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Women of the Romance Countries By John R. Effinger Characters: 27847

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Women in the Early Renaissance

Although the fourteenth century in Italy was one of almost continuous warfare between the different contending states of the peninsula, the fact remains that the whole country was enjoying a degree of prosperity which was unprecedented in the history of the Italian people. It was the beginning of the age of the despots, it is true, but in the midst of strife and contention there was at the same time a material progress which did much to enrich the country and enable its inhabitants to elevate their standard of living. The Italian cities were encouraging business transactions on a large scale; Italian merchants were among the most enterprising on the continent, making long trips to foreign countries for the purpose of buying and selling goods; and the Oriental trade, which had been diverted in great measure to Italian channels, was a constant source of profit. That all this could be so in the face of the warlike condition of society is due to the fact that much of the fighting was done by mercenary soldiers, or that the political quarrels of the time, which frequently concerned the fate of cities, too often had their rise in family feuds which, no matter how fiercely they were waged, did not interest the masses. There were always thousands upon thousands of worthy citizens who felt no direct personal interest in the outcome of the fighting, and who pursued the even tenor of their way without much regard for what was taking place, so far as allowing it to interfere with their daily occupations was concerned.

The general impression of the moral tone of this epoch in society is far from favorable. Divorce had become practically impossible for ordinary individuals; marriage was common enough, but appeared to possess no special sanctity; and as a result there were many illegitimate children, who seem, however, to have been recognized by their fathers and cared for with as great solicitude as were those who were born within the pale of the law. The ideas which were current regarding matters of decency and refinement will be found quite different from those prevalent in our own day. Coarseness in speech and manner was common, no high moral standards were maintained, even by the Church, and diplomacy and calculation took the place of sincerity and conscience. Still, while these may have been the characteristics of a considerable number of the population, the fact must not be forgotten that even in that day of moral laxity there were many good and simple people who lived their homely lives in peace and quiet and contentment, unmoved by the rush of the world. We get a glimpse of what this simple life may have been from a charming little book by Pandolfino called La Famiglia, wherein the joys of family life are depicted in a most idyllic manner. The story deals with the beginning of the married life of a young couple; and we are shown how the husband takes the wife to his house after the wedding has been celebrated, displays to her his worldly possessions, and then turns them over to her keeping. After visiting the establishment and giving it a careful inspection, they kneel before the little shrine of the Madonna, which is near at hand, and there they pray devoutly that they may be given grace to profit by all their blessings, and that they may live long years together in peace and harmony, and the prayer ends with the wish that they may have many male children. The young wife is later advised not to paint her face, and to pay no attention to other men. There is no injunction to secrecy with regard to family affairs of importance, inasmuch as Pandolfino says very frankly that he doubts the ability of a woman to keep a secret, and that, while he is perfectly willing to grant that his wife is loving and discreet, he feels a much greater sense of security when he knows she is unable to do him any harm. His quaint phrase is as follows: Non perchè io non conoscessi la mia amarevole e discreta, ma sempre estimai più securo ch'ella non mi potesse nuocere che ella non volesse.

The material conditions for happiness-and they are certainly no unimportant factor-were wonderfully advanced, and the common people of Italy at this time were enjoying many comforts of life which were unknown to the higher classes in other countries. The houses were generally large and of stone, supplies were plentiful and cheap, and, all in all, it appears to have been an age of abundance. It was customary for the housewives to lay in a supply of oil and wine for the year; they were most careful in regard to all matters of domestic economy and took a pride in their work. Indeed, Burckhardt has said that from this epoch dates the first conscious attempt to regulate the affairs of a household in a systematic way, and to this end it is interesting to note that bridal outfits were prepared with unusual care, special attention being given to the supply of household linen, which was sometimes elaborate. As a further aid to orderly housekeeping, it was often the custom for the wives to keep a careful account of daily expenditures, which they did with a skill that would doubtless cause the despair of many a modern housewife who has attempted the same thing. It must not be supposed, however, that the course of this domestic life was without annoyance, as even here at this early day servants were inclined to be exacting and hard to please. At least, that is the inference which may be drawn from a letter by an old notary of Florence, Lapo Mazzei, wherein he takes occasion to say, in inviting a friend to supper, that it will be entirely convenient to have him come, inasmuch as he has taken the precaution, in order not to trouble the house servants, to send to the bakery to be roasted a fat pullet and a loin of mutton!

