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Monday, 19 September 2011

Signor di Piccolo's Bill of Exchange - another prequel

Niccola di Piccolo’s missing money-note

It would be neither  kind nor accurate to say that my master virtually lived in Signor di Piccolo’s library, but it would not be unfair to say that he spent a very great deal of time there.  Naturally he took me, his apprentice, with him.
 There were those books I was not permitted to peruse – Master Robin is oft times strict over what he considers suitable for the eyes of a young girl – but I managed to get a glimpse of most of them in any wise, since once my master is absorbed in reading, he might as well be as remote as the moon for all the notice he takes of what is going on around him. 
 Signor di Piccolo has quite fifty books, an awe-inspiring collection, and he is pleased that they are enjoyed by another scholar. Though the initial acquaintance was professional, when my master was painting Signor de Piccolo’s portrait, a friendship sprang up, and Signor di Piccolo stands our patron, and my master’s friend, benefiting from Master Robin’s polymathy. 
This means that my master is generally the life and soul of gatherings of other scholars, and I get the privilege of fetching and carrying food and drink for a selection of drunken philosophers.  Which is educational enough most of the time, for most of them are willing to debate with anyone who can hold a good debate, and often I am permitted to join in.  I learn much, too, in just listening, so I do not mind fetching and carrying, and making them comfortable if they should fall into bibulous slumber.  
I do not clear up vomit.  Signor di Piccolo has servants to do that sort of thing and there are only so many things I will do unpaid.

Signor di Piccolo is a big man in the Arte della Lana, the woollen guild; and as such has many friends who are wealthy merchants from that guild and the Arte della Seta, the silk guild.  They are good patrons for portraiture and wealthy enough to mostly pay up without a murmur and no need to threaten to paint amusingly obscene trade signs on their doors suggesting that another trade be theirs. It is where an artist has the advantage over other craftsmen, in that he might ridicule bad payers; but the friends of Signor Piccolo were all unquestionably honest men; a fact that will be seen to be of some importance as I come to the meat of my tale.
The merchants of Florence do much business overseas, and this was the root of Signor Piccolo’s problem, for he frequently held Bills of Exchange, which might only be words written on parchment or even paper, but those words might be worth thousands of florins.  The big banking families issue these Bills in exchange for real money, and the Bills may then be exchanged for money again with other branches of that family, or other families with whom there is an understanding, even in other countries.  Signor di Piccolo was guarding one for the guild that was made out in English sovereigns to the value of quite eighty pounds, an immense sum, for the purchase of the finest Florentine woollen cloths, dyed rich colours like pavonazzo,  a wonderful colour with the shimmer of the peacock, between blue and violet and using extravagant dyes to produce it, not merely indigo but even more expensive grain, too, for that violet shimmer. 

And Signor di Piccolo had managed to lose his Bill of Exchange.

He certainly had it in the morning. Indeed he had it in his hand when he came into the library, because he was telling my Master how nervous it made him and that he must put it away safely.
He got momentarily sidetracked at that moment because my master was producing his own satirical version  of one of Horace’s 'Odes', the one about how nobody can escape death.  My master had been changing it to a version that swore that no man could escape taxes, addressing it to Niccolo Machiavelli, another of his unsavoury friends.  When I tell you that it began ‘Eheu, fugaces, Niccole, Niccole’ and spoke not of wrinkled brows but of purses wrinkled for hanging empty you will get the general gist.  My master had made enough the previous year to have had to pay a large tax to the city and it had irked him, and he was now wrestling with the phrase about Sisyphus and his eternal toil to change the sense to suggest that he represented all Florentines.
It was a pointless exercise, but then when are men not given to pointless exercise in their leisure hours?
Signor di Piccolo came to argue over the wording, and they sat together, his neat dark head bobbing in thought beside my master’s golden one.  Until Signor Piccolo’s man Giovanni came to find us to tell his master that the noon meal was served.
About time too in my opinion, and probably had been ready for a while since while Giovanni tracked down the errant master of the house. 

We were staying for the afternoon, having a small commission to repair a fresco, and then for an evening gathering of convivial men.  You must not get me wrongly; my master is in general above painting and repairing frescos, that pay only a florin a foot, but this was a favour to a friend.  And free meals while we were there too.
The repair work went well, and the evening passed well, until one of the other guild members who was there asked Signor di Piccolo about the Bill of Exchange; and he went to get it. 

