Thursday 27 February 2014


Here are a few bits of advice from Italian politician Francesco Barbaro, who dashed off his marriage manual in 1416 between diplomatic missions at the papal and imperial courts.
Is this what he would look like today?

  • Three things will make a marriage admirable: a wife’s love for her husband, her modesty, and her diligence in domestic matters.In case you are wondering: no, there were no house husbands in Renaissance Italy.
  • Here is how to navigate the emotional terrain of marriage: If your husband is angry and scolds you, tolerate his wrath silently.  If he has been struck silent by a fit of depression, address him with sweet words, encourage, console, amuse, and humour him. No, they didn’t have shrinks in Renaissance Italy. But they had drugs and witchcraft. Barbaro frowned on both.
  • Do not attract husbands to love by means of potions and amorous incantations. I would compare such wives to fishermen who catch fish with poison bait and in so doing make the fish tasteless and almost inedible. Poison bait? Is that why salmon is so tasteless nowadays? And I thought it was the fault of agribusiness.
  • How to look modest: Preserve an evenness and restraint in the movements of your eyes and of your body. A wandering eye, a hasty gait, and excessive movement of the hands and other parts of the body are undignified and signs of vanity and frivolity.
More advice in my next blog post. No time to go on now. Am trying to be diligent in domestic matters to make my marriage admirable.

Saturday 22 February 2014

Here is Vergerio's curriculum: 
  • Most important subject: History. A boy must have heroes. And where would he find heroes? In politics, of course. Vergerio’s advice: Look to the Fathers of the City, to the Senate House. Well, let’s see who would qualify as a model? Silvio (Bunga-bunga) Berlusconi? Assad? Putin?  No wait, we are talking about the Renaissance. Cesare Borgia? Machiavelli’s Prince? Henry VIII? Okay, I can see this is going to be problematic, and Vergerio wisely names no names.
  • Next we need: Moral Philosophy. History, you see, shows us what men have done (which isn’t always good), whereas moral philosophy shows us what men should do. And speaking of morals: Profane language is an abominable sin. So don’t end every sentence with Fuck. Build your vocabulary, boys.
  • We need language instruction. History may provide the light of experience and the cumulative wisdom of the ages, but it must be supplemented by the persuasion of eloquence. Unfortunately, eloquence has fallen to a low level. And whose fault is that? The courts of law, according to Vergerio. Speed, brevity, and homeliness are the only qualities desired there. So that’s how it all started! I can see a straight line from Renaissance law courts to Twitter.
By the way, check my speed, brevity, and homeliness @historycracks.

Thursday 20 February 2014


From #Renaissance
These bits of wisdom come from a treatise by the papal secretary Paolo Vergerio:
  • Step # 1: give your child a name that won’t embarrass him. For sometimes a father, out of caprice, inflicts on his child a name that is a lifelong misfortune.  Was Vergerio a clairvoyant? Is he talking about Kim Kardashian’s pick, North West, or Marc Silverstein’s cringe-worthy choice, Cricket Peach?
  • Step # 2: have him educated in a city of distinction. So true. Princeton comes to mind (thinking in terms of higher education), but I would also have taken Paris, London, or New York. And (thinking in terms of weather) Los Angeles.
  • No possible security against the future can be compared with the gift of an education in the humanities. Hmm. Maybe in the time of the Borgias. Today it may be better to go for IT. But Vergerio wasn’t thinking of the job market. He was thinking of building character. No one educated in the humanities will sink into mere sloth or become absorbed in the meaner side of existence. No, more likely they’ll become absorbed in computer screens or, like me, sink into the mean habit of eating while reading.
  • The teacher will be well advised to develop in the student a habit of speaking little and rarely, and of answering questions rather than asking them. Right. No pesky questioning of authority.
  • To shelter the student from corruption, keep him away from the enticement of dancing or suggestive shows. Such as #TheBorgias? And as a rule, the society of women is to be carefully avoided. Definitely. Especially the Borgia women.
  • If you feel lonely, seek the companionship of books. No, not porn mags. Vergerio is thinking of good books, which have the power of diverting our thoughts from unworthy or distressing themes. You want some examples of good books? Well,there are my novels, Playing Naomi and Head Games. So good, so diverting! And conveniently available on

Sunday 16 February 2014


A lot of people must have regretted visiting Rome during the Jubilee of 1450, including Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who was on a diplomatic mission for the German emperor and describes the events.

