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[This is a freely translated version of "The Wizard's Secret," one of the stories in Matilde Serao's Neapolitan Legends, first published in 1891. "Freely" translated means that, for reasons of space, I have chosen to summarize some sections rather than translate them.]


The Wizard's Secret

In the year of our Lord, 1220, when good king Frederick of Swabia reigned in Palermo, a wondrous thing happened. You won't hear about this from historians or elegant spinners of yarns. I, myself, heard it in rough and unpolished form from the people, themselves, and shall try to tell it clearly and unadorned.

In the narrow alleyway of the Cortellari in the Portanova quarter, there was a small and narrow house. The entrance was low and dark, and the musty stairway was steep with a window every now and then along the side. Passers-by would hurry past, nervously mumbling mixtures of prayers and curses as they went, for there were truly bad people in that house.

The passers-by didn't so much worry about the evil money-lender on the first floor or, on the second, the beautiful young woman, one of those who are at once the bane and delight of men. They did not even mind the ugly, crude couple on the third floor who left in the mornings to ply their unknown trade only to come home in the evenings to fight like savages. No, their attention was on the fourth floor, on that diabolical top floor, for that is where the wizard, Cicho, lived. When they passed the house, they would cross themselves and make other gestures to ward off evil. Though Cicho seldom opened his windows or ventured out, the people were indeed afraid of his magical powers.

They didn't know who he was or where he had come from. He stayed cooped up in his rooms most of the time, and when he did go out he ambled slowly along, his eyes cast downward as he mumbled Greek, Latin or some devilish language to himself. He seldom talked to others, yet he wasn't rude or curt. His clothing was dark and neat, and he even smiled occasionally through his lavish white beard. When he first moved in, the gossips of the alley tried to find out something about him. They even pestered his servant. But it was all in vain, so they watched him and spied on him, and concluded that Cicho was involved with magic. After all, his lamps burned throughout the night while he read from his dusty old volumes; his room was full of beakers, vessels and various sorts of knives and instruments, all of which could serve only the darkest ends. He spent hours over a cauldron wherein mysterious and fatal herbs steamed and boiled, although his servant was seen to buy only common herbs and vegetables, such as parsley, onions and tomatoes. But, then, they all knew that witches go forth to the meadows late on Saturday nights, chant to the moon, call up the devil and then collect their infernal grasses.

Furthermore, some had seen Cicho open his window and shake white dust or powder from his hands, certainly some foul poison. His hands were often stained with red and he was constantly rinsing them to get rid of the blotches. His floors were similarly stained. He spent hours cutting delicate white strips of something on his marble table—pieces of infants, they said, or frog legs or snakes. And in the streets, they whispered when he passed:

—Cicho, the wizard!
—Brewing up an elixir of youth!
—Trying to make gold!
—He has the magic stone of virtue, wisdom and long life!
—Nonsense! He calls up the devil to glorify himself.

Cicho passed by and kept to his way, smiling. The local women, afraid of him, could only mutter after him under their breath and warn their children to show him respect. After all, in spite of all the rumors, he did seem a gentleman and bore himself as does one who is satisfied at having a fine idea, as if he were saying, You shall see, you ungrateful lot. My day will come.

To dispel some of the supernatural aura about him, I can tell you that Cicho had once been a gallant young man with riches and wealth; he had loved and been loved, owned estates and horses, and had thrilled to women, wine and swordplay. But when his money went, as it always does, so did his women and friends; yet Cicho was surrounded by his ancient books and did not grieve. He decided instead to make himself useful.

He thought back over the many pleasures in his life, but yet how fleeting they had all been. What if he could create something pleasurable but yet solid, something that would last? That was it! He set to work. He spent long hours at night pouring over his many books, consuming his nights as well as the little money he had left. For a long time he met with nothing but failure, but he persisted with the vision that he was doing something for the good of his fellows. Finally, he had what he wanted and, like Archimedes of old, Cicho, too, could cry that he had found it! Like all inventors he then doted over his creation and tried new variations such that he could say to people, Here it is. I give it to you perfect and complete!

