol├▓ Machiavelli, Florentine Histories (translated by Laura F. Banfield and Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. 
 
(Not meaning to be at all cynical, here, but Florentine Histories was dedicated to Pope Clement VII - a Medici.)

Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici

So what did this remarkable man do, exactly?  A brilliant businessman, a banker, honored Florentine citizen, he served in high public office more than once and was respected by his fellow citizens, his opinion being sought as a matter of course in policy debates and official decision-making, even when he was not currently in office.  He lived modestly and gave much to his city.  He was a loyal friend to a man who became Pope and was then deposed and called Antipope (John XXIII); even then, Giovanni's friendship and support did not waver. He was a patron of the arts, and he supported his city's frequently bellicose foreign policy with enormous loans when private funds were needed to shore up the treasury.  He was a leading member of two major guilds.  He was a banker to popes, a businessman with vast international holdings and enterprises.  He put his funds behind a rebuilding of the sacristy in the Church of San Lorenzo, where his tomb rests today. 

Tomb of Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici and Piccarda Bueri

And he did all of this at a time when men usually rose to power with the help of their extended families, yet his own family was in political and economic decline, following some unfortunate choices of which factions to support during the previous couple of decades.  In fact, in 1400, after an unsuccessful coup attempt, the Medici were barred from public office for twenty years, though an explicit exception was made for Giovanni, his brother Francesco, and for the heirs of one of their relatives.  And this was not the first of the sanctions the family had suffered during those years.

It is not my purpose here to trace the details of Giovanni's career, nor to detail the complex political currents of late 14th century Florence.  Rather, I wanted to take a look at Giovanni the man, how he fit into his environment, and how he advanced the fortunes of his family.

One thing that forms quite a contrast with the lifestyles of his descendants is Giovanni's penchant for living modestly (relatively speaking, at least).  Hibbert tells us that Giovanni avoided ostentation, living in a home that was far less imposing than his income (and his wife's substantial dowry) would have permitted.  He is said to have advised his sons (Cosimo and Lorenzo) to "take no more from the state than man and the law allow" - a guiding principle that was by no means always observed by Florentines of his time.  He told them, too, that while it was good to become rich,  a successful merchant had a duty to honor his city.

Unlike his descendants, Giovanni was not noted for his scholarship.  An inventory taken in 1418 indicates a library of only three books.

One way that Giovanni honored his city was through his patronage.  He was one of the donors of the North Doors of the Baptistery, commissioned in 1402, a plague year, as a plea to God to save Florence from the pestilence.  An open competition for this commission, in which seven prominent artists were invited to submit designs for a bronze panel depicting Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac, resulted in a draw between Filippo Brunelleschi, who would later go on to design the famous dome of Florence's cathedral, and Lorenzo Ghiberti, two young Florentines who both went on to do great things.  The panel of judges, which included Giovanni, suggested a collaborative effort, but Brunelleschi threw a bit of a tantrum and stormed out - all the way to Rome, in fact - leaving Ghiberti to get on with it.  Which he did.

North doors, Baptistery

Then, too, there's that fortune.  The catasto (tax) records of 1427 show Giovanni in possession of a large personal fortune.  Historian Gene Brucker tells us that the 80,000 florins ascribed to Giovanni would pay the annual salaries of 2000 of Florence's wool workers - among the lowest-paid laborers in Florence.

Yet, unlike all the Medici who came after him, Giovanni did not inherit a fortune.  His father, Averardo (called "Bicci"), left a modest estate to be divided among his widow and five sons.  He took a position in Rome, serving in the international bank owned by a distant relative and later branching out to form his own company.  He had a genius for business, and he built a commercial empire that extended throughout the medieval world. 

That's enough to give you an overview of this remarkable man, who single-handedly set the family back on the path to wealth and power.  But I can't resist a quick peek at his friend, the Antipope John XXIII, before we end.

  John XXIII
Giovanni befriended the Neapolitan cardinal Baldassare Cossa well before the latter was elected as one of three rival (and simultaneous) popes.  Some said that Cossa purchased his cardinalate with Medici money.  Cossa was one of the seven cardinals who broke away from Pope Gregory XII in 1408 to follow Antipope Benedict XIII, the pope installed in Avignon during the Great Schism.  The Council of Pisa, attempting to undo the schism, deposed both Gregory XII and Benedict XIII and elected Alexander V.  However, neither Gregory nor Benedict considered himself deposed, and so things carried on, with all three of them claiming to be pope.  But Alexander died soon after, and Baldassare Cossa was elected in his stead (after having been ordained to the priesthood only one day before).

John XXIII had a bit of a reputation, though admittedly these were polarizing times.  He was accused of everything from murder to heresy to seducing no fewer than 200 women while serving as a papal representative in Bologna.  In 1415 he was deposed and imprisoned in Germany.  The Medici bank paid his ransom, and he moved to Florence, where the Medici found him a house.  When he died in Florence in 1419, he was buried in the Baptistery, in a magnificent tomb designed for him by Donatello and Michelozzo, and paid for by the Medici.


My next Medici post will take a look at Salvestro de' Medici and his role in the Ciompi revolt.  Could a Medici really have led a populist revolt, and if so, why?

