Friday, October 26, 2012

"You must come..."

Recently I got to thinking about town criers in medieval Florence.

Now, I realize that this is not exactly the sort of thing that invades people's consciousnesses very often, but once in a while these things do crop up.  This time, it stemmed from last week's blog post, in which I mentioned in passing that Dante's brother-in-law, Leone Poggi, was a town crier in Florence.

And then it dawned on me:  when Dante was forced into exile as a result of (probably spurious and certainly politically motivated) criminal charges, somebody - some town crier, in fact - had to make the rounds and publicly announce the sentence.  Had to bring the bad tidings to Dante's own home, not to mention the public piazzas and other busiest parts of the city.

Was it his brother-in-law who got stuck with this awkward task?  If it was, wouldn't that likely make things really difficult the next time the whole family got together to celebrate a feast day?  What would Dante's sister - Leone's wife - have thought?  What about Dante's wife, Gemma?  Sounds like a perfect recipe for family discord, doesn't it?

So I looked it up.  And was relieved to find that it was not Leone who got assigned the job, but one of his five colleagues, a fellow named Duccio di Francesco.  But of course, by the time I came across this reassuring tidbit of information, I was hooked, and found myself deeply engaged in trying to figure out the byzantine workings of this aspect of the Florentine justice system.  Never mind the system as a whole - entire books have been written tracing Florentine law to its origins in Roman law and Germanic tribal law.  I was concerned, at least for now, with the communication flow.

What I learned first was that it was all much more codified, and more complicated, than I would have guessed.

For one thing, there is some confusion in some of the histories about whether the nuntio and the bannitore (or banditore) were the same, or whether they were different offices.  The nuntio is a messenger who brought official notification to people in writing; the bannitore was a herald who made public announcements of the city's official proclamations, but who also bore responsibility in some cases for bringing this information directly to an individual.  There is no reason why one man could not have performed both functions, yet it appears that (for most of the time, anyway) these were two separate offices.  

The nuntio had to be a Florentine citizen, and had to have been resident in the city for at least ten years.  He took an oath of office, posted a bond, and proudly wore a peaked wool cap decorated with four Florentine lilies, a symbol of office legally reserved for these civil employees.  I do not know how many nuntii the city employed at any given time; it probably varied with the city budget.

The nuntio, when a person was accused of a crime, had the job of finding the accused and handing him a document which included the name of the judge of the case, the crime with which the recipient was accused, an invitation to present himself to the court within a specified time period, and the name of the messenger.  This would typically be the first legal contact with the accused.

The bannitore, on the other hand, was one of a select group of six, one for each sesto of the city.  Elected annually by the signory of Florence, these elite employees were required to be Florentine citizens, and they were required to identify their families.  A bannitore had to be able to read and write, he needed to possess a "light and clear voice" and he had to own a small silver trumpet and be able to play short fanfares on it, to call people to hear his announcements.  He needed to provide a good horse, one not also registered in the cavalry (no double duty here), and worth at least 20 florins of gold. (This was necessary because he would also be riding out to the suburbs and the surrounding countryside to perform his duties.)

If he met these exacting requirements and was chosen for the job (which, by the way, in 1307 paid exactly as much as a city trumpeter received, 3 lire per month), he would receive a new outfit of clothing twice a year, in a single color (either green or scarlet), and would be given a silver ornament called a maspillos to wear around his neck. 

(I've often thought that medieval livery had something in common with bridesmaids' dresses - just fine for its intended purpose, but not much use for anything else.  Maybe that was the idea.)

His duties included announcing fairs and festivals, meetings of councils, levies of taxes, militia parades, bankruptcies, public auctions, and criminal and civil sentences.  Prior to each announcement, he had to sound his trumpet call three times to call the people together.  He was required to make his announcements at the gates of the city officer's palace, at the church of Or San Michele, and at a minimum of two public locations in each of the city's districts.  Certain announcements concerning individuals (legal sentences, bankruptcies of individuals) had also to be announced near the individual's home.

