Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Say what? (or, Navigating a Foreign Language on its Home Turf)

My husband and I have recently returned from several weeks in Italy, and I find myself thinking about the frustration, fascination, and sheer fun of trying to communicate in a language other than my native English.

My language status: I am not fluent in Italian, but I get by reasonably well. I read the language better than I speak it, because (1) I read it all the time when doing research for my writing, and (2) I am a hopelessly self-conscious speaker, and forgetting one word or being uncertain of a verb tense is enough to silence me, because I want it to be perfect.

Of course, Italian is not a monolithic language. It abounds with dialects, accents, regional peculiarities, and the kind of verbal shorthand that everyone tends to use in casual conversation, all of which add to the challenge of actually managing to communicate in it. Here's an idea of how diverse it can be:

 Depending on where you go in Italy, chances are that many people will speak to you in English. Yes, they'll know you speak English. With me, they take one look at my sensible shoes and my total lack of fashion sense, and the lightbulb goes on over their heads, and the thought balloon says "English! I can practice my English!"

Meanwhile, I am thinking, "This is my chance to speak Italian!" So off we go, with the Italian person speaking imperfect English to me and me speaking imperfect Italian to him. This results in some rollicking conversations, and it really is a lot of fun.
Who's speaking what?

We tend to spend a lot of time in smaller towns, towns with less of a tourist presence than the major cities, and there I find it is genuinely useful to have some grasp of the language. The hostess at our agriturismo this trip, for example, didn't have any English, so communication depended on my skills, which for the most part were there when I needed them.

People in train stations tend to speak train English; people in restaurants speak restaurant English; people in museums speak museum English, and so on. This is fine for a while, but it's pretty easy to veer off course if the conversation goes anywhere even slightly unusual, and then we're all out of our depth.

Tourists in Rome

I had one conversation with a shopkeeper on this trip that resulted in the two of us exclaiming "Brava!" to each other and sharing high fives, all because she remembered some obscure weirdness in English (I don't remember which, we have so many), and I managed to do something fairly sophisticated in Italian ("Woo-hoo! Correct use of the subjunctive AND a reflexive verb, all in one sentence!").

Once in a while I run into a fellow perfectionist. That would include the waiter who was trying to answer my questions about the menu. He was speaking English, and I was speaking some of each language, but I'll render it here in English:

Me (pointing to something on the menu): What is this?
Him: It is a vegetable. I do not know the word in English.
Me: Okay, maybe I'll have the artichokes, then.
Him: It is green, and it looks like grass.
Me: Or how about the eggplant?
Him: It looks like grass, but it is cooked. It is like cooked grass.
Me: Maybe the zucchini.
Him: It is like green grass that is cooked. Yes, it is like grass.
Me (sighing): Okay, I'll have the cooked grass.
 Electronics seem to have a harder time than I do, for the most part. I had occasion to type a couple of emails in Italian while we were there, and I hadn't figured out how to disable Autocorrect on my iPad, so the results were odd, to say the least. My cheery "Buon giorno!" got corrected into "Buon ginormous," and my comment that we were running late ("in ritardo") came out as "in Ricardo." I mentioned that we had a rental car ("macchina"), but the iPad decided it was a "macchiato." And when I wanted to speak of "nostra partenza" (our departure), it absolutely insisted that I must mean "Nostradamus partenza."

I therefore wish all of you a very buon ginormous, hope that you don't find yourselves in poor old Ricardo, and suggest that if you are in need of a macchiato, you consider buying it instead of renting it. I have no idea what to do about Nostradamus. Lots of people didn't, as I recall.

And then there was our GPS. When we were in Greece a couple of years ago, we named our GPS lady with the British accent Cassandra, on the grounds that nobody ever listened to her, either. This time I wanted to call her La Compiuta Donzella, after a 13th century Tuscan poet, but my husband kept referring to her as the Madonna della Locazione Globale, and that stuck. Her main problem was pronunciation.

GPS: Continue for 7 kilometers to Seena.
Me: It's SiEna, you electronic dingbat.
GPS: Take the exit to Chiuso.
Me: Chiusi, not Chiuso. Who programmed you, anyway?
GPS: Continue through MonTALcheeNO.
Me: MonTALcheeNO?!? Get a grip, lady! It's MONtalCIno.
GPS: Take the next left toward Seena.
Me: SiEna!
And so on.

