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

The Great Festa

It was five days later, and May Day—a very melancholy May Day with little of the dancing and song and flowers and greenery for which the holiday was famed, for the day before the well-loved Giuliano had had his public funeral. Filippo, at his uncle's, was deep in a beautiful manuscript of Dante's Commedia. He was trying to forget the bloody scenes of which he had caught glimpses on that terrible Sunday. The conspiracy had failed, for the people of Florence had risen to the support of the Medici. Many of the conspirators were killed by the enraged population; wholesale executions took place, in which many innocent men, some of whom did not even know of the existence of the plot, met their death. Not only this, but the conspiracy was yet to lead to a long foreign war with its attendant suffering for everybody.

The knocker of the house-door clanged loudly, so that Filippo heard it even in the room where he was. "Ah," he cried gladly, "it is Giovanni returned! How I have longed for him!" He ran to the door himself.

To his surprise, it was a messenger wearing the Medicean device, who met his eyes. "Filippi de' Nerli?" "Yes." "I have the honor then—" and the lad handed him a sealed note with something small wrapped in silk. Breaking the seal, Filippo read the Latin:

"Lorenzo of Florence remembers his new-proven friend and counts himself under debt of gratitude to him."

Then, under the signature, he saw that Lorenzo had added in Tuscan: "Visit me, my boy."

From out the silk dropped a beautifully cut cameo ring!

"I am instructed to tell you," said the messenger, "that Il Magnifico Lorenzo especially looks forward to seeing you in person."

Filippo colored. "To go to Lorenzo would be as if I expected favors," he murmured half under his breath, so that the messenger may or may not have heard. Then he said more loudly: "Be seated if you please, Messere. I shall write my thanks." He walked to a desk, took up a pen, thought an instant, and swiftly composed the following verses in Latin:

"Magnifico: your gracious words

Confuse me and amaze

Since I did nought to merit them

Or to deserve your praise.

"Domine jai, my humble pen

Is dumb before this test:

Your cameo ring is on my hand;

Your letter, on my breast.

"This ring upon my hand, Master.

Will pledge my hand to thee

If ever you should deign to find

You have some need of me.

"This letter on my heart, Master,

Is not needed to prove

My deep devotion to that

Man I also dare to love."

Then, like Lorenzo, he attached a nota addendum  in Tuscan: "Magnificent and Most Illustrious Lorenzo, I beg to sign myself your eternally faithful and humble servitor, Filippo de' Nerli." And having thus gracefully acquitted himself of his thanks in the space of a moment or two, Filippo pressed the missive with the family seal, and handed it to the messenger.

* * * * * * * *

It was mid-summer. The warm days, in other years so joyous, wore something of a sober cast. The cloud of gloom was growing darker over Florence. But the people were to have a day of glorious entertainment nonetheless. The festival of San Giovanni Battista (St. John the Baptist), properly falling on June 24, was to be celebrated with all its accustomed splendor on July 5. And the festa of San Giovanni, the patron saint of Florence, was always the greatest, gayest, most lavish, and most magnificent holiday (with the possible exception of Carnival week before Lent) of all the merry year.

So the great day came, and was welcomed in at eight o'clock of the preceding evening, when the new day began for the Florentines, with bonfires and fireworks, with bells and music, with dancing in the market squares, with feasting and merrymaking, and with a splendid procession that seemed fairyland made real, lit by torches and enormous carved and painted tapers. It was a marvellous and magical pageant of color and movement. There were living representations of spirits seemingly floating in clouds of cloth; of little demons who created great fun by darting out at the crowds and trying to prick whomever they could with their pitchforks. There were men masked and mounted on invisible stilts so as to seem very tall, and dressed like different saints; beautifully or grotesquely decorated cars drawn by oxen or horses, and much else.

With morning, the space between the church of San Giovanni and the cathedral was seen to be roofed in at a great height with blue cloth embroidered with golden lilies. Everywhere were flowers, banners, and rich hangings. At nearly every downtown corner were stands erected by jugglers and street-singers, story-tellers and mock-magicians, and other popular amusers of the crowds. Everyone was in brightest clothes, or was leaning from the windows that faced on the route that the grand procession of the day would take.

Hanging over the railing of a second-story loggia  or arcade, were Filippo and Giovanni, arms entwined, amid a merry company of artists and friends. "Here they come! Huzza!" Caps and streamers, handkerchiefs and roses waved in the air as in a great burst of trumpets and fifes the head of the train came into view.

In brilliant array the procession moved by to end up at the church of the patron saint. On and on and on it passed, apparently endless; the splendid carro  that symbolized the Republic; the giant hollow tapers called ceri  or towers, some of them as tall as a house and mounted on wheels, and whirled about so fast by persons inside as to make one dizzy, and painted and moulded with pictures of all sorts; the representatives and offerings of each of the guilds; the tributes sent by the subject towns and territories of Florence; the gorgeous banners; the distinguished citizens; all notable foreigners in the city, some hailing from countries as far off as England and Spain; the religious depictions, including John the Baptist himself, holding his iron cross; the gaily costumed peasants carrying torches; even the richly caparisoned horses that were to compete in the races in the evening.

