Alessandro Caravia: Jeweler, Heretic Poet, or Chronicler?

I am very fond of buying this sword
More than I having got a castle
I'm making a new sheath
All furnished with golden tinplate
And letters that say: "This is what
Takes enemy's breath away:
Its name is Bloodsucker
Which slashes coat mail and crushes helmets.
[1]

Autoritratto da Il Sogno del Caravia

It is difficult to define briefly the very complex character such as that of Alessandro Caravia, author of the 16th century Italian chronicle, The Ancient War. However it is not so relevant in this essay to establish if he was a heretic rather than a simple jeweler, gold-smith and gem merchant.

In true we can better prefer to know where his passion for the urban stick-fighting war, mock battle and underworld slang of his day comes from.

There is no evidence that Caravia was inspired to write about cruel mock-battles like a poet-swordsman such as Torquato Tasso. Nevertheless the theories that the War was simply a poetic artifice to hide heretic messages inside a mock-heroic poem-in burlesque Venetian vulgar, seem to be used often as an excuse not to see anything in it other than drunk workmen and artisan cudgeling each other on a bridge.

Most of the information about Caravia’s life come from the documents of the trial, wherein the Inquisition charged him with heresis after the publishing of The ancient war, and the long correspondence he held with Cosimo I De Medici, who bought precious stones and jewels from him.

Alessandro was born in Venice the 10th of July, 1503. He grew up in a middle-class and well-off family, although some of his relative’s problems made his life difficult: after his brother’s death he had to undertake his family’s support. Since his young age he attended to the Guils of the Jewelers and his Ruga (road), located in Rialto. Here the environment was frequented by eastern and western merchants: a place where a lot of business was conducted as well as not just goods, but also ideas and philosophies were exchanged.Carvers, jewelers and chisellers were in the heart of this trading of religious ideas, working precious stones and metals, which were often attributed beneficial powers and magic meaning.

One of these high regarded jewelers was Alessandro Caravia. Bound indissolubly to the corporation, he shared its original spirit and respected religiously his regulations. He run a workshop in Rialto, and thanks to his rectitude, he practiced his profession successfully. It appeared that his business increased as he had more than one employee.

Naturally, after such great success, toward the end of his career Caravia acquired the position of personal jeweler of the De Medici family. The correspondence with Cosimo I provides interesting information about our author’s life and personality. Caravia was a man of melancholic nature. Besides his economic concern due to his profession and family, he suffered from attacks of melancholia since childhood. Although he was let off the charge of heresy, the trail marked further this restless spirit with psychosomatic manifestations and tendencies of self-pity.In 1555, together with MarcAntonio Benzon, Zuanne Pruner alla Speranza and the jeweler Filippo Cordon, Caravia put apart the old "Corno ducale". After Zuanne Pruner’s dead, he took his place, co-operating with Alvise Vitali in the realisation of the new crown.

He wrote the Sogno dil Caravia (Caravia’s dream) in 1541, where his portrait appears [2]. In 1550 he wrote the "Verra Antiga de Castellani, Canaruoli e Gnatti con la morte di Giurco e Gnani", and he sent to press "Naspo bizaro" in 1557. This last one, in which he deal with gold and stones in different metaphors,became very famous and was re-printed several times. 

His will dates back to the 1st of May, 1563, though he died at the age of sixty five in 1568.

War of fists



La Verra Antiga

In one thousand, four hundred and twenty one
In the day of Sail-ripper San Simon
Everyone meet at Servi (bridge)
With his stick and helmet
To show off who is white or brown
And that no one is a simpleton
Displaying to be skilful one better than the other
and not to be afraid of stick blows
[3]

The Verra Antiga is a mock-heroic poem of 184 octaves. The work begin with the dedication to "my very honourable patron Piero Aretin".

Here the author says that he is inspired by the discovery of an ancient manuscript of Pantalon da ca Litroppia, who recorded the wars of that time. The poem tells the chronicle of the mock battle held, according to the poetic pretence, at Servi bridge the 28th of October, San Simon, 1421. In true there are several elements that make us doubt of the reliability of this date.