My husband, by the way, has picked up a smattering of Italian along the way, but once in a while he still comes up with a howler. My favorite was the train ride when we were trying to figure out what stop we were passing, and he saw the sign that said "Vietato attraversare i binari."

"I got it!" he announced. "We're in Vietato."

I almost hated to point out that "Vietato attraversare i binari" means "It is forbidden to cross the tracks," but I couldn't resist observing that a town named "Forbidden" didn't sound like a really great place for our vacation.

Then there are pronunciation issues. The Italians don't do too well with the letter H, a voiced glottal fricative. So, when we're checking in somewhere and I need to give them our name (Heath), I spell it out: "Acca come hotel, E come Empoli, A come Ancona, T come Torino, e un'altra Acca," and they make a heroic effort to say the name, and it comes out as "Signora Heat." This is because even worse than the H, which they work at, is the digraph TH, the voiced or unvoiced dental fricative. That just isn't an option.

Favorite example: in Pienza, a few years ago, a pleasant young woman was showing us through the Palazzo Piccolomini.

Palazzo Piccolomini

We managed to be thoughtful and studious and nod appropriately as she told us the history of various Piccolomini popes and their predecessors, and we were fine with Pius the First, and with Pius the Second. But every time she got around to "Pius the Turd," we had to be sure not to look at each other, lest we lose it, which would have been rude.

I'll close with the charming, if slightly askew, comment by the church sacristan who was showing us around the sanctuary of a church that has a connection to my work in progress. He was quite indifferent to us at first, but he warmed to us when I for once remembered to murmur "Permesso," before walking through the door he had just opened for us. While it may seem strange to Americans to request permission to enter a space you have already been invited into, it is in fact a rather subtle custom, a way of saying, "I acknowledge that this is your space and not mine." An Italian would have done it without thinking. I've had to train myself. But he immediately dropped his guard, and we began one of those dual language conversations that when you try to remember them, you can't recall what was said in which language.

I mentioned my main character - a historical person, but not one many people have heard of - and his eyes widened, and he proceeded to rattle off her history in rapid Italian. He didn't tell me anything I didn't already know, but what he said was accurate, and at that moment there was a real sense of connection between us. So when we parted, he shook my hand and smiled at me and, in English, wished me "Merry Christmas!" It was the week before Easter, so he had missed by a bit, but that was fine. We settled on "Buona Pasqua," and parted as friends.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Wheel of Fortune (Part 2 of 2)

O Fortune, 
like the moon
you are changeable,
ever waxing
and waning; 
hateful life
first oppresses 
and then soothes 
as fancy takes it;
and power
it melts them like ice.

Fate - monstrous
and empty,
you whirling wheel,
you are malevolent,
well-being is vain
and always fades to nothing,
and veiled
you plague me too;
now through the game
I bring my bare back
to your villainy.

 (I would love to credit the translator of the text above, but although this version appears about forty gazillion times all over the place, nobody seems to bother to list the translator's name. So let us figuratively lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Translator - whether it be occupied yet or not - and acknowledge our debt to the skilled and too-easily-forgotten people who render things comprehensible for the rest of us. I, for one, need them. My knowledge of Latin is nil. And don't even get me started on all the scholarly articles that show off by including quotes in several languages and not translating them, because naturally if we're smart enough to read their work, we're supposed to know all those languages, right? Harrumph. End of rant. We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog post.)

In the previous post we examined the role of Fortune and her wheel in Boethius's great work, The Consolation of Philosophy. We took a look at the classical origins of the goddess Fortuna, and briefly discussed the iconography. If you'd like to read that post before continuing, you'll find it here:

The illustration above, as well as the one at the top of this post, is from the medieval manuscript containing the famous Carmina Burana song collection (ca. 1235). Benjamin Bagby, leader of the medieval music group Sequentia, has described this collection as evidencing "an almost obsessive fascination with Fortuna." Consisting of bawdy and satirical songs from the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries, mostly in medieval Latin but with some of the poems in other European languages, Carmina Burana may well have originated with the irrepressible Goliards, young clerics, often second sons cut off from inheritance and therefore given over to the church despite a lack of vocation. Many of the poems, most of which are anonymous, satirize the Church.

