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From Tales from the Italian and Spanish, Vol. III, The Review of Reviews Co.; New York; 1920; pp. 31-35.




[Translation by Thomas Roscoe]

Americans sometimes imagine that all college pranks have been played by themselves. But this story will reveal a very novel one played centuries ago in the land where universities arose. The University of Bologna, mentioned here, was founded over seven centuries ago and was for an age the most famous law school in the world. This particular practical joke was played in the fifteenth century.

NOT very long ago there were four noble, though somewhat humorous students, residing at our University of Sienna, whose names were Messer Antonio da Clerico, a canonist; Messer Giovanni da Santo Geminiano, a young jurist; Maestro Antonio di Paulo di Val d’Arno d’Arezzo; and Maestro Michel di Cosimo Aretino delli Conti di Palazzolo, who, when young, was surnamed Bacica, now a distinguished civilian in the University of Bologna, full of years and virtue, beloved by the whole people for his kind and charitable actions. But while remaining in the house of the Master of the Academy of Arts, the youthful pupils became acquainted with a certain disciple of Galen, who, though a mere quack, imagined he was possessed of more learning than Avicenna himself. His name was Niccolo da Massa, to which had been added that of Portantino, from the peculiarity of his ambling gait; and as his residence lay opposite to that of the governor, his singularities attracted the particular attention of the pupils.

Now it happened that in the month of February, during the salting season, the doctor had purchased a fine pig, which he subsequently had killed and hung up, as is usual, previous to the operation of salting, for four or five days in his kitchen. The merry scholars, aware of this stage of the proceedings, set their heads to contrive how they might feast at the doctor’s charge. It so fell out that a 32 fellow student named Messer Pietro di Leri Martini, had lately left the academy, and afterwards died of a fever, and on this fact they resolved to ground the success of their exploit. Introducing themselves secretly into the doctor’s premises, and watching their opportunity, they laid hands upon the pork, a face which struck the doctor with equal horror and surprise when he beheld his kitchen the next morning emptied of its treasure.

After indulging in a variety of imprecations and suspicions, his doubts at last fell upon his young neighbors, the scholars, who had indeed already acquired some little reputation for similar exploits. Believing that he had now discovered the authors of the diabolical theft, he waited on Messer Amadio da Citta di Castello, the presiding magistrate in Siena, who, having heard his evidence, despatched there several messengers commanding an immediate restoration of the pork to the rightful owner, unless the young gentlemen wished to be proceeded against criminally. The answer which the magistrate received was that the scholars were greatly surprised at such a message, and were sorry that they had not so fine a pig in their possession, happening to know nothing about it. But being still persecuted with the complaints of the doctor, the magistrate resolved to investigate the affair thoroughly, sending a warrant to search the scholars’ chambers, and to bring them all before him should the pork be discovered in their possession.

Expecting such a visit, the students were not a little puzzled how to proceed, when Messer Antonio da Clerico, who by his singular ingenuity and facetiousness had always shown himself equal to every emergency, encouraged the flagging spirits of his companions, saying:

“Fear not, my brave boys; fear not the podestà and his myrmidons: we will be a match for them yet. We will extract a little amusement out of them, too, if you mind what I say. Let us get up a sick couch in the chamber opposite the entrance hall, and fill it with all kinds of the most sickly preparations that can disgust the human nose. And when the officers come, you must all stand at the 33 entrance, buried in profound grief; and when they ask you what is the matter, shake your heads and point to the inner chamber, saying, ‘Poor fellow! he is dying of the plague.’ Now this sick gentleman shall be no other than the pig, and trust me, whoever ventures within sight of him shall wish himself away again as speedily as possible. For you know the whole city is disturbed about the death of our fellow student, who died only the other day of the plague.”

