A Cardinal's fascination
Having sharply instructed his ageing manservant to stop fussing and leave him alone for a while, Cardinal Domenico Grimani bolted the door against further intrusion and stood for a moment before deciding what to do next. The day had been busy and complex and his gout was troubling him yet again so it was time to rest the body at least, if not his mind. With some difficulty, he removed his outer robes and sighed with relief. As they lay crumpled on the floor, he once more admired their quality. They were sumptuous and ornately embroidered; green and gold Venetian brocade. Of course, they were the latest style and for most, prohibitively expensive but they were necessary accessories to his status and he wore them for effect; unfortunately, that didn’t make them any lighter.
Taking a sheaf of well-thumbed papers from an elaborately carved Moorish table beside the bed, he browsed through them once more, determined to find any inaccuracies if they were to be found. So far, nothing beyond the misspelling of an artist’s name had come to light and he was impressed. During the previous year, Marcantonio Michiel had compiled an inventory of his own vast collection of art, paying particular attention to his collection of painted works by Northern European artists. It was an exercise Grimani thought necessary but if it were to be done, he demanded accuracy. Such a document would be necessary after his death, so that nobody would be left in any doubt as to what lay where and what the value was. He hadn’t expected such careful attention to detail from Michiel; he was after all, a Venetian patrician with all the airs and graces one would expect but it was clear he’d taken the task seriously and had travelled throughout northern Italy in search of collections to record for his Notizia dópere del disegno. The cardinal saw it not only as a codicil to his will but also as an important historical document and thus worthy of close critical inspection. There were over one hundred and forty, handwritten pages many of them devoted to his own collection and that was a source of pride in itself. Grimani had every intention of donating more of his considerable number of sculptures and paintings to the Venetian state after his death but had stipulated that that could only happen if the works would be shown permanently in a room dedicated in his own honour; he was the donor after all. Not entirely trusting the executors of his will to carry out his wishes to the letter, the inventory was a vital document; in that way, there was less risk of important pieces going missing. Despite stinging eyes and the beginnings of a headache, he read further;
‘The canvas of Hell with the great diversity of monsters was by the hand of Hieronimo Bosch…’ that was correct, as were the references to the Hermit Saints triptych and the Crucified Martyr panel.
He made a mental note to inform Michiel of his last purchase: a painting with the whale swallowing Jonah. Should he insist on the spelling as Hieronimo or should it be Italianised to Girolamo? Should Bosch become Bassi? These were mere details but as an art collector who was well aware of the importance of his collection and thus his bequest to history, attention to the details was vital.
Thinking of his Bosch works, he had a sudden urge to visit them and once again let his imagination roam through the fantastic scenes the Fleming had created. What was the attraction of these northern artists? Current Italian art was as fine as anything that had ever been produced including the great works of antiquity; the human figure had never been so accurately portrayed either in marble or on a canvas, so why did he find the somewhat primitive representations of Bosch, Patinir and Memling so appealing? He rested his head in his hands to muse on what he found to be a troubling dilemma. As always, he could only conclude that the Bosch works in particular, reflected a last burst of energy from the culture of the last two hundred years. Everything in the world was now in a state of flux; from the machinations within the Church to the explosion of new artists, thinkers and explorers; everything was changing and he took comfort in the way that Bosch’s paintings could be read like a book. It was all there to see for those who were able to recognise the symbolism. He felt that even the humblest soul could understand Bosch and in that way, the simplicity of the style was reachable for everyone. Yet on an intellectual level, Bosch was clearly far more complex than that. This was a man who could represent man’s fears and nightmares like no one else. Besides that, in his scenes there were clear criticisms of authority to be seen, both of the secular system and that of the Church itself. Sometimes, these satires were clever and even amusing and almost always based on uncomfortable truths. They reflected some of the current thought amongst the masses of Europe; those trends, which were leading to disaffection and even, open rebellion. Was Bosch a major blasphemer then, a seditionist? He was dead now of course but an artist, or a writer, was able to live on through his work; his influence continued from beyond the grave and thus could be extremely dangerous. The cardinal found Bosch interesting and yet confusing, frustrating even. Was it a sin to admire the work of this potential sinner of the highest order? As a man who left little to chance, he needed to know more about the man and his background and to that end was pleased he had sent Pietro to Flanders to investigate. If anyone could establish the true nature of a man, it was Pietro; he was as close to the Inquisition as a Florentine friar could be and yet he tempered his zeal with worldliness and understanding of the human condition. Apart from that, for years, they had shared a quest to find ways of relieving their mutual gout and despite the gulf in their status, he thought of the man as a friend. Understandably, that friend hadn’t been at all pleased to be sent north in the autumn; that was evident despite his courtly acquiescence but Grimani knew that no one was as trustworthy or fast in his faith as Fra Pietro and besides which, he was irrationally curious as to what the man would discover about Hieronimo Bosch.
