Brunetto Latini

Brunetto was born to a noble Tuscan family in Florence (Firenze) in 1220. His father was Buonaccorso Latini, and his grandfather was Latino Latini. By 1254, he was the scribe for the elders in the Florence municipality. Brunetto also was active in the city’s political life, and belonged to the Guelph party.

So respected and beloved was Brunetto by his fellow Florentines, he was part of a delegation sent to the court of King Alfonso X of Castile, Léon, and Galicia in 1259 or 1260, to plead for aid to the Guelphs against their Ghibelline enemies. The mission wasn’t a success, and on his way home from Spain, a student from Bologna told him about the Guelphs’ recent defeat at the Battle of Montaperti.

With this rival party in power, Brunetto was forced into exile. He lived in France from 1261–68 and worked as a notary in various cities. During his French sojourn, he wrote Tesoretto, an Italian encyclopedia, and Li Livres dou Trésor, a French encyclopedia. The latter is regarded as the very first encyclopedia in a modern European language. Brunetto also translated four of Cicero’s works into Italian.

Illuminated page from Li Livres dou Trésor

When the political situation improved in 1269, he returned to Florence and served in a variety of high offices for the next twenty years. In 1273, he received compensation for the wrong done to him, in the form of being appointed Secretary of the Council of the Republic of Florence. Brunetto was one of the most frequently appointed speakers in general councils.

Following the death of Dante’s father, Alighiero di Bellincione, between 1281–83, Brunetto became Dante’s guardian. Dante and many others identified Brunetto as his teacher. There was a clear bond of love and intellectual kinship between the two.

Brunetto passed away in 1294 or 1295, leaving a daughter, Bianca Latini. His tomb is in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Florence.

Despite the powerful love and respect between mentor and mentee, Dante depicts Brunetto in Hell, in the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle. However, he’s treated more respectfully and lovingly than almost anyone else in The Divine Comedy. Brunetto is also only the second person in the poem to touch Dante (the first obviously being Virgil), and the only one who addresses Dante with the familiar form of “you.”

Dante lovingly speaks of Brunetto as his teacher and mentor, and offers to sit with him while the rest of Brunetto’s group runs off. Brunetto has to refuse because he’s condemned to keep aimlessly moving. He then tells Dante’s future.

Panel about monkey from the bestiary section of Li Livres dou Trésor

Brunetto’s section of Hell is for people who’ve been violent against God, Nature, and art, and unfortunately (given the attitudes of the era) includes gay men. But there’s zero evidence beyond rumours that Brunetto was gay or bisexual, and Brunetto himself expressed homophobic views in Tesoretto. So what is he doing there?

Some scholars believe Brunetto was truly placed in that part of Hell because he was violent against art and his native language. He did, after all, write an entire encyclopedia in French instead of Italian. Others feel it’s proof of how even the greatest of people may be guilty of private sins (whatever they may be).

Brunetto’s tomb, Copyright Sailko

In recent years, a love poem some believe Brunetto sent to poet Bondie Dietaiuti was discovered, but the intent may be open to interpretation. After all, many close friends in bygone eras expressed their love for one another (both physically and in words) in ways that suggest romantic or sexual feelings to modern people, but weren’t seen as such historically, let alone considered in that way by the friends themselves.

Dante not only doesn’t condemn gay men as deviants, degenerates, perverts, etc., he also puts an equal number of gay and straight men in the Seventh Terrace of Purgatory, for the lustful. Everyone in Purgatory is guaranteed eventual entrance to Paradise, so Dante clearly had a much more modern, nuanced view of homosexuality than most people associate with the Middle Ages.

Jacopo Alighieri

Jacopo Alighieri (Iacopo di Durante degli Alighieri), one of four kids Dante had with his wife Gemma di Manetto Donati, was born around 1290 in Florence (Firenze). Unfortunately, there are no known drawings or paintings of him, and not much of anything is known about his early life.

When he came of age, Jacopo joined his exiled father, along with his siblings Pietro, Antonia, and Giovanni. As the adult children of an exile who refused to pay the huge fine demanded of him and with a burning death awaiting him should he return, they were condemned to exile by association. Jacopo’s mother remained in Florence.

Historians believe Jacopo and his siblings went first to Verona, then Ravenna. Their father’s patrons, the da Polenta family, protected them until 1322, the year after Dante’s death.

