Sunday, July 28, 2013

Many, many Medici

Quick - who's the first Medici who pops into your mind?

We'll just ignore anybody who said "What's a Medici?"  Here are a few random possibilities, depending on what period(s) of history you're interested in:
  •  Catherine de' Medici, 1519-1589.  Known for Huguenots, forks, astrology, and for being Queen of France.
  • Cosimo I, 1519-1574.  Grand Duke of Florence from 1537-1569; Grand Duke of Tuscany 1569-1574.  Known for power, ruthlessness, extravagant public spectacles and building projects, and having rather a lot of money.
  • Pope Leo X (born Giovanni de' Medici), 1475-1521.  Known for becoming a cardinal at the tender age of 16, for being nearsighted, for his girth, and for saying, "God has give us the papacy - now let us enjoy it!" 

Perhaps your interests are more bellicose, and you think of the famous condottiere, Giovanni delle Bande Nere (the father of Cosimo I, above).  This acclaimed warrior died at the age of 28, of the septic aftermath of having his leg shattered by a falconet (small cannon).

His mother was the redoubtable Caterina Sforza, whose maternal attitude may be summed up in this anecdote:

The year is 1488.  Caterina's first husband has just been assassinated, and her enemies are holding her six children hostage and threatening to kill them if she won't surrender her fortress.  Does Caterina give in gracefully?  Heck, no.  She stands atop the ramparts, lifts her skirts, and yells, "Fools!  Can you not see that I can make more?"  (Probably apocryphal, but still.)   With a mom like that, no wonder Giovanni was a bit scrappy.   He was the son of her third husband, Giovanni de' Medici.

Or perhaps your interests run a bit earlier, and the Medici that comes to mind is Lorenzo, called "The Magnificent" (1449-1492).

Lorenzo was my own entry-level Medici.  Known for his poetry, his patronage of artists, his political skill and courage, his total lack of a sense of smell, and his problems with the religious reformer Fra Girolamo Savonarola (sometimes called the Mad Monk of Florence).

There are the Medici who survived assassination attempts (Lorenzo), and those who didn't (Alessandro).  There are the Medici who led revolts (Salvestro), and those who were revolted against (Piero di Lorenzo).  There are the Medici who survived the plague and wrote about it (Filigno), and those who didn't (Bicci).

In short, we have Medici up the wazoo.

Um - let me reword that, more in keeping with the serious intent and overall gravitas of this blog:  We can find records of many, many notable members of the Medici family, going back a long way.

We can, with reasonably good documentation, take this family back to a birth around the year 1046.  To a time before the family had adopted their surname, let alone their famous coat of arms.  To a time before they settled in Florence.

We can go back all the way to Catherine de' Medici's 16X-great-grandfather.

Of course, historians seem to believe the Medici accomplished most of this without women, via some sort of weird parthenogenesis.  The only times women get listed in these charts and family trees seems to be when they come from prestigious families and they marry into the Medici (who were not of the nobility).  Thus, we find Contessina ADIMARI, Jacopa SPINI, Gemma de' BARDI, and Lisa DONATI, all of whom lent their families' status and political clout to the up-and-coming Medici.  Medici daughters do get mentioned occasionally,  but usually it's when they marry notably well.

What I propose to do in my next few blog posts is to go back in time.  Next time, I want to take a look at Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici (1360-1428), who started the Medici bank (and fortune). 

Then I want to look at Salvestro's role in the Ciompi revolt (1378) and see what we can learn from reading Foligno's family ricordanza (begun in 1373).

I'll want to see what the Medici were up to in the time periods covered by my published novel (1216), my work in progress (mid-1200s), and my next project (late 1200s-early 1300s).  I'll take a look at the Medici's allegiance to the Black Guelf faction under the leadership of Corso Donati, and we'll look at Neri Strinati's indignant claim that a "gang" of Medici invaded his house and stole everything, including the clothing of the infants in their cribs (1301).

And then we'll take a look at some really early stuff.  Maybe we'll even peek into the mists of Medici legend - and I can assure you they're pretty misty, especially the part about slaying giants for Charlemagne.

So, as my friends in the Society for Creative Anachronism would say, "Forward into the past!"

Images in this post are in the public domain.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Dante saves the day: The offa-l truth

Recently, while procrastinating on writing my current book by doing some research for the next one, I stumbled across a translation problem - one of those frustrating situations where the definition of one elusive word makes all the difference.

