From "The Italian Novelists" translated from the originals with Critical and Biographical Notices by Thomas Roscoe; Frederick Warne and Co.; London; [undated edition, c. 1900; first published, 1824]; pp. 251-263.
Novels of Giovanni Brevio.
From one of his sonnets, addressed to his friend Luca Bonfio, we learn that, wearied with his residence at Rome, he sighed for the enjoyment of a more peaceful and pleasant life among the Euganean hills, not far from Padua. On this subject he observes at the close: —
“Quanto t’invidio, O mio fedele e caro,
La dolce vita d’ogni cura sciolta,
Di che a me sempre il ciel fu tanto avaro.”
“How much, dear friend, I envy thee that sweet
And quiet life, from every turmoil free,
Which my sad fate hath still denied to me.”
Under these circumstances, he consoled himself by writing an express treatise on the “Vita Tranquilla,” that tranquil life the possession of which he appears to have so much envied in his friend. It was published, together with his tales and poems, at Rome, in the year 1545, in one volume octavo.
He was intimate with most of the celebrated wits and scholars of his day, and in particular with the poet and courtier Berni, one of the most spirited and amusing writers of the time. Although the language of Brevio can boast neither the ease nor clearness of some of the earlier novelists, and is strongly tinctured with the prevailing dialect of his native district, he is nevertheless to be enumerated, in other points, among the happiest and most ingenious writers of his age. His stories are in general told with considerable ease and vivacity 254 of manner, and the incidents are arranged in a way well calculated to interest the attention of his readers.
The second novel of the series is a story of a priest, who, by forging his own letters of recommendation, passes for a cardinal, and is entertained as such by the persons on whom he imposed them. This, with the third novel, will be found in the following selection, the last of which has been more than once imitated by the dramatists of different countries. It is the subject of Piron’s comedy of “Les Fils Ingrats,” entitled also “L’Ecole des Pères,” which was played in 1728, about the period of the introduction of the “Comédie Larmoyante.” It likewise forms one of the “Pieuse Récréations” of Angelin Gazée, and one of the “Colloquia Mensalia” of Luther, where it is mentioned, among other examples, as a warning to those fond fathers who distribute their property during their lifetime among their children; “a practice,” observes Mr. Dunlop,* “to which they are in general little addicted.”
“The fourth novel,” continues Mr. Dunlop, “is the renowned tale of Belfagor. This story, with merely a difference of names, was originally told in an old Latin MS., which is now lost, but which, till the period of the civil wars in France, remained in the library of St. Martin de Tours. But whether Brevio or Machiavel first exhibited the tale in an Italian garb has been a matter of dispute among the critics of their country. It was printed by Brevio during his life and under his own name in 1545, and with the name of Machiavel in 1549, which was about eighteen years after the death of that historian. Both writers probably borrowed the incidents from the Latin MS., for they could scarcely have copied from each other. The story is besides in the ‘Nights’ of Straparola, but much mutilated, and has also been imitated by Fontaine.”
* History of Fiction, vol. ii. p. 411.
Having fabricated this masterpiece of rhetoric, he arrived about twilight near the Piazza Giudea, where he sold one of his old mantles to a certain Jew, and with the proceeds of his ancient suit purchased an embroidered shirt, which he threw over him without any further dress, the better to carry his design into execution. For had he ventured to make his appearance in his own coarse habiliments, the imposition would have been discovered in a moment. Now, however, he advanced with confidence, as it was night, towards the residence of Luca, to whom, finding him at home, he delivered the letter. Luca had scarcely perused it, when the bishop began to tell a dreadful story of his having been set upon and robbed by banditti, who had slain his two servants, endeavouring to defend their master, while he had with difficulty escaped. His appearance, no less than the letter, certainly verified his assertion. Observing his forlorn condition, Luca, in a compassionate tone, addressed him: “My lord, your Excellency is very welcome;” to which his reverence replied, “Do not, friend, give me any titles, but simply call me cardinal; my name is Adriano;” imposing on the credulity of the saddler that he was the cardinal of that name who had travelled into Turkey. Reassured by the tone of the feigned cardinal, his host now lavished upon him every attention in his power, saying, “You do me honour, cardinal, to take 256 up your residence in my poor house, where you may rely upon us all as being wholly devoted to your service. Poor as it is, you must, therefore, consider my house as your own, and I am only concerned to think that since the sack of this noble city I do not find myself in circumstances to offer you a more splendid reception. But I trust my best efforts will not be wanting to supply those deficiencies which I am aware your Excellency must perceive, if your infinite goodness will deign, as my brother flatters me you will, to accept my attentions.” His grace here returned his thanks in the most condescending manner, though he still sat with a somewhat serious and sombre countenance; on which Luca respectfully ventured to throw one of his best cloaks over his reverend shoulders, cherishing the vital warmth until such time as a hot supper and a warm chamber could be prepared for him. For this laudable purpose he gave up his own room, into which, when the cardinal had finished his supper, he was respectfully shown by the lady of the house herself. A bath was then ordered for the good cardinal’s feet, with all kinds of sweet ointments and herbs, together with a flagon of Greek wine to invite him to repose.