As always, thinking about his art inspired and reinvigorated him. His tiredness and aching joints temporarily forgotten, he left his bed and walked somewhat stiffly over to his desk under the window.
There were of course greater matters that demanded his attention. His art works, though important as relief from the weighty matters of state, were secondary to his great ambition though not, as some would have it, necessary for its success. That ambition, to rise to the highest possible position in the church, had been thwarted twice but had not yet been completely abandoned.
Very few men in the whole of Italy had Domenico Grimani’s experience in the intrigues and convoluted negotiations that current political diplomacy demanded. No one had walked the tightrope between success and failure as successfully as he had. He had been ambassador in Rome and lived there many years building up a network of contacts and political relationships. As a result, relations between the Serenissima and Rome had been more or less peacefully maintained except for the debacle at Agnadel in 1509, when Venice had been heavily defeated and forced to seek terms. Grimani felt that he could hardly blamed for that: the anti-Venetian forces comprised the Emperor Maximilian, Ferdinand of Aragon and Louis XII of France as well as a gloating Rome. He found it ironic that the last great coalition of those powers should be ranged against Venice and not against the growing Ottoman power in the East but had taken great pleasure in playing them off against each other in the years after. In fact the defeat at Agnadel had worked in his favour and instead of ruining his career as a top diplomat, it had led to his being respected as a brilliant mediator between the courts of St Mark and St. Peter. He compared it to a pot of simmering water; always at boiling point but rarely boiling over and that was widely acknowledged to be the result of his machinations, negotiations and deal making. Thus, when Pope Julius II died in 1513, it not only removed an implacable foe but also opened the way for Cardinal Grimani to put himself forward as a serious candidate for the succession. Unfortunately, a career diplomat such as Grimani made as many enemies as friends, not only in Italian circles but also in Spain and at the Emperor’s court. Their combined opposition scuppered his plans and instead Jean de Medici was anointed Leo X. Not for the first time, Grimani lost out to the Hapsburg hatred of the Serenissima and not only that but to a Medici too. It had hurt, if only because he genuinely thought he was the best man for the position and had been looking forward to implementing some of his humanist ideas as well as plundering some of Rome’s art treasures but on the other hand, he understood the decision. How could he not? In the service of the Venetian cause, he had been responsible for the manipulation of dozens of princes and politicians during his life: to fall victim to similar plots and subterfuges was unfortunate but came with the job.
Similarly, he could understand why his second attempt also failed. After Leo’s death at the end of 1521, he put himself forward once more, only to be rejected in favour of a Dutchman, Adrianus Floriszoon. That was a clever northerner, now Bishop of Tortosa in Spain and Domenico Grimani had no personal quarrel with the man he had had several dealings with over the years. His second failure was more due to his to his own predilection for natural nepotism. If Domenico was the schemer, his father Antonio was the doer. Already patriarch of a patrician family, his father had amassed a fortune warring and dealing in the Levant and paved the way financially for Domenico to become the skilled churchman, politician, bon viveur and great collector he was now but Antonio was politically accident prone. A defeat with the Venetian fleet against the Turks led to charges of treason and enforced exile. It took many years and all of Domenico’s influence and cleverness to restore his father’s name. This led eventually to Antonio’s election to the position of Doge earlier the previous year. Domenico Grimani was nothing if not loyal to his family and thus repaid his father for the vital support of his youth. Not only that but he worked tirelessly to promote the fortunes of various nephews and other family members until the Grimanis could be counted on as one of the greatest and most powerful Italian families. The results of this were predictable when it came to Domenico’s renewed attempt to gain the throne of St. Peter. Not only were his enemies spread through other lands but throughout his own sphere of influence too. The idea of a Grimani leading both Rome and Venice was just too intimidating for most and his rejection was almost a foregone conclusion.
