Predicting the Future with Beans

In The Zorzi Affair, Zaneta Lucia Zorzi visits a fortune teller, anxious to learn how an arranged marriage will change her life.

   “You don’t know about the beans? With these beans, I can see the future.” 
One of Zaneta Lucia’s eyebrows dipped.
   Signora Battaglia must have seen the skepticism written on her face. “You doubt the beans? Just watch.”
   The soothsayer shook the cup, the beans jumping wildly against the porcelain. With a flourish, the woman tossed the beans onto the table between them. They scattered, falling still on the velvet surface.
   “Ah,” Signora Battaglia breathed as she gazed at the beans. “See the pattern they make?”
   Zaneta Lucia looked down, but all she saw was beans.

This scene is based on a true practice in Renaissance Venice. It was called buttar fave—tossing dried fava beans. Soothsayers would throw the beans and read their pattern to predict the future, much like reading tea leaves. And fava beans had a long history in the Mediterranean. The Romans and Ancient Greeks enjoyed the beans. Fava beans were cheap, tasty, and always around, so why not use them to see into the future?

Fava beans, predicting a cold winter in 2017. 

Fava beans, predicting a cold winter in 2017. 

However, fortune-telling beans were considered improper by the Catholic Church. Theologians believed the practice called on demons to reveal the future. The Church did reprimand a number of women for relying on the beans. Ironically, those Inquisition records are our best historical source on bean tossing. The trials reveal a hidden side of the Renaissance.

For example, in 1612 Felicità Greca was accused of witchcraft by her roommate, Angela. Felicità had repeatedly invited a gypsy over to toss beans, in spite of Angela’s warnings. Then one day, Angela was dog-sitting the butcher’s dog. With no warning, the dog went crazy, galloping around the house. The dog knocked Angela’s elderly mother to the floor, injuring the old woman. 

Angela knew this calamity was a sign: Felicità was up to no good. Angela and a neighbor confronted Felicità, where they walked in on the gypsy, still tossing beans. Angela screamed at Felicità and then reported her to the Inquisition. (Monica Chojnacka tells the whole story in Working Women of Early Modern Venice.)

Multiple other Inquisition trial records prove that Venetian women frequently resorted to beans to deal with life’s uncertainties. When I read about predicting the future with beans back in graduate school, I knew I had to include it in a book—and now it’s in The Zorzi Affair!

So skip the horoscopes—the next time you’re curious about the future, toss some beans! (just watch out for crazy dogs.)

The Politics of David

Michelangelo’s David might be the most famous statue in the world—but it was controversial when it was unveiled in Florence in 1504. 

When Michelangelo began the sculpture in 1501, it was intended to decorate Florence’s cathedral. The piece had been commissioned by the Arte della Lana, the guild of wool merchants, as a sign of their religious devotion. But in early 1504, when Michelangelo had nearly completed the statue, its intended location was changed. This started as a practical concern: the statue weighed over six tons, and it would have been extremely difficult if not impossible to raise to the roofline of the Cathedral. 

The statue was instead placed outside the Palazzo della Signoria, Florence’s town hall (now known as the Palazzo Vecchio). The piazza surrounding the building contained numerous statues intended to glorify Florence, but David would have a place of honor at the very entrance of the town hall.

And suddenly the statue became a political statement.

Today a replica of Michelangelo's David is in the statue's original position outside the Palazzo Vecchio.

Today a replica of Michelangelo's David is in the statue's original position outside the Palazzo Vecchio.

In 1504, the powerful Medici family had been exiled from Florence for a decade, and the city was being run by a republican, anti-Medicean, government. David, guarding the town hall, faced toward Rome, where the Medici resided in exile, his arm ready to cast a stone toward the Medicean Goliath if necessary. 

When the statue was unveiled on September 8, 1504, it was pelted with stones by political protestors who instantly saw the anti-Medici message. Michelangelo, who had enjoyed Medici patronage earlier in his career, may not have intended such an overtly political message, but the placement of the statue took a clear stand against the powerful family. 

When the Medici returned to Florence in 1512, they allowed the statue to remain, though they tried to reframe its political rhetoric in more favorable terms: David represented all of Florence, standing up against political rivals on the Italian peninsula who threatened their liberty. Florence’s republicans did not forget the anti-Medici message, though. In 1527, anti-Medici riots broke out in the city, and the Medici were again exiled as the 1498-1512 Republic of Florence was revived from 1527-1530. During the riot, David’s arm was broken in three places. 

Today we might appreciate the statue for its beauty, dignity, and ingenuity, but it has a long history in the sordid political machinations of Renaissance Florence.  

Renaissance Portraits

It’s no secret that people in the Renaissance were obsessed with appearances. 

In the tumultuous world of Renaissance Italy, reputation was everything—it could mean the difference between success and failure, wealth and poverty, fame and ignominy. And one of the best ways to build a reputation was through portraits. 

Lowest prices on antiquities, guaranteed! Andrea Odoni, by Lorenzo Lotto, 1527

Lowest prices on antiquities, guaranteed!

Andrea Odoni, by Lorenzo Lotto, 1527

When commissioning a portrait, Renaissance men and women could control every detail, down to the background minutiae, to project a cultivated image of oneself. In order to make an enduring legacy, you had to leave behind signs of your greatness, and portraits were one of the best tools for crafting your reputation.

See, ladies, I'm good with dogs! Federico Gonzaga, by Titian, c. 1529

See, ladies, I'm good with dogs!

Federico Gonzaga, by Titian, c. 1529

The fashion for portraiture provided a new way to manipulate one’s reputation. Though he focused on writing rather than portraiture, Stephen Greenblatt made this argument in his excellent academic work, Renaissance Self-Fashioning. Self-fashioning meant using every available tool to craft and project an intentional reputation. 

