XXX

Monsignore Cristoforo Rischio; or, Il Creso, the nostrum-vender of Florence⁠—​A model for our quack doctors.

Every visitor to Florence during the last twenty years must have noticed on the grand piazza before the Ducal Palace, the strange genius known as Monsignore Créso, or, in plain English, Mr. Croesus. He is so called because of his reputed great wealth; but his real name is Christoforo Rischio, which I may again translate, as Christopher Risk. Mrs. Browning refers to him in one of her poems⁠—the “Casa Guidi Windows,” I think⁠—and he has also been the staple of a tale by one of the Trollope brothers.

Twice every week, he comes into the city in a strange vehicle, drawn by two fine Lombardy ponies, and unharnesses them in the very center of the square. His assistant, a capital vocalist, begins to sing immediately, and a crowd soon collects around the wagon. Then Monsignore takes from the box beneath his seat a splendidly jointed human skeleton, which he suspends from a tall rod and hook, and also a number of human skulls. The latter are carefully arranged on an adjustable shelf, and Créso takes his place behind them, while in his rear a perfect chemist’s shop of flasks, bottles, and pillboxes is disclosed. Very soon his singer ceases, and in the purest Tuscan dialect⁠—the very utterance of which is music⁠—the Florentine quack-doctor proceeds to address the assemblage. Not being conversant with the Italian, I am only able to give the substance of his harangue, and pronounce indifferently upon the merit of his elocution. I am assured, however, that not only the common people, who are his chief patrons, but numbers of the most intelligent citizens, are always entertained by what he has to say; and certainly his gestures and style of expressions seem to betray great excellence of oratory. Having turned the skeleton round and round on its pivot, and minutely explained the various anatomical parts, in order to show his proficiency in the basis of medical science, he next lifts the skulls, one by one, and descants upon their relative perfection, throwing in a shrewd anecdote now and then, as to the life of the original owner of each cranium.

One skull, for example, he asserts to have belonged to a lunatic, who wandered for half a lifetime in the Val d’Ema, subsisting precariously upon entirely vegetable food⁠—roots, herbs, and the like; another is the superior part of a convict, hung in Arezzo for numerous offenses; a third is that of a very old man who lived a celibate from his youth up, and by his abstinence and goodness exercised an almost priestly influence upon the borghesa. When, by this miscellaneous lecture, he has both amused and edified his hearers, he ingeniously turns the discourse upon his own life, and finally introduces the subject of the marvellous cures he has effected. The story of his medical preparations alone, their components and method of distillation, is a fine piece of popularized art, and he gives a practical exemplification of his skill and their virtues by calling from the crowd successively, a number of invalid people, whom he examines and prescribes for on the spot. Whether these subjects are provided by himself or not, I am unable to decide; but it is very possible that by long experience, Christoforo⁠—who has no regular diploma⁠—has mastered the simpler elements of Materia Medica, and does in reality effect cures. I class him among what are popularly known as humbugs, however, for he is a pretender to more wisdom than he possesses. It was to me a strange and suggestive scene⁠—the bald, beak-nosed, coal-eyed charlatan, standing in the marketplace, so celebrated in history, peering through his gold spectacles at the upturned faces below him, while the bony skeleton at his side swayed in the wind, and the grinning skulls below, made grotesque faces, as if laughing at the gullibility of the people. Behind him loomed up the massive Palazzo Vecchio, with its high tower, sharply cut, and set with deep machicolations; to the left, the splendid Loggia of Orgagna, filled with rare marbles, and the long picture-gallery of the Uffizi, heaped with the rarest art-treasures of the world; to his right, the Giant Fountain of Ammanato, throwing jets of pure water⁠—one drop of which outvalues all the nostrums in the world; and in front, the Post Office, built centuries before, by Pisan captives. If any of these things moved the imperturbable Créso, he showed no feeling of the sort; but for three long hours, two days in the week, held his hideous clinic in the open daylight.

Seeing the man so often, and interested always in his manner⁠—as much so, indeed, as the peasants or contadini, who bought his vials and pillboxes without stint⁠—I became interested to know the main features of his life; and, by the aid of a friend, got some clues which I think reliable enough to publish. I do so the more willingly, because his career is illustrative, after an odd fashion, of contemporary Italian life.

He was the son of a small farmer, not far from Sienna, and grew up in daily contact with vine-dressers and olive-gatherers, living upon the hard Tuscan fare of macaroni and maroon-nuts, with a cutlet of lean mutton once a day, and a pint of sour Tuscan wine. Being tolerably well educated for a peasant-boy, he imbibed a desire for the profession of an actor, and studied Alfieri closely.

Some little notoriety that he gained by recitations led him, in an evil hour, to venture an appearance en grand role, in Florence, at a third-rate theatre. His father had meanwhile deceased and left him the property; but to make the debut referred to, he sold almost his entire inheritance. As may be supposed, his failure was signal. However easy he had found it to amuse the rough, untutored peasantry of his neighborhood, the test of a large and polished city was beyond his merit.

