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

A Secret Errand on the Ponte Vecchio

In the very early morning of the thirteenth day of March, 1478—or as the Florentines would have it, 1477, for they did not reckon their New Year's Day until March twenty-fifth—a handsome boy was standing irresolutely on the Old Bridge of Florence. His curling hair, of a length just to sweep his shoulders, was caught by the breeze and blown first across his face and then to his back. The same breeze parted his dark velvet cloak to show its lining of gay oricello  silk, a lovely reddish color for which his city was noted, and the sky-blue sajo  or tunic underneath. The boy shivered a trifle, but still hesitated.

Filippo had reached his destination, and, decidedly, he was afraid.

He had ridden down from the Fiesolan hills at more than his usual reckless speed, and left his horse, as he often did, at the hostel near the San Gallo gate. That was all that had been ordinary. For the rest, he could hardly remember ever having come into Fiorenza (the old Tuscan spelling for Florence) so early. It seemed that the only persons yet stirring were various contadini  (peasants) who had driven their carts or trudged on foot into the city to sell their produce. They were already fighting for the best places in the Mercato Vecchio, the central and most important market, as Filippo had seen as he passed, and also right here in the smaller market at the head of the bridge he was on.

In fact, he had almost been trodden underfoot by a plunging mule when a small peasant boy had twitched its tail. He had just leaped aside in time when the over-tried animal kicked out and sent flying a whole stall of cheeses, apples, and early spring vegetables. It wasn't a thing like that which could frighten Filippo.

Florence Scene


On the contrary, he had turned on the boy in a twinkling and given him so sound a cuff that the latter tumbled headfirst into a basket of parsley and herbs, and in getting up crashed first into a sack of artichokes and then against a pannier of eggs not yet unloaded from another mule. What a confusion I The broken eggs had oozed forth in a stream, the vegetables rolled about, the market folk screamed and gesticulated. Impish children had darted in and out among the stalls and carts, slyly stealing this and that tasty morsel. Donkeys had brayed, babies cried, a dog barked loudly. A crowd of men and women in bright costumes had hemmed in Filippo with threatening faces and doubled fists.

It had never occurred to him to pity the poor mistreated animal that was the cause of all the trouble. No, he simply hadn't been going to let himself be made a fool of by an imp of a ragged boy. He had laughed in the faces of the older contadini, stuck his arms akimbo, and with a kick to a rolling onion at his feet, pushed a way clear for himself to the bridge. Despite angry mutters, no one had ventured to attack him.

Giving a toss of the head and a snap of the fingers back at the market folk, he had thus swaggered on to the narrow passage of the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), lined on either side by oddly shaped little houses, most of them with shops on the ground floor. This was the most picturesque of the several bridges spanning the river to Oltr' Arno, the section of the city lying south of the Arno. The morning light was dim, and after the open market square, it seemed positively dark between the buildings. Here Filippo stood, his face paling a little, his hand trembling a bit as he drew together his warm cloak.

After standing for five minutes or more before a certain barred door without, however, touching the knocker, he ran a few steps forward. In its middle, for the space of a house or two, the bridge was open to the river. Filippo leaned on the parapet gazing down at the rushing water, which was high and dangerous at this season. Away from the shelter of the houses, the cold breeze could play with him unopposed, and did so. It caught his cloak and set it to billowing like a flag. Then before he knew it, up went his cap from his head and, whirling in the air, slowly settled on the surface of the Arno.

"Diavolo!"  exclaimed Filippo ruefully. He peered down after it, and could make it out near one bank. "Hie there!" he called out. "Hie there!" He had spied some fishermen drawing in their nets. "Hie, get my cap, and here's a denaro  for you when I come down." He drew a coin from his scarsella  and held it between thumb and finger.

The fishermen seemed too far off to hear. rust then an unkempt barefooted urchin darted out from under the bridge, threw himself boldly into the river, and swam the short distance to the cap, which he carried in his teeth back to shore. He needed all his limbs not to be carried on by the current.

"Good!" shouted Filippo as he saw the boy struggle up to the bank. "Bring it here, and here's a fine soldo  for you."

"Like fun!" screamed back the other. "I can get six soldi  for this easy in the Mercato."

"I'll give you six, you thief. Come up here, or I'll break your bones!"

The boy, dripping with water, moved out of sight. Filippo waited for him to appear on the bridge. He waited long before he realized that the little sinner had preferred to give him the slip and slink away to sell or wear the fine velvet cap elsewhere. A bad Easter to the impudent rascal!

