La Michaelida

Written by  Gianni Venturi
Cruelty and dreams of humanitas in Ferrara, under Niccolò III.
The history of the Giglioli family is a very old one, and still shrouded in mystery despite the recent publication of the family archives by the Ferrara Institute of Renaissance Studies. The Giglioli were a powerful family whose origins can be traced back further than those of the Este. The historical data are confirmed by the family archives, mainly consisting of documents relating to inheritance matters and the management of the land acquired over many centuries.

The initial impression is that the family's fortunes were closely linked with their services to the Este court, where the Giglioli were known as able administrators undertaking delicate and responsible public duties. This made them powerful, and also rich. The family did not follow the Duke to Modena, preferring to remain in Ferrara where they continued to serve the cardinal legates after Ferrara had passed to the Papal State. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the family's interests were more literary and artistic. The Renaissance Palazzo di San Francesco, the new home of the Giglioli family, was rebuilt on late neoclassical principles.

The origins of the story which interests us here are obscure. Giacomo Giglioli, who became Secretary or Referendary under the Marchese Niccolò III, was at the summit of his power when, according to the chronicles, he was accused of high treason together with his son Gigliolo, Captain of Reggio Emilia. Both were imprisoned. The father was hanged; the son was held for thirteen years and died soon after his release.
Ziliolo's story is not unusual, if we are to believe what the court historians tell us of the politics and strife which characterised life in Ferrara at the time. But Niccolò was not simply a pitiless avenger of treason; he was also an enlightened ruler who, despite his own uncultivated background, understood and valued knowledge and the humanist dream of a return to humanae letterae and classicism. It was due to Nicholas that Ferrara was ready to take its place as one of the foremost centres of renaissance humanism; it was through him that the great Guarino da Verona set up his studio in Ferrara, becoming tutor to the young Leonello - destined to bring about the golden age in Ferrara - and developing the prince's inclinations through a highly refined educational programme.

Both Ziliolo and Petto da Baisio - youthful companion turned gaoler and torturer - studied under Guarino.
Guarino's letters to his pupils clearly reveal his desire to instil a sense of human dignity, that humanitas practiced in classical times which renders Man worthy of the name and transform natural ferocity into dignity, self respect and respect for others.

The unfortunate fate of Ziliolo has left behind a single document, the Comediola Michaelida. The manuscript is written in Ziliolo's own hand (and blood). In the character of Thimo, he implores Fanius, actually Petto, Captain of the Castello and once a fellow student under Guarino, to free him from the prison in which he languishes. Other characters include the rex, Niccolò himself, and the regius filius, Leonello.

The comediola attempts to restore Fanius' humanity. Guarino's letters and research in the archives suggest that the story has some historical basis. The friendship between Giacomo Giglioli, the father of Ziliolo, and Guarino is evident in the letters which they exchanged, and there is even a suggestion that Giacomo commissioned the Guarino letters - the portrait of humanism which became the model for literary humanists and men of politics alike.
Ironically, the faithful followers of this morality were themselves accused of treason, and had to pay the penalty for a slanderous accusation of disloyalty to the prince. Nor is the figure of Petto as entirely negative as might be imagined. Petto is the companion of Leonello, no heartless gaoler but a refined lover of the new humanism. He only becomes implacable after Ziliolo has betrayed his trust in an attempt to escape from a prison regime which was not as harsh as it was to become following the botched escape.

Ziliolo is imprisoned in one of the towers of the Castello Vecchio, the Marchesana or San Michele tower (hence the title of the Michaelida), where he is treated fairly well; he receives visits from his wife, he is allowed writing materials and can order the food of his choice. The attempt at flight unleashes the inexorable brutality of Petto/Fanius, who now treats his prisoner in the tower with a cruelty which negates the values he once pursued.

If we can easily glimpse a historical basis beneath the slim plot, the appeal for humanity which the author launches in his letter of dedication to the prison guard, the pride with which Ziliolo turns to his one-time friend cannot be denied. The horrors of prison have not undermined that belief in the nobility of spirit which was the most exalted aspect of Guarino's teaching, and the petition becomes a discussion between equals on the concept of humanitas.

Whether Ziliolo was guilty or not we will never know. Literature has taken over from biography. The strict and cruel times were not such as to encourage us to assume total innocence in those who wielded power; but even in the extreme severity of his punishment Ziliolo decided to survive, and in 1439, after five years of imprisonment, he wrote this appeal with compassion and dignity, in places using his own blood as ink.