Our Little Florentine Cousin of Long Ago - C. V. Winlow

Filippo Serves a Damsel

At the first street turning after leaving the weaving shop, Filippo came face to face with a tall, important-looking man, clad in a long flowing garment of fine dark cloth, called a lucco. Unpleasant encounter!

"What! you here, Filippo? This is the second time in a week that you've absented yourself from study without leave! For what do you think I am paying one of the best masters of Florence to instruct you with my own children?"

"Father told me to hear Fra Antonio preach at Il Duomo "(the Cathedral) "before coming to your house. I am waiting until it's time."

"Time!" echoed Filippo's uncle, growing red in the face. "It's an hour after the time for his sermon!"

"But that's impossible, Uncle Domenico," returned Filippo in an honestly bewildered tone. "It's not quite fourteen yet. Look at that clock. I'll be at the cathedral in a jiffy."

"Fourteen! Fourteen! Who's talking of fourteen? Brother Antonio has been preaching at thirteen  o'clock all this week."

"He has? Cristo, I didn't know it."

"You'll have to wait until his next sermon, which is at fifteen, if you are to hear him today. But I hope you will spend the interval in a useful manner."

"Certainly, uncle," replied Filippo demurely. "I am composing a pretty Latin poem on Florentine liberty, and planning an essay on the art of government. You must listen to the poem. . . . It's not quite finished."

"Ah, boy, boy, you could be as great a marvel of learning as Angelo Poliziano if you would only apply yourself!" The uncle's face had softened into tender pride as his nephew recited the poem, which now numbered over fifty lines. He put his arm around Filippo.

Filippo did not escape without hearing a rather lengthy lecture on making the most of the shining hours of his youth, ending with: "Well, run along, you scamp, and good luck to you."

"Uncle's a little tiresome, like my cousins—except Margherita," he thought, as he turned into the very large market square called Mercato Vecchio (Old Market). Of all colorful spots in colorful Florence, this seemed the most colorful. Every native of the city and countryside seemed here to be jostled in the narrow ways between the stalls. This was the famous center of Florence. Thrifty matrons and pretty servant girls were abroad with baskets for the morning's shopping. Wealthy ladies were stopping on their way from church, at the shops that lined the piazza, to order this and that adornment they wanted ready for Easter. Contadini, country men and women, were at the stalls. Rich merchants and bankers, renowned artists and sculptors, authors, members of the government, travelers on horseback, churchmen, thieves, street boys, monks, sisters of charity, weavers, goldsmiths, dyers, jewelers, the young, the old, the rich and the poor, everyone that made up the life of the city, was bound at one time or another to be seen.

As if in proof that absolutely everybody could be found here, Filippo suddenly gave an exclamation of recognition and ran to a sturdy country woman in a red hood and green gown. "Nannina! Why what on earth are you doing down here in the city?"

"Buying things for Easter, to be sure, young master. You wouldn't want the day to go by without a new thing in the house, would you?"

"Of course not, Monna Nannina," laughed Filippo, slipping his arm through the handle of the basket she carried and preparing to open the lid.

"Oh, no, you don't!" said Monna Nannina, likewise laughing, but holding fast the lid. "They're surprises—secrets. You'll know what's in here in good time."

"Ah, Monna Nannina, do show me, do!" coaxed Filippo. "Just a little bit of a peep, just the tiniest one." Then, seeing that Nannina only shook her head: "I have a secret, too, Nannina. Just guess! If you'll show me yours, I'll show you mine."

Nannina was at once tingling with curiosity. "I don't believe you," she began by way of yielding. "But if you have an honest-to-goodness package there, you may look at mine."

The cover was off in no time, and Filippo gaily stuck out his tongue as if to lick up all the delicacies in the basket, which promised fine cakes and sweets for Easter Sunday.

"And now," said Nannina eagerly, "show me what you have, Filippo."

"That wasn't agreed: you only said if I did  have a package, I might look at yours."

"You mischievous mouse!" exclaimed Nannina, giving a playful pull to his hair. "And you've left your cap behind somewhere, too."

