Monday, February 13, 2012

Let's just call him Leonardo, shall we?

Leonardo, possible self-portrait

Leonardo da Vinci is probably the Renaissance man who gave birth to the concept of "Renaissance man." Wikipedia, our go-to for instant information, calls him a "painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer." His name - Leonardo - is enough to identify him, and any other Leonardos are merely pale shadows. "da Vinci" simply tells us where he came from - the little Tuscan town of Vinci. While still in Vinci, he would have been known as Leonardo di ser Piero (the son of the notary Piero). The place identifier would only become relevant once he was living elsewhere, but it is no stand-in for a name. (Wiki, by the way, seems to confuse the titles "ser" [notary] and "messer" [a knight, usually]; Piero was a notary. Which was a much bigger deal then than it is now, but still no knighthood.)

So why do so many people refer to him as "da Vinci"? Or worse, "Da Vinci"? I know, I know, it's traditional, people do it, we all know what it means, etc., etc. But it still annoys me. It makes no more sense, aesthetically or informationally, than calling Saint Francis of Assisi "Of Assisi" or Joan of Arc "Of Arc."

Of Assisi

Of Arc

In a time when very few people had surnames, this sort of thing comes up a lot. Piero da Firenze, Jacopo da Firenze, Giovanni da Firenze, and Lorenzo da Firenze are not the four da Firenze brothers; they are four 14th century composers who all lived in Florence. (And I've been known to form an opinion of a history book based on how it indexes such people. If I find them tucked away under D for "da", I'm not likely to think highly of that book.)

Of course, sometimes during the middle ages and the Renaissance people did get tagged with a place-related name, and it stuck, all by itself. This was true of the scholar and poet Poliziano, tutor of Lorenzo de' Medici's children in Florence, whose name simply means "the guy from Montepulciano." Back at home in Montepulciano, where he was surrounded by other poliziani, he was known as Angelo Ambrogini.


Poliziano's house in Montepulciano

At times, a person may be so firmly identified with a city that the name of the city becomes the name of the person, no matter how everyone else in the same town feels about it. One example of this phenomenon is Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, known to pretty much everyone (yes, even me) as Palestrina. His town proudly displays his statue, so apparently his fellow citizens don't mind.

Palestrina, Palestrina, and Palestrina in Palestrina

But even he probably wasn't hailed as Palestrina by his friends and neighbors, as he did his daily shopping and strolled around the piazzas.

If we were to use this approach with Leonardo, we would simply call him "Vinci." Not "of Vinci," but the town itself.


A lovely town, but a town is a town and a human being is a human being. Consider this a plea for awareness when using names. If we're going to use a nickname or a place name for a historical figure, then as a matter of respect for that person, we should at least know that we are doing so.

Images in this post: Leonardo possible self-portrait, c. 1513; St. Francis (fresco in Basilica Inferiore di San Francesco, Assisi), by Cimabue, 1280; Joan of Arc, miniature, Paris; Poliziano detail from Domenico Ghirlandaio's fresco in Santa Trinita', Florence, 1482-5; Poliziano's house photo by Tim Heath; Palestrina lithograph by Henri-Joseph Heere, 1828; Palestrina photo by FelixH; Palestrina statue photo by Mario1952; Vinci photo by Axel41. Photos of Palestrina, Palestrina statue, and Vinci all licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. Other images public domain.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Not a lot sperto (Automatic Translation, Part 2)

This sign is a good example of why I prefer reading Italian materials in Italian. The churchgoers who speak Italian are treated to a whole list of things not to do, and even the French and German speakers get more detail than English speakers. Although the terse English comment does rather sum it all up, as well as (perhaps) illustrating an Italian attitude toward English-speaking tourists.

But we were speaking of Automatic Translation (A.T.), as opposed to efforts, however inadequate, by a human being. Let's see what A.T. comes up with when translating a bit of literary criticism, in this case Lorenzo the Magnificent's assessment of the poetry of Guido Cavalcanti (below, sitting on the tombstone):

A vague, sweet and weird style

"As the body was beautiful and graceful, like blood very polite, so I 'do not know that his writings more than any other beautiful, kind and resembled weird, shrill and inventions, wonderful, wonderful, very serious in its judgments, and copious detected in the order, composed, wise and prudent, all of which his blessed virtue of a vague, sweet and weird style, as precious as are adorned."