The next morning our happy tradesman’s first visit was to his tailor’s, whom he took along with him to a draper’s shop, where he purchased eight ells of fine cloth, part of which he paid for on the spot. A cassock and a large embroidered mantle were immediately presented to his reverence; and as his host imagined that his bed was not good enough for him, he ordered two new feather beds, with fine sheets and hangings, while his chamber was likewise elegantly furnished and fresh perfumed. His Excellency was thus as greatly honoured as if he had been a real cardinal; his table was heaped with all those delicacies of the season which only distinguished prelates have a right to eat, and for the first few days they were truly relished by his lordship, who made great havoc both among the solids and the sweets. Still his host imagined that something was wanting in the treatment due to his guest’s singular magnificence and worth. He therefore summoned his friends and relatives, engaged in various trades, to assist him in his hospitable views; and the hosier, the tailor, and the shoemaker, were soon laid under contribution. He invited them to his house, saying, “Make haste, friends, make haste; the hour is come for pushing all our fortunes; we shall soon be the richest family in the place: no more stitching of bridles and saddles for me!” They inquired, in the greatest astonishment, what had happened; but the happy tradesman was so overpowered with joy at the reflection that he was the host of the lord bishop, that he only laughed and looked proudly round him, hardly deigning to reply. But on being pressed more closely, with an air of affected humility he observed: “Why, gentlemen, if you will have it, there is a very distinguished prelate residing in my house at present; and I am very happy to see him, and always shall be: that is all. He is desirous of bestowing one of his benefices on a son of mine, and my brother also writes to me about it: indeed, he introduced him to me.” So confident did the poor tradesman appear, that all his relations agreed with him, and determined also, on their part, to show every kind of respect to the venerable prelate. 257 More than a dozen of them assembled together, among whom was the host’s sister-in-law, named Antonia, who, on hearing of her brother’s vast expectations, brought her son Gioanni with her, a youth who had been adopted into the family of Lattanzio, a Neapolitan, and treated as his own son. But his fond mother had now brighter prospects for him, and ordering him home, proceeded to offer his services to the cardinal, at whose feet she humbly knelt. The whole party, indeed, lavished upon him all those ceremonies and attentions due only to persons of the highest quality, and he was treated with beccaficos in season, and with every kind of poultry, game, pastry, and ragouts. Even the marmalade was of the finest, which appeared after dinner, and his toothpick is said to have been presented to him in a cover, accompanied with wines of the best and finest quality to be found in all the city of Rome. It is likewise reported that the celebrated cook in the service of the friars of Santa Matelica was the very man who was sent for to prepare the bishop’s meals, under the superintendence of Catella, the wife of our honest tradesman. Here, then, did the worthy prelate feast like a wolf in the sheepfold, rejoicing the host and his good friends and family with his saintly and benignant looks. After spending a joyous time, he began to think, as he had long flattered the ambitious hopes of his host and his brother-in-law in vain, it would be well to follow up his plan with another master-stroke of his art; for in fact the wretched tradesman was now on the point of ruin. In order to drain his last resources, the cardinal began to feign himself sick, and fairly took to his bed for more than ten days, pretending at first to refuse all nourishment, though he yielded at the same time to his strong desire for drink. Feverish as he was, however, he contrived to devour as much as a man in health, obstinately refusing to see a physician, protesting that everything was in the hands of God, and that, in fact, he was much better than he deserved to be. He was, in truth, afraid that, if tried by the aphorisms of Hippocrates, the language of his pulse with his voice and looks might convict him of his foul deceit. Requesting, therefore, that a notary might instantly be sent for, he showed an extreme desire to settle his last accounts, purposing to dispose of a vast property, which could be no loss to himself, in favour of his hospitable host and his friends. He provided Marc Antonio, the son of