Thursday, December 26, 2013

Happy birthday, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II!

Today (December 26) is the 819th birthday of  Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, Stupor Mundi, and the last and the greatest of the powerful medieval emperors.

Yesterday much of the world celebrated another long-ago birth, but today I'd like to take a brief look at the unusual circumstances under which this remarkable individual came into the world.

Frederick was, in the course of his 56 years, Emperor of the Romans; King of the Romans (these are very different things, but that's another blog post); King of Germany, Italy, and Burgundy; King of Sicily; and King of Jerusalem.  He was also twice excommunicated, the bane of several popes' existence, and a brilliant ruler far ahead of his time.  But in 1194, when his parents set out to invade Sicily, he was still an unlikely embryo in his 40-year-old mother's womb.

A bit of background information:  Fred's mother, Constance of Sicily, was the posthumous daughter of Roger II and the heiress presumptive to the Sicily crown, since the holder of that title, her nephew King William II, was childless.

Constance, newly born, and Roger, slightly less newly dead

Unusually for such a valuable marital prize, Constance was 30 before she was betrothed, and this resulted in a rumor that she had become a nun and had renounced her vows to marry.  Dante believed this; he placed her in the Paradiso and introduced her thusly:
This is the light of the great Constance who by the second wind of Swabia generated its third and last power. - Paradiso 3, translated by Robert M. Durling
Dante encountering Constance (with crown) in Paradise
The man Constance was to marry, the future Emperor Henry VI, was the second son of Emperor Frederick I.  He wanted the throne of Sicily, and for that he needed Constance.

Henry and Constance

Unfortunately for this plan, Tancredi (another of Constance's nephews) had managed to seize the throne after William died in 1289.  When Henry and Constance were crowned Emperor and Empress in 1291, they headed south with an army to try to oust Tancredi, who had widespread support despite being illegitimate.

It didn't work out well.  Henry was forced to withdraw from the kingdom for the time being, and Constance was taken hostage in Salerno.  She found herself next in Tancred's custody, and even as the pope was negotiating for her release, the imperial army came to her rescue and managed to get her safely back across the Alps.

Tancredi and his army in Palermo

Thus, aged 40 by now and finally pregnant, she must have harbored some misgivings about going along when, after Tancredi's death in 1194, Henry headed south again to depose Tancredi's young son William III.  She went, but because of her pregnancy she traveled more slowly than Henry did.

The result was that on December 26, 1194, the day after Henry was crowned at Palermo, Constance gave birth to her son in Iesi, a small town near Ancona.  Some things just won't wait, coronation or not.

But Constance was a savvy lady.  She'd been dealing with royal politics for her entire life, and she knew perfectly well that given her age, somebody was bound to claim that Frederick was not truly her son.  So she arranged to give birth in a pavilion tent in the town square of Iesi, surrounded by local matrons to serve as witnesses.

Constance and Frederick in the birth pavilion

 It is also claimed that a few days later she breast-fed her son, the future Emperor, in that same town square, so there could be absolutely no doubt.

Constance was to die fairly soon, leaving her son, then four, under the protection of the Pope.  But her clever public relations move had paid off, and no one questioned Frederick's legitimacy.   So happy birthday to Frederick, and our compliments to his shrewd mother.

Images in this post are in the public domain by virtue of age.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Winter comes to Assisi

A dejected soon-to-be Saint Francis in the snow, returning from war

As some of you know, I've recently returned from a trip to Assisi, where I had the privilege of spending three weeks in November doing research and drinking in all the beauties of that wonderful medieval city.

My husband and I often travel late in the fall, as the crowds are thinner then, prices lower, and the weather wherever we're going is probably going to be better than it is at home (Wisconsin).  This time, though, for the first time I had the pleasure of watching the season change dramatically during the time we were there.

The day we were scheduled to arrive (which is not the day we did arrive, pace United Airlines; if you want to read more about this debacle, see the starred paragraphs at the end), it was supposed to be 70 degrees in Assisi.  By the time we left, things had changed radically, and we were feeling more like this poor fellow:

Statue of friar at Eremo dei Carceri

We were fortunate to have an apartment with a view across the valley, so we could see the weather moving in.  This was ideal for my research purposes, because I was learning about the life of a remarkable woman named Giacoma, and she might well have been a guest in a 13th century palazzo right where our apartment building was, near the cathedral and situated in the neighborhood where the upper crust lived (and a couple of doors down from Saint Clare's childhood home).  So, when I looked out the window and realized I could see Santa Maria degli Angeli down below (that being the vast baroque church that has engulfed the tiny hut that served as the first home for Francis with his early followers), I knew that Giacoma, too, could have looked out her window and would have seen that hut, and could have watched the friars walking slowly up the hill toward her. 

