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

A Sheep on Two Legs

Beautiful Fiorenza had awakened to a rather sober Friday morning, for it was the last week but one in Quaresima, that is, Lent. When Filippo left the alchemist's, the city clocks were pointing to a bit after twelve. This was still pleasantly early, for twelve o'clock Florentine time was only eight A.M. of our time. The Florentines counted each new day as beginning at what is our eight o'clock of the previous evening, which they called twenty-four o'clock; our nine P.M. was one o'clock for them, and so on to their twenty-four o'clock.

Leaving the Ponte Vecchio, Filippo hurried the few steps to the little nearby Church of the Holy Apostles. This church was so old that tradition claimed that it had been founded by the great Emperor Charlemagne himself. After mass, Filippo returned through the fruit and vegetable market at the head of the bridge. His eyes were sparkling with fun. "I have loads of time," he thought, pulling out some of the walnuts Bartolommeo had given him and cracking them in his palm.

The little market was now crowded with purchasers as well as sellers. Filippo saw a group of boys tossing coins under an empty stall. A pretty peasant girl with two long braids of black hair over her gaily colored dress and mantle, moved about like a flower herself, calling out: "Flowers for sale; flowers for holy Gesu  "(Jesus).

Filippo debated whether or not to buy a bunch of wild anemones and iris to lay before the shrine of his patron saint or of the Holy Madonna, but he forgot the impulse as he noticed that a story-teller had seated himself on one of the stone benches. He tried to catch some of what was being told. The crowd around was laughing so heartily that he could not hear a word. "They don't mind making merry in Passion-tide," thought Filippo. He looked around for the flower girl, and found her gone.

"Oh, well," said Filippo to himself, and was about to turn into a narrow street leading to the middle of town. His way was blocked by a procession of barefoot white-clad pilgrims, bearing a cross and sacred banners. Crossing himself and bending his knee, Filippo turned off to the side in the direction of the Palazzo Vecchio. He was so busy planning how he would use the contents of the little parcel he carried under his cloak, he hardly noticed where he went. He laughed silently. It was splendid' Splendid!

Before he knew it he had come upon the splendid piazza  or square which was the site of the world-famous Palazzo Pubblico or Palazzo Vecchio. This was the chief seat of government, the State House of Florence. At the end of the ringhiera, the stone platform before the palace, was the majestic stone lion called Marzocco, the emblem of the Florentine Republic. The whole piazza, like all of Florence, was full of triumphs of art and architecture.

Filippo had a sudden inspiration. He walked eagerly around the Palace of the People, looking up at its four stories of massive stone, the top story, with its open gallery and battlemented roof, projecting like a crown over the rest. From it, in turn, the strong and beautiful tower of the building rose to a height to overlook the whole city. In the arched belfry at its top could be seen the great bell called "The Cow," which when it rang called all citizens to come together. On hearing it ring they said: "La Vacca mugghia"  (The Cow moos).

"Magnificent!" exulted Filippo. "This gives me the very subject for my Latin poem!

"Thou stern and stone-clad guardian of our Freedom!

Thy tower ever watches o'er our State,

Lest Treason raise its hydra heads among us

Or outer foes surprise our open gate.

"To thee Marzocco's kingly eyes are lifted;

On thee Fiorenza's Lily lies secure. . . ."

Filippo was scanning the Latin lines as he composed them, his eyes turned up to the coats-of-arms of Florence painted across the Palazzo Vecchio below the projecting top story. There were many of these, each recalling some part of Florentine history. Prominent among them were the white lily on a red field, the red lily on a white field, and the golden lilies on a blue field.—Fiorenza was called the City of the Lily.

"So long as thy proud vigilance endureth

That long will our sweet Liberty endure . . ."

continued Filippo. "It begins rather well," he told himself critically; "must be improved, of course." He smiled. He had just remembered that it was commonly said that the "Republic of Florence "was in truth now ruled by a single man, a man without a title or a crown, but yet the equal of kings, though he signed himself simply: "Lorenzo, Citizen of Florence."

"San Michele!"  Filippo exclaimed nearly aloud, "that gives me a title for a pretty essay in Greek or in Latin as my good teacher pleases: 'What Is the Best Form of Government?' Plenty of opportunity in that for quoting the ancient authors the master is so fond of, Plato, Virgil, Cicero, and all the rest. I'll finish my poem first, though. Let me see.

"Thou art in one a bulwark and a beacon . . . "

As he thought, Filippo had wandered on to the serraglio, where the gentle lions belonging to the city were kept. Since Florence had as one of her symbols a stone lion, she thought it fitting to keep also a big family of live lions. There were altogether about thirty of them in the serraglio. Filippo bent down to watch more closely the pretty antics of three half-grown cubs at play. Something gleamed at his feet. He picked it up. It was a ring.

