Another tale from the Peregrinaggio
Once upon a time in the land of Serger, in the city of Letzer, there ruled a wise and just king. He was good to his subjects and welcoming of foreigners. When the king died, his eldest son inherited the throne.
Sadly, the new king was the exact opposite of the old king. He was malicious and greedy, and sowed discord and suspicion where before there was none. In fact, after the old king died, the new king had his own younger brother executed, and threw his brother’s son — and his own daughter — into prison. Because of the new king and his corruption, Letzer became such an unhappy place that people left, in droves.
Among the people who stayed were two old men, lifelong friends, wealthy and respectable. One had a daughter named Giulla, the other a son named Feristemo, both about the same age. The two fathers’ dearest wish was that their children would fall in love and get married.
The two men engaged a tutor to instruct both children, a learned man with many skills. Among these skills was flower arranging: the tutor could arrange a bouquet of flowers to create the image of any person, man or woman. Giulla and Feristemo especially enjoyed flower arranging, and soon both of them were so good at it that their bouquets outshone even their tutor’s.
When Giulla turned twelve, her father decided that she had all the education needed for a woman (old-fashioned times…) and took her home from school. Feristemo had loved Giulla very much, and missed her badly. Even after a year of separation, he missed her more, rather than less. Gathering a bouquet of roses and other flowers, he arranged them into a perfect likeness of Giulla, and had the flowers sent to her as a token of his love.
When Giulla received Feristemo’s bouquet, she kissed it over and over again, then ran out into the garden to gather flowers. She arranged them into a bouquet that showed her and Feristemo together, and had it sent to him.
Feristemo was overjoyed to know that Giulla returned his feelings, but he soon fell ill pining away for her. Seeing this, Feristemo’s father went to Giulla’s father and the two agreed that it was time for their children to marry, as the two fathers had always hoped they would. So the families arranged for a huge wedding.
Now Giulla was a remarkably beautiful girl, and between her beauty and the great celebration that the families were planning, word of the wedding got around the city. Even the king heard the gossip. Intrigued by what people said about this beautiful bride, he ordered that the newly married couple be brought before him.
When the king saw how lovely Giulla was, he immediately wanted her for himself. He commanded that Feristemo must divorce Giulla and relinquish her to the king within three days, or the king would cut off his head. Feristemo refused.
This enraged the king. He ordered his ministers to throw Feristemo in prison, and then to throw him into the sea the next morning.
In the meantime, the son of Feristemo’s tutor, Giassemen, arrived back in Letzer from a journey on the day of Feristemo’s arrest. Like his father, Giassemen had many skills, one of which was excavation. He could tunnel through anything, and he could break through any wall, replacing the broken stones so carefully that no one would notice the opening. When Giassamen heard from his father what had happened, he determined to rescue Feristemo.
After dark, Giassamen took his drill and went to the palace. He burrowed down into the prison beneath the palace, and into Feristemo’s cell. After leading Feristemo out, Giassamen replaced the stones in the wall, and the two men returned to Feristemo’s father.
The overjoyed parent gave Giassamen a huge sum of money, begging him to hide Feristemo from the king. So Giassamen and Feristemo fled to the next city, where Giassamen rented out a house on the outskirts where Feristemo could hide.
The next morning at daybreak, the king’s ministers went down to Feristemo’s cell to carry out the king’s orders — but the cell was empty! Though they examined the room carefully, the walls appeared intact — Feristemo had simply vanished. Terrified that the king would accuse them of having taken a bribe to free the young man, the ministers took a condemned criminal from another prison, and threw him into the sea instead. Then they went back to the king and reported that they had carried out his orders.
Gratified, the king sent word to Giulla’s father that Feristemo was now dead, and ordered the poor old man to send his daughter to the palace, so that the king could marry her. Frightened, the old man gave in.
Now Giulla felt trapped. Crying loudly, she took a knife and tried to cut her own wrists, but was stopped just in time by her companion Achel (the daughter of her old nursemaid). Achel reminded Giulla that suicide is a sin, and furthermore, that she, Achel, could not believe in her heart that Feristemo was really dead.
“But what can I do?” Giulla replied, weeping. “Even if Feristemo is still alive, they’ll kill him if they find him. Should I just meekly surrender myself to this tyrant who separated me from my husband?”
Achel was a pious woman, and she believed that with enough faith, God would help those in need. So she advised Giulla to seek the advice of their confessor (priest). Giulla agreed.
After hearing their story, the priest advised Giulla:
“God never abandons anyone with faith. Here is what you must do. When the king sends for you, tell him that you humbly agree to become his wife, but as the first grace, you ask him for forty days before the wedding to prepare. He is sure to grant you this. For those forty days, you must confine yourself to your room, say a thousand Pater Nosters [Our Fathers], and fast. If you do this, I am confident that God will answer your prayers.”
Comforted, Giulla thanked the priest for his advice.
The next day, when Giulla appeared before the king, she bowed down and did as the priest had suggested. The king granted her request, and presented her with a necklace of precious jewels as an engagement gift. Then he sent her, together with Achel, to her designated quarters, a spot called Giullistano in the royal gardens. Every day Giulla prayed and fasted.
After several days, Giulla dreamed of Feristemo. In her dream, Feristemo asked her to make him a bouquet in the form of her face, to comfort him. Giulla awoke, weeping, and Achel had to spend the rest of the night trying to comfort her.