Let's take a moment to talk about Florence's most famous bannitore, Antonio Pucci.  Antonio, however admirable he may have been as a bannitore, was actually famous for his poetry, but his public career is nonetheless interesting.  The son of a bronze caster who specialized in church bells, Antonio became a bellringer for the city, beginning in 1334, when he was probably about 25.

Perhaps he rang the city's bells to celebrate the victory of the Florentine militia over Padova in 1337, or the overthrow of the Duke of Athens in 1343.  When the Black Death struck Florence with brute force in 1348, could it have resulted in the bannitore post opening up for Antonio?  We don't know, but we do know that he continued overlapping both jobs for a while, and served as a bannitore for nearly twenty years. 

 In both of his public positions he would have been privy to the decisions of Florence's governing elite and would have played a role in communicating those decisions to the populace.  Perhaps his job put him in a good position to observe the foibles of his fellow Florentines, because his poetry reflected some wry observations, like the one about the poultry vendor who sold him a dry old hen, or the ode to a notoriously sloppy barber.

But getting back to communications and to Dante's legal woes, I found an interesting breakdown of exactly how the legal process worked in Dante's case, in a book called Contrary Commonwealth:  The Theme of Exile in Medieval and Renaissance Italy, by Randolph Starn.

Dante, a member of the White Guelf party who had recently served as a member of Florence's ruling body, was in Rome as part of an official Florentine delegation to the Pope when the exiled Black Guelfs triumphantly re-entered Florence and turned the political tables, targeting prominent White Guelfs for retribution.  I'll summarize the steps of their legal assault on the absent Dante here:

Step One:  Messer Cante Gabrieli of Gubbio, the podestà (the foreign rector, or chief magistrate, chosen to serve for a half-year term, and in this case very much allied with Dante's political foes), appointed messer Paolo of Gubbio as special judge of crimes committed by public officials.

Step 2:  Messer Paolo initiated proceedings and investigations against several of those who had recently served in the White Guelf government, and brought charges against Dante and three co-defendants:  messer Palmiro Altoviti, Lippo Becchi, and Orlanduccio Orlandi.  The four were accused of crimes-in-office including extortion, corruption, misappropriation of funds, fraud, accepting bribes, and plotting rebellion.

Is there any surviving evidence of any truth to these charges?  No.  They appear to have been wholly politically motivated.  We cannot know for sure whether any specifics were cited, but if they were, they did not survive in the record.

Step 3:  The court cited Dante and the other three and sent a nuntio (messenger) with written instructions, ordering them to appear by a certain deadline.  Dante, you will recall, was in Rome at the time, probably with no direct knowledge that these things were going on.  Thus, the nuntio would not have been able to hand him the document, and instead would have affixed it to the front door of Dante's home.  All attempts to deliver the document would have been scrupulously recorded.  At this point, Dante's legal status was that of citatus - a person accused of a crime.

Step 4:  When Dante and the others did not respond, they were subject to being "called under the ban" (cridatio in bannum).  It was at this point that the town crier, in this case Duccio di Francesco, rode forth on his horse worth at least 20 gold florins, blew three blasts on his silver trumpet, and voiced his message:  "You must come."

He did this in a number of locations around the city, including just outside Dante's home.  He must have done it at least twice in January 1302.  He noted Dante's previous failure to appear (the fact that he was in Rome didn't count) and placed the poet under the ban of the commune of Florence; he was now required to pay a fine of 5000 florins within three days (though 15 days would have to pass before further action could be taken), and this was true even if he returned and proved his innocence, which would have been difficult under the circumstances, and would probably have exposed him to torture to elicit a confession.

Dante's status was now that of bannitus.

After the total of 18 days had passed, thanks to Duccio's efforts, Dante's status was exbannitus pro maleficio, meaning that he was considered a confessed criminal due to his contumacy (failure to appear).  He had no right of appeal, and he had lost the rights of citizenship.  Any citizen could assault or even assassinate him with impunity, provided the attack took place within Florentine territory.

And Dante may still not have known what was happening. 

