Speaking truth to powerful friends and foes: Genoese merchants and the Mamluks in Decameron 2.9.
Turning to the hundred novellas themselves, we find myriad instances of marginalized or downtrodden protagonists who make good of bad situations by taking powerful figures down a peg or two. Examples include tales wherein socio-economically subordinate (male) figures call their (male) superiors out (through words or deeds) on their moral shortcomings, sometimes even for the very same misdemeanors of which they stand accused (e.g., 1.4, 1.6, 1.7, 1.8, and 6.2). Female protagonists who put their honor, livelihood, and/or lives on the line by speaking truth to (almost invariably male and sometimes political) power and taking destiny into their own hands include the Marchioness of Montferrat (1.5), a lady from Gascony (1.9), the daughter of the King of England (2.3), Zinevra (2.9), Bartolomea (2.10), the wife of Messer Francesco Vergellesi (3.5), Ghismonda (4.1), Andreuola (4.6), the wife of Pietro di Vinciolo (5.10), Monna Nonna de' Pulci (6.3), Madonna Filippa (6.7), and the nun Isabetta (9.2). While all these women advocate for their personal rights thanks to their intelligence, quick wit, eloquence, and (at times) serendipitous circumstances, the heroine of 2.9, Zinevra, distinguishes herself by exploring the transcultural, interfaith, male-dominated world of Mediterranean travel, trade, and diplomacy disguised as a man. In addition, while all the other heroines listed above must contend with a single threat to their honor and/or life (be it from an institution or an individual), Zinevra successfully overcomes dangers from multiple sources of authority in both Christian and Muslim realms.
Critics have approached 2.9 from various related formal and gendered perspectives, including as a variant of wager narratives and as an example of the Decameron's discursive strategies concerning women's agency and the power of storytelling, while taking also into consideration Boccaccio's sexual poetics and intratextual self-referentiality. (3) In this essay, I propose a historicized reading of Zinevra's novella by considering the context of Genoese-Mamluk relations and in particular the singular travels of a Genoese merchant, Segurano Salvaygo, who was active in the Mamluk sultanate in the early 1300s. As I will show, the available evidence about Segurano Salvaygo is germane to a reading of 2.9 that attends to the overarching theme of this volume. Both the fictional Zinevra, who impersonates a man, and the real-life Salvaygo, prosper in potentially hostile domains, successfully (albeit temporarily) speak truth to power, and realize their ideological, economic, and personal imperatives thanks to their influential positions within the Mamluk court, their ability to inhabit different identities, and their pragmatism, ingenuity, and fearlessness in the face of peril at home and abroad.
Segurano Salvaygo (c. 1300-1323)
Three kinds of sources document the activities of Segurano Salvaygo: (1) late 13th--and early 14th-century Genoese notarial records related to trade in Caffa (present-day Feodosia) on the Black Sea, (2) 14th--and 15th-century Mamluk chronicles, and (3) the Dominican bishop William of Adam's crusade treatise Tractatus quomodo Sarraceni sunt expugnandi (How to Defeat the Saracens, c. 1317), which condemns Christian slave traders, the Genoese in particular, and Segurano above all, for trafficking with the Mamluks. The first two sets of sources help offset Adam's ideologically skewed and at times misleading portrait of Segurano. In "Segurano-Sakran Salvaygo: un mercante genovese al servizio dei sultani mamalucchi, c. 1303-1322," Benjamin Kedar provides a meticulous study of these documents and convincingly identifies a Christian merchant named Sakran in the Arabic texts with the Segurano Salvaygo who appears in European records. Most recently, Hannah Barker's Egyptian and Italian Merchants in the Black Sea Slave Trade, 1260-1500 further contextualizes Segurano's activities and contributes an important corrective to earlier studies of his role in Mediterranean trade.
By all accounts operating one of the most successful international trading businesses of the time, the Salvaygos established bases in Genoa, Caffa, and Alexandria, as well as networks across continental Europe, including Bruges and several French cities. Genoese sources related to Caffa record the presence of Salvaygo family members in this important Black Sea colony since its creation in the 1260s. Segurano Salvaygo first appears in notarial records for having made a loan in Caffa in 1300, and his brother Ambrogio is recorded for buying and renting ships, making loans, and nominating attorneys (Kedar 77-78).
From Mamluk chronicles, we learn instead about Segurano's relations with two Mamluk sultans and two khans of the Golden Horde. An anonymous fourteenth-century chronicle records the arrival of a Christian merchant named Sakran at the Mamluk court of sultan al-Nasir Muhammad in 1303 or 1304. Sakran, aka Segurano, brought the sultan many gifts, including wool, precious textiles, atlases, and birds. Over the course of the next twenty years, Segurano was granted increasing privileges and responsibilities in Mamluk Egypt. By around 1307, for instance, it seems that Segurano and his brother Ambrogio had gained the favor of al-Nasir's amirs, Salar and Baybars. When the sultan released the Genoese Matteo Zaccaria after many years of captivity, Zaccaria asked the Salvaygo brothers, on behalf of several Aragonese prisoners, to facilitate peace between the sultan and James II of Aragon. The Salvaygos reportedly petitioned the amirs, who in turn successfully interceded with the sultan, and Zaccaria left for the Aragonese court with conciliatory letters from al-Nasir (Kedar 79).