Wonderful, wonderful indeed. Let's try a more modern critique of Guido's work: "...gentle light that may seem trivial... the vocabulary used by engineers drawn from the absence of dicing, pauses, syntactic inversions." One wonders what the critic would have said, no doubt in an engineer's vocabulary, in the presence of dicing.

Lest Guido suffer his weirdness alone, let's also look at a brief discussion of the famous tenzone (an exchange of poetic insults) between Dante and Forese Donati: "In this combat, built according to the Convention and the stylistic comic-realistic poetry of the time, the two poets reproach each other defects and meanness of all kinds, using slang, if not scurrilous. Dante to Forese blames the lack of sexual prowess, debt, greed food, habits, and the violent birth uncertain, while Forese to Dante criticizes a state of poverty and begging, its origins, some with his father kept making mistakes." Dante's dad wasn't the only one.

And one more before we move on from literature. The Sienese poet Cecco Angiolieri's work is described thus: "The woman-angel becomes a creature on earth, even vulgar. Is catapulted into nightclubs... the presence of a father because of his stingy that parsimony does not allow to squander Cecco to win the beautiful women. The protagonists are his wife, gossipy, sullen, and the lover Becchina, sensual and mean..." It is a rather arresting image, the woman-angel being catapulted into nightclubs, don't you think?

Now let's move on to a historical incident, the violent demise of Corso Donati (remember Run Donates to You, from the last post?):

Trying to escape from his horse:
Death of Run Donates to You

"... was pierced by the lance of one of his guards, while trying to escape from his horse and dropping, dropping, he was caught in a stirrup and his body was dragged and torn from the animal in race." This unfortunate incident is compared to "how the sinners in hell were taken directly from galloping horses and the penalty of drag in a ponytail that municipal statues prescribed for traitors." I am now imagining Corso, in drag and with a ponytail mandated by the Commune. I suspect this is not what was intended.

Not only was poor Corso said to be known for his "banter and insult-prone ways," he apparently was thought to be responsible for early computer viruses. This next quote tells us that Corso was "most cruel... body beautiful, pleasant speaker, adorned with beautiful costumes, subtle wit, his mind always intent on malware... many arson and robbery he did a lot to do..."

Corso was said to have plucked his sister Piccarda out of a convent and forced her to marry Rossellino della Tosa, but it was all right, because " is said that providentially died of plague before the wedding is consumed, but it is a legend."

A.T. occasionally seems to damn by faint praise, even when the original meaning was much stronger and more laudatory. Thus, Corso's enemy Vieri dei Cerchi (aka Circles, or Wheels) is said to have "had moments of very favorable", and Dante's ethereal Beatrice is described as "most likely a very nice lady."

Most likely a very nice lady

The city of Florence and its chaotic politics come in for their fair share of garbling. The "noble unravelled city" suffers in part because when A.T. doesn't happen to have a word in its dictionary, it simply leaves the Italian word in place, which results in jumbled paragraphs like this one: "The impotent ones were not help you, but the large ones offended to it, and cosi' the fat popolani that that they were in the ufici and become related to you with large: and many for money were defenses from the pains of the Common one, in that they fell. Waves the good popolani citizens were dissatisfied, and blamed the uficio de' Priori, perchu' the Guelfi large were getlteman."

I don't know if you feel any better informed after reading that; I didn't. But I can well imagine that "Then of tornarono with little fruit; because it was consumed to you much, with breathlessnesses of persons." Those breathlessnesses might explain a lot.

Noble unravelled city

A.T. can be particularly colorful when describing medieval warfare. Thus we learn, for example, that "...the war of Arezzo, pel granted favor da' Fiorentini to the Guelfi hunted from that city..." I had no idea that Pell Grants had anything to do with medieval Italian battles. Infantrymen are called "pedestrians," and we get lively descriptions like this one: "The Aretini vigorous attacked the field yes and with much force, than the formation de' strong Fiorentini it recoiled. The battle was much sour and hard one." No doubt it was.

