Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri. The Man Who Believed He Was King of France: A True Medieval Tale.
In his recent translation, William McCuaig has skillfully and accurately rendered Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri's L'uomo che si credeva re di Francia: una storia medievale, the story of Giannino di Guccio, a Sienese merchant who believed he was the king of France and legitimate heir to the French crown. Falconieri provides a useful and critical study of the various sources that record Giannino's efforts to convince European leaders and everyday people of his royal descent and claim. At the same time one finds that the author skillfully weaves the merchant's brave, though ultimately disastrous, quest within the historical, political and social background of medieval Europe. The first five chapters tell the merchant's story in a straightforward fashion. The author interjects only to analyze and judge the sources passed down through history. In the sixth and final chapter, Falconieri is interested in probing the history, legend, and literature surrounding "King Jean I's" fateful quest. Several fundamental questions are raised: did King Giannino exist? Was he of royal blood? Which sources can we trust and why? The author succinctly and methodically answers each one.
Chapter 1, "At Rome," details the genesis of Giannino's long journey and immediately draws the reader into the narrative when word comes to Siena in September 1354 that Cola di Rienzo must see the merchant immediately. At their encounter, the Roman senator dramatically kisses the merchant's right foot and discloses the story of his regal birthright. As Giannino makes his way back to Siena in the second chapter, "At Siena," the plot thickens when word arrives of Cola's death. With two letters patent from the tribune, the revelation of his noble birth, and a defective seal from the same Roman leader, Giannino decides to research his past and the court of France, and share his tale with only his closest friends. On 9 October 1356 word comes that the king of France, Jean II, has been captured in battle. A friar and close friend of Giannino seizes the moment to proclaim that the true king of France, Jean I, is within the walls of Siena and should be recognized as such.
Chapters 3 and 4 detail Giannino's manifold attempts to find recognition and assistance "In the East" and "In the West," respectively. In Chapter 3, Falconieri focuses particularly on Giannino's attempts to acquire military aid and acknowledgement at the court of Louis I the Great, King of Hungary, and from whomever else in the merchant and banking community he could convince to back him financially or militarily. In the fourth chapter, the author seeks to bring together Giannino's various efforts to find help and be recognized by the government of Siena, the papacy at Avignon, and diverse political factions in France amid the confusion and anarchy of the Hundred Years' War. While closely following and cogently recounting Giannino's divagations, Falconieri persuasively illustrates the pertinence of the "merchant king's" small role in the larger historical picture of medieval Europe. With the precision of a lapidary, the author homes in on and magnifies what Giannino is up to as an individual, but he carefully and aptly places the merchant's aspirations and goals within a France that was in real danger with its king in enemy hands.
By securely fastening Giannino's story to the historical reality of the times and digging up evidence that verifies its veracity, the incredible tale becomes quite credible. By the fifth chapter, "In Prison," the reader is bound to the narrative just as Giannino is bound to the chains of his cells first in Provence, where he manages momentarily to raise his standard in battle, and finally in Naples, where he begins to pen what became the primary source of his quest, the Istoria del re Giannino di Francia. In Chapter 6, Falconieri confronts the Istoria head on and summarizes some of his fundamental findings, with particular emphasis on proving that Giannino existed and did, for the most part, what the Istoria recounts. The author poses the essential questions and disagrees with critics who claim that the merchant king's story is nothing more than literary invention. Falconieri convincingly argues that the Istoria is not a forgery, although Giannino himself was guilty of falsifying numerous documents to champion his cause. We are left, the author concludes, with a final paradox: "[...] the man who believed he was king was a forger and an impostor, but his story, though regarded as a literary 'forgery,' is actually authentic and does recount (with however strong a slant) his own life" (128).
Though the amount of corroborating evidence supporting Falconieri's claim is substantial and his analysis itself persuasive, two independent documents act as the "smoking gun" that make his argument compelling. The first is the recorded deliberation of the Sienese government, dated 27 October 1359. As a result of Giannino's claims (and a forged letter he wrote in the name of Louis the Great), the commune of Siena ruled that Giannino could no longer hold public office because of his claim to royal blood and French, not Sienese, citizenship. The second is a letter dated 16 April 1361 from Pope Innocent VI to the King and Queen of Naples in which the pope writes that Giannino and his mercenary army, camped just outside Avignon, constituted a diplomatic problem at that time.
The value of Falconieri's work is twofold. On the one hand, the author sheds light on where the myth ends and where the truth begins in the story of Giannino di Guccio; on the other, he offers the reader a unique view of fourteenth-century history through the example of one merchant and his quest to become king of France. Although the author provides a compelling, wellresearched conclusion, complete with a useful and comprehensive bibliography, it is important to note that he also acknowledges the doubts that remain and the unresolved problems surrounding Giannino and the Istoria del re Giannino di Francia. William McCuaig's translation will undoubtedly help to connect readers of English to Giannino's tale as well as to the history of fourteenthcentury Europe.
Brandon Essary, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
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