Step 5:  On 27 January 1302 the magistrates pronounced a definitive sentence:  since Dante and the others had not appeared to contest the accusations against them (probably a good idea on their parts, all things considered), they were considered confessed criminals and sentenced to pay the 5000 florins in fine within three days, plus any illicit gains to any legitimate claimants.  If they did not - and how could they? - their property was to be confiscated and destroyed.  Even if they did somehow manage to pay that vast sum of money within three days, they would still have been confined outside Tuscany for two years and banned forever from public office in Florence.  It was now too late for innocence.

Step 6:  The sentence was formalized and officially recorded by the court notary (ser Bonora da Pregio).  Duccio di Francesco was among the witnesses.

On 10 March 1302, Dante and 14 other White Guelfs were sentenced to death by fire, should they ever return to Florentine territory.  In 1311, an amnesty offered to those condemned in 1302 required an act of public penance, which Dante refused to perform.  In 1315 he and his sons were proclaimed rebels and sentenced to be decapitated if they were captured.  (One wonders if this superseded being burned at the stake.)  On each of these occasions, the steps above (notification, public announcements, passage of a specified amount of time) were undertaken yet again.

The outcome?  Dante never returned to his native Florence.  He died in Ravenna in 1321, having written his masterwork La Commedia while living in exile.

In 2008, the city council of Florence finally got around to voiding Dante's sentence.


Today, this blog has been in existence for exactly one year!  Its readership has been growing, slowly at first, but faster all the time.  We've covered a vast variety of topics, most of them at least loosely related to research - the process or the results.  It's been fun, and I hope my readers have enjoyed it, too.

But although the blog is a year old, the little follower thingie on the right side of the page is only a couple of weeks old.  If you'd like to help me celebrate this important milestone, perhaps you'd consider doing so by choosing to follow the blog.  

Or, to be just a tad irreverent about it:

Follow this blog, or the peacock gets it!

Images in this post are in the public domain by virtue of having expired copyrights.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Who was the historical Beatrice?

Dante and Beatrice, 15th century

Today I'd like to see what we can figure out about the real woman behind Dante's inspiration and muse, the beautiful and otherworldly Beatrice.  She was the focus of Dante's adoration from a distance, his beloved - his lady, in the parlance of the medieval culture of courtly love.

  • But first, one quick announcement:  I've recently added a "follower" thingie up on the top right corner of this blog, and if you're someone who visits here from time to time, I hope you'll choose to follow it.  I probably should have enabled this at the outset, but I didn't, and now I'm trying to catch up.  Thank you.
Please follow this blog...

Returning you now to your regularly scheduled blog post, we were about to talk about Beatrice.

Often I find myself staring at a mass of dry facts - dates and names and incidents - and sifting through them as I search for the human beings in the factual record.  Searching for the story.

But in the case of Dante's Beatrice, "the glorious lady of my mind," as he called her, it's the other way around.  We know next to nothing about the historical woman, yet her name endures in legend, in art, in music, in poetry.  A particular favorite among 19th century romantics, as you can see from the art in the rest of this post, poor Beatrice is awash in sentimentality.  I suspect this would have left a young medieval Florentine woman bemused, at best. 

Marie Spartali Stillman, 1895

So who was she?  What do we know?  We know that Dante exalted her; that he vowed to write about her "what has never before been written about any woman."

But we don't know with certainty that she even existed.  There have been scholars who insist that she is wholly allegorical, or metaphorical, or some such thing.  Most, however, seem to accept the word of Dante's son Pietro and of Giovanni Boccaccio that Beatrice was indeed a real woman:  Beatrice, usually known as Bice (that's BEE-chay, rhyming with eBay, not with mice, lice, or rice), the daughter of Florentine banker and philanthropist Folco Portinari.  (Her full name would be pronounced Bay-ah-TREE-chay.  Not that these phonetic renditions capture the vowels properly, but you get the general idea.)

Washington Allston, 1819
I'm going to accept that Bice was indeed Folco's daughter.  And since we know so little about her life, her personality, or even her physical appearance, I'm going to try to see how much I can glean indirectly from the historical record - what we can learn about her family, her times, her situation.  It's not solid biography, but it may take us in some interesting directions.

Pietro Alighieri tells us that Bice is of the Portinari family, and Pietro should have known.  He was one of the first commentators on his father's work.  It seems unlikely to me that he would have erred in this.