It is proven that the construction of the bridge is later than 1421 and from the evidence of the trial, Caravia confessed to be inspired by the discovery of others papers about the chronicle of the mock battle held at San marziale bridge in 1521.

The subject of the wars is handled by Caravia in an unvary way. The incessant series of challenges, menaces and curses are sometimes confused and prevent us from understanding the effective course of the fight. Only analyzing the succession of the fighters’ names, one can see how the Castellani faction, after the first individual duels, advance until the border of the Cannaruoli’s territory. The opponents repelled them twice when they were almost crossing the canal, reaching the base of the bridge to the other side.

Then a "squarcina", a bravo's knife, shines all of sudden. The accident, avoided by a gentleman’s reconciliatory interference, seems to be completely averted, but Sier Grinta’s “pugnal” stabs a Castellano’s abdomen. Panic strikes! The squarcine re-appear and they will never more sheath back. The fighters pass instinctively from the sticks to a very diversified armoury of cut and thrust weapons such as daggers, sword, two-handers, knifes, spontons, gisarmes, bows and arrows, partizens, steckes, stortas, and axes.

The general scuffle turns into a slaughter: the supporters of both sides change from spectators to players: they throw rocks and tiles from roof-terraces, windows and roofs on the fighters’ heads.

The intervention of hundred gendarmes ends the massacre. On the ground two champions lie injured: the cannaruolo Gnagni and the castellano Giurco, whose confession, will and death Caravia narrates at the ending. In Verra Antiga the most sensational moments of the battagliola are underlined in a mock-heroic way, as to (as if it may) sweeten the rampant and furious violence.

However the battagliola was not only a general brawl without rules, as it may seem. Indeed, the players were not inexperienced swordmen, but very skilful at Scrimia, which just in those times got the epithet of “science”. The battagliole on the bridges, privileged places of initiation, come from the very ancient roman rites of purification and expiation, while in the middle-age from the chivalric legends of Orlando inamorato [4] and Orlando furioso[5]

The choice of the day is not accidental: the San Simon Day, the 28th of October, marks a very delicate period of change, inaugurating a new season where the sea manifests its most fearsome and insidious nature for the navigation. It is useless to say what this meant for a seafaring people like the Venetians, while it is very helpful to point out how the war was under the protection of this Saint, sails ripper/rip-sails, to whom the popular religiosity had always connected to the storms, hurricanes and floods.

The Caravia’s expressions, comparing the champions’ scrambles to the sea surges of the storms, half-reveal the outline of a ritual action: propitiatory fight between initiated groups. Symbol of the esoteric journey, of the crossings and difficult passages, medium of the world of dead, the bridge is the most indicated place for the rites- spectacles, which follow after the critical stage of the transition to a new season.

In this sense the bridge wars belong to the cycle of the Carnival feasts, where the images of slaughter and massacre, recurring obsessively in the 184 octaves, are those connected to the banquet. In fact, in the Carnival feast death and laughter live together, associating the images of the dismembering of the body to those of the cuisine.

Thus in the ancient war, under the spectators’ laughing, the blood flow like wine from the spigot, heads are broken like eggs, crumbled like biscuits; livers and lungsstick like eels , legs and arms cut like leeks, brains pulped like buttermilk and skin stripped off as it do with the frogs. Finally the relation slaughter-cuisine is not only metaphoric: during the battle the wine really mixed with the blood and the banquet followed the massacre.

I feel stronger than Orlando
Now that I drank a jug”
Go here to the store immediately
And drink five or six jugs”





[1] Caravia, Naspo bizaro cit. canto I, L III, 1-4 e LIV.

[2] The first two pictures of this essay.

[3] Caravia, La Verra antiga, VI ottava

[4] libro II, canto II, VII, XVII

[5] See the duel on the bridge between Orlando and Rodomonte XXIX, 47