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Here's a brief summary. I hope it helps.
Giovanni Guasconti has traveled from an unspecified town in southern Italy to study at the University of Padua. He has little money, so he rents a room at an old mansion. The narrator notes that Giovanni recollects that one of the ancestors of the family was mentioned in Dante's Inferno. When the old woman named Lisabetta hears his sigh of disappointment at the gloomy surroundings, she suggests that he look out the window at the lovely view. When he does, he notices a garden and asks if it belongs to the house. The old woman tells him that it does not, that it belongs to the famous Dr. Rappaccini.
The old woman leaves the room, and Giovanni continues to gaze at the garden, taking note of the different plants and the fountain, thinking that it might once have been "the pleasure-place of an opulent family."
He hears a rustling sound and notices that an old man, described as "tall, emaciated, sallow, and sickly-looking" is tending the plants. Giovanni notices that the man is wearing thick gloves and that he never touches any plant, especially the purple one that grows beside the fountain; before approaching that plant, he puts on a mask.
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