Sunday, May 25, 2014

Medieval Moms III: The Sinner

Francesca da Rimini, the third woman in my Medieval Moms series, was a sinner.  (Last week was the saint:  see here.)

How do we know she was a sinner?  We know because Dante assigned her to the Inferno, to the circle of the lustful, where she was to be eternally buffeted about (along with her lover) in a raging whirlwind as payback for her adultery with her brother-in-law Paolo Malatesta.

Unusually, we only know about Francesca and her sin because of Dante.  There's no mention of them at all in anything written before Dante wrote his Commedia.  But she and Paolo were Dante's contemporaries, and their story captured his imagination, and then Dante commentators (including Dante's sons) filled in some of the details for us.  Still later, two chroniclers of the Romagna region picked up the story.  And finally, Giovanni Boccaccio took it on, adding some original elements that tended to provoke sympathy for the lovers, and from there the story went viral, in a pre-internet sort of way.

Especially throughout the 19th century, stories, plays, operas, tone poems, and numerous other treatments of the tale proliferated.  Wikipedia lists no fewer than 20 (!) operas based on Francesca and Paolo (don't worry, I won't include all the YouTube links).

Sergei Rachmaninov and his Paolo and Francesca

Rodin's famous sculpture The Kiss was originally entitled Francesca da Rimini:

So what, exactly, happened to cause such a (belated) fuss?

Francesca was the daughter of Guido Minore da Polenta, aka Guido il Vecchio, who was lord of Ravenna in 1275, the year he gave his teenaged daughter in marriage to Giovanni (called “Gianciotto,” or “John the Lame”) Malatesta, the second son of that Malatesta da Verucchio who was to become the first lord of Rimini (a position Gianciotto never achieved).  This amounted to a powerful political alliance between two prominent families of the Romagna. 

So far, so good.  Gianciotto was probably well into his thirties, maybe close to forty, and Francesca was sixteen, but that wasn't unusual.  He and Francesca in due course had a daughter, who they called – rather ironically – Concordia.  (They may also have had a son, Francesco, who died in infancy.) 

However, Gianciotto also had an exceedingly attractive younger brother called Paolo.  Paolo was himself married, to the unfortunately-named Orabile Beatrice, countess of Ghiaggiolo, and they were the parents of two children, one of whom was named Uberto.

An attraction grew between Paolo and Francesca, resulting in a clandestine adulterous affair.  The various dramatic treatments of their liaison differ on the details; some suggest that it was at the very moment of the couple's first kiss that Gianciotto burst into Francesca's chamber and skewered them both on his sword, whereas other accounts suggest that the affair trundled along uneventfully for almost a decade before Gianciotto committed his act of combined fratricide and uxoricide.

Later writers introduced new elements:  a telltale servant; Paolo's attempt to escape, until his clothing got hung up on something and he found himself stuck in the trap door; Francesca's attempt to protect her lover, which resulted in her death (which in this version her husband did not intend) as well as Paolo's; and the idea that Francesca believed she was marrying Paolo (perhaps a wedding by proxy?) and fell in love with him, only learning later that she was stuck with his much less appealing brother.

Dante, though, who in his telling is profoundly moved at the plight of the lovers he encounters in the Inferno, tells us, as only he can, how their love began, here in Francesca's words:
  We were reading one day, for pleasure, of
Lancelot, how Love beset him; we were alone and
without any suspicion.

  Many times that reading drove our eyes
together and turned our faces pale; but one point
alone was the one that overpowered us.

  When we read that the yearned-for smile was
kissed by so great a lover, he, who will never be
separated from me,

  kissed my mouth all trembling.  Galeotto was the
book and he who wrote it:  that day we read there no
Dante Alighieri, Inferno 5:127-138, trans. Robert M. Durling

Dante may have met Paolo when Dante was 17 and Paolo was in Florence serving as Capitano del Popolo (one of two leading governmental positions that the medieval Italian communes always gave to “foreigners,” or people from other cities, in an attempt to avoid local factionalism).