The first we knew of its disappearance was when Signor di Piccolo, white of face, asked my master and me to step into his library.
Then he broke down and admitted the loss.
“I know that Felicia is said to be good at finding things” he said “And I wondered…. You see, I cannot but think that it has been stolen; and I will not suspect any of my servants, all of whom have been with me for many years; but I do not wish to suspect the guests either!”
I quite saw his problem.
I enumerated the guests.
“Piero Mancini, whom you say is the one who asked for the Bill of Exchange; high in the guild, beyond suspicion.  Of course to ask you where it is might be an easy way to divert suspicion from himself if he had seen it and been tempted, for his daughter Agnesa is to be married, and the dowries regarded as proper here in Florence can be crippling to produce” I said.  It is true; many families can only afford for one of their daughters to wed, for the competition in giving ever greater dowries.  I think it sheer foolishness myself; and younger daughters so often sent into nunneries in childhood, where the dowry as a Bride of Christ is much less, and where they are taught to make reticella, lace of various kinds, and to sew, and might hope to sell enough of their work to form a dowry before they are old enough to take vows.
“Yes, my brother is concerned about his daughter, who is already eighteen years old and unwed, though it has given him time to save more for when Giuliana should marry” said Signor di Piccolo “But I cannot see that Piero would even feel such temptation as to steal from me, let alone give way to it!”
“Probably not” I said “But it is well to look at all people concerned.   And next we have Andrea Rizzo, who is the bridegroom to Agnesa Mancini.  He is doing quite well in the guild but when a young man marries there are more expenses.  He too might be tempted.”
“That I refuse to believe” said Signor di Piccolo “For has he not reported honestly on flaws in cloth that the inspector missed when it was due to be stamped?”
“If he had said farewell to his mistress I might have been more ready to believe him honest without needing proof” I said tartly “But to my mind there is something dishonest in a man who will take a wife whilst retaining his mistress.”
“Art a prude, thou shrewling” said my master. “Many a man keeps a wife and a mistress.”
“But it is impolite to both to take a wife whilst keeping a mistress” I said. “You would not, master.”
He had the grace to look uncomfortable.  His habits might be free but his eccentric moral code is quite firm  even though he be as much a fornicator and drunkard as he is a genius and polymath.
“Well that is my own personal ethic” he said. “Let it stand that you dislike the practice but than most see nothing dishonest in it.”
I bowed my head in acquiescence. 
“Very well, master” I said.  “Giovanni Trovato is the only other person here directly connected to the wool trade.”
Trovato means foundling; and Giovanni the foundling had been reared in the Ospedale degli Innocenti, the orphan hospital maintained by the Wool Guild.  He had attracted much notice for his intelligence and had been serving for the past four years as one of the inspectors for the guild.
“He is a good boy” said Signor Piccolo “It is a responsible task to oversee the quality of goods; his integrity is, and must be, unimpeachable!”
Quid custodiet ipsos custodies” I murmured.  My master cuffed me gently across the back of the head.
“Leave Juvenal out of this” he said. “Besides, the phrase ‘who watches the watchmen’ was in his satire referring to the corrupting influence of women; not what I’d be expecting from your partisan lips!”
“But master, every apprentice in the city knows that Giovanni Trovato has a secret mistress!” I declared. “And he visits her early in the mornings not late at night to try to avoid prying eyes – but ‘tis when we apprentices be out running errands!”
“Great God!” said Signor di Piccolo “I never knew that!”
“Oh trust an apprentice to know all” said my master.  “They are worse gossips than old women and fishwives.”
He beamed at me complacently for his little victory of barbed comment.
In front of Signor di Piccolo I could scarcely put my tongue out to him, that would be worth getting his slipper across my backside for.
I went on,
“Iacopo Brunello the goldsmith seems prosperous enough but his wife is ailing.  Who knows what medicines he might need for her?  And Antonio de Luca is a tailor of no great wealth. And finally Bartolo Moretti is said to have received some severe reverses in the investments he has made in foreign trade, for he put much into the sugar trade and now the plantations on Cyprus and Sicily are failing; and his fortunes with them, for he failed to trust in the newer plantations on Madeira.”
I could not feel much sympathy for Signor Moretti; since mine own looks suggest African ancestors I have compassion for the poor slaves who work the plantations and it has ever seemed unfair that others should grow wealthy on unpaid toil.
“But how hard it is to question the honesty of any of them, however great the temptations!” cried Signor di Piccolo.  “How can I ask any of them such questions as would impugn their honour?”
“I think it would be well to see if any might have opportunity” I said “When we were called to eat, I presume you placed the Bill of Exchange in your strongroom?”
He looked at me with a curious expression on his face.
“Why – I cannot say I recall” he said.  “Though where else might I have put it?”
I snorted.  He is an old enough friend that he permits such a liberty.
“Signor, my experience of scholars tells me that you may have wandered in to dine with it in your hand and used it to wipe your fingers on between dishes; or left it with the napery; or taken it to the jakes with you, and either left it, or proceeded to use it” I said dryly.
He went ashen.  Using a Bill of Exchange in such a fashion would be a rather extravagant way to cleanse one’s person.
Then I started chuckling as the answer came to me.
“Fear not, Signor de Piccolo!” I cried “Though I fancy that the Bill of Exchange has indeed drifted to nether regions, such nether regions are no worse than to follow the winding River Cocytus into the realms of Hades.”
“Felicia, what are you talking about? Have you run even more whimsical than usual?” Signor di Piccolo does not stand on ceremony with me either.
“I believe I catch her meaning” said my master “But let the little shrew have her victory and show how she has found the prize.  Fetch it down from the shelf, shrewling.”
I took down the second volume of Horace’s ‘Odes’ and there, gently laid next to the fourteenth ode, was the missing Bill of Exchange.
Signor di Piccolo cried out in joy and embraced me, kissing me on both cheeks.
When dealing with scholars such little problems are amazingly easy.  Assume that they have no mind outside their current interest and leave everything else in the last book they were reading.
When this is a Bill of Exchange its discovery is a fortunate business, but less salubrious when a shred of smallage is left decaying gently between the leaves to mark a place.
My Master had the grace to look slightly guilty before suggesting heartily that we rejoin the others.
I decided to be nice and make no issue of the matter.  After all, he’s not such a bad master, really.

This is where the 14th ode may be found in translation.

1 comment:

  1. This was great!!! Especially the way we went through the various players to set the stage, and then the denouement was Piccolo as "absent-minded professor"--totally believable...this reader does ditsy stuff like that all the time...

    One thing that I think is interesting is that, in general, bills of exchange were meant to disguise interest payments between one currency and another...even though such transactions were relatively open secrets (as open, it would appear, as the personal lives of the men who Felicia considers as possible suspects) while the probity of each of these men, as members of a professional commercial class, could be account "best practice,"--and most judicious mode of procedure, the bill of exchange in and of itself would have been considered an ethical "grey area" in the fifteenth century...underscoring the need for Signor di Piccolo to pay atttention to where he put it...

    great story...these teasers give a nice background to Felicia and Robin's history in Florence, as they sail to England in the first, forthcoming, full-length novel of the series....