Luca the saddler, by a bequest of his rich bishopric of Montpelier in France; and to Gioanni, the son of the sister-in-law, he bequeathed the rectory of San Simpliciano in the Cremonese. But to Luca the saddler himself he left a thousand ducats, with only five hundred to his brother-in-law, Bastiano, as he had to remember at the same time many of his surrounding friends in different legacies, to be paid out of the proceeds of his benefices and other possessions lying within the districts of Cremona and Piacenza. While he was thus pronouncing his last will and testament with a feeble and trembling voice, his cardinal’s cap being drawn quite over his eyes, and holding, as it were, his soul between his teeth to keep it from taking wing until he had settled his affairs, “I do not wish,” he continued, “to abate a jot of the liberality which my great and magnanimous ancestors have always shown to 258 their dying day. I would have you, therefore, Mr. Notary, write down that I add to the former thousand five hundred more ducats in behalf of Signor Luca, the saddler;” whose joy, and that of the whole family, on hearing his beneficent intentions, became quite inexpressible. The reverend father now thought fit to recover very rapidly, which convinced his new friends that he had an excellent constitution; and as the time was fast approaching when he intended to depart from Rome, accompanied by some of these simple people, into France, in order to confirm them in their credulity, he ordered a large house to be taken for him in Rome to receive him on his return. This was directly done, and very well furnished with all that was befitting a man of rank, being the next house to that which formerly belonged to Melchior Barlasina. The wife of Luca, in the idea that her son, Marc Antonio, would soon be made a bishop, a hat becoming such an office having been already, by the cardinal’s advice, procured, presented four handsome rings, all she had in the world, to be worn by his reverence, as a slight token of her gratitude for his patronage of her son. Her sister Antonia likewise, in consideration of the rectory given to her boy, Gioanni, presented him with four fine cambric shirts, and several pair of rich embroidered stockings. And though these were but insignificant proofs of their sense of the high worth and dignity of his Excellency, he nevertheless deigned to accept them without the least symptom of pride or haughtiness. Nor was this the extent of the poor infatuated tradesman’s folly; for just before the departure of his reverence he sold a fine vine in his possession at San Bastiano for two hundred ducats, though it was well worth three hundred, to show his gratitude for the cardinal’s will.
But Providence, which soon or late is sure to bring the greatest iniquities to light, revealed on this occasion the daring imposition practised by this wretch in the following manner. The sister-in-law of Luca had, as was before stated, recommended her son to the patronage of the mock cardinal, withdrawing him from the care of his former friend, who was much displeased at such a step, on account of the great pains which had been bestowed in his education. So far was he incensed by such ungrateful conduct, that he was resolved to obtain redress. He frequently sent to his mother, Antonia, to learn what had become of him, who, professing great sorrow at his absence, replied that he had not lately called at her house. He then went of search of him, half afraid lest the soldiers, of which the place was full, had led him astray, as he was a tall and pleasing youth, well fitted to become one of their body. And it so happened that this youth, Gioanni, and his master, Lattanzio, encountered each other upon the bridge, as the boy was hastening to purchase fruits for the lord cardinal. Lattanzio immediately cried, “Come here, you little glutton! What are you doing, and why have you run away from me?” The boy replied, “Because my mother has found me a situation with a great lord, who is staying in the house of Luca the saddler, near the palace of Sienna.” His master then tried to persuade him to return home with him, when the youth took to his heels and left him; on which Lattanzio immediately went in person to the house of Antonia to upbraid her with her 259 strange and ungrateful conduct. “You appeared to have been satisfied,” he continued, “with the kindness I showed your son, having treated him always as if he had been one of the family. And who is this person residing at present with your brother-in-law, who seems to have deprived me of the boy’s affection? Let him be sent back to me instantly, for I am determined it shall be done.”
