Tag Archives: Italy

Savonarola and the City of Florence

I was in Florence on the anniversary of Savonarola’s execution. On 23 May 1498 the Dominican friar and two of his fellow monks, Fra Domenico and Fra Silvestro Maruffi, were hanged and burned for heresy in the Piazza della Signoria. Savonarola had been an outspoken critic of the papacy and had exhausted the patience of Pope Alexander VI. Although he had held a great deal of power in Florence, the tide had turned and the people were growing tired of the austerity he demanded, though many of his followers remained loyal even after what they saw as his martyrdom.

Savonarola by Fra Bartolomeo

Savonarola by Fra Bartolomeo

Execution of Savonarola

Execution of Savonarola

The spot of Savonarola's execution

The spot of Savonarola’s execution

Although he’s never been the focus of my work, he was an important figure in Florence during the period I study. A couple of years ago we took a trip to his home town of Ferrara. The highlight of Ferrara for me was Lucrezia Borgia’s grave, but the statue of the “little friar” is a major feature of the town centre. This year I also paid a visit to San Marco, the convent he lived in in Florence. It’s now partly a gallery of Renaissance art but you can visit the monks’ cells, including Savonarola’s, where some of his relics are on display (a belt, rosary and miscellaneous bits of clothing which he may or may not have worn).

However, the friar was executed for heresy in the Piazza della Signoria in 1498. Now, it seems, Florentines have had a bit of a change of heart. There is a bit of a performance, some roses laid and a costumed procession.

Costumed performers

Roses laid to commemorate the execution

Roses laid to commemorate the execution

More costumed people in the procession

More costumed people in the procession

 

I doubt he would have approved of women being part of the procession, though.

It was an interesting event, though I think a lot of the people watching didn’t realise what it was for. In truth, I don’t really know what it was for either. Has Florence changed its mind about him? Five hundred years later, does it matter if it has? If this was just a treat for the tourists, it was only partially successful. People enjoyed the spectacle, but  it was brief and it was not clear what it was about. An American lady who had overheard me discussing it with a colleague had to ask me about it.

Still, I’m not complaining. I enjoyed a little diversion from the serious business of history, to some of the more fun side.

 

Big news!

Despite a good start to the year, posts-wise, I’ve let this blog slip rather badly. I can only apologise, and offer something by way of an explanation.

There are big changes afoot at Harlot Towers. In what could easily be confused for a midlife crisis, I have dyed my hair bright red (pictures to follow), quit my job and in a few weeks I will be moving to a wee coastal town in Fife. This makes slightly more sense with a little context, of course. Earlier this year, I applied for a place on the University of St Andrews M.Litt in Early Modern History. After a nervous two or three weeks, I was thrilled to be offered a place!

Ambrosius Benson (c 1495-1550), Young Woman in Orison Reading Book of Hours 1520s

As is abundantly clear from this blog, the Early Modern period is where my main interests lie. After doing a General Arts degree which featured an awful lot of history courses, I got “back” into history when I picked up a copy of David Starkey’s Six Wives  on a whim. It reminded me of everything that got me excited about history and from there, I became particularly interested in the sixteenth century. It’s an especially fascinating period, with religious upheavals; global exploration; new ideas about education and important challenges and developments in women’s roles.  Initially, my interests were in England, later France, during the period.

Holbein study of a young English woman

I admit to suffering from Tudor fatigue now, with the current proliferation of generally poor quality books, tv series and films about the dynasty. It’s a shame as there are lots of really exciting things to be studied around the Tudors (as this article on The First Black Community in Elizabethan London, published today on the BBC News website, demonstrates) but it has all been drowned in a sea of soap opera pseudo-history. Happily, French history at the same period is even more interesting, and has so far slipped under the radar of the makers of trashy tv.

Mary Tudor and Louis XII

It was St Andrews provision for Early Modern French history which first made me consider applying there. They have several very well respected scholars in the field. However, in the last six months or so, I’ve seriously reconsidered the areas I want to focus on. Instead of the glittering courts of England or France, I’m more interested now in the far less glamorous world of women’s social institutions and women living on the periphery of society in late Renaissance Italy. This encompasses convents, as well as some incredibly forward-thinking refuges set up in Florence and other cities to help poor women, widows and abandoned or orphaned girls. I’m also interested in prostitutes and courtesans at the time who faced often ambivalent attitudes from the authorities, and attitudes to diseases like plague and syphilis. I told you it wasn’t glamorous!

So, in early September I will be upping sticks and moving into halls in St Andrews. Happily, I was offered a place in my first choice of residences, very close to the History Department and the university library (and if I am extremely lucky my room might look out over the water). I am quite beside myself with excitement. It’s only just starting to properly sink in though. It’s such a huge life change that I don’t think it’s felt real up to now.