Images in this post are in the public domain, with the exception of the photos of Giovanni's tomb, the North doors of the Baptistery, and the tomb of John XXIII, all of which are licensed to Sailko via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, August 5, 2013

A Thing Done gets a few things done (and the author gets a gift)



Two reviews, two interviews, and a birthday present.  I don't blog often about my book, but this has been a particularly good week or two for me, so I'm going to take a brief break from the Medici series (we had just started that one here last week) and do a quick wrap-up of recent events.  We'll pick up the Medici again next week with Giovanni di Bicci. 

First, ATD received two reviews that delighted the book's humble author (that would be me).   One appeared on the medievalists.net website, which pleased me in part because it reaches a lot of people (over 32,000 on its Facebook page alone), and even more because the people it reaches are especially interested in (and knowledgeable about) this time period.  It's very gratifying when such people enjoy my book, and I'm happy that reviewer Sandra Alvarez did.  You can read her review here.  Some of my favorite bits:
I've read a lot of historical novels over the last few years but I have to say that hands down, this one is at the top of my list. ...

The characters in the novel are complex and fascinating...  Every main character has many layers, and flaws; no one is all good or all bad and it makes for very interesting reading. ...  The book was well researched...

I had a hard time putting this book down. ... This is a must read.
In the course of the review, Sandra wrote knowlegeably about the period and the political conflicts of 13th century Florence, and it's clear that she's approaching the book from the angle of one who knows and understands the history.

Hooked on books

This was all the more enjoyable because it followed on the heels of another good review, this one on Eric Al-Mehairi's great blog, Oh, for the Hook of a Book.  (You can find that one here.)  Erin really got what I was trying to do.  Some of her insightful comments were these:
While spinning her unique tale, Tinney also focused on the social structure of medieval Florence and made the reader very aware of class distinctions and family influences....

Her use of the fool lets us into his world, the world of peasants and commoners, as well as the homes, dinner parties, and secret kitchen talks of the men, and scheming women, on higher social ground who seem repeatedly out for blood from each other. 
 And she was kind enough to describe my book thus:
...historically accurate and yet imaginatively inventive, socially thought-provoking, thrilling, and humorous!

In addition to these smile-producing reviews, I had two interviews on blogs this week.  The first was with Erin, who wrote the second review quoted above, and you can find it here.  Be warned, she asked me questions about medieval music and performers, so it is lengthy!  Erin's questions were thought-provoking.


The second interview, with David William Wilkins, appeared on his blog The Things That Catch My Eye.  It can be found here.  David's interview gave me the opportunity to post an excerpt, and also to talk a bit about what I'm working on now and what's coming up next.


And the fifth really great thing that happened, along with all of the above activity, is that my amazing husband gave me a birthday gift - a research book I have been coveting for months.  Years, maybe.  It's an illustrated copy of Giovanni Villani's Nuova Cronica, a history of Florence, composed around the middle of the 14th century.  The richly illuminated and illustrated manuscript is in the Vatican Library, ms. Chigiano L VIII 296, and this volume, Il Villani Illustrato, contains 253 images from the manuscript, some page facsimiles, and fascinating articles on heraldry, politics, weapons, places, and the history alluded to in Villani's work. 

The editor is Dr. Chiara Frugoni, an Italian scholar and historian who has written on such topics as the Italian middle ages, medieval inventions, Saints Francis and Claire of Assisi, and 13th century Italian art.  Only two years ago she made a significant find in a fresco in the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, which I may blog about another time.

It wasn't easy to find this book (thank you, Amazon Canada!).  It was expensive, and it had to be shipped from Italy.  It was totally worth it.  I had seen (and if you read this blog regularly, you also will have seen) quite a few illustrations from this manuscript, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.  But now I have more.  Lots more.  Let me show you a few of them, just to whet your appetite:

Giovanni Villani

Here's Giovanni Villani himself.  Florence lost this gifted (if not always nonpartisan) historian in the terrible Black Death of 1348, but his brother, and later his brother's son, took over the work and continued Giovanni's chronicle.  (All of the parts I have used, though, come from Giovanni's own work.)

Have you ever been to one of those historical tourist sites where they strike a commemorative coin/medal for you as a souvenir?  (I'm thinking of the Viking dig in York.)  Here's a guy striking a coin to commemorate a Florentine victory over Pisa:


Here's a depiction of an incident that will probably appear in my next book, in which a lion escapes from the place where the city's lions (kept as symbols of the city) are penned.  It seizes a child, and the distraught mother attempts a rescue.


Here are some people gazing at a comet that appeared in 1264:


There's a depiction of people fighting from the tops of towers (not exactly to scale):


And here's one of the aggressors in a siege, undermining (literally) the city's walls:


Or, if battle mania and mayhem and blood and gore are more your thing, try this one:


I particularly like the woman about to drop a large rock onto the guys fighting below her window. 

I love this book!  This is going to be all kinds of fun.  Next week, back to the Medici.

Images in this post:  Book cover as displayed at top and photo of organ are our own, copyright to my husband Tim Heath; other images are in the public domain (in the case of the Villani, this follows Wikimedia Commons policy for two-dimensional images past any possibility of copyright).