His companions immediately set up a loud laugh, in token of their approbation, crying, “Come, let us go to work, then; we cannot be hanged for it, after all.” Then preparing a table spread with cushions, they laid the pig upon it at full length, with a nightcap over his head, and stuck out his fore feet with white sleeves, so as to resemble the arms of a human being; while his hind ones were decorated with a pair of slippers. Soon after completing their arrangements, appeared the officers of the police, who, on requiring entrance, were readily admitted by the scholars, some of whom, on advancing farther, they found overwhelmed with sorrow, wringing their hands; and crying out most piteously, “Oh, by dear, dear brother!” at which the officers, apprehending some fatal accident, inquired into the cause of their complaint. The shrewd Maestro Michel on this stepped forward:

“It is my brother, my poor brother, who is here dying, we are afraid.”

”Dying! what is the matter with him?”

“They say it is the plague; but I will never desert him!”

On this one of he officers opened the chamber door with some caution, and stumbling on the shocking object which presented itself, drew back in great alarm; for on the left hand was seen Messer Antonio as the priest, administering spiritual consolation with book and crucifix in hand, and wax-lights burning, to the poor scholar, falling apparently a victim to the plague. At this overpowering sight, without saying a word, he ran out of the house, followed by his companions. Returning to the magistrate, he with difficulty 34 made himself understood; expressing the utmost horror of the business on which he had been sent.

“How,” cried the magistrate, “can it be true?”

“True!” returned the officer; “I saw the poor wretch stretched out, dying of the plague, and his brother and all his companions buried in the deepest grief.”

“And did you go into the room? did you touch the body?” inquired the magistrate.

“To be sure I did.”

“Then why do you come here? Away with you, you wretches; we shall have the whole city infected.”

The magistrate drove them away, forbidding them, as they valued their lives, again to enter into his presence.

The wily Messer Antonio, called the priest, in the meanwhile, observing the rout of these myrmidons of the law, hastily dressed himself amidst the triumph and applauses of his companions, and set out for the house of the podestà, in order to obviate any disagreeable consequences that might attend the tidings which had just gone forth. He arrived just in time to catch the magistrate as he was proceeding to the grand council to acquaint the members with the fact which had just transpired, and propose means for the safety of the city. To him, then, Messer Antonio related the whole of the affair on the part of the scholars, as it had occurred from the beginning. It was a great relief to the magistrate to hear that there was really no pestilential disorder abroad; and he laughed outright at the humorous way in which Messer Antonio related to him the incidents of the story.

“Oh, you collegians!” he cried, “you are true children of perdition! There is nothing of which you are not capable; and woe to the unfortunate wretch that falls into your hands!”

As they were now approaching the Palazzo delli Signori, the podestà resolved, instead of alarming them with tidings of the plague, to amuse them with one of the best stories which he had for some time heard. Such was the pleasure which it afforded, that they obliged its ingenious author to repeat the whole to them again, mingling their mirth with 35 a little seasonable advice, and commanding him to make immediate restitution of the doctor’s pig. But to this, with one voice, the scholars all demurred, beseeching their lordships that they would not please to insist on such hard conditions, inasmuch as it would be throwing a sort of discredit on real learning were they to refuse to permit the scholars to punish so much absurd quackery and ignorance as were manifested by this disciple of Galen; and they trusted that their lordships would not interfere to interrupt the joke in the happiest stage, but would permit them to eat the pig since they had caught it.

Grateful for the entertainment afforded them, the council could scarcely prevail upon themselves to treat the ingenious author of the plot with the rigor of the law, although they strongly advised restitution of the pig. But the humorous Antonio conducted his defense in so happy and eloquent a manner that the pork was allowed to remain in the hands of the scholars, and the court adjourned. They immediately proceeded to regale themselves with the spoils they had won. Frequently that night did they drink to the health of Dr. Portantino, who had presented them with a portion of the feast, nor were the wines less relished after they had partaken of roasted pig.

For more about Sabbadino and two more of his stories, go to the source of this pirated story, Thomas Roscoe's notes and translation from The Italian Novelists, right here on Elfinspell.

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