Chapter 4; Part 2
He stood up and gazed out of the window at the lowering clouds gathering above the rooftops; it was cold outside and the air was full of moisture from the Adriatic; not uncommon for the time of year but uncomfortable nonetheless. Thoughts raced through his mind as they always did. His family were renowned for their excessive energy and one of his great skills was the ability to deal with several things in his mind at once but now he just felt tired. The idea of a third attempt at the papacy was already long formulated; another of his qualities was the refusal ever to be beaten but he knew that a third failure would be final. At sixty-one, he worried that his energy was waning but hoped it was only temporary; just looking at what his father was still able to achieve always inspired him although just at this moment he felt older than his parent; much older!
The following morning the sun forced its way through the layers of cloud and ground-hugging mist; albeit a watery, Autumnal sun, that bathed the buildings and canals in pools of soft focus but failed to warm the body. The cardinal woke up with the first light, nevertheless refreshed and optimistic and feeling that his problems were far less great than he had feared. His first meeting of the day was with Daniel van Bomberghen, a Flemish entrepreneur, merchant and printer from whom he’d bought his Bosch works amongst others. Returning from a trip to Antwerp, he was only in Venice en route to Florence but Grimani didn’t want to miss the opportunity of seeing what he had to offer, besides which, he liked him immensely despite his ability to strike a very hard deal indeed.
As he strode single-mindedly across the square towards the Ducal palace where his art works were on display, he quickly outpaced his retainer and the soldier employed as his bodyguard, such was his enthusiasm for the appointment. Unfortunately, the puddles splashed up inordinate amounts of mud onto his robes and he cursed in a manner not befitting one of the highest ranked cardinals in the land. He took his frustrations out on those following;
“Can’t you two hurry yourselves? I must be on time for this meeting; Signor Van Bomberghen has little time to dally and has only agreed to this meeting as a favour to me.”
The soldier, who was actually little more than a boy, gave his arm to the older man whose gout was even worse than Grimani’s and tried to hasten proceedings.
‘To his credit,’ thought the Cardinal and decided not to chastise them further; besides which the two contrasting figures stumbling across the deserted square with Venetian palaces as a backdrop would have made a perfect scene for a painting; the parable of the Good Samaritan perhaps; Raphael could have done it beautifully. He intensely disliked the idea of being escorted wherever he went but the reality was that he had enemies, even in Venice and if nothing else, an armed escort made it less likely that an assassin could slip a stiletto between his ribs. Plenty of people would have paid to learn of that particular crime.
Reaching the steps of the palace, he mused as to what Van Bomberghen might have for him: a rare book, a painting, a sculpture, or a wonderful Flemish tapestry perhaps.
He found Daniel van Bomberghen a fascinating character. Although more or less permanently based in Venice where his publishing house was extremely successful, he was a member of an important family of merchants from Antwerp; buying and selling were in his blood. Apart from his publishing activities, he traded in cloth and other merchandise but especially in tapestries, a luxury item currently imported on a large scale into Italy from Flanders. That in itself would have made him an attractive figure for Grimani, who was constantly looking out for new acquisitions but he was also intellectually inclined and showed a keen interest in the art of painting as well as books. Domenico Grimani could talk to him on several levels and thoroughly enjoyed exchanging opinions as well as negotiating prices.
After some enquiry and a journey to one of the downstairs rooms, he found Van Bomberghen standing in front of the line of panels lined up like soldiers on parade. Engrossed in his study, he didn’t hear the cardinal’s approach.
