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From Tales from the Italian and Spanish, Vol. III, Stories of Humor and Adventure, The Review of Reviews Co.; New York; 1920; pp. 360-373.



[Translated by Thomas Roscoe*]

The most famous anonymous tale in Italian literature is by some critics regarded as the account of an actual occurrence. The learned Manni declares that the great fifteenth-century sculptor, Donatello, had a hand in causing Grasso’s delightful confusion and perplexity. However that may be, it is an admirable specimen of the Italian love of practical joking.

ABOUT the year 1409, a company of young Florentines having met one Sunday evening to sup together at the house of their friend, Tommaso de’ Pecori, a very good-natured and respectable man, and fond of good society, the whole party agreed, as soon as they had supped, to draw their chairs sociably round the fire. There, as is usual on such occasions, they began to converse in a pleasant way upon a variety of topics, when one of the guests, looking round him, observed:

“What can be the reason that we have not the company of Manetto Ammanotini here to-night? Though repeatedly invited, he still refuses to come; it is very strange!”

Now, Manetto was by profession a carver in ebony, who had opened a shop in the Piazza San Giovanni, and was considered a very skilful artist in his way; he possessed a very agreeable person and manners, and was about five-and-thirty years of age. Indeed, such was his comely and comfortable appearance that it had acquired for him the name of Grasso (Fat), and he was everywhere esteemed one of the most happy, good-tempered fellows in the world, always contributing his full share to the life and spirit of a feast. But this time, either from design or caprice, the ingenious carver was wanting to complete the social comfort of the party.

After discussing the matter over and over, they were 361 still at a loss to imagine the reason of his absence. As he had sent no message, they felt a little piqued at it; and the person who had first started the subject said:

“I wish we could play him some good trick, were it only to teach him better manners in future.”

“Yes, but what kind of trick could we play him?” said another; “unless, indeed, we could get him to treat us to a dinner, or something of the kind.”

Now, there was a certain Philip Brunellesco belonging to the same party, a man well acquainted with Grasso and all his concerns, who, on hearing this, began to ponder a little on the subject. And pondering to some purpose, he at length observed, like a clever fellow as he was:

“If I thought, gentlemen, I were wicked enough to do it, I could tell you how we might have a noble revenge; oh, such a revenge! by passing off a trick upon him that will make us all laugh for an age to come. What do you think? I have not the least doubt we might persuade him that he was actually metamorphosed, and become quite another person.”

“Nay, that is impossible!” they all cried at once.

“I say not,” continued Philip, “if you will only listen and let me explain the whole plan.”

And this he did in so satisfactory a manner that they one and all agreed to join him in persuading Grasso that he was changed into Matteo, a member of the same party.

The ensuing night was accordingly fixed upon for the transformation; when Philip, as being upon the most intimate terms with Grasso, was appointed to go about the time of shutting up shop to visit him. So he went; and after talking with Grasso, as had been agreed upon, for some time, there appeared a little lad running in great haste, who inquired if Signor Brunellesco were there. Philip answered he was, and begged to know what he wanted.

“O signor!” said the boy, “you must come immediately, for you mother has met with a sad accident; she is very nearly killed, so you must come home now.”

With well-feigned grief and alarm, Philip exclaimed, 362 “Good Lord defend us!” and took leave somewhat abruptly of his friend Grasso, who said he would go with him if he thought he could be of any service, for now was the time to show his regard. Somewhat conscience-smitten, Philip thanked him, saying:

“No, not now; but if I want you I will make bold to send for you.”

Then pretending to hasten homewards, Philip turned the corner of a street leading to Grasso’s house, opposite to Santa Reparata, and very unceremoniously picking the luck of the door, he marched in and fastened it behind him so that no one could follow.

Now it happened that Grasso’s mother had set off some days before to a little country place at Polerossa, for the purpose of washing linen and such household concerns, and she was expected back again that day. After shutting up his shop, Grasso went sauntering along the Piazza, ruminating on his friend’s misfortune; until, finding that it grew late, he concluded that Philip would hardly think of sending for him that night. So he resolved to go home, but was somewhat puzzled on ascending the steps to find that he could not open the door as usual; and after several vain attempts, he supposed it must be locked on the inside, and knocking pretty sharply, he shouted, “Open the door!” thinking that his mother had returned, and for some reason or other had fastened it after her from the inside. But at length a voice answered in Grasso’s own tone:

“Who is there?”

