Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375)

The Decameron, Sixth Day, Tenth Tale

Friar Cipolla and a Feather of the Angel Gabriel
(Analogue, though distant, of the Pardoner's Prologue)


Friar Cipolla promises certain peasants that he will show them a feather of the Angel Gabriel. Instead of which he finds only some charcoal, which he tells them is some of that which roasted Saint Lorenzo.


Every other member of the party had now told a tale, and Dioneo knew it was his turn. So, without waiting for a formal command, he began as soon as silence had been imposed on those who were praising Guido's retort. "Charming ladies, although I have the privilege of speaking on any subject I like, today I do not intend to depart from the subject on which you have all spoken so admirably. Following in your footsteps I mean to show you how skilfully one of the friars of Saint Antonio escaped with quick resource from the trap which two young men had prepared for him. You will not mind if I take some time in telling the tale, for if you will look at the sun you will see it is still in mid-heaven.

As you may have heard, Certaldo is a small town in the Val d'Elsa, and although it is small, it was in the past inhabited by noblemen and wealthy families. Now, one of the friars of Saint Antonio was for a long time accustomed to go there once a year for the excellent pasture he found, gathering alms which fools give such people. His name was Friar Cipolla (Onion); and perhaps was welcomed as much for his name as his devotion, for that country produces onions famous throughout Tuscany.

This Friar Cipolla was a little, red-haired, merry-faced fellow, and the biggest rogue in the world. He was quite uneducated, and yet was such a prompt and able speaker that anyone who did not know him would have thought him not only a great scholar but another Cicero or perhaps Quintilian. He was gossip or friend or acquaintance to nearly everyone in the district.

Now one day in the month of August he went there, as was his custom, and on Sunday morning when all the good men and women of the surrounding villages had gathered there for Mass at the canonical hour, he turned to them and said:

"Ladies and gentlemen, as you know you are every year accustomed to send some of your wheat and oats to the poor of my lord Messer Saint Antonio, some little and some more, according to their ability and devotion, so that the blessed Saint Antonio will protect your cows and asses and pigs and flocks. In addition you -- and especially those of you who are written down as members of our confraternity -- are wont to pay the little debt which is paid once a year. Now I am sent by Messer Abbot to collect these things to the best of my ability. And so, with God's blessing, when you hear the bells ring after Nones, you will gather outside the Church and I will preach to you as usual and you shall kiss the cross. Moreover, since I know you are all most devoted to my lord Messer Saint Antonio, as a special favour I shall show you a beautiful and most holy relic, which I myself have brought overseas from the Holy Land. This is nothing less than one of the feathers of the Angel Gabriel, which he dropped in the bedroom of the Virgin Mary when he came to make the Annunciation to her in Nazareth."

So saying, he ended his speech, and returned to the Mass. When Friar Cipolla was saying this there happened to be along with many others in the church two smart young fellows, named Giovanni del Bragoniera and Biagio Pizzini. After they had laughed heartily together over Friar Cipolla's relic, they determined to play a trick on him over this feather, although they were close friends of his. They knew that Friar Cipolla was going to dine in the town that day, and when they thought he was at table they went into the street and made their way to the inn where the Friar was staying. Their plan was that Biagio should hold the Friar's servant in talk, while Giovanni searched through his traps for the feather and took it away, to see what he would say to the people when he found it out.

Friar Cipolla had a servant, called by some Guccio Whale, by others Guccio Dauber, and by others Guccio Pig. He was such an artful fellow that Lippo Topo himself never did as much, while Friar Cipolla often joked about him with his friends, saying:

"My servant has nine qualities, and if one of them had existed in Solomon or Aristotle or Seneca, it would have been sufficient to ruin all their virtue, wisdom and holiness. Think what sort of a fellow he must be then, when he has nine such qualities, and neither virtue, wisdom nor holiness."

And when he was asked what these nine qualities were, he would reply as follows:

"I'll tell you. He's lazy, lying and lousy; negligent, disobedient and evil speaking; reckless, heedless and bad-mannered. In addition he has several other little faults not worth mentioning. But the most amusing thing about him is that wherever he goes he wants to have a wife and set up house. Since he has a large, black, greasy beard, he thinks himself so handsome and charming that all the women who see him must fall in love with him. If he were allowed, he would be after them and think of nothing else. True, he is a great help to me, for however secretly anyone wants to speak to me, he must hear his share of it; and if I am asked a question he's so much afraid that I shall not know what to answer that he immediately replies 'Yes' or 'No,' as he thinks fitting."