The next day, the old woman who took care of the gardens presented Giulla with a beautiful bouquet of roses, in the name of the king. What a good omen! Giulla graciously accepted the bouquet and asked the old woman to gather her a basket of roses, promising to create a bouquet even more beautiful.
Well! The old woman was rather proud of her bouquet-making skills, and she was curious to see what Giulla could do. When she brought Giulla the roses, Giualla set them on a table, along with a mirror, and by looking into the mirror for reference, arranged the roses into a perfect likeness of her own face. Then she handed the bouquet to the old woman, telling her, “Give this to the person you like the most.”
When the old woman saw the bouquet, she realized that Giulla was far more skilled than she, and she began to fear for her job. So she took the bouquet and began to walk about all the gardens in the city, hoping to find someone even better than Giulla to teach her, so she could keep her post. But she had no luck. Sadly, she started back to Giullistano, when she ran into Giassamen.
Giassamen recognised the work, of course. He stopped the old woman, asking to buy the bouquet.
“I’ll sell it to you for ten scudi,” the old woman said.
“Ten?” Giassamen said. “I can get one even more beautiful than this for two.”
Intrigued, the old woman told Giassamen that she would be willing to pay him five scudi, if he could show her a bouquet at least as beautiful as the one she held. So Giassamen took her by the hand and brought her to Feristemo’s house, where he handed Feristemo the bouquet.
Feristemo recognized Giulla’s likeness immediately. Hiding his joy, he told the old woman, “Mother, if you bring me a basket of roses I will make you a bouquet much lovelier than this one.”
That’s exactly what the old woman wanted to hear! She rushed off to gather roses. In the meantime, Feristemo sat down and wrote a letter to Giulla, telling her how Giassamen had saved him. He asked Giulla to tell him where she was, so that he and Giassamen could rescue her. Then he rolled up the letter and hid it in a hollow reed, just as the old woman returned.
Taking the roses, he arranged them around the reed, in the likeness of himself and Giulla together. Then he handed it to the old woman, asking her to give it to the artisan who had made the first bouquet.
The old woman saw that Feristemo’s bouquet was in fact more beautiful than Giulla’s, so she thanked him profusely and hurried back to Giulla.
“See,” she said. “I have made a bouquet more beautiful than yours.”
Giulla recognized Feristemo’s work, but she pretended nonchalance and told the old woman, “If you bring me more roses tomorrow, I will make one more beautiful yet.”
The old woman had to know. So she agreed to return the next day with more roses.
After the old woman left, Giulla and Achel jumped up and down in joy. Achel picked up the bouquet to admire it, and noticed the letter hidden in the hollow reed. The two women read the letter, and Giulla wrote a reply, telling Feristemo where she was being held. She hid the letter in the hollow reed.
The next morning, the old woman returned with more roses, which Giulla arranged in a bouquet even more beautiful and elaborate than Feristemo’s. The old woman’s doubts and fear for her job returned. So she took the bouquet and rushed back to Feristemo, with Giulla’s bouquet — and more roses.
Feristemo graciously accepted the bouquet, promising the old women that he would have an even more beautiful one ready by evening. After she left, he and Giassamen searched for and found Giulla’s letter. After reading it, Feristemo sat down and arranged the most beautiful bouquet of all. It was so lovely that when the old woman returned, she felt that it was impossible to create one even lovelier, so she returned back to the palace with a feeling of relief that her post was secure.
In the meantime, Feristemo and Giassamen made plans.
Will the unhappy lovers be reunited? Find out in Part II.
This is a retelling of the sixth novella embedded in Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo, an Italian collection of seven novellas, with framing story; the stories are of mostly Indian origin. You can read about the background of this sixteenth-century Italian text here. The Italian original is also online, at Italian Wikisource.
I’ve shared several stories from the Perigrinaggio on the blog, both episodes from the text’s framing story and one of the embedded novellas. I’ve shared this one because I like the idea of flower-arranging as a superpower — one possessed by both men and women.
This particular tale has a pronounced Christian-centric slant; I kept what I felt was needed for the story and dropped other parts. For instance, the original tale-teller points out that the rulers of Letzer are Muslim, though the original kindly king was tolerant of people of other faiths. In the full story, Giulla meets the King’s imprisoned daughter, and tells the princess about her confessor’s advice. The princess decides to try the praying and fasting, too; she vows to convert to Christianity if it works. I dropped that detail, among others.
The concept of a “first grace” shows up more than once in the Perigrinaggio. It seems to be a request that a wife can make of her husband when they first get married (or “engaged” in this case) which apparently by tradition he’s obligated to grant. In this story, the King does grant Giulla’s request; in another story, the husband refuses, which leads to a lot of trouble. I’d never heard of this custom before, and I couldn’t find anything about it online.
Serendipity and the Three Princes: From the Peregrinaggio. Edited, with Introduction and Notes, by Theodore G. Remer. University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.
Bowl of Roses, Henri Fantin-Latour (1889). Source: Wikiart
Flora, Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1588). Source: Wikiart
Prison, Nicholas Roerich (1913). Source: Wikiart
Still Life Vase with Roses, Vincent van Gogh (1890). Source: Wikiart
Spring, Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1573). Source: Wikiart