Coat of arms of Ravenna, with the da Polenta shield, Copyright User:David_Liuzzo

Dante finished The Divine Comedy in 1320 or 1321, not long before his 13/14 September 1321 death. Since this was before even the printing press, it was all handwritten. Paper manuscripts being what they are, not all of it was gathered in the same place. In Dante’s case, the final pages were missing, and he was no longer alive to tell people where he put them. He also hadn’t left any notes about their location.

Divine Providence intervened, and Dante came to Jacopo in a dream, showing him where the rest of the poem was. Jacopo found it in exactly that place!

Jacopo sent a copy to Guido II da Polenta, lord of Ravenna, and it was distributed to the rest of Italy and the entire world from there. In those early, pre-printing press days, all the manuscripts were hand-copied. Many were also beautifully illustrated.

Jacopo safely returned to Florence in 1325, and the next year received minor religious orders enabling him to get a canonical office in Verona. He then set about settling his family’s finances, and in 1343 finally successfully regained Dante’s confiscated assets.

Like his father, Jacopo too was a writer. The first of his two major works is the Dottrinale (Doctrinal), concerned with religion, astrology, astronomy, human beauty, the virtues of the Holy Roman Empire, family, free will, love, and hate. It was inspired by ancient writers, and sometimes mimics Dante’s style. The book is divided into two sections and 60 chapters, with seven-syllable rhyming couplets. Each chapter has ten stanzas.

The Commento is a line-by-line commentary on the Inferno canticle of The Divine Comedy. Jacopo was among the first to write a commentary on the poem. By 1340, there were six major commentaries available. Jacopo’s accompanied the copy of the full poem he sent to Guido da Polenta.

Copyright Sailko; Courtesy Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana

Later in life, Jacopo had a troubled relationship with Jacopa de Biliotto degli Alfani, from a Florentine banking family. They had two kids, Alighiera and Alighiero.

Jacopo is believed to have died in Florence in 1348, probably of Bubonic Plague.

Italian language

Copyright Enzino at WikiCommons

Because Italy consisted of independent city-states for centuries before unification, there are countless regional dialects still spoken all over the country. They include Tuscan, Sabino, Tarantino, Neapolitan, Barese, Romanesco, Venetian, and many more. There are also many Italian-speakers in border areas (the best-known probably being Switzerland) and countries with a long history of Italian rule (e.g., Malta, Slovenia, Croatia).

Other Italian-speakers are found in diaspora communities all over the world. Besides North America, many are also to be found in Somalia, Libya, Tunisia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Guatemala, Colombia, Paraguay, Costa Rica, the U.K., Australia, and France.

Percentage of Italians in Argentina, 1914 Census

Modern Standard Italian is based on Tuscan, in particular the Florentine dialect, because that was the language of Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Machiavelli, and Francesco Guicciardini. The lattermost was a politician and historian who probably isn’t very well-known to most people today, but he was huge during the Renaissance.

When the Kingdom of Italy was established in 1861, la pronuncia fiorentina emendata (the amended Florentine pronunciation) was chosen as the official language. Because of its association with such great literary lights, it was seen as a language of high culture and prestige.

About 3,500,000 people speak Tuscan Italian today. There are at least eleven sub-dialects of Tuscan, four Southern and seven Northern. The Corsican language also began as a direct offshoot of Medieval Tuscan.

1898 linguistic map

Though there are many differences between Standard Italian and Tuscan, the most obvious tends to be that of gorgia Toscana (Tuscan throat); i.e., the weakening of consonants. There are also a number of Tuscan words which are completely different in Standard Italian, false cognates, or only used in that way in literary Italian.

Like all other languages, Italian too developed through many centuries. It evolved from Vulgar Latin, and gradually entirely replaced Latin as the area’s official language and lingua franca. Because Italian is so closely tied to Latin, it’s easy to learn one language if you already know the other.

Italian also has many similarities with Spanish, which made it very easy for me to take to it like lightning when I studied it my senior year of high school. At that point, I was in my sixth year of Spanish, and had informally studied Italian a few years earlier on a public TV show (the same channel where my mother and I learnt some Japanese).

I really wish I’d decided to continue with Italian when I went to community college or transferred to university. Though I usually got good marks in Spanish, I only studied it because my parents chose it for me over French. Night and day next to my genuine passion for Italian language, history, culture, and literature.

My mother herself told me my Italian pronunciation was a lot better than my Spanish pronunciation!