Everything was summery, green, and lovely.  The Basilica of Saint Francis looked like this:

The old amphitheatre area looked like this:

The Rocca, high on its peak, looked like this:

But all that was about to change.  Fortunately, the day we decided to hike up Mount Subasio to the Eremo dei Carceri, another Francis-related place of great interest, we still had decent weather, though it was a long, hard slog anyway (imagine climbing stairs for four and a half kilometers - that's how steep it was).  We could look down on the valley and see the clouds collecting.

 At home, too, things were starting to look a bit more ominous.

And at the Basilica, too:

Then the snow came.  We watched, cozy in our apartment, as it blanketed the area, whiting out our view of the valley.

This was a great opportunity for me.  I could watch how the twisting, winding streets below sheltered some areas and left others exposed.  I could observe people making their way along the street, and from that I could tell how the wind was blowing.  I could watch the storm progress across the valley - at least until the snow filled the air and obscured the view.

This was the first time I ever took notes on a snowstorm!  When we finally ventured out, we found it slushy and a little slippery.  I realized this was a problem Giacoma would not have had, since there would have been much less paving in her day - her main difficulty would have been mud, I suspect.  It was quite nippy, and when I thought of Francis and his brothers in their thin, patched tunics, making their way up and down the mountain barefoot, I began for the first time to realize, just a little, how great were the hardships they chose to endure. 

And now beautiful Assisi looked like this:

Tau cross and the word "PAX" outside the Basilica

Mount Subasio

It was winter.  And we got to see it arrive.  But now we had our view of the valley back, as the sky cleared:

And I had a much better idea of what life in Assisi would have been like for my characters, thanks to our fortunate timing.

I'll leave you with a couple of seasonal images also from Assisi.  Note that the jolly red-clad gentleman is engaging in a most appropriate seasonal activity, namely, reading.

And here's that part about our travel misadventures.  (Warning - rant ahead.)

*The reason we spent the first night of our trip in Newark, New Jersey instead of in Assisi is that United Airlines screwed everything up.  Delays which should have been inconsequential snowballed into bigger delays that were badly handled, misinformation proliferated, and all in all, it was a mess.  As if that wasn't enough, they then proceeded to send our luggage to Munich (Munich?!), where it remained, probably hanging out in a beerhall, for a week.  That left us shopping for socks and underwear in Assisi's street market.  (Thanks, Samuele - my husband loves the Albanian underwear!)

But that wasn't enough.  Oh, no.  Next, they bumped us from our seats on Phase 2 of the return trip (Chicago to Madison), reseating us twenty rows apart.  But before we had even read the email that told us of that, they bumped us from the flight entirely, and told us the flight had been cancelled.  That flight was not cancelled.  They were prepared to just dump us in Chicago, making no further arrangements, presumably because someone had waved money at them for our seats.  When we called from Vienna  they scheduled us on a late plane, leaving about seven hours after our original flight was scheduled to go.  Considering the time we started moving in Vienna, and the time change, that would have meant a travel day of twenty-three and a half hours door to door.  We came home from Chicago on the bus, arriving two hours before we would have left on that late plane.

In this season of peace and goodwill toward mankind, one should not speak ill of an airline company, even one staffed by people who somehow manage to give you misinformation at every turn.  I'm sure that next time it would be much better.  (Of course, the next time we fly United will be when Hell freezes over, so I think we could realistically expect weather-related delays.)

I would just like to point out, however, that "Fly the friendly skies of United" can be anagrammed to read:  "So tired:  nuke filthy fly fiends."  True, you have to add the punctuation and there's an "e" left over, but still. 

Images in this post are all photos taken by Timothy Heath, who holds copyright.

Friday, December 13, 2013

A dearth of evidence can be overcome! Guest post by Nancy Jardine

"Ravaged by war
…AD 71. After the battle at Whorl, Brennus of Garrigill is irrevocably changed. 

Returning to Marske, Ineda finds her grandmother dead, though Brennus is not. Snared by a Roman patrol, they are marched to Witton where he is forced to labour for the Roman IX Legion. 

Embracing his new identity as Bran, Brennus vows to avert Roman occupation of northernmost Brigantia. Ineda becomes his doughty spying accomplice, though sometimes she’s too impetuous. Trading with the Romans lends excellent opportunities for information gathering. Over time, Bran’s feelings for Ineda mar
with  his loyalty to Ineda’s father. 

