Early modern Tuscan literature is known for two things: the storytelling tradition of novellieri like Franco Sacchetti and Giovanni Boccaccio, and the beffa. The first is a useful vessel for the second. A beffa, historically, is the Tuscan version of a practical joke: very funny to those executing it, but often cruel, and at times fatal or near-fatal to those being ridiculed. Dangerous or not, the beffa, often carried out in teams, is always intended to embarrass, and always does. The late Medieval tradition of the novella (what we know today as a short story), a form of storytelling centred on spirited exchanges of young narrators often within a frame (cornice) managed by an omniscient, but non-intrusive, narrator allowed Tuscan writers (or those setting their tales in Tuscany) a convenient opportunity to bring these jokes to life. What is more, it allowed them to showcase their writing skills through the careful development of timing, suspense, and reader-narrator complicity.
Two centuries after Boccaccio changed the face of vernacular literature with his Decameron — 100 novelle told by 10 narrators over 10 days in Florence during the Black Plague of 1348 — Antonfrancesco Grazzini, a Florentine pharmacist of Sienese descent published his Cene using a similar structure: thirty stories told by ten narrators during Carnival, 1539. Unlike Boccaccio’s tales, which move around geographically, Grazzini’s are all set in modern-day Florence. Born of both a self-trained man of letters and an unapologetic rebel, they eschew every vestige of pedagogy, and are often ribald and crass. But they paint an accurate, if satirical picture, of every caste of Florentine society in Grazzini’s age.
The story below recounts what happens when a Lombard abbot visits Florence’s famous San Lorenzo Church for the first time and denigrates the artifacts he finds there.
An Abbot of the Cassinese Benedictine Order, passing through Florence, visits the Church of Saint Lawrence to see the works and library of Michelangelo. There, for his ignorance and his presumption, Tasso has him tied up and presumed mad.
(To be read attentively)
Fileno, having fully developed his tale (about which there was great discussion among the brigade, who lauded the Florentine’s quick wit beyond measure) was already quiet when Lidia, who was to follow him, without other words, said: “I, too, lovely ladies, wish to tell you of a beffa, which, I think, will please and amuse you no less than those already told.” And she began:
Not many years ago, a Benedictine abbot from Lombardy, making his way to Rome, passed through Florence, when Ippolito de’ Medici was still a young boy there in the custody of the Cardinal of Cortona who governed the city in the name of Pope Clement.(1) Now this abbot was staying at the Church of the Saint Trinity, and one day expressed a wish to see Saint Lawrence’s sacristy and Michelangelo’s works there.(2) So he left one morning with two fellow friars and two others of the Order and set off for Saint Lawrence’s church. Since it was closed when they arrived, the Prior there sent for Tasso, a young man in Michelangelo’s service who held the keys of the church and worked in its library, and, when he arrived, told him, “Do us the kindness of showing this great man(3) the sacristy and the library, and be sure to pay particular attention to the statues, describing how they were made and to what end, and who they represent.” Replying that he’d be glad to do it, Tasso led the way to the new sacristy while the Abbot and his brothers followed behind. There, they asked many questions, to all of which Tasso had a ready reply.
When the Abbot had seen and contemplated everything with care, he said to one of his companions, “To be sure, these are most excellent statues, as far as I can tell,(4) but I imagined them differently, in different poses, and they do not live up to the images in my mind. So you see, this Michelangelo is not a living God, as the hoi polloi claims. Why, in fact, the statues in Count Peppoli’s house are just as fine, and they are said to have been made by the hand of Noddo, or some other common chiseler.” (5) Hearing these words against the praise and honour customarily afforded Michelangelo, whom all deemed to be a Reverend Master, Tasso immediately judged the Abbot to be a great fraud (6) and was quite tempted to reply to him in his most sophisticated Latin,(7) but thought better of it and held his tongue.
Once they’d finished their tour of the sacristy, they headed to the library, passing through the Church, and the Abbot asked when it had been built and who had been its architect. Tasso answered all his questions as asked. Then the Abbot replied, “This Church certainly does not displease me, but it does not hold a candle to our Saint …. in Bologna.” (8) Tasso, on the brink of laughter, and unable to conceal his anger any longer, could not help but reply, “Father, if you are as wise and doctored in the sacred letters as you are in sculpture and architecture, you must surely be a great Bachelor of Theology.” Not understanding Tasso’s meaning, the dull-eyed and thick-skulled(9) priest replied, “I am also a Master of Theology, God be praised,” and continuing in this vein of conversation, they exited the church, climbed to the cloisters above, and arrived at a wooden staircase that led to the library. The friars went first, the Abbot behind them, and Tasso last of all, and climbing calmly, the Abbot’s eyes fell upon [a view of] the dome outside the window, which he stopped mid-staircase to admire carefully.(10) The friars had already gone ahead into the library, so the Abbot was left only with Tasso, to whom he said, “This dome is marvellous and must be famous in all the universe.” “Ah!” replied Tasso, “how you are right, Father. Where else in all the world could one find a building so lovely? The lantern is above all unequalled in its beauty.”(11) Upon which the Abbot, indignantly replied, “Yes, according to you and to all Florentines, but I’ve heard it said by people with trusted opinions that the dome of Norcia is much lovelier and made with greater artifice.”
