GIANNI SCHICCHI, FLORENCE AND DANTE

Paul Zweifel

Gianni Schicchi, the eponymous protagonist of Puccini’s opera, was an historical personage who lived in Florence in the last part of the 13th century. (According to the notary’s opening statement, the opera takes place Sept. 1, 1299). And the events described in the opera, Gianni Schicchi’s posing as the dead Buoso Donati in order to forge a new will, seem also to be historical since Dante referred to the incident in the Inferno, XXX 41-45:

…a false shape assuming, so performed
The deed of sin; e’en as the other there,
That onward passes, dar’d to counterfeit
Donati’s features, to feign’d testament
The seal affixing, that himself might gain.

(Cary translation)
The "other there" to whom Dante refers is, of course, Gianni Schicchi; he could not have enjoyed his ill-gotten gains very long since Dante’s trip through the Inferno took place only seven months later, on the night between March 24 and 25, 1300. At the end of the opera, Schicchi refers to his fate: "For this prank [bizzarria] I was sent to hell. So be it. But with the permission of the great Dante, if you enjoyed yourself tonight, perhaps you’ll say: ‘Not guilty!’" (My supertitle translation.) Interestingly enough, Dante places the falsifiers (evil impersonators, counterfeiters, false witnesses) in the eighth circle of hell. There are only nine circles, the ninth being reserved for traitors and, of course, Satan. Those guilty of carnal sin (such as the adulteress Francesca da Rimini, herself the subject of an opera, by Riccardo Zandonai) are only sent to the second circle. [Cf. Inferno, V.] This is undoubtedly a reflection of the moral imperatives of the time. If Dante had lived today it’s likely that he would reshuffle the circles, considering, for example, the vastly different reactions of the public to Oval Office hanky-panky vis-à-vis billion-dollar rip offs like the Enron or MCI fiaschi.

In his aria "Farewell Florence" Schicchi is laying the groundwork for the cheating of Buoso Donati’s relatives; he warns them that whoever conspires to falsify a will have his hand cut off and then be exiled "just like a Ghibelline." During the late middle ages, there was constant conflict between the Ghibellines, supporters of the (Holy Roman) emperor and the Guelfs, supporters of the Pope, in the ongoing battle for secular supremacy.[1] The Guelfs had won out in Florence by the middle 1200’s, and then had the Ghibellines exiled, hence the reference. Since nobody can stand prosperity, the Guelfs then split into the Blacks (supporters of an autocratic government) and the Whites (more populist). The Blacks, with strong backing from the Pope, Boniface VIII, eventually won out; Dante, a White, was banished from Florence (in 1302) and spent the last 20 years or so of his life (during which he wrote the Divine Comedy) in exile. He is buried in Ravenna, but there is a monument to his memory both inside and outside the church of Santa Croce, mentioned in Rinuccio’s aria "Florence is like a flowering tree" as being "kissed" by the river Arno.
 


Santa Croce

Dante Statue in front of Santa Croce
This "kissing" is pure poetic license; Santa Croce is about 200 meters from the Arno’s banks. Unless, of course Rinuccio was referring to one of the Arno floods which ravage Florence periodically, on the average of one per century. The last was in 1966, and it "kissed" not only Santa Croce but the entire city.
 
                     The Arno                                Flood level (ca. 6 ft.) ~1 km. away                        Ponte Vecchio

The Arno, which rises in the so-called Alps of St. Benedict to the northeast of Florence, bisects the city on an east-west line and then flows into the Ligurian Sea a few miles west of Pisa. (In Dante’s day the city stood almost entirely to the north of the Arno.) The river is traversed by a number of bridges, the oldest and most famous being the Ponte Vecchio or "Old Bridge" from which Lauretta, in her famous aria "Oh! Mio babbino caro," threatens to throw herself  if she’s not allowed to marry Rinuccio (This is actually an anachronism, since the bridge wasn’t built until 1345.) She also tells us that she wants to buy her wedding ring in Porta Rossa. This fashionable shopping street, about two blocks north of and approximately parallel to the Arno, is still very modish today. Today one would be more likely to visit the Ponte Vecchio to buy a wedding ring since the bridge is completely occupied by jewelry stores. In olden days, however, it was the site of butcher shops (macellerie) presumably because the Arno below was a convenient repository for offal.
 
