Observations of Venice (Mountebanks)

For I hope it will not be esteemed for an impertinencie to my discourse, if I next speake of the Mountebanks of Venice, seeing amongst many other thinges that doe much famouse this Citie, these two sorts of people, namely the Cortezans and the Mountebanks, are not the least : for although there are Mountebanks also in other Cities of Italy ; yet because there is a greater concurse of them in Venice then else where, and that of the better sort and the most eloquent fellowes ; and also for that there is a larger tolleration of them here then in other Cities (for in Rome, &c. they are restrained from certain matters as I have heard which are heere allowed them) therefore they use to name a Venetian Mountebanke for the coryphaeus and principall Mountebanke of all Italy : neither doe I much doubt but that this treatise of them will be acceptable to some readers, as being a meere novelty never before heard of (I thinke) by thousands of our English Gallants.

Surely the principall reason that hath induced me to make mention of them is, because when I was in Venice, they oftentimes ministred infinite pleasure unto me. I will first beginne with the etymologic of their name : the word Mountebanke (being in the Italian tongue Monta inbanco) is compounded of two Italian words. Montare which signifieth to ascend or goe up to a place, and banco a bench, because these fellowes doe act their part upon a stage, which is compacted of benches or fourmes, though I have seene some fewe of them also stand upon the ground when they tell their tales, which are such as are commonly called Ciaratanoes or Ciarlatans, in Latin they are called Circulatores and Aoyrtae, which is derived from the Greeke worde ayelpeiv which signifieth to gather or draw a company of people together, in Greek Oav/maTOTroioi. The principall place where they act, is the first part of Saint Marks street that reacheth betwixt the West front of S. Marks Church, and the opposite front of Saint Geminians Church. In which, twice a day, that is, in the morning and in the after noone, you may see five or sixe severall stages erected for them : those that act upon the ground, even the foresaid Ciarlatans being of the poorer sort of them, stand most commonly in the second part of S. Marks, not far from the gate of the Dukes Palace.

These Mountebanks at one end of their stage place their trunke, which is replenished with a world of new-fangled trumperies. After the whole rabble of them is gotten up to the stage, whereof some weare visards being disguised like fooles in a play, some Women that are women (for there are divers women also amongst Mountebanks), are attyred with habits according to that person that they sustaine ; after (I say) they are all upon the stage, the musicke begins. Sometimes vocall, sometimes instrumentall, and sometimes both together. This musicke is a preamble and introduction to the ensuing matter : in the meane time while the musicke playes, the principall Mountebanke which is the Captaine and ring-leader of all the rest, opens his truncke, and sets abroach his wares ; after the musicke hath ceased, he maketh an oration to the audience of halfe an houre long, or almost an houre. Wherein he doth most hyperbolically extoll the vertue of his drugs and confections :

Laudat venales qui vult extrudere merces.

Though many of them are very counterfeit and false. Truely I often wondred at many of these naturall Orators. For they would tell their tales with such admirable volubility and plausible grace, even extempore, and seasoned with that singular variety of elegant jests and witty conceits, that they did often strike great admiration into strangers that never heard them before : and by how much the more eloquent these Naturalists are, by so much the greater audience they draw unto them, and the more ware they sell. After the chiefest Mountebankes first speech is ended, he delivereth out his commodities by little and little, the jester still playing his part, and the musitians singing and playing upon their instruments. The principall things that they sell are oyles, soveraigne waters, amorous songs printed, Apothecary drugs, and a Commonweale of other trifles. The head Mountebanke at every time that he delivereth out any thing, maketh an extemporall speech, which he doth eftsoones intermingle with such savory jests (but spiced now and then with singular scurrility) that they minister passing mirth and laughter to the whole company, which perhaps may consist of a thousand people that flocke together about one of their stages.

For so many according to my estimation I have seene giving attention to some notable eloquent Mountebanke. I have observed marveilous strange matters done by some of these Mountebankes. For I saw one of them holde a viper in his hand, and play with his sting a quarter of an houre together, and yet receive no hurt ; though another man should have beene presently stung to death with it. He made us all beleeve that the same viper was linealy descended from the generation of that viper that lept out of the fire upon f S. Pauls hand, in the Island of Melita now called Malta, and did him no hurt ; and told us moreover that it would sting some, and not others. Also I have seene a Mountebanke hackle and gash his naked arme with a knife most pittifully to beholde, so that the blood hath streamed out in great abundance, and by and by after he hath applied a certaine oyle unto it, wherewith he hath incontinent both stanched the blood, and so throughly healed the woundes and gashes, that when he hath afterward shewed us his arme againe, we could not possibly perceive the least token of a gash.

Besides there was another black gowned Mountebanke that gave most excellent contentment to the company that frequented his stage. This fellow was borne blind, and so continued to that day : he never missed Saint Markes place twise a day for sixe weekes together : he was noted to be a singular fellow for singing extemporall songes, and for a pretty kinde of musicke that he made with two bones betwixt his fingers. Moreover I have seene some of them doe such strange jugling trickes as would be almost incredible to be reported. Also I have observed this in them, that after they have extolled their wares to the skies, having set the price of tenne crownes upon some one of their commodities, they have at last descended so low, that they have taken for it foure gazets, which is something lesse then a groat. These merry fellowes doe most commonly continue two good howres upon the stage, and at last when they have fedde the audience with such passing variety of sport, that they are even cloyed with the superfluity of their conceits, and have sold as much ware as they can, they remove their trinkets and stage till the next meeting.

Thus much concerning the Mountebankes.

Citation Type  Prose
Citation Year 1602