Dante scholar Teodolinda Barolini observes of Dante's version that “he took a story that was notorious enough for him to have heard it, but that eventually would have been lost, and made it a story that has never been forgotten.” 

But what happened to Concordia?  She was probably no more than nine years old when her mother died.  For that matter, what became of Paolo's children?  Here the story gets even murkier.

Gianciotto remarried, to Zambrosina, daughter of Tebaldello de' Zambrasi, of Faenza, and they had five children:  Tino, Guidoni, Ramberto, Margherita, and Rengarduccia.  Gianciotto's father Malatesta, Concordia's grandfather, wrote in his will in 1311 that Concordia and her half-siblings should amicably resolve any issues relating to the distribution of Francesca's dowry.

This raises some interesting questions.  A woman's dowry was her own to control, as a rule, but perhaps Francesca left no will.  Or, perhaps because of her adultery, her husband's family felt justified in claiming the dowry.  It did not revert to her family, though had she been guiltless and unjustly murdered by her spouse, her birth family might possibly have taken legal steps to reclaim it.  In any case it is hard to understand why the children of Gianciotto's second marriage should have had a share in it at all, but I've not been able to learn anything more about it.  It does appear that the murder did not destroy that all-important alliance between the two families – an alliance that was also cemented by the marriage of Francesca's brother Bernardino to Maddalena, younger sister of Gianciotto and Paolo.

Some say Concordia ended her days in a convent of Poor Clares, Sant'Arcangelo di Romagna, but others say there is nothing to support this.  We just don't know.  But Concordia was raised in the palace where her father killed her mother, raised not only with her half-siblings, but with her cousins, the sons of her uncle (who was also her mother's lover).  It can't have been easy – perhaps not for any of them. 

There is one more sad (and confusing) story pertaining to the next generation.  Unfortunately, we have two opposing versions.  In the first, Paolo's son Ramberto, many years later, avenged his father by murdering Gianciotto's son Uberto at a banquet. 

But wait – haven't we seen already that Ramberto was Gianciotto's son, not Paolo's?  And Uberto was Paolo's son, not Gianciotto's?

That brings us to the second version.  In this one, Ramberto is indeed Gianciotto's son, and history repeats itself when he slays his cousin Uberto, who was Paolo's son, at a banquet.

The first version comes from Wikipedia.  The second comes from Dr. Teodolinda Barolini, Lorenzo Da Ponte Professor of Italian at Columbia University, multiply-published and distinguished Dante scholar. 

Guess which one I'm going to believe? 

This picture is here because the instrument at Francesca's feet is a portative organ, or organetto.  I play one of those too, so I couldn't resist.  I will, however, resist the temptation to discuss which of the brothers has the longer, um, sword.

Francesca's organetto/my organetto
Before we leave Francesca, let me share with you a few more of her words to Dante, again in Robert Durling's translation:
  Love, which is swiftly kindled in the noble heart,
seized this one for the lovely person that was taken
from me; and the manner still injures me.

  Love, which pardons no one loved from loving in
return, seized me for his beauty so strongly that, as
you see, it still does not abandon us.

… There is no greater pain than to
remember the happy time in wretchedness.

All images in this post are in the public domain.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Medieval Moms II: The Saint

Reliquary of Beata Umiliana de' Cerchi, Museo di Santa Croce, Florence

The Blessed Umiliana dei Cerchi, speaking of her children:
O how blessed they would be if they were to die so unstained, still bearing their virginity.  If it is God's will, I would prefer that they die and go to glory rather than live, lest at some time they offend God and so lose a portion of the eternal inheritance. - quoted in Carol Lansing's book The Florentine Magnates
Umiliana's daughter Regale (imagined response):
Um... Mom?

Have you ever heard anyone say, "My mother is a saint"?  It's just possible that might not be an entirely good thing, from a child's point of view. 

