Neifile’s tale begins with Arrigo, a German who worked as a porter in Treviso and lived a very holy life. Because the church bells spontaneously rang at the moment of his death, the locals believe he was a saint, and they flock to the cathedral where his body lies, hoping for miracles. Three Florentine entertainers—Stecchi, Martellino, and Marchese—arrive during this uproar. The cathedral is so crowded that they must use subterfuge to get inside: Martellino disguises himself as a paralytic and Stecchi and Marchese carry him to the cathedral to be healed by the saint.
Saints—people who lived holy lives and were thought to have the power to ask God for favors on behalf of the living—came in two flavors in the Middle Ages, local and official. Arrigo’s holy life—and the fact that the cathedral bells miraculously rang on their own at the moment of his death as if to announce his ascension to heaven—has inclined people to consider him a saint, but to go from being a “local saint” to a saint officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, he would need to perform more attested miracles. Anyone looking for a miracle, such as healing from a dreadful disease or a congenital defect, would try the new saint out, providing the means for the Florentine pranksters to infiltrate a crowded cathedral. The fact that a German expatriate could become a saint in an Italian city is a reminder of the links of trade, culture, and sovereignty that tied medieval Europe together.
In the cathedral, Stecchi and Marchese lay Martellino on the saint’s body. After a few minutes, he dramatically pretends to be healed. When someone in the crowd recognizes Martellino and laughs at his trick, a mob of angry locals attacks him for mocking their saint. His friends pretend he’s a pickpocket, “saving” him by getting him arrested for theft.
Martellino’s prank is harmless, although it does raise questions about how easily one should put faith into the power of the saints if miracles can be so easily faked. However, as established by the story of Cepperello (I, 1), praying to the wrong saints can still sometimes inspire God’s mercy. Fortune (bad luck) comes into play when Martellino is recognized and called out for his trick by someone in the crowd. And, hilariously, Stecchi and Marchese’s attempt to save him just makes things worse, both underwriting the tale’s humor and setting the stage for a dramatic reversal of fortune in line with the day’s theme.
The harsh judge, angered by Martellino’s attitude, tortures him to obtain confession. But Martellino can’t confess to crimes he’s accused of and he never picked anyone’s pocket in Treviso. Sandro Agnolanti, an influential Florentine living in Treviso, intervenes on Martellino’s behalf after hearing the story from his friends. Despite the judge’s reluctance to release Martellino, he eventually complies, and Martellino is taken to the local prince. He rewards the trio for their hilarious antics with new clothing before sending them on their way.
Fortune’s wheel spins again when the local prince gets involved and not only excuses Martellino from punishment but rewards him for his funny prank. The clothing that the prince gives the trio recalls the gifts with which Can Grande rewarded the courtier and entertainer Bergamino in I, 7. The presence of an influential Florentine in Treviso recalls the interconnected political and social world of medieval Europe. And, it is a small example of Giovanni Boccaccio’s hometown pride, which will reappear in the many stories set in Florence or featuring Florentine protagonists and saviors.