"Ah," breathed Giovanni as the last whirling towers were lost to sight, "that was a spectacle to see again!"

After the heat of mid-day was passed, athletic games were held, given in sumptuous costumes and with a wealth of colorful ceremony. Then, when the sun was slanting lower, the reckless horse-race was run for the palio prize, a most magnificent piece of the finest cloth of Florence which had taken skilled craftsmen many weeks to weave. The festa  of St. John was near its end.

The summer night, loveliest of all hours in the Florentine year, was sweetly scented and magically clear as Filippo and Giovanni strolled together through the streets. All at once Filippo gave a start and exclaimed: "See the maiden up at yonder window! I know her!"

"She is weeping," said Giovanni.

* * * * * * * * *

"You have chosen a perfect time to come," said Lorenzo de' Medici, greeting Filippo warmly; "but why did you not come sooner?"

"Pardon me, Magnifico. I hoped it was sufficient to write my profound appreciation of the honor you did me."

"Your verses were charming. But I want those who are devoted to me to be near myself. Remember"—Lorenzo tapped Filippo's arm—"I expect to see you often hereafter. I have been making inquiries about you, and find from that fine old scholar, your master, and from others whom I trust, that you are a rarely gifted lad and will make your mark in literature one of these days. And when that time comes, I hope I shall have made it possible for you to say, 'I owe a little of my fame to Lorenzo.'"

Filippo blushed and dropped his eyes. "Messere, you make it very hard for me to say what I want to say," he stammered.

"Speak on," encouraged Lorenzo.

"Messere, perhaps I can tell you better if I put it as a story. There is here in Florence a very beautiful maiden who for many months has loved a worthy gentleman to whom she is betrothed. The man has been away for a whole year trading in the East, and came back last week to marry the lady."

"Very pretty. What prevents the marriage?"

Filippo hesitated, and looked appealingly at Lorenzo. "Magnifico, the man bears the name of one of those who killed your brother! But Messere," he rushed on, "the man was hundreds and hundreds of miles away when that hideous deed was committed! He knew nothing of it, he is glad to change his name as the Government demands."

"What is the damsel's name?"

"Bianca Roselli, Messere. She is La Bella Bianca (the beautiful Bianca) to me. I found her lost ring for her once, and tonight I saw her weeping at her window. Domine mi, will you make it possible for me to serve her again, by telling her the marriage will be allowed?"

"You set my power with the government very high," said Lorenzo with a smile. "Well, I shall look into the case, and it may be, present it to our magnificent Signoriat for consideration. (The Signoria was the highest governing body in Florence.) It seems an exceptional one."

"Thank you! oh, thank you, my Master!"

"And now, in return, you must spend an hour with me, looking at some of my treasures of Art and Learning," smiled Lorenzo, putting his arm across Filippo's shoulders.

"Master, forgive me, excuse me. My dear friend is waiting for me outdoors."

"Ah, you would never make a fortune at a court, lad!" cried Lorenzo, laughing heartily. "Methinks I will love your friend as well as I do yourself. Hie, Matteo, look up the boy waiting outside, and bid him come in."

And in this manner Filippo and Giovanni came to be honored guests not only of Lorenzo the Magnificent, but also at La Bella Bianca's wedding.

* * * * * * * * *

The year and a half of war and suffering had gone by, and several years of peace and prosperity after it. Filippo and Giovanni were no longer boys, but youths of splendid talent. Giovanni's name was on people's lips as a young painter of glorious promise; he had just been admitted to the painters' guild, proving that he was a tried and tested artist and no longer an apprentice to art. Filippo had in this same week won his first trophy in a knightly tournament, where he had ridden and tilted with great credit to himself. But he was prouder far of the honor that had been awarded him today. In a magnificent poetical contest, with the famous poets Angelo Poliziano and Lorenzo de' Medici as judges, he had won the supreme prize, a wreath of laurel carved in silver. His old teacher, Messer Cosimo, had embraced him with tears of joy; Giovanni had kissed him on both cheeks.

"And what," asked Lorenzo afterwards, "can I give you in celebration of your triumph?"

Filippo, who had long ago become a much-loved member of Lorenzo's world-renowned group of brilliant youths and men, smiled back at his patron. "You know I want nothing except your continued favor to those dear to me; Giovanni, my old teacher—"

"Per Bacco!  you are the worst of favor-seekers," cried Lorenzo, laughing at his jest; "you always ask for others and not for yourself—so that it is downright impossible to refuse you!"

That afternoon, Filippo and Giovanni ascended the steep path up the beautiful hill of San Miniato which overlooks Florence from the south. They carried over their arms and in their hands as many bird cages as they could bear. When they reached the height near the famous Church of St. Miniatus and their eyes rested on the City of Flowers far below, they began to open the doors and let out the little wild songsters, larks and nightingales and other birds that had been born under the open sky and cruelly caught. Their gaze followed the birds as they first timidly fluttered and then soared away to freedom.

"I would that we could make all living things as happy as these birds," said Filippo.

"As happy as we," said Giovanni.

"As happy as we."

"In our friendship," added Giovanni.

"In our friendship."

And because at that time youths and men did not hide their feelings, the two handsome youths, the dark haired and the light, stood with arms entwined and hands clasping upon the hill.