Filippo wriggled loose and added: "But I'll show my secret to you. Here it is." He took out a little packet, opened it, and disclosed a handful of red powder.

"Oh, is that all!" murmured the house-keeper in disappointment. "But what is it, Filippo? Is it paint powder?"

"Not on your life. It's magic," said Filippo mystifyingly. "I'm going to cause a miracle with it. . . . Here, Nannina, I'll give you this red apple and you give me some of those pine-nuts you have."

"All right." Monna Nannina took the apple and began to munch it, after pouring into the boy's scarsella, or hanging purse, a small handful of the little nuts. "But, Filippo, come with me into this shop; where did you get that queer powder? Of course I know you're fooling about its being magic?" There was a trace of a question in the last sentence.

"Well, Monna," answered Filippo, accompanying her inside, "it may be magic and it may not—as you please. It's from Maestro Bartolommeo Piccino."

The effect of a thunderclap could not have been greater. "From that man!" screamed the superstitious peasant woman. "That wizard!"

"You're eating one of his apples," said Filippo teasingly.

With a cry of profound terror, the peasant woman rushed screaming from the shop, flinging the apple away from her as if it had been poisoned. Filippo dashed after her. "Stop, stop, Nannina! The apple wasn't from Bartolommeo. Forgive me. By all the Saints and may I be stricken dead it wasn't. I got nothing to eat from him but some walnuts. Oh, forgive me, Nannina!"

Filippo had at last caught up with her. "Swear it to me," she said. "Oh, oh, oh! I feel odd inside already."

It took the most solemn oaths to convince the poor woman of the truth of the matter, and hardly had her face cleared, than she was filled with a new alarm. "Oh, Filippo, oh, my pigeon, my baby, have you eaten any of the walnuts?"

"I—I—" He hated to frighten her again.

"Oh, holy Mother! You have! You have!" Monna Nannina buried her head in her apron. From out the cloth came moans of: "Oh, oh, you'll change into some animal. You'll grow a tail. Oh, oh, oh. My poor little Philip, my Filippino, my little master."

"Come, come, Monna Nannina," chided Filippo, putting his arm around her protectingly. "I'm just the same as ever, am I not? I ate the nuts over an hour ago. Why should old Bartolommeo want to bewitch me, of all persons? Father's done him many favors."

"Yes, yes, that's so," acknowledged the housekeeper, raising her head. "Oh, Filippino, thou art such a good boy, and to think of thy mortal danger! But promise me, Filippo, that you won't eat any more of that demon's nuts."

She was quite comforted by the time that she, accompanied by Filippo, had finished her purchases in the Mercato. He walked with her half way to the San Gallo Gate, but at the Monastery of San Marco he had to turn back to reach his own destination in time.

However, when he returned to the Piazza del Duomo, close to the Mercato Vecchio, he had still a few minutes to spare. Here were what were perhaps the three most famous buildings of all the famous buildings of Florence: the great Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the fourth largest church in Europe; its campanile  or bell-tower, standing beside it; and opposite, the most ancient church in the city, San Giovanni, where Filippo, like every child born in Florence, had been baptized when a baby.

Standing at the edge of the piazza, Filippo lost himself in delight in gazing at the huge dome and colored-marble walls of the magnificent cathedral, and in letting his eyes travel up and up Giotto's towering Campanile, its slender beauty making him catch his breath. He went closer, as he had done hundreds of times before, to study the many sculptured pictures with which the whole lower part of the tower was adorned. "What a master Giotto was!" he thought. "Surely there will never be another belfry on earth to compare with this one he designed when he was nearly seventy years old; and he started life as a poor peasant boy who drew, on stones, pictures of his father's sheep."

There was no time to pass over to the eight-sided Church of San Giovanni Battista, St. John the Baptist, so old that some people said that it was built out of the ruins of a pagan temple to Mars, although, as always, Filippo longed to stand before the world-renowned doors made by Lorenzo Ghiberti, with the Bible stories they told in bronze. Instead, he followed the crowd into the dim, majestic interior of the great cathedral.

