Friday, December 30, 2011

Playing mind games with the fat woodcarver, part 1

"The Story of the Fat Woodcarver" is a rather odd textual artifact; the apparently true story of an elaborate and humiliating practical joke, carried out in part by a couple of the most important artists of early fifteenth-century Florence. It's really quite a story, and it's a great example of the way that the really strange moments from the past can provide particularly good windows into how people of that time thought. The tale can be found in Lauro Martines's book An Italian Renaissance Sextet.

The fat woodcarver of the title was Manetto Ammanatini, known to his contemporaries as Grasso. He was young, probably in his mid-twenties, and apparently notable for being both tall and heavy. He was also known for his skill at carving wood, especially altarpieces and elaborate frames for paintings.

He was part of a circle of men who met regularly to eat supper together; the circle contained both men from the city's wealthy and powerful families and craftsmen from the more prestigious crafts, including goldsmiths, painters, and sculptors. Among the latter were the painter and architect Filippo Brunelleschi and the sculptor Donatello.

One evening, the group noticed that Grasso was not there; they didn't know why he hadn't come and felt insulted. So, Brunelleschi proposed that they play a trick on him as punishment. And it was quite a joke.


The next day, Brunelleschi dropped by Grasso's workshop to chat. As they talked, a boy ran up to Brunelleschi and told him that his mother was very ill. Grasso immediately offered to close up his shop and accompany Brunelleschi home to help attend to her, but Brunelleschi refused the offer. He told Grasso that it was probably nothing, but he would send for him at the workshop if he needed him. So Grasso stayed late at his shop until he concluded that his friend did not, in fact need him. At about supper time, he made his way home.

Grasso's mother, whom he lived with, was out of town, but he expected her back in the next day or two. He thus left his door on the latch, making it easy for Brunelleschi to get into the house. Grasso came home to find the door bolted. He thus knocked on the door, only for it to be answered by Brunelleschi, imitating Grasso's voice.

Brunelleschi-as-Grasso, said "Go on Matteo, go with God; I have a world of things to do." He then proceeded to scold Grasso's mother (who was not, in fact, at home). Grasso left, feeling totally confused. At this point, Donatello walked by, and said "Good evening, Matteo, are you looking for Grasso? He just went into his house a little while ago."

Now feeling totally unsure of what was going on, Grasso went towards a square, hoping to run into someone who could confirm who he was. At this point, six guards and a bailiff arrested him, as a young man identified him as Matteo and stated that he owed him money.

The story continues tomorrow.

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