Monday, September 25, 2023

The Start of the Italian Renaissance

Because there are no "hard and fast" dates for cultural eras (although I nominate 1453CE for one), the Italian Renaissance painting is carefully divided up into four phases: the Proto-Renaissance (1300–1425), the Early Renaissance (1425–1495), the High Renaissance (1495–1520), and Mannerism (1520–1600, which we in this blog can safely ignore). Cimabue (c.1240 - 1302) is often called the first great artist of the Proto-Renaissance period in Italian art. Why "photo"? If it's new and part of the rebirth, why can't we just say he is the first of the Italian (prefix-free) Renaissance?

Part of the problem is that the Renaissance does not begin everywhere all at once. These phases represent trends in art and are tied to specific artists who tried something "new" and whose work influenced the style of others. The Proto-Renaissance in Italian art was dominated by two figures: Cimabue and Duccio of Siena (his Madonna and Child, now in the London National Gallery, is shown above). Along with two contemporaries, Guido of Siena and Coppo di Marcovaldo, they seem to have been influenced by the unknown the so-called Master of St Bernardino. They specialized in stylized religious paintings in which the angle of the head and position of the hands, for instance, were determined by traditional icon paintings in the Byzantine style.

Proto-Renaissance painting was dominated by religious art. During this Proto period the Black Death inspired a change in theme to the need to approach death in a state of penitence; images of death and the torments of Hell began to dominate church art. More than one painting is named "Triumph of Death" from this era.

Much of this was happening in Siena, ruled by a republic since 1125. I'd like to talk about its history next time.

Sunday, September 24, 2023


Cimabue (c.1240 - 1302) was an Italian painter and a designer of mosaics. In case you have not yet heard of this man, his name is pronounced (forgive the amateur phonics) chim-uh-boo-ee. His real name was Cenni di Pepo. The nickname is thought to mean "bull-headed" (see the third paragraph for a possible explanation).

Born in Florence, he probably studied originally under Byzantine-style artists, but he "rose above it." His painting style is credited with defying the usual flat medieval style and developing more realistic proportions with lifelike shading. Giorgio Vasari centuries later told the tale that it was Cimabue who came across a young Giotto sketching sheep and, so amazed at his realistic drawing, invited him (with Giotto's father's permission) to come to Cimabue's studio.

Vasari, supposedly quoting a contemporary of Cimabue, says "Cimabue of Florence was a painter who lived during the author's own time, a nobler man than anyone knew but he was as a result so haughty and proud that if someone pointed out to him any mistake or defect in his work, or if he had noted any himself... he would immediately destroy the work, no matter how precious it might be."

In a case of the student exceeding the master, Dante mentions (not places, although Cimabue was dead by the time Dante was writing the Commedia) Cimabue in the Purgatorio as an example of fleeting fame while discussing those who suffer from excessive pride: “Cimabue thought himself the master of painters; Giotto took from him the glory and relegated him to oblivion.”

To be fair, however, Cimabue was not relegated to oblivion. We are aware of several works by Cimabue (more than those of which we can be certain were made by Giotto). For instance, the illustration above is a small detail (Judas betraying Christ) from a fresco in the Church of San Francesco (St. Francis) in Assisi, commissioned by Pope Nicholas IV (the first Franciscan who became pope).

Cimabue is also credited with the round stained glass window of the choir of Siena Cathedral, as well as a painted Madonna and Child (now in the Louvre), and the fresco Christ Enthroned between the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist in Pisa Cathedral.

One interpretation of Cimabue's impact on art is to call him the first great artist of the Italian Porto-Renaissance. I suppose Proto-Renaissance could use some explanation, which I'll provide tomorrow.

Saturday, September 23, 2023


Giotto (c.1267 - 8 January 1337) is one of the best-known painters and architects of the Italian Renaissance, and yet we know very little for certain about his life or work. An 1850 plaque exists in a tower house in a village north of Florence declaring it was his birthplace, but recent documentary evidence shows that he was born in a farmhouse in Florence. His father was a blacksmith named Bondone.

As a boy he was discovered by the famous artist, Cimabue, who saw him sitting on a rock drawing such lifelike pictures of sheep that Cimabue offered to take him on as an apprentice. "Lifelike" was the hallmark of his art. His contemporary Giovanni Villani called him "the most sovereign master of painting in his time, who drew all his figures and their postures according to nature."

Many of the stories about Giotto's life and work come from much later, in the Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects by Giorgio Vasari (1511 - 1574). Vasari mentions that Giotto painted a fly on a face in a painting of Cimabue's so lifelike that Cimabue kept trying to brush it off. Another anecdote by Vasari tells that Pope Benedict XI sent a messenger to Giotto, asking for a sample of his artwork to determine if he was good enough to commission. Giotto sent a red circle by hand that was so precise it looked as if it had been drawn with a compass. The messenger reported to the pope that Giotto had not moved his arm when he drew it.

Vasari attributed many works to Giotto, but there are only a few with provenance that tie them directly to him. One is the decoration of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, completed around 1305. Its frescoes of the life of the Virgin and the life of Christ is regarded as one of the supreme masterpieces of the Early Renaissance. He was also chosen by the commune of Florence in 1334 to design the new campanile (bell tower) of the Florence Cathedral.

While we are on the subject of Italian Renaissance artists, we should not neglect Cimabue. We'll look at him tomorrow.

Friday, September 22, 2023

Medieval Mosaics

Mosaic art—arranging pieces of stone, glass (called tesserae), or other material to make shapes and pictures—has existed since the 3rd millennium BCE, when pebbles were used to make floors with designs. They became widespread in ancient Greece and Rome, not just as public art but for domestic use: every household would be enhanced by mosaics on the floors (not usually on the walls, where fresco was used for decoration).

The earliest mosaics, found in a temple in Mesopotamia, were roughly cube-shaped bits of stone, along with pieces of shell and ivory. Around 1500 BCE we start to see evidence of glazed tiles being used. Rome and Greece elevated mosaic use to a high art (although most named mosaic artists in the Roman Empire have Greek names).

The Middle Ages chose brightly colored glass and gold leaf to make mosaics. When Ravenna became the capital of the Western Roman Empire, it became the site of several magnificent buildings with equally impressive mosaics. When the Lombards were problematic, Pope Adrian I turned to Charlemagne for aid. For Charlemagne's reward, he was allowed to take away from Ravenna anything he wanted. What he wanted was Roman art and architecture, so a number of Roman columns, statues, and mosaics traveled north to become a part of his complex at Aachen.

Taking and re-using older architecture and artwork was actually a recognized practice, and the elements were called spolia, from the Latin for "spoils." An example of spolia in Aachen is the porphyry columns in the Palatine Chapel which likely came from Ravenna. Charlemagne must have liked what he saw in Ravenna, because his Palatine Chapel's design is very similar to the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. The Palatine's ceiling and walls are covered in mosaic that is clearly Byzantine in style (see the illustration).

As the 13th century approached, mosaicists were also painters. One of the best known now (in the Modern Age) was Giotto, whom we'll talk about next time.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Ravenna, the Capital Cities

Ravenna in northern Italy has been occupied since at least the 5th century BCE, when a tribe called the Umbri lived in dwellings built on poles over the swampy area. Pliny the Elder said they were considered by some to be the oldest people in Italy, and that their name came from the Greek word for thunderstorm, because they survived the great deluge spoken of in Greek mythology.

