The Wizard's Secret
[This is a freely translated version of "The Wizard's
Secret," one of the stories in Matilde
Legends, first published in 1891. "Freely"
translated means that, for reasons of space, I have
chosen to summarize some sections rather than
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
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.
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
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
—Trying to make gold!
—He has the magic stone of virtue, wisdom and
—Nonsense! He calls up the devil to glorify
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.
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.
is certain that one day she said triumphantly to her
—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
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?
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.
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 seen stirring the
pot of sauce while the devil, himself, grates cheese with
one hand and fans the flame with the 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
to portal for
traditions and holidays
to top of this
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