Monday, December 5, 2016

Slut-Shaming in the Trecento (and, Poison)

(or: How to Distinguish Fake News Six and a Half Centuries Before Snopes)

Your long-AWOL blogger is back, once again bringing you more than you ever wanted to know about the middle ages in Italy. Today we will probe an instance of research serendipity and how it turned up a whole slew of fascinating medieval guys ‘n gals we would otherwise never have known much about, despite the lurid tabloid-style coverage they got from the chroniclers of their day.

Jacopo da Bologna

I'm part of a trio that performs medieval music, and I was doing some background reading on fourteenth-century Italian composers prior to our recent concert, when I found the following snippet in a biographical sketch of Jacopo da Bologna, written by M. Thomas Marrocco:
Subsequent events in the conjugal life of Luchino Visconti would have us believe that the atmosphere of the court became surcharged with tension, suspicion, deceit, and finally murder.

Hmm. I think maybe there’s a story here.

The musician in me said, “Well, that’s interesting. I wonder which of these pieces Jacopo wrote while he was in Milan.”

But the novelist in me said, “Whoa! Murder? Conjugal life? Tension, suspicion, and deceit? I need to know more about all of this!”

Whereupon my inner musician raised her hands, palms out, backed away slowly, and said, “Fine. You do that. I’ll just go practice a bit, shall I?” Meanwhile, my inner novelist was digging in.

First I read further. I found a quote from a Milanese archivist and historian, Luigi Osio, which elaborated a bit on what Marrocco had said (translation is, I think, Marrocco’s):

After almost 10 years of administration, he [Luchino] died suddenly at the age of 57 years on January 24, 1349, not without suspecting, however, that his wife [Isabella], fearing death at his hands, he being convinced of her infidelity, had had him poisoned.

Luchino Visconti

The plot thickens. Infidelity? Sudden death? Poison? I am intrigued. However, I also experience my first little hiccup of skepticism: it was summer of 1348 that the Black Death ravaged Italy, and a sudden death in January 1349 might not, in fact, be all that surprising. I mean, lots of people were doing that. It had become A Thing.

But let’s see what others have concluded. On a whim, I picked up Barbara Tuchman’s book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, since this incident sounded sufficiently calamitous to be in there. And sure enough, there it was:

Luchino… had been murdered by his wife, who, after a notable orgy on a river barge during which she entertained several lovers at once including the Doge of Venice and her own nephew Galeazzo, decided to eliminate her husband to forestall his same intention with regard to her.

Lots of material here. First, I love that reference to a “notable orgy.” Would that be as opposed to her usual run of the mill everyday orgies? And the Doge of Venice? Izzy was clearly not slumming, here. And her own nephew? What was that about? And on a river barge? This makes the Viking River Cruises look downright tame.

It was time to do some serious poking around.

What the chroniclers say happened

The overall story, as best I can patch it together from various sources which tend to disagree on dates and certain details, is this:

In or around the year 1331, Luchino Visconti, a Ghibelline nobleman in line to become lord of Milan and already lord of Pavia, wed Isabella Fieschi, a Genoan noblewoman from a Guelf family and a niece of Pope Adrian V. The wedding was celebrated with such pomp and ostentation that historical re-enactors do it all over again every year. Here’s a link to a picture of one such recent reenactment.

Pope Adriano V (Isabella's Uncle Ottobuono)
It was Luchino’s third marriage, Isabella’s first. She was much his junior. She was said to be beautiful, lighthearted, and exuberant. He was said to be easily offended and someone who never laughed, and in fact had a prominent frown line etched deeply into his forehead. He was the father of two illegitimate sons, but he had no legitimate heirs. Luchino and his brother Giovanni, an archbishop, shared the lordship of Milan after their father Matteo I Visconti died in 1339, but Giovanni left most of the secular leadership to Luchino.

Giovanni Visconti
Things went along well enough, except for the occasional excommunication, accusation of heresy, territorial dispute, and so on, until 1346 (some sources say 1345, some say 1340), when Luchino learned of a plot against him. The conspiracy was spearheaded by a nobleman, Franceschino Pusterla, whose wife Margherita may or may not have been Luchino’s mistress. Unfortunately for Visconti family unity, also involved were Luchino’s three nephews, Matteo, Bernabò, and Galeazzo. Luchino had Franceschino hunted down and killed along with his young son or sons, and exiled the three nephews. Nobody is quite sure what happened to Margherita, but we’ll get back to her later.

After sixteen childless years, at long last, in August of 1346, twin sons were born to Isabella and Luchino. The composer Jacopo da Bologna wrote a celebratory madrigal on the occasion of the baptism of little Giovanni and Luca Novello [“Junior”], and you can listen to it here.