They came under Roman control in 89 BCE under Octavian, who built a harbor there on the Adriatic shore. In 408CE, the Emperor Honorius moved his court there from Rome, making it his capital. When Odoacer overthrew Romulus Augustus and the Western Roman Empire collapsed, Odoacer made Ravenna his capital. Then Theodoric attacked Ravenna in 489 and made it the capital of the Ostrogothic kingdom. This lasted until 540, when Belisarius captured Ravenna for the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, who made it the capital of Byzantine Italy.

Difficulty managing that part of Italy (and attempting to conquer more) from Constantinople caused the Byzantine emperors to rely more on the authority and aid of the pope, who was becoming a powerful landowner due to gifts, but when the Lombards descended into Italy the pope turned to a more local solution: Charlemagne. As a result of Charlemagne's aid, Ravenna became part of the Papal States. It remained part of the Papal States for centuries, until it was incorporated into a unified Italy in the mid-19th century.

During this constant "changing of hands" Ravenna did not lose some of its amazing early architecture. The UNESCO World Heritage Sites List has eight sites in Ravenna, all built between 430 and 549 CE, as well as several other historical sites.

Dante Alighieri retired to Ravenna after being rejected by his home town of Florence for his past actions. There is an annual music festival with operas performed at a theater named for him. Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde, Herman Hesse, and T.S.Eliot all visited Ravenna and wrote poems about it, and Tolkien fans will be interested to know it may have been the "inspiration behind Minas Tirith."

Ravenna did not earn itself an epithet like "The Eternal City" or the "City of Light," but it is sometimes called the "capital of mosaics." I'll be happy to explain that tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Paolo and Francesca

In the 2nd circle of Hell in Dante's Inferno, Dante and Virgil see two lovers, Paolo and Francesca, condemned for lust (see the illustration by Dante Gabriel Rossetti). Just as they allowed themselves to be swept away by their passions, they are buffeted by heavy winds. Francesca tells her story, while a silent Paolo weeps in the background.

She was seized with a powerful passion while reading the story of Galehaut (mentioned in yesterday's post). the theme of such a strong love "overpowered" the two. Unfortunately, she was married to Paolo's brother, who killed the two for their affair.

The two were historical figures: Francesca da Polenta, married to Giovanni Malatesta, and Giovanni's brother Paolo Malatesta (who was also married). The marriage was not one of love. Francesca's father was at odds with Giovanni's father, who was lord of Rimini. The marriage was designed to make peace between two noble and powerful families. Some time in the early 1280s, Giovanni found the two in Francesca's bedroom, and killed them.

In Dante's telling, Francesca blames the overwhelming power of Love for her actions and misfortune, accepting no blame on the part of the two lovers. Despite this, she becomes for Dante an example of the love poetry he himself wrote about earlier in his career. She tells her story without interruption, and becomes a symbol of a strong woman condemned by circumstance outside her control, because of the power of the story of Galehaut. Dante draws a parallel between the great love tale from literature and the real love tale before him.

So now we come to the point of what we started yesterday: why did Boccaccio subtitle his Decameron with Prencipe Galehaut? Boccaccio uses Galehaut—especially through the lens of his hero Dante's use of Galehaut as inspiration for Francesca's and Paolo's actions—as a symbol of his regard and compassion for women who have never been allowed the freedom of men to do as they wished. It is his acknowledgement that women should be given agency: as the women in the Decameron not only share equal social standing with the men in their ten-day community, but also in the stories told of women who manage by their wits or gain the outcomes they want.

If they were historical figures, was their affair so well-known that Dante would know the details? As it happens, remember that I told you here that he spent his final years in Ravenna? His host was Guido Novello, also known as Guido Il da Polenta, lord of Ravenna from 1316 to 1321, and the nephew of Francesca da Polenta!

Ravenna must be a little interesting, since Dante chose it for his retirement. Let's learn the delights of Ravenna next time.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

The Titles of the Decameron

Giovanni Boccaccio played around with titles, and not only for his own works. Dante Alighieri's magnum opus was called by the author Commedia, "Comedy," but in later years it began being referred to as the "Divine Comedy" by Boccaccio, and the name stuck. Boccaccio had a good reason for tacking that adjective onto Dante's work, and not just because of the obvious reason.

When Boccaccio wrote his Decameron (c.1353), he apparently thought of it as a parallel or complement to Dante's work, because Boccaccio sometimes called his tale of ten young people telling ten stories per day for ten days  l'Umana commedia ("the Human comedy").

Besides that, Boccaccio also had a subtitle for the Decameron that is often overlooked, and the explanation for it has a couple of layers. His subtitle (seen above in an early Italian edition) was Prencipe Galeotto, or "Prince Galehaut." Who was that, and why was it important to Boccaccio? What message did it convey to his audience?

Galehaut was well-known to the medieval literary crowd as a prince from the Arthurian legends, specifically from the French Lancelot cycle. Galehaut was a half-giant who brings a massive army to challenge King Arthur's rule over Logres. Galehaut's forces are superior, but he is so enamored of the prowess of a Black Knight fighting for Arthur's side that he stops the battle solely for the opportunity to meet this knight and spend time with him. TheBlack Knight turns out to be a young Lancelot, and thus begins a deep friendship between the two, interpreted by some as a strong chivalric bond and by some as a homosexual bond.

Enter Guinevere. Galehaut realizes Lancelot's love for Guinevere, and steps back from Lancelot to avoid being "in the way." Later, when Guinevere is accused oof infidelity to Arthur and flees, Lancelot and she find refuge in Galehaut's castle. Galehaut dies at the age of 39 from his unrequited longing for the man he gave up. He is laid in a magnificent tomb that he had built to commemorate their friendship. Lancelot at his death is also laid in that tomb, side by side with Galehaut.*

Galehaut becomes a symbol of greatness, abandoning one's own desires for the sake of another's. How does this apply to the Decameron

For that, we need to turn to Dante again, and visit the second circle of Hell where we meet two lovers, Paolo and Francesca. Come back tomorrow, and we will start to put it all together.

*Malory changes this story, using the name Galahad.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Boccaccio's Decameron

Giovanni Boccaccio's best known work to modern readers is his Decameron, a Greek word that means "Ten Days." In it, seven young men and three young women go into the hills above Florence to spend ten days in a villa to escape the Black Death, currently ravaging the cities and countryside.

One theory of the Black Death was that it resulted from bad air rising from swamps and cesspools, and going up into the fresh air outside the city was one way to escape it. Of course, whether the disease were being transmitted by fleas jumping from mammal to mammal or being spread by contact with those who were ill, getting away from crowded populations into fresh air would be an obvious smart choice.

The ten young people decide to pass the time by each telling a tale each day, resulting over the ten days in a collection of 100 tales. Each of the ten takes a turn being the king or the queen for a day, and gets to choose the day's theme. The themes include comedy, tragedy, romance, etc., but go beyond those simple topics.

One day is for stories of virtue, one is romances that end happily, while one is for romances that end in tragedy. There are tales of luck, tales about women who play tricks on men, and tales where the main character is in trouble but saves himself or herself by quick thinking at the climax.

