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From A Literary Source-book of the Italian Renaissance, by Merrick Whitcomb, PH. D., University of Pennsylvania; 1900; pp. 24-32.
That most excellent vernacular poet, whose fame will never grow less, Dante Allighieri the Florentine, was neighbor in Florence to the family of the Adimari. It came to pass that a certain young cavalier of that family fell into difficulty, I know not on account of what offence, and was about to come up for sentence, in the due course of justice, 25 before a certain magistrate, who was, it seems, upon terms of friendship with Dante. He therefore besought the poet that he should intercede for him with the magistrate; and this Dante replied he would willingly do. So when the poet had dined, he left home and set out upon his way to accomplish the business; but just as he was passing by the gate of San Piero, a smith, hammering an iron upon his anvil, was singing Dante, as one sings a ditty, jumbling his verses together, clipping them and adding to them, in such a manner that it seemed to Dante they were suffering the greatest injury. He said nothing, however, but approached the smithy, where were lying the various tools with which the owner plied his trade. Dante seized the hammer and threw it into the street; seized the tongs and threw them into the street; seized the balances and threw them into the street, and so on with the remaining irons. The smith, turning about with an angry gesture, cried: “What the devil are you doing? Are you mad?” Said Dante: “And you, what are you doing?” “Working at my trade,” the smith replied, “and you are spoiling my tools, throwing them into the street.” Said Dante: “If you do not wish that I should spoil your things, do not spoil mine.” “How am I injuring you?” said the smith. Said Dante: “You sing my book, but not as I have made it. I also have a trade, and you are spoiling it for me.” The smith, swelling with rage, knew not what to reply, but gathered together his scattered tools and returned to his forge, and when he wished again to sing, he sang of Tristan and of Launcelot, but left Dante alone; and Dante went his way to the magistrate. But when he came into the presence of that official, it occurred to him that the cavalier of the Adimar, who had asked the favor of him, was a haughty youth with scant courtesy, who, when he went through the city, especially on horseback, rode with his legs outspread, until they filled the street, if it happened to be narrow, so that passers-by were compelled to brush the toes of his shoes; and to Dante, who was a close observer, such behaviour was always displeasing. Thereupon Dante said to the magistrate: ‘You have before your court a certain cavalier, 26 charged with a certain offense. I wish to speak a word for him. His manners however are such that he deserves a severe penalty, for I believe that to trespass upon the rights of the public is the greatest of offenses.” Dante did not speak to deaf ears, and the magistrate asked in what respect the young man has trespassed upon the rights of the public. Dante replied; “When he rides through the city, he rides with his legs wide from his horse, so that whoever encounters him has to turn back, and cannot continue upon his way.” Said the judge: “This may appear to you a trifle, but it is a greater offence than the other of which he is accused.” “But see,” said Dante, “I am his neighbor. I intercede for him with you.” And he returned home where he was asked by the cavalier how the affair stood. “He replied favorably,” said Dante. Some days afterwards the cavalier was summoned to appear and answer the charge against him. He made his appearance, and after he had been informed of the nature of the first charge, the judge ordered that the second charge, concerning the loose manner of his riding, be read to him. The cavalier, feeling that the penalty would be doubled, said to himself: “I have done a fine thing indeed, when through Dante’s visit I believed I should go free, and now I am to be doubly fined!” Having been dismissed, accused as he was, he returned home, and finding Dante, said: “You have indeed done me a good turn. Before you went to him the judge was disposed to condemn me for one offence, and after your visit he wished to condemn me for two;” and much angered at Dante, he added: “If he condemns me I am able to pay, and when it is over I will settle with him who is the cause of it.” Said Dante: “I have given you such a recommendation that if you were my own child I could not have given you a better. If the judge is ill-disposed toward you, I am not the cause of it.” The cavalier, shaking his head went home. A few days afterward he was condemned to pay a thousand lire for the first offense and another thousand for the careless riding; and neither he nor any of the house of Adimar were able to forget the injury.27
And this was one of the chief reasons that a short time after he was driven as a Bianco from Florence, not without disgrace to the city, and died an exile in the city of Ravenna.