The young Tasso could take no more of the Abbot’s insolence and was suddenly overcome by so much anger and vexation, that he lost all sense of patience and reverence and, grabbing the Abbot by his sides, screaming as loudly as he could, pulled him backwards so violently that the Abbot tumbled down the whole staircase. And falling purposely atop him, Tasso almost killed the priest, and began to scream: “Help! Help! Run quickly here! The priest has gone mad and wants to fling himself from these cloisters!” Hearing this, some of Tasso’s assistants, who were working in an adjoining room, immediately ran to him and saw him atop the Abbot, crying for help and a bit of rope. And while he squashed the Abbot, tightening his hold on him, Tasso yelled so loudly that the priest became too deaf and stunned to say a sensical word. And when his assistants had brought him a pair of good ropes, with their help, Tasso tied up the priest, who swung and wagged in vain, by his arms and legs, and then around his whole body and quickly carried him to a room where they lay him on the floor and left him in the dark.
The Abbot’s companions had heard the noise and had run to his aid, but because they had been busy admiring the library, they arrived at the scene just as Tasso and his helpers were tying up the priest and taking him away. So, filled with regret, they screamed loudly, asking why the Abbot had been taken away, and where he’d been brought tied up in that manner. Tasso replied swearing that if he had not reacted quickly, the priest would have thrown himself to the ground from the cloister above, and assuring them that he had tied him up and locked him away in the dark for his own safety. Saying nothing further, he rather easily regained his composure — he had acted quite unlike his usual self.(12) But the friars continued to scream, attracting the cries of others who had also run to see what had happened, and asked pityingly for their Abbot.
In the meantime, Tasso fled the scene as if a borrower from his creditor with the key of the room where the Abbot was locked away and left through a narrow alley, where he found Piloto, Tribolo, and others of his friends. Gathered there to drink, he told them about all that had happened with the Abbot, and they all laughed until their jaws became unhinged.
The pained Abbot, finding himself in the manner described above without knowing why, was so beside himself that he could scarcely discern whether he was himself or another, or if he was sleeping or awake; everything had happened so quickly, he thought he might be dreaming. And, stupid with shock, he tried to remember how things had gone.(13) But feeling himself weak and bruised and greatly injured in his kidneys, and finding himself bound, unable to move, and locked up as if in a prison, he began to wail and screech so loudly that it seemed as though he had been set aflame. And so great were his cries that they resounded throughout the whole convent. Hearing him, his fellow friars, screaming themselves, demanded the key and the whereabouts of Tasso, who was nowhere to be found. So the Prior of Saint Lawrence himself ran to the noise, immediately sent for a locksmith, and opened the chamber, where he found the Abbot half dead.
As soon as he was pulled up and untied, the Abbot screamed, “I am dead,” and was carried by his companions to the Prior. There, and not without great contempt and pain, he told all those present what had happened, calling loudly for “reason” and “justice.” He was terribly unsettled at the sight of a religious and well-meaning man such as himself mistreated in such a ghastly manner by a craftsman. And he threatened no less than to take his case to the Pope.
The Prior was greatly displeased by the news and arranged to have him brought back to Saint Trinity on a stretcher,(14) and all throughout the journey, the Abbot did nothing but moan and wail, as if ill. A feeling of remorse took hold of the whole convent. To make matters worse, it so happened that the General(15) happened to be visiting during that time and when he found out what had occurred, he ran, furious, to the Cardinal who, finding the tale to be a most strange and ugly thing, brought word of it to the Vicar, who called for Tasso to be brought to him. So, by the Order of the Eight Guards,(16) the head sentry and his whole troupe was ordered to find him, and began searching in all places, as if he were the most wanted criminal in the world. Hearing this news, Tasso, escaped secretly, the Hail Mary having already been rung, and took subterfuge in the palace, where Sir Amerigo of San Miniato, his friend and a particular favourite of the Cardinal, hid him.
That evening, once the Monsignor had dined with il Magnifico,(17) he sat a while at the table and talked of the day’s strange happenings, greatly blaming and threatening Tasso, insisting that religious men and foreign visitors be treated with respect. But The Magnificent defended Tasso, saying, “There are surely two sides to this story, and the other must be heard.” Hearing this, Sir Amerigo called for Tasso to leave his hiding place, since the time had come for him to tell his tale. As soon as he arrived, Tasso bowed his head, showing reverence to the Monsignor and the Magnificent, and began to recount his story, saying: “I have come to your excellency, Monsignor, above all to justify my behaviour toward a certain friar I met today, since you have ordered that I be seized, worse than a street assassin.” And he retold the events from the very beginning and in order, and although not exactly as they had happened, with such grace and carefully selected words that the Cardinal himself could not help but laugh. Then, turning to Tasso with a solemn air, he said, “the friars tell it differently and insist that you threw the Abbot down the stairs and had him bound and, to add insult to injury, locked him away in the dark, leaving with the key.” “Monsignor,” responded Tasso, “I promise you, the Abbot is unwell and was seized by a fit of madness. If I had not been quick to react, he would have thrown himself over the staircase and broken his neck, as I have told you. Do not doubt that he is stark raving mad. To prove it, judge for yourself: would a man of sane mind and pure intellect ever remark that the Dome of Norcia is more beautiful or made with greater artifice than ours of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore?”
“Certainly,” replied the Magnificent, “for those words alone he deserved to be hanged, let alone bound.(18) Tasso is right a thousand times. I believe that friar not only to be mad, but also demonically possessed. I’ll defend Tasso’s cause and go tomorrow as his attorney to the Vicar’s,” and, turning to Tasso, nearly laughing, he added, “Go home to dine. Tomorrow morning, return to work at your customary hour and leave the sentry and his troupes to me.” And with this, he sent him off with two escorts.
The Cardinal, who was a magnanimous man, hearing the will of the Magnificent, immediately sent word to the Vicar and to the Captain of the brigade to leave Tasso alone. The friars, who were not granted an audience with the Tribunal, thought it best to keep quiet and told the Abbot that Tasso, in addition to getting four strikes of the whip, had also been sentenced to two years in prison. This news greatly pleased the Abbot, who healed quickly, and in a few days, continued on his journey.