When she disappears, and cannot be found, Bran enters direct service with Venutius, King of the Brigantes. "


Today I'd like to welcome guest blogger Nancy Jardine, who is celebrating the launch of her new novel, After Whorl-Bran Reborn, the second book in her Celtic Fervour series.   The Beltane Choice, first in the trilogy, has received enthusiastic reviews, including such comments as "powerfully sensual," "authentic and original and rooted thoroughly in the past," and "a stunning and truly believable evocation of life as it is likely to have been lived in Northern Britain in 71 A.D." (this last by archaeologist Mark Patton). 

How does one research such a long-ago, minimally-documented period?  I was curious, so I invited Nancy to talk about her research here.  I think you'll find her explanation as fascinating as I did.  Here's Nancy:

Nancy Jardine

A dearth of evidence can be overcome!

Researching the era of AD 71-84 in northern Britannia.

Imagine this scenario. You’ve managed to get a day pass to the best possible library for a historical project that you’re researching.

“If you require more help, please ask.”

Distracted by the voice of the librarian you become aware that you’ve stopped at an almost clear desk that’s been allocated for your study: three books resting upon it. Only three books?

That hollow feeling engulfed me some time ago when I realised just how few written prime sources exist for researching the northern territory of Roman Britain, during the period of AD 71- 84, the target time slot for my Celtic Fervour series of historical romantic adventures. Images from the period are very rare in sculpture and metalwork. A few texts in Latin exist, written by Roman historians, but since I don’t read Latin, I have to rely heavily on translations. Interpretations of very ancient material can differ greatly and can sometimes lead to confusion in the ‘hobby historian’ like me. (My University degree is history based, though I would never name myself an historian)

The lack of sources made me feel a bit daunted, but it didn’t stop me writing my fictional tales of northern Britannia because my Celtic novels burned to be written!

Though, what exactly got me interested in the period in the first place? I’m an ex- primary teacher and loved to teach history at my school in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. In particular, I loved teaching ‘Celts and Romans’ of the northern climes of Britannia, my first foray teaching this era during the late 1990s.

A lot of the Celtic/Roman sources I used for my adult background knowledge had been compiled by historians during the late Victorian period and into the twentieth century. It was unfortunate that I couldn’t easily lay hands on the newest interpretative evidence- the internet not as available as it is now. I could get currently published non-fiction texts for children, which were beautifully illustrated and which gave me a very nice image to base work on for class work, yet I found it very difficult to find concrete references for those interpretations in historical tomes. Data from the aerial surveys taken across the UK during the very dry summers of the 1970s seemed to be in University publications, but not available to me. At times, it was frustrating since I felt they could reveal more of what had happened in north-eastern Scotland, but my teaching meant limited research time- too many other subjects to currently deal with. Yet, I’d found enough information to keep my interest levels high.

There’s a lot more evidence for the Roman Empire in general, though, which meant that it was easier to formulate class work based on the Roman tradition which seemed to vary very little across the Imperial Roman occupation of mainland Europe. Changing the situations slightly to take account of the different topography and probable climate of Aberdeenshire, two thousand years ago, took a little effort and was tempered with some degree of imagination. Celtic sources likewise were hypothesised from scant evidence unearthed at ‘digs’ across Europe.

Julius Agricola

In my favour, Victorian scholars had identified a stretch of land behind the school building in Kintore, Aberdeenshire, where there had been a Roman Marching Camp. Kintore was the school I taught in, and the village in which I still live. The marching camp was thought to be Agricolan (approximately AD 73/74), possibly harbouring some 4000 Roman soldiers, approximately a legion’s worth. That was a great start to our studies. I had great fun with my classes as we investigated what it would have been like for them as Ancient Celts living in Kintore when the Romans invaded the area. We built wattle and daub walls for roundhouses on the grass outside my mobile classroom (pretty messy, but very good for summer-term outside activities) having collected the willow twigs, mosses and mud from local woods. We made small scale Celtic villages and dyed cloth and wool – all from plant materials. We marched Roman style across the playing field, under which lay the Roman Marching Camp. We did many other fun-filled activities like a re-enactment of the Battle of Mons Graupius - between the Roman Empire and the warriors of the Celtic chief named Calgacus (the Roman historian, Tacitus, having been largely responsible for this information). Naturally our cardboard swords meant zero blood loss- health and safety rules applying during all outside activities even back then. I was hooked on Celtic/Roman Britain history – and I truly believe those kids were too!