It seems that the redoubtable Corso Donati, head of the Black Guelf faction in Florence in the late 13th century and very early years of the 14th, may have had a way to avoid suffering any consequences for his more homicidal actions.  Or at least, the people of Florence believed he did.

Corso, in a not-atypical street altercation, was accused of having slain a man - in this case his own cousin.  This wasn't the first such accusation and Corso wasn't the only one; Florence's nobles were notoriously highhanded, taking the law into their own hands and claiming immunity from any rules that applied to the little people.  Sometimes the mercantile interests of the city fought back.  Sometimes even the truly little people fought back.  But nobody had yet managed to bring the wealthy and powerful under control.

Corso's fellow Florentines fervently believed that the Guelf leader would magically protect himself from prosecution (or subsequent vendetta) by the simple expedient of eating something called "offa" over the body of his victim, sometime during the nine days following the killing.  Furthermore, they firmly believed that Corso did this sort of thing all the time - a kind of preemptive snacking that provided him with immunity.

Below, you see part of the excavation beneath Florence's present-day cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, which exposes some of the area of the older cathedral, Santa Reparata.  It is probable that Corso's cousin, and victims of similar altercations, were laid to rest in Santa Reparata:

Santa Reparata

So did Corso really manage to eat "offa" over the graves of his victims?  Considering that families who could manage it actually provided guards over said graves for the requisite time period, it must have been a challenge. 

But this got me wondering:  what, exactly, was "offa"?  It's not in my Italian dictionary.  I know that Offa was an early king of Mercia, but I was pretty sure that wasn't the right definition:

Offa of Mercia

 OFFA is an acronym for Office for Fair Access (UK), Office of Francophone and Francophile Affairs (Canada), One Filmware For All (a sortware porting group), and the blog Organic Food For All, not to mention the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals.  None of these helped.

One linguistic blind alley I attempted to follow told me that "offa" was a shortened form of "offetta" - an earlier version of "fetta," which is Italian for "slice."  It further claimed that this was the origin of the name for feta cheese.  Was Corso eating feta cheese over his victims' graves?  Somehow I couldn't see him downstairs in Santa Reparata munching on a Greek salad.  I didn't think that was it.

Feta cheese

If not feta, then what?  I was pretty sure it wasn't going to be black pudding (blood sausage); Corso had once been accused of poisoning several young members of the opposing party by seeing that they were fed a toxic black pudding, and he was always very conscious of his reputation, so it seemed unlikely that he would choose to remind everyone of that unfortunate occasion.

Black pudding

Clearly the Florentines thought he was eating something over people's graves.  The internet was not particularly helpful in this matter.  Was it just a matter of eating any sort of snack?

Assorted snacks

(We might at least show you authentically Florentine snacks - see below.)

Italian bar snacks, Florence

It nagged at me.  I needed to know what they were talking about.  Surely it wasn't just anything - "offa" had to be something in particular.  But what?

I went to the university library and found an earlier Italian dictionary.  It only went back to the Renaissance, so it was still hopelessly modern, but it suggested that "offa" might mean sops in wine (bits of bread soaked in red wine), and further, it mentioned a Latin derivation.  

A Latin dictionary, in its turn, told me that "offa" referred to a ball of moistened meal, and as an extension of that, to anything that was a moist, soft mass.  Like a tumor, it said.  Yuck.  But bread sops in wine might match that description, so that seemed like a possibility. 

And this is where Dante comes in.  In the Purgatorio, the second book of his masterwork The Divine Comedy, Dante's beloved Beatrice, who is now showing him around (Virgil, his previous guide, having been left behind), describes to him how divine punishment works:  "... let him who is to blame believe that God's vengeance fears no sop."  (from the Robert Durling translation)

In other words, eating sops will not protect you from divine retribution, regardless of what it can do for you in the physical world.

Sop.  ("Suppe" in the Italian.)  Aha.  I checked two more translations that I happened to have handy.  The Carlyle-Wicksteed translation also said "sop."  John Ciardi said "soup," but then, his was a poetic translation, so it doesn't count.  

And I checked the notes to those volumes.  Carlyle-Wicksteed said that the custom was a Greek one; C-W and Ronald Martinez (who wrote the notes for the Durling translation) agreed about the nine days, and eating sops.  

Odd as it seemed, I had it.  Sops in wine.  So was that a bowl of liquidy stuff, like this?

Bread in wine

Or might it have been something a bit tidier, like this Catalan version, where the wine and sugar form a thick syrup that adheres to the bread?

