This is a long, meandering tale. If your attention span is not up to the task, just skim through all the pictures.
Almost two weeks ago I got on a plane and traveled to Italy. But let me back up and give you some history first…
The plan for this trip germinated a year ago in Ottawa, shortly after meeting Christian Cameron – an acclaimed author of historical fiction as well as the author of a popular new fantasy series called the Traitor Son Cycle (under the nom de plume Miles Cameron). Wait… I need to back up even further… My sweetheart, Greg Mele, is an avid student, scholar, and teacher of European medieval martial arts, and as such, travels around North America and occasionally the world to attend and teach at gatherings focusing on these topics. Last year I went with him to the Borealis Swordplay Symposium in Ottawa, Ontario, because Jason Smith, the founder of this event, was kind enough to ask me to present some of my work in the area of medieval martial garments. It was a richly rewarding experience, as I recounted in this post, and I came to realize that there was an intellectual home for my niche interests.
So, we met Christian and soon understood we were of the same tribe – passionate students of late 14th century/early 15th century European culture and in the case of Christian and me, the clothing and accessories in particular. I was delighted when he boldly explained to his fellow Western martial artists that his first love was sewing and making things, though sword fighting was certainly fun too. Christian comes from a background of 18th century and ancient Greek re-enactment, and so already had a well-practiced respect for the accuracy needed for presenting a historical impression.
By the end of that weekend in Ottawa, he had hatched a plot, and Greg and I were lucky enough to be included in it – to create a company of adventuring knights to travel to Verona, Italy the following year, to fight in Il Torneo del Cigno Bianco, a late-14thc-themed living history event centered around a series of deeds of arms on foot.
I myself did not qualify for the title of knight – neither possessing the requisite fine armour nor the knowledge necessary to actually be effective in the lists. I also am female, and the knights in this tournament are (so far) only men, in keeping with the historical norm. However, as Greg’s sweetheart and a fellow material culture enthusiast, I was invited, and I brought my own set of skills to the group’s effort in the form of sewing, research, and clothing advice. We also decided Greg’s mom should go, as she was overdue for an adventure.
The company ended up comprising four knights and a squire: Christian, Greg, our friend Sean Hayes of the Northwest Fencing Academy, Marc Auger, a re-enactment compatriot of Christian’s and member of Hoplologia, and Jon Press, a fan of Miles Cameron’s work hailing from the Bailiwick of Guernsey. Jon wrote Miles (Christian) an appreciative letter one day and was promptly invited to attend the Veronese tournament as Christian’s squire last year, as well as this one. A better choice was never made – Jon was the *perfect* squire. More on that later.
The name of the Company became La Compagnia della Rosa en Sole.
We planned for a year and in some cases, prepped just as long. Me? I left it to the last minute and paid for it while there. I committed to produce a new outfit for Greg and two dresses and a hairpiece for myself, but really only got down to the serious sewing about 3 weeks before leaving. Insane, I know. I ended up leaving a fair bit of hand work to be done while there, and even missed a day exploring Venice and a chance to see the guys fight each other in full armour on the Ponte di Castelvecchio in Verona, due to sewing buttonholes. (Hear my o’ fellow medieval sewers, there are certain rites of passage you should go through to gain fortitude, and one of them is to hand-sew an obscene amount of buttonholes onto a single garment. Another is to bleed on whatever you’re sewing, but that’s one for all periods, not just the medieval ones.)
The work was worth it – it gave me an excuse to explore turn-of-the-15th century northern Italian fashion for both men and women. My process often starts with the figural art of the time, as extant clothing is sparse on the ground and textual sources — while available — are often harder to track down, translate, and synthesize in a meaningful way (but doing so is a worthy venture I take up from time to time – when I’m inspired). My art survey centered on the Tacuinum Sanitatis manuscripts. There are four well-known surviving illuminated copies executed at the end of the 14th century. They’re known today by the names of the cities where they’re housed: Vienna, Paris, Liège, and Rome. The Vienna manuscript can be seen in a great little book, The Four Seasons of the House of Cerruti, and that’s the one I focused on.
But inspiration did not end there. I immersed myself in the art of Giovanni da Milano, Giovannino de Grassi, Altichiero da Zevio, Anovelo da Imbonate, and the beautiful illuminations of the school which produced Guiron le Courtois (BNF Nouvelle acquisition française 5243 Roman de Giron le Courtois) and Lancelot du Lac et la quête du graal (BNF MS Français 343 Queste del saint graal). I took in the Big Picture – the trends and features which identified clothing as northern Italian in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. I also studied the details – the tailoring of certain sleeves, the silhouette variations, the hairdo details.
I used that newly-mined data to design garments for Greg and I. I stepped outside of my comfort zone, which is the curved-front fitted dress, in order to explore the smooth-fronted, side-laced dresses which appeared in the art.