“How do you do it Daniel? No one is allowed free access to these chambers and yet you manage to charm your way to the heart of my treasures!”
The man turned in surprise. He had a weathered face and a shock of still blond hair peeking out from under the sweep of his fine velvet hat. Grimani was always reminded of a seafarer he had once known; a world traveller whose face revealed the extent of his experience but Van Bomberghen’s face also showed refinement in his open expression and blue eyes; features that were doubtless frequently used, to lull his customers into a false sense of security.
“Cardinal”, he bowed exaggeratedly, “If you recall, you gave instructions on my last visit that I was to be given free access to all your artworks! I needed no charm to gain entry; your word is always good enough and besides I was remembered. May I say how well you look?”
Grimani chuckled; he had no idea if he had given such permission but it didn’t matter, Van Bomberghen may have been a dealer but he was utterly trustworthy, a major part of his success in attracting a wide clientele.
“You may indeed Daniel though I have to admit that the years are beginning to take their toll. I fight against it with God’s help but the truth is, I can’t do what I once did and maintaining control over the flock never gets easier.”
“Ah but an older, more experienced shepherd knows the ways of his sheep better than anyone. After all, everyone knows the Grimani family is still a force to be reckoned with.”
“That’s kind of you to say and as I’m sure you are aware of my humiliation in January, all the kinder. Let us move on to other matters. I know your time is short and I appreciate your taking a detour to meet with me Daniel. Have you something interesting for me? My sources tell me you’ve arrived with a fascinating package; or is that merely something in transit, for some wealthy Florentine perhaps?”
Now it was van Bomberghen’s turn to laugh.
“It’s true; I must be in Florence before the end of the week. Either your spies are very efficient or you are very perceptive Cardinal. Actually, I know both are true but I hope that I have something that may still surprise you.”
As if on cue, three servants entered the room, carrying four separate packages wrapped in cloth. Cardinal Grimani clapped his hands in delight.
“Daniel, I am surprised. What are they, paintings, a triptych? No, four panels, an altarpiece perhaps. By whose hand? Please, have them opened, I can barely wait.”
While the works were being carefully unwrapped, Van Bomberghen stared at the Cardinal.
“May I say Your Grace, of all my many customers; you are the only one who buys works with such enthusiasm. Please don’t be insulted but it is just like seeing a child with a new plaything and a delightful sight.”
“I’m not insulted Daniel, after all, I’m rapidly approaching my second childhood and there are few enough things that bring me pleasure these days but this is a treat. Are they panels? It is an altarpiece, how wonderful and if I’m not mistaken it displays all the attributes of a Bosch. Let me look more closely.”
Grimani took his newly acquired and finely ground spectacles from a bejewelled case and perched them on the bridge of his substantial nose. As the reflected light from the water outside splashed through the high windows, flowed across the ceiling and walls and lit the room in a constantly moving kaleidoscope, the two men huddled together to pore over the small panels of wood that fascinated the Cardinal so much.
“Is it one series Daniel? I can’t see any related theme here except the fact that they resemble scenes from the Hereafter. If it is an altar piece surely there should be a fifth panel; one in the centre; a Last Judgement of some kind; then it would make more sense I feel.”
“You may be right Your Grace; there are two panels clearly associated with Paradise on earth and in Heaven and two that are obviously hellish but I too felt that a central panel would have made it complete. It may exist; I shall certainly seek it out if you are interested in the others.”
“Of course I’m interested, at the right price!”
The two men exchanged knowing smiles; negotiations would come later but first it was necessary to establish the nature of the purchase.
“Bosch has painted these I assume; they have all his trademarks.”
“They are verified as works by Jeroen Bosch yes, though I cannot tell you precisely when they were finished; my contact was a little vague on that point. One thing is certain, they come directly from his estate; there is no previous ownership so far as I can establish.”
“That makes them cheaper then? With only one transaction thus far, the price has not yet been raised?”
“As you wish Cardinal; though if you find them ‘cheap’ we will find out later.”