I would absolutely love to get back in touch with the language so I can read Dante and Boccaccio (and other great literature) untranslated, watch Italian films without subtitles, and do serious genealogical research into my Italian branch of my family tree. They came from Sacco, a small town in the Province of Salerno, in the Campania region. At the moment, I only know back to my four-greats-grandparents, born in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Dante is known as the father of the Italian language because he was the first major writer to use his native vernacular instead of Latin, just as Geoffrey Chaucer broke tradition when he chose to write in Middle English. In Italian, Dante is called il Sommo Poeta, the Supreme Poet. He, Boccaccio, and Petrarch are the tre corone (three crowns) of Italian literature.

Though Latin continued as Europe’s lingua franca into the early 19th century, it was more a language of scholars, theologians, scientists, historians, and musicians who needed their works to reach a wider audience, not poetry and prose. Dante’s success in Italian was a major force in kicking down the doors for writers to use their own languages instead of Latin.

Many musical terms from Italian have become an established part of English; e.g., duo, concerto, fortissimo, pianissimo, coda, cadenza, operetta, libretto, intermezzo, soprano, oratorio, and vibrato. Many art, architecture, and food words also come from Italian. Other fields with Italian loanwords include literature, theatre, clothing, geology, geography, finance and commerce, military and weaponry, politics, science, and nature.

The Guelphs and the Ghibellines

Fight in Bologna ca. 1369, created ca. 1400 by Giovanni Sercambi

The Guelphs and Ghibellines (Guelfi e Ghibellini) were two rival factions involved in a long-running power struggle in Medieval Italy. The Guelphs took their name from the House of Welf (a Bavarian dukedom), and the Ghibellines were named from the German battle rallying cry “Wibellingen” (from Swabia’s Waiblingen Castle). It’s believed these names were introduced to Italy during the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.

What began as a fight between Germans in 1125 spilled over into Italy, along the same party lines. Guelphs supported the Pope, and Ghibellines backed the Holy Roman Emperor. Guelphs usually came from wealthy merchant families, while Ghibellines derived their income from agriculture.

Guelphs were mostly centred in areas where the Emperor was more of a threat to local interests, whereas Ghibellines usually lived in places where enlargement of the Papal States was a bigger threat. Small cities also tended to go Ghibelline if the nearest large city were Guelph. However, sometimes traditional Ghibelline cities backed the Pope.

Long after the Pope and Emperor had patched things up, the conflict continued at a heated pace.

Diorama of the 1289 Battle of Campaldino, Copyright Sailko

The names Guelph and Ghibelline weren’t much used till about 1250, and then only within Tuscany. It was more common to call them the “Church party” and “Imperial party.”

Their power struggle, and the sharp lines between factions, were most keenly felt in Florence (Firenze) and Genoa. In Genoa, Guelphs were called Rampini (grappling hooks), and Ghibellines were Mascherati (masked). Besides fighting one another, they also eventually began fighting German influence in Italy.

Things came to a bloody, brutal head at the Battle of Montaperti on 4 September 1260. The Ghibellines brought 17,000 troops, and the Guelphs came with 33,000. Over 10,000 soldiers were slain in this bloodiest of all Medieval Italian battles, and another 15,000 were taken hostage. Four thousand more went missing, and everyone else fled for their lives.

Battle of Montaperti, 13th century, created by Giovanni Villani

The Battle of Campaldino was fought on 11 June 1289, with over 1,700 casualties, 2,000 hostages, and many wounded. Dante, age 24, took part in this fight, but panicked and fled during the first, most violent assault.

Trouble was far from over after the Guelphs’ decisive victory at Campaldino. Though they now had full control of Florence, they began their own infighting and split into Black and White factions. Black Guelphs backed the Pope, and Whites opposed Papal influence.

According to legend, it all began when someone yelled at his nephew for throwing a snowball. A few days later, the nephew hit his uncle. The uncle didn’t think it was a big deal, but his son Focaccia did. Focaccia went after his cousin, cut off his hands, and killed his cousin’s father. All because of a petty little fight about a snowball.

Dante became a White Guelph, though he nevertheless was sent on a diplomatic mission to Rome in 1301. While he was away, Black Guelphs seized control of Florence, tried him on phony charges in absentia, sentenced him to exile, and ordered him to pay a huge fine (which he never did). They also declared he’d be burnt at the stake if he tried to return home.

Another battle was fought in Zappolino on 13 November 1325, after months of border clashes and property destruction. The Ghibellines brought 5,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry to the fight, and the Guelphs came with 30,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry. There were about 2,000 casualties.

Because the Ghibellines had won the battle, they experienced an increase in power, popularity, and fortune. Then, in 1334, Pope Benedict XII threatened everyone with excommunication if they used either the Guelph or Ghibelline name.