As for Giovanni Boccaccio, author of The Decameron and early Dante scholar, he tells us that Bice was the daughter of Folco Portinari.  Boccaccio was only eight years old when Dante died in 1321, but he did his research well.  He was acquainted with Andrea Poggi, Dante's nephew (son of Dante's sister, whose name we don't know, and her husband Leone Poggi, a bannitore or town crier), who was said to look remarkably like the poet; also, Boccaccio's stepmother Margherita Mardoli was a cousin of Bice's.

Dante encounters Beatrice, Henry Holiday, 1883
From Dante's own work (La Vita Nuova, in which the poet arranges his early poetic works and his running commentary on them in a sequence that is somewhat autobiographical), we know that Bice was about a year younger than Dante, which means she was probably born in 1266.  We know, too, that she died in 1290, at only 24 years of age.  Dante tells us, in one poem, that she did not die of fever or chills, but he doesn't tell us what she did die of.  Scholars have guessed that she died in childbirth. It's not illogical to assume that of a young married woman in a time when pregnancy and childbirth were very risky for a woman, but it's always possible she died of something else.  After all, even in 1348 a few people managed to find things other than the plague to sweep them away. 

Poul S. Christiansen, 1895
What about her family?  The Portinari were wealthy bankers, and their political background was Ghibelline.  By Bice's time, however, Florence was solidly Guelf, and most of the former Ghibellines, particularly the businessmen, had managed to change their spots accordingly.  Folco must have succeeded, because he served Florence as Prior several times.

Folco, in addition to serving his city as an elected official, was a generous supporter of many charities, including his parish church of Santa Margherita, but he is perhaps best known and remembered for founding the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, which is still operating in Florence today.  His family provided the hospital's main financial support for several generations after Folco endowed it in 1288.

Some say that Folco was given the idea by a servant, one monna Tessa, who is sometimes described as Bice's nurse.  Some have even said that he founded the hospital in self-defense, because his servant kept bringing sick people home and installing them in his house so she could care for them.  Monna Tessa, the wife of a saddle-maker named Ture, founded the Order of the Oblates in 1288 while employed by the Portinari.  These Third Order women worked in Folco's hospital and in other settings, caring for the ill and the elderly as an act of charity. 

Dante and the friends of Beatrice, Marcel Rieder, 1895
Bice's mother, Cilia dei Caponsacchi, was also from a Ghibelline family.  The Caponsacchi, unlike the Portinari, were classified as magnates, a legal category in medieval Florence which suggested that they were among the powerful and wealthy families who not infrequently took the law into their own hands (and in fact we do know that members of the Caponsacchi were involved in magnate-style violence in the 1280s).

Laws designed to curb the lawlessness and fractiousness of the magnates began to be passed in the 1280s, and continued through the famous Ordinances of Justice in 1293, by which time magnates were barred from holding public office, required to post monetary bonds against the potential bad behavior of their families, and severely penalized if they caused harm to one of the popolani (the non-magnate population).  In 1293, some 72 Florentine families were designated magnates.  (A definition of magnate from the 1280s included any house which had had a knight among its members in the previous twenty years, those which public opinion considered to be magnates, and any that had already been so designated by any previous law.)  Magnates could be of the nobility, but very wealthy merchants who emulated the behavior of the nobles, such as the Bardi family into which Bice married, could also be so designated.  (I keep a list of these families on my refrigerator for quick reference, and yes, they are indeed my refrigerator magnates.)

Gustave Doré, 1857
Folco predeceased his daughter Bice by less than a year.  His last will and testament survives, telling us much about his family.  At the time of his death in 1289, Bice was married and so was one of her sisters:  Ravegnana was married to Bandino dei Falconieri, and they had one son, Niccolò.  (Bandino was brother to Saint Giuliana Falconieri, 1270-1341, who founded a Servite tertiary order in 1305.)  Two of Bice's brothers must have been adults at this time, as they were named as tutors for their younger siblings:  Manetto and Ricovero.  Younger siblings, probably listed by order of birth within gender, were Folco's sons Pigello, Gherardo, and Iacopo, and his daughters Vanna, Pia (or Fia), Margarita, and Castoria.  So, we know that Bice came from a large family.  We also know from this will that Folco was wealthy enough to dower his daughters generously and provide for his sons, as well as for his widow, his natural sister, many charitable causes, and his hospital. 

