Alchemist Gift – Renaissance Feasts
Alchemy and Alchemist Gift continued: And as it was ten days earlier, Conte Emilio d’Benevita remained seated on the stone bench by the fish pond where Lorenzo Patriarca left him. He wished he had one of his brothers along for company. Emilio heard the crunch of footsteps on the gravel walk. The sun was low in the sky. It was the figure of the white haired, antique servant who helped him from his coach that morning.
The servant approached the conte, stopped a few paces away and bowed. Signore Testaoro sent the servant out to collect his missing guest. The conte was right where Lorenzo Patriarca said he would be.
“Sir, Il Signore Testaoro requests that you come for dinner.”
Emilio looked at the elderly man and smiled. “And what might be your name?”
“Helmut, sir, will you be coming along with me now?”
“This place is certainly beautiful.”
The servant bowed. “As you say, sir.”
“Helmut, you’ve been with Testaoro for a long time?” Emilio placed his palms flat on the stone bench, arched his back and stretched. He discovered over the years that servants, if spoken to in a familiar and friendly way are more likely to share what they know.
“Yes sir.” Helmut stood a little stooped; the man looked tired.
“And he treats you well.” Emilio smiled and subtly nodded “yes”.
“Yes, sir.” was Helmut’s dry answer.
“You must have known his father and grandfather.”
Emilio was becoming impatient with this human sphinx. He continued in a leisurely manner. “What was he like?”
“Which Signore Testaoro?”
“The grandfather, what was his first name again?”
“Godrico Testaoro. I really couldn’t say what he was like sir. I was just a little boy.” Helmut glanced down the path and then expectantly back at Conte Emilio.
“I heard he was a seafaring man, a trader in goods.”
“That may be so sir.”
“Did he captain his own ship?”
“Sir, I must return to Il Signore with your answer.”
The conte smiled,” Yes, I suppose you must return to your master. One more thing, and please dispel this rumor that Godrico really wasn’t a pirate, or was he?”
Emilio looked for any subtle movement in the man’s face, a nod or an involuntary blink; some signal that he struck a nerve with the question. The only reaction was the slightest hint of a grin on Helmut’s lips.
“I wouldn’t know such things sir; perhaps you should address your question to Il Signore. Should I tell him you will be coming now?”
“Yes, I’ll join them in a moment.”
“Very good sir.” Helmut bowed, turned and trundled back down the path.
Emilio sat for another minute or two. As he headed back down the path he collected his thoughts. He heard the strains of a lute and flute coming from and the hall where most of the guests already assembled and were waiting.
Inside some of the guests at the table picked up the porcelain plates and were amazed by the translucent quality and the delicate designs. La Signora explained that the plates came all the way from Cathay. The guests enjoyed the novelty of the small, finely made two tine silver forks that were a miniature version of the large iron forks used in the scullery. Ursula explained that the Medici introduced the idea of using a fork for eating and so they should too.
Testaoro, who was seated at the raised table stood and beckoned the conte in a grand manner. Il Signore smiled through his impatience at Emilio. He was anxious for his Rosalba to make her grand entrance.
Emilio crossed the marble floor and headed to his host and hostess. Testaoro had already stepped down from the platform and met Emilio half way. All heads were turned towards Testaoro as he embraced Emilio, giving him a kiss on each cheek. He draped his arm around the conte and guided him to his seat which was to his left. Emilio sat down next to the empty chair on his left that he figured was reserved for Rosalba. He looked over at La Signora Testaoro who smiled back.
Two houseboys noisily unlatched the tall arched doors that opened into the great room. The guest looked over to see Rosalba enter. Rosalba looked beautiful in her black and gold dress. The guests applauded. The men stood, except for the conte. Rosalba’s father left his seat and met his daughter. He took her hand and they stopped in front of the conte.
“Conte Emilio d’Benevita, I present to you, my daughter Rosalba d’Silva Testaoro.”
Rosalba blushed and lowered her eyes. She curtsied and held her bow a little too long. Her father gave a slight tug on her hand and she stood up and timidly looked Emilio in the eyes. Conte Emilio was pleased to see such a pretty creature standing before him. He too clapped his hands and smiled. Testaoro lead his daughter to her seat and he took his.
“I must say, you quite please me,” said Emilio as he took Rosalba’s hand and kissed it then slowly let go his hold.
“Thank you, sir.” Rosalba flushed; the back of her hand tingled from the touch of his lips. She didn’t really know what to say, so she fell back and smiled.
The short silence that followed was broken by Ursula Testaoro. “Rosalba has learned to play the flute quite well.”