Bread and wine, Catalan style

Whichever it might have been, I still find it hard to believe that Corso and his entourage would stride into the crypt, confront the deceased's guards, and proceed to defiantly and flagrantly chomp at them.  But who knows.  People certainly believed it, which only goes to show that human beings were very suggestible even before the days of social media.

And in closing, let me just say that this is probably the only blog post you will read all day that manages to combine Offa of Mercia, bar snacks, Santa Reparata, feta cheese, and Dante.  Cheers.

Images in this post are in the public domain, with these exceptions:  photo of Santa Reparata is licensed to Sailko via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons; photo of feta cheese is licensed to Dominick Hundhammer via the same type of license; photo of blood sausage is licensed to Rainer Zenz via the same type of license, at German language Wikipedia; photo of assorted snacks is licensed to Jeffrey O. Gustafson via the same type of license at the English language Wikipedia; photo of bread in wine is licensed to RichardBarley via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 license; and the photo of bread and wine Catalan style is licensed  to Mcapdevila via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Nasally challenged in the middle ages and Renaissance

Detail of a portrait by Domenico Ghirlandaio

The gentleman above may well have a perfectly healthy and functional nose.  He certainly has a nose, which will not be true of everyone we discuss here.  

Why, you may well ask, am I writing a blog post about noses in the middle ages and the Renaissance?  I have no idea.  I just work here.  I should probably be writing a chatty wrapup of the recent Historical Novel Society Conference in Florida, as just about everyone else who attended has done, but for some reason best known to my subconscious, I'm doing noses instead.

I was thinking the other day about various situations in which prominent people of those times sustained injury to their noses, or experienced other nasal difficulties.  I came up with examples of noses damaged through various forms of combat, including street brawls, tournaments, fistfights, and duels.   Noses are vulnerable.  They're right out there in front, easy to reach, tempting targets.  This is why helms came to include nasal protection, like this:

Human noses were not the only vulnerable ones; it's astonishing how many statues, from classical times forward, have been deprived of that facial feature.  Of course, when combat involves a statue, the contest is inherently one-sided (unless, of course, the statue manages to fall on its opponent, in which case it wins - by a nose?)

Here are the various orphaned noses in a collection at the Nasothek in Copenhagen:

Nasothek, Copenhagen

 I do not intend to say much about the unfortunate people whose noses were amputated or mutilated for punitive reasons, a form of disfigurement often (though not always) reserved for women.  The high middle ages was not the first or the last period where this form of barbarism was practiced; the Byzantines were hard on noses, as were the Franks and many others.  Prostitutes and women convicted of adultery were among the victims, as were women victimized during wartime (cf. the poor women who were expelled from Pisa while that city was under siege from the Florentines because they were considered "persons of little value" - the enemy captured them, cut off their noses, and sent them back, where the starving Pisans, who didn't want extra mouths to feed, refused to readmit them, and the injured women, according to one chronicle, had to scavenge for grass to eat outside the city walls, unable to go forward or back).  This grotesque punishment is still inflicted on women in various parts of the world in our own time.

Poor women and their children, expelled from their city (but with their noses)

But to move on to individual examples of combat-related nasal victimization, let's begin on the first of May in the year 1300, in Florence (which, as many of you know, is usually where I end up).

Ricoverino de' Cerchi loses his nose

Dino Compagni, the Florentine chronicler who was a contemporary of Dante, has this to say about the incident which cost poor Ricoverino his nose:

Because the young are easier to deceive than the old, the devil - that sower of evils - made use of a band of youths who used to ride around together.  These youths gathered for dinner one evening, on the first of May, and they grew so arrogant that they decided to confront the Cerchi band and use their fists and swords against them. - Dino Compagni, translated by Daniel E. Bornstein
The young men, who were followers of the Black Guelf party led by Corso Donati, did indeed confront their White Guelf counterparts (followers of Vieri dei Cerchi) that evening, at a dance where the young women were celebrating the coming of spring.  The two sides clashed, and someone - probably Piero Spini, but no one knows for sure - slashed Ricoverino's nose.  If Compagni is to be believed, the devil made him do it.  The Donati followers then took refuge in the Spini palace (which, by the way, is now the Ferragamo shoe store), and vendettas and much partisan mayhem ensued.  A disfiguring blow to the face was a very serious insult indeed.

Tournaments, that popular but risky form of sport and entertainment, were also hard on noses.  One prime example is Federico da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino (or, as my husband always calls him, Mister Nosejob).