The whole is not just a sequence of tales. Boccaccio gives us a description of other ways that the ten occupy their time, including songs that they sing to entertain each other. These songs, the daily activities, and the tales themselves with some of their recurring concepts of mocking the clergy, nouveau riche vs. old noble families, and the similarity between men and women's lust and ambition, paint a picture of 14th century Italian life in prose that is a useful introduction to the feelings of the time and place.

Boccaccio likely made up none of the tales, but that does not mean there is no original material. The medieval approach was to take a known tale and develop it in new ways. Most of the tales in the Decameron can be found in other forms in earlier sources...and later, since his tales were read and used by others, such as Geoffrey Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales.

Despite the name Decameron, Boccaccio also referred to the work by two other names, which are interesting anecdotes in their own way. I'll share those tomorrow.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Giovanni Boccaccio

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313 - 1375) was eight years old when Dante died, but he revered the man and wrote a biography about him. He even gave a series of lectures in Florence on Dante's works—a first for a non-Classical Era writer. He was more than just a fan of another, however, becoming a treasured poet in hid own right.

Like Dante, Bocaccio wrote in Tuscan vernacular rather than Latin, and he wrote in prose, telling stories that captured the imagination and inspired others, including Geoffrey Chaucer.

Boccaccio grew up in Florence. His father worked for the banking/trading company of the Bardi; Giovanni worked there for a brief time, deciding that it was not a profession to his liking. His father came head of a branch in Naples, taking the family there, and Giovanni persuaded his father to let him study law at what is now the University of Naples (where Thomas Aquinas had been 100 years earlier). Six years of studying canon law taught him that he liked that profession no more than he liked banking.

Two good things came from his time in Naples. One was his love for Fiametta. That was not her name; simply what he called her in his writings. If she existed, she was really Maria d'Aquino, illegitimate daughter of King Robert the Wise of Naples, whom he saw and with whom he fell in love. He wrote a novel about her, and mentions her in many other writings.

The other good thing from his time in Naples was that he began writing. He produced works such as Il Filostrato, about star-crossed lovers during the Trojan War (which became a source for Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida), and Teseida, nominally about Theseus but dominated by the rivalry of two young knights over a woman (and the source of Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale" in The Canterbury Tales).

He also wrote the first Italian prose novel, Il Filocolo, the story (well-known in Europe) of Florio and Biancifiore, two lovers from different stations in life. Fiametta appears as the "queen" of a "noble brigade" who pose questions to each other about love.

Perhaps his best-known work is the Decameron ("Ten Days"), in which a group of young men and women flee who flee Florence during the Black Death to the hills outside, where they spend ten days telling stories. More on that tomorrow.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Dante's Comedy

During his lifetime, Dante Alighieri was embroiled in Florentine politics, but along the way he found time—well, he was in exile and had leisure time he would not have had if he had remained a politician in Florence— to write a masterpiece of medieval poetry. He called it the Commedia, and it has three parts:  Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.

The work is made of 100 canti, a one-canto introduction and three sections each with 33 cantos, representing (I assume) the 33 years of the life of Christ. It is written in a three-line scheme called terra rima, and runs ABA BCB CDC DED, with lines of 11 syllables each. Therefore, each three-line section in each canto is also 33 syllables.

Numbers remain important in the "geography" of the afterlife. Each of the three parts of the afterlife nine levels, plus one "climactic" level. Nine rings in Hell and then Lucifer at the very bottom, nine levels climbing Mount Purgatory with the Harden of Eden at the summit, nine areas of Heaven plus God at the top.

Written in Tuscan Italian, its popularity helped establish that dialect as standard Italian. The poem also offers us a view of the world and afterlife that is representative of its time. The story is framed as a pilgrimage by the narrator, Dante, who is given a tour of the three realms of the afterlife.

There are three tour guides in this pilgrimage. Taking him through Inferno, Hell, and part of Purgatorio, Purgatory, is Virgil. Not only was Virgil a respected Roman Piet whose works were admired by Dante, but also he was considered to be a "Christian prophet" of sorts because one of his writings was interpreted by St. Augustine and others as a predictor of Jesus Christ. He was considered a "virtuous pagan" by the Christian Middle Ages. From the Inferno we get the notion of the several layers of Hell going deeper as the sins get worse.

While in Purgatory, Virgil hands the narrator off the Beatrice, Dante's childhood friend and first and greatest love whom, as an adult, he had not seen in years. She represents divine revelation, and shows him the souls whose failings are not so great that they cannot eventually gain Heaven.

When he reaches Heaven, Paradiso, his guide is none other than St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who represents contemplative mysticism and devotion to the Virgin Mary.

He includes many real historical figures in the Commedia, especially those whom he considered his enemies while they were alive. In Purgatory he sees Mechthild of Magdeburg, Peter Damian, Manfred of SicilyFrederick II, Pope Boniface VIII, Michael Scot, Peire d'Alvernhe, and many others.

Dante merely called his great work Commedia, but an admirer and biographer (and a poet in his own right), Giovanni Boccaccio, added the adjective "Divine," which stuck. Boccaccio, along with Dante and Petrarch, forms the peak of medieval Italian literature, and we'll take a better look at him tomorrow.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Dante in Exile

Pope Boniface VIII had a grievance with Dante Alighieri. Dante at that time was a politician, having been in the very important position of prior of Florence (although for only two months). He was also of the new White Guelph faction that wanted Rome and the papacy to have less influence over the rest of Italy. (Guelphs were originally supportive of papal authority, but the recent Battle of Campaldino resulted in Florence having much more influence over a larger territory, and many Florentines felt they no longer needed the pope's support behind them.)

While Dante was in Rome, Black Guelphs took over Florence, replacing the government with their own people. In March 1302, Dante was accused of corruption and financial wrongdoing while prior. Moreover, although the pope had "kept" him in Rome, the Black Guelphs considered his absence from Florence for so long an admission of guilt and an attempt to flee justice. He was fined and exiled for two years.

He did not pay the fine: not only did he not have access to his assets back in Florence, but also he considered it spurious and he refused to honor it. He was therefore condemned to permanent exile, and threatened with being burned at the stake if he returned to Florence (unless he paid the fine). Dante participated in attempts by White Guelphs to re-take control of Florence, but they all failed. Ultimately, he abandoned ever returning and went to Verona for a time (illustrated above in 1879 by Antonio Cotti). He also spent time in Scarzana, and probably Lucca. Of his wife and family, only one son, Jacopo, accompanied him into exile.

As the guest of others, he had time to write. He wrote an open letter to Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII, urging him to restore the glory of the Roman Empire (and free Florence from the Black Guelphs). He also wrote De Monarchia, proposing a universal monarchy under Henry. Henry did defeat the Black Guelphs in Florence in 1312, but that did not mean Dante would return. There is a suggestion that the White Guelphs were not happy with Dante; urging a foreigner to attack their beloved Florence was inappropriate, to say the least, even if the result was desirable.

In 1315, the person controlling Florence offered general amnesty to exiles, but it required public penance and a fine; Dante objected to both options, earning himself a death sentence. He spent his remaining years in Ravenna, and died there of malaria on 14 September 1321. His grave contains a line by a fellow poet: parvi Florentia mater amoris ("Florence, mother of little love").