Having no better excuse to make, the lady replied that she knew nothing about the matter; and then turned her back upon him with an air of disdain, believing that Gioanni was secure of the cardinal’s good graces, and that Lattanzio might easily provide himself with another apprentice. She expected, too, that her son would make her little presents out of the proceeds of his rectory, of such ornaments and dresses as would be very agreeable to her. Further incensed by this repulse, Lattanzio had recourse the same evening to the assistance of a magistrate, just as the impostor was preparing to set out from Rome with the tradesman and his associates. Without any knowledge of the real particulars, he stated, very truly, that there resided at the house of Luca a man of extremely bad character, and one of the greatest cheats upon the face of the earth. In consequence of this timely representation, the police were ordered to pay a visit to the tradesman’s house, where they found the cardinal on the point of setting out; four horses standing saddled at the door, the best of which was for the cardinal’s own person, and the other three for his companions, who were now carried, with their patron, to the prison of Tor di Nona. Luca was first of all interrogated by the magistrate as to the business of the said impostor at his house, and whither they were going together. To this the poor tradesman replied that his brother had written to him very fully from Naples, warmly recommending his lordship, whom, had they better known, they would not, perhaps, have ventured to use so unceremoniously as they had done. The magistrate then commanded him to produce the letter, and detecting the forgery, from the affectation and bombast of its style, he ordered the cardinal to be put to the question, in order to obtain clear information as to his designs and character. Having an extreme aversion to the honour of martyrdom, and being an experienced old rogue, he instantly confessed the manner in which he had counterfeited the real letter, as well as the whole series of impostures he had since practised on this credulous family. He even developed his future plans of installing the son in his clerical office, of carrying them to visit his bishopric through Montpelier and into France, where he intended likewise to ordain Marc Antonio, flattering them with the hope of receiving immense fortunes, while they continued to lavish upon him the whole of their remaining substance; and as they journeyed from place to place, he intended to weave new plots to impose upon them and their companions.
On hearing this, the judge immediately ordered his poor victims to be liberated, first inquiring of them the particulars of the lord bishop’s conduct when he arrived at their house; and he was shocked to hear how he had come among them quite destitute, the grave solemnity with which he had presented the letter, his continual feasting, the 260 dignified importance with which he commanded their services, ordering his toothpick case to be brought in a cover, leaving his abode only in the morning and the evening under pretence of going to mass, and entreating his host to call him simply by the name of Adriano, meaning to represent himself as Cardinal Adriano, at that time leaving Rome. But when the narrator came to the story of the will, with all the items and particulars of his legacies, the judge and the whole court were convulsed with laughter. Then there was the cassock, the gold rings presented to him by the lady, the young cardinal’s hat prepared for Marc Antonio, and the fine embroidered shirts, set down to the account of the young Gioanni’s rectory. Most of the stolen goods were recovered, rather by good fortune than by any sort of prudence on the part of the family, his Excellency not being now in a situation to lay his hands upon them, though they waited, ready packed at the door, to be transported to another country. The rings, however, were gone, and it was in vain that the poor lady urged her claims before the magistrate; the rogue, steadfast as a tower, denied all knowledge of them, and she was compelled to submit patiently to her fate, especially as the cardinal swore to it in so solemn a manner. Having at length heard the whole cause, the judge pronounced his sentence, and the lord cardinal was condemned to have his ears cut off on the next Saturday morning, and to be well scourged; while Luca the saddler was sentenced to re-open his shop and renew his labours on bridles and saddles; and his brother-in-law, Bastiano the shoemaker, to return to his last. Lattanzio was directed to seize upon his apprentice, Gioanni; and Marc Antonio, as not yet being of an age to assume the duties of his bishopric, was compelled to wait until he should arrive at years of discretion.
His sons vied with each other in expressing their gratitude for his paternal goodness, declaring that they should merely consider themselves in the place of his stewards, ever prepared to attend to his minutest wishes in every respect. Yet it so turned out, that in a very few months after the good old gentleman had parted with his property, their demeanour towards him began to alter. And this he shortly perceived when he began to take up his residence first with one and then with another, believing that he could not fail to enjoy himself exceedingly. After continuing tolerably comfortable with them for a little while, he began to be aware that in proportion as he lengthened his visits they seemed to become less agreeable. This he more particularly noticed was the opinion of his three daughters-in-law, some of whom were not unfrequently heard to exclaim, “Look! look! here is that vexatious old man again! come to dine with us, too, at such an inconvenient hour!” While others would say, “There is really no pleasing him; the soup is always seasoned either too high or too low; indeed he is getting very old and very odd.” So frequent and so loud did these murmurs at length become, that he could not avoid overhearing them; and even the servants soon convinced him of the error he had committed in enriching his children during his lifetime at his own expense. Not very well pleased at having made this discovery, he determined to apply, in