Filippo whistled as he gazed at his hand. It was an exquisite piece of jewelry: a stone cut like a rose and held by two tiny doves. "This is a sad loss for someone," thought Filippo. "It is perhaps a betrothal ring." No one was in sight to whom the object was likely to belong; there seemed nothing to do but put it in his pocket.

The clock on the Palazzo Pubblico tower showed there was still over an hour of waiting before Fra Antonio's sermon would begin in the great Cathedral. Filippo wasn't at all anxious to hear the sermon, but his father had made him promise that he would. This Brother Antonio de Vergiegli was being much praised for his Lenten preaching this year. "It'll all be talk of repenting and so on," mused Filippo uncomfortably. "I wonder why I ever agreed to go!"

Well, there was more than plenty of time yet for a ramble through the beautiful city, with its palaces and towers and churches and gardens all so fresh and smiling in the morning sunshine. No place could be so delightful for a stroll. The streets were narrow, and crisscrossed each other in so many patterns that one was forever coming across spots one did not know. The fronts of the stone houses were full of interest. The knockers of the doors and the projecting iron or bronze holders for torches were graven with figures of animals and flowers. Beside or above the doors were in many cases niches containing images of saints or of the Holy Family, some of them in the beautiful blue and white glazed terra-cotta which the Florentine artist, Luca della Robbia, had invented some years before. Through the gratings of gates could be caught glimpses of gardens with iris-bordered walks, slender cypress trees, and playing fountains.

Every church, big and small—and there were over a hundred in the city—was a treasure-house of art. Filippo could not help lingering a while before each one he passed, thinking of the great masters who had helped to rear and to decorate it. He thought of his own painting studies each time, and wondered whether he would ever do any famous works like these. Some of the churches were in connection with the numerous monasteries and nunneries, set in wide-cloistered gardens, above the walls of which showed the tops of orange and lemon and olive and fig trees and the tendrils of grape vines.

Half as numerous as the churches were the open squares, almost every one of them with at least a statue or two. Then again Filippo would follow a maze of stone-paved streets, where palaces, as the homes of the important families were called, jostled humble houses, and splendid monuments of architecture and art rose in the midst of little shops. Many of the houses over-hung the street in their upper stories, or were adorned with arcades called logge. Filippo even looked with interest at the streets themselves, for he had heard travelers say they were far better than those of most of Europe; not only were they paved and drained, but some of them were even provided with sewers.

But most of all, the colorful, changing crowd caught Filippo's eye. He had stopped before the immense church of Santa Croce, where so many famous Florentines were buried. A throng of worshipers was about the doors, as well as three enterprising beggars and several peddlers loudly crying their wares. There was something suspicious about two of the beggars. They looked on the surface pitiable enough, with their bandages and crutches, but Filippo felt sure that he had surprised a sign and a wink between them. He would have been more ready to feel for them, had he not known that Florence provided very liberally for her poor and unfortunates, who seldom needed to beg.

"Faugh," he said to himself, "these two get six times their share of alms. They push their way over everyone. I pity the third beggar." They had almost knocked the third beggar down.

Filippo resolved on a bit of sport. He approached the two, who were close together now, and held out his closed hands as if to drop a coin in each cup. Then, instead, in a flash he snatched a quattrino  from each, and ran off with a laugh.

The trick worked. The beggars sprang so swiftly after him that their rags and sticks went flying to all sides. The "cripples" were as spry as goats. "Come back, thief! Halt, villain!" they shouted.

"That I won't—for the good of your souls!" laughed Filippo, dodging this way and that to escape them.

"We'll lambaste your hide for you!" screamed the foremost beggar, a big and stalwart fellow who looked good for his word.

"You will, will you?" taunted Filippo. He turned as he ran, and at the instant the beggar's hand was on him.

"I'll show you!" bellowed the fellow, with a vigorous shake of the captive. Filippo gave a quick wriggle, and was free from his grasp. Alas, his cloak was left behind.

It flashed through Filippo's mind that it was going hard with him to be losing all his clothes on one day. He looked around appealingly at the laughing, bravoing crowd. His look was answered, for in a jiffy his wrap had been recovered, and nearly everyone was joining in the hue and cry to hoot the false beggars from the piazza.

Before Filippo joined, he tossed the denari, with one of his own, to the third beggar.

He followed the chase only a few steps. In the center of the Piazza Santa Croce some youths had started a game of calcio, a play resembling football, and Filippo stayed to watch. It was only a practice game, but the teams were fine and evenly matched, and the ball went sailing through the air for a goal. Filippo shouted enthusiastically. His foot ached to join in, though the players were all nearer twenty than thirteen, his age.

