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Showing posts with label italy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label italy. Show all posts

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Good Game

If your ideal career involves breaking and entering, eating free food, and judging the state of other people's housekeeping, you might have a future in witchcraft--if you lived in medieval Europe that is.

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Cathedral in Milan
In the early 1380s Sibilla and Pierina, two women living in Milan were brought up on charges of witchcraft. They were accused of the usual witch malarkey--eating babies, bumping uglies with the devil, baptizing wax figures. However, the 'crimes' that they confessed to are far more interesting than any sort of heresy.

Sibilla and Pierina both claimed to be members of 'The Good Game', or the dominae nocturnae. This game was a group of ladies who met with the fairy court in the night. They sang, danced, partied, then left to roam the countryside. While roaming, they would enter houses, many of which would have a full meal and a mirror on the table to satisfy their nocturnal visitors. Should the meal be satisfactory, and should the house be tidy and upkept to the ladies standards, they would place a blessing of prosperity on the home.

The witchcraft tradition of medieval Europe is filled with pagan practice, and merged with tales of faeries, ghosts, and demons to the point that It's difficult to ascertain what the medieval witch's actual craft was, and what is pure myth. It is difficult to ascertain if the dominae nocturnae was an actual society (or gathering) of women, or just a corruption of a fairy story.

Unfotunately, Sibilla and Pierina were both taken seriously by the courts of their time. They were both burned to death in 1390.

Sources
The Mythology of Witchcraft
Night Witches and Good Ladies

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Damn, Girl-Christine de Pizan

Just as Sappho is the Mama Lesbian, Christine de Pizan is the Mama Feminist. Christine was the first European woman to make a living from her writing, and her book The Book of the City of Ladies was one of the first books on feminism ever written.
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Christine at her desk.

Born in 1364, Christine started her life in Venice, but her family moved to France when she was three years old. Her father, Thomas de Pizan, had received an appointment as astrologer to Charles V. Living with the royal court gave Christine access to a vast library or literary and rhetorical works. Though not much is known about her education, or if she was even formally educated at all, the quality of her literature show that Christine was obviously well read.

At the age of 15 Christine married royal secretary Etienne de Castel. It is unknown if they were  happy or not, but they did have three children¹ together before Etienne died of the bubonic plague after ten years of marriage. Etienne's death left Christine with no source of income, a substantial amount of debt, and two children and a recently widowed mother to support.

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Illuminated page from The Book of
the City of Ladies
Luckily, Christine was a talented writer, and the French court had a fever that could only be cured with more poetry. Christine put out ballads about love, loss, and widowhood which brought her to the attention to royal patrons like Isabelle of Bavaria, the Duke of Orleans, and the 4th Earl of Salisbury.

For the first few years of her career, Christine mostly wrote poetry and moralistic works. Until in 1402 when Christine decided to pick a fight with a dead man. ²

Jean de Meun wrote a second half to The Romance of the Rose in 1280ish. In his poetry, de Meun was biting and cruel about ever member of society, but Christine took particular offense at the way he treated women in his works. He portrayed women as little more than one dimensional seductress ruled by their own lusts.  In her response Christine argued that women are much more complex than de Meun portrayed them. She starts by criticizing de Meun, but ends by criticizing the entire European canon at the time, censuring the many works about the nature of women, none of which were written by women.

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Christine writing
This sparked a long term literary debate which would bring her to the attention of monarchs around Europe. It also sparked a long term passion for writing about women and women's history. In her seminal work The Book of the City of Ladies, Pizan imagines a world built by women, for women, free from misogyny. Within that framework she tells the stories of the great women who came before her, without the misogynistic bias that colored the accounts of so many male writers.

In around 1415 Christine retired a convent with her daughter. The increasing political unrest, and the disaster at the Battle of Agincourt, had her rattled, and she was ready to retire from public life. In 1429 she released The Tale of Joan of Arc, a ballad that basically fangirled over Joan of Arc and her victories. The Tale of Joan of Arc was Christine's last work, and she doesn't appear in public record anywhere else. It's generally assumed that she died shortly after.

Christine had a massive impact on the writers and political leaders of her day. Her works attacking the traditional patriarchal society influenced other female writers, and also influenced future female monarchs, such as Louise of Savoy, Anne of Brittany, and Leonor of Portugal.


¹A daughter named Marie, a son named Jean, and a second unnamed son who died in infancy.
²A move I cannot help but applaud. It's the sort of thing I have done would do.

Sources
Christine de Pisan-Brooklyn Museum
Christine de Pizan: Her Works
Christine de Pisan-Britannica
Christine de Pisan-New World Encyclopedia
Christine de Pisan-Biography

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Time Da Vinci and Machiavelli Teamed Up to Steal the River Arno

Coming up with a way to steal an entire geological feature is the sort of whimsical nonsense that you would expect from inventor/engineer/artist/scientist/architect/professional hand model* Leonardo da Vinci. Scheming to deprive a rival city of life necessities to gain the upper hand politically is the sort of unethical dickery you'd expect from Niccolo Machiavelli. Put these two together, and you have the plotline of a Renaissance buddy heist comedy.

