The Epic Prank that Became History’s Greatest Practical Joke

Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) was an accomplished architect, designer, sculptor, and mathematician. He is considered to be one of the founding fathers of Renaissance architecture and holds the distinction of being the first person to receive a patent in the Western world. He achieved immortality in the history books by designing the dome of the Florence Cathedral, a feat of engineering that had not been accomplished since antiquity. He was also responsible for developing the mathematical technique of linear perspective in art, setting the standard for pictorial depictions of space until the late 19th century.

Filippo Brunelleschi

He was also one of the most accomplished practical jokers of all time. This, coupled with his brilliant mind and low threshold for perceiving an insult, set the stage for one of the greatest — and cruelest — practical jokes of all time.

The big event took place around the year1409. Brunelleschi and several of the artistic folks of Florence, including the great sculptor Donatello, frequently dined together. One evening, shortly after Brunelleschi returned from a trip to Rome, the regular dinner gathering took place, but one person was missing. The absentee was a woodworker by the name of Manetto. He was about 28 years of age and described as “a bit simple, but wasn’t so very simple that anyone other than a very shrewd person would perceive his simplicity.”

Before we go further, it may be helpful to mention that what is about to transpire is possible because of the similarity between Manetto’s name and that of another. There is a third person with a similar name who is not a participant in these events, but who made it possible for us to know about them. That person is Antonio di Tuccio Manetti. He was a contemporary of the people who figure in this story and was able to document the events in his book Novella del Grasso Legnajulo (The Fat Woodworker).

Manetti recounted how history’s greatest prank began:

…a certain group of honorable men found themselves together one night at dinner. This was a group composed of men dedicated to the public life: some were master artisans and craftsmen, some were goldsmiths, some were sculptors, some woodworkers, and other types of artisans. They gathered together at the home of Tomaso Pecori, a very pleasant and upright man of intellect…

While they were chatting together one of them asked, “Why is that Manetto the woodworker not here tonight?” Since he had only one name, Manetto was often called the “Fat One.” It became clear from what was said that some of the group had seen Manetto but, for whatever reason, none had been able to bring him along.

Since no one in the group could explain the reason for Manetto’s absence, they quickly concluded that he missed the gathering intentionally as an insult to the other members of the group. The famously thin-skinned Brunelleschi hit upon an idea to teach Manetto that he should respect his colleagues.

Manetto, as depicted in Antonio Manetti’s book, “The Fat Woodworker.”

Brunelleschi laid out a plan to his friends where they would convince Manetto that he had inexplicably changed into another person. To pull this off, it took a lot of planning and the involvement of quite a few co-conspirators. Pulling the prank off successfully would take a great deal of cunning, planning, and luck. Brunelleschi was confident he could provide the first two of these.

The first thing he did was recruit a large cast of characters to participate in the prank. He explained to them that they were going to convince Manetto that he had somehow switched identities with another Florentine, a man named Matteo. Each member of the cast was given a part. All that remained was to lure their mark in and set the prank in motion.

It began near the close of business one day. While Manetto was at his shop, Brunelleschi picked the lock to the woodworker’s house and barred the door behind him. Manetto arrived home and discovered, to his surprise, that he was unable to enter his own home. As he rattled the door, something even more astonishing took place: he heard his own voice talking to him from the other side of the door. It was Brunelleschi, mimicking Manetto’s voice. He demanded to know who was messing around with his door. When Manetto explained that he was trying to get into his house, Brunelleschi called him a liar and informed him that he — Brunelleschi — was Manetto. He ordered the befuddled woodworker to leave immediately.

Brunelleschi’s impersonation was so convincing that Manetto hastily retreated from the house, wondering what on earth was going on. He went to the Piazza San Giovanni, the city square of Florence. There, he encountered Donatello, who spoke to him but kept referring to him as “Matteo.”

While he was puzzling this development out, a bailiff arrived on the scene, addressed him as Matteo, and placed him under arrest for failure to pay a debt. While protesting that there must be some mistake, Manetto was dragged to the Stinche prison where he was booked under the name Matteo and placed in a cell. To his growing astonishment, his fellow prisoners in that cell seemed to know him, and they thought his name was Matteo.

