Once upon a time there was a king who had three sons, princes of the kingdom of Sarandib or Serendippo, who once stretched from Afghanistan to the ocean. The three were soon exiled by their father, a monarch whose diadem is “marked with the emblem of the footprint of Adam”, who educated his children in all the arts and having made them good boys, still wants to test them.

He first tests their ambition and finds them humble and reverent. Then with a stratagem he pretends to be angry and chases them away. In his heart, he wants his three children to explore the world, experience, see each other’s customs and become even more perfect adults, ready to reign.

The three princes of Serendippo thus enter as vagabonds in an even greater empire, in the other hemisphere of the world. The king’s name is not specified. They define themselves as “foreign travelers in search of the nourishment of fate”, since “our goal is nothing but observation”. They walk without precise direction, they search the world – writes the ancient Persian Sufi poet Amir Khosrow in Hasht Behesht in 1300– as rationalists, physiognomists, skilled in reasoning of analogy. They meet a camel driver who has lost his camel and the three tell him they have seen it. To prove it, they show him three clues, one each: he is blind in one eye; he is missing a tooth; he has a lame leg. The camel driver confirms and runs to look for him, but does not find him. On his return, he meets the three princes again, who add three more characteristics: he carries oil on one side and honey on the other; he has a woman on his back and she is pregnant.

At this point the camel driver becomes suspicious, thinks they have stolen the beast and reports them to the king. Before his majesty King Beramo, in justifying himself for the camel, the three say it was only a joke: “Without wanting to, the lie we tell him, by chance corresponds to the truth”. In practice, they invoke some sort of chance coincidence between their assumptions and reality. The king replies that it is unlikely that as many as six “inconclusive lies” hit reality all at once (how to blame him). So he accuses them of theft and puts them in jail. Fortunately for them, shortly after the camel driver finds the woman and the animal, and exonerates them.

Now, therefore, the observational skills of the three principles are evident: in fact they have guessed all six characteristics of the scene, even though they have never seen the camel before. Questioned by the king, the three young men explain on the basis of which clues they have guessed the details about the animal and the pregnant woman.

Once exonerated from the discovery of the animal, in front of Beramo the three give the first speech to reveal their circumstantial art: they understood that the camel was blind in one eye because it has grazed the grass on the worst side of the road, if it had been seeing in both eyes he would eat on the other side; that it was toothless because chewed bites of grass could pass through the space of a tooth; lame, because the fourth footprint was dragged; then it had butter on one side because there were many ants, honey on the other because there were flies, greedy for the second; a woman on her back because of the footprints and urine, smelling which one of the three princes had been assaulted by carnal lust; finally, the woman was pregnant with her, because in order to get up after urinating she had helped herself with both hands, leaving the imprint.

Here is the plot of the six clues. The sovereign is subjugated by their “irreproachable physiognomy”, decides to keep them with him and begins to spy on them to steal their secrets. While they are seated at a banquet the three make three other speculations, which will prove to be correct: the wine they are drinking comes from a vineyard planted where once was a cemetery; the lamb they are eating was raised on bitch’s milk; and the monarch is not of pure noble blood, because in reality he is the son of a cook. Pointed to the point (especially from the last hypothesis), the king verifies that it is all true. Her mother as a young man betrayed her father and confesses it to her son. Repentant of that investigation, the king is told once again by the three princes how they managed to understand “those hidden facts”. The clues to his illegitimacy were that he lacked a dynastic sign, the king always spoke of bread, his physiognomy.

After the king at court spied on them and verified the correctness of the other three hypotheses, the second circumstantial reconstruction of the young princes arrives: the wine comes from a vineyard that was previously a cemetery because it caused sadness in those who drank it; the lamb was raised on bitch’s milk, because its meat left the mouth salty and full of foam; finally, the king’s adviser wants to kill him for having sentenced his son to death (the story of the king son of a cook is gone, too rough) and the three detective princes have understood this because the adviser blushed and asked for a drink during a speech of the emperor on punishments for the wicked. Beramo asks the princes how to unmask the traitorous councilor and the three hatch a successful plan that leads the offender to confess.

The happy ending is ready. Happy Beramo covers the three princes with treasures and finally sends them back to Serendippo. The old and now sick Giaffer welcomes them with joy. After having ascertained that they had carried out their task and were now “perfect”, “to have with the doctrine the various manners and customs of different apparel nations”, he blesses them and dies. The firstborn succeeds him and rules wisely. The second has made a promise of marriage to the Queen of India and returns to her. At the third Beramo, now elderly, offers his daughter in marriage. So, on balance, the kingdom of Serendippo himself, the kingdom of Beramo and the kingdom of India respectively go to the three princes of Serendippo. In practice, they find themselves at the head of the whole East. Not bad as an initiation path!

Reconstruction of the fable of the Three Princes of Serendippo di Melissa Pignatellifrom the text of Telmo Pievani Serendipity (2021) for Raffaello Cortina publisher.

The fable was written by the Persian Sufi poet Amir Khosrow in 1300 and is featured in the collection Hasht Behesht (The eight paradises). The fable was translated into Italian by Cristoforo Armeno for Michele Tramezzino’s prints in Venice in 1557. Horace Walpole reads the story of Cristoforo Armeno and translates it into English as Three princes of Serendip, subsequently coins the word serendipity in a letter to his friend Horace Mann who lives in Florence, in 1754: serendipity indicates the ability to discover the truth by chance or by sagacity, based on the interpretation of clues, traces, spies. In 2012 Faridè Lava and Alain Lance retranslate the text by Amir Khosrow Les trois princes de Serendip from Persian to French for the publisher Hermann. Voltaire in Zadig and Arthur Conan Doyle in Sherlock Holmes build characters capable of using serendipity as a circumstantial paradigm to know the truth. Carlo Ginzburg wrote for Einaudi in 1986 Myths. Emblems. Spies Morphology and history in which he reconstructs the roots of a circumstantial paradigm on the basis of the physiognomy explained in Three principles of Serendippo.

Image: Nedko Solakow and Slava Nakovska, Seaweeds, BASE_projects for art. Inauguration: Wednesday 4 June, from 9 pm Until 10 September 2003, Tuscany Region – between regional art network contemporary art, archive image, link here.

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