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

More Than Gold

Ser Guido de' Nerli, Filippo's father, when his wife had died in Filippo's early childhood, had decided to live a mile or two above Florence in the Fiesolan hills. His brother, Domenico de' Nerli, could never understand his not preferring to be one of his  big household, which, after the more usual Florentine manner, was made up of several generations of the family. But Ser Guido delighted in the brisk morning and evening rides to and from Florence, in his beautiful views, and in the gardens surrounding his casa, where he grew grapes, olives, and other fruits for his own use. "Filippo can very well study with your children, and ride back and forth as I do," he told Domenico; and so it had long been done.

On the following morning, which was Saturday, two boys were lying in the sun on a flower-covered terraced slope, where grape-vines swung between olive trees. On coming out here, the fair-haired lad had spread a robe for the other, which he insisted upon his using.

"Nonsense," said the dark-haired boy, looking affectionately at the other; "you have treated me since yesterday as if I were an invalid or a delicate maiden."

"I cannot help it," returned the other, throwing himself down beside his companion. "To think of finding you again, as I did, my dearest Filippo!"

"When did you first recognize me, my Giovanni?"

"I have told you already; it was almost at the end of our match that it flashed upon me that you were Filippino, the first friend of my boyhood, and the dearest. I was sure of it when you were lying there all but unconscious, gripping your own limbs in the thought they were mine, with that heart of yours that never says die, and still muttering, 'Do you give in?' Oh, I was happy then, but frightened, too, for I did not know what you had been through to make you take our bout so hard."

"My sweet friend! I understand now all friendship means; to be able to tell you all—you at least won't think now that I am but an idle boaster, as my ridiculous conduct seemed to make me out."

"I did not find it ridiculous," said Giovanni loyally. "I would have loved you for a friend had you not been you."

"' A man without a friend is like a body without a soul,' "quoted Filippo. "You were somehow familiar to me from the first. Strange I did not place you."

"Less strange than on my part, for you were weary. How delightful of your father to say you need not go down to your uncle's today, and to invite me to stay over the weekend."

"Oh, father is very hospitable; he'd be charmed to have you stay a month, which I hope you will with all my heart. As for sending me down to Florence, he never does that; he gives me my own way completely. He's fairly wrapped up, first in his law, and second, in our little estate here. He likes to get out and prune a tree or plant a flower-bed himself."

"Yes, I remember him like that. It seems that we must become acquainted all over again."

"Not strange! when we were only eight when we parted. Ah, amico, have you kept the ring I gave you then?"

"Here it is around my neck—see? It is too small for my finger, you can believe!"

"And here is mine. Giovanni, you have the same sweet temper you had always. You are not at all like that Neri Picciolin whom Cecco Angiolieri put in verse:

"When Neri Picciolin came back from France

He was so full of florins and pride

That he looked upon men but as poor little mice,

And each he did mock and deride.

"He frequently cried, 'Now may evil befall

All my neighbors, for seen face to face

With me, they appear but so mean and so small

That their friendship will bring me disgrace.'"

"My father and I only stayed a month in France," laughed Giovanni with Filippo, "and then we went on to other countries, so the rhyme doesn't hold. Besides, I recall Messer Neri was well punished for his conceit, 'and that ere eight months had gone by, he'd have thanked for a crust flung him down,' as the poem says. . . . Bah, France and England seem countries half-civilized in comparison with our Florence."

"But since your father was doing so brilliantly abroad, why did he return to Florence?"

"'Tis because I didn't take to being a merchant like himself. I have set my heart on being an artist, and he has put me now to study with our great Andrea del Verrocchio."

"San Niccolo!  you don't tell me! How do you like it?"

"It is like heaven," rejoined Giovanni fervently. "Messer Andrea is wonderful. And his bottega  is full of gifted artists."

"I haven't done so very much with art myself," said Filippo. "I seem to take more to literature. I sometimes think that if I were not so lazy I could write something really worth while. Messer my teacher thinks so, and also, my uncle. That reminds me, amico mio, that I must write out a poem I have composed on Florentine liberty."

"I will get your writing-case for you. No, do let me. You mustn't tire yourself today."

Giovanni pushed Filippo back when he would have followed, and ran to the house. Filippo smiled after him, and taking up the guitar lying at his side, touched the strings and began to sing. Giovanni joined in the song in the distance. He returned in no time with several articles in his arms. One was a book of poems in manuscript, one a lute, and one the writing-case.

"Ah, but you must listen to my verses, friend, and not divert yourself reading real poetry," chided Filippo with a merry glance. "I want your suggestions."