Kintore dig

By 2002, our Victorian built school was too small and a new school was planned, to be built on that very field where we had made battle. No new building could occur till a fairly large scale archaeological excavation was undertaken, and between 2002 and 2004 the results of the dig were astonishing. Technology had made sufficient advances and the conclusions were that the site had likely been occupied on at least three occasions by the Roman Army. The Agricolan camp might have sheltered as many as 10,000 soldiers, according to the new parameters found for the rampart ditch walls. The two hundred and fifty plus Roman bread ovens that were uncovered (dendrochronology only one technique used) were also substantial corroboration for the increase in the number of soldiers harboured at the camp. Only a part of the site was available for the dig and the estimate based on that: an oven pit thought to have been created for a contubernium squad of eight to ten men.

All classes at the school were invited over to the dig during the excavation period and were briefly updated. My class of 2004, 11-12 year olds, wrote such fabulous stories of the Roman invasion of the area. If they could do such wonderful work, then so could I - was my thought at the beginning of the long school summer holiday. I spent virtually the whole six week break writing the basis of what is my time-travel novel for early teens. Since then it has undergone many changes, though. Initially set in the Agricolan period (AD 84) I later changed it to be in the Severan era of AD 210: that made it during the very last large scale Roman campaign in north-east Scotland. (A Severan camp is also thought to have been at the same site at Kintore)

Septimius Severus

My reason for changing the time period was that during yet another vacation I wrote the first draft of what eventually became The Beltane Choice, the first novel in my Celtic Fervour series. I had no wish to use the same location and time period in my romantic adventure that I had used for my early teen novel, so I set The Beltane Choice in northern Brigantia in AD 71 (currently the north of England). That location was particularly chosen since the Roman Governor of the time, Quintus Petilius Cerialis Caesius Rufus, was making huge advances northwards in Britannia.

Cerialis is documented as …“having at once struck terror into their hearts by invading the commonwealth of the Brigantes, which is said to be the most numerous tribe of the whole province: many battles were fought, sometimes bloody battles, and by permanent conquest or by forays he annexed a large portion of the Brigantes.” (translation from the Annals of Tacitus)

It took a number of drafts (those summer holidays again) and occasional forays of new research on the era in northern Britain to ensure the facts I used about the period were as accurate as possible-still a challenge given the dearth of resources. After I ceased full-time teaching in 2008, I submitted The Beltane Choice to publishers. On the third try, it was eventually published in August 2012 by Crooked Cat Publishing.

When I set myself to write a sequel to it in late 2012, I wanted to focus a bit more on Roman aspects since The Beltane Choice is heavy on the Celtic bias. I went back to Library sources again to find out more specific details about fort and signal tower building in northern Brigantia. I revisited the sources written specifically on the Governorships in Britannia of Cerialis, Frontinus and Agricola – approximately the period between AD 69 and AD 85.

I used the Inter-Library Loan Services and borrowed text material from The British Library: accessing sources suggested to me by Dr. Mark Patton, a fellow Crooked Cat author who is also an archaeologist. My main text to refer back to again and again, tended to be Sheppard Frere’s Britannia, A History of Roman Britain (though dated, as it was written pre 1980s, it still held relevant information). I dipped into Patrick Ottaway’s Roman York to learn about the earliest fort at Eboracum (just sufficient about the original wooden fort to satisfy me). I scoured translations of the Annals of Tacitus and of the few other Roman and Greeks historians who made brief mentions of Roman campaigns in northern Britannia.

Though there was still not very much to go on, I allowed my imagination to lead me into book two of the series which I named After Whorl: Bran Reborn. Many small forts, and some even larger fortresses, seem to have been built (or rebuilt since wooden structures had a limited ‘shelf life’) during the governorship of Cerialis. I focused on that aspect, and on the lines of communication set up by both Romans and Celts in the territory of northern Brigantia.

My male Celtic protagonist, Brennus of Garrigill from The Beltane Choice, does a little bit of spying on Roman troop movements and fort building – a core element of the novel. Aided by Ineda of Marske they send on information to the Brigante King Venutius, till something rather unfortunate happens.

The writing was going well till I realised my time-lines didn’t really match up as my Brigante spies moved further north into the lands of the Selgovae (present day southern Scotland). I spent many hours trawling the internet to access the most recent information on fort excavations and was delighted to find that my own timeline (chosen to match incidents in my fictitious tale) was matching most recent data but not that of the 1970s scholars. Quite enervated, and definitely relieved, I continued to write and write. After a while, I realised that my follow-on story to The Beltane Choice had developed into two stories. After Whorl-Bran Reborn will be published on 16th December 2013 by Crooked Cat Publishing, the second book of the series. After Whorl-Donning Double Cloaks will be published in the spring of 2014 as the third book- the stories continuing.