Sure, you could get a plenary indulgence that delivered your soul from purgatory if you were repentant and confessed after visiting churches for three days. We hope that indulgence benefited the souls of the 200 pilgrims who were trampled to death when panic broke out on the bridge to Sant’ Angelo. But the survivors must have felt they were already in purgatory. The mills and bakeries could not keep up with the demand to provide the bread needed by so many people. And during Lent more pilgrims arrived so that some people slept in the vineyards because they could find no other shelter. Others couldn’t afford the inflated prices and slept under porticoes or wandered around all night. After that, the number of pilgrims thinned out, but only because the plague broke out, and so many people died that hospitals and churches were full to bursting and the sick dropped to the ground like dogs.

Rome was not the only tourist destination experiencing problems. In 1488, Franceschetto Cibo, who managed the spa in Stigliano, found the conditions challenging. The rooms are disgusting…the air is accursed, the men are like Turks, everything as bad as can be. Every day I have to struggle with swindlers, venomous dogs, lepers, Jews, madmen, and thieves. In spite of the appalling conditions or perhaps because Cibo introduced improvements, business was good. During the month of May he hosted between 100 and 150 daily visitors. I have to receive them all, see to their food, provide what they want and have not brought with them, grass, oats, hay (for their horses and pack animals) -- in short everything. For all this they have to pay me, so I hope to clear more than 400 ducats. So far I have pocketed about 100 ducats.

The manager at a hostel in Venice was apparently not so efficient. One guest reported:
It was completely dilapidated and shored up with timbers to prevent it from collapsing. The rooms were a refuge for rats, the verandah black as soot, the floor tiles wobbly. The walls were spattered and marred by graffiti, a thousand obscenities that travelers have written everywhere. Dinners were disgusting, the table greasier than a butcher’s slab, the tablecloths dirtied with wine and soup, the napkins patched like a fisherman’s sails, the salt-cellars held together with wire and wax. The bedding was no better. The bed sheets soiled, the pillows stinking like pisspots, and the mattresses full of bugs.


Maybe that’s when the idea of staycation first emerged.

Thursday 13 February 2014

You have been warned. Don’t read this while eating your cereal.

Rome, 1492. A soldier in the service of the Governor of Rome went to the privy and noticed an object which on account of the shit and piss had not fallen into the cesspool. When he put his hand down to find out what was stuck there, he discovered that it was a piece of meat. He thought it was a piece of pork and said to himself: I am going to wash it and eat it. And rooting around some more with his hand, he found more pieces of meat, but when he took a closer look, he saw that they were pieces of a man. As it turned out, it was the cut-up body of a Florentine by the name of Alessandro who had played dice at the house of the Governor and afterwards disappeared. (Source: Stefano Infessura, Roman Diary)

Florence,1509. A Spanish charlatan sold prayers, and to prove that they were from heaven, he offered to crawl into a baker’s oven. First he threw in a piece of dough to show that the oven was hot enough to bake it, then he took off his shirt and crawled into the oven, clad only in his hose. Afterwards he lit a candle and stuck it into his mouth until it fizzled. Finally, he washed his hands in a pot of boiling oil. And so he sold all his prayers, and I say that it was the greatest miracle I have ever seen – if it was a miracle. (Source: Lucca Landucci, Florentine Diary)

Florence, 1503. The executioner who was to cut off the head of a murderer missed three times. The knight who stood by his side, slapped him twice. The people started shouting Kill him! Kill him! (meaning the executioner) and started throwing rocks. The knight and other officials ducked behind a wall, but the executioner did not escape the fury of the people and was stoned to death. (Source: Lucca Landucci)

What happened to the murderer, I wonder.

Saturday 8 February 2014

GAMES RIGGED? Lorenzo de’ Medici wins silver in men’s tournament.
No, not in Sochi.  In Florence, 1469. In his diary, Lorenzo expressed surprise: I am not a vigorous fighter nor a heavy hitter. Yet the first prize was adjudged to me: a helmet inlaid with silver, and a figure of Mars on the crest. Could it have something to do with the fact that Lorenzo paid for the games – 10,000 ducats (c. $ 1.5 million).