“Is that so, I am sure you will play it for me sometime.”
Rosalba felt her mother’s leg tap against hers. She looked over at her mother. Ursula raised her eyebrows.
Rosalba addressed the conte. “Do you play the flute, sir?”
Emilio playfully rejoined, “Oh no, not me, but I listen to music quite well.”
Rosalba took her cue from her father who gave a hearty chuckle. He was joined by Ursula and finally Rosalba.
Il Signore cleared his throat. He looked at Bishop DiMars and nodded. The guests became quiet. The lute player and the flautist stopped.
The bishop looked around the table until all eyes were on him. He raised his hands shoulder high, palms up, and began, “In nomine Patris, et filii, et spiritus sancti, amen. We thank our heavenly father for this bounty He has bestowed upon us, his faithful and industrious servants. We are thankful too for His bringing the Testaoro and the d’Benevita families together. We thank our host for including us on this blessed day when two young people, Rosalba, the jewel in the fatherly crown of our dear host Cosimo Testaoro, and Conte Emilio d’Benevita, from a the noble and glorious family that has made this republic what it is today, will be as one and share in all that life has to offer them. And through the grace and love of our lord Jesus Christ may we celebrate this holy union through Him, and in Him and with Him, amen.”
There was a hushed collective “amen” in return. The guest slowly raised their heads as if from a deep sleep and returned to the feast at hand. The musicians tuned their instruments to each other. The ewerer with his helper brought around the aquamanile filled with warm, herb scented water and white rose petals. The ewewer’s helper placed the basin under the conte’s hands and the ewerer poured the water so the conte could wash his hands. The servant repeated this washing ritual, next to Cosimo Testaoro, to Ursula, Rosalba then to each guest, making sure to keep in mind the order in which the guest were seated. The closest guest to the conte and Il Signore were serviced first.
The lute player and the flautist began playing again. Much to Rosalba’s relief Helmut entered the room followed by six servants in like, elaborate costumes. Each carried a great silver platter.
Helmut stopped in front of Testaoro. The servants stopped in a line behind Helmut. In his beautiful baritone voice Helmut announced, “Sturgeon in aspic with glazed apple slices.”
The guests ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhed,’ at the offering.
“Conte, would you care for some?” asked Testaoro. “You must try it.” With that said, Il Signore beckoned to the servant, who brought the tray and servers in tow to the raised table.
“Dear host, I’m sorry to say I am not much of a fish eater.”
“You must try some, here, here…” he called the servant closer and with his own hand took the serving spoon from the servant and put a modest piece of fish on the plate the conte shared with Rosalba.
This little spurt of oppressive generosity irked Emilio. “Thank you so very much, signore, and you? Are you having some?”
“No, I’m afraid if I started, that is all I’d eat. And there are many more courses.” He wagged his finger at the servant.
Emilio looked down at his plate with an impatient frown. Rosalba saw; her father could be pushy. She touched Emilio’s arm.“ I will have it.” said Rosalba softly.
Emilio looked at his bride to be with a new opinion and nodded with approval. She blushed but smiled back. Rosalba reached on to the plate and worked off a good sized flake of the white flesh with her fingers. Ursula stopped her before she could put it to her lips.
“Rosalba, are you forgetting? We use the fork now.” Her reminder was gentle.
Rosalba put the piece of fish back on the plate, picked up her fork and with some difficulty was able to balance the morsel on the two tines and then bring it to her mouth. The piece fell back onto the plate.
After three attempts, “use your fingers,” suggested the conte. “It’s easier that way.” He then took up the fallen morsel in his own fingers and brought it to Rosalba’s mouth. Her heart raced when his fingers brushed her lips. She looked past the conte to her father who gave her a wink and approving nod.
The servers offered the food to Ursula and followed the same path as the ewerer did. Those guests closest to the conte and Il Signore were served first. Couples shared one plate and could choose from the tray. When those servants finished serving the first course they placed the tray on a long sideboard and returned to the kitchen.
Again Helmut approached the raised table and addressed Testaoro,
“saddle of lamb with nutted wine.”
Testaoro pointed at the conte’s plate and looked at the conte.
The conte nodded, and the server put a goodly slice of meat on the conte’s plate. He then poured the thick brown gravy heavy with slivers of almonds on the meat.
Conte Emilio reached into his doublet and came out with his own utensils. He opened the carved wooden case and removed two knives. One knife was maybe six inches long with a sharp blade and the other knife’s blade was short and lancet shaped. He held the slice of lamb down with the short bladed knife and used the larger knife to cut off a bit sized piece. He speared the piece of lamb with the short blade, deftly drew it through the sauce on his plate and held it up for Rosalba to eat.
