IN MILAN, the capital of Lombardy, an ancient city abounding in graceful ladies, adorned with sumptuous palaces, and rich in all those things which are fitted to so magnificent a town, there resided Ottaviano Maria Sforza, Bishop-elect of Lodi, to whom by claim of heredity (Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, being dead) the sovereignty of the state rightfully belonged. But through the falling in of evil times, through bitter hatreds, through bloody battles, and through the never-ending vicissitudes of state affairs, he departed thence and betook himself secretly to Lodi with his daughter Lucretia, the wife of Giovanni Francesco Gonzaga, cousin of Federico, Marquis of Mantua, and there they abode some months. Long time had not passed before his kinsmen discovered his whereabouts, and began forthwith to annoy him; so the unhappy prince, finding himself still the object of their ill will, took with him what jewels and money he had about him, and withdrew with his daughter, who was already a widow, to Venice, where they found friendly reception from Ferier Beltramo, a noble gentle man of most benevolent nature, amiable and graceful, who with great courtesy gave them pressing invitation to take up their abode in his own house. But to share the home of another generally begets restraint, so the duke, after mature deliberation, resolved to depart and to find elsewhere a dwelling of his own. Wherefore, embarking one day with his daughter in a small vessel, he went to Murano, and having come there his eyes fell upon a marvellously beautiful palace which at that time stood empty. He entered it, and having taken note of its lovely position, its lofty halls, its superb loggias, its pleasant gardens filled with smiling flowers and rich in all sorts of fruit and blooming herbs, he found them all highly to his taste. Then he mounted the marble staircase and surveyed the magnificent hall, the exquisite chambers, and the balcony built over the water, which commanded a view of the whole place. The princess, captivated by the charm of the pleasant spot, besought her father so strongly with soft and tender speeches, that he to please her fancy hired the palace for their home. Over this she rejoiced greatly, for morning and evening she would go upon the balcony to watch the scaly fish which swam about in numerous shoals through the clear salt water, and in seeing them dart about now here now there she took the greatest delight. And because she was now forsaken by the ladies who had formerly been about her court, she chose in their places ten others as beautiful as they were good; indeed, time would fail wherein to describe their virtues and their graces. Of these the first was Lodovica, who had lovely eyes sparkling like the brightest stars, and everyone who looked upon her could not but admire her greatly. The next was Vicenza, of excellent carriage, of fine figure, and of polished manners, whose lovely and delicate face shone with refreshing beauty upon all who beheld it. The third was Lionora, who, although by the natural fashion of her beauty she seemed somewhat haughty, was withal as kindly and courteous as any lady to he found in all the world. The fourth was Alteria, with lovely fair hair, who held her womanly devotion ever at the service of the Signora. The fifth was Lauretta, lovely in person, but somewhat disdainful, whose clear and languishing glances surely enslaved any lover who ventured to court them. The sixth was Eritrea, who, though she was small of stature, yielded to none of the others in beauty and grace, seeing that she had two brilliant eyes, sparkling even brighter than the sun’s rays, a small mouth, and a rounded bosom, nor was there to be found in her anything at all which was not worthy of the highest praise. The seventh was Cateruzza, surnamed Brunetta, who, all graceful and amorous as she was, with her sweet and loving words entangled not only men in her snares, but could even have made descend from heaven the mighty Jove himself. The eighth was Arianna, who, though young in years, was grave and sedate in her seeming, gifted with a fluent tongue, and encompassed with divine virtues, worthy of the highest praise, which shone Jikethe stars scattered about the heavens. The ninth was Isabella, a highly-gifted damsel, and one who, on account of her wit and skilful fence of tongue, commanded the admiration of the whole company. The last was Fiordiana, a prudent damsel, with a mind stored with worthy thoughts, and a hand ever prompt to virtuous deeds beyond any other lady in all the world. These ten charming damsels gave service to their Princess Lucretia both in a bevy and singly. The Signora, in addition to these, chose two matrons reverend of aspect, of noble blood, of mature age, and of sterling worth, to assist her with their wise counsels, the one to stand at her right hand and the other at her left. Of these one was the Signora Chiara, wife of Girolamo Guidiccione, a gentleman of Ferrara; and the other the Signora Veronica, the widow of Santo Orbat, of one of the oldest houses of Crema. To join this gentle and honourable company there came many nobles and men of learning, amongst whom were Casal Bolognese, a bishop, and likewise ambassador of the King of England, and the learned Pietro