Although the stereotype of love in medieval days stirs the im- age of love-struck young men play- ing lutes beneath their beloved’s window, the reality in Florence, and not just in Florence, was quite different: Florentine nights were dark, squalid, silent and spent in solitary.
Let’s try to do a journey back to understand. Nights were announced by a bell. That was the beginning of l’ora di notte, the night hour, after which all citizens had to stay in their houses, quiet, and prepare to go to sleep. Breaking the rule was sanctioned with a fine, and since money was never enough for most of the population, Florentines were very attent to their night- time behavior. Officers patrolled the streets to catch out anyone disrespecting the rule in nights in which the only feeble light was provided by occasional lanterns. One of the most treacherous encounters that could befall a would- be Romeo was the street filth hid- den in the darkness, the result of a common habit in which citizens disposed of their waste by simply throwing it – both solid and liquid out of the window. Shakespearean-style attempts to woo one’s beloved by moonlight were similarly quashed: under de- cree of Misters Eight of the Guard and the Balia, the playing of violins, mandolins and any other kind of song-singing instrument was banned. In addition, it was prohibited to make “any sort of noise,
under pain of two scudi [currency] or two strokes of the rope”. How far from the loving stereotypes that history has left us.
Let’s now imagine a lady yielding to her suitor’s affection. If caught, she had to face humiliating pub- lic punishment and there is even more. The Magistrate of Honesty – that was how a civic judge was called at that time penalized ‘dishonest’ women by making them climb down into the water of the Arno. Naked. Three times.
Whatever the season was and in the presence of curious onlookers gathering near Ponte Santa Trinità that was the pace where ‘justice’ was made and ‘honesty’ restored. The Magistrate of Honesty also made the lives of prostitutes sim- ilarly difficult banning them from living in certain quarters of the city. A decree still legible in the surroundings of the Church of Og- nissanti states that in almost 300 branches of the church: “Wom- en who lead a bad life cannot live there, under pain of being captured and having their clothes thrown in the street, and the owners of the house being evicted from the premises for two years.”
It’s little wonder that the idea of courtly love has filtered down to us in its present form: considering that Dante and Beatrice’s exalted union was in reality little more than a nodding acquaintance, imagination is preferable.