Grasso, a little startled, said, “It is I; let me in.”

“No,” returned the voice; “and I beg, Matteo, that you will go away. I am in great anxiety about a friend of mine; for as I was just now talking in my shop to Philip, there came a messenger in haste to say that his mother was nearly dead, and I am very sorry for him.”

Philip pretended all the while he said this to take poor Grasso for his friend Matteo; and then, as if turning to Grasso’s mother, he continued:

“Pray, good mother, let me have my supper; it is really 363 too bad; you ought to have been back two days since, and you come in just at this time of night;” and he went on grumbling and scolding exactly in Grasso’s own voice.

Still more surprised at this, Grasso now said: “That is very like my own voice; what the deuce can it all mean? Who is it speaking there upstairs? Can it be I? How is it, I wonder? He says Philip was at his shop when he heard his mother was ill, and now he is busy chiding his mother, or my mother, Giovanna, I do not know which. Have I lost my senses, or what does it mean?”

Then he went down the steps again and shouted up at the windows, when, as had been agreed upon, there passed by his friend Donatello, the sculptor, who said as he went past:

“Good night, Matteo, good night! I am going to call upon your friend Grasso; he is just gone home.”

Grasso was now perfectly bewildered on hearing his friend Donatello address him as Matteo; and turning away, he went into the Piazza San Giovanni, saying to himself:

“I will stay here till somebody comes by who can tell me who I really am.”

He was next met by some officers of police, a bailiff, and a creditor, to whom Matteo, whom, however reluctantly, he now represented, owed a sum of money.

“This is the man, this is Matteo; take him — he is my debtor. I have watched him closely, and caught him at last!” cried the creditor; and the officers, laying hands on him, led him away.

It was in vain that Grasso, turning towards the creditor, exclaimed:

“Why, what have you to do with me? You have mistaken your man! My name is Grasso the carver; I am not Matteo, nor any of his kin; I do not even know him.” And he was beginning to lay about him lustily; but they soon secured him and held him fast.

“You not Matteo?” cried his creditor, surveying him from head to foot; “we shall soon see that. Do you think I do not know my own debtor Matteo? Yes, too well. Cannot 364 I distinguish him from Grasso the carver, think you? You have been in my books too long. I have had accounts against you this year past: yet you have the impudence to tell me you are not Matteo; but will such an alias, think you, pay me my money back? Off with him: we shall soon see whether he be Matteo or not.”

They then hurried him in no very gentle way to prison, and it being supper-time, they encountered no one on the road. His name was entered in the jail-book as Matteo, and he was compelled to take up his station with the rest of the prisoners, all of whom hailed him in the same tone, saying, “good night, Matteo, good night!” Hearing himself thus addressed, Grasso said, “There must be something in it certainly; what can it mean?” and he almost began to persuade himself that, as everybody said so, he must indeed be Matteo.

“Will you come and take some supper with us,” said the prisoners, “and put off thinking of your case till to-morrow?”

So Grasso supped with them and took up his quarters along with one of them, who observed:

“Now, Matteo, make yourself as comfortable as you can tonight, and tomorrow, if you can pay, well and good; but, if not, you must send home for bed-clothes.”

Grasso, thanking him, laid himself down to rest, thinking what would become of him if he were really changed into Matteo; “Which I fear,” he continued, “must in some way be the case; there are so many proofs of it on all sides. Suppose I send home to my mother; but then if Grasso be really in the house they will only laugh at me, and perhaps say I am mad. And yet surely I must be Grasso.”

And with such cogitations he lay perplexing himself all night, not able to determine which of the two he was. After a sleepless night, he arose and stationed himself at the small grated window, in hopes someone might pass who knew him; and, as chance would have it, Giovanni Rucellai, one of the supper-party when the plot was first hatched, approached. It happened that Grasso was making a dressing-table 365 for Giovanni, intended for a lady, and the latter had been in his shop the day before pressing him to finish the work in a few days at farthest. Giovanni, going into a shop facing the prison grate on the ground floor where Grasso stood, the prisoner began to smile and make mouths at him; but his friend only stared at him as if he had never seen him in his life before. Grasso, thinking the other did not know him, said:

“Pray, do you happen to know a person of the name of Grasso, who lives at the back of the Piazza San Giovanni, and makes inlaid work?”