"Is your poem in Latin, Greek, or our present-day language? I have very little Greek at my command, I must tell you."

"'Tis Latin," returned Filippo, busily writing. "There, there, my dear friend, I did not mean it seriously about not reading to yourself. Do so; for I have to write down eighty lines before I can read them."

"If you have to do that much, I will compose a sonnet or two on our lovely view of Florence from this height. You can imagine how beautiful she is to me when I have only been seeing her for six days after being away for six years."

Filippo nodded, too busy to look up from his work, while Giovanni, plucking the wild flowers at his side, gazed delightedly down at the City of Flowers, "the loveliest of cities," with its rising towers, its enclosing walls, and winding Arno River, the fertile valley, and the encircling hills and distant mountains.

In this way the morning passed until the hour for comestio, when the friends walked arm in arm to the house, laughing, and quoting and composing clever epigrams in Greek and Latin. Country life was very simple and healthful, and they helped Monna Nannina and her old mother get the meal. They brought olive oil from the enormous red jar in the storeroom, big enough for a man to hide in, and a supply of fruit preserves in wine.

"What do you say to eating in the arbor, Master Filippo?" queried Nannina.

"It is very pretty, Giovanni," said the host turning to his friend. So the places for the two boys were laid a few feet from the house, on a table beneath vines clothed in the tender green of spring, and fruit and nut trees in flower-bud. There were vegetable soup, bowls of cooked chestnuts with goat's milk, a salad of greens, maccaroni with olive oil and cheese, and fresh and preserved fruits, as delicious a meal as one could wish for.

After it, Giovanni and Filippo amused themselves by making up songs to the sweet music of a lyre, and singing popular canzoni  in duet while one played on the lute and the other on the guitar. Then they discussed their studies and their tutors, displaying a perfection of speech—and half their talk was in the classical tongues—and a knowledge of literature and the arts that would put to shame our university graduates of today. They quoted and spoke of the "divine "Dante, of Francesco Petrarca or Petrarch, and of Boccaccio—the three greatest names in Italian literature and a Florentine each of them—and they brought in as freely Virgil and Cicero and Plato and other of the immortal writers of ancient Rome and Greece.

Ser Guido, Filippo's kindly and agreeable father, returned in time for prandium, and after making that meal entertaining for the boys with his conversation about happenings in the city and his questions about themselves, left them to play a game of chess while he buried himself, not in a book of law, but in a manuscript on how best to grow fruits.

Filippo and Giovanni retired early. As they embraced each other good-night, Filippo promised: "I have an adventure for tomorrow, my Giovanni, that will make you dance with joy!"

In the morning Filippo called for his friend at dawn, and found him sitting on the side of his curtained bed, swinging his heels and already dressed. "Come," said Filippo, "we must pack lunches, for we are off for an adventurous exploring trip today."

"How do you feel, my buono amico?"  queried Giovanni.

"Never felt better in my life."

"Are you sure?"


"Bravo!" exclaimed Giovanni, and with one more press to each other's hands, the boys raced into the kitchen. Preparations were soon made, and they were off just as the church bells began to ring in the day, which was Palm Sunday.

The scene was exquisite. The flowery hills were still half cloaked in mist, and out of it rose the roofs of the many scattered villas of wealthy Florentines like those of fairy castles, touched with the gold of the rising sun. Even as the boys looked, here this spot and there that came into view as if a veil were withdrawn by unseen hands, showing terraced vineyards and olive orchards, and the houses amongst them. They could look down on the monastery of San Domenico, and on down to Florence just emerging into clear sight, and off to surrounding hills whose steep slopes and ridges were set with walled villages and rising church towers. And further off were the mountains; and above their own heads on the rocky height, the ancient Etruscan town of Fiesole.

They were ascending at a swinging gait the very steep road to this town, which, still filled with ruins of Etruscan and of Roman times, was one of the most ancient towns in all Italy. They had passed the cypresses around the Villa Medici, one of the palaces of the "uncrowned king "who ruled Florence, when they saw coming down upon them a white-robed procession.

"Excellent!" exclaimed Filippo. "See, my friend, the Palm Sunday celebration we have chanced upon."

The two stood off to the side of the road with bared heads to see it pass. It was not a church procession, but one gotten up by pious country-folk. First was borne an image of Christ wreathed in olive branches, flanked by men carrying tall tapers, which they were having difficulty in keeping alight as they came down the steep slope. This was followed by a child leading a donkey, also garlanded with olive, in remembrance that Jesus had ridden upon this humble animal. Then followed men, women, and children, all dressed in white and wearing olive twigs twined around their brows, and holding larger branches of the tree of peace in their hands. As they came near they burst into song, and went through motions as if strewing the branches on the ground before the Saviour's feet. At the end, came again sacred banners, with pictures of Jesus, the Holy Mother, and St. Mary Magdalen.