 


Via Porta Rossa today

Gold shops on Ponte Vecchio

The prominent Donati family were all Guelfs. Simone Donati, Buoso’s cousin and the main instigator of the plot to falsify the will (in fact, if not in the opera) was the father of Farese and Corso Donati (both mentioned in Purgatorio; XXX 39 ff. and XXIV 75-82). Corso, who is referred to only as "him" (but the reference is clear), was the head of the Black Guelfs. Nonetheless Dante married a Donati cousin, Gemma Donati. Incidentally, disgusted by his treatment at the hands of the Black Guelfs Dante eventually converted to Ghibellinism.

There are two likely candidates for the Donati house in which the opera Gianni Schicchi actually took place, namely two medieval towers, still in use today. The more likely location is at 35r via Matteo Palmieri (just off Piazza San Pieri Maggiore) and around the corner from via degli Albizi. This property, which today houses a travel agency, is known as the "Torre dei Donati e degli Albizi," the Albizi family being inhabitants after the Donatis. About one kilometer to the west, at the corner of via dei Ricci and via Corso (so called because the Romans used to race horses there) is another tower known now as "Torre dei Donate e dei Ricci" which is the other possible site of the opera (today a leather shop occupies the ground floor).
 
 

Torre dei Donati e degli Albizi
Torre dei Donati e dei Ricci
 Near Dante's house
 

These were the stomping grounds of the Donatis--just a smidgen east along via Corso one finds Piazza dei Donati and a few meters further east the Dante Church, where Dante is thought to have first cast eyes on his muse, Beatrice Portinari ("Bice" to her friends, but not to Dante). In fact, there are a number of Donati and Portinari tombs in the church including, it is thought, Beatrice's. A painting depicting the meeting of Dante and Beatrice hangs inside the smallish church. The 8-year old Bice is accompanied by her mother and her nurse, Monna Tessa; for some reason Dante, nine years old at the time of this encounter, is pictured as an adult.[2]


 Dante's Church."This church dates from 1032.
  Here Beatrice Portinari was buried."



Just around the corner from Dante's Church

Dante, Beatrice and Monna Tessa
 

A number of towns and communes around Florence are mentioned in the opera. For example, we learn very early on "they’re saying in Signa" that Buoso has disinherited all his relatives, leaving his entire estate to an order of monks. Simone, as the eldest relative and one time "mayor of Fucecchio" is asked for his advice. Signa and Fucecchio are in the Arno valley, a few miles downstream from Florence as is Empoli, where Buoso owns property. Signa is the location of the mills, considered, along with the "finest mule in Tuscany" to be Buoso’s prime assets.
 

Signa banner in Firenze Epiphany parade
Ghibbeline Banner in the same parade
 

Rinuccio suggests that Gianni Schicchi be consulted because he is known for his skullduggery (and no doubt because Rinuccio is in love with Schicchi’s daughter Lauretta).  However Aunt Zita strenuously objects because Schicchi is an "immigrant" having come to Florence from the country. Rinuccio thereupon sings the aria cited above, pointing out that while Florence's roots are in the Piazza dei Signori (nowadays known as the Piazza della Signoria; site of the Palazzo Vecchio) the city flourished from the many outsiders who came to live there. He mentions the architect Arnolfo di Cambio (c. 1245-c. 1310), who came from Val d’Elsa (now a city of 68,000 souls in the Chianti wine country near Siena). Giotto (c. 1226-1337) and the Medici all came from the Mugello Valley, even today a beautiful rural area teeming with game some 15 or so miles north of Florence. There is a church in Borgo San Lorenzo, the main city of the Mugello area, called Pieve di San Lorenzo;  it contains the only painting by Giotto outside the musems of Florence. (There are many Giotto freschi scattered around Tuscany, but not paintings).


The Giotto Painting

Later famous artists from the Mugello include Beato Angelico (1387-1455) and Galileo Chini (1873-1956). Chini is particularly relevant to Puccini and Il Trittico because he designed the sets for the world premiere of Il Tabarro (New York, 1918); for the reprise of the entire Trittico (Rome, 1919); and the world premier of Turandot (Milan, 1926).

Getting back to the Piazza della Signoria, in 1299 the Palazzo Vecchio was still under construction; it was to become the seat of the Florentine government. Even before it was finished, however, the Piazza was the de facto seat of the government, where the citizens gathered to debate various political issues (the name for such a gathering was "parlamento," a talking or discussion, hence the English word "parliament").