As far as blogging goes, I will do my best to get back on track (and keep it up) but I’ll probably start a separate blog to talk about Masters business, postgrad life and the like which isn’t relevant here. I’ll post a link when it’s all set up for anyone interested.

Wish me luck!

The Venus of Urbino, Tiziano (Titian), 1538

 

The Best Non-Fiction I Read In 2011

Happy New Year everyone. One of my resolutions is to update this blog far more often. I thought I’d start with some of my reading highlights of the past year, starting with non-fiction.

My non-fiction star of 2011 was Lost Girls, which I’ve written about before so won’t do again. I love it though.

My other non-fiction highlights have included Giovanni and Lusanna: Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence by Gene Brucker which I found second hand. It was first published in the 1970s after the author experienced one of those strokes of luck historians dream about: he uncovered previously unpublished records. Buried in the extensive Florentine archives were records of a marriage trial from the 15th century. His book is a fascinating account of the case brought by a widow against the young nobleman she claimed had married her. He did not acknowledge the alleged marriage and had married another woman. It may not have quite as exciting as Martin Guerre but it is a wonderful insight into marriage and sexual politics in the Renaissance.

I am currently reading Paul Strathern’s new book, Death in Florence: the Medici, Savonarola and the Battle for the Soul of the Renaissance City. I was thrilled that this one is available on Kindle (none of his others are). The book looks at Florence, the Medici and the radical Dominican preacher Savonarola. Strathern depicts Lorenzo and Piero de’ Medici and Savonarola as complex individuals when it is easy to portray them as caricatures- Lorenzo the Magnificent, Piero the Unfortunate and Savonarola as the “mad monk.” Despite knowing where this story is leading, I’m hooked.< Christmas presents have also added to my already long list of books to be read, including Lauro Martines’s Scourge and Fire: Savonarola and Renaissance Italy which might be a good follow up to Death in Florence. As a leaving present from my old job, I was given a lot of book tokens and have so far bought Italy in the Age of the Renaissance (john Najemy, ed.) which is an academic introduction to the period. I am eying up Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence by Sharon T. Strocchia

St Catherine of Siena


As is probably obvious, my interested have swerved sharply towards the Florenitine and Italian Renaissance! This is in no small part due to visiting Florence for the first time last April.

Summer Reading

History Today has recently made a few blog posts on summer reading so I thought I’d list some of mine.

On Wednesday, I treked half-way across Edinburgh to pick up packages of books from the Royal Mail depot inconveniently located in the middle of nowhere. As well as a box set of American crime drama (Law & Order Special Victims Unit, as it happens- I’m addicted to that and CSI), were two books I’ve been very excited about getting.

Cover imageThe first is Nicholas Terpstra’s Lost Girls: Sex and Death in Renaissance Florence (2010), about the mysteriously high mortatlity rate in the Casa della Pieta, a shelter for homeless or orphaned girls in sixteenth century Florence. Terpstra claims that of the 526 girls who stayed there during its 14 year life, only 202 left alive. I imagine it’s going to be something of a Magdalen laundry of the Early Modern period. More than that, it looks like an exciting piece of historical detective work. There’s a review of it on the IHR website here which is what first attracted me. Assuming I like it, I’ll doubtlessly get a copy of Abandoned Children of the Italian Renaissance: Orphan Care in Florence and Bologna by the same author.

Cover imageIn addition, I got Monsters of the Gevaudan: The Making of a Beast by Jay M. Smith (2011) which takes a fresh look at an old story. Those who have seen Brotherhood of The Wolf (and if you haven’t, I strongly recommend you do) will be at least vaguely familiar with the legendary Beast of Gevaudin which terrorised the French countryside in the 18th century. It claimed over 100 victims but the real mystery was exactly what the beast was. Witnesses were certain that it was not a wolf, although the authorities eventually claimed that it was. Smith looks at the story in the context of French life at the end of the ancien regime, the Revolution only a few years away. There’s a website for the book here.

Other than that, my reading will be focused on the Roman Empire.

Ferrara

About an hour on the train from Florence (after a change at Bologna), in the Emilia-Romagna is Ferrara, where the rather magnificent Castello Estense was home to the Dukes of Este.

Castello Estense, Ferrara

The Este family rose to power in the late medieval period, building and expanding the castello over the centuries. Right in the centre of the town, the building, and moat, remain well preserved although the interior is rather Spartan, especially compared to somewhere like Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. Still, the curators have done an impressive job with what little they have. There’s little furniture or wall decoration remaining but the ceilings are beautifully decorated and some rooms’ only floor furnishings are giant sloping mirrors so one can look at the ceilings without craning the neck. There’s also a lovely veranda with orange trees which feels almost Moorish in the bright sunshine: a stark contrast to the damp subterranean dungeons, used to imprison enemies of the Este family through to the sixteenth century.