Most of us know Carmina Burana best from Carl Orff's cantata based on the songs, written in the 1930s. Here you will find a link to a popular performance of Orff's dramatic version of the song quoted above:

And if you like to season the sublime with a touch of the ridiculous, here's one of the "misheard lyrics" versions:

 Recently I attended a Sequentia concert in which another Fortune-related song from Carmina Burana was featured. The translations of the lyrics (by Bagby, in this case) were projected onto the wall behind the performers, for the benefit of the audience. At one point, this occasioned a ripple of laughter through the audience, which swelled into general hilarity despite the song's overall serious tone. I'll quote those lines here and leave it to you to figure out what caused so much amusement:
O Fortune, changing and unstable, your tribunal and judges are also unstable. You prepare huge gifts for him who you would tickle with favors as he arrives at the top of your wheel.

But your gifts are unsure, and finally everything is reversed; you raise up the poor man from his filth and you make the loudmouth into a statesman.


Fortuna in Dante

It's in the seventh canto of the Inferno that Dante's guide, Virgil, explains to him the nature of Fortune. Dante asks Virgil, "This Fortune that you touch on here, what is it, that has the goods of the world in its clutches?"

Virgil replies:

He whose wisdom transcends all things fashioned the heavens, and he gave them governors who see that every part shines to every other part,

distributing the light equally. Similarly, for worldly splendors he ordained a general minister and leader

who would transfer from time to time the empty goods from one people to another, from one family to another, beyond any human wisdom's power to prevent;

therefore one people rules and another languishes, according to her judgment, that is hidden, like the snake in grass.

Your knowledge cannot resist her; she foresees, judges, and carries out her rule as the other gods do theirs.

Her permutations know no truce; necessity makes her swift, so thick come those who must have their turns.

This is she who is so crucified even by those who should give her praise, wrongly blaming and speaking ill of her;

but she is blessed in herself and does not listen: with the other first creatures, she gladly turns her sphere and rejoices in her blessedness.
 (translation by Robert M. Durling)

Dante the author (as opposed to Dante the character) has made Fortune a Divine Intelligence, a "general minister and leader" - or, as Dante scholar Christopher Kleinhenz says, "an angel, above rebuke."

Canto &7

This exchange occurs as Dante and Virgin approach the fourth circle, where the avaricious and the prodigal are punished. These damned souls must roll huge stones in opposing directions, moving in a semicircle. When they meet head-on, they clash, then turn and retrace their steps. Thus, they never complete a circuit. Unlike Fortune's wheel, they can never go full circle.


Fortuna in Boccaccio

Giovanni Boccacio draws on Boethius for his concept of Fortune's double nature in his lesser known works. Of his masterpiece, the Decameron, Teodolinda Barolini writes, "The Decameron could be pictured as a wheel - Fortune's wheel, the wheel of life - on which the brigata turns, coming back transformed to the point of departure."

The tales told on Day 2 of the Decameron especially seem to depend on the unpredictability of Fortune (cf. Andreuccio).

Vincenzo Cioffari observes, "In Boccaccio this disinterested tranquility of Fortune is substituted by a mischievous and interested cunning... In the Decameron the primary function of Fortune is to determine the outcome of a course of action..."

Boccaccio, says Cioffari, does not limit himself to discussing wealth and power as Fortune's sole currency, but adds to them the idea of sensual pleasures.

Still, Boccaccio sees Fortune as an instrument of Divine Will. As Cioffari says, "Far from being blind it has a hundred eyes because, although its activity may not be apparent to Man, it is carrying out the Divine Will just as much as Nature."

Boccaccio's Fortune is a capricious woman, ever-changing, whimsical.

Fortuna in Machiavelli

Unsurprisingly, Niccoló Machiavelli's concept of Fortune is less noble than Dante's and less playful than Boccaccio's. You could almost describe it is cynical, or perhaps - Machiavellian.

Here is the famous passage from The Prince concerning Fortune:

It is not unknown to me how many men have had, and still have, the opinion that the affairs of the world are in such wise governed by fortune and by God that men with their wisdom cannot direct them and that no one can even help them... Sometimes pondering over this, I am in some degree inclined to their opinion. Nevertheless, not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.
(Translation by W. K. Marriott)

"Half, or a little less." Machiavelli's Fortune is a force of nature, but human beings are not entirely helpless against her:

I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. (Trans. WKM)
And being Machiavelli, he couldn't let the matter drop without a brief foray into misogyny:

For my part I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because Fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly. She is, therefore, always, woman-like, a lover of young men, because they are less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity command her. (Trans. WKM)
Machiavelli's Fortune has a total disregard for human feelings. Her actions appear cruel, but in truth are the result of indifference. She does not favor personal glory and is apt to target the successful, arranging for an ignominious fall just as her victim approaches his goal. She prefers discord among men. Cesare Borgia, for example, was born under a Fortune of "extraordinary and extreme malignity."