A flock of school-boys, with less time to spare than he, came dashing round the corner of the church and past the spot where he stood. "Halt! Halt!" he called after them. "You're losing your shoes!"

"But not our caps!" came the answer from one. "Why, boys, it's Filippo de' Nerli, Lippo the Lively!" said he, coining the nickname then and there.

"Lippo the Lively's been in a fight:

He's lost his cap, if I am right!"

Look at him, comrades! What a sight he is!"

This was turning the tables, and Filippo darted off to catch the hindmost boy, which he did, and held him fast. "He's a hostage," he cried, and would not let him go till the others all came bounding to the rescue.

"Beg for mercy!" they ordered as they fell on him.


"In that case, meet us this afternoon behind San Marco, and we'll play ball."


"Addio, until then."

They separated, and Filippo made a wide circle to return to the neighborhood of the great cathedral. The tangle of winding streets was more full of life than before. Here were monks in their hooded robes, there a sister, yonder a priest. Filippo diverted himself by deciding, from the slight differences in their dress, where the many foreigners he met were from: whether from Rome, or Naples, or Venice, or Milan. He was so absorbed in debating the nationality of two brilliantly clothed young men in parti-colored hose, he tumbled flat over the rope stretched across his path—as was intended he should. Mocking peals of laughter came from above him; the street urchins responsible had wisely perched themselves at the top of an outdoor staircase to an upper floor. Filippo made a start to "rush" them, when—thud! clap! bang!—down came a shower of stones. Ignominy! He had to retreat.

But retreat's not defeat. Filippo only retired to where he could peep out unseen, to wait until his antagonists were off guard. Now's his chance! He was on them like a whirlwind, and born fighters though the street boys were, it's doubtful that they got the best of it! Filippo knocked their heads together, "To show you not to meddle again!" and passed on without a backward glance.

He was quite put out by this last adventure, "To have to fight little ruffians like that!" and especially when he recognized Pietro Tosa, the cloth merchant, standing in front of his rich shop, and thought he detected a smile as the merchant greeted him. "I suppose I do look disreputable after all this, but Santa Maria!  can I help it?" he said to himself.

He regained his spirits after a moment, however, and continued calling out to the young apprentices who hurried by, "Whither so fast?" and to those that loitered on their errands to play, sarcastically, "There's plenty of time in the world, I see!"

In this way he wandered around to the streets mainly inhabited by the wool industry. He saw the headquarters of the Arte delta Lana  (Wool Association), opposite the Church of Or San Michele, and its sign of two lambs. Practically every citizen of Florence, no matter what his occupation, belonged to one of the associations called arti, or guilds, which regulated everything concerning their own crafts or professions. Filippo's father belonged of course to the guild of notaries and judges; his uncle was a member of the Wool Guild.

Filippo was just now passing the prosperous bottega  of this uncle. He noticed a lively, laughing knot of young apprentices gathered about the door. He caught some of their exclamations: "Ba, I don't believe it is a sheep!" "Oh, it is! it is!" "Santa Maria protect us!" "Give a pull at its wool!"

Then he himself was spied. "It is the nephew of il padrone" (the master). "Excellent! Call him over." "Hie, Filippo, come hither; we've something to show you."

Filippo sauntered across the street, well on guard for some good-natured joke from the merry fellows. They formed a ring about him as they conducted him into the workshop. In the first room were great piles of finely spun wool, steaming vats of dye on the brick stove, lines of newly colored cloth and hanks of yarn. Two young workers were each engaged at a small loom, while other youths were busy watching the vats and lifting out the wool to dry. However, they all, weavers and dyers, left their work with alacrity to follow into the long inner room. This was the room of the skilled craftsmen.

Here, along the entire length of opposite walls, were very large looms, with half completed pieces of two varieties of the magnificent cloths for which Florence was world-famous, splendidly figured and colored. The designs seemed fit for kings' robes. The weavers here, too, some of them middle-aged men, smiled, and greeted Filippo. The gray-haired foreman, coming forward with a paper on which he was sketching out a pattern of lions and lilies said, "Welcome."

The apprentices pulled Filippo on into a third room, which opened on a courtyard.

"Bring the creature in, Corso. We have a visitor."

A mischievous, black-eyed lad thrust his head, tousled with bits of wool, in the back door and said gravely: "The animal's getting contrary, my friends. I'll have to have some help."

Several of the boys hurried to his aid, some shuffling and giggling were heard, and after a few moments the voice of the tousled lad called out: "Now, Messer Filippo, you shall see a phenomenon!"

The boys re-entered, flushed and panting, dragging and pushing an upright woolly animal whose front feet hung in the manner of a kangaroo's. The creature was keeping its captors on the jump by butting its horned head at them, first this way, then that, like a young goat. The tousled boy pulled it to the middle of the room, brought it to a standstill with a dexterous twist of the rope, dodged a thrust of the beast's head, and gave an appreciative click of his tongue at the effect.

