In late July, I posted a book review on, A Thing Done, by Tinney Sue Heath. The book explores the fantastic world of Italian medieval vendetta during the thirteenth century. Here is my interview with this talented and accomplished author.
Most medieval historical fiction is traditionally set in England and France; why did you choose to set this story in Italy? At what point did you realize you wanted to write about medieval Florence?
Well, for one thing, I think we already have plenty of people writing about England and France. Actually, I’ve always been fascinated with Italian history. My first love was the Italian Renaissance – the Florence everyone knows about, with the Medici, Brunelleschi’s dome, Michelangelo, Machiavelli. It was when I read Dante that I began to be interested in what went before. What was it in that turbulent commune that sowed the seeds of the Renaissance? Also, as someone who has taught and performed early music, I was always particularly attracted to the Italian repertoire, and my musicological research eventually merged with a broader survey of Florence in the medieval period. It was while researching laude, for example, that I learned that Dante’s father-in-law (messer Manetto Donati) was one of the early officers of the Orsanmichele confraternity.
What challenges did you face in your research on thirteenth century Florence? How did you go about your research?
I found many gaps, and also inconsistencies and even direct contradictions. But that’s part of the fun, since I’m writing fiction and can choose among the various possibilities. One challenge that’s hard to get around is how little is written by medieval chroniclers about women. You can trace multiple generations of a family without finding so much as a woman’s name, though the mere fact of having multiple generations does suggest that there must have been some women involved somehow… I’m a library researcher, primarily, and I’m lucky to have access to a good university library. One problem is knowing when to stop – bibliographies beget more bibliographies. I’ve had to work on improving my Italian reading skills to cope with various specialized vocabularies (architecture, for example, which is a language I don’t even understand in English). I’ve also made a number of visits to Florence for specifics, and to other Tuscan and Umbrian towns that retain a more medieval flavor, to know the feel of those narrow and winding streets and the sounds of church bells echoing off ancient buildings.
The topic of vendetta in the Italian landscape is fascinating, why did you decide to focus on this aspect of medieval Italian culture?
One of the things that caught my interest was the extent to which vendetta was an accepted, even expected, part of the culture of the Italian communes. The relatively weak governments of the communes had no hope, at this early date, of reining in the feuding of ambitious magnates. The most they could expect to accomplish was to set a few rules, such as limiting the pool of people allowed to take vengeance and invoking penalties on anyone whose retribution was judged to be excessive compared to the original crime. It wasn’t until the 1280s that some effective control began to be achieved over the magnate class in Florence, and even that control was far from absolute. The lawlessness and unpredictability of those times intrigued me, and I wanted to explore what it would have been like to live in the midst of such a society, especially if you were among the powerless and the marginalized, as Corrado and his friends certainly were.
Did your love of music influence making the lead character, Corrado, an entertainer?
I’ve performed at many feasts, tourneys, weddings, and the like during my years of historical reenactment with the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) . That was how I learned that a performer at such an event is invisible to most of the people present. Everyone simply forgets that you’re there, and so you’re in a position to see and hear everything that goes on, unnoticed. There’s also the fact that a freelance performer in the middle ages, lacking the protection of patron or court, was the most marginalized of creatures, and his very survival would depend on having a quick wit and the ability to think on his feet. That made Corrado the logical person to observe all the feuding parties and draw conclusions. Of course, the jester in this incident was a real person, so it wasn’t so much that I made him an entertainer as that I chose to tell the story from the entertainer’s perspective. I suppose I made that choice because I generally find creative people much more interesting than the people who hire them.
Will you continue writing about medieval Florence? What can we look forward to for your next novel?
I think I’m likely to remain Dantecentric for the foreseeable future. The book I’m working on now is inspired by the two remaining poems (three, if you count one in an exchange of letters) written by a 13th century woman known to us as La Compiuta Donzella – the Accomplished Maiden. She’s described as the first woman poet in Italy, or one of the first two, if Nina of Sicily actually existed. I can’t actually say it’s based on her life, because we know next to nothing about her, but I’ve used her poems as a starting point and am creating a story that could have been hers. The mid-13th century was a tumultuous time in Florence. Just living through it must have been an adventure, and being a woman practicing what was thought of as a man’s art would have been an adventure of a different sort. Once I’ve finished this book, I hope to move on to a book (or books) about Dante’s wife, Gemma Donati, and the complex web of conflicting loyalties she inhabited. While I don’t think of these books as comprising a series, there were children in A Thing Done who are adults in the Compiuta Donzella book, which in turn has children who will come into their own as adults in the Gemma book(s).
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