A few years later, Segurano acted on the sultan's behalf in another thorny diplomatic affair. Around 1311 or 1312, the Genoese of Chios kidnapped Tokhta Khan's ambassadors to Egypt and their Mamluk escort as they sailed back to Alexandria after visiting the court of the Golden Horde. When al-Nasir received this news, he retaliated by imprisoning all Christian merchants (or perhaps only the Genoese) residing in Alexandria and Damietta, and confiscated their goods. According to a contemporaneous Mamluk chronicler, Segurano traveled to Chios and secured the freedom of the captured ambassadors, a move that in turn ensured the release of the Christian merchants in Egypt (Kedar 84; Barker 391). Since at the time members of the Zaccaria family governed Chios, one might ponder whether the fact that Segurano had assisted Matteo Zaccaria a few years earlier eased his negotiations on the island.
Another chronicle, composed by Mamluk historian Ibn al-Dawadan in the fourteenth century, documents Segurano's participation in the retinue transporting Uzbak Khan's niece (the daughter of Tokhta Khan) to Alexandria in 1320, as Barker reports:
[Segurano] and an unnamed companion [...] accompanied the representative of Uzbak Khan to deliver Uzbak's niece as a bride for al-Nasir Muhammad, cementing the Mamluk-Golden Horde alliance. [...] a single ship carried the ambassadors, the bride, Segurano, and numerous male and female slaves to Egypt. Of the 2,400 people who came, 400 died at sea and 440 mamluks arrived. Al-Nasir Muhammad bought 240 of them for himself, and the others were purchased by amirs. Segurano was said to be accompanying (suhbah) the ambassadors and the bridal party in his capacity as a Frankish trader (teijir al-ifranji).
An Egyptian chronicler writing in c. 1451 notes that Baybars II (al-Nasir's former amir) called Segurano his brother. According to this fifteenth-century historian, after Baybars Il's death in 1310, the Mamluk Royal Treasurer, whose duties included investing the sultan's capital for a profit and trading on his behalf, gave Segurano 60 thousand dinars, as well as sugar and other goods valued at 40 thousand dinars, for use in trade (Kedar 80-81). At the time, Segurano was known as "'the important Frankish merchant' (tajiran kabiran min al-afranj)" (Barker 391).
The portions of William of Adam's Tractatus quomodo Sarraceni sunt expugnandi that catalog Segurano Salvaygo's affronts to Christianity are worth citing in full:
Behold, father and lord, how great are the evils done by these our sellers of the souls of men [...]. The above-mentioned merchants do not commonly perpetrate this outrage, but most greatly the Genoese, nor all the Genoese but particularly Seguranus Salvago, the fount of sin, and the members of his house and family, whom he has attracted to serve with him the enemy Satan and whom he dedicated with himself so greatly to the service of the Devil that Seguranus and the members of his family who agree with him seem to devote themselves only to how, by these works, contrary to God, they can confound the church and strengthen the Saracens, the enemies of the cross and persecutors of our faith. Seguranus is called the brother of the sultan, is believed to be a Saracen, and as an enemy is said to be a supporter, promoter, and defender of the faith of the Mohammedans. He is so closely allied with the sultan that the sultan himself in his letters calls him his brother and friend. He is a Saracen to such an extent that he allows the aforesaid sins against nature to be perpetrated in his ships. He himself and some members of his family have also carried the banner of Mohammed and of the sultan of Babylon in their ships and galleys, as I have seen with my own eyes with horror and detestation. That he supports the Saracens is clearly shown by the fact that when the sultan wanted to send a legation or messengers to the emperor of the northern Tartars in order to propagate the cult of the Saracens they were carried by him [...]. He has shown himself a greater supporter of these people than any predecessor who was not himself a Saracen, and he has greatly assisted and promoted that pestiferous sect by bringing them many thousands of Christian and other boys to engage in evil and the other illicit activities mentioned above and by transporting a great supply of iron, wood, and other things forbidden by the church. Not only have he and his brothers, grandsons, and relatives, however, provided such power to the Saracens in this way, but also many other Genoese, whom he has attracted by his example to do similar things, when he himself precedes and excels as the leader in this iniquity and teacher of evil against God. As a result it is truthfully proven that there is almost no noble family of Genoa or common family of some standing of which some members have not sent to Alexandria, some carrying boys and some other forbidden goods. And since Seguranus alone is said to have carried ten thousand boys to the Saracens, neither the multitude nor the number of those carried by others can be known.
The details corroborated by the Mamluk sources are that Segurano was called the sultan's brother, escorted Tatar ambassadors, and acted as a merchant for the Mamluks. Barker crucially notes that most secondary sources present Segurano "as the face of Genoese slaving" (390) because they accept as fact Adam's contention that Segurano was responsible for selling thousands of male Christian children to the Mamluks. (4) As Barker explains, while Adam's "accusations against Segurano seem to hold up in most cases" and he "was probably right to identify Segurano Salvaygo as a mamluk trader, his description of Segurano's activities misled readers by greatly exaggerating his role in the slave trade" (390, 393). In fact, only the 1320 journey to deliver a bride to al-Nasir Muhammad "strongly implicate[s] Segurano himself in the slave trade" (392).
While Adam's claim that Segurano flew the sultan's flag on his shipments of merchandise is not confirmed in the Mamluk chronicles, in a 1317 letter addressed to the Genoese Republic Pope John XXII condemns Genoese merchants for trading with the Mamluks and sailing with "i vessilli dell'abominevole Maometto" (Kedar 81-82). This measure would have secured Segurano's passage across and trade within locations from which Genoese merchants were periodically banned. For instance, in 1307 Tokhta Khan ordered the destruction of Caffa ostensibly to prevent Genoese merchants from kidnapping and enslaving children from the Black Sea region. Despite subsequent prohibitions against the slave trade by Christian authorities (such as Clement V at the Council of Vienna in 1312), the Genoese returned to Caffa in 1313 with the permission of Uzbak Khan (Barker 162). By flying the Mamluk flag where Genoese merchants were banned from trade, whether by the khan or the pope, Segurano and his cargoes could travel incognito. Even if we set aside the specious details of Segurano's activities that issue from William of Adam's treatise, it is clear that he gradually earned both al-Nasir's and Baybars II's trust sufficiently to achieve a privileged position during their reigns, managing vast sums of money and serving as Mamluk trader, shipment escort, and political negotiator--a position that could only be seen as treacherous by Christian authorities.