Cesare Borgia

Fortune's Wheel in Theater

Here we venture into the area of mechanical wheels. Unfortunately, I've not been able to find illustrations that are both useful and available, so we will have to content ourselves with a couple of descriptions.

The earliest example is a wheel at the Benedictine abbey of Fécamp in Normandy, around the year 1100. We have a delightful description by a visitor to the abbey, Bishop Balderic of Dol:

Then, in the same church, I saw a wheel, which by some means unknown to me descended and ascended, rotating continually. At first I took this wheel to be an empty thing, until reason recalled me from this interpretation. I knew from this evidence of the ancient Fathers that the wheel of Fortune - which is an enemy of all mankind throughout the ages - hurls us many times into the depths; again, false deceiver that she is, she promises to raise us to the extreme heights, but then she turns in a circle, that we should beware the wild whirling of fortune, nor trust the instability of that happy-seeming and evilly seductive wheel: concerning these things those wise, ancient doctors have not left us uninstructed. By revealing these things, they have brought us to understanding.
(This translation appears in an article by Alan H. Nelson and is, presumably by him.)

An enactment of the Wheel, complete with four realistic figures of rising and falling kings, appears in a drama by Adam de la Halle (Jeu de la feuillé, first produced in Arras in 1276).

Live actors, however, stole the show in a morality play by Antoine Vérard published in 1498 (though performed as early as 1439). In this play, called Bien-Advisé Mal-Advisé, the figures at the Regnabo and Regno positions experience the torments of Hell, while Regnavi and Sine Regno achieve salvation.

Other examples vary: devils taking the place of kings, children as actors, and an elaborate wheel with a metal mirror at the center, constructed by the versatile Giovanni Cellini, engineer, professional musician, and father of famed goldsmith and diarist Benvenuto Cellini. (Click here for an earlier blog post about this father-son pair.)

In 1515, the city of Bruges held a pageant in honor of Charles V, Count of Flanders and future emperor. Judging by his portraits, Charles had a somewhat unusual chin:

Guess which one?

Be that as it may, the pageant featured a Wheel of Fortune with two Virtues in attendance, who were able to assist the young monarch in bringing the Wheel to a standstill. A second Wheel in another part of the pageant featured Extravagance, the god Mars, the City of Bruges (played by a woman), and Negotiation.

A later pageant at Bruges

The Wheel of Fortune in Shakespeare

It has been said that Shakespeare's history plays draw heavily on the idea of the Wheel, particularly the Richard II - Henry IV - Henry V sequence, with Richard on top in the Regno position at first, and Bolingbroke occupying the Regnabo spot.

Raymond Chapman, a Shakespearean scholar, notes all the "up and down" imagery in those plays, which he calls "a relentless alternation of rise and fall." Or, as Richard himself says, "Conveyors are you all, that rise thus nimbly by a true king's fall."

Minor digression: Shakespeare is not the only English playwright to use this concept. His predecessor William Collingbourne (1435-1484), in his Mirror for Magistrates, says this:

We knowe, say they, the course of Fortunes whele,
How constantly it whyrleth styll about,
Arrearing nowe, whyle elder headlong reele,
Howe all the riders alway hange in doubt.
But what for that? We count him but a lowte
That stickes to mount, and basely like a beast
Lyves temperately for feare of blockam feast.

Collingbourne was no friend to King Richard III, and is in fact known for posting a scurrilous couplet on the door of St. Paul's Cathedral in July of 1484. It read as follows:

The Catte, the Ratte and Lovell our dogge
rulyth all Englande under a hogge.
(That would be William Catesby, who had a white cat on his device; Richard Ratcliffe; and Francis Viscount Lovell, who had a silver wolf as his emblem. The hogge, of course, is Richard himself, whose badge bore the white boar. Not coincidentally, Collingbourne was executed for treason that same year.)

More modern Wheels of Fortune

Probably the context in which we see the Wheel most often these days is in the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck. Here are some fairly venerable examples:

And finally, let me leave you with the thing most people today think about when we refer to the Wheel of Fortune:

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Wheel of Fortune (Part 1 of 2)

Luck, be a lady.