Carl Wilhelm Friederich Oesterly, 19th century
Folco and other members of his family were buried in the family vault at Santa Margherita  (now known as the Church of Dante).  For a very long time it was believed that Bice was also interred there, but recently scholars have been saying that it was more likely she would have been buried with her husband's family, in Santa Croce.

James Blake, 1800
Let's now take a look at Bice's marriage.  Until fairly recently it was believed that she married Simone (called Mone) dei Bardi, a member of the great magnate banking family, when she was in her late teens, but recent discovery of an earlier document which she had signed as Simone's wife suggests that she was already married by the time she was fifteen.

There exists some doubt about which Simone she wed (since the Bardi seemed to have several Simones in every branch and every generation), but there is substantial agreement that it was Simone son of Geri, and that he was a knight and a man who served more than once in high elected office in Florence. 

Andrea Pierini, 1853
Did Bice have children?  We don't know.  We do know that Simone di Geri had at least three children, but we don't know whether their mother was Bice, or his second wife, Bilia (Sibilla) di Puccio Deciaioli.  We do know that Simone's daughter Ceccha (Francesca) married Francesco di Pierozzo Strozzi in 1313.  If Ceccha was born to Bice, who died in 1290, she would have been at least 23 at her marriage - not impossible, but older than the usual pattern with magnate families, where daughters tended to marry young.  Simone also fathered Bartolo and Gemma (who married either a Medici or a Baroncelli, depending on which account you believe).

What about Bice's friends?  We know from Dante's poems and commentary that she had a friend called Giovanna, nicknamed Primavera ("Springtime"), who was the ladylove of Dante's "first friend" Guido Cavalcanti, a poet and nobleman (yes, from a magnate family).  Another woman associated with Primavera and Bice in a poem was Lagia, the ladylove of another poet, Lapo Gianni.

And it seems distinctly possible, even probable, that Bice knew the young woman who was to become Dante's wife - Gemma Donati (the Donati were the magnates to end all magnates).  They were neighbors, they were more or less the same age, and Florence was not such a big city, nor its young women so protected in those years, that the two would not have known one another.  They may have spent time together; they may have been schooled together; they certainly attended the same small parish church.

Philipp Veit, 1817-1827
We know where Bice lived - only a few doors away from Dante (today's Banca Toscana is built on the land where Folco's house once stood).  And we know that she became much less available to Dante as an object of daily devotion after she married Mone dei Bardi, because the Bardi lived across the Arno. 

And that's what I've been able to learn.  So little, really.  Over 700 years ago there lived in Florence a young woman known to everyone as Bice.  She came from a large and wealthy family, she married young, she died young.  She may have been beautiful.  She certainly was, to one young poet who has made her immortal. 

Images in this post are in the public domain by virtue of more than a century having passed since the deaths of their creators.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Next Big Thing

Okay, readers, what we have here is an episode in a gigantic online game of Author Tag, called The Next Big Thing.  The idea is, a writer puts up a post on his or her own blog answering ten questions about his/her work in progress, and then "tags" three - or five, depending on which version you see - other writers to do the same.  Then, the writer posts a link to his/her "tagger" and to the people he/she is "tagging" so that readers who are interested can visit those pages and perhaps discover some new authors whose work they'd like to read.

I was tagged by Elizabeth Caulfeld Felt, author of Syncopation:  A Memoir of Adèle Hugo.  The writers I have tagged in my turn appear at the bottom of this post.

I chose to write about my first novel even though it will be published quite soon, justifying it as being still in progress because it isn't (quite) out yet.

But first, one announcement:


At the request of a reader, I've added a thingie (technical term) on the blog so that people can follow it.  My readership has been growing at a satisfying rate during the year the blog has been in existence, and I know the current small number of followers does not reflect that, so please, if you read this blog with any regularity, consider becoming a follower, now that I've finally made it easier.  Many thanks.

Now, The Next Big Thing:

What is the working title for your book?