Like Extreme Wrestling today, fights staged in the Renaissance were primarily for show. Here is a description of a tournament, Florence, 1516:

At one moment, several of the men were seen to fall to the ground, and at once all their lances broke as if they had been canes. In any case, there was a flat iron piece at the end of the lances, to avoid serious injuries.  And their maces were made of weak Lombard iron, so that when they struck each other on the helmet or arms, the maces broke in their hands. (Source: Bartolomeo Masi).

Some pageants were meant to win hearts.
  • Lorenzo de’ Medici organized the 1469 tournament in honour of his mistress, Lucrezia Donati.
  • In 1464, Bartolomeo Benci had 200 riders parade past the window of Marietta degli Strozzi, to acquire greater favour with the said lady. He doesn’t mention what this extravaganza cost him. The riders carried branches of laurel, myrtle, cypress, fir, and rhododendron, all evergreens and fierce-burning, like Bartolomeo’s love.
In 1506, the Bentivoglio family staged a battle between Lent and Carnival before their palace in Bologna. Each side had four gladiators, four shield-bearers, six lancers, two detachments of foot soldiers and six horsemen. The gladiators did some mock-fighting, and the horse and foot soldiers made a show of milling around their standards. Carnival was a fat man on a stout horse, Lent a rich old woman on a lean horse. Carnival  won, as usual.(Source: Floriano degli Ubaldini)

Thursday 6 February 2014

MORE WEATHER STORIES from Italy, c. 1500.

  • Rain, 1491. The Duchess of Milan and her sister went on a shopping expedition, on foot and in the rain, with rough cloths on their heads to keep them dry. As it is not the fashion to walk about like this here, some women began to laugh and made rude remarks. The Duchess got angry and showered abuse on them in turn, so that they almost came to blows. They returned home all muddy and bedraggled. (From a letter of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan).
  • Snow, 1493. The snow in Florence was so deep that people could hardly get out of their front doors. Some cleared their roofs for fear they might collapse under the great weight of the snow.  People had never experienced such cold before. If a bowl of water was emptied out the window, the water turned to ice as soon as it hit the ground. When the snow started melting, icicles formed under the eaves, two or three feet long. They could have killed a person if they had fallen on their head. You could not go from home to work without falling once of twice. (From the Memoirs of Bartolomeo Masi).
  • Snow, 1510. A great deal of snow fell on 13 January. In any other city the kids would have made snowmen, but Florence has higher cultural standards. Master sculptors created large snow lions and nude figures. On 23 Jan the snow melted, and all the roads turned to rivers. For 2 days I couldn’t cross the street. (From Luca Landucci’s diary).  

Sunday 2 February 2014

MIRACLE MAN: Saint Francisco Borgia, canonized 1671.

Not all Borgias were intriguers and priapic gadabouts, as the TV series would have you believe. Some of them were saints. No, really.
Here are some miracles Francisco Borgia worked:
  • A lady had two pieces of wood, one of them from Christ's cross, but she wasn’t sure which. Francisco broke them both. One of them started bleeding. Clearly the genuine article. -- Not miraculous enough for you? Okay:
  • A man had two of his teeth knocked out. Francisco replanted them in his gums. And neither decay nor old age had any power to loosen them.
  • A monastery Francisco visited ran out of food. He told the monks to ring the supper bell. There came to the door an old man of majestic appearance with a young man of striking beauty, who brought baskets of meat, bread, fish, eggs and wine, and a purse of money. The two were St. Andrew and an angel, in case you are wondering. Still not convinced of Francisco's sainthood?
  • Occasionally people saw a halo of light surmounting Francisco’s head. And he was seen floating above the ground.
  • Also: The Duchess of Uzeda was in labour and unable to deliver her baby. She called on the saint, who laid a relic on her breast, and she delivered a girl without the slightest pain.
I could list more miracles, but I can tell from your sniggering that you are a bunch of skeptics and infidels!
(Source: A. M. Clarke, The Life of St. Francis Borgia)