In 1347, Isabella obtained her husband’s permission to travel to Venice, so that her little boys could be blessed in San Marco. She set off by boat, flaunting a level of ostentation that rivaled her wedding 16 years earlier. She was accompanied by musicians, jesters, cooks, waiters, servants, and a bevy of lovely female attendants, and people stood on the banks of the waterway to applaud as her boat passed by.

So far, so good. If the chroniclers are right (and I am not convinced of this), she then made a teensy little error of judgment, and went on a boat ride with three fine gentlemen – Ugolino Gonzaga, Andrea Dandolo (the Doge of Venice), and her nephew Galeazzo (remember him, from the conspiracy?). She is said to have entertained them in a way not entirely consistent with her marriage vows.

This incident coming to the ears of her husband (not too surprising considering all those jesters and cooks and musicians and ladies), Luchino flew into a rage and vowed to kill her in various unpleasant ways, which he had a reputation for being good at. However, in January of 1348 he died suddenly, and it was said by many that Isabella had poisoned him, so maybe she was even better. She became known as “Isabella del Veleno” - Isabel of the Poison.

She then tried to set herself up as regent for her son Luchino Novello (little Giovanni had died by this time, as so many medieval infants did), but her late husband’s brother Giovanni checkmated this effort, declaring Luchino Novello to be not only illegitimate, but the son of Luchino’s nephew Galeazzo (remember Galeazzo?) and therefore ineligible for the succession. Giovanni still didn’t really want to deal with Milan himself, so he called back his trio of nephews, banished by Luchino after the conspiracy, and gave the lordship of the city over to Matteo, Bernabò, and – you guessed it – Galeazzo. What’s sauce for the goose apparently is not sauce for the gander.

Isabella lived with her remaining now-disinherited son for several years under house arrest in Milan, in a Visconti property on Via Romana, and finally escaped to the relative safety of her family’s castle, Castello Savignone. Luchino Novello grew up to be a condotierro, never on particularly good terms with Milan; his mother presumably died at some point in the Castello. (If you are wondering how the Visconti managed to treat a pope’s niece in this way, note that Pope Adrian V - born Ottobuono Fieschi - was elected to the papacy many years earlier, in 1276, long before Isabella was born. Also he was a very short-lived pope, reigning for only a little over a month before he died.)

Castello Savignone (being restored) - licensed to Davide Papalini via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons

It’s impossible to do this kind of research without turning up various fascinating tidbits. They may not be relevant, but they’re fun, so here are a few of them, presented briefly.

Visconti coat of arms

The blue snake eating a red person is one of the most dramatic devices we see in medieval Italy. The Visconti motto, “Vipereos mores non violabo,” apparently translates to something like “I will not violate the snake’s uses.” The Visconti might well have been the sort of folks that would find lots of uses for snakes. Apparently one of their ancestors had killed a marauding snake that bit children.

Matteo (not the nephew, but Luchino’s father)

At one point Matteo was accused by Pope John XXII of conspiring with none other than Dante Alighieri to commit necromancy. It doesn’t seem to have come to much, but still, pretty wild stuff. He was also accused of adhering to the Cathar heresy.

Bust of Andrea Dandolo (Istitute Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti)

Andrea Dandolo

The Venetian doge-on-the-boat was a friend and patron of the great poet Francesco Petrarca. Still a young man, Dandolo had a lot to deal with. Even before the plague hit his city, Venice had been through a major famine and a disastrous earthquake, the latter striking on the 25th January 1348. And the plague hit Venice hard, killing perhaps three-fifths of the population (around 45,000 – 50,000 people) and completely wiping out perhaps fifty noble families. Maybe he needed a boat ride and a little R&R.

That's Doge Andrea Dandolo at the foot of the cross.

Ugolino Gonzaga

This third man-on-the-boat, the one who wasn’t a doge or Isabella’s nephew by marriage, was a contottiero. His third wife, whom he married in or around 1349, was Caterina Visconti, daughter of Matteo Visconti (one of the conspiratorial nephews).

An episode during the plague at Milan (Wellcome Images)
The plague in Milan

According to E.L. Knox, in The Black Death, “In Milan, to take one of the most successful examples, city officials immediately walled up houses found to have the plague, isolating the healthy in them along with the sick.” Draconian, but apparently effective. And not something that could have happened without the full agreement of Luchino.

Galeazzo Visconti
Francesco Petrarca

Galeazzo II Visconti

Luchino’s nephew, supposedly Isabella’s lover and the father of her sons, and one of the men on the infamous boat, Galeazzo II was known for his sponsorship of writers and intellectuals, including Petrarca; for establishing the University of Pavia; and also for his introduction of the Querasima torture protocol, in which a victim slated for death was tortured over a forty-day period, each torment carefully calibrated to cause maximum pain while keeping the condemned person alive over that extended period. It featured a day of torture followed by a day of recuperation, and involved the rack, the wheel, flaying, eye-gouging, cutting off facial features and limbs, and the strappado. 