Other localities where Buoso owned property included Prato, Figline and Quintole. Prato today is a bustling city some 10 miles northwest of Florence (famous for its biscotti). Figline is in the Arno vally a few miles upstream from Florence while Quintole is a suburb of Florence on the edge of the Chianti Classico wine district.

The Florentine suburb of Fiesole also enters the story, since that is where Rinuccio and Lauretta first pledged their love and shared their first kiss. Fiesole, an ancient Etruscan hill town about 20 minutes from the center of Florence by city bus, must in those days have been a lengthy journey; although it is only five miles distant, there is a substantial elevation rise. This elevation is responsible for the magnificent view of Florence in the distance (Rinuccio terms it paradisical). In those days, prior to air pollution, the view must have been truly spectacular (it’s pretty breathtaking even today).


View from Fiesole towards Firenze

By the way, the kiss referred to above gives some credence to Aunt Zita’s contention that the Schicchi family was socially inferior to the Donati; an unmarried lady from a "good" family would never have been in the company of a young man absent a chaperon.

The young lovers hope to be married on May 1 (il Calendimaggio, from the Latin "Calendae," the first day of the month) which would mean an engagement of nine months' duration. However May Day might have been worth waiting for since marriages celebrated on that (cross-quarter) holiday were assured of being blessed with plentiful offspring. (The dance around the phallic-symbolic Maypole, still seen occasionally today, is an obvious fertility rite.)

Finally, one notes that the monks who were the legal but disenfranchised heirs of Buoso Donati were those of Santa Reparata. That is the name of the church which originally stood where the present cathedral (or Duomo), Santa Maria del Fiore, was constructed. Some remains of the old church can still be seen, in the undercroft of the cathedral, which was not completed until 1359 (Brunelleschi’s famous dome not finished until about 1438). Construction of the cathedral was begun in 1296 (by Arnolfo) so in 1299 the site was no doubt still being referred to as Santa Reparata. It is interesting to speculate why the people in Signa were talking about a bequest to Florentine monks. Perhaps it was because of Buoso’s extensive property in Signa.

My thanks to Dr. Luigi Barletti and Prof. Giovanni Frosali of the University of Florence for useful comments.

Luigi et ux 
        Luigi Barletti with his wife Letizia and niece Marta.

gianni 
Gianni Frosali, left and Riccardo Ricci. Both have connections to Gianni Schicchi: Riccardo is probably a descendent of the Ricci family as in "Torre dei Donati e dei Ricci" pictured above, and Gianni was born in Signa.

Notes:

[1] In the 13th century, Italy was divided into three zones. The southernmost zone, stretching roughly from Naples to Sicily, comprised the Kingdom of Sicily whose King, Frederick II, was elected Holy Roman Emperor. The middle zone, stretching diagonally from southwest to northeast, centered on Rome, was the domain of the popes. The northern zone was made up of numerous city-states such as Firenze, Siena, Verona, Milano, Venezia, etc. It was the struggle between the emperor and the Pope to control these city-states that led to the Guelf-Ghibelline wars. In the play Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare tells us that the Montegues and Capulets have been long embroiled in a feud but fails to tell us its origin; most likely it was part of the Guelf-Ghibbeline struggle.  (Dante makes this explicit in Purgatorio VI where the feudng families are referred to by their Italian names, Capuleti and Montecchi.)  To this day Via Ghibellina and a Via Guelfa are the names of two of Firenze's streets. The city's, and arguably Italy's, best restaurant (with prices to match), the Michelin *** Enoteca Pinchiorre,  is found on Via Ghibellina, just around the corner from Santa Croce. (Incidentally, Verdi's opera I vespri Siciliani is also based on the Guelf-Ghibelline conflict.)

[2] Hardly a kilometer from the Dante church, around the corner from Piazza San Pancrazio, is the very good, if rustic, restaurant Il Latini. (Quite reasonably priced.) It bears the name of Dante's teacher, Brunetto Latini (1220-95), whom Dante met in Inferno XV 82-87. Latini was entombed in that portion of Hell reserved for sodomites, although in the brief discussion between Latini and Dante there is no mention of sodomy, per se. The question of Latini's possilble homosexuality is still a matter of debate; Italian readers should visit http://digilander.libero.it/giovanniallorto/biografie/latini/latini.html. There is an excellent red wine from the Piedmont regions of Italy called "Inferno," but it is not available in Il Latini.


Il Latini fiaschetteria