Renaissance Tuscany was notorious for its practical jokes and ‘robust’ physical humour. Examples of complicated deceptions designed to confuse, embarrass or bring someone down a notch or two can be found in the tales of Boccaccio, Vasari’s Lives of the Artists and, of course, in the Medici Archives. Depending on whether a joke is experienced from the viewpoint of the practitioner, a bystander or the victim, the very same action can be interpreted as a jolly good wheeze, bullying, or humiliation that verges on torture.
Antonio Venanzio da Spelle, writing to Ugolino Grifoni in September 1537, takes great pleasure in describing the discomfort of Francesco del Nero, who woke at night in his gloomy prison cell certain that he was not alone and that he was sharing his prison bed with a creature that was not of this world.
Before reading da Spelle’s account it is helpful to know who Francesco del Nero was and why this Florentine nobleman was incarcerated in a dungeon somewhere in Rome. In the first half of the sixteenth century there was in Rome a Florentine community known as the ‘Nazione Fiorentina in Roma’. This tightly knit group was made up largely of merchants and bankers many of whom supervised the business matters of the Vatican. The group had expanded during the Medici pontificates of Leo X and Clement VII.
Francesco del Nero (1487–1563) was a leading ‘Roman’ Florentine who had served as treasurer for Pope Clement VII. During the nine-year pontificate, the fact that Francesco del Nero was irreligious and corrupt was conveniently ignored. The death of Pope Clement in 1534 seemed to open the eyes of Vatican officials, and del Nero was removed from office and later thrown into prison for tax fraud.
According to da Spelle’s account, a friend of Francesco del Nero had decided to cheer up the disgraced papal treasurer with an entirely ‘harmless’ piece of tomfoolery.
‘somebody put a small Barbary ape in his cell for fun while he was sleeping. The ape hopped all over the room, jumped on the bed and slipped under the sheets with [del Nero]. When the man felt the animal close to him’
Francesco, drifting into consciousness, forgot in an instant all his irreligious and materialist beliefs, and feeling the hairy creature scratching his bare skin, was convinced that he had been transported to Hell and was at the mercy of some fiendish devil.
‘he started shouting while the Barbary ape went on scratching him. Somebody wrote a sonnet about this story and now I am sending it to you.’
Fortunately for the reputation and posterity of Francesco del Nero, that sonnet has long been lost and the sole record of his night of terror is contained in Volume 3260 in Folio 148 of the Medici Archives. His story resides in the archives close in terms of time and filing to the description of another monkey prank: the account of the naked dwarf, il Nano, who wrestled with a monkey for the amusement of the Medici Court in 1544. Il Nano was the undisputed winner. Could the overweight Bacchino who rides a tortoise in the Boboli Gardens be modelled on the victorious wrestler of primates? There is little doubt that Francesco del Nero, the disgraced and humiliated Florentine economist, would have taken some comfort from the result of the bout.
According to the description of the contest found in Volume 1171 in Folio 62, the life of the monkey was saved by Duke Cosimo himself, who intervened and dragged the dwarf away when the monkey started to cry out in pain and terror. (‘Good for the Duke!’ I hear you all cheer.)
The translation of da Spelle’s letter and the background historical information was provided by research fellow Stefano Dall’Aglio of the Medici Archive Project. Mike Samuda wrote the commentary.