His bones remained a point of contention. Florence came to regret their treatment of the poet, and requested that he be interred there in a tomb they built for him, but Ravenna went so far as to hide his remains, and the tomb in Florence remains empty after seven centuries. In 1329, a Cardinal declared Dante's Monarchia heretical, and wanted to dig up his remains and burn them at the stake.

In 2008, Florence officially rescinded the death sentence.

Having come this far with Dante, I suppose it would seem remiss to ignore the work for which he is best known. Comedy for tomorrow it is, then.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Guelphs & Ghibellines & Dante

The Guelphs and the Ghibellines were two Italian political factions in the Middle Ages, offering more and less support for the papacy, respectively. They even went to war over the topic, as depicted in this 1292 fresco.

Dante Alighieri was born into a Guelph family, and at the age of about 24 he fought in the Battle of Campaldino between Florence and her allies against Arezzo. The catalyst for the war is unknown: an account many years later from a Florentine claimed there were "outrages" committed by Arezzo. Retaliation by the Guelphs over these "outrages" caused Arezzo to gather a military force to oppose them.

There was a rumor that the bishop of the see of Arezzo was going to turn the commune over which he had authority (a place called Bibbiena Civitella) and connected villages to Florence for the price of 5000 gold florins annually. Arezzo forced this bishop onto a horse and led him to the battlefield from which, not surprisingly, he did not return.

The wealth of Florence enabled them to have a force that was superior in numbers (about 12,000, of which 10,000 were infantry), armor, and weaponry. The Ghibelline force was smaller but better trained, consisting of feudal lords and their military retinues, rather than paid volunteers as in Florence and her allies.

The Florentines were also hampered by their leader. The various communities from which the troops were drawn could not decide who should lead them, so they agreed on a mercenary, Aimeric IV, Viscount of Narbonne. He had distinguished himself as a fighter, but did not have much experience as a leader. He came to Italy in the service of Charles I of Anjou, but suffered from a serious impediment: he did not speak Tuscan Italian, making the relaying of his orders delayed as they had to be translated, as did the news for him from others of what was happening in different parts of the field.

Ultimately, the Guelphs won with superior numbers, and Florence was able to exert much more influence over more of the Italian peninsula on behalf of the papacy. Without a strong mutual enemy in Ghibellines anymore, however, the Guelphs fractured. The Black Guelphs continued their support for the power and authority of the popes, whereas the White Guelphs wanted more freedom from Rome.

The Battle of Campaldino was fought in June of 1289. Dante, a member of the White Guelphs, went on to hold some political offices, including prior of Florence. In 1301 he was part of a delegation to Rome to determine the intentions of Pope Boniface VIII toward the French ambassador Charles of Valois, the brother of King Philip IV. (Philip and Boniface had clashed over the topic of taxation.)

When the pope dismissed the rest of the delegation, he told Dante he had to stay. This did not turn out well, as I'll explain tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri was an Italian poet and politician, born in Florence to a wealthy landowner. His mother died when he was less than ten years old, and his father died during his teens.

The date of his birth is not recorded, but hints in his writings suggest 1265. At the beginning of the Divine Comedy, the 1st part called Inferno, he says he was "midway on the journey of our life." If we assume the three-score years and ten of the Bible was considered typical, then he started when he was 35 years old. Since the Comedy (that's what he called it; Boccaccio tacked on the adjective later, and it stuck) was written in 1300, that would put his birth year at 1265. He also refers to himself as being born "revolved with the eternal twins," which suggests he was born under the astrological sign of Gemini. That puts his birthday between c.21 May and 20 June.

He was educated at religious schools, where he was introduced to much Italian poetry, and the writings of Cicero, Ovid, and Vergil.

When he was nine years old, he met Beatrice Portinari, the daughter of a banker, and fell in love at first sight. Despite whatever feelings he had for her, he was engaged at 12 to marry Gemma di Manetto Donati, of the powerful Donati family; they were wed probably in their early 20s, and had (we think) four children, of whom one, Jacopo, became a poet as well. Dante never wrote anything about his wife. Boccaccio, whose life overlapped Dante's, says his marriage brought him only trouble and pain.

A typical young Florentine Guelph, he fought for his province against Arezzo Ghibellines in the 1289 Battle of Campaldino. When the grandson of Charles I of Anjou, Charles Martel of Anjou, visited Florence in 1294, Dante was one of his escorts. Because a 1295 law required anyone aspiring to public office to be in one of the corporation of professions, he enrolled in the Apothecaries Guild. (Interestingly, books were sold from apothecary shops, so it seemed an appropriate choice for a poet and lover of poetry.) He held various small offices over the years.

The Guelphs (as opposed to the Ghibellines) were a group that supported the papacy. After the conflict mentioned above, however, the Guelphs split into two factions: White Guelphs (Dante's party) and Black Guelphs. The White Guelphs wanted more freedom from Rome, which became a problem for Dante, as I'll explain next time.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Constance of Sicily

Manfred of Sicily (1232 - 1266), the last King of Sicily from the Hohenstaufen dynasty, had one child with Beatrice of Savoy, their daughter Constance (c.1249 - 1302). (He had several children by a s second wife.)

Constance's governess was Bella d'Amici, an Italian noblewoman. When Constance was 13, she was married to the son of King James I of Aragon, Peter. Bella d'Amici went with her and was her chief lady-in-waiting. When Manfred was killed by Charles of Anjou in the Battle of Benevento, Constance inherited the title Queen of Sicily.

King James died on 27 July 1276, with Peter succeeding him. The coronation of Peter and Constance took place on 17 November of that year, in Saragossa.

Peter and Constance had several children. From 1282-1302 their children fought the War of the Sicilian Vespers, trying to reclaim the throne of Sicily as the heirs of Constance. At that point, the "Kingdom of Sicily" extended far beyond the island, encompassing the southern part of Italy below the Papal States.

Such a large area with its resources and alliances meant that not only Aragon, but Naples, France, and the papacy were involved, all having a stake of some kind. The final result was a division of the Kingdom of Sicily into the Kingdom of Trinacria: the island of Sicily itself, governed by the Aragonese heirs of Queen Constance, and the Kingdom of Naples: the southern half of Italy.

Constance died on 9 April 1302, not quite living to see her heirs rule Sicily, the war having concluded on 31 August of that year. She lived on, however, in the great Italian epic, the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Her father, Manfred, had been excommunicated multiple times because of opposition to the papacy. Can't III of the Purgatorio shows us those who died excommunicate, including Manfred. Manfred tells Dante that he confessed all his horrible sins before he died; this repentance saved him from Hell, but he was still denied Heaven for a time. He tells Dante that there is a chance to achieve Heaven sooner if those on Earth pray for him, and he asks Dante to tell his daughter that her prayers can help.

...which is as good a segue as any to introduce our next topic, Dante Alighieri, who did not write a work called the Divine Comedy. See you tomorrow.

Monday, September 11, 2023

The People on the High Hill

The Hohenstaufens were a dynasty of German kings, many of whom also held the titles Holy Roman Emperor, Duke of Swabia, and (briefly) King of Sicily. From 1138 until 1254, their political power helped maintain stability in a large part of Europe.

