Cisti the Baker – Decameron: Sixth Day, Second Story

By means of a single phrase, Cisti the Baker shows Messer Geri Spina that he is being unreasonable.

Pampinea therefore began as follows: Fair ladies, I cannot myself decide whether Nature is more at fault in furnishing a noble spirit with an inferior body, or Fortune in allotting an inferior calling to a body endowed with a noble spirt, as happened in the Case of Cisti, (pronounced chees-tee) our fellow citizen, and many other people of our own acquaintance. This Cisti was a man of exceedingly lofty spirit, and yet Fortune made him a baker.

I would assuredly curse Nature and Fortune alike, if I did not know for a fact that Nature is very discerning, and that Fortune has a thousand eyes, even though fools represent her blind. Indeed, it is my conviction that Nature and Fortune, being very shrewd, follow the practice so common among mortals, who, uncertain of what the future will bring, make provision for emergencies by burying their most precious possessions in the least imposing (and therefore least suspect) part of their houses, whence they bring them forth in the hour of their greatest need, their treasure having been more securely preserved in a humble hiding place than if it had been kept in a sumptuous chamber. In the same way, the two fair arbiters of the world’s affairs frequently hide their greatest treasure beneath the shadow of the humblest of trades, so that when the need arises for it to be brought forth, its splendour will be all the more apparent. This is amply borne out by a brief anecdote I should now like to relate, concerning an episode, in itself of no great importance, in which Cisti the Baker opened the eyes of Messer Geri Spina to the truth, and of which I was reminded by the tale we have just heard about Madonna Oretta, who was Messer Geri’s wife.

I say, then, that when Pope Boniface, who held Messer Geri in the highest esteem, sent a delegation of his courtiers to Florence on urgent papal affairs, they took lodging under Messer Geri’s roof; and almost every morning, for one reason or another, it so happened that Messer Geri and the Pope’s emissaries were obliged by the nature of their business to walk past the Church of Santa Maria Ughi, beside which Cisti had his bakery, where he practised his calling in person.

Though Fortune had allotted to Cisti a very humble calling, she had treated him so bountifully that he had become exceedingly rich; but it would never have occurred to him to exchange this occupation for any other, for he lived like a lord, and in addition to numerous other splendid possessions, he kept the finest cellar of wines, both red and white, to be found anywhere in Florence or the surrounding region. On noticing that Messer Geri passed by his door every morning with the Pope’s emissaries, it occurred to Cisti that since the season was very hot he might as well do them the kindness of offering them some of his delicious white wine. But being sensible of the difference in rank between himself and Messer Geri, he considered it would be presumptuous of him to issue an invitation and resolved to arrange matters in such a way that Messer Geri would come of his own accord.

And so every morning, wearing a gleaming white doublet and a freshly laundered apron, which made him look more like a miller than a baker, Cisti appeared in his doorway at the hour in which Messer Geri and the emissaries were due to pass by, and called for a shiny metal pail of fresh water and a brand new little Bolognese flagon containing a quantity of his best white wine, together with a pair of wineglasses, that gleamed as brightly as if they were made of silver. He then seated himself in the doorway, and just as they were passing, he cleared his throat a couple of times and began to drink this wine of his with so much relish that he would have brought a thirst to the lips of even a corpse.

Messer Geri, having witnessed this charade on two successive mornings, turned to him on the third, and said:
‘ How does it taste, Cisti? Is it good?’
‘ Indeed it is, sir,’ Cisti replied, springing to his feet, ‘but how am I to prove how exquisite it tastes, unless you
sample it for yourself?’
Now, whether because of the heat, or as a result of expending more energy than usual, or through observing Cisti drinking with so much gusto, Messer Geri had conceived such a keen thirst that he turned, smiling, to the emissaries, and said:
‘ My lords, we would do well to test the quality of this gentleman’s wine; perhaps it will be such as to give us no cause for regret.’

He thereupon led them over to Cisti, who promptly arranged for a handsome bench to be brought out from his bakery and invited them to sit down. Their servants then stepped forward to wash the wineglasses, but Cisti said:
‘ Stand aside, my friends, and leave this office to me, for I am no less skilled at serving wine than at baking bread. And if you are expecting to taste so much as a single drop, you are going to be disappointed.’

And so saying, he washed four handsome new glasses with his own hands, called for a small flagon of his best wine, and, taking meticulous care, filled the glasses for Messer Geri and his companions, none of whom had tasted such an exquisite wine for years. Messer Geri affirmed that the wine was excellent, and for the remainder of the emissaries’s in Florence, he called there nearly every morning with them to sample it afresh.

When their mission was completed and the emissaries were about to depart, Messer Geri held a magnificent banquet, to which he invited a number of the most distinguished citizens of Florence. He also sent an invitation to Cisti, who could by no means be persuaded to accept. So he ordered one of his servants to take a flask, ask Cisti to fill it with wine, and serve half a glass of it to each of the guests during the first course.

The servant, who was possibly feeling somewhat annoyed that he had never been allowed to sample the wine, took along a huge flask, and when Cisti saw it, he said:
‘Messer Geri has not sent you to me, my lad.’
The servant kept assuring him that he had, but could obtain no other answer. So he returned to Messer Geri and told him what Cisti had said.
‘ Go back to him,’ said Messer Geri, ‘and tell him that I am sending you to him; and if he gives you the same answer, ask him to whom I am sending you.’
The servant returned to Cisti, and said:
‘ I can assure you, Cisti, that it is to you that Messer Geri sends me.’
‘ And I can assure you, my lad,’ Cisti repiled, ‘that you are wrong.’
‘ To whom is he sending me then?’ asked the sercant.
‘ To the Arno*,’ replied Cisti.
When the servant reported this conversation to Messer Geri, his eyes were immediately opened to the truth, and he asked the servant to show him the flask. On being shown the flask, he said:
‘Cisti is perfectly right.’ And having given the servant a severe scolding, he ordered him to return with a flask of more modest proportions.
On seeing this second flask, Cisti said:
‘ Now I know that he has sent you to me.’ And he filled it up for him contentedly.

Later that same day, Cisti filled a small cask with wine of the same vintage and had it tenderly conveyed to Messer Geri’s house, after which he called on Messer Ger in person, and said:
‘Sir, I would not want you to suppose that I was taken aback on seeing the large flask this morning. But since you appeared to have forgotten what I have shown you with the aid of my small flagons during these past few days, namely, that this is not a wine for servants, I thought I would refresh your memory. However, since I have no intention of storing it for you any longer, I have no sent you every single drop of it, and henceforth you may dispose of it as you please.’
Messer Geri set great store by Cisti’s gift, and thanked him as profusely as the occasion seemed to warrant. And from that day forth he held him in high esteem and regarded him as a friend for life.

*The Arno is a river in the Tuscany region of Italy. It is the most important river of central Italy after the Tiber.

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