Some of the customs of this time will seem to us quite primitive. It was an unheard-of thing, for example, to see carriages going about the streets, as they had not yet come into general use, and riding on horseback was the ordinary means of locomotion, even for ladies. Indeed, mention has been found in one of the early historians of an adventure which befell Louisa Strozzi, a daughter of the great Florentine house of Strozzi, as she was returning to her home, from a ball in the early morning hours, on horseback. It seems to have been the custom then, as now, to give balls which lasted far into the night, and the growing wealth of the citizens caused an increasing love of display. In some communities laws were enacted in the interests of simplicity, and it was provided that not more than three dishes should be supplied for an ordinary entertainment, while twenty was the largest number which might be served at a wedding feast. With regard to matters of dress, Scipio Ammirato tells us in his sixteenth-century History of Florence that in the earliest times the women had the simplest tastes and were "much more soft and delicate than the men," and he adds that "the greatest ornament of the most noble and wealthy woman of Florence was no other than a tight-fitting skirt of bright scarlet, without other girdle than a belt of antique style, and a mantle lined with black and white." Such simplicity, however, cannot have been long in vogue, for as early as 1323 the chronicler Villani informs us that the city authorities began to enact stringent sumptuary laws which were directed against the women. Three years after this, we learn from the same source that the Duke of Milan had made complaint because the women of Florence had induced his wife to wear, "in front of her face," a most unsightly knot of yellow and white silk, in place of her own curls, a style of head-dress already condemned by the city fathers of Florence. After this incident, the historian adds, by way of sententious remark: "Thus did the excessive appetite of the women defeat the reason and sense of the men." These laws of the year 1323 failed to prove effective, and finally, in 1330, more explicit measures were taken to check this growing evil. Villani had now best tell the story in his own words:

"The women of Florence were greatly at fault in the matter of superfluous ornaments, of crowns and wreaths of gold and silver and pearls and of other precious stones, and certain garlands of pearls, and other ornaments for the head, and of great price. Likewise they had dresses cut of several kinds of cloth and silk, with silken puffs of divers kinds, and with fringes of pearls, and little gold and silver buttons, often of four and six rows together. It was also their custom to wear various strings of pearls and of precious stones at the breast, with different designs and letters. Likewise did they give costly entertainments and wedding parties, extravagant and with superfluous and excessive table." In the midst of this deplorable state of affairs, an ordinance was passed forbidding women to wear crowns of any kind, even of painted paper; dresses of more than one piece and dresses with either painted or embroidered figures were forbidden, though woven figures were permitted. Also, bias patterns and stripes were put under the ban, excepting only those of not more than two colors. It was decided, furthermore, that more than two rings on a finger should not be tolerated. Other cities of Italy, having the same trouble to contend with, sent deputations to Florence asking for a copy of these regulations; this attempt on the part of the cities to control the habits of their citizens in these matters seems to have been quite general.

In matters of education more attention was paid to the boys than to the girls at this time, as the women were generally expected to let the men attend to the chief affairs of life, while they busied themselves with domestic duties. Still, it is on record that in the year 1338 there were from eight to ten thousand boys and girls in school in the city of Florence, learning to read. Among the people of the wealthy class and of the nobility, women were undoubtedly given greater educational advantages in many instances; and then again, in strictly academic circles, the daughters of a professor sometimes distinguished themselves for great learning and scholarship. It was at the University of Bologna in particular that women seem to have been most conspicuous in educational affairs, and here it was that a number of them were actually allowed to wear the robe of a professor and lecture to the students. Among the number famed for their learning may be mentioned Giovanna Bianchetti and Maddalena Buonsignori, who gave instruction in law. The latter was the author of a small Latin treatise of some reputation, entitled De legibus connubialis, and the character of this legal work reveals the fact that she must have been much interested in the women of her time, for she has made here in some detail a study of their legal status from certain points of view. No list of this kind would be complete without mention of Novella d'Andrea, who was perhaps the best known of all these learned women, for to her erudition was added a most marvellous beauty which alone would have been sufficient, perhaps, to hand her name down to posterity. Her father was a professor of canonical law at the University of Bologna, and there it was that she became his assistant, and on several occasions delivered lectures in his stead. At such times it was her custom, if the tradition be true, to speak from behind a high screen, as she had found out from experience that the students were so bewildered by her grace and charm, when she stood openly before them, that they were in no mood for serious study, but gazed at her the while in undisguised admiration.