“Know him! to be sure I do,” replied Giovanni, “very well; he is a particular friend of mine, and I am going to him directly about a little job he has in hand for me.”

“Then,” said Grasso, “as you are going, pray be so good as just to say to him, ‘A very particular acquaintance of yours, Grasso, has been taken into custody, and would be glad to exchange a word with you!’”

“To be sure I will,” said the other, “very willingly,” and, taking his leave, pursued his way. Friend Grasso, remaining at the window of the prison, began to commune with himself:

“Well, at last it is clear that I am no longer Grasso, for I am Matteo, and no one else, with a vengeance. The devil give him good of the change! but what a wretched fate is mine! If I say a word about the matter they will think me mad, and the very beggar lads will laugh at me; and if I fail to explain it a thousand mistakes will occur, like that of yesterday, when I was arrested for him, so that I am in a most awkward dilemma. Well, I must wait for Grasso’s arrival, and see what he says when I explain the affair to him.”

After anxiously looking out for his arrival during many hours in vain, he at length retired from his station to make room for other prisoners who wished to look out.

Now, it happened that a certain learned judge had that day been committed to prison for debt, who, though unacquainted with Grasso, observing his forlorn situation and 366 supposing he must be an unhappy debtor, sought to encourage him, saying:

“Why, Matteo, you look as melancholy as if you were going to be executed to-morrow, and yet you are only confined for a trifling debt. Come, you ought not to despair; but send for some of your friends or relatives, and try to accommodate matters so that you may shortly get out, instead of fretting yourself to death.”

Hearing these consolatory words, Grasso resolved to confide the source of his grievance to so kind an adviser, and, drawing him aside, he said:

“Though you do not seem to know me, I am well acquainted with you, signor, and the reputation you have acquired. It is this that emboldens me to intrust you with the source of my unhappiness, lest you should imagine that any small debt could produce the agitation in which you saw me. Alas! it is far worse;”

He then proceeded to relate the whole of his adventure, bitterly lamenting, and entreating of him two things, namely, that he would mention it to no other person, and that he would deign to give him some advice as to the course he ought to pursue, adding:

“As I know you to be deeply read in those authors who treat of ancient histories, and of every kind of strange events; have you ever met with any case similar to this?”

The worthy judge, having heard him out, came at once to the conclusion that the poor man was either insane or the dupe of some trick, such as it really was. He therefore replied that he had read of many instances of persons being changed in this way, and that it was no new thing.

“Then,” said Grasso, “pray tell me, in case I am become Matteo, who is Matteo now?”

The judge replied, “Of course, he must have become Grasso.”

The latter rejoined, “Well, I should at least wish to see him in order to put this matter a little to rights.”

In this way they continued conversing together until near the hour of vespers, when Matteo’s two brothers made their 367 appearance, and inquired of the prison registrar whether a brother of theirs, named Matteo, was confined there for debt, and to what amount. This man happening to be a particular friend of Tommaso de’ Pecori, had been let into the secret, and answered that there was; then pretending to run over a list of names, he added the amount of the sum, along with the creditor’s name.

“Well,” said the brothers, “we wish to speak with him instantly and fix upon some method of payment.”

So entering into the prison, they inquired of a man whom they saw standing at the window whether one Matteo was near at hand, begging him to tell him that two of his brothers were come to ransom him, if he would appear. Soon after Grasso made his appearance at the grate, and having saluted them, the eldest of the brothers said:

“Ah! Matteo, and has all the advice we have given you gone for nothing? How often we have warned you what would be the result, plunging every day deeper and deeper into debt, while your extravagance never admits of your paying anyone! What with gambling and other evil courses, you have never a farthing in the world that you can call your own; and now you reap the fruits of such conduct. Do you think we have not already been involved in sufficient trouble and expense, without adding this to the list of your former follies and extravagances? Let me tell you, that were it not in consideration of our own honor and the anxiety of our mother, we would leave you here to pay the penalty of your sins in order that you might learn better for the future. As it is, we have determined to give you one more trial, and pay the amount; warning you, at the same time, that should you repeat the offense, you shall lie and rot here before we will trouble ourselves with you more. Be ready, then, when we call for you about vesper-time, when there will be fewer people abroad; as it is not very pleasant to be seen here every day in consequence of your scandalous proceedings.”

To this rebuke Grasso replied with the utmost humility, promising to abandon the course he had pursued, and no 368 longer bring disgrace upon his friends by his extravagance. He then entreated that they would be true to the hour, which they said they would observe, and took leave of him.