 Prior to his ducal career, which began in 1450 and lasted until his death in 1482, Federico was one of Italy's most formidable condottieri (leaders of elite bands of mercenary soldiers).  A brilliant military strategist, he and his nose survived some significant battles, but the latter succumbed to the aftermath of a tournament misfortune in 1450, an incident which cost him his right eye and a job opportunity.  He had been offered a job by Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, but the loss of his eye made him unacceptable to the duke.  Instead, he took employment with Alfonso V of Aragon, King of Naples, to fight for him against Florence.  Federico, who understood the danger from assassination attempts, had surgeons remove the mangled bridge of his nose, thus enabling him to use his remaining eye to see anyone approaching him from either side.  Because of the disfiguring scar on the right side of his face, Federico is always pictured in profile, left side showing (as above). 

Another nose that survived violence, albeit in altered form, belonged to the great artist Michelangelo Buonarroti.   As a student in his teens, Michelangelo apparently criticized the work of his fellow student Pietro Torrigiano once too often, and the hotheaded Torrigiano hauled off and punched him in the nose, breaking it.  Michelangelo's self-portraits, as in this head of Holofernes, and drawings of him, as in this drawing by Giulio Bonasone, show the damage:

Head of Holofernes (Michelangelo)
Michelangelo, by Giulio Bonasone

Both Michelangelo and Torrigiano were students in an arts academy whose patron was Lorenzo de' Medici.  Some accounts of the incident state that Torrigiano fled, fearing Lorenzo's wrath.  Certainly Torrigiano's own wrath continued to be a problem for him:  while working in Spain, he mutilated his own artwork in a fit of rage against a patron, the Duke of Arcus, who was unwilling to pay Torrigiano what the artist thought his work was worth.  The duke then reported him for heresy on the grounds that he damaged a holy image, and the unfortunate Torrigiano ended his life in the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition.  (No doubt he didn't expect that.)

Vasari says that the art Torrigiano created and then damaged was a Virgin and Child; other accounts say it was his Saint Jerome.  Saint Jerome, however, is still on display in a museum in Seville and appears to be in good shape, so it seems likely that Vasari was right.

Torrigiano's Saint Jerome

I'm going to step outside of Italy for a moment to bring you a famous example of a nose lost in a duel.  That nose belonged to the great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, whose work formed the basis for some of Johannes Kepler's most significant discoveries.

Tycho lost it (the nose) in a duel that was supposed to settle a quarrel between Tycho and his cousin Manderup Parsberg, who had argued over a mathematical formula while attending a wedding banquet.  (I guess every wedding has to have its unfortunate incident.)  This occurred on 29 December in the year 1566, in Rostock, Germany, where Tycho was a student.

Apropos of absolutely nothing, I'd just like to mention that Tycho Brahe was the proud owner of a pet elk, who met an unfortunate end when it got into the beer at a party, became inebriated, and fell down the stairs.  (Don't you just hate it when that happens?)

Tycho Brahe

If you look carefully at the portrait above, you can see the great astronomer's false nose.  Some have said it was made of gold, others silver, still others copper.  A 2012 analysis by Czech and Danish researchers of a small bone sample suggested that the nose was made of brass, though it's been suggested that he had more valuable noses (gold and silver) for special occasions. 

Not every problematic nose could be blamed on fighting.  Remember Lorenzo de' Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent), mentioned above in connection with Michelangelo?  His nose looks normal, if a bit Richard Nixon-esque, but he had no sense of smell whatsoever.  He was said to be perfectly okay with that, given the plethora of unpleasant odors that surrounded him in the city.

Leonardo da Vinci's sketch of Lorenzo

And finally, let's close with a look at one of the most famous Italian noses of all time:

Images in this post are in the public domain, except for the statue of Pinocchio, which is licensed to Sailko via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons, and the photo of the statue of St. Jerome, licensed to Tirithel via the same type of license, same source.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

When the experts get it wrong

The experts get it wrong.  It happens, and more often than you'd think.  And I'm not talking about Wikipedia, which for all its usefulness is a notoriously unreliable source in many instances.

I've read (glanced at, skimmed) many blog posts and articles about how to do research for historical fiction.  Most of them merely state the obvious:  travel to your location if possible, read eyewitness accounts, read contemporary reports, study pictures - photos if your period is recent enough, depictions in painting or sculpture if it isn't.  (So who exactly isn't going to think of these things?  Imagine saying, "Wow!  Maybe I should actually try to learn something about my time period and location.  What a concept!")

And one thing they always tell you is to pick up booklets and other information at museums.

