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One evening down on the quay the old storyteller Cecco began telling the following tale—
If it is all right with you, ladies and gentlemen, I shall tell you a very old story about a beautiful lady, a dwarf, and a love potion, about fidelity and infidelity, love and death, all that is at the heart of every adventure and tale, whether it be old or new.
Signorina Margherita Cadorin, daughter of the nobleman Batista Cadorin, was in her day the most beautiful among all the beautiful women of Venice. The poems and songs dedicated to her were more numerous than the curved bay windows of the palaces on the Grand Canal and more plentiful than the gondolas that swim between the Ponte del Vin and the Ponte della Dogana on a spring evening. Hundreds of young and old lords from Venice and Murano, and just as many from Padua, could not close their eyes for a single night without dreaming about her; nor could they wake up the next morning without yearning for a glimpse of her. Moreover, there were few among the fine young ladies in the entire city who had not been jealous of Margherita Cadorin at one time or another. Since it is impossible for me to describe her, I shall content myself with saying that she was blond, tall, and slender like a young cypress, that her hair flattered the air, and the soles of her feet, the ground, and that Titian, when he saw her, is said to have wished that he could spend an entire year and paint nothing and nobody but this woman.
With regard to clothes, lace, Byzantine gold brocade, precious stones, and jewels, the beautiful signorina lacked nothing. On the contrary, her palace was rich and splendid. The oriental rugs were thick and colorful. The closets contained plenty of silver utensils. The tables glistened with their fine damask and glorious porcelain. The floors of the rooms were filled with beautiful mosaics, and the ceilings and walls were covered partially with Gobelin tapestries made of brocade and silk, and partially with bright and attractive paintings. In addition, there were plenty of gondolas and gondoliers.
Of course, all these expensive and pleasant things could also be found in other houses. There were larger and richer palaces than hers, more abundantly filled closets, more expensive utensils, rugs, and jewels. At that time Venice was very wealthy, but young Margherita possessed a gem all to herself that was the envy of many people richer than she. It was a dwarf by the name of Filippo, a fantastic little fellow, just about three feet tall with two humps on his back. Born in Cyprus, Filippo could speak only Greek and Syrian when Vittoria Battista brought him home one day from a trip. Now, however, he spoke such a pure Venetian dialect that it seemed as if he had been born on the Riva or in the parish of San Giobbe. As beautiful and slender as his mistress was, the dwarf was just that ugly. If she stood next to his crippled figure, she appeared doubly tall and majestic, like the tower of an island church next to a fisherman’s hut. The dwarf’s hands were wrinkled, brown, and bent at the joints. His gait was unspeakably ridiculous; his nose, much too large; his feet, wide and pigeon-toed. Yet when dressed, he walked like a prince garbed in pure silk and gold.
Just this outward appearance made the dwarf a gem. It was perhaps impossible to find anyone who cut a figure stranger and more comical, not only in Venice but in all of Italy, including Milan. And many a royal king, prince, or duke would certainly have been glad to pay gold for the little man, if he had been for sale.
Now there may have indeed been dwarfs just as small and ugly as Filippo at certain courts or in rich cities, but he was far superior to them with regard to brains and talent. If everything depended on intelligence alone, then this dwarf could easily have had a seat on the Council of Ten or been head of an embassy. Not only did he speak three languages, but he also had a great command of history and was clever at inventing things. He was just as good at telling old stories as he was at creating new ones, and he knew how to give advice, play mean tricks, and make people laugh or cry, if he so desired.
On pleasant days, when Margherita sat on her balcony to bleach her wonderful hair in the sun, as was generally the fashion at that time, she was always accompanied by her two chambermaids, her African parrot, and the dwarf Filippo. The chambermaids moistened and combed her long hair and spread it over a large straw hat to bleach it. They sprayed it with the perfume of roses and Greek water, and while they did this, they told her about everything that was happening or about to happen in the city: the deaths, the celebrations, the weddings, births, thefts, and funny incidents. The parrot flapped its beautifully colored wings and performed its three tricks: It whistled a song, bleated like a goat, and cried out, “Good night!” The dwarf sat there, squatting motionless in the sun, and read old books and scrolls, paying very little attention to the gossip of the maids or to the swarming mosquitoes. Then on each of these occasions, after some time had passed, the colorful bird would nod, yawn, and fall asleep; the maids would chatter ever more slowly and gradually turn silent and finish their chores quietly with tired gestures, for is there a place where the noon sun burns hotter or makes one drowsier than on the balcony of a Venetian palace? Yet the mistress would become sullen and give the maids a good scolding if they let her hair become too dry or touched it too clumsily. Finally the moment would arrive when she cried out, “Take the book away from him!”