It is in Ferrara, in the Castello Estense, that Lucrezia Borgia spent the second half of her life as the wife of Alfonso d’Este. She arrived in 1502 with two previous marriages behind her. She never returned to Rome and the nefarious influence of her father and brother. She flourished in Ferrara and although he had been reluctant to marry the notorious Pope’s daughter, Alfonso grew to love Lucrezia and despite numerous infidelities on both sides, their bond seems to have been strong and affectionate. They had six children, of whom four survived into adulthood. Her sister-in-law, Isabella d’Este (1474-1539) never fell under the spell of the charming Lucrezia though and maintained a bitter hostility to her. No doubt fuelled by Lucrezia’s passionate affair with Isabella’s husband, Francesco Gonzaga.

Another point on the Lucrezia Borgia map of Ferrara is the little church, attached to the convent of Poor Clares, of Corpus Domini a short walk to the south. It’s hidden away from the hubbub of the town centre where bicycles trundle about in all directs. There’s little in the way of signs outside it: just a small plague erected in 2002, Ferrara’s Year of Lucrezia Borgia, which notes that inside is the Este tomb and Lucrezia’s grave.

The church is open to the public for two hours in the morning and another two after lunch. A door to the right of the altar leads through to the nuns’ choir where Lucrezia and other members of the Este family are buried, including one of Lucrezia’s daughters, Eleanor (1515-1575), who was a nun at Corpus Domini. Lucrezia is buried with her son Ercole, her husband, his mother, and the infant daughter, Isabella, Lucrezia died giving birth to.

As befits the convent, the nuns’ choir is very quiet and peaceful but brightened by the sun streaming through the simple coloured glass windows. Indeed, the nuns’ choir is much brighter, though more simply decorated, than the main church. When we visited just after Easter, the nun who was present, at the other side of a grill, was very helpful and pleasant though her English was no better than my Italian. She sqeezed a little English guide card through a gap in the grill so I could identify which of the six graves in front of the altar was Lucrezia’s. Sadly, they don’t allow photographs of the graves however I found this one (taken by someone less concerned for respecting the nuns’ wishes!):

Grave of Alfonso d'Este and Lucrezia Borgia

Florence- Scoppio del Carro

Florence is packed with history. There are relics of the Medici and other great dynasties everywhere (though very little relating to the city’s daughter who went on to be queen of France, Catherine de’ Medici).

View of Florence from the Pizza Michelangelo

As we were there over Easter, we went to the Duomo on Easter Sunday to watch the scoppio del carro (explosion of the cart) which is a practice peculiar to Florence, dating back nearly a thousand years to the Crusades when 3 flints from the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem were brought back to the city.

The flints were originally kept by the important Pazzi family. Traditionally all the fires (hearths, lamps, candles) were extinguished on Good Friday and a new fire started on Easter Sunday, marking the death and rebirth of Christ. The flints were used to create the spark for the new fire which was distributed to local households, for them to rekindle their own hearths, on a cart. Over the centuries, the ritual became more elaborate and fireworks were attached to the cart to make more of a spectacle for the most important Christian festival.

The Cart

Il Carro

The cart is taken through the streets to the area between the Duomo and the Baptistry (Florence’s oldest building) where the fireworks are ignited. The explosions last for around twenty minutes, in broad daylight. It’s loud; there’s a lot of coloured smoke and (if you can see it through the crowds) it’s a pretty amazing sight. My photos aren’t especially good- I’m not tall enough to see over the heads of the crowd! Hopefully they’ll give you an idea though.

Fireworks

Fireworks in front of the Campanile

Smoke by the Campanile

Smoke in front of the Campanile

Research- It’s A Tough Job

Tomorrow I’m off on a rather exciting research trip/holiday. First off, we’ll be in Florence for a few days to look at art, bookbinding workshops, perfumeries and anything connected to Catherine de’ Medici’s childhood. She spent much of her life before her move to France to marry Henri in 1533. After that, we’ll be spending a few days in Ferrara. Lucrezia Borgia lived in Ferrara from her marriage to Alfonso D’Este in 1502 until her death in 1519. I’m hoping to get a better idea of the other Lucrezia here, the one who inspired the town to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of her arrival by declaring 2002 to be the Year of Lucrezia Borgia. We are also hoping to take a trip to Venice.

Painting reputed to be of Lucrezia Borgia

Painting reputed to be of Lucrezia Borgia

I’m also looking forward to having a look around the cities where three of my favourite novels are set. Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus is set in Florence; In the Company of the Courtesan in Venice; and Sacred Hearts in a convent in Ferrara.

I shall be back in a week, hopefully with lots of photos and Borgia information.