See the picture at the top of this post?  That is one such booklet, English version.  It comes from the Museo Casa di Dante (Museum of Dante's House) in Florence.  (This house is not, in fact, Dante's; he probably lived nearby, and it's possible that an earlier version of this massively-reconstructed building once belonged to his brother.)

Museo Casa di Dante

The little booklet lists the museum's many exhibits, and I imagine it's probably mostly accurate when it cites sources and describes the documents and images on display.  But toward the end, it shows this "illustration from Giovanni Villani's chronicle, Rome, Vatican Library, Chigian Vatican Codex, L. VIII 296, 14th century."  It is captioned "The Battle of Campaldino (June 11, 1289)."

This is not the Battle of Campaldino.  And it's not 1289.  They have cited the correct manuscript, and it's true that if you want a picture of Campaldino, you'll be disappointed if you seek it here (the artist has shown the battles of Montaperti, Benevento, Tagliacozzo, and others, but there's a definite lack of Campaldino).

But this image depicts the deaths of messers Corso Donati and Gherardo Bordoni in an incident from 1308.  There are plenty of links between Dante and Corso Donati, so it seems distinctly odd to see this particular illustration mislabeled in this context.

Even had this picture not been properly captioned and described elsewhere, the heraldry would give it away:  Corso (the man in red) has a shield in the Donati red and white, personalized by a star, and Gherardo has fallen on a shield bearing the device of the Bordoni family.

Bordoni arms
Donati arms

Corso was Dante's political nemesis, and was the one calling the shots when Dante was exiled.  Corso was Dante's wife's cousin, and the brother of his close friend Forese.  Dante showcased Forese and his sister Piccarda in the Divine Comedy, and included a furious reference to an unnamed man who was obviously Corso, dragged to death behind his horse.  (Although the Commedia supposedly takes place in the year 1300, Dante was actually writing after Corso's death.)

Corso was an ambitious man, and he locked horns with others who could be similarly described.  I've written much more about him here.  When the wheel of fortune turned against him in 1308, he found himself besieged in his home by his political adversaries.  The hoped-for support did not arrive - there may have been some treachery involved - and Corso was suffering from a severe attack of gout, which limited his ability to fight back, though he was a skilled warrior.  Finally, when his enemies broke through the barricades that Corso and his allies had defended for the better part of a day, Corso fled, riding hell-bent-for-leather out of the city.  With him was his faithful companion, Gherardo Bordoni.

Catalan mercenaries, in the employ of the city (and of his enemies), caught up with the gout-ridden Corso and took him prisoner.  He promised them much money to let him go free, but they were determined to return him to Florence and to their employers.  According to Villani, Corso then let himself fall from his horse, and when he was on the ground, one of the Catalans pierced him through the throat with a lance - a mortal wound.  He was taken to a nearby monastery, where he died.  So, not quite being dragged by his horse, but allowing for a bit of exaggeration, Dante wasn't far off.

And Bordoni?  His end was perhaps a bit more personal.  Gherardo Bordoni was overtaken by Boccaccio Cavicciuli at the Affrico River, and slain.  His hand was cut off by Boccaccio's son, taken to the home of messer Tedici degli Adimari and nailed to the door.  (You can see the severed hand in the picture.)  There was bad blood between Tedici and Gherardo, and now dripping blood as well. 

All of which does rather leave me wondering how much I can trust the little museum booklet.

And it's not just little books for sale in museums.  A scholar whose expertise I would never question still managed to assign one of the Conti Guidi to the wrong political party, which would have infuriated him no end.  I blame that one on the similar names of two cousins, and possibly an editorial snafu.

Years ago, in my first flush of enthusiasm about doing musicological research, I was avidly reading a book by a scholar who informed me that the early medieval innovation of writing in three parts rather than two gave many more opportunities for the use of triads.

I thought about this.  A triad is three notes, right?  And this guy wants me to know that you're more likely to get triads with three lines of music than with two?

I think I could have figured that out All By Myself.

That was my first epiphany about doubting the experts.  (Not that he was wrong, exactly, but still.)  And I remain deeply grateful for the painstaking work of historians, without which I would be flying blind in what I do.  But now, after years of stumbling across errors, oversights, omissions, and examples of belaboring the obvious, I think the only safe position is - Caveat lector!

If anyone would like to share examples of catching the experts with their scholarly pants down, please feel free to share in the Comments section.

Images in this post are in the public domain with the exception of the photo of Museo Casa di Dante, which is licensed by Sailko via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons, and the Bordoni coat of arms, which is licensed by Kunstifi via the same type of license, also Wikimedia Commons.