The Renaissance’s Greatest Architect Was Also a Master of the Practical Joke
The modern world owes much to Filippo Brunelleschi (1377 – 1446). Early in his career, this Italian architect and designer rediscovered the principles of linear perspective. They had once been known to ancient Greek and Roman builders, but were lost in the Middle Ages. He is considered the father of Renaissance architecture, and was the first modern planner, engineer, and sole construction supervisor. His major work is the Duomo in Florence – the dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.
Brunelleschi’s creativity was not limited to architecture. The man was also a prankster who mastered the practical joke like few had before or since. His most famous practical joke targeted a cabinet maker named Manetto, also known as il Grosso, or “The Fat”. Manetto was prosperous and good natured, but to his misfortune, he ticked off Brunelleschi when he missed a social event. So the famous architect got him with an elaborate prank: he screwed with Manetto’s mind and got him to believe that he had switched bodies.
Attention to Detail Was a Hallmark of This Renaissance Giant’s Career
Filippo Brunelleschi was known for thorough preparation. The man paid great attention to detail in his career as an architect. He was equally thorough and attentive to details when it came to his practical jokes. That was unfortunate for Manetto. First, Brunelleschi assembled a wide cast of characters. He then coached them on what was needed to convince the mark that he had metamorphosed into somebody else: a well-known Florentine, named Matteo. Finally, one day in 1409, Brunelleschi set things in motion.
By the time Manetto closed his shop that day, Brunelleschi had gone to his house, picked the lock, entered, and barred the door behind him. When the mark got home, he discovered that the door was barred from within. When he rattled the door, Manetto was alarmed to hear his own voice – actually Brunelleschi’s, doing an impersonation – ask who it was. When he identified himself, he was called a liar by the voice on the other side of the door, who declared that he was Manetto.
Filippo Brunelleschi’s assertion that he was Manetto so confused his mark, the real Manetto, that he retreated to a nearby piazza. There he met an acquaintance, Donatello, who addressed him not by his given name, but as Matteo. Then a bailiff passed by, addressed Manetto as Matteo, and despite his protestations that he had the wrong man, promptly arrested the cabinet maker for debt. The now thoroughly bewildered Manetto was taken to prison, where his name was entered into the register as Matteo. Thrown into lockup, his fellow prisoners – all of whom were also in on the prank – addressed him as Matteo.
The bewildered cabinet maker spent a sleepless night in jail. He probably solaced himself with the notion that it was all a case of mistaken identity, that would soon get cleared up. The next day, things got worse. After a night in jail, Manetto’s mental health took another hit when two “relatives” – the real Matteo’s brothers – arrived at the prison, and claimed him as their kin. They paid his debt and freed him, and berated his gambling and wastrel ways. More confused now than ever, Manetto was escorted to Matteo’s home in the other side of Florence.
The Victim of This Practical Joke Felt So Humiliated That He Moved to Another Country
Once in Matteo’s home, the cabinet maker’s protests that he was Manetto, and not Matteo, were dismissed with derision. In the course of that day and evening, he was nearly convinced that he had, indeed, morphed into somebody else. Eventually, Manetto was put to sleep with a potion supplied by Brunelleschi, and carried unconscious back to his own home, for the final bit of the practical joke. When he came to a day later in his own home, Manetto discovered that his house was in disarray, with furniture, tools, and other items rearranged.
His confusion grew with the arrival of Matteo’s brothers, who now addressed him by his real name, Manetto. They shared a strange story about the previous evening, when their sibling got it in his head that he was Manetto. The story was confirmed when Matteo arrived, and described a weird dream in which he had been Manetto. That nearly drove the real Manetto around the bend. He became convinced – at least for a while – that he had morphed into Matteo for a couple of days. When he eventually discovered what had actually happened, Manetto felt so humiliated, that he left Florence and moved to Hungary.
The Goodies was a British TV series that combined situation comedy with surreal sketches, and originally aired 76 episodes on BBC from 1970 to 1980. It is probably not the cup of tea of most Americans today, but it was pretty funny for its intended British audience, as evidenced by its decade-long run. Also, by the fact that at least one of its viewers found a Goodies skit to be so hilarious that he laughed himself to death. It began on the evening of March 24th, 1975, which started off like many others for Alex Mitchell, a bricklayer from King’s Lynn, Norfolk.