By the end of book three, After Whorl-Donning Double Cloaks, I’ve taken my Garrigill Brigantes from Brigantia all the way up to the Bennachie, only nine miles from my home area of Aberdeenshire. The range of hills named Bennachie is one of the most likely sites in northern Scotland for the great battle referred to in The Annals of Tacitus where the Roman Empire’s army battled against the Celtic leader named Calgacus. In my Battle of Mons Graupius (the name coined by scholars during the nineteenth century), Rome makes battle with Calgach, my name for the Celtic leader a more Gaelic sounding form.

So, given the difficulties of researching in a dearth of prime source information, I have great hopes that the readers of my Celtic Fervour series enjoy my fictitious tales set in as sound a historical background as I can possibly make it.

Than you for inviting me today, Tinney, on my little blog tour to launch After Whorl-Bran Reborn.

Some additional information:

After Whorl: Bran Reborn is available for pre-order in paperback from Amazon UK (

Facebook Launch Party **Giveaways**
For a chance to enter the draw for a ‘triquetra’ necklace and other prizes join Nancy’s Facebook Launch party and look for details of how to win the prizes on offer.

Blog launch Tour **Special Prize**
A special Blog Tour ‘friend’ will WIN a mystery gift for the most commented visits to blogs during the launch tour for After Whorl: Bran Reborn. (i.e. most comments between 9th Dec and 18th Dec wins the prize) To be sure you don’t miss any blog posts check Nancy’s Blog regularly between the 9th Dec and the 17th Dec.

Nancy Jardine lives in the fantastic ‘castle country’ of Aberdeenshire, Scotland, with her husband. She spends her week making creative excuses for her neglected large garden; doesn’t manage as much writing as she always plans to do since she’s on Facebook too often, but she does have a thoroughly great time playing with her toddler granddaughter when she’s just supposed to be ‘just’ childminding her twice a week.

A lover of all things historical it sneaks into most of her writing along with many of the fantastic world locations she has been fortunate to visit. Her published work to date has been two non fiction history related projects; two contemporary ancestral mysteries; one light-hearted contemporary romance mystery and a historical novel. She has been published by The Wild Rose Press and Crooked Cat Publishing.
You’ll find Nancy at the following places: Amazon UK author page    Amazon US author page   Blog  Website   Facebook Goodreads   About Me   LinkedIn  Twitter @nansjar  Google+ 
I'd like to thank Nancy for sharing this post with us, and I know we all wish her all the best with her book launch.  

Nancy Jardine holds copyright to the images in this post, with the exception of the photos of the statues of Septimius Severus and Julius Agricola, which are in the public domain.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Contest winner, and what's up next

Tower with Ghibelline (swallowtail) crenellations, Assisi

We have a winner!  The contest in a previous post (here) has been well and truly won by Monique Liddle, whose absolutely correct and amazingly prompt answers appear in her comment at the end of the blog.  Monique, please get in touch with me so I can send you the book you've won.  I need to know your preferred format and where to send it.  Congratulations, and thanks for entering!

On December 24th I will be hosting a guest post from author Nancy Jardine, who is promoting her new book, After Whorl:  Bran Reborn, the second book in her Celtic Fervour series set in Roman Britain.  She will describe what goes into researching a not-so-well-documented period, and I think you'll find it very interesting.

I'm recently back from a research trip to Assisi, where I had the privilege of spending a wonderful three weeks.  My husband and I stayed in an apartment just a few yards from the cathedral, with its ancient romanesque facade.  Had it been the thirteenth century, we would have been Saint Clare's next-door neighbors.  We had a spectacular view out across the valley.  We spent many days in the Basilica of Saint Francis, studying and enjoying the frescoes.  That remarkable building is probably the most extraordinary indoor space I have ever been in (though the Sistine Chapel and the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua are both close competitors).

Naturally I will be blogging about this, but with all of the things that accumulated while we were away and the holidays coming up, it may come out in bits and pieces.

To whet your appetite, I'll post a random selection from our photos taken in Assisi:

View from our window

Our neighborhood

Fortress on a hill (the Rocca)

The Rocca, up close

View of the city

Nothing is flat here - lots of up and down

The cathedral

View from the Basilica of Saint Francis

Street scene

The Basilica of Saint Francis

Assisi's answer to America's Pizzeria Uno

Images in this post are all photographs taken by Timothy Heath, who holds copyright.

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.