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The Greatest Practical Joke Ever Done

#The Greatest Practical Joke Ever Done

Did you ever believe that you were someone else? There is a story from medieval Florence about a practical joke that must be too crazy to be true.

Our story comes from The Fat Woodworker, written by Antonio di Tuccio Manetti (1423-1497). Manetti is better known for writing a biography of Filippo Brunelleschi, the great Florentine artist and architect, and in this story Brunelleschi plays an important role.

The Fat Woodworker begins in the year 1409 when a group of men come together for a dinner. These men are artists and artisans, painters and goldsmiths. During the dinner they noticed one of their number, Manetto the Woodworker, was not there. The author goes on to describe this Manetto as one of the best woodworkers in Florence, famous for making devotional tables and altars. Manetto is also described as large and robust, leading to him being nicknamed ‘The Fat One’.

Those at the dinner were upset that Manetto had not come and decided that it was best to play a trick on him. Among them was Filippo Brunelleschi, a friend of Manetto. He spoke up:

“I would give my heart if we could play a nice joke for our revenge on the one who did not attend tonight, on the condition that it will give us great pleasure and amusement. If you do not believe that we can do this successfully, I will give you my heart. This is what I think: We can make him believe that he has become another person, and that he is no longer Manetto the Fat.” He said this with a certain sardonic grin that demonstrated his great self-confidence.

Brunelleschi laid out the plan: everyone there was to pretend that Manetto was another man named Matteo. They thought it might work since Manetto, for all his brilliance as a woodworker, was considered also to be ‘simple’.

The plot began the next night with Brunelleschi breaking into Manetto’s house while the woodworker was at his shop. When Manetto returned home, he could not open his own door, and he heard a voice from inside that sounded like his own (apparently Brunelleschi was a good imitator) telling “Matteo” to go home.

A painting depicitng Brunelleschi, done between 1423 and 1428 – Wikimedia Commons

Manetto was left wandering the streets of Florence and when he met his friends, they all called him by the other person’s name. This included Donatello the Sculptor, who said:

“Good evening Matteo. Are you looking for Manetto the Fat? He has only been home for a little while. He didn’t stop to greet anyone but just dragged himself home.”

The Fat One was astonished to hear these things. He was even more astonished than ever to hear Donatello call him Matteo. He was overcome with confusion, and he tensed and turned to face Piazza di San Giovanni, thinking, “I have been here many times before, so I should meet someone who knows me and can tell me who I am.” He continued, “Alas! Unhappy me! Could I ever have been such a simpleton that I could so quickly be turned into someone else without my ever knowing it?”

Things got worse for Manetto, as a group of men came to arrest Matteo, as he owed debts. Soon enough, Manetto found himself in a debtor’s prison, where unfortunately no one knew of him or of any Matteo. There was a sympathetic judge, but Manetto could not get out until the next day when Matteo’s two brothers arrived.

The conspirators had enlisted the brothers of the real Matteo into their plan – they too pretended that Manetto was Matteo, and got him out of prison. They then took the poor Manetto back to their house. By now, Manetto was having a personal crisis – he really did not who he was.

Very tired he went to sleep in the house of Matteo’s brothers. However, Brunelleschi and a few other conspirators arrived and took the sleeping Manetto back to Manetto’s house.

Once they did this, they took the key to his shop and went inside. They took all of his hardware and moved it from one place to another. They did this with his tools, leaving the wood planes with the edges up, and the saws with the teeth down. They did this with all the items in the shop they could, so that the shop was mislaid and in such turmoil that it seemed demons had been there.

Manetto woke up in his own home, but even more confused. Going to his shop and finding it in disarray added to that. As he said:

“Who knows if I was dreaming then or if I am dreaming now?” After some deep sighs he said, “God, help me.”

The prank had one more part – the real Matteo then showed up and, clued into the trick, played his role too. Going around, he’d explain within earshot of Manetto that he had the strangest dream of being in someone else’s body. Manetto believed that this must have happened to him also.

Manetto wasn’t sure who he was for the next few days – not until his mother returned to Florence from a trip. Eventually, Manetto realized that he was the victim of a prank, and to avoid any more embarrassment he moved to Hungary and set up a prosperous business there.

Antonio di Tuccio Manetti explains that the story of Manetto the Woodworker had been told many times throughout Florence, and even written down. Could the story be true? There was a person named Manetto di Jacopo Ammannatini (d.1450) whose life resembles that of the Manetto in the story.

However, even if the story was true, Manetti must have taken liberties to fictionalize parts of it – how could he have possibly known Manetto’s thoughts on what was happening? However, it also makes for an even better story (it really is a great read).

Could such a trick even have worked? In today’s society we have many ways of identifying ourselves and each other, but in the Middle Ages things like Driver’s Licences could not be offered as proof. Medieval people sometimes did pretend to be someone else, and perhaps it was also easier to trick someone into believing they were someone else.

You can read the translation of this text in The Fat Woodworker, translated by Robert L. Martone and Valerie Martone and published by Italica Press in 1991. You can buy the book on Amazon.com.

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