Friar Cipolla had left this servant behind at the inn, and had ordered him to take great care that nobody touched his possessions, especially his knapsacks which contained the sacred matters. But Guccio Dauber liked to be in a kitchen more than a nightingale among green boughs, especially when he knew there was a servant girl there. He had seen the host's servant, a fat, round, stumpy, ugly girl with a pair of breasts like two baskets of dung, and a face like one of the Baronci all sweaty, greasy and smoky. Leaving Friar Cipolla's room and abandoning all his traps, Guccio slipped into the kitchen like a vulture after carrion; and although it was August he sat down by the fire and began to talk to the girl, whose name was Nuta.

He told her he was a gentleman by procuration, that he had an incredible number of florins, apart from those he had to give other people which were considerable, and that he could do and say so many things that it was abracadabra marvellous. Without considering his hood which had enough grease on it to suffice the great cauldron of Altopascio, or his torn and patched doublet all sweat-stained round the collar and armpits, with more spots and colours in it than ever were in a Tartar or Indian garment, or his burst-out shoes, or his rent hose, he talked to her as if he had been the Lord of Castiglione and said he meant to set her up with new clothes and take her out of her wretched service to be with someone else, and that in addition to having his great possessions she might hope for even better fortune. These and a great many other things which he most amorously told her came to nothing, like most of his undertakings of this sort.

Meanwhile the two young men discovered that Guccio Pig was occupied with Nuta, which delighted them, for half their errand was thus already accomplished. With no one to stop them they walked into Friar Cipolla's open room, and the first thing they took up to search was the knapsack containing the feather. Opening the knapsack they found a little casket wrapped up in a large piece of silk; and, opening the casket, they found it contained a feather from a parrot's tail, which they guessed at once was the feather he had promised to show the people of Certaldo. Certainly in those times it was easy for him to impose on their credulity, for the luxuries of Egypt had not then entered Tuscany, except to a very small extent, as they have since done so widely to the grave harm of all Italy. But even if these feathers had been known to a few people, they were not known at all to the inhabitants of Certaldo. Thus, while the rough virtues of our ancestors endured, not only had they never seen a parrot, but had never even heard one mentioned.

The young men were delighted to find the feather, and took it out. In order not to leave the casket empty, they picked up some charcoal they saw in a corner of the room, and filled the casket with that. They then shut it, and replaced everything as they had found it. They then went off merrily with the feather, without anyone seeing them, and waited to hear what Friar Cipolla would say when he found the charcoal in place of the feather.

The simple-minded men and women who were at church returned home from Mass, after hearing that they were to see a feather of the Angel Gabriel after Nones. One neighbour told another, one gossip another, and when every-one had had dinner, so many men and women flocked to the town to see the feather that the place could scarcely hold them.

After a good dinner and a little nap Friar Cipolla got up a little after Nones. Hearing that a great multitude of peasants had come to see the feather he ordered Guccio Dauber to come along at once to the bells and to bring the knapsacks with him. Although it was hard to tear Guccio away from the kitchen and Nuta, he went along with the required things. Drinking water had inflated his body so much that Friar Cipolla at once sent him inside the church door, where he began to ring the bells loudly.

When all the people were assembled, Friar Cipolla began his sermon without noticing that his effects had been tampered with; he said a great deal about his own deeds, and when he came to the point of showing the Angel Gabriel's feather, he first made them recite the general confession, then had two candles lighted, and having first put back his cowl he unwrapped the silk and brought out the casket.

After saying a few words in praise of the Angel Gabriel and his relic, he opened the casket. When he saw it full of charcoal, he did not at all suspect that it had been done by Guccio Whale (whom he knew to be incapable of such an effort of imagination) nor did he even blame him for not having prevented others from doing it; but he silently cursed himself for having allowed his property to be looked after by Guccio whom he knew to be negligent, disobedient, reckless and heedless. But yet he did not change colour, but lifted up his hands and face to Heaven, and said in a voice heard by all:

"O Lord, for ever let Thy power be praised!"

He then closed the casket and, turning to the people, said:

"Ladies and gentlemen, you must know that when I was still very young I was sent by my superior to the lands of the rising sun, with the express charge to find out the secrets of Porcelain, which although they cost nothing to mark, are more profitable to others than to us.

