Monsignore Cristoforo Rischio

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 Creso, 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

ink--and he has also been the staple of a tale by one of the Trollope


Twice every week, he comes into the city in a strange vehicle, drawn by

two fine Lombardy ponies, and unharnesses them in the very centre 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 Creso

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


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 offences; 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 market-place, 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 Creso, he showed no feeling of the sort; but for three

long hours, two days in the week, held his hideous clinic in the open


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


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


So, poor and abashed, he sank to the lower walks of dramatic art,

singing in choruses at the opera, playing minor parts in show-pieces,

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


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


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


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 Creso 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


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


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 Creso

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.