The title of this post comes from a description of messer Amerigo di Nerbona, the young man left in charge of the Ghibelline forces before the Battle of Campaldino: "... its baron and kind man, the beautifulst young person and of the body, but not a lot sperto in facts of arms..." Had he been a tad more sperto, maybe the Ghibs would have won, but it was not to be.

Pedestrians go to war

We would be remiss to omit an example of the kind of stirring rhetoric that led these people to go to war in the first place. Here's Berto Frescobaldi, exhorting his fellows: "And therefore, getlteman, I council that we exit of this servitude. Prendiam the arms, and we run on the piaza: we kill friends and nimici, of people, how many we of it find, yes that already never we neither our boys are not from soggiogati they." As they say, with friends like that...

Who could fail to be moved by such words? Well, maybe messer Self-confident of Tosa, who rose and spoke next: "Getlteman, the council of savio the knight is good, if it were not too much risk; because, if our thought came lacks, we will all be dead men." Messer Self-confident proposed a sneakier course of action, and if you thought the above was confusing, you'll be pleased that I'm sparing you the rest of his advice.

It is sometimes difficult to figure out exactly who is doing what to whom, in A.T. Note, for example, the following: "19 years after his death, the bodies of Farinata and his wife Florence Adaleta underwent a public trial for the prosecution (posthumous) of heresy. For the occasion, their mortal remains... were exhumed for the celebration of the process... So all the property bequeathed to the heirs were confiscated by Farinata." Maybe if Farinata confiscated property from his own heirs, he had been celebrating the process a bit too much.

Even familiar proverbs get mangled. Take "When the shepherd is struck, the sheep will scatter." Logical enough, yes? A.T. renders it "Percosso the dispersed shepherdesses, fiano the sheep."

And the famous line uttered by Mosca dei Lamberti, " Cosa fatta capo ha," which is still in use in Italy, is usually thought to mean that once a thing is done, the matter is at an end. Compare, then, these A.T. versions:

"A deed done lias an end."
"What done is done."
"A thing done has."
"Cape has done what."
or the laconic "Thing done."

I leave you with this last incoherent morsel: "And holding this shape, it was great usefullness of the people: but I toast was changed, but that the citizens who entered in that uficio, not attendeano to observare the laws, but corrupting them."

Images in this post: sign photographed by Tim Heath; Guido Cavalcanti in a miniature from a manuscript housed in Paris, illustrating a story in Boccaccio's Decameron; miniatures of the death of Corso Donati and of the Battle of Montaperti from an illustrated manuscript of Giovanni Villani's Nuova Cronica in the Vatican Library; Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1864-70; view of Florence from the Madonna della Misericordia in the Loggia del Bigallo, Florence. The last five are public domain by virtue of expired copyright.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

By any other name (Automatic Translation, Part 1)

Question: What do the following have in common?

1. Dino Similar
2. Lottery of the Best Gain
3. Sniper dei Bardi
4. Moscow Lamberti

Answer: All of them are prominent 13th century Italians, Dante's contemporaries, whose names have been mangled by Automatic Translation (A.T., henceforth).

Some people love their computer games. There's nothing like SIMS, solitaire, or Farmville to serve as an expert time-waster, to abet procrastination, and to keep you distracted. I've managed to resist the siren song of cyber-play for the most part, but I do have a weakness for playing around with A.T.

Not every site provides it. I don't need it, fortunately - I read Italian well enough to get by, and it's Italian history I'm researching. But sometimes, I just can't resist the delicious linguistic loopiness that awaits, and I succumb.

In fact, I've collected so many examples worth sharing that I'm dividing this post into two parts, to fit in as many favorites as I can. This time we'll have a look at what A.T. does to names (and, to a lesser extent, to other nouns); next time we'll look at some longer excerpts, including literary criticism and political commentary.