The guests ate and talked and gossiped, told some ribald stories, touched on politics which caused some tension between a few of the men. Six more courses were served: fried artichokes, towres, a kind of omelet with chopped veal, figs stuffed with cinnamon eggs, fried loach with roses and almonds and the last course was an assortment of tarts, fritters and candied fruits. All of this was washed down with copious amounts of pomegranate, grape or mulberry wine.
As the feast raged on around them, Emilio and Rosalba were in their own little world. Emilio allayed Rosalba’s shyness by telling her how pretty her dress was and how lovely her hair was fixed. As he dutifully cut up her food and fed it to her he asked Rosalba what music she liked,
who her favorite saint was, if she knew how to read, even her favorite color and dessert. With each question she answered Rosalba felt more at ease and after finishing her small glass of wine confident enough to ask the conte the same. Emilio looked past Rosalba at Ursula and could imagine what this young girl would look like when she matured.
By the last course the great room had become warm and stuffy and the guests were uncomfortably full. The women went on in their singsong way that sounded like so many squawking birds. The men, after having their tongues loosened and wits dulled by the nectar of Dionysius, found themselves in loud and lively discussion that went round and round until they were reduced to repeating themselves in louder and louder voices.
Cosimo and Ursula Testaoro and Bishop Di Mars, goblets in hand, closed themselves away in a nicely appointed drawing room and made themselves comfortable on the a richly upholstered settee. The Testaoros wanted to discuss the wedding. This left Emilio and Rosalba isolated at the raised table.
As they ate the last bites of their plum and currant tarts Emilio asked. “What do you say we go for a stroll outside?” Emilio sensibilities had been battered enough by the local brand of humanity.
“Alone? With you?” Panic set in.
“Have no fear; I will keep you safe.”
“I must have someone come along with us.” By the worried look on her face Emilio gladly acquiesced to her girlish innocence. “I will call my cousin Benedette.”
“If you like, send someone to fetch her. I must get to know your whole family,” said Emilio cheerfully.
Benedette sat towards the end of the table. She was between the wife of Vitorio Deminio a successful wine merchant and their soured twenty two year old daughter, Diana, who had missed her chances at marriage because she was told by her mother once too often she was too good for the men who approached her.
Benedette enjoyed the food if not the company and at the first sign that her cousin was trying to get her attention, unceremoniously excused herself in the middle of Deminio’s daughter’s droning description of her sad and loveless life. Benedette had all she could do not to race to Rosalba and the conte. Benedette bowed to the conte. They met earlier and spoke some that afternoon. Benedette was taken by Emilio as were almost all the women who were there.
“You will be my chaperone, cousin.” said Rosalba.
“Of course.” answered Benedette. ”When?”
“Now. The conte and I are going for a stroll outside.” Something changed in Rosalba when she heard her own words. She was really getting married. She would no longer be a girl, a daughter; she would soon become a wife, more than just a wife, a contessa. This was the first decision she made in her entire life that did not hinge on what her mother and father would think or say. She found it exciting. ”You will come with us.”
“Yes, first let me find Auntie Ursula and tell her.” Benedette stood and was about to go in search.
“There is no need.” said Rosalba as she and Emilio stood and headed for the door.
Outside the evening air was crisp and clean. Twilight was quickly slipping away and the only light came from the torches that were on the walls. Emilio and Rosalba walked on the gravel path next to each other as they headed for the fish pond. Benedette followed a few paces behind. Crickets chirped. A pair of turtledoves noisily fluttered overhead and perched in a tree just ahead of them not more than a few feet from the stone bench they were headed for. Emilio and Rosalba sat down.
Benedette sat on an adjacent bench a few paces away. She folded her hands on her lap and looked up into the night sky for a few seconds before she closed her eyes. She heard the faint sound of the lute and the flute, along with an occasional word or muted laughter echo from the great room.
Emilio and Rosalba were silent. Without a word or any encouragement, Rosalba, ever so slowly, moved closer to Emilio, leaned against him, closed her eyes and put her head on his shoulder.
* * * * * * * *
The darkening sky weighed on the mantle of soft lavender and golden light that spread down into the valleys, over the hilltops and between the trees that surrounded Cesare Lippo’s cottage as dusk surrendered to night. Marcella was in the kitchen. She stirred the pot of vegetable stew, gave it a quick taste and put the wooden spoon down. She went out the door, walked by the brooding chickens in their coop and crossed the yard to Cesare’s workshop to tell him their dinner was ready.