“Indeed we will Daniel. As you know, I’m more concerned with quality than price but I must say, I find these astonishing works; his use of light in the panels of Hell, is truly evocative. Even if there is no theme and even if, as I suspect, they do not form a cohesive whole, I still want them, they are such fine examples of the genre. First however, tell me what you think. I am interested to hear your own assessment of them though not of course from the viewpoint of a salesman. You know I am interested therefore over-praising them will have no extra effect.”
“I have far too much respect for your perceptiveness Your Grace; I wouldn’t dream of trying to pull the wool over such far-seeing eyes. Do you notice the fountain in the first panel? Do you not find that very Italian; Florentine perhaps? The style seems to me very familiar and unusual for Bosch. The landscape and vistas too are Italianate to my eye and I wonder why he used such a distinctive reference. I don’t know who originally commissioned the work but maybe he was from these parts. In any case, it appears the sale didn’t go through.”
“You’re correct, it is of Florentine design. I have a painting by Jacopo del Sellaio that shows just such a fountain. It was once rumoured that Bosch visited Florence, around twenty years ago but I don’t believe it do you? If that were the case, surely his work would show far more Italian influence. Albrecht Dürer came here from the north and Jan van Scorel too and directly after their visits their work took on a much more ‘Italian’ character, which I find completely logical. How could you fail to be influenced by the artists of today, with their new realism and their references to ancient Rome and Greece? Yet Bosch seemed to use a variety of references, some of them highly original and his paintings are symbolic hybrids.”
“I think you’re correct in your assessment and I’m almost sure he never visited the peninsular, in fact, it is said that he rarely left his home town. He may have seen sketches of such fountains brought by various merchants; there are well-established trading links between ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Italy. Personally I find him the antithesis of current Italian art, though his handling of naturalistic details is superb…”
“…and often the master of those who ply their trade here. Yes, I agree though I believe he knew his market very well. His ‘monstri’ and ‘fantasticchierie’ are in such demand at the moment and have been for some years; they appeal to our taste for the exotic.”
“His use of pyrotechnics too; those paintings sell so well but then again, you Venetians love your firework displays.”
“We do, we do, though Bosch uses them to bring us directly to the fires of Hell. These panels especially are very powerful in that respect.”
“I’m curious Your Grace, as to why you find these Flemish artists so fascinating. You are surrounded her by some of the finest art the world has ever seen and yet your enthusiasm for these men and Bosch in particular is boundless.”
Grimani straightened up and rubbed the small of his back to ease the stiffness.
“Not an easy question Daniel. As you know my taste in art is eclectic to say the least; I like many beautiful things but it’s true, I do find these northern artists fascinating on many levels and not just as a collector who knows the value of his works. To me they can be as exotic as anything that comes out of Africa or the Levant, or even the new World, where I hear that even more extravagant depictions of monsters and demons are to be found in the pagan art. Take Bosch for instance, from what I’ve heard, he was a small-town artist, who took up where his father left off and began with traditional altar pieces for local churches. Yet something must have transformed the man because his work stretches the realms of understanding and imagination. He was clearly highly intelligent and versed in the teachings of the church regarding good and evil. His paintings are littered with symbols that have specific meanings and can be easily identified and interpreted and in that sense he is not original, it is the culmination of a long tradition. However, his strength lies in his cleverness and use of double meanings. I am sure he satirised everything he saw and that borders on criticism of the Church and the true faith. Should that be allowed? Should we burn his paintings as the products of a heretic? Yet, from what I hear, they are sought after in the highest courts of Europe and that fascinates me. I need to know more about him and I have sent Fra Pietro north to find out as much as he can. You know Pietro don’t you?”
Van Bomberghen nodded,
“Yes, reasonably well; he facilitated several contracts in Padua for me and I have reason to be grateful for the investigations he carried out to find out if a certain person was good for his money.”
“I know, I instructed him to help you if you needed it.”
If Van Bomberghen was surprised, he hid it well but bowed in acknowledgement of the favour nevertheless. Domenico Grimani was reminding him that that sort of favour should probably result in a discount later; it was all part of the game.
“Well then, you know that Pietro has the skills to discover truths and lies.”