(Most sources list Umiliana as "Beata," or "Blessed," rather than as "Saint," but I've seen it both ways.  I'm writing this post as her feast day, May 19, approaches, 768 years after her death in 1246.)

So who was this lady?  Umiliana (aka Humiliana, Emiliana) was born around 1219, into a wealthy Florentine family.  The Cerchi were bankers, influential in Florentine politics and becoming ever more so (they were to become the main opposition to the family of last week's blog topic, Tessa Donati - read about her here).

Cerchi coat of arms, Santa Maria Novella (Florence)

At sixteen, Umiliana married a member of the Buonaguisi family (we don't know his name).  Shortly after her marriage, and probably under the influence of her sister-in-law Ravenna, she rejected “the pomp and adornment of the world.”  She would not paint her face; she cut off the bottom of a beautiful new tunic her husband had given her, made sleeves out of the cloth, and sold them, giving the money to the poor.  She collected her old clothes and her husband's and gave those to the poor, and when she had cloth to make sheets, she made them shorter than usual and gave the rest of the cloth away.

She was also said to give away “all the linen which she found in her husband's chamber.”  I don't know whether that meant bed linens only, or if she also gave away the unfortunate man's shirts and underwear.  She even removed feathers from the marital mattress, to make a pallet to give to a hospital.

She was contented with coarse food, and “took the food out of her mouth, reseasoned it, and gave it to the poor.”  (I know – yuck.  Let's agree not to take that literally, shall we?)  She also stayed up late at night to prepare food for the poor.  She and Ravenna would distribute it the next day, bringing along servants to help carry.

Needless to say, her husband and his family were not gruntled about all of this.  (At least the male members of the family were not; Umiliana seems to have had a wonderful rapport with their womenfolk, many of whom testified to her sanctity after her death.)

As Umiliana's biographer, Fra Vito of Cortona, tells it, her husband and his male relatives (and later her own male relatives) opposed her efforts, every step of the way.

But can you blame her husband?  His young trophy wife is running around in unfashionably short clothes; she's giving away his underwear, stoking the cookfire and cooking all night, and his bed is short-sheeted and missing a lot of feathers.  This was probably not what he bargained for.  As one historian said, “Umiliana did not so much reject marriage as subvert it.”

But we wanted to look at Umiliana as a mother.

Her husband died after a few years of marriage and the birth of two daughters.  Umiliana spent the next year in her family's home, always increasing her charitable efforts, to the displeasure of her husband's brothers, and then she moved back to her father's house.

Her children stayed behind.  Medieval Florentine society believed that's where they belonged as part of their father's lineage.

Did Umiliana have any choice in the matter?  Some men made provision in their wills for their widows to stay in the family home as long as they remained chaste, but we don't know if that happened in Umiliana's case.  Did her husband's family become exasperated and order her out (fearing, perhaps, for their underwear)?  Did she choose to leave?  Did her father, who wanted to use her in another dynastic marriage, insist?

We don't know.  We do know that she left the girls behind, probably in the care of her beloved sister-in-law Ravenna.  We know that members of her birth family tried in vain to persuade her to agree to marry again.  We know that she wanted to enter a convent of Poor Clares at Monticelli, but she was not accepted, so she took up residence in a cell in her father's tower and continued her charitable efforts as a Franciscan tertiary from there (attended by servants from her father's household).

Cerchi tower (shorter than it would have been then)

We also know that Umiliana's father, Oliviero dei Cerchi, reclaimed the right to her dowry, which she claimed he did by deceiving her so that now she would live in her father's home “as a servant, not as a daughter.”  The lack of control over her dowry severely limited how much she could give away to the poor (and some historians believe that Oliviero was merely trying to prevent her from giving away what must have been a considerable sum of money).  Lack of dowry may also have been why she was rejected by the convent – while the Poor Clares espoused poverty, the fact remained that most of the nuns in that Florentine religious house were from wealthy and powerful families, and entered with a dowry.

Umiliana did love children.  She had visions of the Christ child; she once tried to capture the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove to give to her little nephew; she visited a sick boy and voluntarily took his suffering upon herself.