The maids would take the book from Filippo’s knees, and the dwarf would look up angrily, but he would also manage to control himself at the same time and ask politely what his mistress desired.
And she would command, “Tell me a story!”
Whereupon the dwarf would respond, “I need to think for a moment,” and he would reflect.
Sometimes he would take too much time, so that she would yell and reprimand him. However, he would calmly shake his heavy head, which was much too large for his body, and answer with composure, “You must be patient a little while longer. Good stories are like those noble wild animals that make their home in hidden spots, and you must often settle down at the entrance of the caves and woods and lie in wait for them a long time. Let me think!”
When he had thought enough and began telling his story, however, he let it all flow smoothly until the end, like a river streaming down a mountain in which everything is reflected, from the small green grass to the blue vault of the heavens. The parrot would sleep and dream, at times snoring with his crooked beak. The small canals would lie motionless so that the reflections of the houses stood still like real walls. The sun would burn down on the flat roof, and the maids would fight desperately against their drowsiness. But the dwarf would not succumb to sleep. Instead, as soon as he exhibited his art, he would become a king. Indeed, he would extinguish the sun and soon lead his transfixed mistress through dark, terrifying woods, then to the cool blue bottom of the sea, and finally through the streets of exotic and fabulous cities, for he had learned the art of storytelling in the Orient, where storytellers are highly regarded. Indeed, they are magicians and play with the souls of their listeners as a child plays with his ball.
His stories rarely began in foreign countries, for the minds of listeners cannot easily fly there on their own powers. Rather, he always began with things that people can see with their own eyes, whether it be a golden clasp or a silk garment. He always began with something close and contemporary. Then he led the imagination of his mistress imperceptibly wherever he wanted, talking first about the people who had previously owned some particular jewels or about the makers and sellers of the jewels. The story floated naturally and slowly from the balcony of the palace into the boat of the trader and drifted from the boat into the harbor and onto the ship and to the farthest spot of the world. It did not matter who his listeners were. They would all actually imagine themselves on this voyage, and while they sat quietly in Venice, their minds would wander about serenely or anxiously on distant seas and in fabulous regions. Such was the way that Filippo told his stories.
Aside from reciting wonderful fairy tales mostly from the Orient, he also gave reports about real adventures and events from the past and present, about the journeys and misfortunes of King Aeneas, about rich Cyprus, about King John, about the magician Virgilius, and about the impressive voyages of Amerigo Vespucci. On top of everything, he himself knew how to invent and convey the most remarkable stories. One day, as his mistress glanced at the slumbering parrot, she asked, “Tell me, oh Know-It-All, what is my parrot dreaming about now?”
The dwarf thought for a moment and then related a long dream as if he himself were the parrot. As soon as he was finished, the bird woke up, bleated like a goat, and flapped its wings. Another time the lady took a small stone, threw it over the railing of the terrace into the canal, where it splashed into the water, and asked, “Now, Filippo, where is my stone going?”
Immediately the dwarf related how the stone in the water drifted down to the jellyfish, crabs, oysters, and fish, to the drowned fishermen and water spirits, imps and mermaids, whose lives and experiences he knew quite well and could describe in precise detail.
Even though Signorina Margherita, like many other rich and beautiful women, was arrogant and cold, she had great affection for her dwarf and made certain that everyone treated him nicely and honorably. Yet there were times when she herself took pleasure in tormenting him a little. After all, he was her property. Sometimes she took all his books away or locked him in the cage of her parrot. Other times she would make him stumble and trip on the floor of a large hall. Since she did not do this out of meanness, Filippo never complained, but he also never forgot a thing, and sometimes he wove little allusions, hints, and insinuations in his fables and fairy tales, which his mistress tolerated with composure. She took care not to irritate him too much, for everyone believed that the dwarf possessed secret knowledge and forbidden powers. People were certain that he knew how to talk with many kinds of animals and that his predictions about the weather and storms were always correct. He kept silent for the most part, however, and if people bothered him with questions, he would shrug his sharp shoulders and try to shake his stiff head, and the questioners would soon forget their business out of pure laughter.