Another veiled threat? Van Bomberghen had an excellent business relationship with Domenico Grimani but was well aware of the man’s power and influence. Fortunately, the Cardinal seemed to trust him and thus far, he hadn’t abused that trust but he also knew the friar, Pietro and respected his power even more. The man had indeed investigated two nobles on his behalf in Padua but with the zeal of a fanatic. That one man was subsequently burned alive for heresy bore witness to the thoroughness of Pietro’s work. It had been revealed to him by the Cardinal’s personal physician, himself a keen collector and a friend, though also a Jew, that Pietro was Grimani’s secret policeman and that he was far more dangerous than that. Apparently, his fervour for the task was equal to and more than the most feared members of the Inquisition. That particular branch of the church was now spreading its tentacles throughout Europe on the hunt for sinners. Though Jeroen Bosch was dead, if his family had anything to hide, Van Bomberghen pitied them the consequences of lying to Fra Pietro. He wondered too if Cardinal Grimani also had anything to fear from his henchman. If anyone lived life to the full, it was Grimani and his humanist ideals might not be appreciated by purists such as Pietro, who served more than one master. He was not surprised either that Grimani had been overlooked again for the position of Pope; there were many reasons and many ideologies stacked against him.
“Look at this first panel Daniel; Bosch suggests that even in Paradise on earth, evil is hiding in the bushes and look at the beast in the field! That makes the man so attractive to me; his ability to surprise with his imagery and the ability to make the viewer think and examine his own motives. Regard the second panel too; what a strange image is that, of a funnel of light leading to Heaven and yet I have heard of dying men seeing just such a tunnel and hearing the calls of angels before they die. It is a powerful idea don’t you think?
The two men pored over the panels and exchanged opinions for some time before Van Bomberghen tactfully raised the question of payment. The cardinal would have been happy to discuss the works for some time further but was astute enough to realise that whilst Van Bomberghen was genuinely interested in the expression of ideas through art, his primary purpose was to make a living buying and selling it. Negotiations began and were as always, tense and serious. The advantage ebbed and flowed between the two men until a deal acceptable to them both was struck and agreed. Grimani enjoyed the process almost as much as the acquisition itself; it was another way for him to hone his diplomatic skills but Van Bomberghen was always relieved when the contract was sealed. Grimani was no petty Italian noble whose vanity could be played like a harp, he was the toughest of them all and needed to be handled with velvet gloves; it was an exhausting experience and he was relieved when it was over and he could return to his rooms and rest before the journey to Florence.
The cardinal spent some time fussing and fretting over the placement of his new acquisitions before deciding that he needed some air but this time without escort. When the need arose, he had a well-practised routine whereby he would retire to an antechamber, remove his robes of office and disguise himself with a wide brimmed hat and a voluminous cloak with a large hood. In this manner, he could slip out of a side door and wander anonymously for as long as he liked through the streets and along the canals towards the Rialto. It was surprising what useful information could be gathered by just listening to the gossip in that market but mainly he just enjoyed the short-lived freedom from responsibility.
After about twenty minutes ambling unrecognised through the crowds and enjoying the early afternoon sunshine, he heard two churches sounding their bells at the same time, as if vying with each other to see who could first successfully complete the carillon. Their unbalanced chiming, exaggerated by the fact that a single note, from one of the bell sets was repeatedly flat.
During years of balancing on diplomatic tightropes, he had developed a sixth sense when it came to personal security. Whether it was that or the discordant bell, he was suddenly alerted to the fact that he was probably being followed. An initial flush of adrenalin, enabled him to thread his way through the streets as speedily as his gout would let him, towards his palace and took detours where he knew they were possible but his knowledge of the mazy thoroughfares of Venice was sketchy at best and he wanted to avoid being hunted into a dead end. It was perhaps best to confront his shadow in the open, where people could bear witness but how could he lure the spy into revealing himself? He hadn’t looked back, hadn’t actually seen anyone and for a second wondered if he was imagining it. Close inspection of the Bosch paintings had stimulated childhood fears of all things that crept in the dark but despite that, he decided to trust the chilling intuition that had saved him more than once in the past.