However pleasurable it may prove to reflect upon this peaceful scene, the fact must not be forgotten that more women were aiding men, directly or indirectly, to break laws than to make them, for many of the most bitter feuds and controversies of the time were waged about a woman. Bianchina, the wife of Vergusio Landi, seduced by the great Galeazzo Visconti, who had been her husband's friend and ally, became the cause of a most ferocious war which was waged between the cities of Milan and Piacenza; Virginia Galucci, abducted by Alberto Carbonesi, brought about a long-standing hostility between these two families and caused much blood to be spilled; many other instances might be cited which would reveal the same state of affairs. A few of the most remarkable of these feuds have been deemed worthy of more extended notice, and the first among the number concerns the quarrel between the Buondelmonti and the Amedei, in Florence, in the thirteenth century. Buondelmonte de' Buondelmonti, a young nobleman from the upper Val d'Arno and a member of the Guelph party, was to marry a daughter of the house of Amedei, staunch Ghibelline supporters, and the wedding day was fast approaching; one day the young Guelph was met upon the street by a lady of the Donati family, also a Guelph, who reproached him for his intended union with one of the hated party, and urged him to marry her own daughter, Ciulla, who was far more desirable. The sight of the fair Donati was too much for the quick passions of Buondelmonte; he fell in love with her at once, and straightway repudiated his former plan of marriage. It may well be imagined that the Amedei were enraged at this; the powerful Uberti and all the other Ghibelline families in Florence, about twenty-four in all, joined with them, and they swore to kill the fickle young lover on sight. On Easter morning, they lay in wait for the handsome but heedless young Buondelmonte at the north end of the Ponte Vecchio; and when he appeared, boldly riding without an escort, all clothed in white and upon a milk-white steed, they fell upon him and struck him to the ground, and left him dying there, his Easter tunic dripping with his blood. Their savage yell of tr

iumph over this assassination was not the end, but the beginning, for forty-two Guelph families immediately took up the quarrel and swore to avenge the death of their comrade, and for more than thirty years the strife continued.

The story of Imelda de' Lambertazzi is even more tragic in its results, as here the woman has to suffer as well as the man, and in its general outlines this incident recalls many of the features of Romeo and Juliet, though there is no evidence that Shakespeare used it in any way, but rather confined his attention to the traditional story of the lovers of Verona. The Lambertazzi were a noble family of Bologna, and the daughter of the house had long been wooed most ardently by Bonifacio de' Geremei, whose family was in deadly feud with her own. Yielding finally to his entreaties, she allowed him to come to see her in her own apartments; but there they were surprised by her two brothers, who considered his presence as an affront offered not only to their sister, but to their house. Imelda barely had time to escape before the two men rushed upon Bonifacio, who was powerless to defend himself. With poisoned daggers, whose secret had been learned from the Saracens by the Crusaders, he was speedily stabbed to the heart, and then dragged into a dark corner beneath a winding staircase. After seeing her brothers leave the palace, Imelda returned to discover her lover's fate, while they rushed off to raise a hue and cry and plan for further deeds of violence. Imelda found the room where she had left the struggling men empty, but, following the drops of blood upon the floor, she soon came to the lifeless body hidden away. Drawing it out to the light, she found that it was still warm, and, knowing the secret of her brothers' weapons, she resolved upon a desperate remedy, and endeavored to suck the poison from the wounds. The result of this most heroic attempt was fearful: the poison was communicated to her own veins, and she was soon stretched lifeless beside the luckless lover. There they were found by anxious servants, who, knowing of the quarrel, had not dared to stir about at first. Hallam says, after his account of this event: "So cruel an outrage wrought the Geremei to madness; they formed alliances with some of the neighboring republics; the Lambertazzi took the same measures; and after a fight in the streets of Bologna of forty days' duration, the latter were driven out of the city, with all the Ghibellines, their political associates. Twelve thousand citizens were condemned to banishment, their houses razed, and their estates confiscated."