Grasso then went back, and thus addressed the judge:

“Well, this is strange indeed! Matteo’s brothers have just been here to inform me they will come and release me in the evening. But,” he continued, very much puzzled, “when they take me hence, where shall I go? Certainly not to my own house, because if Grasso lives there, what can I say? He will assuredly believe me mad; for I am sure he must be there, or my mother would have sent before this to say that I was missing, whereas she now thinks I am at home.”

The judge replied, “Then do not go there, but accompany your brothers (I mean those who called), wherever they please.”

Thus conversing, evening at length arrived; the brothers made their appearance, pretending that they had accommodated the affair; the jailer came forward with the prison keys, and, stepping up to the place, said:

“Which of you is Matteo?”

Grasso, presenting himself, replied, “I am here.”

The jailer, narrowly observing him, said, “Your brothers have settled your debt; so go, you are free;” at the same time opening the prison door for Grasso and his brothers to pass.

Now they resided at Santa Felicita, near the side of San Giorgio, and when they reached home they took Grasso into a room on the ground floor, and bade him to stay there quietly till supper-time: the table was already covered, and there was a good fire. One of them next went to seek for a priest residing at Santa Felicita, a good-looking personage, to whom he said that he came to consult him in confidence, as one neighbor ought to do with another.

“You know there are three brothers of us, one of whom is Matteo, who was yesterday arrested for debt. Such is the impression it appears to have made upon him that he is gone almost beside himself; and more particularly upon 369 one point; for he thinks he has become another person, a carver in ebony, of the name of Grasso, who has a shop at Santa Reparata; and there seems to be no way of getting it out of his head. We have taken him out of prison and brought him home, confining him to his chamber, lest he should proclaim his folly to the world: for should it once become public he will always have the reputation of it, though he were to become the wisest man in the world. This you very well know, and, for the same reason I am come to entreat that you will consent to accompany me back, and try whether there is any chance of restoring him. Do this, and we shall always consider ourselves greatly indebted to you.”

The good priest replied that he would cheerfully attend him; for he was sure that if he could only engage his brother in conversation, he should hit upon some method of restoring him to reason. So they set out together, and on their arrival the priest was instantly introduced to our hero, who rose up on his entrance.

“Good evening to you, Matteo,” said the former.

“Good evening, and good year to you also,” said Grasso; “who are you looking for?”

The priest answered, “I am come to sit with you a little while.”; and seating himself, he continued, “Come, sit down by me, Matteo, and I will tell you what I am thinking of. You must know I have been much concerned to hear that you have been arrested, and have taken the thing so much to heart as almost to lose your wits. Among other notions, they tell me that you have got it into your head you are no longer the same Matteo, but are become a certain fellow named Grasso the carver, who keeps a shop at Santa Reparata. Now if this be so, you are much to blame for permitting such a slight reverse of fortune to affect your mind. I have to entreat you will dismiss these whims altogether from your imagination, and attend to your business like other people. By so doing you will please your brothers, as well as me, besides doing yourself the greatest service in the world; for if you once let people suspect it, they 370 will never give you credit for being in your senses again. Then rouse yourself; be a man, and scorn to indulge such absurdities any longer.”

Grasso, hearing the kind and encouraging way in which he spoke, declared that he should be glad to obey him as far as lay in his power, being convinced that it was all meant for his good; and that from that hour he would no longer imagine he was any one else but Matteo, as it was clear he was not. There was one thing, however, that he particularly desired, which was, to have an interview with the real Grasso, in order to set his mind quite at rest.

“What then?” said the priest. “I see it is still running in your head; why do you wish to speak with Grasso? It would only be indulging and proclaiming your folly;”

He said so much that the poor man was content to abandon the idea. Then leaving him alone, the priest went to inform the brothers of all that had passed, and shortly taking his leave, he returned to officiate at church.

While the priest had been engaged with our hero, came Philip Brunellesco, bringing with him a certain beverage, which he handed to one of the two brothers, saying:

“Take care that you give him this to drink while you are at supper, for it will throw him into so sound a slumber, that you might beat him to a mummy during six hours before he would awake. So give it him, and I will return again about five, when we will finish the joke.”