Sometimes A.T. will read a name as a name and leave it alone, but other times it doggedly tries to translate it, never mind whether it makes any sense or not. This is how the Florentine chronicler Dino Compagni managed to emerge as Dino Similar, or in another instance the somewhat more logical Dino Companions. His fellows in the list above are, respectively, Lotto del Migliore Guadagni (his is actually is not such a bad translation, except for the lottery part); Cecchino dei Bardi; and Mosca dei Lamberti.

Giano the Beautiful

This fine fellow, while attractive enough, is not quite what I'd call beautiful, but his name is Giano della Bella, and there you have it.

The gentleman on the horse, directing demolition operations (they're freeing prisoners to help them overrun the city), is Corso Donati, cousin of Dante's wife Gemma Donati.

Run Donates to You

A.T. has given him the unlikely moniker of Run Donates to You. (Sometimes he pops up as Course rather than Run.) It makes a certain linguistic sense, but somehow it just isn't the same, thinking of him as Run.

It's easy enough to see from the arms of the Cerchi family, shown below, how they manage to come out as the Circles, or the Wheels. To understand how they become You Looking For, you need to know a bit of Italian. This is also, presumably, how a church under that family's patronage became St. Margaret of Looking. And how, when Corso (remember Corso/Run?) married a relative of the Cerchi, she was said to be related to "the father's side wheels."

The Circles (also, The Wheels, or the You Looking For)

If A.T. thinks it is translating from Italian, it is too single-minded to let a snippet of Latin get in its way. Thus, the last will and testament of Folco (Fulk) Portinari, father of Dante's beloved Beatrice, who refers to his daughter in his will by her nickname of Bice, is found by A.T. to have willed "his bike" to the wife of Simone dei Bardi. Simone, by the way, in addition to being Bice's husband, was the brother of that Cecchino known to A.T. as Sniper dei Bardi (but then, these were violent times).

His Bike (with a brother-in-law named Sniper)

His bike? (Photographed from the Casa di Dante)

There are many and more of these, as George R.R. Martin might have said: Lapo di Cambio becomes Lapo Exchange; Sasso da Murli becomes Pebble from Murlo; Baldo dal Borgo becomes Self-Confident from the Village; Salvi del Chiaro Girolami becomes It knows you of the Clear Girolami; and in one that I still haven't quite figured out, Orlando da Chiusi transmogrifies into Bordering from Sluices. (Making sense is optional.)

As a final example of personal names, I give you the redoubtable Farinata degli Uberti, Ghibelline leader and victor at the Battle of Montaperti. "Farinata" is itself a nickname; his birth name was Manente. A.T. managed to turn that into Permanent Uberti, an ironic name which could describe his family's state of exile from Florence once the Guelf party gained ascendancy. In Dante's dramatic account of his meeting with Farinata (A.T. calls him Flour) in Hell, Dante taunts him that while Dante's own ancestors had returned (twice) from exile, the Uberti "had not learned that art."

Permanent Uberti (aka Flour)

Nouns other than proper nouns can also become quite improper in the clutches of A.T. Thus, Florence's powerful Guilds somehow become the Limbs; the Commune itself becomes the Common One; the Grandi, or magnates (the wealthy and the nobility who controlled the government) becomes the Large Ones; and the popolo minuto, or the general populace, becomes The Tiny People. With a cavalier disregard for parts of speech, and retaining in Italian that which it cannot render in English, a phrase meaning "the crime of murder" becomes "one malificio of dead women."

Finally, there is an Italian word which meant something very different in the 13th century than it does today (it may have a different origin; the accents fall in different places, but A.T. doesn't know the difference). What once meant a council (or possibly a single advisor) now refers to a woman providing childcare, and that is why we can learn, thanks to A.T., that the warrior bishop of Arezzo, in the hours before the bloody battle of Campaldino, sought the advice of his nanny.

Next time, whole paragraphs of this stuff. See you then.