It is said that a demon tried to tempt her out of a vow of silence by showing her visions of various kin lying dead, which would require her to mourn them vocally, and that one such vision was of her two daughters lying on a pallet at her feet, but she successfully resisted this temptation.

And one telling incident:  her daughter Regale (or Rigale) was visiting Umiliana in her tower room one day shortly after terce (mid-morning) when the child was struck dumb, then fell down as if dead, turning very white.  Umiliana, distraught, tried to revive her, but perceiving no breath, she believed her daughter had died.  Fra Vito tells us she feared the trouble this would bring down on her head when her husband's relatives learned of it (emphasis mine), so she prayed to an image of the Virgin.  Then a beautiful child appeared and made the sign of the cross over the little girl, who sat up, fully conscious and completely well.

Santa Margherita dei Cerchi (church in Florence under the patronage of the Cerchi and other neighborhood families in the 13th century)

Rudolph Bell, in his book Holy Anorexia, claims that Umiliana's inlaws believed she was not a fit mother.  Yet they did permit the child to visit her -- unless that was done solely on Ravenna's initiative, which seems possible.  As we have seen, the fact that Umiliana left the girls with her husband's family may well not have been her choice.

Was she as lacking in human feeling for her daughters as some of these quotes and anecdotes seem to suggest?  I wouldn't be too sure.  Everything we read is filtered through her Franciscan biographer, who was trying to depict the life of an urban Franciscan tertiary as he saw it (and this was still early days for the Franciscan order, which was still establishing itself in Florence – Umiliana was seven years old when St. Francis died).

But at the hearings about her sanctity, she was supported not only by three Franciscan friars, but also by 30 women, many of whom were members of her own or her husband's family.  I find it hard to believe that would have been the case if they had seen her as an inadequate mother.  Once again, we are peering far into the past, without much information to work with, and we need to be very careful not to judge people of another time by the standards of our own.

We do not know what eventually became of Regale and her sister.

Next week:  Medieval Moms III:  The Sinner.

Images in this post:  Reliquary photo is licensed to Sailko via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons. So are the photos of the Cerchi coat of arms, the Cerchi tower, and the church of Santa Margherita dei Cerchi.  Other images are in the public domain.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Medieval Moms I: One of the "Ill-Famed"

This could have been a block party in the Sesto dello Scandalo, Florence

Corso Donati's mom was quite a lady.  She lived in turbulent times, and the large and powerful family she married into had certainly made its own substantial contribution to that turbulence, with plenty more to come.

The Donati and their rivals the Cerchi lived in the same small neighborhood in Florence, those last decades of the 13th century.  Rivalries and festering hatreds exploded into violence with such regularity there that the cluster of houses and towers officially called Porta San Piero was known informally as the "Sesto dello Scandalo."  (And the Donati were known as the "Malefami," or Ill-Famed; hence the title of this post.)  Contessa, called Tessa, could have been that lady in the picture about to drop a large rock on some poor guy who looks like he has enough problems already.

The neighborhood today (with two Donati towers still dominating it)

We don't know Tessa's birth family, unfortunately.  We do know that she married messer Simone Donati ("messer" indicates that he was a knight) and was mother to at least three sons and two daughters. 

Well, actually we don't even know that.  Recently some scholars have discovered a tomb in the excavations of Florence's old cathedral, Santa Reparata (under the present cathedral) indicating the resting place of one Ioanna, wife of Simone Donati.  But since we don't know how long Tessa lived, Ioanna could have been a second wife, or she could have been wife to a different Simone, since the name recurred in every generation of this large family.