Accordingly the brothers sat down to sup with our hero, and contrived to make him swallow the whole of the mixture without his perceiving it. After supper Grasso turned towards the fire, and the potion very soon began to operate in such a way that he was no longer able to keep his eyes open; when the brothers, not a little amused, said to him:

“Why, Matteo, you are very dull; you are almost asleep!”

“True,” returned Grasso, “I think I never felt so sleepy in all my life; had I never had a wink of sleep for this month past I could not feel worse. So pray let me go to bed.”


And it was with some difficulty he was able to get there, and more especially to undress himself, before he fell into a profound slumber, snoring like a pig. Philip, with three of his companions, then made his appearance, and finding him fast asleep, had him laid upon a litter, with all his clothes, and carried to his own house. No one being within, his mother not having yet returned from the country, they laid him gently upon his bed, and placed everything exactly in the same order as usual. Next they took the keys of his shop, which they found hanging on a nail in the wall, and going straight to the place, they took all the instruments of his trade they could find and laid them in different positions. Planes, saw, hammers, rules, and hatchets, all were turned awry, and confused in such sort as if twenty demons had been puzzling their heads how to produce so much disorder. Then shutting up the shop again, they restored the keys to the same place and retired to their own houses to rest.

Grasso continued sunk in profound repose the whole night, nor awoke until after matins the next morning. Directly recognising his old spot at Santa Reparata, he gazed through the window and endeavored to collect his confused thoughts. He felt the utmost astonishment at finding himself in his own house, considering where he lay down the preceding evening. “The Lord help me!” he exclaimed as he dressed himself, and took down the keys, proceeding with all haste to inspect his shop. “The Lord help me! what a sight is here!” he continued, as he beheld everything out of its place, and began the herculean task of readjusting his different articles in the manner he had left them. At this moment arrived Matteo’s brothers, who finding him thus busily engaged, affected not to know him, one of them saying:

“Good day, master!”

Grasso turning round and recognising them, began to change color, replying:

“Good day and good year; pray whom are you seeking?”

“I will tell you,” said the other. “We happen to have a brother whose name is Matteo, who has latterly become 372 a little odd, and got into his head that he is no longer the same Matteo, but the master of this shop, a man of the name of Grasso. After giving him the best advice we could, the priest of our parish, a very good kind of person, tried to assist us in eradicating this foolish impression from his mind, and we believed that he was getting better, as he fell into a quiet slumber before we left him. But this morning we found that he had absconded: whither he is fled we know not, and we came here to inquire.”

Grasso seemed quite confounded at this account, and turning towards them, said:

“I know nothing of all this: why disturb me with your affairs? Matteo has never been here. If he said he was I, he was guilty of a falsehood, and if I meet with him I intend to tell him so, and learn whether I am he, or he is I, before we part. We are surely all bedeviled within this day or two; why come to me with such a story?”

With this he seized his cloak, and left them in great anger, closing his shop and proceeding toward Santa Reparata, complaining bitterly the whole way. The brothers also went off, while our hero, stopping at the church, began to walk about in great wrath, until he happened to be joined by one of his companions, formerly his fellow-laborer in the same trade of inlaid work under Maestro Pellegrino, a native of Terma. This youth had for some time been settled in Hungary, and managed his affairs so well that he had returned to Florence in order to obtain assistance to execute the numerous commissions he received. Often had he tried to persuade Grasso to accompany him back, by holding out the prospect of his acquiring great wealth; and the moment our hero cast his eyes upon him, he resolved to avail himself of the offer. Hastening towards him, he said:

“you have more than once asked me to go with you into Hungary, which I have hitherto refused; but now, from some particular circumstances, as well as a little dispute with my mother, I shall be very happy to return with you. Yet if I am to go, it must be soon, as most probably before to-morrow it might be too late.”


The young man received this proposal with great joy, and it was arranged that Grasso should immediately proceed to Bologna, where he was to wait for his companion. He accordingly hired a horse and set out for that city, having first left a letter for his mother, informing her of his departure and desiring her to take possession of his property in Florence. The undertakings of the two friends in Hungary prospered so well that they acquired considerable fortunes, and Grasso more than once returned to his native place, and diverted his friends by relating the mysterious adventure of his earlier years.

*  Elf.Ed. — Thomas Roscoe is not credited as the translator, but this story is included in his book, The Italian Novelists, also here on Elfinspell. In this series, the spelling is Americanized and there are minor changes in punctuation and format, mostly more paragraphs than in Roscoe’s translation. To see the original version go here


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