He may have been known as a tyrant, but he apparently loved his dog. Luchino was an avid hunter, and the hunting hound called Varino was featured in more than one madrigal written for his court. Luchino was also a great castle builder.

Luchino Novello

He eventually married Luisa Adorno, daughter of another Venetian doge, Gabriele Adorno. He was probably only about ten years old when he and his mother escaped from their Milanese imprisonment.

Margherita Pusterla

Margherita, born a Visconti, was a cousin of Luchino’s. Many believe that she was also his mistress. She was married to Franceschino Pusterla, author of the conspiracy against Luchino, who, when the plot was uncovered, attempted to flee, but was captured and executed. Some believe that Margherita tried to flee with him and was also caught and killed; others believe she managed to escape. A legend says that she was walled up alive in the Castello di Invorio by order of Luchino, and on dark nights her ghost can be heard screaming for help from this tower:

Margherita captured the imagination of the writer Giovanni Cesare Cantù (1804-1895), who wrote a novel about her despite being a political prisoner at the time, deprived of writing implements. He told her story by writing on rags with a toothpick and candle smoke.

Cesare Cantù
The composer Giovanni Pacini wrote an opera in 1856 about the unfortunate Margherita, based on Cantù’s novel.

Jacopo da Bologna

Remember Jacopo? That’s how this whole project got started. In addition to several madrigals extolling Luchino and his beautiful wife, written while employed at the court in Milan, Jacopo later wrote a piece about a beautiful, once-loving woman who had turned into a poisonous viper. Anybody we know, do you think? By the time this one was written, Jacopo had moved on to Verona and was working for Mastino II della Scala, yet another nephew of Luchino. Isabella’s guilt may have been the official family position.

And finally, last but never least, Isabella Fieschi herself. Is all this scuttlebutt true? The chroniclers insist that it is, but I am not so sure. It seems unlikely to me that she would take that huge entourage of people off to Venice and then hold an all-too-public orgy on her husband’s boat. I mean, would that really be prudent? Considering Luchino’s reputation? But it is exactly the sort of rumor that would spread like wildfire with the help of just a bit of malicious gossip.

So we have Isabella, still beautiful but no longer young by medieval standards (assuming she was around 15 when she married, she would have been in her early thirties by this time), and just having lost one of her two sons, and probably glad enough to be out from under her dour husband’s scrutiny for a while. But even if she chose to kick up her heels a bit, is it likely she would have risked everything in that way? I can’t make myself believe it.

Also, at least some chroniclers suggest that the conspirators were exiled perhaps as early as 1340, which would have made it rather difficult for Galeazzo to father Isabella’s sons. But perhaps the exile did happen in the same year as the birth, which would have made his paternity at least possible.

Did Isabella have enemies? Well, sure – she was from Genoa, and the Genoans and the Milanese were at each other’s throats often enough. She was from a Guelf family, he was Ghibelline. And remember the conspiracy? Anyone who had sympathized with Franceschino Pusterla’s attempted coup might well have held a grudge against Isabella or other members of the family. (I wonder, how did Margherita and Isabella feel about each other? Were they rivals? Friends? Was Margherita Luchino’s mistress, and/or did Isabella believe she was?)

Another thing to consider is the fact that Isabella gave birth to twins. In the middle ages, many people believed that twins were evidence that the mother had been unfaithful – that two fathers were involved. Could it be that giving birth to twin boys sixteen years after she was married was what sealed her fate?

We don’t even know when Isabella returned to Milan. If she was aware of her husband’s anger and lethal intentions, would she have gone back? And yet she was placed under house arrest in Milan, so at some point she did go back. Presumably she did so to push her son’s claim to the lordship of the city, once Luchino was dead. But it seems highly unlikely that she was there to poison her husband in person, not that it would have been difficult to find and hire a surrogate. However, any of Luchino’s many enemies might have seen an opportunity to off him and see her take the blame.

If Izzy didn’t have Luchino poisoned (assuming he didn’t die of the plague), then who did? We need to ask, along with Cicero and many another ancient jurist, “Cui bono?” Who profits? Presumably, one or all of the three brothers who eventually took Luchino’s place: Matteo, Bernabò, and the ubiquitous Galeazzo. (Just offering up an alternative theory here.)

One doesn’t have to look back six and a half centuries to find examples of a prominent woman brought down by gossip and innuendo. I can’t prove it (not that the chroniclers are particularly heavy on proof either), but I think she was maligned unfairly. She was bright enough to escape from house arrest in Milan; how could she also have been dumb enough to destroy her future and her son’s for a moment of frankly unlikely lasciviousness?

And even if she was, does that make her capable of murder? Pretty much every male in the family had proved his murderous proclivities over and over, but all we know of Isabella is that she was a pretty woman who loved pleasure.

We’ll never know. But my position, for what it’s worth, is that history has not been fair to Isabella Fieschi.