Assuming Tessa was, as most believe, mother to Corso and his brothers and sisters, she must have had her hands full.  Corso was to become one of the most powerful and dangerous men in a city full of powerful and dangerous men.  Florentine chronicler Dino Compagni was to describe him thus:
A knight in the mold of Catiline the Roman, but more cruel; noble of blood, handsome of body, a charming speaker, adorned with good breeding, subtle of intellect, with his mind always set on evildoing...  he lived dangerously and died reprehensibly.  He was full of malicious thoughts, cruel and astute.
Corso (on horse)
But today we want to concentrate on Tessa herself, not on her frequently problematic offspring.  What do we know of this woman, who lived so long ago? 

Tessa had another son, Forese, who was a good friend of Dante's.  So good, in fact, that the two of them created a poetic conversation of sorts (a dispute, an exchange of insults, presumably all in good fun) called a tenzone.  In this extraordinary and scurrilous exchange they accuse each other of everything from gluttony to poverty to sexual inadequacy to cowardice to thievery.  In one of Dante's verses, he begins like this:
Bicci novel, figliuol di non so cui,
(s'i' non ne domandasse monna Tessa)
"Bicci novel," or "Bicci Junior," was Forese's nickname.  The phrase means "Bicci Junior, son of we don't know who (unless someone asks monna Tessa."

Ahem.  I guess it shows that insulting the other guy's mother is a practice that goes back a long way.

Forese, as Dante finds him in Purgatory (Gustave Doré, 1832-1883)

But that's not the only account of Tessa that survives.  The Lucchese writer Giovanni Sercambi, 1348-1424, wrote a collection of 155 short stories, one of which told a tale of monna Tessa.  His life did not overlap with hers, but he was recording stories that lived in popular memory from less than a century earlier.

It seems that Tessa and her companions were walking along the street near what is now Orsanmichele.  Tessa was an attractive woman, married to an important man, and many people greeted her honorably.  Among them, however, was one man called Bisticcio, who said (and I must thank the eminent Dante scholar and very good sport Christopher Kleinhenz for help with this translation):
"Hey!  Maybe I'll see you in the bordello, so that anyone who would want to sleep with you, be he a townsman or a country dweller, could do so by paying the price."

Tessa heard him.  She told her companions to stop; she turned and faced him.  "Bisticcio," she said, "why do you insult me?  No matter who of you might want to come to bed with me, you could not have me except by paying top dollar."

And then she left, courteously.  Bisticcio was ashamed, for he didn't think the lady had heard him.
I suppose the modern version would be something like, "Hey, babe, how about it?"  "Forget it - you can't afford me."

On the strength of these two accounts, Giosuè Carducci, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1906, sniffed that Tessa "was no Cornelia."  (Cornelia was a favorite example of the noble virtues of Roman womanhood.)

Cornelia, being virtuous
 Many moms have to put up with squabbling children.  But not every mom has to deal with her son (Corso) plucking her daughter (Piccarda) out of a convent and dragging her off kicking and screaming to be married, against her will, to his political ally.   Or, for that matter, Corso driving her other daughter (Ravenna) into a convent, with her children, to escape Corso's marriage plans for her (and his plans for acquiring her recently-inherited fortune) after she was widowed.  That one became a tiresome legal battle between Corso and the nunnery, and it went on for years.  He had no legal right to any of that money, yet somehow he wound up with half of it.  One wonders what Tessa thought of it all.  Did she take sides?  Was she ever tempted to give Corso a time out?

Removing Piccarda from the convent (Lorenzo Toncini, 1802-1884)

During the long years of the Guelf-Ghibelline rift, Tessa endured the pain of exile more than once, relocating with her children to another city, not knowing whether she would ever see Florence again.  Her fortunes fluctuated with the fortunes of her family's political party (Guelf, and later when the Guelfs split into Black and White factions, Black Guelf).  History is silent about any role she may have played in the city's struggles, yet I can't shake the feeling that the woman who could stand up for herself in the street (and could inspire a ribald insult from no less a man than Dante) must have been a player.  Somehow I doubt that she just sat around meekly waiting to see what would happen next.

She was married to a man who, while serving as chief magistrate in another city, was said to have imprisoned a man and put him to the torture, falsely accusing him of a crime, because he wanted to have his way with the man's daughter.  Did Tessa shrug it off?  Was hers a real partnership, or did she and her husband lead separate lives?  We don't know.