The last novel moves me to relate another concerning the same poet, which is brief and good. One day as Dante was going along for his diversion in a certain part of the city, wearing the gorget and the armlet, as the custom then was, he encountered an ass-driver, driving before him certain loads of refuse. The driver was going behind his asses, singing the book of Dante, and every now and then as he sang he touched up an ass, and said: “Arri.” When Dante came up to him he gave him a sharp blow upon the shoulders with his armlet, saying: “I did not put that ‘Arri’ there!” The driver did not know who Dante was, nor what he meant to say, and only struck his asses the more sharply, and again said: “Arri.” When he had gone a little further he turned to Dante, and, thrusting out his tongue and putting his thumb to his nose, said, “Take that.” Dante, who saw him, said: “I would not give one of mine for a hundred of yours.”
O gentle words, full of wisdom! How many there are who would have run after the ass-driver, crying and raising a disturbance; others again who would have thrown stones; but the wise poet overwhelmed the ass-driver, winning praise from passers-by that heard him with those clever words which he hurled after so vile a man as was the ass-driver.
Master Antonio da Ferrara was a most able man, and a poet as well, and something of a courtier; but he was a man 28 of vice and a sinner. Being in Ravenna at the time when Bernardino da Polenta held the signory, it happened that the said Antonio, who was a great gamester, having played one day and lost about all that he possessed, in desperate mood entered the church of the Minorites, where stands the tomb of the Florentine poet, Dante; and having noticed an antique crucifix, half burned and black with smoke, on account of the great quantity of lights which had been placed before it; seeing, moreover, that many candles stood there lighted, he suddenly ran to the place, and seizing all the candles and tapers that were burning there turned to the tomb of Dante and placed them before it, saying: “Take them, for you are indeed more worthy of them than He.” The people seeing this were full of amazement, and said, “What does he mean to say?” and they gazed one at another. A steward of the signory, who happened to be in the church at that hour and witnessed what transpired, when he had returned to the palace, told the Signore what he had seen master Antonio do. The Signore, like all the others favorably impressed with the deed, communicated to the Archbishop of Ravenna what master Antonio had done, suggesting that he should summon him, and make a show of instituting a process against him as a heretic, on the ground of heretical depravity. The Archbishop immediately did as he was requested; Antonio appeared, and when the complaint against him was read in order that he might refute it, he denied nothing but confessed all, saying to the Archbishop: “Even if you should be compelled to burn me, I should say nothing else; for I have always commended myself to the crucifix, and it has never done me anything but ill, and when I saw them place so many candles before it, half burned as it was (would it were wholly so!), I took away a few lights and placed them at the tomb of Dante, who seemed to me to merit them more than the crucifix; and if you do not believe me, look at the writings of one and the other. You will conclude that those of Dante are a wonder of nature and of the human intellect; and that the gospels are stupid; and indeed, if they contain anything 29 high and wonderful, it is not surprising, that he who sees everything and has everything, should so express himself. But that which is remarkable is, that a mere man, like Dante, who not only has not everything, but no part of everything, has nevertheless seen all and has written all. And, indeed, it seems to me that he is more worthy of the illumination than the other; and henceforward I am going to recommend myself to him; as for the rest of you, you perform your functions and look well to your comfort, and for love of it you flee all discomfort and live like poltroons. And when you wish to understand me more nearly, I will tell you about it again, for I have not yet played my last coin.” The archbishop appeared to be perplexed and said: “Then you have played and you have lost? You shall return another time.” Said master Antonio: “If you too had lost, you and all your kind, all that you have, I should be very glad of it. As for returning to you, that will be my affair; but whether I return or not, you will find me always so disposed or worse.” The archbishop said: “Go hence with God, or if you please with the Devil, and unless I send for you we shall not see each other again. At least go and give of these fruits to the Signore which you have given to me.” And so they parted. The Signore, informed of what had taken place and amused with the reasoning of master Antonio, made him a present, that he might be able to go on gaming; and as for the candles placed before Dante, he took great pleasure in them for several days; and then he went away to Ferrara, perhaps better disposed than master Antonio. At the time when Pope Urban the Fifth died and his portrait was placed in a noble church in a certain great city, he saw placed in front of it a lighted wax candle of two pounds weight, while before the crucifix, which was not very large, was a poor little penny dip. He took the wax candle, and placing it in front of the crucifix, said: “It is an evil hour when we wish to shift and changer the rulership of the skies, as we change everywhere the powers of the earth.” And with this he turned homeward. Such a fine and notable speech was this as seldom might happen upon a like occasion.