A Thing Done.  It comes from the words uttered in the spring of 1216 by messer Mosca dei Lamberti, who some may recall from Dante's Inferno:  Cosa fatta, capo ha.  A thing done has an end, or - a slightly different emphasis - a thing done cannot be undone.  Quoted by contemporary chroniclers, by Dante, and by historians, including Machiavelli, this phrase is still heard in Italy, where, according to L'Encliclopedia Italiana, it is used to cut short discussion about things that have already happened.

Where did the idea come from for this book?

From a footnote, if I remember correctly.  Footnotes contain so many little throw-away tidbits of information - perhaps they don't pique the imagination of historians or of the average history student, but how can a novelist resist?  Especially when the tidbit doesn't, in and of itself, make sense.  (See question Who or what inspired you to write this book? below.)

What genre does your book fall under?

Historical fiction.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

The actors I see in the roles of the Jester and his best friend Neri are two actors from the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin, the wonderful summer Shakespeare theatre near where I live:  Jim DeVita as the Jester, and Brian Mani as Neri.  But since those names won't mean much to those of you who aren't lucky enough to attend this theatre regularly, here's my list for the Hollywood cast with the most expensive payroll ever assembled (especially when you factor in the time travel that would be necessary to present them at more or less the right ages):

I'd like to see my Jester played by Roberto Begnini.  If I couldn't persuade him, I would love to see Daniel Day Lewis in the role.

Neri the musician, the Jester's troubled friend, would be in good hands played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Oddo, the irascible knight who is not as simple as he seems, could be played by Kenneth Branagh.

Buondelmonte, the hotheaded knight whose rash action plunges Florence into chaos, I see as somebody like Russell Crowe.

And Mosca, whose fateful words sealed the fate of his foe, has to be Ralph Fiennes.

As for the women, I'd pick these actresses:

Ghisola, the Jester's great-hearted friend, should be played by Emma Thompson.

Gualdrada, the noblewoman whose pride definitely goeth before somebody's fall, would be well played by Susan Sarandon.

Isabella, the beautiful siren who tempts a knight with disastrous consequences, could be played by Scarlett Johansson.

Fiammetta, Isabella's younger sister, who is cleverer than anyone suspects, would be well portrayed by Cate Blanchett.

And Selvaggia the schemer, the very picture of a woman scorned, could be played by Helena Bonham Carter (if she wasn't much too pretty for the role).  

And there you have it.  Never mind that at least three of these people probably don't want to be on the same planet with each other, let alone the same movie; anything goes, in a daydream.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Urg.  I sweated blood over the five-page synopsis, and the one-page synopsis, and now you want a one-sentence synopsis?!?  I'd just like to note that Nigel Tomm wrote a whole novel in one sentence (469,856 words), and the Guinness Book of World Records cites a sentence in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! at 1,288 words, and that Molly Bloom's soliloquy in James Joyce's Ulysses consists of two sentences:  one of 11,282 words, and the other of 12,931 words.

That said, here's my one-sentence synopsis:

Florence, 1216:  When Corrado the Jester's prank-for-hire goes wrong and triggers a brawl between two knightly factions, one side seeks peace via a proposed marriage between the factions, but a woman's interference, an unforgivable insult, and an outraged cry for revenge plunge the city into chaos and place the Jester in a perilous situation where even his considerable wit and ingenuity may not be enough to protect himself or his friends. 

Writing a synopsis is like pulling teeth

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Neither.  I've signed a contract with Fireship Press, an indie publisher I'm delighted to be working with. 

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

A summer, plus a little.  But lots more drafts followed.

