Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Florence, 1289: A knock at the door, a voice bringing news - but nobody there

It happened on June 11, 1289.  The city of Florence waited, tense and anxious, for news from the battlefield.  Some 25 miles to the east, in the region known as the Casentino, a vast Guelf army was squaring off against a Ghibelline force from Arezzo.  Most of the Guelfs were from Florence, but there were also fighters from Pistoia, Lucca, Siena, and Prato.

The two sides were very nearly equal in size:  10,000 infantry each, with the Guelf army possessed of a slightly larger complement of cavalry than the Ghibelline force.  Florence's contribution to the campaign had been some 1600 knights, as well as another 600 mounted warriors from the ranks of the wealthier members of the populace.  (For context, at this point Florence's total population was nearing 125,000, with another 400,000 people living in the surrounding countryside.)

Diorama of the Battle of Campaldino, Casa di Dante

Florence's Priors, the six men holding the city's highest government office, had met with the war captains and the councils before the battle and had had a hand in deciding military goals and strategies, marching routes, and what supplies to carry.  The army had marched away to a great din of bells on June 2, combining with Guelf forces from other cities on its way, covering ground, trashing the occasional castle, camping in the countryside.  As always, messengers arrived regularly in the city with updates on the army's progress.

Now, however, the Priors waited impatiently to learn the results.  Having slept poorly the night before, knowing the battle was coming soon, the priors had returned to their chambers for an afternoon nap in the tower of the Castagna, the spartan tower where they lived during their two-month term, which was due to end in a few days.

Torre della Castagna

It is not entirely clear whether they retired to individual chambers, as would have been the case a few years later, when the city's Priors took up residence in the Palazzo della Signoria (now called the Palazzo Vecchio, or Old Palace), which didn't exist yet in 1289.   In the much older and smaller Castagna, they may have been sleeping in dormitory-like conditions in a single large chamber.

Palazzo della Signoria

Suddenly, in the middle of the afternoon, the exhausted lawmakers heard a loud knock on their doors (or door), and a voice crying, "Arise, for the Aretines are defeated!"

Joyfully, they sprang out of their beds and ran to receive the messenger.

There was no one there.

Their servants had heard nothing.  No one had seen anyone.  The Florentine people marveled, wondering whether this mysteriously-delivered news could be true.  Many said it must be merely rumor.

But when the real, flesh-and-blood messenger arrived around Vespers, the city learned that the news was true indeed, and that the victory had been won at exactly the time the priors had been roused from their rest by the mysterious voice.

Florentine Guelfs outside Arezzo

Giovanni Villani reported this incident, and he tells us that the Priors took all possible measures to discover any natural source for the voice and the knocking, but found none.  He vouches for the truth of this, for he says he saw and heard it himself.

Leonardo Bruni, writing about a hundred years later in his Historiae, was even less skeptical.  He says:
For it is not strange  to believe that the same divine grace by whose favor victory is won, should by the same favor give swift news to those whom he has helped.
 There are a couple of caveats:
  • Giovanni Villani, depending on which birthdate you accept for him, might have been only a nine-year-old at the time, or, at best, a teenager.  He might have been part of the excited crowd outside, but he probably was not in the tower.
  • A slightly earlier chronicler, Dino Compagni, was one of those Priors, and his record of the Battle of Campaldino does not mention the incident.
Did it happen?  We'll never know.  But it makes a good tale for the season.

Happy Halloween!

Images in this post:  Photo of doorknocker is licensed to Massimilianogalardi; photos of diorama and Castagna are licensed to Sailko; photo of Palazzo della Signoria is licensed to Jojan; photo of door is licensed to Xenophon.  All are Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licenses, via Wikimedia Commons.  Pictures of messenger and of Guelfs outside Arezzo are in the public domain.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Silly hats in the Renaissance (or: What were they thinking?)


Your blogger is feeling whimsical today.  Having recently perused quite a lot of Renaissance portraits for another project, I find that I'm struck by how utterly ridiculous a lot of the headgear is.  Now, I realize that fashions change (some of them not nearly fast enough), but really, is there any excuse for some of these hats?   Take a look, and see what you think.

They divide nicely into categories, I find, categories which might be expressed by the thoughts of the wearer:

I'm wearing a silly hat, and it's very embarrassing.

I'm wearing a silly hat, and I think it's pretty funny.

He's wearing an even sillier hat than mine.  Heh! 

We are wearing the sofa cushions - it's the latest rage.

Except for me .  I'm wearing the whole sofa. 

You think you've got problems - I'm wearing a large vegetable.

The shape is what it's all about, wouldn't you say?

And size definitely matters.

We women are particularly vulnerable to the "Help!  It's eating my face!" look.

We, on the other hand, believe it's all about tasteful ornamentation.

Maybe I should have bought false hair that matched my real hair.

Hah!  My hat is even sillier than your hat!

And that is our art history blog post for today.  With any luck, history will return next week.