Filippo was very angry. How cold the wind was! He moved back between the shops and looked at one fixedly. It, like all the others, was still shuttered and locked. All were as silent as night. His eye wandered up and down reading the signs; they were mostly those of the incomparable artist-jewelers and goldsmiths for which the bridge was already becoming famed.

Only this one sign, with its strange marks that were neither Latin nor Greek, for Filippo knew both, nor good Tuscan Italian, interested him.

Should he do it after all?

It was not that Filippo did not know what the shop was nor who kept it. The shop was supposed to be that of a pharmacist, but everyone knew, or at least so it was said, that its keeper did many strange things that had nothing to do with the compounding of medicines. Filippo knew the man well enough. He had been in his shop, even, but always in the full light of day and with his father The man was a client of Filippo's father, who was a prominent notary or family lawyer of Florence; lawyers can't always choose their clients, thought Filippo.

"Hang it!" he murmured to himself, "it's too early. Not a church bell has rung yet. To all purposes it's still night—the devil's own time. Anything could happen inside there. Witchcraft—brrr! Why in goodness's name didn't I stay in bed a while longer?"

But Filippo considered it even earlier than it was. He had idled away quite half an hour on the bridge, and now there came a deep harmonious peal followed by others. The church towers of Florence were calling to prayer.

Almost instantly there was an answering stir throughout the City of Flowers. On either side of Filippo, shutters were thrown open, windows and doors unlocked. The lights before the holy pictures on the fronts of some of the houses seemed to grow dimmer. Tradesmen and their wives came out, hesitated on their doorsills to say an Ave Maria. Soon the narrow but well paved streets and handsome piazze  or squares were fast filling with color and life.

Should he go inside? This one shop had still remained as dark and quiet as the grave. In a burst of resolution, Filippo seized the metal knocker wrought in the form of a bird's head, and clanged it loudly. There was no answer. His quick temper flaring up, Filippo's cheeks burned. He clanged more loudly still, and gave a kick at the stout oaken door. Fear or no fear, he was not going to be rebuffed.

After a time, in which Filippo kept up a continual clang, clang, clang, a head with a long sharp nose and a white nightcap appeared at an upper window. Bah, Maestro Bartolommeo Piccino was hardly terrifying in this guise.

"Let me in," demanded Filippo. "I want to buy something of you."

"Who is it?"

"Filippo de' Nerli, son of Ser Guido." (Maestro was a Florentine title for doctors, etc.; Ser a title for notaries).

"The son of my esteemed lawyer is always welcome," said Maestro Bartolommeo in an humble manner. "But it might be a little early, just a little early, my excellent young friend."

"Early or not, I want to see you!" Between the loss of his cap and the action of the street boy who found it, with Bartolommeo's unctuous voice and the chill of the March morning, Filippo's patience was quite at an end.

"Certainly, oh, certainly then, certainly, assuredly," agreed the figure at the window with conciliatory haste. "I will be right down, my young friend; do you but have the goodness to wait until I am fittingly gowned."

The head disappeared, the window closed—and Filippo's fear came back. Why was the Maestro so willing to see him? Was it merely on his father's account? He remembered only too clearly all their housekeeper, Monna Nannina, had told him about this man's magic-working. Of course his queer doings might be done only to impose on the ignorant, still. . . . How uncanny that sign was above the door! Filippo recalled the interior of the shop—dark, odd-smelling, filled with mysterious objects hung with cobwebs and covered with dust.

How he wished he were not here! Only his pride held him to the spot.

He gave an involuntary start as the iron-hinged door grated open.

"Welcome. Step in," said the long-nosed man, now clad in a skull-cap and a long black gown. "But how pale you are, my young friend. Surely nothing has happened to that worthy gentleman, your father?"

"No," answered Filippo in a hollow voice, as he followed his questioner inside and heard with a gasp the door shut behind him.

"The cold. Doubtless it's the cold. You must drink a few drops of wine. I shall bring you a glass instantly."

"Oh, I couldn't! I couldn't! I am quite all right, with many thanks!" Filippo saw himself poisoned, bewitched, transformed into some mythical animal. In this new alarm, he took courage to clutch Bartolommeo's arm so that the latter could not leave. The arm felt thin and bony under the wide sleeve.

"I must get this over with," thought Filippo, and forced himself to face the long nose and loose yellow skin of the pharmacist. The shop was lit only by a lantern which had been hung on a hook in the ceiling. The light formed peculiar lines and hollows on the old man's visage and gave an unearthly glint to his deep-set eyes. Even at that he was easier to look at than the room—with its flitting shadows, its heavy odors, its rows of mysterious jars and vials.

