The Abbot of San Zeno was about to continue the argument, but the Capitano had evidently heard enough. Canting his head to one side, he addressed his fool. “This talk of poetry has put me in the mind to hear some. Come, rascal, entertain us briefly before we dine.”
Pietro had met the short clown the night before. Emanuele di Salamone dei Sifoni, better known as Manoello Giudeo, but best known as Manuel the Jew, cynic, bawd, and Master of Revels for my lord Cangrande’s court. He bowed, a comical sight in itself. From somewhere a rebec and bow appeared. A sprightly jig filled the hall. This was not a poem of lofty aims. The Jewish fool hopped in step, causing the bells on his sleeves to ring in time with the music. When he sang it was in the coarsest Veronese dialect:
As he bellowed, he mimicked the soldiers he sang of and the palisade echoed with roars of approval. He then threw his hips forward and his shoulders back imitating Cangrande’s own stride. The Capitano’s chest heaved and his eyes watered. Even the grizzled Bishop tapped his toe on the marble floor in time with the rhythm. The greyhound by the Capitano’s feet watched the Bishop's toe, ready to pounce.
Enjoying the song as much as anyone, Pietro looked about to share it with his new friend. Mariotto was standing close to the elder Montecchi. His body language indicated he was put out.
Clapping hands encouraged Emanuele to move in wider and wider circles through the crowd as he rushed about imitating the butting of rams. Dante, politely sitting and gazing out the window, flinched as the jester dashed by.
Pietro slipped away from his father's side to join Mariotto. Sotto voce, he asked, “What's wrong?”
“I’m in trouble. I was supposed to greet the son of another visiting noble as well as you.” He shook his head. “Seems like a –”
Detecting a snobbery that, in truth, didn't surprise him, Pietro said, “Like a what?”
“See for yourself. He’s over there.” He pointed to the burly youth who had been interested in the war discussion. The fellow was obviously enjoying the improvised song, stomping his feet and clapping loudly.
“He’s from Capua,” whispered Mariotto. “His father is thinking about relocating the family business here.”
“His family’s in business? I thought –”
“Yes, I know. They are noble. But it's a nobility that cost them.”
“Ah.” Mari didn’t have to say more. The greatest blight on the nobility was the sale of noble titles by kings, popes, and emperors. When a noble died without heir, the local ruler was able to take the defunct title and the land attached and sell it for a profit to any wealthy, ambitious member of the merchant class. They often lived as nobles before nobility was granted them. These gente nuova dressed in noble fashion, kept house, ate, read, traveled exactly as the nobility did. A disgrace to be sure, but a growing practice nonetheless.
There was another side, of course. Though the nobility was loath to admit it, the influx of new blood into their ranks often helped maintain their thinning numbers. Many who were noble today came from ignoble origins – such as the della Scalas. No one was crass enough to ever point that out, though.
“I’m to show him around the city,” said Mariotto.
“You ought to charge a fee.” The attempt at levity fell on young Montecchio’s ears with all the aplomb of a wounded duck. “What if I joined you?”
Mariotto looked up. “Would you? Would your father let you?”
“It might take some doing, but I think I can arrange it.” Pietro grimaced. “We might have to bring my little brother with us.”
Mariotto brightened. “My thanks, nevertheless…,”
The noise rose to a deafening pitch, drowning out Montecchio’s words. The Master of Revels was bringing his song to a crashing end.
Cangrande didn't wait for the accompanying music to stop. He jumped to his feet and embraced the diminutive genius, kissing him on both cheeks. Then he turned to Dante, still unmoved by the revels around him. Eyes twinkling, the Capitano said, “I am astonished that this man who plays the fool has gained the favor of all, while you who are called wise can’t do the same.”
Dante Alaghieri looked up at the Lord of Verona, face devoid of expression. “You should not be astonished that fools find joy in other fools.”
At which Cangrande fell in beside the poet and laughed until he cried.
* * * *
The lone rider had tears streaming from his eyes when he was stopped by the guards at Verona’s Ponte Pietro, the gate leading east. “Where’s the fire, lad?” asked the captain of the guard.
“I know him,” said the seargent-at-arms. “Muzio. He’s a page to Lord Nogarola’s brother.”
Realizing this might be something serious, the captain of the guard’s tone grew more brusque. “What’s happened?”
The boy couldn’t speak. He reached for a wineskin at his hip but a soldier got to him first with a flask of spirits. The boy coughed, then croaked out his news. “Vicenza. It’s burning!”