He sat down after dinner to watch an episode of his favorite TV show, which he watched religiously every week. Mitchell knew to expect the show’s typical raw and physical humor. However, he was unprepared for that evening’s “Kung Fu Capers” episode. It featured a black belt in “Ecky Thump” – a little known martial art from Lancaster, that revolved around pelting opponents with black pudding. Something about that struck Mitchell as over the top hilarious. He began to guffaw uproariously, as his wife complained that he must be the only person in the world who thought The Goodies was funny.
Alex Mitchell, who enjoyed a good laugh, waved his killjoy missus away. However, on that particular evening, he might have been better off had he gotten off the couch and romanced her rather than continue to watch the TV. When the episode’s star attacked a kilt-wearing Scotsman with a stick of black pudding, and the Scotsman defended himself with a bagpipe, Mitchell lost it. He began to laugh uncontrollably, and after 25 minutes of nonstop laughter, he slid off the sofa, the victim of a fatal heart attack.
Mitchell’s death became quite famous at the time. His widow eventually wrote The Goodies a letter, to thank them for making her deceased hubby’s final moments so pleasant. In 2012, it was discovered that Mitchell had probably suffered from Long QT Syndrome when his granddaughter was rushed to the emergency room after a heart attack and was diagnosed with LQTS. The disease, which is hereditary, causes the heart beat to become irregular if the afflicted person undergoes continuous exertion or stress – such as nonstop laughter for 25 minutes. The irregular heartbeat can trigger a cardiac arrest, and that is probably what did in Alex Mitchell.
The Discovery of Human Evolution’s “Missing Link” in England
In 1912, an amateur English archaeologist named Charles Dawson announced the discovery of human-like fossils in Piltdown, East Sussex. In a Pleistocene gravel bed, Dawson had found fossilized fragments of a cranium, jawbone, and other bones. Britain’s premier paleontologist pronounced the fossils evidence of a hitherto unknown proto-human species. They were also deemed the “missing link” between ape and man, evidence of the then-still controversial theory that man descended from apes. The pronouncements were accepted uncritically by many prominent British scientists. Further excavations in the vicinity were made in 1913 and 1914, in which stone tools were discovered.
Two miles away, teeth and additional skull fragments were unearthed. So were animal remains, and a mysterious carved bone that looked like a cricket bat. The excitement mounted with each new find. At the time of the Piltdown discovery, there was a growing, and as it ultimately turned out, correct, scientific belief that human evolution from ape to man had occurred in Africa. It was there that fossils of homo erectus, an early hominid, had been discovered. As seen below, that was problematic for many of the era’s British scientists.
Humans Originating in Africa Was too Jarring for Early 20th Century British Scientists
The discovery of homo erectus fossils in Africa meant that the cradle of mankind was in Africa, and that all humans were of African origin. The notion that they were ultimately African was hard to swallow for many Europeans, including many British scientists. The day’s prevalent racism and ethno-nationalism buttressed Britain’s scientific community’s confirmation bias. It made them interpret the Piltdown “evidence” in the light most favorable to their prejudices. Piltdown Man offered a feasible alternative, and thus a convenient out, from the challenge posed to the era’s racist theories by humanity’s African origins. As a result, prominent British scientists embraced the discovery, and defended it against all critics.
If the Piltdown discovery in England was accurate, it would mean that Britain had played a prominent role in human evolution. The “missing” link between man and ape would have occurred in Europe, not Africa. That would buttress the belief that Europeans – or at least the British – had evolved separately, and were not of African origins. Thus, the racist assumption that Europeans were a distinct and superior branch of the human tree could continue unchallenged. In actuality, the Piltdown discovery was a practical joke and a crude hoax. However, because of a combination of ineptness, ethno nationalism, and racism, the discovery was strongly embraced and defended by much of the British scientific establishment.
A Practical Joke That Roiled and Set Back Archaeology for Decades
It took four decades before Piltdown Man was debunked. That made it one of history’s most successful scientific hoaxes. It was also a hoax that seriously delayed the progress of science and archaeology. In those decades, few resources were directed at the study of human evolution in Africa, where the actual missing links were ultimately discovered. Despite the dearth of funds for African archaeological exploration, more proto-human fossils were discovered in Africa in the 1930s. Those finds, coupled with additional Neanderthal finds, left Piltdown Man as an odd outlier in human evolution.