When he came out, he did not look altogether happy. As he had anticipated, the preaching had been of repentance and atonement. He began to wonder whether the joke he proposed playing with his red powder was not wicked, particularly at this time of Lenten penitence. He felt tempted, as he neared the river once more, to toss the little parcel away. "Yet it was so much trouble to get," he mused regretfully. "First, there was getting up so early; second, riding down from Fiesole before daybreak—I might have broken my neck or been robbed; third, the trouble of awaking the inn-keeper so he would care for my horse; fourth, the loss of my cap; fifth—let me see; well, I really was rather afraid to go into old Bartolommeo's house. After all, there are very peculiar tales told about him. I wonder whether that black manikin of his was not a warning to me?"

Thinking thus, and also feeling very hungry, for he was somewhat late for comestio, the first meal of the day, which he generally ate with his cousins at fifteen o'clock (eleven), Filippo skirted the river to the Bridge of the Holy Trinity, to cross over to Oltr' Arno, where his uncle lived near the fine, but unfinished, church of Santo Spirito. As he walked along, his attention was attracted by the conduct of two women walking in front of him. One of them, clothed in a giornee  or over-dress of brocaded silk, seemed from the back a young maiden. Her companion, who was plainly much older, was in a red mantle, and was carrying the wrap of the other. Instead of walking with the usual graceful and proud carriage of Florentine ladies, they were bent as if looking for something.

They moved so slowly, that Filippo was in a moment close enough to hear the elder say: "In my opinion, it is perfectly useless looking further, Madonna. Someone has picked it up."

At these words, the maiden, half turning around, threw up her head in a despairing gesture, so that her scarf fell from her flowing curls, and then she sank down right upon the flagstones. "Monna Gemma, Monna Gemma," Filippo heard her sob, "whatever shall I do? It was all that I had to remember him by until he comes back from the East."

"Let me serve you, Madonna," said Filippo suddenly, "I will hunt all day for whatever you have lost!"

The damsel started, then slowly raised her wet face with a faint sad smile at the boy's offer. She was very beautiful.

"I am afraid it is too late for a knight in this case," she said gently. "It is very weak of me to have given way to my feelings like this, but—but it meant so much to me. I thank you from my heart, dear lad, for your offer, none the less." She touched his arm with her slender hand to steady herself as she rose to her feet.

"But will you not at least tell me what you have lost, Bella Donna?" asked Filippo. Under his breath he added: "And I will find it if it is above ground!"

"It was—it was a ring wrought with two doves and a rose."

"Madonna! Madonna!" cried Filippo joyously, dropping to one knee. "It is here! I have it!" He drew out the ring he had found by the enclosure of the lions, and laid it in her hand.

With a little cry of joy, the maiden seized on and kissed her new knight's hand, then pressed the ring to her lips again and again. "How can I thank you!" she exclaimed. She reached towards her purse, then blushed anew at the hurt expression on Filippo's proud face.

"Forgive me," she murmured. "Ah," she said, "you are too young to know all this ring means to me I It is my one, my precious gift from my beloved until he comes back to Florence. I tell you this so you may know the inestimable service you have done me, Bianca Roselli. Tell me your name, too, that we may remember each other as friends."

"We had searched all the morning; we are sinking with fatigue," put in the red-mantled dame, taking the maiden's arm.

"I shall remember you in my thoughts and in my prayers, Filippo," called back the damsel.

Florence Scene


Filippo left them with his head in the clouds, where he was already improvising a song to La Bella Bianca on his lute:

"She is a lily in her grace!

'Tis my delight to serve her.

The white rose envies her her face!

Can any man deserve her?"

He had reached the middle of the Ponte Santa Trinita, hearing still in imagination the sweet music of his instrument accompanying his song, when he was startled by a scream of terror almost directly below him. Leaping to the parapet, he instantly took in the cause.

A small boy, of perhaps eight years, was clinging desperately to an overturned boat. It was plain that his little hands could withstand the current hardly a moment longer.