The Idea of Community in Renaissance Italy

Article excerpt


In the Communal Library of Udine there is a thick file titled, "Depositions of witnesses to a brawl that took place in Buia, 1516." (1) The first document in the file reads:

Before Us the Illustrious and Most Gracious Lord, Knight, and Count Messer Girolamo Savorgnan, I, Angelo da Udine, Knight of Your Lordship, present myself solemnly to denounce Costantino, son of Simone di Rizzardi di Buia, and all the others who were in his company.

Thus it was that yesterday I went to Buia on orders from Your Lordship together with Govetto and Colari di Gemona and Zuane Cargnello, all officers of the court, to arrest the said Costantino. In execution of the letters sent by the Magnificent and Gracious Luogotenente with a writ demanding payment of forty ducats granted by a sentence of the Condemnatoria made in favor of Simone, a doctor living in Buia. I found the said Costantino in his house, which is next to the church of Santo Stefano, a house in which [also] lives Leonardo Franz who runs a tavern there. I slapped my hand on his back, saying, "Don't move, Costantino, in the name of Our Lord, Messer Girolamo Savorgnan." The said Costantino quickly grabbed my hand to pull my knife away and began to escape. We scuffled such that the knife fell on the ground. Then he went to pull out his sword, but Govetto took it away. Seeing that he was unable to flee, the said Costantino yelled toward some peasants of Buia who were eating, "Oh my commune, help me, now!" [Oh comun mio aduitarime adesso.] And immediately the peasants, who were five or six in number, jumped up from the table. They put themselves between me and my colleagues, shoving us around such that they drove us to a staircase. I escaped from their hands. As I came out below, I was surrounded by fifty or sixty persons who began to throw rocks at me. Those who were armed yelled, "Hit them, hit them, kill, kill." One who had a lance thrust it three times at Zuane Cargnello, and if he had not been able to protect himself with a shield he would have been killed. Then we took off together with Costantino and all the others. [The crowd] followed me and my colleagues up to the top of the church, shoving us and yelling, "Hit them, hit them, kill, kill," such that we were forced to leave the said Constantino whom we had arrested. We fled. While fleeing we seemed to hear the said peasants ring the tocsin. I saw a great many people running. I understood that the said Costantino and all the others later held a town me eting [una visinanza in commune] so that if anyone went to arrest any of them, all would be armed and would kill [the officials] quicker than they would be able to arrest them for that thing. I ask that all those responsible and guilty be punished as Justice demands. (2)

Of course as one reads the testimony of the other twenty-odd witnesses to this sharp incident in a small town set among the soft, verdant hills of Friuli, the scene becomes murkier, but all witnesses agreed that in the moment of danger Costantino Rizzardi yelled out, "Oh my commune, help me, now!" Although the awkward plea in English is a little less so in Furlano, the language Costantino spoke, it is nevertheless curious that in his spontaneous cry for help, he would have called upon his comune (community) rather than amici (friends) or compagni (comrades), the usual terms of male solidarity, especially in a faction-ridden, vendetta-prone land such as Friuli. (3) This simple phrase, "Oh my commune, help me," seems out of place -- a dramatic major chord in a dissonant composition that might be a clue to the depth of community solidarity in Buia. As an example of communal strength, Buia was unusual in another respect: during the great peasant revolt that bloodied Friuli just five years before, Buia's tranquili ty made it the piece that did not quite fit into the larger puzzle of social discontent. (4) Thus it is that this incident in a Buia tavern might reveal something fundamental about the idea of community normally obscured by the regularities of town and village life in northern and central Italy. …