When Filippo and Giovanni at last came into the central piazza  of Fiesole, they found a fair in progress. Red-cheeked peasant women were busy making thin Lenten wafers called brigidini  over brasiers. Others were selling nuts and sweets, and there was much laughing and joking among the early corners, and lovemaking between the contadini  youths and maidens. But Filippo and Giovanni glanced without particular interest at the gay stalls, most of them still being put up. They followed the people who were entering the open doors of the four-hundred-and-fifty year old cathedral.

When Mass was over, "Now," said Filippo excitedly, "our day begins! I will show you, my Giovanni, a secret not a soul on earth knows but myself."

"Ah, Filippino, I can guess it has to do with the ruins! Is it an unknown vault full of ancient denarii?"

"You are too ambitious, amico. But see, here are  some denarii  I found here last year. I brought them on purpose to show you." Filippo held out five ancient Roman coins.

"Santa Maria!"  ejaculated Giovanni as he looked at them, "these were coined before Our Lord Jesus Christ was born! And silver, too, though they look as black as night!"

"They are yours, Giovannino."

"Nay, we will divide them."

"How divide five?"—laughing.

"When we return I will cut the fifth in two, and it shall stand for our happiness, which is only complete when we are together."

"They should be of purest gold for that!" "'Twould not suffice: friendship is more than all the gold our Florence has coined, though that is known to the ends of the earth."

They walked on in a few moments' silence beside the giant Etruscan walls, whose one-and-two-third mile circuit, in 1478, was still withstanding in many places the weight of centuries. The very old town of Fiesole had been a chief city of Etruria (ancient Tuscany) long before Rome began to make herself the mistress of the world; in Roman days it had been for a period a place of wealth and importance, with handsome buildings, statues and temples, public baths and theater, citadel and statehouse. Some of the Roman ruins were still extant, though the last traces of many of them had disappeared when their stone was used for modern buildings here and in Florence. In this way, Christian churches had been made out of Pagan temples, and Florentine palaces out of Roman houses.

"Faesulae was already old when Florentia began," remarked Filippo, using the classic names for the cities. "When one shuts one's eyes to present things, one can imagine yonder columns the front of a temple, a triumphal army passing under that arch there, and this gateway thronging with citizens in togas."

"Can't one, though! And I say, these walls are a marvel. Just look at the size of the blocks! They look as if they had been hewn by giants."

"Aye, this wall must be close to fifteen braccii  high (nearly thirty feet). What say you, my artist?"

"That to the best of my judgment you are right, but that we cannot very well measure the walls up and down with a stick!"

"Oh, can't we! That is the very thing I am going to have us do a bit further on—with a rope if not with a stick!"

"It sounds like an adventure after mine own heart!"

"Let's begin by pacing out some of these giant blocks of stone. They make one feel as if the Etruscans had been a race of Cyclops to be able to drag them out of their beds in the hill and pile up twelve and fourteen of them atop each other."

"Do you know how long this one is?" asked Giovanni, who had been letting his friend finish his declamation while he acted on his suggestion. "It's more than six braccii  in length, and one-and-a-half in height!"

"Jupiter! I wish we could have seen the builders move it into place. But here we are, my Giovannino. This is the one place I've been able to find where one can scale the walls."

"Faith! it looks impossible!" cried Giovanni with delight.

Filippo had already set his foot upon a tiny projection, his fingers in another, and in one step was up two and a half feet. "We are enemy spies scaling the wall at dead of night," he whispered, leaping down and flinging an arm about Giovanni. "Do you think you can follow, my Gian? I admit it's a very risky feat."

Giovanni nodded emphatically, and inquired: "Where is the rope to descend the other side—into the midst of the sleeping garrison?"

"Here, about my waist," murmured Filippo, raising his coat and showing a rope coiled around his waist. "'Tis very light but strong."

"So you really have a rope, my excellent Filippo. I thought you had grown fatter!" laughed Giovanni.

"Hush!" admonished the other, "or we shall be heard."

Filippo again made the first step, then turned back with the serious: "Are you sure you feel certain of yourself, my dear comrade? If you don't, I don't want to drag you up here."

Giovanni did not waste words. With his knee already against the towering wall, he pressed his friend's hand, and sang: "Move up another course, I beg you! I'm behind."