The name by which they are usually known—the dynasty is also called Staufen or Staufer or the Swabian dynasty, due to their beginnings in the Duchy of Swabia—comes from German hohen "high"and Staufen, the name of the conical hill in Swabia on which their home castle was built in the 11th century (now in ruins that you can visit; there is a coffee shop near the peak). The family motto was the Latin "Sanguis, Pluma, Saxum"; Sanguis, "blood," referred to family/heritage; Pluma, "quill," meant learning; Saxum invoked the castle and signified strength and protection.

The first person we can ascribe to this family was Frederick, who was made Duke of Swabia in 1079 by Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Frederick built the castle on Staufen. The family tree of the Hohenstaufens is complex, with the male members holding one or more titles. You can find a thorough listing and family tree here. Frederick II was one member mentioned in this blog, as were Conradin and Henry VI.

One of the "recurring themes" of the Hohenstaufen dynasty was The Investiture Controversy, the question of who had ultimate authority, pope or emperor? Holy Roman Emperors were crowned by the pope, but did that mean the pope had authority over the emperor? It would be easy to say that the pope had authority over spiritual matters and the emperor over worldly ones, but when the pope is a landowner and the Holy Roman Emperor rules over the country in which the pope resides, does that mean the emperor (or other local secular lord) can make bold decisions that affect the pope?

The end of the dynasty was relatively swift and brutal. Conradin, mentioned above, was only two years old. His regency had to defend Sicily against an invasion by Charles of Anjou, brother of King Louis IX of France, who had been promised the title King of Sicily by the popes who wanted to diminish the Hohenstaufens' influence. (The papacy had promised it to King Henry III of England, but he gave it up.) King of Sicily at the time was Conradin's uncle Manfred, who was killed in battle. Conradin himself was executed by Charles after a later attempt to retake Sicily, and the last of the direct Hohenstaufen dynasty was ended. (Manfred had a son, Henry, who died in captivity.) Charles of Anjou became Charles I of Sicily, and the papacy got what they wanted...they thought.

Of all the rulers that came from the Hohenstaufen dynasty, there is a queen who not only had a place in history, but was immortalized in literature. I'll tell you about her next time.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Henry the Pious

Henry II the Pious was born in Poland to Henry the Bearded and Hedwig of Andechs. Henry the Bearded had worked hard to unite several different areas, becoming Duke of Poland as well as Duke of Silesia. Through marriage to Hedwig, he was connected to Germany, Hungary, Bohemia, and France. One curiosity about Henry: he was born with six toes on his left foot.

Henry II was one of three brothers and potential heirs. His older brother, Bolesław, died in 1206, and their father decided to leave all his inheritance to young Henry. There was another son, however, the younger Konrad the Curly. Konrad and young Henry quarreled over the choice, which was ultimately resolved when Konrad fell from his horse and died while hunting (no proof of foul play, although contemporary chroniclers would have considered themselves remiss if they hadn't hinted at it). Konrad was buried at an abbey in Trebnitz where a sister, Gertrude, was abbess.

Henry II became Duke of Poland and Duke of Silesia, but holding together the various territories and their local rulers that his father had united was difficult. For instance, an Upper Silesian Duty of Opole-Racibórz was ruled in succession by two minors for whom Henry acted as regent, Mieszko II the Fat and Bolesław V the Chaste, but once they achieved their majority and he had to resign the regency, he had less influence there.

There was an ongoing dispute with the Church that he had inherited from his father. The Archbishop of Gniezno opposed the Bearded's possession of the Duchy of Opole that had been attacked and conquered by the Bearded's uncle. Henry was traditionally allied with the House of Hohenstaufen, but they were in conflict with Pope Gregory IX. Henry decided it was more advantageous to align himself with the pope and abandon the Hohenstaufen connection. This meant the archbishop's hostility to Henry was called off by the pope.

All his efforts to rule were brought to nought by the invasion of the Mongols, ordered by Batu Khan. A Mongol army of 10,000 met Henry's forces at Legnica on 9 April 1241. Henry felt he could not afford to wait for reinforcements, so marched with an army that was no match for the fierce Mongol cavalry. His body was so hacked up that certain identification was required by taking off the boots and noting the number of toes. An illustration of his decapitated head on a pole can be seen in this post.

Members of the Hohenstaufen dynasty have been mentioned in this blog before, but its origin and importance in European history deserves a little more attention, which it will get tomorrow.

Saturday, September 9, 2023

Invading Central Europe

In the same decades that Batu Khan (c. 1207–1255) and another grandson of Genghis Khan, Kadan, were establishing the Golden Horde and consolidating much of Eastern Europe, the desire of the Mongolian Empire to extend its influence over the known world found itself a beachhead from which to launch its efforts.

Spies were sent into Poland, Hungary, and Austria for reconnaissance. Having planned their approach, three separate armies invaded Central Europe, into Hungary, Transylvania, and Poland. The column into Poland defeated Henry II the Pious (the illustration shows the Mongol army with Henry's head on a spear).

The second and third columns crossed the Carpathians and followed the Danube, combining with the Poland column and defeating the Hungarian army on 11 April 1241. They killed half the Hungarian population, then proceeded to German territory. Most of the city of Meissen was burned to the ground. Further advances in Germany were paused when the Great Khan died in 1241 and the chief descendants of Genghis returned to Mongolia to elect his replacement.

The Encyclopædia Britannica describes the conflict thusly:

Employed against the Mongol invaders of Europe, knightly warfare failed even more disastrously for the Poles at the Battle of Legnica and the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohi in 1241. Feudal Europe was saved from sharing the fate of China and the Grand Duchy of Moscow not by its tactical prowess but by the unexpected death of the Mongols' supreme ruler, Ögedei, and the subsequent eastward retreat of his armies. [EB, (2003) p.663]

Central Europe was not completely helpless. Observations of Mongol tactics meant that Hungary, for instance, improved its heavy cavalry and increased fortifications of settlements against siege weapons. Many smaller hostilities between Central and Western Europe entities were put on hold in the face of the common threat.

Bela IV of Hungary sent messages to the Pope asking for a Crusade against the Mongols. Pope Gregory IX would rather have attention on the Holy Land, although he did eventually agree that the Mongol threat was important. A small Crusade was gathered in mid-1241, but Gregory died in August, and the forces were instead aimed at the Hohenstaufen dynasty.

Mongol attempts to conquer Central Europe continued right up until 1340 with an attack on Brandenburg and Prussia. Fortunately, internal strife in the Golden Horde made Mongol attacks less effective. Lithuania fought back, achieving victory in places including the Principality of Kiev. The Duchy of Moscow also reclaimed many Rus lands. In 1345, Hungary initiated a counter-invasion that captured what would become Moldavia.

I want to go back and talk about the one named casualty in this post: poor Henry II, called "The Pious." We'll look into his reign tomorrow.

Friday, September 8, 2023

The Golden Horde

The name "Golden Horde" for the northwestern section of the Mongolian Empire is the English translation of a borrowed phrase from Russian, Zolotáya Ordá (literally "Golden Horde). Ordá also means "camp" or "headquarters." The Modern English "horde" referring to a large and threatening group comes from the reputation of the Mongolian armies advancing against their enemies. Legend says that the tents of the Mongols were golden-hued, hence the adjective.

Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, was the founder. A Franciscan named William Rubruck, who traveled all over the Middle and Far East, said he was: 

kind enough to his own people, but he is greatly feared by them. He is, however, most cruel in fight; he is very shrewd and extremely crafty in warfare, for he has been waging war for a long time.

Batu was given the charge to conquer lands to the west by Genghis' son Ögedei 1186 - 1241); Batu's efforts gained what became his headquarters, the Horde.

The Horde was the outskirts of the Empire, and as such very little exists of any written Mongol history or literature from it. The conquered locals were largely Cubans, and important decrees were probably translated from Mongol to Cuban to be distributed to the inhabitants. In the mid-13002 Arabic-Mongol and Persian-Mongol dictionaries began appearing, suggesting their necessity in translating Mongol documents.

Because "Horde" meant "headquarters" or "palace" or "camp," there were other Hordes. Russian chronicles referred to the eastern part of Batu's area as the "White Horde," and the western part became known as the "Blue Horde." Over the years, rule of the Horde changed hands many times up until 1419, when it became split up between different forces.

Still, it was the closest part of the Mongol Empire to Europe, and since the goal of the Khans was to control the entire world, Europe was a target. The Mongolian Invasion of Central Europe will be the next topic.

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Mongolian Civil War

The death of Möngke Khan in 1259 led to the Toluid Civil War, a fight between two of the remaining sons of Toluid over who would succeed Möngke. The youngest, Ariq Böke, eventually lost out to Kublai, who then became the Great Khan. The remaining son, Hulagu, returned to his campaign in 1262 to extend the empire westward.

A few years earlier he had led the Sack of Baghdad; the Islamic Empire was no longer strong enough to retaliate against the size of Hulagu's army. The almost total destruction of Baghdad, however, was to have an unforeseen consequence.

The consequence came from the Golden Horde, a group of settled Mongols who ruled over Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and the Caucasus, established by Batu Khan. Batu Khan was another of Genghis Khan's 43 grandchildren. Batu had died in 1255, and his brother Berke was now in charge of a large territory with a large population. Berke was no lesser figure: not only had he succeeded Batu (there was one ruler between them briefly), but he had been sent by Batu to ensure Möngke's succession as Great Khan, managing the ruling council and ensuring that everything to enthrone Möngke happened properly.

In and of itself this would not seem to be a problem, but Berke had converted to Islam in 1252. The destruction of Baghdad and the knowledge and treasures of the House of Wisdom enraged him, and he vowed revenge, saying "He (Hulagu) has sacked all the cities of the Muslims, and has brought about the death of the Caliph. With the help of God I will call him to account for so much innocent blood." He allied himself with the Mamluks, who were to be Hulagu's next target.

Berke began a series of raids on Hulagu's territories. Hulagu retaliated into the Golden Horde's territory. This was the first serious war between major Mongol areas. Berke showed some reluctance and lamented "Mongols are killed by Mongol swords. If we were united, then we would have conquered all of the world." He could not give in, however: he felt the threat to the Golden Horde was sufficient that he had to declare Islamic jihad against a Mongol leader who was his cousin.

On another front, Hulagu's forces lost an important battle against the Mamluks after the alliance with Frankish forces fell out. He lost control of Palestine and Syria.

Hulagu died 8 February 1264. He was succeeded by his son, Abaqa Khan, who spent the next almost 20 years dealing with civil war with relations because of his father's treatment of Baghdad. Kublai managed to hold the Empire together, mostly, but in the 1290s the competing khanates meant there was no longer total unity, with every part of the empire accepting the authority of the Great Khan.

So what exactly was the Golden Horde, and did it ever change color? It did, and I'll explain more tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Hulagu Khan

Hulagu Khan was a grandson of Genghis Khan (Genghis had 43 grandchildren—known ones, that is, because he slept with a lot of women in his lifetime, and his descendants are too numerous to estimate). He was born about 1217CE to Tolui and Sorghaghtani Beki; the only item known about his childhood is an anecdote that he met his grandfather Genghis once when Hulagu was seven years old.

When Sorghaghtani died, his father married Dokuz Khatun, an Assyrian Christian and granddaughter of Ghengis Khan's blood-brother Toghrul. When Tolui died, Dokuz was given to Hulagu to marry. Her Christian background would be important later.

When Hulagu's brother Möngke became the Great Khan in 1251, Hulagu was given the charge of making sure southwest Asia was either firmly in Mongol control or destroyed. He was told to be kind to those who submitted and ruthless to those who did not. As it turned out, he was just the person for the job.

The massive army he marched out with had been assembled slowly over two years, conscripting 10-20% of the empire's fighting men. He had series of successful engagements: Transoxiana,* the Lurs of southern Iran, the Ismailis (Assassins) of Alamut, and the destruction of Baghdad. Because the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad refused to submit, the vengeance of Hulagu's army was overwhelming; however, Dokuz (who accompanied her husband on his campaigns) pleaded successfully to spare the Christian population.

Hulagu then conquered the Ayubbid dynasty in Muslim Syria, killing their last king. The remaining center of Islamic power was in the Mamluk capital of Cairo. Hulagu sent word to Cairo to submit or be destroyed like Baghdad. Rather than proceed to Cairo, however, Hulagu needed to consider the army. Syria did not have the resources to feed his enormous army, so he withdrew to Azerbaijan, leaving a force of 10,000.

He personally left for Mongolia: his brother, Möngke, had died, and there was a dispute over who should take over the empire. The fight was between the youngest brother, Ariq Böke (10 years younger than Hulagu), and a brother two years older than Hulagu named Kublai.

With the succession settled and Kublai in charge, Hulagu returned to his so-far-successful westward campaign. Here's where it gets tricky: tomorrow I hope to explain how, in this next stage, the destruction of the Islamic capital of Baghdad set in motion Hulagu's defeat, and a big problem for the Mongolian Empire.

*Lower Central Asia, what is now eastern Uzbekistan, western Tajikistan, southern Kazakhstan, southern Kyrgyzstan, and parts of Turkmenistan.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

The Destruction of Baghdad, Part 2

Part 1 is here.

Hulagu Khan did not execute the Abbasid leader, Caliph al-Musta'sim, immediately; he wanted him punished for his foolish defiance. He was captured and made to witness the slaughter of his citizens, the destruction of his city, and the plunder of his treasury.

Even then, a simple execution was denied him. al-Musta'sim was pulled up in a rug and laid on the ground for the Mongols to ride their horses over him repeatedly until his death was certain. This was considered an act of "caution" on the part of the Mongols, since they believed spilling royal blood on the ground would be offensive to the earth. (A colorful 15th century legend, pictured here, is that al-Musta'sim was imprisoned with his treasures and allowed to starve to death.)

Wassail, Persian historian who was born seven years after this event, but no doubt had access to eyewitness accounts, wrote:

They swept through the city like hungry falcons attacking a flight of doves, or like raging wolves attacking sheep, with loose reins and shameless faces, murdering and spreading terror...beds and cushions made of gold and encrusted with jewels were cut to pieces with knives and torn to shreds. Those hiding behind the veils of the great Harem were dragged...through the streets and alleys, each of them becoming a the population died at the hands of the invaders.