Author, beta readers, critiquers

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

At least two agents who read the manuscript told me they had expected it to be like Sarah Dunant's In the Company of the Courtesan, because obviously a sixteenth century dwarf in Rome and Venice was going to be exactly like a thirteenth century jester in Florence, right?  (Wrong.)  I think a better match might be a couple of Vanora Bennett's books.  In Portrait of an Unknown Woman Bennett told the story of a little-known historical personage, weaving the strands of her subject's life together with much better-known historical people (like the unknown woman's foster father, Sir Thomas More).  In Figures in Silk she created a fictional woman of the merchant class and had her interact, convincingly, with royalty and other people whose names we know from history.   My protagonist is a little of both:  the Jester did exist, but we know nothing at all about him beyond the act that started the brouhaha.  So he is almost wholly fictional, a man of the Florentine underclass who was given no voice and no story of his own in the histories, and yet... and yet, the Jester did exist.  And he did interact with people who are recorded in history.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Curiosity, at the beginning.  I couldn't reconcile some features of the brief, tantalizing accounts of the incident which survive:  Why was Buondelmonte wearing white on that fateful day in 1216?  What inspired Gualdrada to try to persuade him to wed Isabella?  Who ordered the Jester to do what he did?  What made Mosca so eager to set a vendetta in motion?  Why did Oddo try to provoke Buondelmonte?  Would an assassination attempt really have taken place on Easter?   It was as I explored those questions, and others, that a tale began to emerge, and I found myself wondering, especially, what it would have been like to be the Jester whose action set in motion such mayhem, and who had to live with the consequences.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

One thing I've done in this book is to explore the roles of several women in this event, which is certainly something the historians never bothered to do.  In the historical record, only Gualdrada has a name and a political agenda.  But what of the girl promised to Buondelmonte, the girl I've called Selvaggia?  How did she react to all that happened?  And lovely Isabella and her younger sister Fiammetta - what did this rift in the Florentine nobility do to their lives?  And Ghisola, my purely fictional character, the Jester's great-hearted friend - what was it like to be a woman of the lower classes when the upper classes were tearing your city apart?  This book gives these voiceless women personalities and choices, and and recognizes that women were never completely without power, even in medieval Florence.

Woman making (questionable) choice

Include the link of who tagged you and this explanation for the people you have tagged.  

I've linked to Elizabeth Caulfeld Felt, who tagged me, above.  The writers I've tagged are, in alphabetical order:

Prue Batten, author of fantasy novels The Stumpwork Robe, The Last Stitch, and A Thousand Glass Flowers, and of the historical novel Gisbourne:  Book of Pawns

Emmalyn N. Edwards, writer of fantasy and science fiction

Mary Donnarumma Sharnick, historical novelist, author of Thirst:  A Novel, set in 17th century Venice

Elisabeth Storrs, author of The Wedding Shroud, a novel about Etruscans and Romans

Julia West, prize-winning science fiction and fantasy writer and "Chief Mugwump" at Callihoo Publishing

Images in this post are in the public domain by virtue of age.  The photo at the top is our own (and yes, I own the instrument and the hat).

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Solar Eclipse, 1239 AD

Astronomers Studying an Eclipse, by Antoine Caron, 1571

"When I was six years old, the sun went dark."

Thus does one of the characters in my work-in-progress introduce herself.  It's an important part of her backstory:  the young Contessa left out on the balcony, forgotten as a terrifying celestial event drives the rest of her family indoors, pulling the doors tightly closed behind them.

What would a child in that situation do?  Would she peer at the darkening sun, possibly damaging her eyes permanently?  Would she scream in panic, or pound on the door and beg to be let in, or would her attention be drawn to the people she saw on the street below and to their reactions?

However she behaved, it's an event she would have remembered.  And such a solar eclipse did take place, visible in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, on 3 June of 1239.    

Illustration for Jules Verne's Around the Moon by Émile-Antoine Bayard and Alphonse de Neuville

Here are a few of the surviving eyewitness descriptions of that eclipse.

From Arezzo:  "... one Friday, at the 6th hour of the day, when the Sun was 20 degrees in Gemini and the weather was calm and clear, the sky began to turn yellow and I saw the whole body of the Sun covered step by step and it became night.  I saw Mercury close to the Sun, and all the animals and birds were terrified; and the wild beasts could easily be caught.  There were some people who caught birds and animals, because they were bewildered.  I saw the Sun entirely covered for the space of time in which a man could walk fully 250 paces.  The air and the ground began to become cold; and it [the Sun] began to be covered and uncovered from the west."   (Ristoro d'Arezzo, a 13th century Italian monk who wrote the first astronomical work in the Tuscan language, writing ca. 1282)

From Cesena:  "Almost all of the stars were manifestly seen in the sky and this appeared plainly to everyone.  There was also a certain fiery aperture in the Sun's disc on the lower part.  In verse:

'In the year one thousand, two hundred and thirty-nine
When June was beginning; on the third day;
The Sun was obscured, with its disc covered with darkness,
In full daylight the Sun became without light.
For a whole hour the Sun was dead and remote from us,
This marvel happened on the sixth day of the week.'"
 (Annales Caesenates, Anon.)