 And we really don't know anything about Tessa as a mother.  But Corso was married three times, and while we don't know the name of his first wife, we do know that the second and the third were both also named Tessa.  Oedipus complex, or coincidence?  You decide.

Photo of neighborhood in Florence is licensed to Sailko via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Meet My Main Character (Guest post by Sophia duBay)

Statue of St. Catherine of Siena, in Rome

This week I'd like to welcome one more guest poster in the "Meet My Main Character" blog hop.  Sophia duBay is working on a novel based on the life of Saint Catherine of Siena, a novel I'm very much looking forward to reading when it's complete.  Its working title is World Between Worlds.  Though our time periods differ slightly, we are both avid students of Italian history, and it has been a real pleasure exchanging ideas and information with Sophia. 

 To whet our appetites for the book, she's here to tell us something about Saint Catherine of Siena.  Let's welcome author Sophia duBay, whose biographical sketch follows:

Sophia duBay's passion for historical accuracy and the drive to remain true to Caterina of Siena's soul has led her to travel extensively to the places most prominent in her main character's life. A scholar of medieval history, she and her husband, Brian, have journeyed to Siena, Florence, Rome, and Avignon in a quest to capture the essence of the 14th century and the spirit of Caterina. If you'd like updates on World Between Worlds or would like to contact Sophia, she can be reached through her Facebook page:

Sophia duBay

What is the name of your character?  Is he/she fictional or a historical person?

Caterina of Siena, better known by the English version of her name, Catherine, is a historical person of the 14th century. In 1461 she was canonized a saint, and in 1939 she, along with Francis of Assisi, was named co-patron saint of Italy. In 1970 she (along with Teresa of Avila) was named the first female Doctor of the Church for her contribution to spiritual understanding and wisdom.

When and where is the story set?

The story is set between the years of 1362 and 1380, and takes place in various cities in Italy (mainly Siena, but also Florence, Pisa, and Rome), as well as a few scenes in Avignon.

What should we know about him/her?

During a time of class division and predictable gender roles, Caterina steps outside the bounds of what is expected of her to refuse marriage and instead follow a bold path of her own design. Through teaching, writing, travel, and being a political spokeswoman, Caterina struggles to reform the corruption of her times by commanding senators, bishops, emperors, and even two popes. A social advocate, Caterina risks the accusation of heresy and the torture of public execution to work tirelessly "for the benefit of souls."

Portrait of St. Caterina, Basilica of San Domenico, Siena (Andrea di Vanni)

What is the main conflict?  What messes up his/her life?

Caterina lives in what historian Barbara Tuchman called “the calamitous 14th century.” The entire region of Tuscany is victim to nearly constant mercenary raids, internal revolts centered on class division, and a decadent papacy gone awry. Political chaos runs rampant, while spiritual distortion mingles indiscriminately with true devotion. Yet in this time of international wars and continuous plagues, of hatred between neighboring cities and the overreaching corruption of the lush Avignon papacy, Caterina’s petite presence speaks more boldly than the shouts of those around her.

What is the personal goal of the character?

“Never allow yourself to rest” is Caterina’s motto. Known not for her political riches or military might but for her calm and other-worldly ability to command queens, mercenaries and even popes, Caterina is accused of being both saint and heretic, yet she must overcome the inner turmoil of self-doubt to follow the path she’s convinced God is demanding of her—to bring peace and a glimmer of hope to an apocalyptic world.

What is the title of the book?

This novel is still in draft form, so the title may change, but at the moment it’s tentatively being called World Between Worlds.


Many thanks to Sophia for this very interesting post.  I know all of us wish her every success with her book, and I hope that one day she'll share some of her thoughts about research here in another guest post.

And after this string of delightful guest posts, next week it's back to me, in the first of three posts about three unusual medieval moms, inspired by Mother's Day.