Up, up the boys moved, Filippo feeling out each foothold and fingerhold, Giovanni pressing on just a lap behind. Up, up they continued, like strangely gigantic bugs able to scale the perpendicular, and the wall was now only twenty feet above them and ten below—enough and more for a slip to the rocky ground to be one's last.

The sun beat hotly upon the stones. The lads were more like worms as they rose higher, clinging still more closely to the surface as they felt themselves grow a little dizzy at thought of their danger. Sometimes they could not but catch their breaths as they found it necessary to wriggle up an unusually high step. Yet Filippo must know this "stairway," Giovanni was aware; he followed, confident of his friend.

Not one word had been spoken since the ascent began. Throats were too dry and tense to speak unless they must. All energy went into straining fingers and toes and knees.

They were within ten feet of the top. Then, by one more lift of the body from block to block, eight. Filippo paused for a longer moment than usual, causing Giovanni to pause also. It was impossible, balancing as Filippo was on an infinitesimal ledge of rock, to turn his head. "Are you safe?" he asked, his voice coming harshly from his dry mouth.


"It's the hardest of all here. You must wait. I'll get up and throw you a rope."

"I'll come with you," refused Giovanni. "No. It isn't safe, I tell you. Wait."

"Please, for my sake. I can't do it myself if I think you're in danger."

Giovanni had a great longing to face the danger abreast with his dear comrade, but Filippo blocked the only route up. "If you feel that way, amico,"  said Giovanni, "I'll wait."

He felt his own limbs tremble as he watched Filippo. He saw first one hand go up, and up, stretched to its full extent. The fingers were scarcely resting on a ledge. Could they ever hold?

Then the other hand—up, up, to rest beside the first.

It took all Giovanni's power of will to keep from screaming out. Only the realization that to do so would probably send his beloved friend toppling to earth, kept the cry in check. "Holy Mother, Mother of Christ, protect him now," he prayed with all his soul.

Filippo had raised himself by the muscles of his arms so that his chin rested on the jutting bit of rock. His feet and body hung absolutely in the air.

Then, the weight of his body hanging by his chin, he again stretched one arm and then the other up. Clinging to the new fingerhold, he raised himself once more by his muscles, slowly, painfully, it seemed to Giovanni, yet higher, higher, until at last—"Mary be praised!" cried Giovanni—one foot, yes, both feet, were safely on the new hold.

Stopping for a few breaths, Filippo scaled the last few feet of wall with comparative ease, even to pulling himself atop the mighty structure. He backed out of sight, then his head re-appeared, and the knotted rope came slowly down towards Giovanni. Filippo called cheerily: "Rope's perfectly secure; I've got it round a rock and my coat at the bend so it won't wear through."

With this assurance, Giovanni swung up hand over hand, and was quickly beside his friend. "I can't figure how more than one of us can get down here without leaving the rope and my coat," Filippo greeted him. "I'm afraid we must be olden soldiers for a while, manning the walls. If we walk along here a way we'll come to an easy route down." He began to wind the rope about his waist again.

"Wait," said Giovanni. "We'll tie a stone to that and drop it. You've forgotten that we were going to measure the wall."

When this was done, and rope and lunches once more made secure, the boys clambered forward along the uneven roof of the wall, taking turns in reciting stanzas from the popular epic which told of the knightly days of Charlemagne, and especially of his three heroes, Rinaldo with his famed horse Bayard, and Orlando and Oliviero who had been friends even to death. This was the Italian version of the French "Song of Roland," and ended up, if one ever got as far as the end, with the tragic battle of Roncesvalles, and the Emperor avenging his slain peers.

"Here we are," said Filippo, as they came to the end of their strip of wall. It tapered off quite gently, and they bounded down from jutting rock to rock as easily as mountain goats. "Now," he added, throwing his arm about Giovanni's neck and turning him towards a barren pile of huge stones lying against the rocky slope, "here is our real adventure!"


"Here I found the denarii. Quickly, come!" He looked around. No one was in sight in this outskirt of the little town. Everyone, doubtless, was praying in church or making merry at the fair. Taking off his coat—he had been wise enough to wear a rough jerkin beneath it today—he crawled on hands and knees amongst the boulders. Giovanni imitated him in all particulars.

They found themselves behind a big stone, in a sort of hollow, a cold and dismal spot. Their way was blocked on three sides, but Filippo, using his knife, chipped at the rocks at his feet.

"Gloria!" cried Giovanni beneath his breath; for, as Filippo lifted a larger rock, he looked down into a black hole.

"This is my excavation," explained Filippo quite unnecessarily, for Giovanni's glowing eyes showed he knew it as well as his friend.

"How deep can you go?"

"It's a passage. I've never dared go to the end. That's for us to do today."