Finally, these divisions were rendered obsolete during the Italian Wars of 1494–1559. The political landscape had changed too radically.

Florence (Firenze), Italy

My IWSG post is here.

Copyright bongo vongo, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Florence, called Firenze in Italian, is known as the Athens of the Middle Ages, and was the birthplace of the Renaissance. Because the Florentine dialect of Tuscan Italian was used by so many literary luminaries, it became the basis of Modern Standard Italian. The city was also the capital of the Kingdom of Italy from 1865–71.

The first Florentine settlement is believed to have been between the tenth and eighth centuries BCE. Then Etruscans moved in between the seventh and sixth centuries.

The city’s written history began in 59 BCE, upon the arrival of the Romans.

Porta San Frediano wall, Copyright Sailko

Porta Romana wall, Copyright Sailko

Firenze went from strength to strength under Roman rule. The cityscape quickly grew to include a military camp, a theatre, spas, an aqueduct, an amphitheatre, a forum, city walls, and a river port. Sadly, few of these structures have survived into the modern era. The city walls are a notable exception.

Starting in the fourth century CE, Firenze went back and forth between Ostrogothic and Byzantine hands. These two rivals were constantly fighting one another, laying siege to the city, losing power, and doing it all over again.

The Lombards took over in the sixth century, and then Charlemagne conquered Firenze in 774. Under Charlemagne’s rule, as part of the March of Tuscany, the city’s population and wealth grew exponentially.

Montalbano Castle, Copyright Joe Sapienza at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Copyright Sailko

Around 1000, Ugo (Hugh) the Great, Margrave of Tuscany, chose Firenze as his residence. This led to the Golden Age of the Florentine School of art, a naturalistic style which reached its heights in the 14th and 15th centuries. A lot of new construction also started.

In 1115, the people revolted against the Margrave of Tuscany. In its place arose the Republic of Firenze, officially the Florentine Republic. The city-state soon grew wealthy from trade with other countries, and the population swelled yet again. Even more new churches and palaces were built.

Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova, Firenze’s oldest hospital still in existence, Copyright Mongolo1984

Garden of Palazzo di Gino Capponi, Copyright Sailko

The city was beset by internal strife during the 12th through 14th centuries, when rival political factions the Guelphs and Ghibellines constantly, violently fought for power. Guelphs supported the Pope, and Ghibellines supported the Holy Roman Emperor. Firenze was one of the pro-Guelph cities.

After the decisive Guelph victory at the 1289 Battle of Campaldino, the Guelphs began infighting and split into White and Black factions. The Black Guelphs seized control of the city in 1301, destroying much of it in the process. Dante, a White Guelph, was tried on false charges in absentia, ordered to pay a huge fine (which he never did), and condemned to exile.

Basilica di Santa Croce, Copyright Sailko

Dante’s empty tomb in the Basilica di Santa Croce, Copyright Sailko

In the 14th century, a groundswell of artistic, literary, architectural, musical, and scientific talent in Firenze heralded the birth of the Renaissance. All the political, moral, and social upheavals which had plagued the city on and off for the last few centuries halted under this new humanistic atmosphere. People also began rediscovering and falling in love with writers, philosophers, and scientists from Classical Antiquity.


Uffizi Gallery, Copyright Chris Wee, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Firenze became the capital of the unified Kingdom of Italy in 1865. In attempts to modernise the city, many Medieval houses and the historic Piazza del Mercato Vecchio market were razed. New houses took their place, along with a more formal street plan.

The population grew to over 230,000 during the 19th century, and was over 450,000 by the 20th century.

Grand Synagogue of Firenze, Copyright CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Synagogue interior, Copyright Sailko

The city was occupied by Germans from 1943–44, after the Italians defected to the Allied side and refused to deport their Jewish community. Eighty percent of Italian Jews survived the Shoah, due in large part to righteous Italian Gentiles hiding them and smuggling them to safe territories.

The Nazis packed the beautiful Grand Synagogue with explosives before retreating, but brave resistance fighters diffused almost all of them. Very little damage was sustained, and the building was restored after the war. There are, however, still bayonet blows on the Ark.

Casa di Dante museum (not the original house), Copyright Photo20201 at WikiCommons

Fireworks over Ponte Vecchio, Copyright Martin Falbisoner

Firenze has more tourists than locals every year from April–October, thanks to its wealth of museums, historic architecture, churches, art galleries, theatres, bridges, monuments, gates, walls, and many other treasures.