Segurano's close association with Mamluk rulers, however, also resulted in his untimely death. In the early 1320s, the Golden Horde and Persian Ilkhanate were at war, but Mamluk relations with Persia had considerably improved (a peace treaty was signed in 1323), and al-Nasir refused to aid Uzbak Khan in the conflict. When, around 1322-23, Uzbak received notice from his returning ambassador that he had been offended at the Mamluk court, Segurano happened to be in the khan's territory with a shipment of merchandise. Uzbak retaliated by confiscating Segurano's goods and having him killed (Barker 391-92). Uzbak later disclaimed responsibility and accused an unspecified "king of the islands" of this murder, possibly a reference to the Zaccaria in Chios or the rulers of another Aegean island, according to Kedar (86).
The Decameron, Genoa, the Mamluks, and the Golden Horde As is well known, Boccaccio was intimately familiar with mercantile spheres (especially Genoese): his father was an independent merchant, who joined the Florentine Compagnia de' Bardi as its principal agent at the Neapolitan court of King Robert of Anjou, and Boccaccio spent his early years in this multicultural center of trade and learning (1327-41). Given the periodic references to Genoa and Genoese merchants, Muslim sultans in Egypt, and Uzbak Khan of the Golden Horde (which Boccaccio identifies as Turkish) across the Decameron, there is no doubt he would have been aware of the broader political and commercial contexts outlined above. (5)
Genoa and the Genoese are referenced in more than ten novellas, usually in the context of travel for commerce or crusade (1.5; 1.8; 2.4; 2.6; 2.9; 3.3; 4.3; 5.7; 8.1; 10.3; and 10.9). Passages in three of these tales are particularly relevant to my analysis of Zinevra's tale in light of Segurano Salvaygo's (alleged) activities. The novella of Teodoro and Violante (5.7), set in the reign of King Guglielmo of Sicily, indicates that Boccaccio was aware of Genoese involvement in the enslavement of children from Western Asia, albeit in this case of Christian Armenians: "Amerigo Abbate da Trapani [...] avendo di servidori bisogno e venendo galee di corsari genovesi di Levante, li quali corseggiando l'Erminia molti fanciulli avevan presi, di quegli, credendogli turchi, alcuni compero" (5.7.3-4), including Teodoro, whom he has baptized and christened ("credendo che turchio fosse, il fe battezzare e chiamar Pietro" 5.7.5). (6)
In 10.3, the Genoese act as conduits for information about notable personages all the way from China to Europe: "Certissima cosa e, se fede si puo dare alle parole d'alcuni genovesi e d'altri uomini che in quelle contrade stati sono, che nelle parti del Cattaio fu gia uno uomo di legnaggio nobile e ricco senza comparazione, per nome chiamato Natan" (10.3.4).7 Similarly, 10.9 features the arrival of "certi genovesi per ambasciadori al Saladino per la ricompera di certi lor cittadini" (10.9.52), thanks to whom Messer Torello attempts to send word that he is alive back to his wife Adalieta in Italy. In this tale, however, the transmission of overseas news is twice thwarted: the ambassadors, and Torello's missive, are shipwrecked on their way to Genoa, and in the meantime the death of another Messer Torello (of France) is inaccurately announced to Adalieta as her husband's. The narrative suggests that this report is credited "per che molti italici tornarono con questa novella, tra' quali furon de' si presuntuosi che ardiron di dire se averlo veduto morto e essere stati alla sepoltura" (10.9.62). The Decameron thus dramatizes the role played by the Genoese in disseminating news across borders as well as the unreliability of such news.
In Naples, where he arrived in 1327, Boccaccio may have come into contact with Genoese and other merchants who had been personally acquainted with Segurano, his brother Ambrogio, and other members of the Salvaygo family. Perhaps, likewise, Boccaccio heard reports about Segurano's death, which took place four or five years earlier, on the order of Uzbak Khan of the Golden Horde, the same "Osbech [...] re de' turchi" who features as one of Alatiel's many abductors and lovers (2.7.76) and whose "Empress" is among Bruno's tongue-in-cheek list of women in 8.9.23: "'Voi vedreste quivi la donna de' barbanicchi, la reina de' baschi, la moglie del soldano, la 'mperadrice d'Osbech, la ciancianfera di Norrueca, la semistante di Berlinzone e la scalpedera di Narsia.'" (8)
Zinevra, Sicurano, and the Mamluks
Decameron 2.9 opens in Paris, as a group of wealthy Italian merchants lodging in the same inn chat about their sexual exploits abroad and assert that their wives back in Italy must be engaging in similar trysts. Only one merchant, Bernabo Lomellin of Genoa, speaks up in defense of his wife's loyalty and honor. In a passage often cited in studies of the Decameron's representation of gender, Bernabo further praises his wife in the following terms:
Oltre a questo, niuno scudiere, o famigliare che dir vogliamo, diceva trovarsi il quale meglio ne piU accortamente servisse a una tavola d'un signore, che serviva ella, si come colei che era costumatissima, savia e discreta molto. Appresso questo la commendo meglio saper cavalcare un cavallo, tenere uno uccello, leggere e scrivere e fare una ragione che se un mercatante fosse [...].