My best friend, Greta (hereafter renamed “Super G”), sacrificed two Saturdays in a row to helping me sew. She also helped me in the fitting of the straight front bodice pattern needed for the dresses I had in mind. For Greg, I designed a farsetto (doublet in Italian, basically). It had 64 buttons on it…. Brass buttons, we hoped, which we ordered from Lorifactor plenty of time ahead, but which never arrived due to a snafu with US Customs. We asked them to send them to our B&B in Italy instead. I was appropriately wary and brought a batch of buttons I had on hand – pressed leather ones that matched the fabric well. This was a fortunate choice, because the buttons never arrived in Italy, either.
In the end, Greg’s farsetto and joined hosen turned out well. He cut a dashing figure, and due to his Italian heritage, looked right at home in the clothing.
I think I did justice to the tailoring and hairstyle I chose for myself (a basic Vienna-manuscript lady with two dresses — a fitted rust-red silk dress with long, fitted sleeves and fitted gold dress with long, open, mini-angel-wings, as well as pearl-wrapped hair), though I think it would have looked better on a thinner version of me. I haven’t come across any pictures of me in the full outfit that don’t make me cringe, so we shall have to finish this story without them.
The week leading up to the tournament was full of sights to be seen. On Sunday we got an amazing tour of the medieval sites in Verona, thanks to Chiara and Alessio, members of the hosting group for the tournament. Chiara is a professional tour guide, so this was a treat. I didn’t bring my camera that day (still quite unhappy about that), and so missed some great photo ops of Cangrande della Scala’s and Consignorio della Scala‘s funerary monuments. But Sean snapped a sweet picture of Greg and I touching the brass breast (of Romeo & Juliet fame, naturally) for luck in love.
On Monday, we went to Padua to see the Giotto frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel, as well as Altichiero’s frescos in the Oratorio di San Giorgio and in the Basilica of Sant’Antonio. It was a veritable orgy of 14th century figural art. I felt a bit like I had gone on pilgrimage and was finally standing before the exalted relics of my favorite long-dead saints. Photos were verboten at these locations, so I had to rely on Sean’s stealth photography with his phone. My giant camera was not going to get a pass. I haven’t seen Sean’s photos from these sites yet, but we came across some really curious details which I look forward to sharing in a future blog post.
We went to Venice Tuesday, where we soaked up the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica of San Marco.
Wednesday was a day of rest and sewing for me, while Greg, his mom, Jon, and Sean went back to Venice for more exploration. I spent a quiet day sitting in the dappled shade outside the villa where we were staying for the week, sewing. In the evening, Christian, his wife Sarah, and their daughter Bea returned from a trip to Chioggia and cooked dinner, to which I was thankfully invited, as I had no other dinner options and no transportation to go get some elsewhere.
On Thursday we went as a group to see Castelvecchio and the museum attached to it, in Verona. Finally, a museum that allowed photography!
Next, we visited the Basilica of San Zeno. Some great art to see there, too.
The weekend of the tournament was a busy one. On Friday, May 30st, we all went to the site, Castello Montorio, which sits atop a steep hill. The castle was a stronghold of the della Scala family, who ruled Verona for most of the 14th century, until Gian Galeazzo Visconti took over.
So already, the setting was slightly magical by American standards, because we in this hemisphere don’t get to play history in the shadow of 600-year-old castles. The site was set up as a sprawling camp with a list, a row of merchants selling very high-end gear, and vendors of modern-day food and drink. (By the way… no hot dogs and Coke for these folks… The food was gourmet by our sad North American standards, and the drinks ranged from espresso through limoncello.) There was a performance stage as well as an archery area, where members of the hosting group, Doppio Soldo, gave talks and helped the public try out bows and arrows. The camping setups were top notch; something to aspire to.
That evening there was a man-at-arms tournament with one-handed sword and shield. We watched our friend Alessio Porto compete in the lists and enjoyed the honorable comportment of the participants.
I was dressed in street clothes, as I had not yet finished my sewing. Greg wore the Charles de Blois coat I’d made him for his birthday in 2012, because the farsetto was not yet done either. Aii! I missed so much because of all that sewing. A lesson learned.
After the tournament, we left for dinner, intending to find a nice spot in the center of Verona and drew bemused stares due to the historical clothing. We finally settled on a restaurant on the Piazza dei Signori —
—which straddled both that piazza and the inner courtyard of the Palazzo della Ragione.
We sat under the loggia, our table providing a view of the courtyard and the beautiful medieval stairs leading up to a higher floor.
The men of our company informed me that they wanted a picture taken at the top of the stairs. Rain was threatening and my knees were not at their best, but I could feel something Important in the air, so I complied. When we reached the top, they immediately left — except for Greg. I turned and looked at him, and then I was sure… he was going to propose marriage. He got down on one knee and said some beautiful things to me, and asked me to be his wife. He gave me a ring that his beloved grandmother had worn, and I said “of course,” because there was never any question that he is the One. I kissed him to seal the deal, and then he stood and spread his arms wide, and yelled, “She said yes!” We heard applause from below, both from our party and others dining at various locations around the courtyard.
