In a convent cloister, at the end of the 17th century.
Two sisters begin a discussion, confessing the desire they sometimes feel to go back to the time of their childhood or the temptation they feel when they see certain cakes. For her part, Sister Angelica states that she never suffers any feelings of desire, a feeling quite contrary to her fervent faith. However the sisters know only too well the secret hope that she has kept hidden for so long: she is said to be a noble and wealthy young woman who, in the seven years she has spent in the convent, has received no letters or visits. No one knows the reason that made her take the veil.
Suddenly, a sumptuous carriage is announced outside the convent. Sister Genovieffa explains that it is a visitor for Sister Angelica. Obviously moved, she goes to the parlor where a severe old woman dressed in black is waiting for her. It is her aunt. Angelica expects only one thing, news of the son she gave birth to
seven years before and whom she saw for only one hour. The old woman announces that the child is dead then leaves.
Angelica is overcome with despair.
Alas, this self-inflicted death closes the gates of Heaven to her; when she realizes the implication of her act, Sister Angelica falls to the ground to ask the Virgin Mary to pardon her and to beg for her help. A miracle occurs
lulled by the benevolent singing of all the angels.
On the banks of the Seine
The dockers hurry to empty the hold of Michele's barge. Michele’s companion, Giorgetta, comes to offer him a glass of wine. Louigi catches her eye. A barrel organ player goes along the riverbank. Louigi waves him over. Hearing the music, Tinca begins dancing with Giorgetta while the others laugh at him for being such a poor dancer. Suddenly Louigi pushes Tinca aside and takes his place. Giorgetta sinks into his arms. Michele appears. The dockers go back down into the hold and Michele announces that the barge will be leaving the following week. Tinca and Talpa will not be along for the trip. Nor will Louigi, which makes Giorgetta very sad. While Michele is down in the hold, Giorgetta - tired of her wandering existence- and Louigi sadly think about the Parisian neighbourhood where they both grew up. Alone on the bridge the young couple remember the kiss that they exchanged the night before and imagine running away together. Coming up from the hold, Michele is surprised to find Louigi there still. First the docker thanks his employer then asks if he may go with the boat to Rouen to look for a job there. This trick, intended to keep him close to Giorgetta, does not succeed because Michele, on his way down to the cabin, tells Louigi that there is no more work in Rouen than anywhere else. Giorgetta and Louigi part, promising to meet - as always - in the middle of the night when the young woman will signal to him with a match. Michele finds his companion on the bridge and questions her anxiously about the feelings she has for him. Giorgetta is trying to avoid the conversation when the boatman speaks of some painful memories: one year before, when night had fallen and the river air was cool, he would cover his wife and his son in his cloak. The recent death of the baby was the death knoll of his happiness. Giorgetta cannot bear this kind of talk for long and she announces that she is extremely tired and must go to bed.
A few minutes later, Michele decides to go discreetly back to his cabin and notices his companion, dressed and eyes wide open, obviously waiting for someone. He is seized by doubt. He thinks about each of the dockers, wondering which one will come to make a nocturnal visit to his companion.
Michele then decides to watch until a silhouette appears. He throws himself onto the stranger, recognizes Louigi, then holds him by' the throat to make him admit his affair with Giorgetta. The young man refuses but, under the pressure from Michele's arms, finally admits. Michele's grip then tightens and Louigi weakens then dies. Aletted by suspicious noises, Giorgetta calls Michele. Hearing her voice, he wraps the body in his cloak. The young woman arrives on the bridge. At that moment the boatman opens his cloak, dropping Louigi' inert body at the woman's feet then, with a powerful movement, grabs hold of Giorgetta and drags her over make her look at her dead lover's face.
Buoso Donati has died and he said to have made a will leaving all his possessions to convents. His family desperately wants to find the document in order to know the truth.
Rinuccio, the deceased's nephew, is the one who finds the famous will. All the relatives rush to take the precious parchment but the young man decides to give it to them only on the condition that they allow him to marry gentle Lauretta, Gianni Schicchi's daughter. Everyone accepts, including Zita, the young man's aunt. Rinuccio immediately sends little Gherardino to Gianni Schicchi in order to ask him to come to see them accompanied by his daughter. During this time Zita reads the will, surrounded by the rest of the family. All their hopes are dashed as, alas, the deceased's wishes are as they feared: all his belongings will be given to the monks!
As a sense of dismay sweeps over all of those present, Gianni Schicchi knocks at the door. Zita does not want him or his daughter to come in, refusing to have "little people" in her home. Meanwhile Rinuccio points out that this individual is most cunning and that he could help them to avoid the will's cruel verdict.
Gianni Schicchi and Lauretta enter. They notice the sad faces of those present and learn of the misfortune. Zita chases away her unexpected guests: "No dowry, no wedding!"
Thoroughly offended, Gianni Schicchi grabs his daughter's hand to take her away immediately but she cannot bring herself to leave Rinuccio. Held back by his aunt, the young man also tries to move towards his beloved. He suggests that, instead of tearing themselves apart, it would be better to think of the will. He therefore asks Gianni Schicchi to have a look. At first dubious, the man's face suddenly lights up: he has an idea. Nobody, except those present, is aware that Buoso has died. Therefore, they must not announce it, hide his body and the candles and then remake the bed, which the old man lay on.
At this moment, Doctor Spinellocio knocks on the door, wanting news of Buoso. Imitating the deceased's voice, Gianni states that he is feeling much better and advises the doctor to let him sleep for the moment and to come back in the evening. The doctor goes away and Schicchi reveals his plan: they must call the notary, tell him that Buoso Donati feels his condition worsening and wishes to write a will most urgently. In the darkness of the bedroom, Gianni will repeat his imitation and will dictate the decisions that all of them wish for.
The Donatis are thrilled and immediately begin to divide the belongings, giving a fair share to Gianni. One by one, the various members of the family discreetly come towards Schicchi, offering to buy back the objects in the coin of the realm. The man accepts without hesitating. The notary arrives. The scenario functions perfectly and the dictation begins, to the Donatis' cheers. But as he speaks, the dying man begins to leave much property, including the house in Florence where he is, to his friend Gianni Schicchi, which angers the family. When the notary leaves, the relatives attack Gianni who throws them out of his new house. The Donatis try to carry away some silverware, crying traitor. However, Schicchi, seeing Lauretta and Rinuccio on the terrace in each other's arms and joyful of the idea of the happiness which awaits them, gives them a knowing smile. What better use could there have been of poor Buoso’s property, he asks.