Manetto spent the night in debtors’ prison, but he was unable to sleep. He was pretty sure he was the victim of a case of mistaken identity. As the sun appeared in the morning sky, he concluded that it would all get straightened out as soon as he met someone who knew him or this Matteo fellow well.

Early that morning, two men arrived at the prison, announcing that they were Matteo’s brothers and that they were there to secure his freedom. They paid his debt and arranged his release. Manetto was quite certain the mess would be cleared up then and there. When the two men saw him, they appeared to recognize him as their unfortunate brother. They led him to Matteo’s home on the other side of Florence, all the while chastising him for his uncontrolled gambling and loose morals.

The more Manetto protested that he was not who they thought, the more the men treated him as being bereft of his senses. They ate dinner together at Matteo’s home — a place completely unfamiliar to him — as the brothers discussed people and events utterly alien to Manetto’s memory. As bedtime approached, he began to believe that he had, in fact, transformed into another person.

That evening, Manetto had no trouble sleeping. That’s because the men slipped something into his drink, causing him to plunge into a deep state of unconsciousness. Once they were convinced he was out like a light, the men transported Manetto back to his home. They placed him on his bed with his head where his feet would ordinarily lay.

When he awoke the next morning, Manetto was completely disoriented. He was still feeling the effects of the drug that put him to sleep. On top of that, he found himself back in his house, but he had no idea how he could have gotten there. His disorientation was only heightened by waking up in the wrong position in his bed and because the conspirators had rearranged his household items.

While he was mulling this over, there was a knock at the door. Opening it, Manetto saw Matteo’s two brothers, with whom he had spent most of the prior day. They were treating him differently now, however. It was as if they had never seen him before. They referred to him as “Manetto” and explained they were there because their brother, Matteo, had been insisting that he had changed identities with the woodworker. The men said they were there to try to bring their brother to his senses.

At this point, Matteo makes his appearance. He arrived shortly after the two brothers. As soon as he saw the inside of Manetto’s house, he confirmed that this is where he had been for the past couple of days. As Manetto listens with rapt attention, Matteo explains that he has been away at his country villa, where something weird happened that he can only explain as a dream. Matteo believes he must have been sleeping for two nights and a solid day — the same time Manetto was experiencing his bizarre transformation. During this time — it must have been a dream — he felt as if he had become a fat woodworker named Manetto. He recounted clear memories of working in the workshop and having dinner with Manetto’s mother. As he looked around the house, he said that when he was there, everything seemed to be in the wrong place, so he rearranged the items.

There was no denying it any longer. Manetto had to admit that he had — for a couple of days — exchanged identities with Matteo. He was sure that Matteo was not dreaming; he had actually been living his life for those days as Manetto. Perhaps it had something to do with the similarities of their names? Since “Matteo” and “Manetto” could be easily confused, could it be that their identities were likewise interchangeable?

For some time, Manetto persisted in his belief that he has lived through a seemingly-impossible experience. It wasn’t until he visited his mother to tell her all about it that he learns that she was never in Florence during the days in question.

Still unsure about what happened, Manetto has a sneaking suspicion that Brunelleschi is behind the whole thing. Realizing he has become the butt of an elaborate practical joke, he is mortified. He takes a friend up on an offer to go work with a mercenary in Hungary. He leaves his native city “without saying a word to his family or anyone else, as if he were game and had hunters behind him.”

Lest you feel too badly about Manetto, it should be noted that he became quite wealthy during his time in Hungary. When he returns to Florence, he and Brunelleschi share a laugh over the elaborate hoax. Brunelleschi said, “I knew at that time that I had to do this to you in order to make you rich. There are very many people who wanted very much to have been the Fat One, and to have had these jokes played upon them.”

Was it ingenious? Was it cruel? Was it both? Whatever conclusion you reach, it must be remembered that Brunelleschi devised this scheme out of something as seemingly-insignificant as skipping a dinner invitation. Imagine what he would have done for something more significant!

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