It would be hard to overstate the importance of Boethius's great work, The Consolation of Philosophy, among scholars in the middle ages and Renaissance. This profoundly influential book was written in the year 523 while the author was in prison awaiting trial (and execution the following year) on charges of treason against the Roman king Theodoric the Great.

Ancius Manlius Severinus Boethius, senator and consul, senior administrator to the king, translator, scholar, and philosopher, took the idea of Fortune and her wheel from earlier sources, but it was through his book that the motif became omnipresent throughout the middle ages. His influence can be traced through Dante, Boccaccio, Machiavelli, and even Shakespeare. The lady and her spinning disk (or sometimes orb) have a rich history in the visual arts, as well as in literature, theatre, and music.

Over the centuries she has remained controversial, as scholars debate whether she flies in the face of Free Will, or whether she is an agent of God's often inscrutable plan for mankind. Either way, those who ride the wheel up to the heights of worldly wealth and success are just as apt to ride it back down to ruin and devastation. The Wheel is never at rest.

The Wheel is often depicted as showing an aspiring monarch on the left, climbing toward the top; a crowned monarch at the top; a third toppling down on the right, with the crown falling off; and the fourth on the ground, crownless, or even crushed beneath the Wheel. Illustrations often label these quarters regnabo, regno, regnavi, and sum sine regno, respectively (I shall reign, I reign, I have reigned, and I am without a kingdom). This fairly early version reverses the regnabo and regnavi positions:

Consolation of Philosophy


The premise of Boethius's book is that he, the disconsolate prisoner, who is in the process of losing every comfort, honor, possession, and vestige of safety he has ever had, is moping in his prison cell when he finds himself suddenly visited by an allegorical Lady - none other than the formidable Lady Philosophy herself.

Lady Philosophy urges Boethius to reject the wiles of Fortune. She takes it upon herself “to press home to the prisoner his need to reject power, wealth, and status in favor of the true good of wisdom,” as Seth Lerer observes in his introduction to David R. Slavitt’s translation. (She also shoos the Muses away, on the grounds that they are distracting the prisoner from the task at hand.)

"Fortune, of course, is a monster,” Philosophy observes, and Boethius is hardly in a position to disagree. “She toys with those for whom she intends catastrophe, showing her friendly face and lifting them up before dashing them down when they are least prepared for it.… you think that Fortune’s attitude toward you has changed. But you’re wrong. She hasn’t changed a bit. She was always whimsical, and she remains constant to her inconstancy. You were wrong to take her smiles seriously and to rely on them as the basis for your happiness. Now, what you have learned is that the changing face of blind power is unreliable – and always was.”

Boethius and Philosophia

Shifting to verse later in the chapter, she continues thus:
With an indifferent hand she spins the wheel,
   and one or another
number comes up lucky, while the only constant
   is change…
It’s a game she plays and a demonstration of
   ruthless power,
a way to keep her devotees in a total subjection.
(All Boethius quotes translated by David R. Slavitt.)

Classical origins

However influential Boethius may have been to later centuries, Fortuna and her wheel predated him. Worship of the Roman goddess Fortuna dates back to the earliest days of Rome, and she may have been derived from an even earlier goddess of the tribes of Latium, the area where Rome was founded.

Her name may be rooted in the Latin word meaning "to bring, to receive, to give." Alternatively, it may come from the Etruscan goddess Voltumna (possibly related to the Roman goddess Volumna). Voltumna had to do with the turn of the seasons, not unlike the spinning of Fortuna's wheel. Volumna protected children, while Fortuna predicted the fate of children at their birth, particularly firstborn children, in her aspect of Fortuna Primigenia. She has also been linked with the Egyptian goddess Isis via an amulet found in Pompeii, with the Greek goddess Tyche, and with another Etruscan deity, Nortia.

 This little household deity depicts Fortuna with some of the same iconographic devices as both Tyche and Isis:

Fortuna had temples in Rome at a very early date. Her cult may have begun with Ancus Marius, the fourth king of Rome (642-617 BCE), or possibly with Servius Tullius, the sixth king of Rome (575-535 BCE) and the second of the Etruscan kings. Servius Tullius erected the first Roman temple to Fortuna, where her cult was celebrated on Midsummer's Day and her festival on June 11, but her greatest temple was the oracle and sanctuary at Praeneste (now Palestrina), not far from Rome. The oracle there involved a young boy who picked out a fortune from among many written on oak rods.