The next day, Saturday, the men arose early to go into Verona to spar on the Ponte di Castelvecchio, the beautiful bridge leading across the Adige River to the Castelvecchio. Again, I stayed back to sew (there is a terrible theme going here). From the pictures and video I saw, it was a resounding success for them, as well as the tourists who happened upon the scene and got to enjoy some flashmob medieval fighting.
Later in the day, after I’d finally finished sewing, we all got dressed in our medieval finery and made our way up to the Torneo to see the sights, meet people, and attend the Knight’s dinner, presided over by the “Il Conte” hosting the event (portrayed by Simone Morbioli).
Christian, the captain of our visiting English company, outdid himself with a sumptuous array of finery fit for a proper noble, let alone the capitano di ventura he was portraying.
While the light was still out, I got to hang out a bit with Giulia Grigoli, one of our contacts and an event organizer, who was wearing a beautiful reproduction of a dress seen in one of Giovanni da Milano’s most famous works, a fresco in Florence (see caption for details).
The dress was made by a lovely lady named Monica Rossi. You can see more of her work on Facebook, here.
Giulia and her sweetheart Maurizio were the reason we were all there, and they were the kindest, most gracious of hosts.
The dinner that Saturday night was utterly magical. We ate inside a large pavilion with red walls, one side open to the cool night air. A talented group of medieval musicians played softly at the back of the tent, providing the perfect ambiance. Candlelight glow warmly illuminated our tables, and the courses and conviviality were unmatched by anything I’d experienced before this. We slowly dined on dishes that once graced the tables of 14th century nobles. We drank wine, toasted many worthy subjects, and laughed the night away.
Jon, Christian’s squire, served at table, and was amazing. He has the perfect combination of good nature and alacrity of service, and we all pretty much adore him.
At the end of the evening, Greg stood up with Alessio, whom he named “Bocca de Ferro”, due to an injury he’d received in the man-at-arms spear tournament —
— and gave a thank-you speech to our hosts. He began in Italian and eventually settled into English with Alessio translating. He explained to our hosts that we had figured out the strategy of Italian knights — to serve so much good food and drink to the visiting foreign knights, that they would be incapacitated and therefore unable to fight well in the lists the next day. This got a hardy laugh from all.
It is worth noting that the dessert servings were so gigantic and delicious, we all set to whimpering as our stuffed bellies had to cry “uncle!” before we could finish it. We escaped into the night as the grappa came out, and we were told later that many of the knights stayed up at least an hour or two longer, drinking grappa and talking. We doff our proverbial hats to their fortitude.
The next day, Sunday, June 1st, the knights fought in spear and long sword tournaments. I baked in the sun as I watched, unwilling to give up my precious seat as I took photos from the modern viewing area. Hence, one of the marshaling nobles was pretty much constantly in the middle of all of my photos. I will work on adjusting my priorities when trying to capture good photos. At least he’s wearing something with fabulous fabric!
I confess I did not want to wear my headdress again, and so I wore only my first dress (rust red with long, fitted sleeves) and let my hair fall free. It was far from historically correct, but I was pretty exhausted by this point, and it was the best I could summon.
The day was great, though long, and we lost Christian for a long swathe of it, due to a finger injury he sustained that required treatment off site. Our group found a tree under which to siesta. I couldn’t help but think of it as the “English Diaspora” tree, due to it serving as shade for people from the U.S., Canada, the Bailiwick of Guernsey, and the UK, as we also had a visit from Guy Windsor (from the UK by way of Finland).
Now back to the tournament! Greg fought well, as did Sean.
Christian, alas, had injured his finger during the spear tournament earlier that day, and had to sit this one out. Marc had also injured himself and could not participate. I thought that Greg and Sean demonstrated martial sprezzatura in their bouts while simultaneously placing honor above all else. These deeds were not about winning at any cost. They were about the joy of crossing weapons with a worthy opponent. They won some and lost some and all agreed it was a good day of fighting.
That evening we retired to our B&B where our hostess fed us a dinner to end all dinners — a singular honor which we were looking forward to. Course after course of delicious Italian food was set before us, culminating in shots of grappa, which I declined, but which several others accepted with gusto. I coined a new verb: “to grappinate”, which is the act of an Italian person plying a North American with grappa until they are either under the table or begging for mercy.
It was so pleasing to see Senora‘s enthusiasm for our avocation, one which is frequently misunderstood and unappreciated by those not involved in it themselves. In fact, she enjoyed it enough to ask for a loan of medieval clothing so that she and her friend Max could be dressed in it at dinner.
There are many other tales to tell of this trip, but I think that’s plenty for one (extremely long) blog post. The end result of this adventure for me is that I have a profound appreciation for playing this history game in Europe, the source of all of our fascination. I believe that events like Il Torneo del Cigno Bianco are just the ticket to satisfy my yearning for an immersive experience in the coming years.