“There will be sleeping enough in the grave” – Benjamin Franklin
People might say I have an unhealthy fascination with lazy ghosts. Yet another in a long list of reasons to stay away from people. They smell. Not you. You’re a peach. The rest of them. More importantly, I do indeed have an unhealthy fascination with lazy ghosts. If you’re going to take the time and trouble to manifest on the mortal plane, one would think you might at least put a little effort into the endeavor. Not so much, when you’re an Italian banshee, or rather something that tends to get classified as an analogue to the more robust Celtic banshees, but without all that incessant wailing, rending of garments, and general oeuvre of inspiring terror at the imminent death of friends and family.
In Italy there are several families of distinction possessing a family ghost that somewhat resembles the Banshee. According to Cardau and Henningius Grosius the ancient Venetian family of Donati possess a ghost in the form of a man’s head, which is seen looking through a doorway whenever any member of the family is doomed to die (O’Donnell, 1920, p157).
Apparently the Donati family is still around (known for their vineyards), and have been important figures in Venetian and Florentine history since at least the 13th Century A.D. We know this because the poet Dante Aleghieri (1265-1321 A.D.) not only borrowed the name for two characters in The Divine Comedy, but also happened to marry Gemma Donati, a relative of Corso Donati, who was Podestà of Bologna in 1283 and in 1293, and emerged as leader of the Black Guelphs in Florence. One of the major power struggles in medieval Italy was between two factions, the Guelphs and Ghibellines, who supported the Pope vs. the Holy Roman Emperor, respectively, in a conflict that lasted from at least 1162 to 1392, and had repercussions on European politics well into the 15th Century. This is to say, they’ve had plenty of time to accumulate some skeletons in the closet. Or ghosts for that matter. Enter Jacopo Donati.
Jacopo Donati, of one of the most important families in Venice, had a child, the heir to the family, who was very ill. At night, when in bed, Donati saw the door of his chamber opened and the head of a man thrust in. Knowing that it was not one of his servants, he roused the house, drew his sword, went over the whole palace, all the servants declaring that they had seen such a head thrust in at the doors of their several chambers at the same house; the fastenings were found all secure, so that no one could have come in from without. The next day the child died (Dyer, 1893, p229).
One of the more frustrating aspects of delving into the historical literature on strange phenomena is figuring out the who, where, and what of things. This was particularly difficult with Jacopo Donati, as there are incredibly few references to him anywhere in any language. This is where the detective work comes in. The story of the Donati’s family ghost is given to us “upon the authority of Henningus Grosius, and deserves a place with the Scotch bodach glass, and the Irish banshee” (Christmas, 1849, p130). Try and find information on Henningus Grosius. Go ahead. I dare you. As it turns out, it was likely a Latinization of Hugo Grotius (1583-1645). Hugo Grotius (or Grosius) was a 16th Century Dutch humanist, diplomat, lawyer, theologian and jurist who penned a work on ghosts called Henningus Grosius Magica de Spectris. This of course gives us a rather wide range of possibilities for Jacopo, but it can’t be later than 1645.
There is a reference in Luigi Nerici’s Storia della musica in Lucca, of a Jacopo Donati who “in December 1622 conducted with much honor the funeral music performed in San Romano for Elder Giovanni Carli, with Elder Ciuffarini present” (Nerici, 1880, p197). There is mention of another Jacopo Donati in F. Pagnini’s 1896 Castello Medievale dei Conti Guidi, who was Vicarri del Casentino Ritro in 1462, vicarri referring to some sort of official position (from the Latin vicarius – the head of a civil diocese in the Roman Empire, from which we now have the word “vicar”, although it originally did not have a religious connotation). Earlier than that, there is a reference to Antonio della Casa and Jacopo Donati partnering to form a bank in 1438, intending to compete with the Medici Bank (at the time of Cosimo d’Medici). In an 1841 edition of the magazine The Churchmen, the Donati family ghost is mentioned, and attributed to a 16th Century Jacopo Donati. This is highly suggestive of our 1622 Donati (likely having been alive in the late 1500’s) being a potential candidate. This is of course utterly irrelevant to the fact that a ghostly head was going around poking into Donati bedrooms unannounced as a harbinger of death.