From Siena:  "On Friday at the 6th hour, the Sun began to be obscured as if by a veil and was covered in a clear sky.  At the ninth hour it was totally obscured, whence it gave no light; and as if a dark night arose with the result that a starry sky was seen, as on a clear night.  People lit lamps in houses and shops.  After some space of time it gradually became uncovered and restored to Earth, with the result that before the evening hour it was restored to its brilliance." (Archivo de Duomo di Siena)

From Florence:  "On the third day of June, the whole of the Sun was obscured aÉt the sixth hour and it remained obscured for several hours and from day it became night and the stars appeared; so that many people ignorant of the course of the Sun and the other planets marvelled greatly..."  (Storie Fiorentina, IV)

Illustration for Jules Verne's Around the Moon by Émile-Antoine Bayard and Alphonse de Neuville

From Lucca:  "In the year of our Lord 1239 there was an eclipse of the sun, wherein the light of day was horribly and terribly darkened, and the stars appeared.  And it seemed as though night had come, and all men and women had sore fear, and went about as if bereft of their wits, with great sorrow and trembling.  And many, smitten with terror, came to confession, and made penitence for their sins, and those who were at discord made peace with each other. And the Lord Manfred of Cornazano, who was at that time Podestà, took the Cross in his hands and went in procession through the streets of Lucca, with the Friars Minor and other men of religion and clerks.  And the Podestà himself preached of the Passion of Christ, and made peace between those who were at enmity.  This I saw with mine own eyes, for I was there, and my brother Guido di Adamo with me."  (Salimbene, Franciscan monk and chronicler, 1221-1288)

From a little further afield, Croatia:  "A wonderful and terrible eclipse of the sun occurred, for the entire Sun was obscured, and the whole of the clear sky was in darkness.  Also stars appeared in the sky as if during the night, and a certain greater star shone beside the Sun on the western side.  And such great fear overtook everyone, that just like madmen they ran about to and fro shrieking, thinking that the end of the world had come."  (Thomae Historia Pontificum Salonitanorum et Spalatinorum)

Jean Dodal Tarot trump, 1701-1715

You'll notice a difference in emphasis in these accounts.  I suspect that those who stressed the terror of the event, for men or beasts, were writing sooner after that day than the others, who were looking back at a phenomenon they knew they had survived and were, perhaps, conveniently forgetting how they had felt at the time and were reporting as if they had been calm, scientific observers.

But even the less dramatic accounts have their moments, and you can catch a glimpse of the chaos that must have defined the event:  seeing the stars in the daytime, "the Sun was dead and remote from us", the disoriented birds and animals. 

Nine years previous to this event, another solar eclipse elicited a much more laconic response from an English chronicler, one Roger of Wendover:

"It became so dark that the labourers, who had commenced their morning's work, were obliged to leave it, and returned again to their beds to sleep, but in about an hour's time, to the astonishment of many, the Sun regained its usual brightness."

It may be significant that in Croatia they shrieked and ran about like madmen, in Lucca they had religious processions and cancelled their vendettas, and in England they went back to bed.  But I'm not going to go there.

Incidentally, a solar eclipse occurring almost exactly a hundred years later almost cost one of Florence's great artists his sight.  Taddeo Gaddi, who had a fascination with light, damaged his eyes severely while studying the eclipse.  Perhaps what he went through at that time informed the compassion in his painting below:

Taddeo Gaddi, Sick Persons Praying for Healing

Quotes in this post, except for Salimbene, were taken from F. Richard Stephenson's book Historical Eclipses and Earth's Rotation.

Images in this post are in the public domain by virtue of being well over a hundred years old.