When fellow-merchant Ambrogiuolo challenges him to wager on his wife's faithfulness and then deceitfully tricks him into believing he successfully seduced her, Bernabo accepts defeat and sentences his wife to death. The wife, Zinevra, successfully pleads for her life with her executioner, disguises herself as a sailor, adopts the name Sicuran da Finale, escapes aboard a Catalan ship, and finally lands in the service of the Mamluk sultan in Alexandria. In Acre on business for the sultan, Sicurano happens to meet Ambrogiuolo, discovers why Bernabo ordered Zinevra's murder, and begins to orchestrate a public revelation of the truth thanks to a close network of mercantile connections in Alexandria and Genoa, a great deal of ingenuity, and his influential position with the sultan.
The first name of Zinevra's male persona, "Sicuran da Finale" (2.9.43; emphasis added), is typically viewed as Boccaccio's creative allusion to the protagonist's steadfastness, courage and aplomb. It is also symbolically related to Bernabo's claim, during the merchants' Parisian debate, that "'quelle che savie sono hanno tanta sollecitudine dello onor loro, che elle diventan forti piU che gli uomini, che di cio non si curano, a guardarlo; e di queste cosi fatte e la mia'" (2.9.18; emphasis added). The second half of her name, "da Finale," may refer to a town on the Ligurian coastline west of Genoa and may also allude to the propitious conclusion of Zinevra's adventures. Sara Alloati and Barbara Kappeli, for instance, read "Sicurano da Finale" as suggestive of sicuro del finale, thus linking Zinevra's male cover with the "onomastica fiabesca, in cui i nomi dei personaggi possono contenere informazioni o anticipazioni sul loro destino o sull'agire futuro" (see "Personaggi" in Alloati and Kappeli). These interpretations notwithstanding, I propose that Boccaccio may also have fashioned the name Sicurano after hearing of Segurano Salvaygo, and then worked a phonetically cognate reflexive verb (si curano) into Bernabo's speech and a geographically realistic provenance (da Finale) into his narrative in order to add to the novella's allusive layers.
With respect to Boccaccio's naming of protagonists in Decameron 2.9, it is notable that an anonymous thirteenth--or fourteenth-century novella identified by some scholars as the probable direct source for 2.9, and certainly as its closest analog, calls one of its characters simply "un Mercatante, molto bellissimo giovane, che aveva a nome Cherico, ed era d'Alessandria" (Ambrogiuolo da Piagenza in Boccaccio's novella). Boccaccio's Bernabo is only identified as "uno giovane di Genova," while Zinevra is "la donna" and does not adopt a male name when she dons a male servant's garments as a disguise (Lami 41). (9) Similarly, the "gentile uomo catalano, il cui nome era segner En Cararh" in whose service Sicurano first escapes Italy (2.9.42), is in the anonymous tale an unnamed "Gentiluomo di Catalogna" at the helm of a "Nave di Corsali" (Lami 46). Vittore Branca notes that "segner En Cararh" is meant to sound Catalan (2.9.42n10); thus, if the anonymous tale indeed served as the direct source for 2.9, it is interesting to consider the phonetically kindred Catalan verb encarar (to face, handle, cope with; to confront, challenge, defy; to bring face to face). The chance encounters with the nameless Catalan and En Cararh function, respectively, as the woman's and Zinevra's gateway to a new identity that will allow them to challenge structures of power in each variant of this story. In view of the Decameron's other symbolically coded names--arguably, for instance, those of the frame characters and Alatiel ("la lieta" of 2.9)--one cannot totally exclude that Boccaccio may have also intended to evoke encarar with "En Cararh." Likewise, just as Boccaccio explicitly identifies Bernabo as a member of the noble Genoese Lomellini family, which acquired fame and riches thanks to its seafaring and mercantile activities, so too could he have named Sicurano and Ambrogiuolo after the historically documented figures of Segurano and Ambrogio Salvaygo.
Another detail of Sicurano's journey for which readers find meaning elsewhere in the Decameron is that he sails with En Cararh on a ship bringing "certi falconi pellegrini al soldano" (2.9.44). (10) The passage is usually linked to Bernabo's declaration that his wife is exceptionally skilled at "tenere uno uccello" (2.9.10) as well as to the inclusion of "uccellare" among the list of male occupations which Boccaccio enumerates in the prologue ("Proemio" 12). These earlier mentions of falconry certainly guide readers to reflect more critically on the agency Zinevra acquires as Sicurano on the way to, and in, Alexandria.
To be sure, the four other Decameron tales illustrating the predilection for and practice of falconry among medieval Christian and Muslim nobles characterize it as an exclusively masculine pursuit (4.4, 5.9, 6.4, and 10.9). In the collection's penultimate tale of mutual magnanimity, Messer Torello first meets Saladin near Pavia as he rides to his country estate "con suoi famigliali e con cani e con falconi" (10.9.7), then, on the following morning, invites Saladin to observe how his falcons fly (10.9.21), and later becomes Saladin's personal falconer (10.9.50).
Unlike Messer Torello, however, Sicurano never actually works as a falconer for either the Catalan or the sultan. He comes to the sultan's notice because of his manners and service: "[...] veduti i costumi di Sicurano, che sempre a servir l'andava, e piaciutigli, [il soldano] al catalano il dimando" (2.9.44). Barker notes that in Mamluk Egypt "free people who wanted to wield political power had to become slaves first" and cites the "classic example" of Qawsun, "an amir who came to Egypt from the Golden Horde as a merchant in the retinue accompanying the daughter of Uzbak Khan" (the same retinue that included Segurano Salvaygo; 95). The Mamluk historian Ibn Taghrl BirdI (1410-1470) describes how Qawsun made such an impression on the sultan while "selling leather blade strops and embroidered leather items in the citadel of Cairo" that he sold himself as a slave and was then rapidly promoted to amir (Barker 95). Similarly, Baybars was first the slave of a goldsmith and "Ashiqtamur al-Mardinl al-Nasin was a successful amir, but gained his first promotion through his skill at playing the oud" (Barker 114).