The day was ending and she looked forward to eating and then her reading lesson. Marcella made quick and steady progress. She easily learned the alphabet; it made sense, a symbol for a sound. It was Latin she found difficult.
Marcella stuck her head in the shop and called. “Cesare, the food is ready.”
With the light fading Cesare had already stopped carving an elaborate sunburst on a bench back. He swept up a pile of shavings and chips.
Marcella approached the carving table and looked at the work in progress. “That is beautiful, Cesare.” She reached out and ran her fingertips over the severe expression on the sun’s face.
“Thanks, I hope it will be more so when I finish.”
“How did you learn such things? How do you know how make these things?” Marcella brushed some wood chips that were on the table into her hand and added them to the pile on the floor.
“You mean because I was never an apprentice?” Cesare put the broom on the hook and they headed for the door. “My uncle was a furniture and cabinet maker. As a boy I spent a lot of time in his workshop. I watched and learned.” By this time they were both outside and Cesare dragged the door closed and continued his answer. “Fortunately for him he had four sons to take over his trade, not so fortunate for me.” Cesare’s eyes brightened and he spoke with a smile. “Marcella, I just remembered I saw someone going to town today and I met him down on the path and gave him the message for Giovanni Bellini. So with any luck he’ll be here in the next day or two with some news.”
“Thank you, Cesare.” She wanted to hug him but she settled for patting his shoulder.
Cesare opened the door to the kitchen and they entered. The savory aroma of Marcella’s stew filled the cottage. The candles were already lit and the fire in the hearth cast a warm, flickering orange glow against the walls and ceiling.
“Smells great,” he took another sniff of the air. “You made the rosemary rolls too? I was hoping you would. There’s a place for you in my heaven.”
Marcella felt a tingle at his words. “Yes, they should be ready.” She knelt down at the hearth and used a piece of kindling to push the hot coals off of the lid and away from the shallow clay pot into the surrounding fire. She carefully worked the pot out of the coals with a long iron fork and iron hook. She brushed off any cinders and ashes with a little willow hand broom. Using her apron as a hot pad she picked up the clay pot and set it on the work table and opened the lid. The rolls had a hard golden brown crust and were steaming and ready.
Cesare had already taken off his work clogs and slipped on his open back slippers. He stood behind his chair and watched Marcella working in the soft glow of the fire light. It wasn’t until Marcella came to live in refuge with him did he truly realize how alone he was, how isolated he made himself from not only the dark and petty side of humanity but from its beauty too. He liked his solitude but he liked her presence more.
He sat at the table and Marcella placed the small covered basket of rolls in front of him. She put out the bowls and brought the pot of vegetable stew and put it on the table and ladled some into both of their bowls. Marcella ate with Cesare now with a pleasant familiarity and at times a silent intimacy that was just below the surface of a casual word or unexpected smile.
Cesare took a roll, broke it in half and dipped it in the stew. “Did you check the snares between the two big pine trees?” He savored the tasty stew before he swallowed it.
Marcella smiled. “Yes, one was tripped and the other was empty, I reset the tripped one like you showed me. Maybe tomorrow we’ll have some rabbit in our stew.”
“That would be nice.” He ate a few more bites of stew. “I know you’re finding it hard to learn Latin. I do have a book that is in modern dialect. It’s called The Decameron, it’s a collection of stories told by different people to amuse each other while they take refuge in a villa to avoid the plague.”
Marcella looked up from her bowl. “Like us.” She smiled.
“Maybe, if you consider some people of Terra Sanctus a plague, and this a villa.”
“What are the stories like?” Marcella ladled more stew into Cesare’s bowl.
“Some are humorous and some are sad, some are quite bawdy and some make sport of the clergy.” He smiled and told her the titles of some of his favorite stories.
“Who are the people? Do you know them?” Marcella’s interest was piqued and she wanted to read those same stories and be able share them with Cesare.
“No, the people are not real like us. Some were real people, and some the author Boccaccio made up. They’re like real people though.” Cesare took Marcella’s sensibilities into account and thought it not a good idea to select a story from the first four days that made sport of the church. “Maybe a tale from their fifth day, they are stories of love.”
Marcella took the clay pitcher and filled the two clay tumblers with water. “Love stories.” She repeated. Marcella asked timidly. “Do you have a love story?”
“Do you mean have I ever been in love?” Cesare smiled as he remembered those heady days of his youth. ”Oh yes, I have a love story or two, and you?”