"So I set out from Venice and went along Greek Street, and thence by road through the kingdom of Garbo and through Baldacca, thence reaching Parione, and afterwards at some expense of thirst, -- Sardinia. But why do I name all these countries I passed through? Passing the inlet of St. George I came to Truffia and Buffia, lands thickly inhabited with many people. From thence I came to the land of Falsehood where I found a great many friars and other religious, who all scorned poverty for the love of God, took little account of others' troubles, followed their own interests and spent none but uncoined money in those lands. I then came to the country of the Abruzzi, where the men and women walk over the mountains in clogs and dress up pigs in their own guts. A little further on I found people who carry bread in sticks and wine in bags. And thence I came to the mountains of the Bacchi where all the water runs backwards.

"In short, I travelled so far that I came to Turnip India, and I swear to you by my sacred gown that I saw pens fly, a thing incredible to those who have not seen it. Witness will be borne to this by the great merchant, Maso del Saggio, whom I found there cracking nuts and selling the husks retail.

"But since I could not find what I sought there, and since I should have had to proceed by water thereafter, I turned back to the Holy Land where in summer a cold loaf is worth four cents and a hot one nothing. There I found the Reverend Father Nonmiblasmete Sevoipiace, the most worthy patriarch of Jerusalem. He, from reverence to the habit of my lord Messer Saint Antonio which I wore, showed me all the relics he had about him. And there were so many of them that if I told you everything I should never get to the end. But not to disappoint you, I shall tell you of some of them.

"First of all he showed me the finger of the Holy Ghost, as entire and sound as it ever was, and the forelock of the Seraph which appeared to Saint Francesco, and a nail of one of the Cherubim, and a rib of the Verbum Caro made at the factory, and clothes of the Holy Catholic Faith, and some of the rays of the Star which appeared to the wise men in the East, and a phial of Saint Michael's sweat when he fought with the Devil, and the jaw-bones of Saint Lazarus, and many others.

"Now, since I freely gave him some of the eminences of Monte Morello in the vulgar tongue and certain chapters of the Caprezio which he had long been seeking, he also shared his holy relics with me, and gave a tooth of the Holy Cross, and a little bottle containing some of the noise of the bells in Solomon's Temple, and the feather of the Angel Gabriel which I spoke of to you, and one of the clogs of Saint Gherardo da Villamagna which not long ago in Florence I gave to Gherardo di Bonsi who holds it in extreme reverence; and he also gave me some of the coals over which the most blessed martyr Saint Lorenzo was roasted. Which things I most devoutly brought back with me, and have them all.

"My superior indeed would never allow me to exhibit them until they proved to be genuine. But now that certain miracles have been performed by them and letters received from the Patriarch, which both make them certain, I am permitted to show them. But I always carry them with me, for I am afraid to trust them to anyone else.

"I carry the Angel Gabriel's feather in a small casket to prevent it from being harmed, and the charcoal of roasted Saint Lorenzo in another. These caskets are so much alike that I often mistake one for the other, and that is what has happened to me today. For, while I thought I had brought the casket containing the feather, I find I have brought the casket with the charcoal. And I cannot consider this an error but rather the will of God, Who Himself placed that casket in my hand, thereby reminding me that the anniversary of Saint Lorenzo occurs a couple of days hence.

"Thus God, desirous that I should show you the charcoal, to reawaken in your minds the devotion you ought to feel for Saint Lorenzo, caused me to take up, not the feather I meant to show you, but the blessed charcoal sprinkled with the sweat of that most holy body. And, my blessed children, remove your hoods and come forward devoutly to behold them.

"But first of all I wish you to know that whosoever has the sign made on him with this charcoal may live for a whole year secure from fire, and may touch it without feeling it."

After saying this he sang the lauds of Saint Lorenzo, opened the casket, and displayed the charcoal. When the foolish multitude had gazed at the charcoal for a time, they pressed round Friar Cipolla in crowds, giving him larger offerings than usual and begging him to touch them with the charcoal. So Friar Cipolla took the charcoal in his hand and made huge crosses on their white shirts and doublets and on the women's veils, vowing that, as he had often proved, the charcoal miraculously recovered in the casket the weight it lost in forming the crosses.

Thus, having made crusaders of all the people of Certaldo, to his own benefit, Friar Cipolla turned the tables on those who thought they had put him in a quandry by stealing his feather. The two young men were present at his preaching, and when they heard his new trick and how far-fetched it was and what he said, they laughed until their jaws ached. After the mob had departed, they went up to him and told him what they had done with the utmost merriment, and then gave him back his feather, which next year brought him in as much as the charcoal had done that year.

This tale pleased and amused the whole party, and there was much laughter at Friar Cipolla, and especially at his pilgrimage and the relics he saw and brought back with him.


From The Decameron. Tr. John Payne. London, 1906. (Paragraphing revised)


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