"We'll eat our meal first." The boys went back into the sunlight and made a good repast from their bread, cheese, and fruit. Then taking their wraps with them, they laid them beside the hole.

"You can jump down," said Filippo. "I dug this part out myself. It's soft earth. The masonry begins further on."

Giovanni had not waited for him to finish. Filippo landed beside him, and continued: "We'll light candles." He drew a tinder-box from his scarsella, struck a spark, and held the wick of a small taper to it. Handing this to Giovanni, he lighted a second from it.

"Well! you are well prepared!" exclaimed Giovanni.

"Better than you think—for I have a spade and a pick stored further on in here."

Giovanni, peering into the flickering shadows, saw that a round passageway opened off to one side. "It looks to me like nothing so much as an ancient sewer."

Filippo shook his head. "I doubt it."

"I'll lead," proposed Giovanni; but when he saw Filippo's look of disappointment, he quickly added: "No, you should lead, since it is your find."

Filippo shot him a glance of appreciation, and one after the other they made their way into the passageway, along which they had to proceed bent nearly double. What a feeling! One seemed to be walking miles underground. A chill current of air followed them, "And the smell," whispered Giovanni, "seems to be centuries old."

At a bend, they came upon Filippo's spade and pick. Each silently shouldered one of the implements. The corridor had risen in height and flattened out beneath their feet. "Perhaps this was made by the early Christians when they were persecuted, and leads to one of their secret meeting places."

"We'll find out—if our breath lasts. Don't you find your breathing hard, my Giovanni?"

"That I do. And see how dimly our tapers burn."

They walked on, abreast now, in the heavy echoing silence, that seemed to hem them in and weigh them down like something living.

"This is as far as I've gone," announced Filippo suddenly, as, making a turn, they found their way blocked.

"It doesn't look as if we could get through," returned Giovanni disappointedly.

"I think we can. Hold your candle up."

Both boys raised their candles, moving them about. At one place the flames leaped up brightly. "There is air coming through here! Hold the lights and I'll take a try with the pick."

After some minutes hard labor, Filippo admitted: "Can't seem to make any progress. See what you can do, my friend."

Giovanni carefully searched the obstructing mass with his light. Then pushing in his pick as a pry, he gave a tug. "It is moving!" the friends exclaimed together as the center stone budged.

"Take care it doesn't come down on us!" cautioned Filippo.

"I'm keeping that in mind. "

Giovanni continued working, slowly and carefully, from the top down. He tested the rocks from time to time to see how secure they were. He deliberately piled up those he had succeeded in extracting. Although he was working longer than Filippo had, because with less violent effort, he seemed to be making hardly more headway.

"My turn," said Filippo, and taking his place, gave a strong blow with his pick.

"Don't! Don't do that!" ejaculated Giovanni, seizing his arm. "You'll bring the whole roof down on us!"

As if in answer to his warning there was the crash of falling stones. The friends, plunged into darkness, toppled back.

Nothing further was heard. Succeeding in striking new lights, they looked around.

"Here! Here!" screamed Filippo, beside himself with joy. "See! See!"

Giovanni already saw, and met Filippo's eager hug. "It is the find of a lifetime!"

They were gazing, flushed cheek by flushed cheek, through a small hole into a stone vault.

"Who knows what treasures of antiquity are there!"

"We must get in!" cried Filippo, and began almost wildly to enlarge the aperture.

"Careful! Careful!" urged Giovanni, as the whole tunnel seemed to tremble. "Perdio!!!"—this last as a chip of stone hit his neck. "Have patience, Filippo! You're too headstrong; we've got all afternoon for this."

Fillipo paid no attention except to shout: "Back, step back, Gian! I must have room for my pick."

Giovanni did so, and stood watching. The hole grew bigger and bigger.

"I'll get this rock, and there'll be space enough."

"Better make sure the sides are safe, first. "

"They're all right, "muttered Filippo through clenched teeth as he devoted all his effort to his pick. "Hold those lights higher, will you, Gian!"

After a moment of concentrated effort; "It's coming!" he exulted.

"Run! Run!" screamed Giovanni.

Filippo whirled round at the warning, but tripped over the spade and fell flat on his face.

With a wild inarticulate cry, Giovanni sprang forward to protect him, hands upraised. At the same instant, the side walls as well as the divided front one collapsed. Human shrieks were lost in the roar.

For moments the clang and reverberations of the crash filled the ears like an ocean. Then, from under the mass of stones and earth, Filippo's weak and agonized voice sobbed to the body across his: "Giovannino! Giovannino I You aren't dead? Oh, you've given your life for mine! O God, take me too."