"And all this happened to him because of fear alone"

31 Oct 2016

Halloween Special – Haunted Florence

Antonfrancesco Grazzini, Le Cene, Cena prima, ninth novella (I.ix)


What better way to celebrate Halloween than by featuring a ghost story told in a Florence as old as time (or almost!)? Read our translation of one of our favourite short stories from Antonfrancesco Grazzini’s collected Cene, written around 1539 and still relevant today.


Leaving the city walls at la Giustizia just before the break of day, Brancazio Malaspini is frightened half to death by a trifle.


Seeing Lidia come to the end of her tale, and laughing with the others chuckling at the Abbot’s ignorance or at his arrogance and at Tasso’s pleasant resolution of the situation, Silvano now began his tale: Beautiful women and loving men, instead of laughing, I would have you marvel at the tale I am to tell about the great fright that a young man in love – and one of our Florentines – experienced as he returned one night from his lady’s chamber, and which left him quite near losing his mind. And he continued thus:

Giovan Francesco del Bianco, known in his time as a skilled man of sound judgment and above all, as a great orator (indeed, as magnificent in presentation as he was endowed with a great memory, clear voice and excellent pronunciation, he could tell a tale better than any other), would often retell, among other delightful tales, the story of a young Florentine named Brancazio Malaspini, who, as most young men are, was in love with a beautiful woman who lived in Ricorboli, just a little outside the gate at San Niccolò, and who was also the wife of a good man of that neighbourhood, who kept a kiln. Often, then, it so happened that this Brancazio, so craftily managing his amorous affair, delighted himself with her, while her husband spent the night baking bricks and mortar. And since neither the bridegroom nor any neighbour knew of or suspected anything of this dalliance, each night, Brancazio would leave through San Niccolò’s gate and arrive at Nave a Ravezzano two hours before dawn, having become quite friendly with the guard there, whom he paid handsomely.[1] Then, hugging the shores of the Arno, he would arrive at the gate at la Giustizia, and pulling up against the wall, off he’d go through the gate at La Croce, which in those days, opened every hour, and in that way went back into Florence to rest at  home, unseen by anyone.[2]

It so happens that once, returning from his beloved’s house, and having already passed through Nave a Rovezzano and walked along the Arno, arriving at the gate at la Giustizia, Brancazio heard a voice that seemed to say, Pray for them. Stopping in his tracks and turning his eyes up toward the gallows ahead, he saw what appeared to be three or four men rocking back and forth as if hanged, and, standing beneath two of them, didn’t know what to do with himself. It was just an hour before dawn, and in the thick air, without a trace of moonlight, he couldn’t tell whether or not those things he saw were merely shadows. At that very moment, he heard another voice whisper, Pray for them, and seemed to see a certain something thrash about at the top of the staircase before him. Now Brancazio was a plucky youth who had always made great fun of spirits, spells, and demons. “Come, now,” he said to himself, “are you too cowardly and weak to go see for yourself that what you see is only a shadow?” and speaking thus, he set off for the gallows ahead and, walking with purpose toward them, quickly arrived there and climbed up to the field.

In that time, in Florence, there lived a madwoman called Biliorsa, who, as bad luck would have it, happened to find herself outside the city that night, as she often did, and who had collected ten or twelve pumpkins from the fields surrounding the gate at la Giustizia (since it was late August) which she had assembled at the top of the staircase to the gallows, as if the heads of men.[3] One by one, she pulled them up and hanged them, playing both the executioner and the pardoner. And having collected the pumpkins with the longest stems she could find, she would sometimes set them on fire and leave them there to hang, greatly delighting in this game. And just as she began to light another one, Brancazio reached the staircase. Seeing him, she stopped and screamed, “Wait, just wait, I’ll hang you, too!” and in her haste, dropped the pumpkin she had been holding, and began her descent down the stairs, light and agile as a cat. Brancazio, hearing her voice and the thud of the fallen pumpkin, and seeing her race down so furiously, believing her to be the devil himself or a witch, was suddenly gripped by such a great fear, that he lost all strength and the blood in his veins ran icy cold; he fell to the ground as if dead. Now reaching the bottom of the staircase, Biliorsa thought she might carry the unconscious Brancazio up the stairs like her pumpkins, but soon changed her mind, finding it quite difficult to move him. So instead, she tore a piece of her apron, tied it around his neck and, holding onto it, pulled so hard, she dragged him up to the first landing, and there she left him, bound, without a second thought. And since she had not yet finished hanging the other pumpkins, off she went, guided by fortune or  her own folly.

Eventually day broke, the field workers woke up, and other people walking down the street and entering the city all stopped at the scene she had left, each marvelling at it beyond measure, so that the gallows seemed the site of a party where people drew in closer to see Brancazio bound up on the first landing and appearing to be dead. Before long, news of Brancazio’s state spread, and all those assembled at the gallows agreed that he was dead. Still, and as they marvelled at the pumpkins collected near him, they couldn’t imagine who might have dragged him there or how. Soon, his father rushed over with a great crowd of people, and, crying, had his son’s body brought to the church at the Temple, lain in the priest’s bed, and stripped of all his clothing to have every part examined. A doctor, who had come to the church in haste, finding the space beneath Brancazio’s left pectoral to be quite hot, declared, “This man is still alive!” And ordering him lain on a stretcher, had him brought to a hot spring in Florence where, placing him in a sauna and splashing and rubbing him with so much cold water, vinegar, spells, and other discourses, he finally revived him. Now come to, it was an hour before Brancazio spoke, and more than three before he responded to any questions, and a longer while before he understood in which world he found himself. And so, his father had him brought home, where it became necessary to draw his blood and have him medicated for several weeks before he was healed. But his recovery left him completely bald so that, no matter how medicated, not a single hair could be found on either his head or his body; worse still, as long as he lived, it never grew back, so that it seemed the strangest and most artificial thing ever seen, and no one recognized him any longer, as happens today with those that have that kind of French folly we call little baldness. And all this happened to him because of fear alone. And had Biliorsa not returned the following night at sunset to hang her pumpkins, and had she not been discovered there, not even all the people of the world could have convinced Brancazio of not having seen the devil himself that night in Biliorsa and in the pumpkins, hanging men turned to fruit by some necromancer, spell-sayer, wizard, or witch.

[1] Nave a Ravezzano is fraction along the Arno river belonging to the Comune di Firenze in what today is known as Quartiere 2.

[2] Today, Lungarno della Zecca Vecchia, known as Piazza Piave; outside the walls, executions by hanging took place here, prisoners making the trip from the nearby Bargello prisons and Carcere delle Stinche; also (for this reason) known as Piazza delle Forche.

[3] Pumpkins begin to be in season as early as September.