order to relieve his anxiety, to Angelo Beccaria, one of his oldest friends, to whom, in a doleful voice, he said, “You are aware, my dear friend, that about six months ago I got a foolish notion into my head of making my will, which I still more foolishly executed in favour of my sons. Now, you would not believe, my dear Angelo, in what an ungrateful, in what a cruel way, they, and especially their wives, have since treated me. I thought that they would be a thousand times kinder to me than ever, after leaving them all I was worth during my lifetime, instead of making them wait till I was fairly gone. I imagined that they would all be attentive and obliging to me, and, would you believe it, it has turned out just the contrary. I wish, from my very soul, that I had retained my property, for my children, and especially their wives, look as if they could hardly bear the sight of me. Now, I would not breathe a word of this to any one living but yourself. 262 You were always kind to me, and it is a great relief to my feelings to have some one, at least, in whom to confide.” His friend Angelo endeavoured to console him, saying that he was extremely sorry to hear of such unfilial conduct on the part of his children, when they ought rather to have shown him increased tenderness and respect, after bestowing the whole of his fortune on them and their families. He than paused, as if considering what could possibly be done. After ruminating for some time, “I have it! I have it! my dear Antonio,” he cried. “If you will follow my advice, you may be a happy man yet. Now, listen! Suppose I were to lend you two thousand ducats, which you shall take home with you immediately, and return them to me in a few days. You may show them in the meanwhile to your sons, to convince them that they are in your possession, stating that you mean to leave them to whomsoever you may judge proper. Their avarice will so far weigh with them as to induce them to show you that attention and dutiful behaviour which all your kindness has failed to produce.” Accepting the proposal with his warmest thanks, Messer Antonio instantly received from his friend’s hands the two thousand ducats, and having counted and given his note for them, he carried them joyfully along with him home.
In pursuance of his friend’s advice, he then sent for Galeazzo, his eldest son, to whom he said, “You are aware, my son, that though I still may have many years to live, I not long since made over the greatest part of my property to you and your brothers; yet I did not dispose of the whole, for that would have been a foolish thing indeed; though I only reserved a few thousands, not to leave myself quite destitute, as you may here behold.” He then exhibited his friend’s gold, giving his eldest son at the same time to understand that, should all continue pleasant between them, he intended to add them to the sum he had before bestowed upon him.
Dismissing Galeazzo, he then went through the same scene with his two brothers, making the same promises to each. Nor was it long before he reaped the benefit of this happy expedient, as he had the pleasure of observing a great change for the better in the conduct of his children. On returning the money to his friend Angelo, he again expressed his gratitude for the ingenious suggestion, observing that he had now nothing further to complain of, and that he was a very happy father, inasmuch as his sons already began to vie with each other in their kindness and attentions to him.
Not very long after, the old gentleman feeling himself beginning to decline apace, experienced the advantage of his good friend’s advice; for no children could be more attentive to the least wants and wishes of a parent. However much pressed, he still delayed to make his final will; and not satisfied with this, he further resolved to reproach his children for their late conduct by another ingenious device. In the very same chest which had contained the six thousand ducats he deposited a heap of sand, on the surface of which he laid an oaken staff, with an inscription, in very plain terms, to the following purport:—
“I will and bequeath this cudgel to knock any old fool upon the head who gives away his own property during his lifetime.”263
In a few days afterwards, this kind old father breathed his last, when his sons severally hastened to inspect the strong box which he had previously shown to each; and so eager and simultaneous were they in their motions, that they all three met together on the spot, where they stood gazing for some time wistfully at each other. The eldest first broke silence, saying, “It is now several months ago since my father presented me with a bag of gold, containing, as he said, two thousand ducats, which he deposited here for me. I doubt not they are in this box, and I am now come here to claim them.” At these words, his brothers, Antonio and Julio, each exclaimed, “It may be very true, Galeazzo, but he promised exactly the same sum to me.” Each asked the others for the key, and maintaining the truth of their several assertions, they entered into a pretty sharp dispute. Weary at length of controversy, they became desirous of accommodating matters, and agreed, like good brothers, to share all the contents of the chest amongst them. Instantly sending for a locksmith, they ordered it to be broken open in their presence, when, instead of their bags of gold, they beheld it filled with sand, and the cudgel with the ingenious device upon the top of it. Overwhelmed with shame and vexation, they in vain tried to laugh the matter off and appear amused with this humourous sort of retaliation. No sooner did Messer Angelo hear of his old friend’s improvement upon their original contrivance, than being highly entertained with it, he everywhere made it a source of general amusement among his acquaintance, frequently observing, “We foolish old fellows, you see, must take care of ourselves.” And indeed it too often happens that the sole reward we reap from the unremitted toil and exertions of a whole life spent in enriching our posterity is disobedience and ingratitude even while we are alive. We may well imagine, then, with how little ceremony they are inclined to treat our memories when we are gone.