"Observe!" he panted to Filippo. "Was the like ever seen? An upright sheep it is, per Bacco!  I wager there's not another such in any land in Italy!"

"I agree with you," nodded Filippo, "except for the word 'another.'"

"What do you mean?" retorted the other in a hurt tone. "Here's the beast before you."

At this, the creature in question emitted a long, melancholy "Baa-as-aa."

"Ah-ho," said Filippo, outwardly falling in with the jest, and inwardly smiling at an idea which occurred to him, "and where did you get this miraculous animal? But—but—are you sure it is not—" he pretended to draw back in affright, "not—the Evil One himself?"

Some of the young apprentices of twelve and fourteen looked really scared at this supposition, and shrank behind their elders. The young weavers of eighteen and twenty, however, only laughed. A chorus of voices hastened to tell Filippo: "Oh, Corso here brought it in this morning from the country. It's a yearling. It was born last spring at a twin birth with a perfectly ordinary lamb. The ewe, its mother, Corso's grandfather said, was so ashamed of it that she did nothing except bite it, so he gave it to Corso for a present."

"Yes," added Corso himself, "and I expect to make my fortune with it. I'm sure Lorenzo de' Medici will be glad to buy it."

"That's a brilliant idea," pronounced Filippo heartily. "I'm certain Lorenzo it Magnifico will be charmed with the creature. Only—" He affected to hesitate. "Only, if there should be any devilry about it, and Lorenzo should come to harm, it would be just like having murder and treason on your soul. You must make sure first."

"How?" asked Corso, uncomfortably.

"Yes, how? But how?" echoed gay and excited voices.

"In this way," said Filippo very gravely. "I have read in a book of magic that the devil hates the color red, the color of Our Lord's wounds. Now I see yonder a vat of scarlet dye that hasn't been heated today. We will just dip this animal in it. If it remains a sheep, well and good. If, on the contrary, there's anything unnatural, we'll soon see!"

No sooner said than done! The boys seized on the supposed sheep, whose struggles seemed much more genuine now than before, and hauled it, kicking, to the vat. The older weavers laughed loudly from their posts in the door-way. The apprentices took firmer grips on the beast, and—despite squirms, kicks, and blows—raised it over the extra vat of dye.

"Oh! Oh! Oh!" wailed a smothered voice. "Don't dip me! Don't! Let me out!"

The young men, roaring with merriment, yelled from the door: "Give him a sousing. Plunge him in! Don't let him off! "

At this, with a frantic lurch and a scream of terror, the sheep wrenched free. Its head fell off, its body ripped open—and there was a youngster somewhat under Filippo's age!

"Bravo!" cried Filippo. "Did I not say my test would be a revelation! Here we have the yearling lamb, the twin of a sheep, and all the rest of it—without the wool! "

"Whew, it was hot," gasped the ex-sheep, wiping his red and streaming face.

"Never you mind," said the lad with the tousled hair, putting his arm around him. "You did your part splendidly, Jacopo."

"That you did," said Filippo, holding out his hands to both. "But where did you get the wonderful costume? I have never seen so fine a disguise."

"Ah, there's the point," returned Corso, for Jacopo was nearly too exhausted to answer. "That's a costume that's going to be used in the festa  of San Giovanni this year. And no wonder it's fine! You could never guess who made it!"

"Some great artist, no doubt; for they nearly all turn their hands occasionally to designing masquerades for our great holidays."

"Not a great artist yet. 'Tis by a pupil of Cosimo Rosselli—a mere youth—but the master says he will be famous some day."

"Ah, yes!" said Filippo, his eyes sparkling with interest. "Look at that head and face! How natural they are, yet there's something half human about the expression, too. It makes me think of a faun. There's the touch of a genius there. . . . What does this young artist call himself?"

"He goes by name of Piero di Cosimo. I'm related to him," confessed Corso, beaming with pride. "That's why he loaned me the costume. He's made it for the Wool Guild to use in the great festa  procession."

"That's why I was so afraid you'd dip me in the red dye!" put in Jacopo. "Wouldn't a red sheep look funny?—and Piero and Corso and I'd have all got into such trouble!"

"And now, lads, back to work," called the kindly foreman, with his eyes still twinkling at the end of the jest. And to Filippo: "You've a ready wit, boy; I'm afraid if you had set your heart on learning the trade of weaving with us, you'd make our bottega  even more lively than it is."

The apprentices trooped through the rooms to see their visitor off, while the men twitted them pleasantly and congratulated both Jacopo and Corso, and Filippo. The latter left amid a shower of "addios"  and "come again."