There was a certain cachet, in both Christian and Muslim spheres, associated with the ability to attract the attention of dignitaries through one's deportment, skills, and/or material goods. The Mamluk chronicle that reports Segurano Salvaygo's arrival in Alexandria leaves unspecified the type of birds he brought to sultan al-Nasir along with wool, precious textiles, and atlases, but it is likely that they were also birds of prey. Mamluk sultans in this period, and al-Nasir in particular, frequently received hawks and falcons as gifts from loyal subjects and allies, and spent huge fortunes buying hunting birds from foreign merchants, often gifting the birds to high-ranking members of the Mamluk military in recognition of service and as gestures of affection. (11)
Boccaccio's representation of Sicurano aboard a ship carrying peregrine falcons and description of his pleasing "costumi" while serving the Catalan could, at once, refashion earlier variants, exemplify the general culture of and prestige associated with falconry in his day, recall other references to falconry in the collection, and be calculated to evoke the particular figure of Segurano Salvaygo. The historical Segurano and fictitious Sicurano did not become slaves first but, like Qawsun, they both drew the attention of reigning Mamluks through their accomplishments and were promoted to power-wielding positions.
Notably, Sicurano "la grazia e l'amor del soldano acquisto col suo bene adoperare" to such a degree that he is deemed qualified to supervise the sultan's merchants and merchandise at a major annual trade fair in Acre:
[...] in processo di tempo avvenne che, dovendosi in un certo tempo dell'anno a guisa d'una fiera fare una gran ragunanza di mercatanti e cristiani e saracini in Acri (la quale sotto la signoria del soldano era), accio che i mercatanti e le mercatantie sicure stessero, era il soldano sempre usato di mandarvi, oltre agli altri suoi uficiali, alcuno de' suoi grandi uomini con gente che alla guardia attendesse. Nella quale bisogna, sopravegnendo il tempo, dilibero di mandare Sicurano, il quale gia ottimamente la lingua sapeva; e cosi fece.
The favor and esteem Sicurano acquires from the sultan offers another tantalizing consonance with Segurano Salvaygo, the Genoese merchant who according to William of Adam became "so closely allied with the sultan that the sultan himself in his letters calls him his brother and friend" (Adam 33). The yearly fair referenced by Boccaccio could have been the annual spice market in Acre. In the early thirteenth century, "convoys for Acre and Alexandria left Venice in August for the yearly spice fair"; these triangulated coordinates, Venice-Acre-Alexandria, would shift in the second half of the thirteenth century, and especially after the 1291 fall of Acre to the Mamluks, to Genoa-Acre--Alexandria, when "supremacy in European trade with the Moslem Levant was in the hands of the Genoese" (Ashtor 10). Boccaccio situates his tale precisely in the period when Acre "sotto la signoria del soldano era" (2.9.45).
It is in the description of the events unfolding in Acre that two more of the verbs occurring in the Decameron's "Proemio" reappear:
Venuto adunque Sicurano in Acri signore e capitano della guardia de' mercatanti e della mercatantia, e quivi bene e sollecitamente faccendo cio che al suo uficio appartenea e andando da torno veggendo, e molti mercatanti e ciciliani e pisani e genovesi e viniziani e altri italiani vedendovi, con loro volentieri si dimesticava per rimembranza della contrada sua.
The description of Sicurano "andando da torno veggendo" relates back to the freedom of mobility and experience traditionally accorded to men and withheld from women as Boccaccio outlines in his prologue. From this perspective, it is noteworthy that employment in the sultan's service affords Sicurano a greater degree of agency in the world of commerce than was the case for Bernabo's Zinevra, who was said to be adept at domestic service, horse-riding, falconry, reading, writing, and accounting. The latter three activities accord with Italian notarial records documenting the active participation of many noble Genoese (and other Italian) women in the administrative and economic aspects of travel and commerce, whether on behalf of absent husbands, as a result of widowhood, or independently of male relatives. (12) In Acre, however, Sicurano goes beyond this range of activity since he is charged with inspecting the marketplace and ensuring the safety of the sultan's interests. This high level of engagement in economic and political affairs recalls Segurano Salvaygo in his capacity as Mamluk trader and escort when he accompanied a bride and cargo of slaves from the Golden Horde to al-Nasir Muhammad in 1320.
It is while serving the sultan as his head patrol in the market at Acre that Sicurano comes across a bag and a belt he recognizes as having belonged to Zinevra. Inquiring about their owner and sale, Sicurano comes, unwittingly at first, face to face with the party guilty of stealing the items and causing Zinevra's trials and tribulations. When Ambrogiuolo hears that the inquiry comes from the sultan's "capitano della guardia" (2.9.49), he replies that they are not for sale, declares his willingness to gift them to Sicurano, and falsely boasts that Zinevra gifted them to him after they spent the night together. Such a response could only be occasioned by Ambrogiuolo's implied desire to ingratiate himself with and show off to an individual who holds a particularly powerful position in Mamluk Acre, the sort of position that seems to have been enjoyed by Segurano Salvaygo, for instance, when in 1307 Matteo Zaccaria asked him to intercede with the sultan to broker peace with Jayme II of Aragon.