Not every inhabitant of Baghdad was slaughtered, and some had an advocate among the Mongols. Hulagu had an Assyrian Christian wife, Dokuz Khatun, who begged him to spare as many Christians in the city as possible. He honored her request, and offered the royal palace to a Nestorian Christian Patriarch Mar Makikha, to be made into a cathedral.

Baghdad itself, however, took awhile to recover. Hulagu left 3000 soldiers behind to rebuild the city, but irrigation canals that had been damaged were not repaired. Agrarianism suffered, and it was many years before Baghdad once again became a great city under the Ilkhanate.

The destruction of the House of Wisdom and its contents has been disputed in recent years: there is a belief that some members of the Mongol army had more respect for learning and would have preserved the volumes for installation in other libraries. Hulagu had brought with him to Baghdad a scholar, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, who had been in the fortress of Alamut (and some believe was the Mahdi's servant who betrayed him). There are stories at the time that al-Tusi would have saved much of the library.

Such an outcome might have looked good for Hulagu's future career. In fact, while on his campaign westward, his brother Möngke Khan died at the age of 50, and Hulagu, eight years younger, might have looked like a suitable successor.

But that was not to be, and I'll tell you more tomorrow.

Monday, September 4, 2023

The Destruction of Baghdad, Part 1

The Sack of Baghdad has been described as the single bloodiest event in the history of war.

At the time, Baghdad was perhaps the greatest city in the world, in terms of population size, wealth, trade, and importance as a center for learning, thanks to the House of Wisdom. Its destruction was equivalent to the destruction of a London or New York City in modern times.

Hulagu Khan's army had begun a siege on 29 January, 1258. It would have been unnecessary, if the Caliph al-Musta'sim had agreed to pay tribute to the Mongols. For whatever reason, he chose to defy the invaders. al-Musta'sim could have called for reinforcements, but did not. He had, unfortunately, alienated the Mamluks, one of the few groups that would, a little after this event, actually stop the progress of the Mongols (which it happens I wrote about exactly nine years ago today).

Hulagu's siege engines and catapults subjected Baghdad's walls and inhabitants to an endless barrage that did not pause at nightfall. In a week's time they controlled a section of the wall, at which point Musta'sim tried to negotiate. His attempt was rejected. Several important men of the city tried to approach Hulagu themselves with offers of truce; they were all murdered. On 10 February, the city surrendered, hoping to avoid complete destruction.

Their hopes proved futile. The Mongols entered the city on the 13th and began the slaughter. Citizens trying to flee the city were cut down; women and children were not spared. Although descriptions of the destruction were no doubt exaggerated over time—especially to underscore the barbarous nature of the Mongols—it was horrific. The books from the House of Wisdom were thrown into the Tigris, as well as those of three dozen other public libraries. The philosophers and scientists who maintained the House were murdered, and the Tigris was said to run red with their blood. Every building and mosque was destroyed.

A few years later, in 1262, the Mongols boasted to Louis IX of France that they killed 2,000,000 that day. That number was probably twice the total population of Baghdad, but it is very likely that several tens of thousands were killed in the course of a few days. Hulagu had to move his camp upwind of the city because of the stench of corpses over the next several days.

I'll tell you more of the story, the fate of al-Musta'sim, and the aftermath, next time.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

The Siege of Baghdad

The House of Wisdom was a marvelous repository of knowledge from all over the world. It also functioned as an informal university long before those institutions sprang up in Western Europe. It was founded and flourish in what is called the Islamic Golden Age. All that ended in 1258, however, with the sack of Baghdad by Mongols. The sack was preceded by a 13-day siege, and that's where we should start.

The Mongol forces were expanding and marching westward, destroying any resistance. The Siege of Baghdad was brought by Hulagu Khan, another grandson of Genghis Khan and brother of Möngke. Baghdad might have been spared: Möngke told his brother to forego overthrowing the Abbasid Caliphate if they were willing to pay tribute. 

The current caliph, al-Musta'sim, was not so inclined. The Abbasid Caliphate was not as strong as it had been previously: despite the jewel that was Baghdad; the Abbasids no longer possessed what was once a far-reaching empire. al-Musta'sim had not prepared militarily but believed Baghdad was strong enough to survive an attack. (He is still criticized for not acquiescing to Hulagu's demands and saving his city and people.)

Hulagu had just marched through what is now Iran, facing and overcoming such widespread opposition that Iran's agrarian potential was devastated for a generation. The mountain stronghold Alamut had recently fallen to him, and he had vanquished the breakaway Nizari-Ismaili sect called the Order of Assassins. His successes were credited with planning as well as numbers. This military push had been a couple years in the making, conscripting 10% of the Mongol population. It also included Christian warriors from Armenia, Frankish Crusaders from Antioch, and (perhaps most important for the current campaign) 1000 Chinese artillery specialists.

The siege began 29 January 1258. Hulagu had sent two columns of soldiers, one on each side of the Tigris, surrounding Baghdad. They brought up their siege engines (pictured above in a 14th century painting). al-Musta'sim sent a hastily gathered and poorly prepared force of 20,000 to leave the city and attack, but they were no match for the Mongol forces, who quickly breached dikes on the Tigris, flooding the area behind the Abbasid forces, trapping them.

And then things got worse. Join me tomorrow for what was probably the single bloodiest loss of life in the entire history of human warfare.

Saturday, September 2, 2023

The House of Wisdom

Established during the Golden Age of Islam in the newly founded capital of Baghdad, the Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) had a simple goal: to become the premier center for learning and culture in the Islamic world. It was a library that had rooms for reading, classrooms for lecturing, departments that handled translations, binding, cartography, et cetera. It may have been founded by Caliph al-Mansur, but it just as likely it was created by his son, Harun al-Rashid.

Because Baghdad was the capital, there was a constant flow of scholars seeking and bringing knowledge, and traders bringing in books from all over. Some of the greatest scholars and philosophers in the Islamic world came from Baghdad, including al-Kindi.

Under al-Rashid, the House of Wisdom began a translation movement, gathering manuscripts in Chinese, Greek, Persian, Sanskrit, and Syriac to turn them into Arabic. Astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy were important, but so was poetry. Under his son, al-Ma'Mun, the House of Wisdom expanded due to increased financial support, and translators not only made a good living but were considered to be of high social status. al-Ma'Mun was said to appreciate science more than the spoils of war. There is a story that al-Ma'Mun had a dream in which he and Aristotle discussed what is good. The caliph would regularly visit the House and engage in philosophical debates.

Not just a center for learning, the House also trained architects, engineers, medics, and civil servants. al-Ma'Mun organized scholars to map the world, to accurately determine the size of the world, and he was personally involved in excavations of the pyramids at Giza. He built the first astronomical observatories in Baghdad and funded major research projects. Al-Ma'Mun was the first ruler to fund what is sometimes called "big science."

Long before there were formal universities, the House of Wisdom was a place where all learning was encouraged and taught. Tomorrow, sadly, we will see how it was all destroyed.

Friday, September 1, 2023

Harun al-Rashid

Harun al-Rashid (c.763 - 24 March 809) was the fifth ruler of the Abbasid Caliphate, his reign considered the start of Islam's Golden Age. He is mentioned in many of the tales from the 1001 Nights, which attests to his historical impact.