Bembo, knight of Rhodes and preacher to the citizens of Milan, a man of distinguished parts and standing highest in the Signora’s favour. After these came Bernardo Capello, counted one of the chief poets of the time, the amiable Antonio Bembo, Benedetto Trivigiano, a man of jovial easy manners, and Antonio Molino, surnamed Burchiella, with his pretty wit, Ferier Beltramo, a courteous gentleman, and many others whom it would be tedious to name in turn. It was the custom of these, or at any rate of the greater part of them, to assemble every evening at the palace of the Signora Lucretia, and to entertain her with graceful dances, and playful discourse, and music and song, thus graciously beguiling the fleeting hours. Sometimes, too, certain problems would be propounded, to which the Signora alone could find solution; but as the days of Carnival drew nigh, days always vowed to playfulness and riot, the Signora bade them, under pain of her displeasure, to assemble next evening on purpose to arrange what manner of feast they themselves should keep. At the dusk of the next evening they all duly appeared in obedience to her behest, and, having seated themselves according to their rank, the Signora thus addressed them: “Honourable gentle men and you gracious ladies, now that we are come together according to our wont, it seems well to me that we should order these pleasant and gentle diversions of ours so as to furnish us with some jovial pastime for the days of Carnival which are yet to run. Each one of you therefore will propose what may seem most acceptable, and the form of diversion which proves to be to the taste of the greatest number shall — if it be seemly and decorous — be adopted.”
The ladies, and the gentlemen as well, declared with one voice that everything should be left to the Signora’s decision; and she, when she perceived their will, turned towards the noble company and said: Since it pleases you that I should settle the order of our entertainment, I, for my part, would counsel that every evening, as long as Carnival lasts, we should begin with a dance; then that five ladies should sing some song of their own choosing, and this finished, that these five ladies, in order to be deter mined ‘by lot, should tell some story, ending with an enigma which we will solve, if our wit be sufficient therefore. At the end of the story-telling we will ‘disperse to our homes for the night. But if these propositions of mine be not acceptable to you, I will readily bow to any other which may please you, and now I invite you to make your wishes known.”
The project set forth by the Signora won the favour of all; wherefore she commanded a golden vase to be brought forthwith, and into this were cast papers bearing the names of five of the damsels present. The first to be drawn forth was that of the fair Lauretta, who, bashful as she was, blushed softly as the early hues of dawn. Next came the name of Alteria, then Cateruzza, then Eritrea, and then Arianna. The drawing over, the Signora caused to be brought in the musical instruments, and set on the head of Lauretta a wreath of laurel in token that she should make beginning of their entertainment on the evening following.
It now pleased the Signora that the company should fall to dancing, and al most before she had signified this wish to Signor Antonio Bembo, that gallant gentlemen took by the hand Fiordiana, with whom he was somewhat enamoured, and the others of the company followed this example straightway, and kept up the measure merrily. Loath to forego such pleasure, they gave over reluctantly, and bandying many soft speeches, the young men and the damsels withdrew to another apartment, in which were laid out tables with sweetmeats and rare wines, and there they spent a pleasant time in jesting one with another. When their merriment was over, they took leave of the Signora, who gracefully dismissed them all.
As soon as the company had come together the next evening in the beautiful palace of the Signora, she signed to the fair Lauretta to begin her singing, and Lauretta without waiting for farther con stood up, and, after respectfully saluting the Signora, went up on a raised platform, upon which was placed a beautiful chair covered with draperies of rich silk. Then having called her ‘our chosen companions, they sang in tender angelic cadence the following song in praise of the Signora:
Lady, by your kindly hand,
Which ever waits on love’s behest;
‘By your voice of sweet command,
That bids us in your presence rest;
You hold in fee your servants’ love,
And rank with spirits blest above.
You quit the city’s din and heat,
And let us in your smile rejoice;
You call us willing to your feet.
To listen to our lady’s voice;
Then let us loudly celebrate
Your dignity and queenly state.
And though upon our charmed sight
Earth’s fairest visions soft may fall;
Your grace, your wit, your beauty bright.
Will blur them and outshine them all.
To laud another should we seek,
Our tongues your praise alone would speak.
When the five damsels gave over singing, in token that their song had come to an end, the instruments began to sound, and the graceful Lauretta, upon whom the lot had fallen to tell the first story of the evening, gave the following fable without waiting for further sign from the Signora.