Now, it so happened that just off of Cicho's terrace was a door leading to the dwelling of Jovanella di Canzio. You won't find a greater busybody of a wench anywhere, nor one with such an acid tongue. Her only delight was nosing into the affairs of her neighbors and using that knowledge to her own advantage. The less she could do that, the more she belittled them and pestered and tormented her own poor husband, a cook's helper in the royal kitchen at the palace. She was insatiably curious, and perhaps that is how she found out—maybe through a keyhole, a crack in the wall, I don't know how. But she knew. She knew Cicho the Wizard's secret.

It is certain that one day she said triumphantly to her husband,

—Giacomo, if you are any sort of a man, our fortune is made!
—Have you then become a witch? I knew it.
—Damn your irreverent mouth! Listen. How would you like to be able to tell the chef at the royal palace that I know of an exquisite new dish fit for a king?!
—Woman, you're mad.
—May God rip out this precious tongue of mine if I'm lying!

And so Giacomo was persuaded to mention it to the cook, who told the majordomo, who in turn told the duke, who then dared to bring it to the attention of the king. The idea pleased his majesty such that he summoned Jovanella to the palace to prepare this new delight for him. She was ready; she took flour and mixed it with water, eggs and salt; then she kneaded it all carefully to make it as smooth and delicate as a fine piece of linen. Then with a fine knife she cut that into strips and carefully rolled the strips into small tubes and put them to dry in the sun. She prepared onions and meat to mix into the sauce that she had prepared by squeezing the tomatoes through a cloth. She let the sauce simmer over a low flame. When it was time to serve, she doused the tubes of pasta with boiling water and let it drain. She then grated some cheese from Parma that she would sprinkle from a fine majolica ceramic dish.

This is what she served up to King Frederick. He was so pleased that he called her forth and asked how she had ever managed to come up with something so marvelous. Jovanella replied that an angel had brought her the recipe in a dream. The king said he would have the recipe for his own kitchen and gave the Jovanella 100 pieces of gold, saying it was the least he could give to someone who had done so much. Not only that, but then came the counts and the wealthy merchants and nobility to buy the recipe, and even the poorer classes who gave her what they could. Within six months, all of Naples was eating maccheroni —from macarus, divine food—and Jovanella was wealthy.

Unaware of all of this, Cicho the Wizard stayed in his small room refining his creation. One day, when it was about ready, he strolled out onto the streets thinking about the gratitude, fame and fortune that awaited him. Is not a fine new dish worth more than the theories of philosophers or the sighting of a new comet? Indeed. But outside Cicho was immediately aware of a very familiar and fragrant scent in the air. He worriedly looked in from the street upon a woman who was preparing a meal.

—What is that you're cooking?
—Maccheroni, old man.
—And where did you learn to cook that?
—From Jovanella di Canzio.
—And where did she learn it?
—From an angel, they say. She made it for the king and the princes and now everybody is eating it. Are you hungry? Would you like some?

Cicho refused, of course, and went on to hear the same story even from the cook at the palace. He returned to his dwelling and destroyed his cooking implements and burned his books. Then he vanished.

No one knows where he went, but the people will tell you that the devil reclaimed him. Jovanella lived a fine life, as is usually the case with evil persons. Yet, upon her deathbed, she confessed her great sin and died screaming in agony like someone already in hell. They still say that late on a Saturday night in the house of the Cortellari, up in the wizard's room, Cicho returns to cut his maccheroni, and Jovanella can be seem stirring the pot of sauce while the devil, himself, grates cheese with one hand and fans the flame with other.



note: At the beginning of the second paragraph we see, "In the narrow alleyway of the Cortellari in the Portanova quarter...".  That is still traceable, even though the exact building may not be. The cortellari were merchants who sold knives (it is a dialect form of the Italian for "knife," coltello.) There is still a Portanova square. The word means New Gate and the square marks one of the southern entrances from the port into the medieval city.

[Afterword: Any kill-joy can poke holes in the story, of course. First, Fredrick II did not really spend that much time in Naples. His real palaces were farther to the south on the mainland and on the island of Sicily. And tomatoes? They first came to Europe from the Aztecs in the 1500s. That, however, does not mean that Serao might not have heard the legend from people the way she says she did, in the late 1800s, from people who didn't know too much about history or Aztecs. If I were an artist, I would draw the last sentence! Oh, the traditional Italian spelling is, indeed, maccheroni, although there are variations. For more on that, see We Hold these Noodles to be Self-Evident.]


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