So, poor and abashed, he sank to the lower walks of dramatic art, singing in choruses at the opera, playing minor parts in showpieces, and all the while feeling the sting of disappointed ambition and half-deserved penury.

One day found him, at the beginning of winter, without work, and without a soldo in his pocket. Passing a druggist’s shop, he saw a placard asking for men to sell a certain new preparation. The druggist advanced him a small sum for travelling expenses, and he took to peripatetic lectures at once, going into the country and haranguing at all the villages.

Here he found his dramatic education available. Though not good enough for an actor, he was sufficiently clever for a nomadic eulogizer of a patent-medicine. His vocal abilities were also of service to him in gathering the people together. The great secret of success in anything is to get a hearing. Half the object is gained when the audience is assembled.

Well! poor, vagabond, peddling Christopher Risk, selling so much for another party, conceived the idea of becoming his own capitalist. He resolved to prepare a medicine of his own; and, profiting by the assistance of a young medical student, obtained bona fide prescriptions for the commonest maladies. These he had made up in gross, originated labels for them, and concealing the real essences thereof by certain harmless adulterations, began to advertise himself as the discoverer of a panacea.

To gain no ill-will among the priests, whose influence is paramount with the peasantry, he dexterously threw in a reverent word for them in his nomadic harangues, and now and then made a sounding present to the Church.

He profited also by the superstitions abroad, and to the skill of Hippocrates added the roguery of Simon Magus. By report, he was both a magician and physician, and a knack that he had of slight-of-hand was not the least influential of his virtues.

His bodily prowess was as great as his suppleness. One day, at Fiesole, a foreign doctor presumed to challenge Monsignore to a debate, and the offer was accepted. While the two stood together in Cristoforo’s wagon, and the intruder was haranguing the people, the quack, without a movement of his face or a twitch of his body, jerked his foot against his rival’s leg and threw him to the ground. He had the effrontery to proclaim the feat as magnetic entirely, accomplished without bodily means, and by virtue of his black-art acquirements.

An awe fell upon the listeners, and they refused to hear the checkmated disputant further.

As soon as Cristoforo began to thrive, he indulged his dramatic taste by purchasing a superb wagon, team, and equipments, and hired a servant. Such a turnout had never been seen in Tuscany since the Medician days. It gained for him the name of Créso straightway, and, enabling him to travel more rapidly, enlarged his business sphere, and so vastly increased his profits.

He arranged regular days and hours for each place in Tuscany, and soon became as widely known as the Grand Duke himself. When it was known that he had bought an old castle at Pontassieve on the banks of the Arno, his reputation still further increased. He was now so prosperous that he set the faculty at defiance. He proclaimed that they were jealous of his profounder learning, and threatened to expose the banefulness of their systems.

At the same time, his talk to the common people began to savor of patronage, and this also enhanced his reputation. It is much better, as a rule, to call attention up to you rather than charity down to you. The shrewd impostor became also more absolute now. It was known that the Grand Duke had once asked him to dine, and that Monsignore had the hardihood to refuse. Indeed, he sympathized too greatly with the aroused Italian spirit of unity and progress to compromise himself with the house of Austria. When at last the revolution came, Cristoforo was one of its best champions in Tuscany. His cantante sang only the march of Garibaldi and the victories of Savoy. His own speeches teemed with the gospel of Italy regenerated; and for a whole month he wasted no time in the sale of his bottighias and pillolas, but threw all his vehement, persuasive, and dramatic eloquence into the popular cause.

The end we know. Tuscany is a dukedom no longer, but a component part of a great peninsular kingdom with “Florence the Beautiful” for its capital.

And still before the ducal palace, where the deputies of Italy are to assemble, poor, vain Cristoforo Rischio makes his harangue every Tuesday and Saturday. He is now⁠—or was four years ago⁠—upward of sixty years of age, but spirited and athletic as ever, and so rich that it would be superfluous for him to continue his peripatetic career.

His life is to me noteworthy, as showing what may be gained by concentrating even humble energies upon a paltry thing. Had Créso persevered as well upon the stage, I do not doubt that he would have made a splendid actor. If he did so well with a mere nostrum, why should he not have gained riches and a less grotesque fame by the sale of a better article? He understood human nature, its credulities and incredulities, its superstitions, tastes, changefulness, and love of display and excitement. He has done no harm, and given as much amusement as he has been paid for. Indeed, I consider him more an ornamental and useful character than otherwise. He has brightened many a traveler’s recollections, relieved the tedium of many a weary hour in a foreign city, and, with all his deception, has never severed himself from the popular faith, nor sold out the popular cause. I dare say his death, when it occurs, will cause more sensation and evoke more tears, than that of any better physician in Tuscany.