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Niccolo Machiavelli
It's the turn of the century--the sixteenth century-- and Italy is, as ever, a hot mess. Florence and Pisa are fighting, the Borgia family is causing problems (again), and Milan now has tanks and fancy siege machines thanks to the genius of one Leonardo da Vinci.

Due to a recent Florentine regime change, political mastermind Niccolo Machiavelli is in a position of power at the Florentine court. He's looking for a way to enrich Florence and end the conflict with Pisa once and for all--preferably without bloodshed. He found his answer when visiting the court of Cesare Borgia in 1502.

Leonardo da Vinci was residing at Borgia's court when Machiavelli came to visit. He had just finished up working for the Duke of Milan, and when he wasn't busy spying on Borgia for Florence, he was pretty fascinated with whole concept of water.

Presumably, at some point these two men met, or at least were put in contact with each other. Between the pair of them, they hatched a brilliant scheme to make Florence rich, and screw over Pisa once and for all. They were going to steal the river Arno.

The river Arno was the main water source for Florence, as well as for Pisa. By stealing the Arno, Machiavelli and da Vinci hoped to not only deprive Pisa of the ability to grow their own crops, bathe, and stay alive, but to irrigate the farmlands of Florence, and turn a profit by selling the water to local farmers. Additionally, the water would be diverted into a series of canals that made it possible for ships to sail from Florence to the Mediterranean. Stealing the Arno would be a real win for Florence, and a death sentence for Pisa.
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da Vinci worked on the Mona Lisa while plotting to steal
the Arno, and he included the Arno as the background into
his painting.

Stealing a river is a pretty big task, but da Vinci didn't care. He gleefully set about making plans that involved tunneling under a mountain, moving millions of tons of dirt, and required some 50,000 workers. Once Machiavelli signed off on them, his plans went to the engineer Columbino--the real villain of this story.

Columbino isn't really a villain, he was just under a lot of pressure, and he didn't listen to da Vinci. Instead of digging one massive trench, Columbino decided to build two shallow trenches, and let the river erode them into one. Additionally, he underestimated the amount of time and men he'd need to build the canals. This wouldn't have been an issue, except war broke out, and Columbino and his workers were under frequent attack by the Pisans.

Needless to day, Columbino's construction failed. The Arno destroyed the two canals, and more or less stayed on its course. The Florentines and Pisans worked it out, and Machiavelli and da Vinci parted ways, never to discuss their project again.

*I'm joking

Sources
Leonardo da Vinci
An Intriguing Partnership on the Arno
The Leonardo-Machiavelli Plan to Divert the Arno
Leonardo's Plan
Columbino's Plan
Plan to Regulate the River Arno in Florence

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Swiss Guard

Officially founded in 1506, the Swiss Guard has been protecting the Bishops of Rome for more than 600 years. Over those 600 years the Guard has held off invasions, fought the Pope's wars, and acted as the Pope's private security force. Today they're the smallest army in the world. Despite their size, the Guard has an illustrious history, and hangs on to many of its traditions, including it's colorful uniforms.

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Pope Francis inspecting the Guard
You wouldn't guess it from Pope Francis, but historically, Pope's didn't usually turn the other cheek. Sure, some performed miracles and invented important things like calendars, but more maneuvered and schemed to keep secular power as well as spiritual power over Europe, even going as far as to send large amounts of armed forces to support their interests. Popes had enormous political power over Europe from the early CEs until shortly after the Reformation, and they needed the forces to back it up. So in 1506 Pope Julius II hired a group of the fiercest fighters in Europe--Swiss mercenaries.

Now, while today's Swiss army may be a hot, incompetent, mess, they were pretty good in the 1500s. Contingents of Swiss mercenaries protected the Kings of France and Spain, and fought for other Italian states as well. Given that the Swiss Cantons were overcrowded, the Swiss government was more than okay with these arrangements. Swiss mercenaries were known, not only for their fighting expertise, but for their loyalty, and when Pope Julius II hired them, they permanently attached themselves to the Vatican.

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The 1527 Sack of Rome
One of the Guard's finest hours was during the Sack of Rome of 1527 by Spanish mercenaries. 147 guards held off a force of 20,000 men long enough for Pope Clement to escape the Vatican. Out of the 189 members of the guard, only the 42 who accompanied the Pope survived.


Members of the Guard are instantly recognizable while on duty. They wear brightly colored red, yellow, and blue uniforms, which would only work as camouflage if they were hiding in a crayola factory. On formal occasion they add 1500s style armor, including morian style helmets with large red or purple feathers. Though their uniform is designed on the clothing the guard would have worn in the 1500s, and done up in the traditional color of the Medici family, the current uniforms were actually designed in 1914. The guards carry halberds--a seven foot long pole arm--on duty, as per tradition, but are also armed with more modern weapons.

Today the Guard are instrumental in protecting the Pope on his travels, watch over visitors to the Vatican, and to watch over the safety of Vatican City. The guard is only open to Swiss males between ages 19 and 30 who are practicing Catholics. While in the guard, guards are required to take an oath of celibacy, as well as swearing to be morally upright at all times.

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Sources
Pontifical Swiss Guard
The Pope's Private Army
Swiss Guard History