I’d love to get my hands on Grosius’ Magica de Spectris, but it’s a relatively rare book. You know, the kind you have to wear gloves and get special permission to touch. Someday I’ll tiptoe into a rare books collection at some scholarly library and take a peek, despite my complete inability to read Latin. I chose Spanish over Latin as it seemed more utilitarian. How many ancient Romans are you going to run into on the street?
At any rate, if we stretch the definition of “banshee” to include any paranormal critter that shows up to herald someone’s imminent demise, then we could loosely classify the Donati family ghost as such, but personally I think banshees put a little more oomph into their presentation. Given, the ghost head went as far as to manifest in multiple rooms, but for god sakes, it really couldn’t be bothered to bring a spectral body along with it? Perhaps preternatural beasties have similar traits to the rest of us – some put their nose to the grindstone, and others are just winging it. Maybe over time, ghosts just get sick of all that dreary moping about, and evolve into the hint of a ghost to save themselves the trouble. As science fiction mastermind Robert Heinlein once said, “Progress isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.”
Christmas, Henry, 1811-1868. The Cradle of the Twin Giants, Science and History. London: R. Bentley, 1849.
Dyer, T. F. Thiselton1848-. The Ghost World. London: Ward & Downey, 1893.
Nerici, Luigi. Storia Della Musica In Lucca. Bologna, 1880.
O’Donnell, Elliott, 1872-1965. The Banshee. London: Sands & company, 1920.
Smedley, Edward, 1788-1836, Elihu Rich, Henry Thompson, and W. C. (William Cooke) Taylor. The Occult Sciences: Sketches of the Traditions And Superstitions of Past Times, And the Marvels of the Present Day. London: R. Griffin and company, 1855.
Loving that last quote. Great piece.
An interesting account, as always, but I do have a slight niggle as a Celticist (I know, I know, I can hear the groans even now…!?!).
Strictly speaking, though it makes for a nice alliterative title to this post, a banshee is an “otherworld woman,” from the Irish “ban sídhe” (“woman of the otherworld”). This can have a great deal of semantic flexibility within Irish stories, as they do not simply appear as death-harbingers therein. But, since this particular case is a male head only, and nearly all of the other characteristics of a banshee aren’t present besides being a death-harbinger, it might be better to just call it a “death-harbinger” or something of that nature.
Just as a category, losing all the specificity of the original cultural referent, the literal meaning of the name, and so forth would be like…I don’t know, referring to everyone who had ever killed someone (whether deliberately or not) as a “Dahmer.”
But nonetheless, an interesting case! 😉
Steady on there, EsoterX. I fear you’re getting dangerously close to spirit defamation. Rather than a harbinger of death could it not be that this apparition was making an honest effort to alert the family to the failing health of one of its members, in effect trying to say “check on the kid”? Sure, a disembodied head may be a poor choice to convey the kindly message, but it may have been exceedingly difficult to muster a more message-appropriate visible form. We might also suppose that the traditional banshee shrieking and wailing is out of the sheer frustration these spirits experience when the living refuse to understand the warnings. I often find myself wanting to shriek and wail when trying to get something across to technical support people.
Does “spirit defamation” have any legal standing? I envision a class action lawsuit in my future. Where is Daniel Webster when you need him?
At last report, Webster was still in Winslow Cemetery in Marshfield, MA. My guess is that he now represents the incorporeal and consequently may not be sympathetic to your case. But in his day Webster was game for a challenge, so he might represent you. Put him on retainer if you can.
It seems our disembodied head has company.
From the endnotes of the great WB Yeats’ folklore collection,
‘Fairy and folk tales of the Irish peasantry’
(London and Felling-On-Tyne: Walter Scott, 1888):
‘We have other omens beside the Banshee and the Dullahan and the Coach-a-Bower. I know one family where death is announced by the cracking of a whip. Some families are attended by phantoms of ravens or other birds.
‘When McManus, of ’48 celebrity, was sitting by his dying brother, a bird of vulture-like appearance came through the window and lighted on the breast of the dying man. The two watched in terror, not daring to drive it off. It crouched there, bright-eyed, till the soul left the body. It was considered a most evil omen. Lefanu worked this into a tale. I have good authority for tracing its origin to McManus and his brother.’