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.


Lisa said...

What exactly does monna mean? Is that where we get the name Mona Lisa?

Tinney Heath said...

Lisa - it just designates a married woman. Yes, I think it is where "Mona" comes from (in Mona Lisa); also, it's sort of shorthand for "madonna" ("my lady"). Sometimes in writing you see "Domina" used for the same purpose, though (depending on time and place) I think Domina suggests an upper-class woman - I doubt if you'd see it used for a poor woman, whereas "monna" can be used for any married woman. "Monna" is sometimes capitalized, often not.