Another story of bloody violence centres in the territory from Padova and Treviso, on the one hand, to Vicenza and Verona, on the other; and while the incidents took place in medi?val times, dating from the latter part of the twelfth century, the consequences were so widespread and so lasting that they were by no means dead in the days of the early Renaissance. Tisolino di Camposampiero, a nobleman of Padova, confided to his friend Ezzelino, the feudal lord of Onar and Romano, that it was his intention to marry his son to the rich heiress of Abano, Cecilia Ricco by name. Ezzelino received this confidence, and promised to keep the secret; but no sooner had he parted from the Padovan nobleman than he made plans of his own, and succeeded in marrying his own son to the desirable heiress before Tisolino could interpose. What more was needed to start a feud of the first magnitude? Tisolino's disappointed son, whose heart was now filled with vengeance rather than with unrequited love, abducted his former fiancée by means of a clever ruse, and carried her off to his father's stronghold. The next day she was sent back, dishonored, to her husband, who refused to receive her under these circumstances; but at the same time he felt no compunctions about retaining her extensive dowry, which comprised many strong castles and other feudal holdings. Then the long struggle began which was to take many lives and last for many years. Succeeding generations inherited the hatred as one of their most cherished possessions, and it was almost a century before the quarrel spent itself.

One of the most beautiful and pathetic stories of this whole period, however, is the one which concerns the fate of Madonna Francesca, daughter of Guido the Elder, Lord of Ravenna and of Cervia. For many years, according to Boccaccio's account, Guido had waged a grievous war with the Lord Malatesta of Rimini, and finally, when peace was brought about between them through the mediation of friends, it was thought advisable to cement the friendship with as close a tie as possible. To that end, Guido agreed to give his fair young daughter, Francesca, in marriage to Gianciotto, Malatesta's son, without a thought to her own desires in the matter. When the plan was noised abroad, certain friends of Guido, knowing Gianciotto to be lame and rather rough in his manners, and considering it very doubtful whether Francesca would consent to marry him when once she had seen him, came to the father and urged him to act with discretion, so that no scandal might arise over the matter. It happened that there was a younger son of the house of Malatesta, Paolo by name, who was young and handsome and possessed of most courtly and winning manners, and it was advised that he be sent to marry Francesca by proxy in his brother's stead, and that she should be kept in ignorance regarding the real state of affairs until it was too late to withdraw her word. So Paolo came to Ravenna with a brilliant train of gentlemen to celebrate the wedding festivities; and as he crossed the courtyard of the palace on the morning of his arrival, a maid who knew him pointed him out to Francesca through the open window, saying: "That is he who is to be your husband." This Francesca believed, as she had no reason to think otherwise, so skilfully was the marriage ceremony arranged, and it was not until her arrival at Rimini that she knew her fate. For there, on the morning following her coming, as she saw Gianciotto rise from her side, when she had thought him to be Paolo, the sad truth burst upon her. What excuses Paolo could give for this strange deception we are not told, but the fact remains that Francesca still loved him, and looked with scorn upon his misshapen brother. From that time the dangerous moment slowly approached. Living together in the same palace, it was but natural that Paolo and Francesca should be much in each other's society; while Gianciotto, unloved and unlovely, busied himself with his own affairs, which sometimes took him to other cities, as he was a man of ambition and essayed by political man?uvres to advance his own interests. It happened once that in returning from one of these journeys he saw Paolo enter Francesca's room, and then for the first time he became jealous. Hitherto he had known of their affection for each other, but it had never dawned upon him that his own brother could thus betray his trust, while under his roof and receiving his protection. Now he rushed up the broad stairway and made straight for Francesca's door, anxious to know the worst. The door was found locked before him, and his hurried knocks brought sudden terror to the lovers within. There was an open window, however, through which Paolo counted upon disappearing, and so he bade the lady make haste to open to her lord, that he might not be curious. As Francesca opened the door, Paolo found to his dismay that the edge of his cloak had caught upon a nail; so that when Gianciotto, red with anger, burst into the room, the fatal secret was disclosed. Grasping his dagger, without a moment's hesitation, he stepped quickly to the window and would have slain his brother with a single mighty blow, but Francesca, throwing herself before him, sheathed the dagger in her heart and fell dead at his feet. Gianciotto, still burning for revenge, and unmoved by his first bloody deed, again struck at Paolo, and this time he slew him. Then, following the words of the old story, "leaving them both dead, he hastily went his way and betook him to his wonted affairs; and the next morning the two lovers, with many tears, were buried together in one grave."

There is a terrible pathos about this story which has made it live during all these years. Through every line of it runs a commentary upon the barbarous customs of the time, which made such a situation possible, and its climax was so inevitable and so necessary, according to all the laws of nature, that we of a later day are inclined to shed a sympathetic tear and heave a sigh of regret.