I always put on a full coat of armor when I settle in with a good book.  Federigo da Montefeltro, by Pedro Berruguete, c. 1480

I always put on a full coat of armor when I settle in with a good book. 

Federigo da Montefeltro, by Pedro Berruguete, c. 1480

I think of these portraits as the Renaissance version of a “selfie”—but requiring much more time and energy. There is a direct link between the Renaissance fixation on cultivating a reputation and our current infatuation with social media.

No biggie, just chillin' with my ermine. Cecelia Gallerani as "The Lady with an Ermine," Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1489

No biggie, just chillin' with my ermine.

Cecelia Gallerani as "The Lady with an Ermine," Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1489

In short, we have internalized the Renaissance obsession with appearances. 

The Corrupting Power of Money in late medieval Italy

In the fourteenth century, Italy was the wealthiest part of Europe. The common currency of the continent was the florin, minted in Florence; the most powerful banks were in Italy; and the peninsula was the crossroad for trade between Europe and the eastern Mediterreanean. The wealth pouring into late medieval Italy paid for building projects like town halls, civic squares, and towers to represent civic power. It lead to a rise in schools to train the sons of merchants in math and bookkeeping. And it altered the political landscape as “new money” merchants vied for political power.

But many found this new wealth troubling.

Italy was divided by war, factionalism, and upheaval, and many pointed to greed as a primary cause for Italian disfunction. Dante blamed “A new breed of people with their sudden wealth,” who had fueled Florentine pride and unrestraint (Inferno XVI, vv. 73-75). It was “the damned flower,” the florin, produced in Florence “that turns both sheep and lambs from the true course, for of the shepherd it has made a wolf” (Paradiso IX, v. 130-132).

On the heels of the growing religious poverty movements, secular Italians condemned the unholy bond between money and the church. The mid-fourteenth-century Italian poet Niccolò de Rossi made a similar argument when he pointed out how many things were for sale. 

Money makes the man,
Money makes the stupid pass for bright,
Money buys the treasury of sins,

Money brings your enemies down.
And every man seems down without it.
The world and fortune being ruled by it,
Which even opens, if you want, the doors of paradise.
-Niccolò de’ Rossi, mid-fourteenth century

Most disturbingly, to Rossi, money seemed to rule over heaven, as wealthy Italians tried to buy their way out of purgatory. A lifetime of religious devotion was worthless if salvation could be bought for a few coins. 

Another poet, Cecco Angiolieri, wrote about the dangers of money replacing blood ties. In a society where family was everything, the notion that florins might replace kin was disturbing. 

Preach what you will,
Florins are the best of kin:
Blood brothers and cousins true,
Father, mother, sons, and daughters too;
Kinfolk of the sort no one regrets
-Cecco Angiolieri, c. 1300

While wealth brought power and luxury, it came at a high price. Italians worried that money was replacing every important emotional bond, eclipsing devotion to religion, home-town, and even family. Money had the power to disrupt society and break communities apart, a terrifying prospect for an already divided peninsula. 

The Italian city-states were changing dramatically in the late medieval period: republics transformed into principalities; the boundaries of city-states expanded and shrunk in a series of never-ending battles for territory; and the most powerful institution on the peninsula, the Catholic Church, had been kidnapped by the French and relocated to Avignon. 

The influx of money was only one piece in a larger puzzle that convinced late medieval Italians that their society was crumbling, and all the bonds holding people together were failing. This breakdown of order drove many to question the very order of their society, and convinced them that they needed to remake their society along new lines—thus leading to the Renaissance.

How a Snowball Fight led to the Divine Comedy

Dante’s Divine Comedy is one of the most magnificent pieces of writing in human history. Told in terza rima over 100 cantos, Dante relates a journey through hell, Purgatory, and heaven, where he gazes upon the face of God. In the epic poem, Dante coined a number of new words and some attribute the birth of modern Italian to Dante’s writing. 

But it might never have been written at all, if not for a snowball fight in the year 1300.

Dante, as painted by his contemporary, Giotto. 

Dante, as painted by his contemporary, Giotto. 

In the city of Pistoia, a few miles from Florence, a young man threw a snowball, and his uncle scolded him. A few days later, in revenge, the nephew struck his uncle for dishonoring him. But now the uncle was dishonored—so his son attacked the snowball-thrower and cut off his hands. As if this escalation wasn’t enough, the son then went after the snowball-thower’s father and killed him. 

This feud, between members of the Pistoian Cancellieri family, created a civil war in the city, as everyone took sides. The Florentines, trying to put an end to the bloodshed, arrested the leaders of both factions and imprisoned them in Florence.

However, the Pistoian feud then exacerbated the existing rivalry between two leading Florentine families, the Cerchi and the Donati. Although Dante was married to Gemma Donati, he sided more with the new-money Cerchi family, who were neighbors to the Alighieri. And in 1302, the war between the Donati and Cerchi factions resulted in the exile of a number of supporters of the Cerchi, including Dante.

Dante’s exile was traumatic—he was banned from ever returning to his hometown of Florence, and charged with a number of crimes, including embezzlement and disturbance of the peace. For the next two decades, Dante traveled across Italy, yearning to restore his reputation and return to Florence. 

During this long exile, Dante wrote the Divine Comedy, which contained his condemnation of the factional chaos that expelled him from Florence. In Inferno, Dante throws the leaders of the factions into hell, including members of the Donati faction and one of their allies, Pope Boniface VIII. The poem was the perfect vehicle for Dante to vent his frustration at the disorderly politics of late medieval Florence. And it almost certainly never would have been written if Dante had not been exiled.

And that’s how a snowball fight led to the Divine Comedy. 

Dante and his Poem, a fresco by Michelino (1465). 

Dante and his Poem, a fresco by Michelino (1465).