I am about to commence some other novels, and first of all I shall relate one concerning a most able and holy man, whose name was Alberto della Magna, who, while passing through a certain district of Lombardy, arrived one evening at a village on the Po, which is called the Villa di Santo Alberto. Entering into the house of a poor inn-keeper, where he thought to sup and pass the night, he saw many nets, with which the owner was accustomed to fish, and furthermore he noted many female children: whereupon he asked the host concerning his condition; how he was prospering and if these were his daughters. To which the inn-keeper replied: ‘My Father, I am very poor and have seven daughters; and if it was not for my fishing I should die of hunger.” Then master Alberto asked him how great was his catch. And he replied: “Indeed, I do not catch as many as I need, and I am not very fortunate in this business.” Then master Alberto, before he left the inn on the following morning, fashioned a fish out of wood, and called the host to him and said: “Take this fish, and tie it to your net when you cast, and you will always catch a great quantity of fish with it, and perhaps there will be so many that they will be a great help to you in marrying off your daughters.” The poor host hearing this, accepted the gift very willingly, and rendered thanks most profusely to the wise man; and so he departed that morning from the inn, going on his journey to La Magna. The host, left in possession of the fish, and desirous to put its virtues to the proof, went the same day fishing; so great a multitude of fish were drawn to the bait and entered into the nets that he was scarcely able to draw them from the water and carry them home. His good luck continued; he did so well that from a poor man he became rich, to such a degree that in a short 31 time he had married off all his daughters. It came about, however, that fortune, envious of such prosperity, brought it to pass that one day, as he was drawing his net with a great number of fish, the cord that bound the wooden fish broke, and the fish was swept away down the Po, so that he was never able to recover it, wherefore if ever there was one who grieved over an adverse circumstance it was he, bewailing his misfortune with all his might. And when he sought to fish without the fish of wood, it came to naught; he could not catch one out of a thousand. Wherefore lamenting: “What shall I do? what shall I say?” he finally concluded to set forth, and never to rest until he arrived at La Magna, at the house of master Alberto; and to ask of him as a favor to restore the lost fish. And so he never halted until he came where master Alberto was; and here with the greatest reverence and with weeping he knelt and related the benefits he had received from him; what an infinite number of fish he had caught and how, the cord being broken, the fish had gone down the Po, and had been lost. Moreover he besought his holiness, that for their welfare and out of pity for himself and his daughters, he should make him another fish in order that he might restore to him that favor which he had once conferred upon him. Master Alberto turned to him and with a voice full of sorrow said: “My child, I should be very glad if I were able to do that which you ask; but I cannot, for I must let you know that when I made you the fish which I gave you, the heavens and all the planets were at that hour so disposed as to confer especial virtue upon the fish; and if you and I presume to say, that this point and this conjunction may return, when another might be made with equal virtue, clearly and surely this cannot happen from now on for thirty-six thousand years: so that you can see if it be possible to reproduce what once I made.” Having listened for a while, the inn-keeper commenced to weep bitterly, bewailing loudly his misfortune, saying: “If I had known this, I should have bound it with a wire, and held it so firmly that I never should have lost it.” Then master Alberto answered: 32 “Child, be still, for you are not the first man that has not known how to retain his luck, which God has sent; but there have been many and abler men than you who not only have not understood how to use the small opportunity which you have used, but have not even known how to seize it when it has been put before them.” So after much conversation, and with such consolation, the poor inn-keeper departed and returned to his meagre life, still gazing out upon the Po, if perchance he might see his lost fish. But he might look well, for it was perhaps already in the greater sea, with many fish about it, and with it neither man nor fortune. And thus he lived what time pleased God, lamenting to himself the lost fish, so that it would have been much better if he had never seen it. So it happens every day that fortune shows herself propitious, only to see who has the wit to seize her; and often times he who best knows how to lay hold upon her, derives no benefit thereby; and many times it comes to pass that he who knows not how to seize upon her ever afterward laments and lives miserable, saying: “I could have such and such a thing, but would not.” Others seize upon her, but understand how to hold her only a short time, as did this inn-keeper. But taking all our happenings together, he who fails to seize the opportunity which time and fortune offers, when he bethinks himself he looks again and finds it not, unless he waits thirty-six thousand years, as said our wise man, which saying seems to me to be in conformity with that which certain philosophers have already said, that six and thirty thousand years from now the world will turn into that disposition which it has at present. There have been already in my day those who have left their property so that their children were unable to sell or pledge it, wherefore it appears to me that they hold to this opinion, that they may find their own when they return at the end of six and thirty thousand years.
* Le Novelle di Franco Sacchetti. Ed. Eugenio Camerini. Milan, 1874.
[For more of Sacchetti’s life and more of his novels, on this site, see Thomas Roscoe’s translation. — Elf.Ed.]