Dante has placed the two lovers in his Inferno for their sin, but in the fifth canto, where he first sees them, he is moved to such pity for their unhappy lot that he exclaims:

"...Francesca, i tuoi martiri

A lagrimar mi fanno tristo e pio!"

[Thine agonies, Francesca, sad and compassionate to weeping make me!] And before she finished telling her tragic story, he swooned away as if he had been dying, "and fell, even as a dead body falls."

In a more recent time this story has been told by Silvio Pellico, who wrote a tragedy on the subject, and by Leigh Hunt in a poem. In England, Boker wrote a successful tragedy upon it many years ago, and more recently Stephen Phillips, in his Paolo and Francesca, has produced a dramatic poem of rare merit. Most recently of all, Gabriele d'Annunzio, the well-known Italian poet and novelist, has made this story the subject of a powerful drama, which was interpreted in a most wonderful way by the great Italian actress, Eleonora Duse. To show that others than poets have been inspired by Francesca's unhappy history, it may be of interest to record the fact that noted pictures illustrating the story have been painted by many of the greatest artists.

To return to that early period in Italian history, so filled with strife and discord, it should be said that in spite of this constant warfare, the richer princes, especially in the north of Italy, lived in a most sumptuous manner, and prepared the way, to a certain degree, for the splendor of Lorenzo the Magnificent, which was to appear in the century following. The women in these regal courts were clothed in the most extravagant fashion, and the precious stuffs and precious stones of all the known world were laid at their feet by their admirers. Among these affluent noblemen of the fourteenth century, Galeazzo Visconti was generally considered the handsomest man of his age. Symonds tells us that he was tall and graceful, with golden hair which he wore in long plaits, or tied up in a net, or else loose and crowned with flowers. By nature he was fond of display, liked to make a great show of his wealth, and spent much money in public entertainments and feasts and in the construction of beautiful palaces and churches. His wealth was so great and his reputation had gone so far abroad that he was able to do what other rich Italian noblemen accomplished in a somewhat later time-arrange royal marriages for some of his children. His daughter Violante was wedded with great ceremony to the Duke of Clarence, son of Edward III. of England, who is said to have received with her as a dowry the sum of two hundred thousand golden florins, and at the same time five cities on the Piedmont frontier. London was a muddy, unpaved city at this time, primitive in the extreme; the houses were still covered with thatched roofs, beds were still made upon bundles of straw cast upon the floors, and wine was so scarce that it was generally sold for medicinal purposes. It has been pointed out that it must have been a strange experience for this English nobleman to leave all that and come to a country of warmth and sunshine, where the houses were large and comfortable and made of marble, where the streets were dry and paved, where wine was as plenty as water, and where ease and luxury were seen on every hand.

This royal marriage was celebrated at Pavia, where Galeazzo held his court, and the historian Giovio has given some curious and interesting details regarding it. He says that on the completion of the ceremony Galeazzo gave rich gifts to more than two hundred Englishmen, and it was generally considered that he had shown himself more generous than the greatest kings. At the wedding feast, Gian Galeazzo, the bride's brother,-who was afterward married to Isabella, the daughter of King John of France,-at the head of a band of noble youths, brought wonderful new gifts to the table with the arrival of each new course upon the bill of fare. "At one time it was sixty most beautiful horses, adorned with gold and silver trappings; at another, silver plate, hawks, hounds, fine cuirasses, suits of armor of wrought steel, helmets decorated with crests, tunics adorned with pearls, belts, precious jewels set in gold, and great quantities of cloth of gold and crimson stuff for the making of garments. Such was the profusion at this banquet that the remnants taken from the table were more than enough to supply ten thousand men." Not every heiress in Italy could have gloried in such a wedding feast as the one given in honor of Violante Visconti, but the wealth of these petty rulers was something almost incredible, and the general prosperity of the common people passes belief. As has always been the case under such circumstances, increasing wealth has brought about increased expenditure, principally in matters of dress, and the women in particular seem to have made the most of this opportunity. Vanity and frivolity multiplied on every hand as a natural consequence; the Church was growing daily less able to cope with the moral degeneracy of the time on account of its own immoral condition; thus, the foundations were being laid for those centuries of corruption and national weakness which were soon to follow.

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