In the final portion of the novella, Sicurano's efforts to bring about a public revelation of Ambrogiuolo's crime and restore Zinevra's honor underline Zinevra's ability, qua Sicurano, to navigate the male-dominated world of commerce, diplomacy, and justice by exercising all the know-how of a first-rate merchant. Indeed, his actions bear witness to an exceptional degree of ingenuity, a trusted network of connections, copious funds, powerful allies, and an almost sultan-like status. We first read that Sicurano succeeds in entering into such confidence with Ambrogiuolo in Acre that he convinces him to travel to Egypt, sets him up with a warehouse, and puts a large sum of money at his disposal:
[...] artatamente prese con costui una stretta dimestichezza, tanto che per gli suoi conforti Ambruogiuolo, finita la fiera, con essolui e con ogni sua cosa se n'ando in Alessandria, dove Sicurano gli fece fare un fondaco e misegli in mano de' suoi denari assai: per che egli, util grande veggendosi, vi dimorava volentieri.
With the assistance of influential Genoese trading acquaintances and several clever pretexts, Sicurano then contrives to have Bernabo, now impoverished as a result of losing his wager with Ambrogiuolo, also brought to Alexandria and secretly housed with some of his friends:
Sicurano, sollecito a voler della sua innocenzia far chiaro Bernabo, mai non riposo infino a tanto che con opera d'alcuni gran mercatanti genovesi che in Alessandria erano, nuove cagioni trovando, non l'ebbe fatto venire: il quale, in assai povero stato essendo, a alcun suo amico tacitamente fece ricevere, infino che tempo gli paresse a quel fare che di fare intendea.
Might Sicurano's ushering of Ambrogiuolo and Bernabo to Alexandria not recall, in an imaginatively divergent context, William of Adam's condemnation of Segurano Salvaygo for having encouraged his own family members and countless other Genoese traders to traffic in forbidden goods with the Mamluks? Might the authority and ease with which Sicurano first grants Ambrogiuolo a warehouse and gives him some of his own money, and then brings Bernabo to Alexandria with the help of important Genoese merchants, not also evoke the rapport that Segurano Salvaygo must have had with other Genoese merchants in the Mamluk sultanate, as well as the fact that he was seen as "the important Frankish merchant" by the sultan's inner circle?
Having prepped and entertained the sultan by inviting Ambrogiuolo to narrate his fabricated story of Zinevra's seduction at court, Sicurano begs the Mamluk ruler to have Ambrogiuolo and Bernabo brought before him and to extract the truth from the former, with harsh measures if necessary:
[...] dal soldano impetro che davanti venir si facesse Ambruogiuolo e Bernabo, e in presenzia di Bernabo, se agevolmente fare non si potesse, con severita da Ambruogiuolo si traesse il vero come stato fosse quello di che egli della moglie di Bernabo si vantava.
While the sultan, following Sicurano's instructions, "con rigido viso" commands Ambrogiuolo to speak the truth, Sicurano nevertheless takes the leading role in the affair: "[...] con viso troppo piU turbato gli minacciava gravissimi tormenti se nol dicesse" (2.9.59). What is more, as soon as Ambrogiuolo "chiaramente, come stato era il fatto, narro ogni cosa" (2.9.60), Sicurano, acting as though he were the sultan's public prosecutor--"quasi essecutore del soldano" (2.9.61) --demands that Bernabo reveal how he punished his wife for this falsehood.
Sicurano is not the only Christian protagonist who rises to this degree of (potential) power within the Muslim world of the Decameron. In 10.9, the only other novella featuring Acre, Alexandria, and Genoa together, Saladin even invites Messer Torello to be co-regent of his territory:
"Messer Torello, poi che Idio qui mandato mi v'ha, pensate che non io oramai, ma voi qui siate il signore." [...] "Sarebbemi stato carissimo, poi che la fortuna qui v'aveva mandato, che quel tempo, che voi e io viver dobbiamo, nel governo del regno che io tengo parimente signori vivuti fossimo insieme [...]."
(10.9.58, 73) (13)
The overarching theme of mutual magnanimity that governs Day 10, the context of the Third Crusade (1189-1192) that frames this novella, and Messer Torello's gender and noble social rank provide the narrative grounds for Saladin's remarkable invitation. Anticipating Saladin's more expansive entreaty, for instance, earlier in the tale Torello's wife Adalieta presents Saladin and his companions (who are posing as merchants) with her husband's robes "non miga cittadine ne da mercatanti ma da signore" (10.9.31), while Torello and Saladin are as reluctant to part ways in Italy (10.9.36) as they are later in Alexandria. Conversely, in 2.9 the unjustly accused Zinevra, in the guise of Sicurano, acquires the means to punish Ambrogiuolo and vindicate her honor by provisionally taking on the sultan's legislative power.
Remarkably, Sicurano demands and obtains the sultan's blind faith in his words: first, that there is a truth to be extracted from Ambrogiuolo's tale of Zinevra's seduction, and, second, that there is a valid motive for doing so, since the sultan does not know "ancora a che Sicurano, che questo ordinato avea e domandato, volesse riuscire" (2.9.63). Sicurano subsequently strikes a deal with the sultan: he will have Zinevra brought before them if the sultan promises "di speziai grazia fare di punire lo 'ngannatore e perdonare allo 'ngannato" (2.9.65).
The sultan is "disposto in questa cosa di volere in tutto compiacere a Sicurano" and makes "la concession" (2.9.66-67). Once again, it is worth noting the parallel between Sicurano's position in the sultan's court and Segurano Salvayo's seemingly privileged patronage in Mamluk Egypt.