In a voice he could not make quite steady, Filippo began. "I don't know whether you'll have what I want, Maestro Bartolommeo. You see I want . . ."

His voice grew more confident as he described what he desired and what he proposed doing with it. To his considerable relief Piccino laughed. Somehow it made the old fellow more human, that laugh.

"I get what you want, ha, ha, ha," chuckled Bartolommeo. "Boys are still boys, I see. Ha! ha!" He began to recite an adventure of his school days long ago, seating himself as he did so on the edge of his counter.

By degrees Filippo discerned a stool standing near the wall and let himself down upon it. He told the pharmacist something about his teacher and his fellow students. The Maestro replied again with other tales, most exciting ones, of a man who, so Bartolommeo said, had found the Philosopher's Stone and could understand all learning and change brass and iron to purest gold. Nobody could guess how he had managed so well, until one night, puff! he disappeared in a little whiff of smoke, and folks knew then that he had sold his soul to the devil.

"Do you know as much as he did?" questioned Filippo suspiciously.

"No, no, my young friend. I know a little of this and a little of that, it may be, but the devil has never come along with a bargain for my soul."

Filippo found himself beginning to like the pharmacist famously. "Tell me more," he urged. "How much do you really know? People say that you are an alchemist yourself and can change all metals to gold and that you have filled up a whole room with gold already. They say also that you can bring back the dead and concoct charms."

Old Bartolommeo's eyes glowed. "As for charms and magic—" He waved his hand. "Charms and magic are not for a poor man like me, a good son of Holy Church. Enough if I discover the great secret—and by San Giovanni, I believe I have my finger nearly upon it!" He had grown very excited. "Gold! Gold! Oh, for the day when I shall draw my wand out of my retort into which nothing has gone save base metals, and find it capped with gold!"

"And will that be soon?" asked Filippo eagerly, carried away by the other's fervor.

"I work and study on the problem day and night. What do I care about compounding drugs and keeping the common people in awe of me by a little harmless mystery! It will be I, I, Bartolommeo Piccino, who will conquer the secret of transmuting metals!" His voice rose triumphantly, then sank. "Cristo,  I must succeed! I must!"

Filippo started to ask many questions about the process the alchemist was following, for he knew something himself, from reading, of the ancient practice of alchemy. Doubtless Maestro Bartolommeo would have resented the questions from an older person, but he enjoyed talking quite frankly to this handsome and independent boy. When he thought he had said enough, "Come," he suggested, "and I will show you my workroom."

Filippo followed up a dark and winding stair to an upper room, which, however, was itself lit by two small windows in the roof. To the back was a furnace, now cold. From the ceiling hung various kettles and retorts; a table was cluttered with bottles, pieces of metal, little heaps of loose chemicals, and other things. A Latin manuscript, brown with age, richly bound in leather, was open on a stand. Above it was a stump of a candle, some of the grease of which had fallen on the leaves. In one corner of the room was a large object shrouded by a piece of cloth.

Filippo's active mind was fascinated. Making himself at once at home, he burrowed around, inquiring about everything.

The old alchemist had long ago lost the last trace of his too-humble manner toward the son of that important man, the notary Guido de' Nerli. He spoke charmingly as equal to equal, and Filippo quite forgot the long nose, the yellow wrinkled skin, and the bent back. For Filippo was in his element. He was reading off scraps of Latin from the parchment pages, studying each object, prying into every nook.

Chalked on the table was an algebraic formula, and Filippo began to study this intently.

"Stay! stay!" smiled Maestro Bartolommeo, showing his teeth broken by age, "that is getting too close to the knowledge for which I have spent my life. Come, instead, over here and see my manikin—I promise you he won't bite!"

Filippo turned, then started back with a cry. The curtain had been lifted, showing a strange grinning figure, inky black but shining with a dullish glow.

Filippo, backed against the door, began with feverish haste to say an Ave Maria. Bartolommeo laughed. "Tut, tut, it's not alive," he chuckled. "You're only looking at the 'watchman' I've made myself to stand guard over my treasures when I'm out. Just a thing of wood and paint, my friend—but I don't tell that to everyone."

To reassure his visitor, Bartolommeo shook the manikin, then held it up by a horn of its head.

Florence Scene


Although Filippo had a lively imagination, he was far from being a coward. Seeing that nothing happened, he forced himself to approach, and finally to touch the puppet.

"It's a treasure, Bartolommeo!" he exclaimed, fear and pleasure mingling in his tone, "How I wish I had my sketching materials with me so that I could draw it. . . . But are you sure it is not—that is—that there's no witchcraft about it?"