It’s my pleasure to welcome author Tinney Sue Heath to Outtakes as she relaunches her first novel, A Thing Done, a medieval tale of a jester ensnared in a feud among noble families in Florence. Here she discussed the inspiration for her story.—Kim
By Tinney Sue Heath
A Thing Done started life as footnotes—one in a translation of Dante’s Inferno, others in history books covering the 13th century in Florence.
The first thing that caught my eye was this: “The vendetta against Buondelmonte was the origin of the Guelf and Ghibelline factions in Florence.”
That division was no small matter. It colored politics—not just in Florence, but in all of Italy—for well over a century, and vestiges of it remained hundreds of years later.
So how did a vendetta against one man start all of this? And who was this Buondelmonte person?
Let’s set the scene: Florence at the beginning of the 13th century was seething with potential violence—hereditary enmities, power struggles, deep resentments between families. The city was a commune, with no king or duke or other titular head. Her ruling class consisted of members of the ancient noble families, an oligarchy made up of men of substance and influence who commanded a certain amount of private military might. Florence’s knights were men with superb combat training and skills, and they didn’t share their power easily.
As I threaded my way through all these footnotes, I often felt I was working backwards from the end of the story, looking for its beginning. I read further.
I learned that the knight Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti (which Dante scholar Christopher Kleinhenz translates as “Good Guy of the Mountain of the Good Guys of the Mountains”) was betrothed to a woman of the Amidei family (his enemies), but he broke off the engagement to wed a woman of the Donati family (his allies). The Amidei and their friends were so incensed at this insult that they called for a vendetta.
But if feelings were running that high, what was Buondelmonte doing getting himself betrothed to a woman of his enemies’ clan? And why did he change his mind?
More footnotes, more reading. As I suspected, it wasn’t that simple. Buondelmonte had been forced into that betrothal as a result of a fight that erupted at a banquet. A marriage was proposed to make peace between the two sides. It was not an alliance he chose, or wanted.
This was beginning to sound like a story I wanted to write. But what started that fight?
Past the footnotes now and deep into the contemporary and near-contemporary chronicles, I searched for the cause, and I finally found it: at that feast, a jester snatched a plate of food away from Buondelmonte and his dining companion.
Buondelmonte’s companion was outraged, and Oddo, a knight of the opposing faction, took the opportunity to mock him because of it.
The companion snarled at Oddo, “You lie in your throat!” (Yes, it really does translate that way: “Tu menti per la gola!”) But it was Buondelmonte, impetuous and hotheaded, who pulled a knife and stuck it into Oddo’s arm. And drawing blood was an insult too serious to overlook.
Of course, the rivalry and enmity were already in place long before the feast. This was a fight waiting to happen, and Oddo did everything in his power to make sure it did. But every story needs an inciting action, and I had finally found mine.
After all, how often does one get a chance to begin a historical novel with a food fight?