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by Bruno Daddi

The Straw of Florence

Once the tourist has fully "imbibed" Michelangelo's grandiose David or the religious atmosphere of the Medici Chapels, where there is some danger of being affected by the syndrome of Stendhal, he might just be interested, if he has a little time to spare, in going to visit the Oratory of Gesù Pellegrino or "Pretoni" in Via degli Arazzieri n. 8 (from Piazza S. Marco towards Piazza Independenza) - the headquarters of the Italian Association of Catholic Teachers, in spite of it not being part of the usual tourist drag. Restructured by Giovanni Antonio Dosio (1584-88) on a commission from Cardinal Alessandro de' Medici, the rectangular interior, with its pitched roof, contains a series of frescoes and altarpieces illustrating Christological stories, carried out by Giovanni Balducci before 1590. However the most curious thing in the oratory is the tombstone of Arlotto Mainardi, a priest famous for his sense of humour, which bears the following epigraph he prepared before he died: "This burial place was prepared by Father Arlotto for himself and anyone else wants to join him" (1484).

This delightful character and very Florentine priest, born in 1396 and parson at the little church of San Cresci at Maciuoli in the diocese of Fiesole for many years, is famous for an extremely unusual book which contains many of his sayings and practical jokes as well as some surprisingly clever observations that an anonymous friend collected after his death; this book has been reprinted in over seventy editions, as well as being translated into French and German. He was a regular visitor to the Medici household, in fact some of the anecdotes are about members of the family. He was also quite a globe trotter and on equal terms with many sovereigns of his time like Edward of England, Alphonse of Naples and René of Anjou. We can find his portrait in two paintings at the Pitti Palace, one by Giovanni di San Giovanni and the other by Baldassare Franceschini (Volterrano).

We are sure that our readers will enjoy reading some of his stories which, apart from being very amusing and quite illuminating, do give an idea as what his character was like. The version below is taken from the original text written in the old Italian of the time.

Practical joke n. XXXV played by Father Arlotto at Ponte a Sieve because he was cold.
One Sunday evening Father Arlotto stopped at a hostelry at Ponte a Sieve on his way home from Casentino; he was soaking wet, exhausted, frozen to the bone and covered in mud because it had not stopped raining all day and was to continue throughout the following night.

Having dismounted from his horse, he immediately headed for the huge fire prepared by the innkeeper and as it was not only wet but also extremely cold, he found it surrounded by about thirty farmers who always came to the hostelry on feast days and evenings to drink, gamble and tell each other silly stories and lies. That evening they were sitting so snugly around the fire that there was no room for the priest, so the poor man could neither get warm nor dry, or hardly turn around; it was useless for the inn keeper or himself to say anything because the farmers had absolutely no intention of leaving.

The indignant Priest tried to think of a way of getting rid of all these ruffians from in front of the fire. He put on a miserable and long-suffering expression; he refused to cheer up, nor would he talk or tell any funny stories. Knowing that, as a rule, the Priest was a merry character and full of fun, the inn keeper was surprised that he had hardly said a word all evening and asked:

- Father, what on earth is wrong with you? You look almost as though you are in a trance. I hardly know you like this for you are most unlike your usual self, you are usually happy and jolly. Do tell me if you feel ill or have any problems. You only have to say the word and my family and I will do anything in our power to help you. - said the innkeeper, afraid that he had been ill-used by some person from the Casentino, for many of the farmers were bad men.

Portrait of Father Arlotto(Palazzo Pitti)

The Priest replied:
- An unfortunate thing has happened to me because I have lost about fourteen lire worth of coins and nineteen large florins from my saddle bag; however I still hope to find some of the coins because I know I lost them within five miles of here; I stopped to drink there and when I got back on my horse, the bag must have been torn by a nail on the saddlebow; I did not discover that all the money had gradually fallen out from the rip in the bag until half a mile further on, when I dismounted to pass water; however I am sure there was no-one behind me on the way because of the weather was so bad.

Could you do me a favour? Could you come with me or send someone I can trust early tomorrow morning, if it's not raining, to look for some of the coins? At these words, the peasants quietly began to leave, in groups of two, four and six, until not a soul was left; a lot of whispering went on among them to decide on the best place to look for the money so as to steal it from the Priest. Hooded and bearing torches and lanterns, they set off at once to look for the missing money, taking no notice of the bad weather (it was still pouring with rain) and one of the sons of the innkeeper and two of his nephews were among them; they all passed a terrible night and afterwards at least three were taken severely ill with a fever, while our Priest spent the evening comfortably and triumphantly in front of the fire and the peasants only found the money in their dreams.

In the morning the inn keeper offered him free board and lodging and wanted to go and help him search for his money, as he had no idea that the rude louts had been out there all night.

Frontespice for the Zopino edition (Venice, 1535)

Motto CLXX (Witty remark made by Father Arlotto one evening in a villa at dinner)
He was at dinner one evening in a villa in the company of several wealthy men; it started to rain to the satisfaction of all; everyone was delighted to see some rain at last because there had been a long spell of dry weather.

They were all saying:
- It will do the corn and the crops good, and be excellent for the wine.
As the Parson had noticed that there was not a single man who had watered down his wine at dinner, he remarked:
- You are only to quick to sing the praises of water yet there is not one of you who puts a drop of it in his body.

The Parson's reply to a young woman who asked him if he had ever seen anyone more beautiful than she was.
A beautiful and elegant woman asked the Parson the following question:
- Have you ever seen anyone more marvellous or beautifully dressed than I am?
He answered:
- Yes, the cockerel, the pheasant and the peacock are more beautiful because they are part of nature and their elegance is natural and far more marvellous and beautiful than what has been created by artifice or accident.

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