Florence, June 15, 1300, toward midnight
HE HAD filled several sheets of paper with his fine script, and now the candle on the table burned low. Several hours must have passed since he had started writing his account. He broke off to read over what he had set down.
He felt drained. A migraine pounded in his temples, and sleep was still a long way off.
“Of course, this is how it is. The opposite theory defies reason and the facts,” he muttered, passing a hand across his forehead.
On the table stood a pitcher and two goblets. He poured water from the pitcher into one of the goblets until it overflowed, spilling to the ground, where it formed a puddle and then a little stream that trickled along the irregular bricks until it seeped into a crack and disappeared from view.
“It flows downward. It must flow downward,” he said aloud. And the ghost that stood before him nodded in agreement.
OUTSIDE, something broke the perfect silence of the night. Heavy steps approached his door, accompanied by a metallic din like the rattling of tin plates—or naked swords. His hand flew to the dagger that he always carried with him, in a pocket concealed inside his garment.
Armed men at his door, at that hour of night. How much time had passed since the curfew bell had sounded?
His eyes sought a sign, any sign that would restore his sense of time, but the dark sky beyond the narrow window showed no trace of dawn. He rose and extinguished the candle, then crouched beside the doorjamb, holding his breath.
Outside, the clanking continued, a sound like soldiers milling about. His hand tightened around the handle of his weapon. He heard two dull thumps at the door, and then a harsh voice calling his name.
Dante Alighieri, poet of Italy and now prior of Florence, bit his lip, uncertain what to do next. San Piero should be under the watch of the priory guards, especially at night. The ceremony in which he had been formally invested had just taken place two days ago. Were those scoundrels betraying him already?
“Messer Durante, are you in there? Open the door.”
He must not hesitate. Perhaps his powers were required for the public good. He hastened to don the stiff square biretta cap with its long veil, and put the gold signet ring engraved with lilies on his index finger. Then, after carefully arranging the folds of his garment to resemble a Roman toga, such as he had seen on the statues in Santa Croce, he lifted the latch.
A short, thickset man stood before him, dressed in chain mail that fell to below his knees. Over it, instead of the usual tabard with its emblazoned lily, he wore a coat of armor made of metal plates joined by leather thongs. His head was encased in a cylindrical helmet, like those worn by crusaders. A sword was strapped to his shoulder, and two daggers made a fine display on his girdle.
“What do you want, you rogue?” Dante spoke harshly. “It is forbidden to go about the city at this hour. Only brigands and pickpockets dare to violate the curfew, and they pay for that on the gallows,” the poet went on in a threatening tone. The man at the door was dumbstruck. Despite his martial appearance, he did not seem like a dangerous sort. Even so, Dante kept his eyes fixed on the man’s hands: one held up an oil lamp; the other hung unarmed at his side. He would be easy to attack, Dante thought. An inch-wide gap between his helmet and the collar of his chain mail exposed his neck. His open visor, though harder to reach, offered passage for a mortal thrust.
“I am the Bargello,” the man finally said. “I am here because of my official function. And because of yours, given that they have appointed you prior and that we will all be dependent on you for two months.” His voice was plaintive, though he pulled himself up to his full modest height.
Dante leaned toward him, trying to read the features obscured by the helmet. Through the cross-shaped visor he glimpsed a prominent nose and small, close-set eyes, beady like a rat’s. Now he recognized him: it really was the Bargello, Captain of the Guard for the Commune. A thief in charge of other thieves.
He released his grip on the hilt of his dagger. “And what sorcery might bring our official functions together?”
“A crime has been committed in the church of Saint Jude, at the new walls.” The man hesitated, unsure of himself in the presence of the prior. “A crime that . . . perhaps requires the presence of the Commune’s authority,” he added nervously.
The Bargello, with difficulty, loosened the straps of his helmet and wrenched the heavy armor from his head, which emerged damp with sweat.
“We do not know anything yet,” he said. “But it would be best if you came to see with your own eyes.”
“Tell me first what happened.”
“Well, something . . . strange, unnatural . . .”
Dante began to lose patience. “Let me be the judge of what is or is not strange. Omne ignotum pro magnifico, as our elders used to say. Everything surprises us, if we lack knowledge of it.” He clapped him on the shoulder. “You are certainly not the man best suited to judge whether something has occurred in accordance with nature or against it. Only attentive study and full awareness of what is, together with a knowledge of what is not, entitle the learned scholar to draw the line between the ordinary and the marvelous. There is a passage in Lucan, in that regard, which you should ponder.”
“Yes . . . I understand,” the man said doubtfully.
“So then, tell me what is, not how it appears to you.”
The Bargello wiped the sweat from his face. “A man. Dead. At Saint Jude. Inside the church. Killed, I think.”
“And why do you want to involve the Commune, the highest authority, in such a matter? Is finding and arresting criminals not your job?”
“Yes, of course . . . but. . . . Well, I would prefer that you come see with your own eyes. I beg you.”
This last request seemed to have cost him a lot. Dante looked him straight in the face.
“One does not see with one’s eyes, Bargello, but with one’s mind. It is my mind that you require. You as well as all the other blind men. But you did well to turn to me. And thank Saint John the Baptist, the protector of us all, who willed that I become prior, if the circumstances are as grave as you represent.”
“Will you come, then?” the man repeated anxiously. “There is water on the ground here,” he added, pointing at the floor. Dante did not answer. He turned his gaze to the slice of sky beyond the window opening, staring at the stars, reading their patterns in the celestial vault. A strange way to begin his charge as helmsman of the Commune. These ill omens were making him uneasy.
He roused himself, abruptly raised his head and picked up the gilt cane he had set down on the chest. “Come with me,” he ordered, preceding the Bargello out the door.
They crossed the portico that led past the doors of the convent’s other cells. Dante thought about his five fellow priors, who must certainly be sunk in the turbid sleep of weak minds, populated by the specters conjured by lust and gluttony. Then he stopped, arresting the Bargello with his hand. “Why did you come looking for me?”
The other cleared his throat. He seemed embarrassed. “Because they tell me that you know letters better than anyone. You are a poet, are you not? You have written a book.”
“And in what special way could I, a poet, be of help to you?”
“There is something odd about this death.”
Dante decided not to take offense. What could he possibly say to this idiot?
“They say that of all the priors you are the most suited to . . .” The Bargello hesitated.
“Suited to what?”
“To . . . to look into secret matters.” The captain of the guard spoke those words in a particular tone, one of both admiration and suspicion. To his simple mind, secrets must seem the antechamber of crime, the poet thought. Perhaps the man considered Dante himself a potential criminal. When his term of office was over he would have to watch out for this Bargello. But for now he seemed sincere in his desire for a learned man’s help. He nervously wrung his hands, rhythmically shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
Dante started walking again and the Bargello followed him in silence.
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