Veritas (Atto Melani), page 1
PRAISE FOR THE ATTO MELANI SERIES
Reviews for Secretum
“Nothing is as it seems in the Rome of Monaldi & Sorti. . . their mysteries are ingeniously conceived and voluptuously written, keeping readers breathless in suspense. What’s their secret? Monaldi & Sorti are brilliant!” De Morgen, Belgium
“Rich in sensuality, this is a masterfully told story of baroque thought and sensibility, filled with vivid impressions from the realms of politics, art, and the Church.” Trouw, The Netherlands
“An exciting, opulent book.” Blick, Switzerland
An extraordinary political and criminal intrigue set in Rome, a plot aiming to undermine the balance of power in Europe at the end of the 17th century.” Le Figaro, France
Reviews for Imprimatur
“Gripping. Nothing less than the fate of Europe is at stake in this thriller.” Le Monde, France
“Entertaining and exciting.” El Pais, Spain
“Works beautifully in combining the strengths of an intelligent thriller with those of a historical novel.” L’Express, France
“A fantastic story of espionage from the Baroque era.” La Stampa, Italy
“Two Italians have revolutionised the historical novel.” La Gaceta de los Negocios, Spain
This ebook edition published in 2013 by
West Newington House
First published in paperback in Great Britain in 2013 by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd
Copyright © Rita Monaldi & Francesco Sorti, 2006
Translation copyright © Gregory Dowling, 2013
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.
ebook ISBN: 978-0-85790-570-3
The publishers acknowledge investment from Creative Scotland towards the publication of this volume.
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available on request from the British Library.
Any reference to places, people and events – however bizarre they may seem – is not the fruit of our imagination but taken from sources of the period. We ask readers, whenever they have any doubt as to the truthfulness of what they are reading, to consult the endnotes and the bibliography, where they will find fully documented proof. What we especially enjoy is digging out of the archives those oddities of history which, were they not true, would be considered implausible.
“The horrendous battle is no longer between Trojans and Achaeans, but now the Danaans are fighting even with the immortals.”
“Jove the Father created a third lineage of talking men, a brazen one, in no way similar to the silver one: sprung from ash-trees, violent and terrible.
They were keen on the works of Mars, bearers of grief,
and all sorts of violence; they ate no wheaten food,
but were hard of heart like adamant, fearful men.”
(HOMER, Iliad, and HESIOD, Works and Days, in: B.A. BORGESE, Rubè)
Rome, January 1711
Vienna, February 1711
Day the First—9th April 1711
Day the Second—10th April 1711
Day the Third—11th April 1711
Day the Fourth—12th April 1711
Day the Fifth—13th April 1711
Day the Sixth—14th April 1711
Day the Seventh—15th April 1711
Day the Eighth—16th April 1711
Day the Ninth—17th April 1711
Day the Tenth—18th April 1711
Paris: Events from 1711 to 1713
Paris, 6th January 1714
Vienna, December 1720
List of Pieces of Music Performed in Veritas
The great room is all a-glitter, with the bronze of its furnishings and spiral decorations, and its glowing candles.
Abbot Melani keeps me waiting. It’s the first time, in over thirty years.
Until today, whenever I arrived at our appointments I had always found him already waiting, tapping his foot impatiently. But now it is my turn to gaze continually towards the severe monumental doorway by which I entered over half an hour ago. Defying the freezing, snow-laden wind that sweeps in and sets the doors creaking on their hinges, I vainly strain my ears and eyes for the first signs of the Abbot’s arrival: the drumming hooves of the four-horse carriage; the first glimpse, in the torchlight, of the horses’ plumed heads as they draw the ceremonial black carriage to the foot of the entrance staircase, where four old footmen, huddled in their snow-dusted greatcoats, are waiting for their even older master, ready to open the carriage door and help him, one last time, to descend.
As I wait, I let my eyes wander. The room is richly ornamented. From the arches hang great drapes with words embroidered in gold; the walls are swathed in brocaded mantles, and veils adorned with beads of silver form a gallery of honour. Columns, arches and pilasters of sham marble lead towards the central baldachin, which is a sort of truncated pyramid resting on a platform six or seven steps above floor level and surrounded by a triple row of candelabras.
At the top, two winged silver creatures, kneeling on one leg, their arms outstretched and the palms of their hands raised heavenwards, perch in expectation.
Twisting branches of myrtle and ivy adorn the four sides of the baldachin, each of which proudly bears the coat of arms – picked out in fresh flowers, apparently plucked straight from the hothouses of Versailles – of the Veneto nobility: a piglet on a green field. At each corner stands a flaring torch on a tall silver tripod, adorned with the same coat of arms.