In the tale's dramatic conclusion, Sicurano reveals himself to be Zinevra in disguise by falling on his knees in tears, abandoning his "maschil voce" (2.9.67), tearing open his shirt, and declaring to the sultan:
"Signor mio, io sono la misera sventurata Zinevra, sei anni andata tapinando in forma d'uom per lo mondo, da questo traditor d'Ambruogiuolo falsamente e reamente vituperata, e da questo crudele e iniquo uomo data a uccidere a un suo fante e a mangiare a' lupi."
The sultan, stunned by this revelation of Sicurano's true identity, keeps his word: he forgives Bernabo, sends him and Zinevra back to Genoa laden with gifts and money, and punishes Ambrogiuolo by having him tied to a post, smeared with honey, and devoured by insects down to the bone. (14)
While Madonna Filippa (6.7)--who stands (accurately) accused of adultery--successfully argues for her right to a lover and even rescinds the unjust law governing the women of Prato, Zinevra--whose honor is falsely tarnished--has no recourse in Genoa and is pronounced guilty by hearsay. It is only after she has spent six years "tapinando in forma d'uom per lo mondo" and is firmly installed in the faraway Muslim court of the sultan that she can finally not only reveal her identity but also extract a confession from her accuser. (15)
As I hope to have shown, the complementary journeys and exploits of Sicurano and Segurano merit comparison. The Dominican bishop William of Adam, who singled out Segurano as the "head of all vice," wrote his crusade treatise while serving as papal missionary in Persia, perhaps as early as 1314 or as late as 1323. Boccaccio may have gotten wind of this text from clerical and noble circles in Naples, or he may have heard reports about Adam's views and/or about Segurano's activities from Genoese merchants and other European travelers returning from Persia, the Near East, and North Africa to Italy. The presence of analogous narrative details in the anonymous novella that may antedate the Decameron complicates, but does not undermine, the possible correlation between Segurano Salvaygo and Sicuran da Finale, given that the names are aligned and the setting is in Mamluk Egypt only in Boccaccio's novella. (16)
Even when the correspondence between fact (or legend, or anecdote) and fiction remains more suggestive than definitive, pursuing such trails enriches our discussion and enjoyment of the Decameron and its Mediterranean settings. Boccaccio himself invites readers to find connections among his "cento novelle, o favole o parabole o istorie che dire le vogliamo" ("Proemio" 13). Like Zinevra, albeit for different reasons, Segurano Salvaygo was denounced as a traitor to social order and morality. Did Boccaccio deliberately transform Segurano into Sicurano, himself a cover for Zinevra? If so, it is possible that Boccaccio intended to redeem the actions of this legendary, infamous merchant by recasting the controversial matter of Christian-Muslim, Genoese-Mamluk relations in a more positive light. After all, the Decameron is packed with narratives that imaginatively rework historical realities and favorably portray figures viewed as anathema in more orthodox Christian texts. William of Adam condemns the sultan of Egypt as "the enemy Satan" and Muslims as "the enemies of the cross and persecutors of our faith." As in Decameron 1.3 (Melchisedek and Saladin) and 10.9 (Torello and Saladin), in Zinevra's novella Boccaccio follows the lead of more flattering reports about Muslims circulating in his day and may similarly have gone against the grain of disparaging notions about Segurano Salvaygo. If Decameron 2.9 shows the upside of consorting with the enemy abroad, it is also in order to underline homegrown social and moral shortcomings. Indeed, both Segurano and Sicurano found powerful allies, agency, and a voice, among the same ostensible foes, and similarly tenacious enemies in their very own Christian world.
As is the case for many narrative components of the Decameron and the novella tradition in general, it is often difficult to make categorical claims about source material for a genre so profoundly permeated with the cross-cultural oral transmission of information. Whether Zinevra's tale more generally illustrates the medieval Mediterranean's varied historical contexts or validates the specific historical figure of Segurano Salvaygo, it clearly invites its most immediate readers, fourteenth-century nobles, merchants, and women, to challenge vicarious reports of misdeeds and to contemplate a case in which the truth can only be spoken to power after travel beyond the borders of one's country and even beyond the limits of one's gender.
Queens College, CUNY
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(1) This essay develops research presented in 2014 at the Annual Meeting of the Renaissance Society of America and at Columbia University's Department of Italian. I thank the organizers at both venues, as well as audience members, for their valuable comments, particularly Teodolinda Barolini, Jo Ann Cavallo, and Janet Levarie Smarr. Thanks also to Hannah Barker for her helpful feedback on this essay.
(2) All citations from the Decameron are from Vittore Branca's edition.
(3) See, for example, Barolini, "'Le parole son femmine e i fatti son maschi'"; Cavallero; Migiel, especially chapter 4: "To Transvest not to Transgress" (83-108); Paris; and Wayne.
(4) See, for instance, Epstein: "Supplying slaves was clearly part of Segurano's purpose as far as the Mamluks were concerned, and he was quite successful" (164). Adam's claim is also misleading because the most prominent traders of Mamluk slaves were Mamluk subjects and not Italians (Barker 215-18).
(5) While Boccaccio does not explicitly reference Mamluks in the Decameron, and the Saladin of 1.3 and 10.9 is usually identified in commentaries as Salah ad-Din (1137-1193), as I observe below the Muslim ruler who features in 2.9 should be identified as Mamluk because the novella is set after the 1291 fall of Acre to Mamluk forces. See Kinoshita and Jacobs for a historicized reading of Decameron 2.7 that accounts for its "dense network of Mediterranean politics and exchange" (165) and construes Alatiel as the daughter of a (fictional) Mamluk sultan. See also Kirkham and Menocal as well as Smarr for readings that consider the incidence and significance of Arabic culture in the Decameron.
