Dr Louise Bourdua, Department of History of Art
Published October 2011
The Mendicant Friars, members of international religious orders dedicated to preaching, were some of the greatest travellers of the later Middle Ages. The purpose of their voyages was much more than merely devotional, disciplinary or evangelical. Student friars had to travel to provincial or general schools (the latter in university towns). Heads of convents and provinces were expected to attend both provincial chapter meetings and, occasionally, general chapter meetings which required travel across great distances in Europe. Such were the difficulties that Dominican friars, members of the order most dedicated to study, were subject to fines for non-attendance. There were also summons to appear before various courts, holidays to enjoy (Augustinian student friars in Oxford were allocated to summer convents when the university was closed), or bathing trips to take (for health).
Amongst all these activities, we do not often hear about the mundane travel associated with the duties of friars as testamentary executors, fulfilling the posthumous wishes of the deceased, including the restitution of any ill-gotten gains. A rare survival is an as-yet-unpublished single sheet of paper from the 1340s, now in the state archives of Venice. This offers a glimpse of the travelling habits of two Franciscan friars, Pace da Lugo, famous as the supervisor of the sculpted façade portal of San Lorenzo in Vicenza (carved by Andriolo de’ Santi between 1342 and 1345), and the lesser-known Tomaso da Camerino, who seems to have been an inquisitor.
The expense account of friar Pace da Lugo forms part of the documents relating to the execution of the will of Pietro ‘Nan’ (the ‘dwarf’) da Marano (died before 1 november 1341), a noble originally from Vicenza who made his fortune as a counsellor to Cangrande della Scala, was later made a citizen of Venice, and was famously accused of trying (and failing) to poison pope John XXII. By the time he came to draw up his will Pietro had quite a bit on his conscience, and shortly before his death stipulated that ten thousand ducats previously invested in the Venetian Grain Exchange should be used posthumously to expiate his sins. As his executors, the friars Pace da Lugo and Tomaso da Camerino carried out his wishes in Vicenza, Verona and Tregnago (some 22 kms northeast of Verona). Rather unusually (as far as we know), they claimed travel and subsistence expenses from the Procurators of San Marco, the officials who administered the testamentary business of Venetian citizens and kept a tight hold on the purse strings.
As travellers, our two friars differed from merchants, who travelled to make a living, or indeed pilgrims, whose only reward was heavenly. Both friars took time off from their regular religious activities to restore the ill-gotten gains of a contrite sinner. Pace’s journeys, additionally, involved the purchase and transport of building materials, and the wages of the workforce at work on the portal of San Lorenzo in Vicenza, a project intended by Pietro da Marano to earn him a place in Paradise (as well as on the tympanum of the church, kneeling before the Virgin Mary and Child).
The expense account offers a unique glimpse of the routes taken by friars who had to ‘commute’ between Verona and Venice, what modes of transport were available, where they spent the night, how much they spent on accommodation and food and drink, and what inconvenienced them. In total, the expense sheet details five voyages claimed between the middle of July 1341 and April 1342, undertaken to convince the procurators to release Pietro da Marano’s ducats from the grain exchange. the five journeys were only a small fraction of the overall total: it was to take Pace da Lugo nearly a decade to bring to completion all the projects stemming from Pietro da Marano’s legacy.
Unlike modern claim forms, the expense sheet does not detail everything (but does seem to have led to payment). There is no precise date for journeys or their duration: references are to ‘around the middle of the month’ (as in July 1341), or ‘towards the end of the month’ (November 1341). We learn that the friars were summoned to appear in Venice via letter. On the first voyage in mid-July 1341, in order to collect 2000 ducats, Pace apparently took one day to get to Venice by navi (ships) down the river Adige from Verona.
The Adige which, unlike the Brenta and the Po, is not much travelled nowadays, takes a meandering route to the southeast, meeting the sea just south of Chioggia; the boat would then follow the coast up to Venice on the open sea. The speed of the journey suggests that Pace’s boat was moving as fast as those on the Rhine or the Po, that is to say between 60 to 100 kms a day, downstream. There were two stops: in Legnago for lunch (approximately 55 kms from Verona, or 35 kms as the crow flies), then in Boara for some wine (some 45 kms further), before reaching Venice for supper and an overnight stay (approximately another 75 kms). It is not clear how many nights Pace spent in the city; however, what is striking is that he had to pay for his accommodation. We might have expected him to stay in the local Franciscan convent of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, but since he claimed his meal and accommodation together, this was surely a simple inn. The journey back was less straightforward, no doubt because it was upstream: Pace first took a barchetta (small boat) to Legnago, again stopping in Boara for lunch, then had supper and slept a night in Legnago. He next took a small craft to reach Verona but only after having had a midday meal in Legnago (Legnago was obviously the place for lunch). Unfortunately he did not record what he ate, but we do know that his lunches in Legnago cost more than in Boara. Eating and drinking on the Adige was obviously as exorbitant as on other European waterways. Pace’s wine bill alone cost just under half of the weekly wine ration for eight manual workers engaged on the portal of San Lorenzo.
Land journeys were, of course, considerably slower than river travel. Other sources show that Pace occasionally travelled by cart, such as when he was ill and went off to recover in the countryside, some 15 miles from Vicenza. Tomaso, on the other hand, preferred a horse. Franciscans were forbidden to travel on any kind of mount except in cases of necessity and with the prior approval of superiors. But evidently the horse was not a problem for this inquisitor and it seems that at times Pace too may have travelled on horseback. On one trip, having set off from Vicenza en route to Verona, both friars stopped for lunch in Montebello (17 kms), supper and an overnight stay in Villanova (just above Soave, about another 17 kms), then a journey of around the same distance on the following day, before having lunch in San Martino and completing the final 7 kms into Verona. Thus it took nearly two days to travel some 58 kilometres. Incidentally, lunch in Montebello and San Martino cost about the same and both were cheaper than Legnago.
Not all aspects of travel were so enjoyable: the poor state of roads, the roughness of the sea (which made even the poet Petrarch complain of nausea), and the unpredictability of the conditions brought about by frost, snow or heat, were all potentially fatal. There were also brigands and wild animals to contend with, so aside from carrying a large stick, the best solution for a friar, when large sums of money were to be carried around, was to have an escort. In general travellers might choose to be accompanied by a leather-clad bodyguard (a burchiello) or a group of “good men”. Other sources show that Pace preferred an armed escort. Permission to travel had to be extracted from the local lord, but a safe-conduct did not always guarantee trouble-free journeys. The city-states of the Veneto were constantly at war with each other during much of the Middle Ages and men of the cloth were not immune to political strife. Indeed, Pace da Lugo’s expense sheet begins with his unexplained arrest in Venice. Fortunately, such tribulation was not enough to deter him from carrying out his duties and he took to the sea and stopped for lunch as soon as he was released.
Dr Louise Bourdua is Reader in the Department of History of Art and regularly teaches on the Venice Term. Her research has focused on the artistic patronage and iconography of mendicant orders in late medieval/ early Renaissance Italy. She is currently exploring the production of art in Padua over the hundred years on either side of the Black Death. Louise’s book ‘The Franciscans and Art Patronage in Late Medieval Italy’ (Cambridge, 2004) contains more information about Brother Pace da Lugo and his artistic commission.