Despite the grandeur of the Castrum and the splendid accoutrements, there are very few people around me; apart from the musicians (who have already taken their places and uncased their instruments) and the valets in their black, red and golden livery (who, with their freshly shaven faces, stand motionless as statues holding ceremonial torches), I can only see down-at-heel noblemen looking on enviously and a crowd of workmen, servants and gossiping women, who, despite the late hour and the icy cold of the winter night, gaze around themselves in ecstasy, waiting for the procession.
Taking its impulse from my eyes, my memory starts to wander as well. It abandons the snow and the leaden Parisian winter of the deserted Place des Victoires which lies over the threshold, where biting northern wind swirls around the equestrian statue of the old King, and it swoops back, far back, to the gentle slopes of the Eternal City on its seven hills, to the top of the Janiculum Hill, and the dazzling heat of a Roman summer many years ago. It was on that occasion, surrounded by different nobility, amid more ethereal architecture of papier-mâché, with a different orchestra trying out music for a different event and valets holding torches that would illuminate another story, that I caught sight of a carriage trundling along the driveway of Villa Spada.
How strange are the workings of destiny: at that time I had no idea that it was about to reunite me with Abbot Melani after seventeen years of silence; this time I know for sure that Atto is going to arrive, but the carriage that is bearing him towards me refuses to appear on the horizon.
My train of thought is briefly broken by one of the players, who bumps into me accidentally as he climbs down from the platform. I raise my eyes:
Obsequio erga Regem
In my whole life, I have only attended one such event. Then too it was a cold night and it was snowing, or raining, I think. There was certainly cold and rain and darkness within my heart.
On that occasion too I was in Atto’s company. We were part of a great bustling crowd: people were streaming into the room from all sides. Every corner was so packed that Abbot Melani and I could only elbow forward two paces every quarter of an hour; it was impossible either to advance or to retreat and we could see nothing but the ceiling decorations and the inscriptions hanging from the arches or placed at the tops of the capitals.
Ob Hispaniam assertam
Ob Galliam triumphatam
Ob Italiam liberatam
Ob Belgium restitutum
There were four columns bearing mottoes. They were of the Doric order, the symbol of heroes, and very tall: about fifty feet, in imitation of the historic columns of Rome, the Antonine and the Trajan. Between them, on the Castrum, an imitation night sky made of veils was adorned with golden flames and gathered upwards in the centre, in the shape of a crown, by gold cords and sashes tied by four gigantic buckles in the form of majestic eagles, with their heads resting on their chests.
Alongside them, Glory, with rays radiating from her head (in imitation of Claritas on the coins of Emperor Constance), held a laurel crown in her left hand and a crown of stars in her right.
Behind us, just beyond the great doorway, twenty-four valets were awaiting their lord. Suddenly the hubbub died down. Everyone fell silent and a glimmering light assailed the darkness: it came from the flaring white torches borne by the scions of the nobility.
He had arrived.
The sound of drumming hooves coming to a halt on the pavement outside jolts me from my memories. The four footmen, palely gleaming with snow in the winter night, are finally moving. Atto is here.
The candle flames flicker and blur before my eyes, while the doors of the church where I am awaiting him are thrown open, the church of Notre Dame des Victoires, the basilica of the Barefoot Augustinians. From the black carriage emerges the red velvet of the bier, glistening in the torchlight: Atto Melani, Abbot of Beaubec, King’s Gentleman, Cittadino Originario of the Most Serene Republic, many-time Conclavist, is preparing to make his solemn entrance.
The old servants bear the coffin on their shoulders; it is engraved with the piglet on a green field, Atto’s coat of arms. From beneath the gallery of honour formed by the black veils with silver beads, some mourners make their way through the two wings of bystanders: they are the few people to whom the formerly illustrious name of Atto Melani, the last witness of an age now swept away by war, still – perhaps – means something. The four footmen proceed right to the heart of the Castrum doloris, the funereal catafalque, and, having mounted the steps of the truncated pyramid, they consign the corpse of their old master to the open arms of the two silver genuflecting angels, the palms of whose upturned hands finally receive what they have been waiting for.
On the catafalque hangs a funeral drape of black velvet with silver fringes, on which is embroidered in golden characters:
Abbas Atto Melani Pistoriensis in Etruria,
Pietate erga Deum
Obsequio erga Regem
Ω. Die 4. Ianuarii 1714. Ætatis suæ octuagesimo octavo
Dominicus Melani nepos mestissimus posuit
The same words will be engraved on the sepulchral monument that Atto’s nephew has already commissioned from the Florentine sculptor Rastrelli. The Augustinian Fathers have granted the site in a side chapel close to the high altar, opposite the sacristy door. Atto will therefore be buried here, as he wished, in the same church where lie the mortal remains of another Tuscan musician: the great Giovan Battista Lulli.