(6) It is also of interest to recall Dante's reference to trade in Mamluk territory and condemnation of the Genoese in Inferno, the work in which Boccaccio was most engrossed (aside from revising the Decameron) in the final years of his life through a series of public lectures, his Esposizioni sopra la "Comedia" (1373): "Lo principe d'i novi Farisei, /avendo guerra presso a Laterano, /e non con Saracin ne con Giudei, /che ciascun suo nimico era cristiano, /e nessun era stato a vincer Acri/ne mercatante in terra di Soldano" (27.85-90); and "Ahi Genovesi, uomini diversi/d'ogne costume e pien d'ogne magagna, /perche non siete voi del mondo spersi?" (33.151-3). On Boccaccio's reading of Inferno 1-17, see Hollander 884-933.
(7) Marco Polo's Il Milione was of course already circulating in the early fourteenth century, and may have been one of Boccaccio's sources on the East, though it is never explicitly mentioned in the Decameron.
(8) While here I follow Branca (2.7.76n6) in identifying Boccaccio's Osbech with Uzbak Khan, Kinoshita and Jacobs argue that his actions in 2.7 more closely evoke Umur Bey of Aydin (180-81). It is of course also possible that Boccaccio intended to evoke both rulers in his readers' imagination: Uzbak through the protagonist's name and Umur through his deeds.
(9) Branca notes this antecedent, among others, describing it as "un racconto forse trecentesco molto simile citato dal Lami" (Dec. 2.9.1n2).
(10) The anonymous 13th-century French prose romance La Fille du Comte de Pontieu, another close antecedent for Boccaccio's tale listed by Branca (2.9.1n2), also figures Catalan merchants gifting falcons--along with the heroine--to the sultan. The anonymous Italian novella cited above simply narrates that the woman, disguised as a male servant, arrives in "Saracinia a uno porto della terra, dove abitava il Grande Cane" (Lami 47).
(11) For birds of prey as gifts in Mamluk Egypt, see Shehada 68-72.
(12) On women's involvement in trade in medieval Italy, see Crabb 558-59 and Angelos 407-08.
(13) For another Christian protagonist who ingratiates himself with a Muslim ruler, see Decameron 5.2, in which Martuccio Gomito is freed from captivity by the King of Tunis to help him strategize a successful defense against a Granadan would-be invader and receives the king's leave to marry his long-lost beloved Gostanza.
(14) To my knowledge, it has not been previously pointed out that Ambrogiuolo's punishment replicates a form of torture attributed to ancient Greece, described in St Jerome's Life of St Paul the Hermit, and recorded in Jacobus de Voragine's Legenda Aurea (c. 1260), a medieval bestseller with which Boccaccio was certainly familiar. In Voragine's hagiography of St. Paul, we read that the hermit witnessed the tortures inflicted on Christians by the emperor Decius, including that of a man who "had his whole body coated with honey and was exposed under a blazing sun to be stung to death by flies, hornets, and wasps" (Voragine 84). In precisely the same manner, Boccaccio's "Ambrogiuolo il di medesimo che legato fu al palo e unto di mele, con sua grandissima angoscia dalle mosche e dalle vespe e da' tafani, de' quali quel paese e copioso molto, fu non solamente ucciso ma infino all'ossa divorato [...]" (2.9.75). More intriguing still, visa-vis Boccaccio's tale of the cross-dressing Zinevra, is the description of this form of torture that appears in Lectionum antiquarum libri XXX (1516) by the humanist Lodovico Ricchieri, better known as Caelius Rhodiginus. According to Ricchieri, the punishment named "cyphonismus" in antiquity consisted of fastening anyone who had scorned the law to a public pillory and leaving them naked and covered with milk or honey for twenty days to be bitten by flies and bees before being dressed in women's clothes and thrown off a cliff (Ricchieri 362).
(15) For another novella in which a protagonist in disguise travels abroad to redeem his (economic and romantic) fortune, and condemns the double standards and injustices of his own milieu, see 3.7: Tedaldo degli Elisei takes on a new identity, departs from Italy, and returns (rich and famous) to claim his beloved. At this point in the narrative, Tedaldo denounces the hypocrisy of those who "sgridano contra gli uomini la lussuria, accio che, rimovendosene gli sgridati, agli sgridatori rimangano le femine; essi dannan l'usura e i malvagi guadagni, accio che, fatti restitutori di quegli, si possan fare le cappe piU larghe, procacciare i vescovadi e l'altre prelature maggiori di cio che mostrato hanno dovere menare a perdizion chi l'avesse" (3.7.38). See also 2.3, in which the daughter of the king of England travels disguised as an abbot.
(16) Other details in the anonymous tale analogous with passages in Decameron 2.9 include: 1) the disguised woman tells the Catalan merchant, "'io sono buono Ragioniere, e buono Scrittore, e ben so servire a tavola'"; 2) the Catalan "invaghi si di costui pegli suoi begli costumi"; 3) Gran Cane is impressed by his "begli reggimenti" and forces the Catalan to leave him behind; 4) Gran Cane is so pleased by his table service that "parvegli si savissimo, che penso di fargli onore, e fecielo Maliscalco d'una buona Cittade"; 5) during a great "fiera" in that city, the Maliscalco comes across Cherico and the stolen items; and 6) in the final scene "el detto Maliscalco si spoglio ignudato, e mostro com'ella era femina." Different from Boccaccio's novella is the fact that the Maliscalco obtains from Gran Cane permission to travel to Genoa, presents himself to the impoverished husband as "barone del Gran Cane," and brings him back to "Saracinia" himself (Lami 47-50).
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|Author:||Attar, Karina F.|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2016|
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