Images in this post: Corso Donati and Giano della Bella are from an illustrated copy of Villani's Nuova Cronica, Chigi codex, Vatican Library. Photo of the Cerchi stemma by Sailko, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. Beatrice by Marie Spartali Still, 1895, and Farinata by Andrea del Castagno, both public domain by reason of expired copyright. Sign at top and bike (seen from window of the Casa di Dante museum) photographed by Tim Heath.

Exercising Your Imagination, Part 2

Last time, we saw the unfortunate Ricoverino de' Cerchi injured in a street fight in Florence on May Day, 1300. We used the example of this incident to illustrate some of the differences between Florence then and Florence now, and to show how someone trying to envisage the past needs to make a huge imaginative leap to picture things the way they used to be.

We posited that Ricoverino's friends, alarmed at the fact that his nose had been cut off, would have hurried to take him to his home, some distance across the city (the altercation occurred in Piazza Santa Trinita). While his assailants took refuge in the palazzo of the Spini family (now the Ferragamo shoe store), Ricoverino, aided by his friends, would have made his way home, no doubt bleeding profusely. They would have skirted the southern edge of the marketplace (now the neon-infested Piazza della Repubblica) and headed east.

As they approached the home neighborhood of the Cerchi and the Donati (the families that led the two opposing factions involved in the brawl), they would have passed the ancient round tower called La Pagliazza, a women's prison, so named because of the straw pallets the women slept on.

Today, La Pagliazza houses a luxurious hotel - Hotel Brunelleschi - and you could easily pay several hundred euros a night for a room or a suite there, not to mention access to their cocktail lounge and their workout center. A far cry from desolate women sleeping on straw pallets.

Likely they would have passed Orsanmichele, which at that time housed two things of importance: a grain market, and an image of the Madonna which was said to work miracles. Worship and commerce coexisted in this extraordinary space, which at that time was an open loggia, not the dignified building of today graced with statues in niches. Had Ricoverino's nose been saved, a nose-shaped votive offering of wax might have been given to Orsanmichele (or, failing that, his family might have chosen to give a votive offering in thanks for his survival). These wax offerings were the reason Orsanmichele turned into a torch in 1304, when men involved in the same partisan dispute that harmed Ricoverino would set a fire that consumed much of that central part of town. Here we see Orsanmichele then (the grain market) and now:

Perhaps, as this rowdy retinue reached his street, Dante would have come out of his house to watch. His house was probably not the rebuilt structure which houses the Dante museum today, despite its name (Casa di Dante); some claim that he was born in the building that now houses the trattoria Il Pennello:

I've eaten in Il Pennello. The pasta is very good; when I mentioned this to a friend, she observed, "Well, of course it was. They cooked it al Dante."

And what of Dante's love and inspiration, the lovely Beatrice? Her family (the Portinari) had a palazzo only a few steps away from Ricoverino's family's home, in a building that is now the Banca Toscana:

Appropriate, since her father Folco Portinari was a wealthy banker. Those of you who read Part 1 might recall that he was the man who founded the hospital Santa Maria Nuova, which is still in operation today. Beatrice, however, had died a decade before this incident, though some of her many siblings might have peered out to see what was going on.

And what about another woman in Dante's life, his wife, Gemma Donati? She might well have had an interest in Ricoverino's plight. Her family was one of the noble families most involved in the partisan strife, and her cousin Corso was the leader of the Donati faction (which included the guys holed up in the shoe store). She is said to have been born in the building that is now another hotel, the Albergo Firenze:

At long last Ricoverino's friends would manage to get him to his home. The Cerchi owned many palaces and houses in the area, and we cannot be sure that the one shown below was his home, but it certainly belonged to his family and would have been well known to him, and he would have lived either in this building or nearby.

The Cerchi palazzo today houses study abroad programs from Kent State and Penn State Universities, but in his day Ricoverino did not have access to student health services, so his family would have called a doctor in to see to him.

Images in this post: Photos of La Pagliazza, Orsanmichele, and the Palazzo de' Cerchi are by Sailko, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. Photo of the Banca Toscana released to public domain by photographer (Mattes). Orsanmichele grain market from Biadaiolo Codex. Photos of Il Pennello and Albergo Firenze by Tim Heath.