His full name was Abu Ja'far Harun ibn Muhammad al-Mahdi, but was usually shortened. The "al-Rashid" epithet means "the just" or "the upright." As a very young man, he was nominally in charge of several expeditions against the Byzantine Empire (older generals probably made the decisions), but was given credit, and named governor of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia. He left the day-to-day administration of these to his tutor, Ja'far ibn Yahya.

His father, al-Mahdi, died in 785, and his older brother al-Hadi died of unknown causes in 786, making Harun a young caliph. He made Ja'far ibn Yahya his vizier. Ja'far was of the powerful Iranian Barmakid family, and brought in many Barmakids to administer the kingdom.

Harun was a great supporter of art and culture. His father had founded Baghdad, and Harun probably founded the extensive library called the House of Wisdom. He also was more tolerant of previous dissenters, releasing from captivity many of the Umayyads imprisoned by his brother when the Abbasids took over.

He also fostered relations with the west. An embassy from the court of Charlemagne came in 799 to Baghdad to open friendly relations. Harun sent gifts to Charlemagne, including a clock that had different animated figurines and chimes at the hours, which Charlemagne thought magical. He also sent an elephant.

Like Charlemagne (and Arthur), Harun's reputation took on a legendary status and he entered into the literature and culture as a figure in many stories. He appears in a score of tales from the 1001 Nights, including The Three Apples and the Tale of Núr al-Dín Alí and His Son Badr.

Harun did make a few strategic errors. He allowed local administrators of the countries under him to exercise more autonomy than was usual in exchange for large annual payments to the caliph. This enriched Harun's coffers, allowing him to make great advances in supporting art and culture, but de-centralized the power, making the caliph's position weaker. Also, he divided the kingdom between his two sons, who fought each other once Harun was dead.

While he was alive, though, he accomplished great things for his people, one of which was the aforementioned House of Wisdom. Let's see what that was all about next time.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Tale of Núr al-Dín Alí and His Son Badr, Part 2
This will make more sense if you read Part 1.

Shams has brought his daughter, Sit, and her son, 'Ajib, to Damascus on their quest to find his nephew, Badr, the father of 'Ajib. Badr had been landed there by the genie and efreet, and taken in by a cook who brought him into the restaurant business.

The travelers pass the cooking shop where Nur has taken over after the old cook's death. 'Ajib convinces his tutor, a eunuch, that he wants to eat there. Even though his tutor feels the place is too low class for a vizier's grandson, they eat. Badr feels drawn to 'Ajib, who tells him that they are searching for his father. When they leave, Badr feels compelled to follow them, but 'Ajib feels Badr is being creepy and hits him with a rock.

The travelers continue to Basra, arriving at Nur's abandoned palace, where Nur's widow and Badr's mother still lives. Shams introduces himself and his family, and offers to take the widow with them back to Cairo. Along the way, they stop at Damascus. 'Ajib, remorseful at the way he treated the cook with the rock, goes to the shop with his tutor. Badr is pleased to see him, and cooks him a sweet pomegranate seed dish.*

Later, with the family at dinner, 'Ajib is not hungry, and explains that he went to the bookshop. His grandfather Shams is not pleased that he went to such a lowly place, but 'Ajib exclaims that the food there was much better than what his grandmother (Badr's mother) can cook. They insist that he bring them a dish from the cookshop, and when the tutor brings home a serving of the pomegranate dish, Badr's mother recognizes the style of her son's cooking.

[This story has many variations, especially the ending; here is a blend of several.]

Shams devises a plan to unite father and son. Shams tells Sit to arrange the bedchamber the way it was the night years earlier that she and Badr slept together, and to lay out his clothing. He has his people destroy the shop and arrest Badr for leaving pepper out of the pomegranate dish. Badr objects to the ridiculous charge, so Shams has him beaten and locked in a chest and delivered to Cairo.

The chest is taken into Sit's bedroom, where he is let out by Sit, who tells him he has been in the bathroom too long. Confused by the room and seeing his old clothing, he tells her what he has been up to; she tells him those years were a dream, but he shows the scar on his forehead made by a young boy. Sit confesses the charade. Shams enters and explains it was a test to see if he really was Nur's son Badr. He is reunited with his mother and his son, and all ends well.

This tale is curious in the 1001 Nights because it is a tale within a tale. It is told to Caliph Harun al-Rashid by his vizier, Ja'far ibn Yahya, in order to delight him and put him in a good mood so that Harun will spare Ja'far's servant who ultimately caused the murder in the tale "The Three Apples." More interesting is that Ja'far and Harun were real historical characters. We have few details about Ja'far, but Harun was quite famous, and I'll give him his due tomorrow.

*I include a pomegranate dish for the illustration, and here is the recipe.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Tale of Núr al-Dín Alí and His Son Badr, Part 1

The full title of this tale, which is found in every version of the 1001 Nights, is "The Tale of Nur al-Din Ali and His Son Badr al-Din Hasan." It spans three generations, and is "introduced" in the tale called "The Three Apples" or "The Mystery of the Murdered Woman."

Two brothers share the position of vizier in Cairo: Shams al-Din and his younger brother Nur al-Din. Shams suggests to his brother that they should marry on the same day and consummate their wedding on the same night, so that they will have children born on the same day who can marry each other. They prematurely argue over a prohibitively expensive dowry, and part ways. Later, Shams has a daughter, and Nur a son, Badr al-Din.

Much later, Nur has become a vizier in Basra. On his deathbed, he tells Badr that he has an uncle in Cairo, and writes out his family story, which he gives to Badr. Badr later falls asleep on his father's sepulchre. Along come a genie and an efreet, who notice his handsome face and talk about getting him married. They are aware of Shams' plan for his daughter to marry Nur's son. They transport Badr magically while he sleeps to Cairo, intending to unite him with his cousin, Sit, so they can marry.

The king of Egypt, wanting to marry Sit and being rebuffed, decides to get revenge by forcing her to marry an ugly hunchback. The genie and efreet arrive at the wedding with Badr and tell him to join. the wedding party, promising him whatever gold he needs whenever he reaches into his pocket. The two supernatural creatures join the party and mock the hunchback; later, they trap him on the toilet and convince Badr to go to Sit's room, where Badr and Sit spend the night.

The next morning, they try to return Badr to Basra as soon as wakes up (leaving his clothing behind!), but they are attacked by angels, so only get as far as Damascus.* Landing at the gate of Damascus naked startles the locals, who don't believe his story of magical transport. Stranded in Damascus, Badr is taken in by a sympathetic cook.

Meanwhile, in Cairo, Sit awakens and cannot find Badr. She tells her father, Shams, that she did not sleep with the hunchback but with a handsome young man. She shows her father Badr's turban and clothes. In the clothing is a receipt with Badr's name, which Shams recognizes. Shams is delighted that his long-ago wish has providentially come true.

Sit gives birth to a son, 'Ajib. Ten years later, as a youth in school, 'Ajib is teased for not having a father, and Sit has to tell him the truth. Shams packs up his daughter and grandson and leaves Cairo to look for Badr. They happen to stop in Damascus.

This tale is one of the longest in the 1001 Nights, so I think I may be forgiven if I, once again, emulate Scheherazade and urge you to sleep well, and we will continue the tale tomorrow, O King.

*The illustration is "A street in Damascus" by Arthur Haddon, 1864-1941.