“Me? No not me. Love is for other people.” Marcella’s voice tailed off and she looked down at the bowl of stew.
“Why do you say that, Little Bird?” Cesare sat back in his seat and took a sip of water. “Everyone can love and be loved.”
“I love our Savior and my mama.” Marcella did not look at Cesare when she spoke. She felt something stir in her whenever she was around him. She did not know why she felt self-conscious and vulnerable and excited in his presence, but she did.
“You mean a pretty woman like yourself has never been in love?”
“Cesare, please,” Marcella blushed and wished she could hide, but there was something both delicious and tormenting about the moment. “Am I so pretty that any man would fall in love with me?” She wanted him to say yes so very much.
Cesare was surprised by Marcella’s remarks. He always thought of her as being so self-determined and strong. “Of course you are.”
Marcella clasped her hands together painfully tight. “Do you think I am?” her eyes were filled with uncertainty.
“I think you are most pretty, and modest and pious and kind.” Cesare assured her.
Marcella stifled a sigh of relief and relaxed her hands. She took several little breaths. She stood up tall and straight and cleared the bowls off the table. She took away the stew pot and the basket and swept the crumbs off the table into her hand, went to the kitchen door and tossed them out for the nightingales that frequented the back steps.
She returned with two lit candles and placed them in the center of the table. “I am ready for my lesson.” She said softly.
“I must fetch our book.” Cesare said cheerfully. He went to the sideboard and opened the top drawer. He found the book and brought it back to the table and returned to his seat.
Marcella dragged her chair from the other side of the table and set it next to Cesare’s and sat. He handed the book to Marcella. She took it, turned it over and ran her fingertips over the red leather cover before she opened it. A few pages in from the frontispiece Marcella found a simple line drawing illustration of the characters that were going to tell their stories.
Marcella handed the book back to Cesare. He found the story he wanted to read. “Ah yes, day five, story four. This story is told by Filostrato, he is one of the three men who are part of the group.”
Marcella moved their chairs so close they touched. Cesare read the story out loud. He pointed out each word with his index finger while Marcella silently followed along. Tonight the words on the page were overtaken by the sound of Cesare’s voice and Boccaccio’s talent for telling a tale.
Cesare stopped after the first passage. He felt the gentle pressure and the warmth of Marcella’s shoulder on his. He did not move away. “Are there any questions so far, Little Bird? Do you see how the letters make the sounds for the words?”
“Yes, please just read to me.” Marcella closed her eyes. “Read me the story.” She whispered. The fire glowed in the hearth and the candles softly shone and warmed their faces. The night was very still and the only noise to be heard was the sound their breathing.
“Yes, I will gladly read to you.” Cesare felt a warm satisfaction at her asking. He read her a story of two young lovers, Riccardio and Caterina who had known each other early on. Caterina grew to be a beautiful young woman and Riccardio who was from a good and wealthy family, fell in love with her. Caterina felt the same way about Riccardio. Neither knew how the other felt until Riccardio could no longer help himself and professed his love for Caterina who in turn happily declared her love for Riccardio.
“How did they know?” Marcella nudged Cesare until he looked at her. She gazed deep into Cesare’s eyes.
“They just knew.” Cesare smiled and looked over at Marcella, at her face at her anxious expression. He placed the book on the table and shifted in his seat so he could look at her better. Cesare hesitantly extended his hand to her face and with his finger wiped away the tear at the outer corner of her eye. Marcella shuddered at his first touch and when Cesare started to pull his hand away she reached up and took it in hers, brought it to her lips and kissed his fingertip. With closed eyes she held his hand against her cheek, not wanting the moment to end or for him to pull away.
Cesare was beside himself. He had cloaked what he considered to be his adolescent feelings for Marcella by reminding himself he was almost twice as old as she. He could not deny he felt closer to her as each day passed. His own words came back to him,” each one of us can love and be loved” and he awoke to the fact that age had nothing to do with it.
“Come Little Bird.” Cesare gently pulled Marcella towards him. She left her seat and sat on his lap like a child might and put her arms around his shoulders and her face against his. He felt her full weight against his thighs and against his chest. Cesare’s left hand lay lightly on her elbow and his right hand gently caressed her hair. They sat with eyes closed, each quenching that thirst to be loved, lost in the each other’s warmth.
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Alchemist Gift is a book about the lives of people in the Renaissance and the alchemy that brought them together with its repercussions on our modern-day hero, Roland.
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Copyright 2013. Mark Giglio
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