“Pietate erga Deum / Obsequio erga Regem / Illustris”: the words are repeated on the two side columns, only the nearer of which I had been able to read before. “Illustrious for his devotion to God and his obedience to the King”: in reality, the former virtue is in conflict with the latter, and no one knows this better than I.
The orchestra begins the funeral mass. Wecrato singing:
Crucifixus et sepultus est
“Crucified and buried,” intones his reedy voice. I can make out nothing else, everything flickers and wavers around me: the faces, colours and lights blur like a painting that has fallen into water.
Atto Melani is dead. He died here, in Paris, in rue Plastrière, in the parish of Saint Eustache, the day before yesterday, 4th January 1714, at two in the morning. I was with him.
“Stay with me,” he said, and breathed his last.
I will stay with you, Signor Atto: we made a pact, I made you a promise, and I intend to abide by it.
It matters not how many times you broke our pacts, how many times you lied to the twenty-year-old boy servant and then to the father and family man. This time there will be no surprises for me: you have already fulfilled your obligation towards me.
Now that I am almost the same age that you were when we first met, now that your memories are mine, that your old passions are flaring up in my breast, your life is my life.
It was thanks to a journey that I found you again, three years ago, and now another one, the supreme journey of death, is bearing you away to other shores.
Safe journey, Signor Atto. You will get what you asked of me.
“Vienna? And why on earth should we go to Vienna?” My wife Cloridia stared at me wide-eyed with surprise.
“My dear, you grew up in Holland, you had a Turkish mother, you came here to Rome all by yourself when you weren’t even twenty, and now you’re scared of a little trip to the Empire? What am I supposed to say, seeing that I’ve never been beyond Perugia?”
“You’re not telling me we’re going to make a trip to Vienna; you’re telling me we should go and live there! Do you happen to know any German?”
“Well, no . . . not yet.”
“Give it to me,” she said, and she irritably snatched the document from my hand.
She read it through again for the umpteenth time.
“And just what is this donation? A piece of land? A shop? A job as a court servant? It doesn’t explain anything!”
“You heard the notary, just as I did: we’ll find out when we get there, but it’s certainly something of great value.”
“Right. We’ll go all the way there, clambering over the Alps, and then perhaps we’ll find it’s just another trick played by that scoundrel your Abbot, who’ll exploit you for some other crazy adventure and then throw you away like an old rag, leaving you penniless into the bargain!”
“Cloridia, think for a moment: Atto is eighty-five years old. What crazy adventures do you think he’s likely to embark on now? For a long time I thought he was dead. It’s quite something that he’s actually hired a notary to pay off his old debt to me. He must feel the end approaching and now he wants to set his conscience at rest. In fact, we should be thanking God for granting us such an opportunity when things are so hard for us.”
My wife lowered her eyes.
For two years things had been bad, extremely bad, for us. The winter of 1709 had been very severe, with endless snow and ice. This had led to a bitter famine, which, together with the ruinous war that had been dragging on for seven years over the Spanish throne, had thrown the Roman people into dire poverty. My family and I, with the new addition of a six-year-old son, had not been spared this fate: a year of bad weather and frosts, something never seen before in Rome, had made our smallholding unproductive and wiped out my prospects on the land. The decline of the Spada family and the consequent abandonment of the villa at Porta Sa
And so the list of our debts increased and in the end, in order to survive, we were forced to take the most painful step: the sale, in favour of the moneylenders of the ghetto, of our small house and holding, bought twenty-six years earlier with the little nest egg left us by my father-in-law of blessed memory. We found shelter in the city, taking lodgings in a basement that we had to share with a family from Istria; at least it had the advantage of not being too damp and maintaining a fairly constant temperature in winter, even in the hardest frost, thanks to the fact that it had been dug into the tufo.
In the evening we ate black bread and broth with nettles and grass. And in the day we got by on acorns and other berries that we scraped together and ground up to make a kind of loaf, garnishing it with little turnips. Shoes soon became a luxury and gave way, even in winter, to wooden clogs and slippers stitched together at home from old rags and hemp-twine.
I could find no work, none at least worthy of the name. My slight build often counted against me, for example in any job that involved lifting or carrying. And so in the end I had been reduced to taking on the vilest and most sordid of jobs, one that no Roman would ever dream of accepting, but the only one in which I had an advantage over family breadwinners of greater stature: a chimney-sweep.