A little digression about that Etruscan king of Rome, Servius Tullius: He ruled Rome for over 40 years, riding high on Fortune's wheel, but the day came when the wheel moved again, to his detriment and at lightning speed. This picture shows his daughter Tullia (not exactly Daddy's little girl) running over her father with her chariot, in a successful bid to seize the kingship for her husband. Servius Tullius thus moved through regnabo to regno and stayed there a long time, and then quite precipitously tumbled through regnavi to arrive at sum sine regno (or perhaps even one step further, to whatever the Latin word is for "smooshed"). Tullia, meanwhile, was concentrating hard on regnabo.

 Classical writers added to Fortuna's fame. In 55 BCE, Seneca has the chorus of his tragedy Agamemnon address the goddess, in a remarkable speech that has a lot in common with "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown." It includes this:

Whatever Fortune has raised on high, she lifts but to bring low. Modest estate has longer life; then happy he whoe'er, content with the common lot, with safe breeze hugs the shore, and, fearing to trust his skiff to the wider sea, with unambitious oar keeps close to land.
Ovid, in a letter, refers to Fortuna as "the goddess who admits by her unsteady wheel her own fickleness; she always has its apex beneath her swaying foot."

Early churchmen couldn't ignore her, either. We find St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) casting her as essentially an employee of God. Since God knows the cause of every event, though man does not, all things are part of his plan, and Fortuna is therefore working in harmony with God's will. We will see more along these lines in Part 2 of this post, when we get to Dante.

St. Augustine

The Iconography of Fortune


We've seen a few portrayals of Fortuna, but there are many more, displaying quite a variety of features. Some of the earliest depictions show the goddess atop the wheel, turning it with her feet; others show her treading on an orb, like a trained circus animal, trying to keep her balance. Here's a late treatment of this idea:

After around 1100, though, Fortuna acquires some stability, and it is only the hapless humans mounted on her wheel who suffer from a lack of equilibrium.

Fortuna's wheel was sometimes turned by a crank, sometimes by her hand. In some cases it is not obvious how the wheel is being turned. In an interesting article, "Mechanical Wheels of Fortune 1100-1547," Alan H. Nelson observes that early illustrations suggest the model for the wheel was not a simple cartwheel, but rather a mill wheel, or perhaps a spinning wheel. He also says that early depictions tend to show mechanical details, but later pictures are more abstract.

Fortuna herself may be shown as two-faced, with one side light and the other dark (or one side frowning and the other smiling), or as blinded or blindfolded. This latter characteristic she shares with illustrations of Justice, but unlike Justice, Fortuna never holds a scale: fairness, in the human sense, is not what drives her.

She is associated instead with such motifs as the cornucopia, the rudder, and, of course, the wheel itself.

Sometimes the humans on Fortuna's wheel are shown as specific individuals: Croesus, or Boethius himself, or, as in this illustration, Tancred the king of Sicily at the bottom of the wheel and his nemesis Henry VI, king of the Romans, at the top:

I won't go into Tancred's story here, though his unfortunate habit of capturing the wives of his opponents does tempt me. I'll just note that he was a small man, which apparently earned him the nickname "Tancredulus" thanks to the poet Pietro of Eboli. (I can think of one other possibility for that name. Richard I of England is said to have given Tancred a sword he claimed was Excalibur itself, as a gesture of friendship. That would seem to involve a certain level of credulity.)

The fall of Troy is another historical event often associated with the Wheel:

Usually those who ride the wheel are men, but once in a while you find a woman, as here:

There's more to say about Fortuna and her wheel, but it will have to wait until my next post. Come back in a week or two (I hope...) to read about Fortuna as she appears in Dante, Boccaccio, and Machiavelli; in the English playwrights; in theatrical performances and processions; and in medieval song, such as Carmina Burana.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Slut-Shaming in the Trecento (and, Poison)

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

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

Jacopo da Bologna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luchino Visconti

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

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

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

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

It was time to do some serious poking around.

What the chroniclers say happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visconti coat of arms

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

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

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

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

Andrea Dandolo

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

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

Ugolino Gonzaga

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

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

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

Galeazzo Visconti
Francesco Petrarca

Galeazzo II Visconti

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


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

Luchino Novello

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

Margherita Pusterla

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

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

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

Jacopo da Bologna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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