Images in this post are in the public domain by virtue of antiquity.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Readers: What are you missing that's just a click away?

Not too long ago, I belatedly became aware of something that has changed the way I approach reading books on my Kindle.  It was this:

A friend, writing to tell me she was enjoying my novel A Thing Done,  made a few comments about the story and then said, "But I still have no idea where you got that title."

Wait - hadn't she read the Dante excerpt at the beginning?  The one that included the famous quote my title comes from?  (A phrase Dante didn't originate, by the way, but was quoting.)

No.  Obviously, she hadn't.  Because, as it turns out, she was reading it on her Kindle, and starting where it plonked her down when she opened the book.  On Page 1.  Which meant no Dante quote, no dedication, no acknowledgement page, no table of contents for her.

Curious, I checked out a bunch of the books on my own Kindle.  (Most of them are historical novels, which probably influences the kinds of information authors offer their readers.)  I found the same situation throughout:  the book is handed to you, open to Page 1, and anything before the pagination starts, you need to page-back to find.

But do you want to?  Does anybody actually want to read a Table of Contents unless they're using it to navigate within the book?

If it consists of things like "Chapter 20:  Page 240; Chapter 21:  Page 252" etc., then probably not.  But some people give their chapters names, and those names form an interesting pattern - a pattern the author intended for you to see.

And it isn't just Tables of Contents, either.  Among the things I found when I systematically went back through all those books and did the requisite page-backing were these:
  • Maps
  • Quotes
  • Character lists
  • Author notes
  • Author bio
  • Glossaries and pronunciation guides
  • Lists of previous books, sometimes with review quotes
  • Dedications
  • Acknowledgements
  • Disclaimers
  • Awards
  • How an army was structured (in a culture that would be unfamiliar to most readers)
  • Significant information about the book - for example, that it was a retelling of a classic novel in a new time and place
I don't know if this is true of all e-readers.  I don't even know if it is true of all Kindles.  But it clearly is true for at least some of us reading in this way.

For me, many of these are not throw-aways.  I want to see them.  And I will, from now on, because I will page my way back until I reach the cover, every time, to make sure I'm not missing anything I don't want to miss.

It seems to me that if an author puts a map, or a glossary, or a list of characters, or a quote, or information about the nature, structure, or purpose of the book at the beginning, it's because he/she wants the reader to have that information.  Naturally the reader can refuse this gift, just as the reader can decide not to read the book at all.  But if these things are placed there, is it not likely that a reader might want to at least be aware of their existence before making that decision?

Take maps, for example.  Maps can be beautiful.  They can be interesting, and surprising, and offer information that will make a big difference in your reading experience.  I actually bought a globe when I started reading Dorothy Dunnett's novels, the better to try to keep up with her characters and their travels.  Maps, if you know they exist, may well be something you refer to repeatedly as you go through a book.

Information about the author, her previous books, her award history - I've done internet searches to learn these things, only to find out later that the information I wanted was right there in the front of the book.

Dedications.  Okay, many are private in nature, but they can be oddly poignant, or funny, or in some other way revelatory.  And they're brief.  If it takes only a nanosecond to find out whether a dedication is something you want to read or not, why not take a look?  You're committing to an entire book, after all.  An extra line or two won't hurt you.

Acknowledgements.  Sure, some authors will thank their entire family, each individual member of their critique group, their publisher, their editor, their agent, their first-grade teacher, their Facebook friends, and their dog, but this, too, can be surprisingly interesting.  You can learn the strangest things about people, things which may affect the way you view their work.  Again, why not take a look?   Aren't you just a little curious?

If there's a quote, it will be there for a reason.  Similarly, historical notes, glossaries, and punctuation guides are not placed there to try your patience, but rather to offer you useful tools for approaching a book that may take place in a setting you're less familiar with than the author is.  (At least, one may hope that's the case!  Who wants to read a book written by somebody who knows less about the subject than we do?)

And this front matter can radically affect how your book is received.  In the case of the author who had written a skillful retelling of a classic novel (but classic in another country and another language, so not well known to many of her readers), she was perfectly honest and up-front about what she had done.  But a quick scan of her reader reviews on Amazon made it obvious that most people had no idea that the book was not completely original in all of its aspects.  Her retelling was well done, but it made me uncomfortable - and probably made her a bit uncomfortable, too - to see so many people praising the depth of her characters (actually the original author's characters), the intricacies of her plot (the original author's plot), and the sparkle of her dialogue (much of it, at least, from the original book).  As it happens, I had read the classic novel, so I was aware of these things.

These readers gave her credit for what was not her own, and failed to recognize what she had actually accomplished, in her well-crafted retelling, because they simply didn't know what she was trying to do.  

So my advice would be to take those few seconds to page-back and see what's there before you start reading that next book on your Kindle.  You may not find anything that matters, but then again, you just might.

Illustrations in this post are in the public domain.