Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Perkeo, the small man of Heidelberg with a big thirst

As you wander around Heidelberg, it is possible that you may keep seeing references to a chap named 'Perkeo'. If you visit Heidelberg Castle and the Großes Fass, or Great Heidelberg Tun (the largest wine barrel in the world!), you will even see a carved wooden figure of this diminutive chap.

But who was 'Perkeo', and why does his name keep cropping up in Heidelberg as, for example, the name of a restaurant?

It seems that 'Perkeo' was a real person, born in 1702 in Salorno in South Tyrol, Italy, and originally worked there as a Knopfmacher or button-maker. He possibly had dwarfism, or at least legend has it that he measured just 3ft 6". Through his ready wit and heroic drinking ability he came to the attention of Charles III Philip, Elector Palatine, who took him back to Heidelberg Castle and appointed him court jester.

Perkeo's real name was Clemens Pankert (or other sources say Giovanni Clementi). He acquired his nickname because whenever he was offered a drink, he would say in Italian 'perché no?' meaning 'why not?' As catch-phrases go, that probably got a bit tiring after a while.

According to Victor Hugo, writing in 1840 after a visit to Heidelberg Castle, Perkeo got through fifteen double-bottles of Rhine wine each and every day. Even for the time, when wine was healthier to drink than water, and also had less alcoholic content than now, that is a lot! It is possible that actually he suffered from ADH deficiency due to diabetes insipidus, which caused him to have a great thirst. He is said to have never been ill until into his eighties, when his doctor advised him to cut down on the wine. According to folklore, a few days after drinking his first taste of water, he died!

Prince Philip put Perkeo in charge of the Great Heidelberg Tun, which is a vast barrel used to collect taxes paid in wine to the Elector. It was obviously a big joke in those days to have the smallest fellow with the biggest thirst look after the largest wine barrel in the world. Depictions of Perkeo show him with an enormous key attached to his waist, which gave access to the barrel room.

There are many tales about Perkeo, about his wit and pranks, and that is why he has stayed in popular memory amongst the folk of Heidelberg. So now you know!

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