Walking slowly past market stalls draped with bolts of silks and cottons and feigning interest in various samples of cloth, he edged his way around and behind the colourful swags until he felt he must be just out of sight of his follower. Stumbling over the wooden struts along the backs of the wooden stalls, he re-emerged onto the street at a place where he guessed he would be behind the man. Sure enough, a short distance ahead was a blue-cloaked figure whose agitated body language suggested puzzlement at having lost sight of his prey. The street was busy enough but Cardinal Grimani had little doubt that this was his pursuer. He could have slipped away there and then and reached safety but he had an advantage and the curiosity was overwhelming. Hand on dagger and trembling somewhat from the tension, he approached and laid a restraining hand on the man’s shoulder.
“I wouldn’t react too violently if I were you my friend; I am perfectly capable of ending your life here and now if necessary, without question or reason. Now reveal yourself.”
He did not intend to do any such thing of course; apart from the horror of the publicity and what it would do to his reputation, Venetian courts were renowned for the severity of their punishments for crimes in the streets. Vendettas were a plague and assassinations were commonplace. Even someone of his stature could not hope to keep such an incident quiet. He hoped that the threat would be enough and so it proved to be. The man turned slowly round and reluctantly removed his hood.
The ferocious light of the midday sun struck his head from the side and threw up his features in sharp relief. Grimani gasped; there was a good reason for the cowl apart from the current necessity for concealment. With gimlet-like sharpness, the man’s eyes glared at him from under their heavy and lashless hoods. They were close together either side of a warty and hooked nose that flared with every breath. A thin upper lip curled above the blackened stumps and cavity of his mouth and underneath the jaw stuck out as if challenging someone to strike it. The cardinal surmised that for many the challenge had been hard to resist. Together with the wisps of hair poking out from under his skullcap and the general demeanour of filth and ill health, the man presented a familiar image from Grimani’s childhood, of the peasants in the countryside around Venice. That was not shocking but the fact that he had lost his ear and much of the upper left side of his cheek and temple was. The expectation of symmetry in the face was replaced by a horror that it didn’t exist. Gristle and flaps of skin hung uselessly down the left side of his head and neck and the cardinal couldn’t help but recoil. Close contact with the Plague was to be avoided at all costs and here was a creature breathing foul and undoubtedly infected vapours into his face but he didn’t dare let go of the man’s shoulder before knowing his purpose.
“Why were you following me? Who are you working for?”
The man leered at him, his eyes flicking from left to right as if seeking an escape route.
“I know who you are; oh yes I do, I know you’re the great Cardinal and your threats mean nothing to me. I could blow you over with a breath old man. I could find your heart with my blade before you could blink: if there’s a heart to pierce that is. I’m not afraid of death and you can see by my demeanour why. I have nothing to fear, so you can remove your hand and listen ‘cos I’ve got a message for you and once I’ve delivered it, I’ll be gone. You won’t see me again except perhaps in your nightmares.”
The man chuckled with a gargling, croaking sound that made Grimani want to swallow and cough but he removed his hand anyway and regretted his earlier bravado. This was no situation for one of the most important men in Italy to find himself and he decided there and then that if he survived this, he would limit his excursions in future.
“What message? Who from? I can give you a coin for the right information and pray for your soul.”
“Strange that you offer me a coin and not redemption my lord but maybe you can see my destiny and my final destination. I’m not interested in your money and even less interested in your indulgence, even if you were offering that. My reward will come later and has far more value. The message is this: -
'The man who sells deceives but not with the goods he sells, the more in what he believes. The Holy Father eschews the Christian who plays the Jew almost as much as the Jew who is and the Jew who was but now is not. The man who sells, wears masks to play the different parts yet seeks to protect the admirer of his arts.”
With that, he thrust a scrap of parchment into the cardinal’s hand and slipped away with surprising speed through the people around the stalls.
Grimani glanced at the paper, noticed that the message was written word for word there and not daring to look anyone in the face, made his way hurriedly back to the palace. He didn’t understand the message as yet but there was time to decipher it later. His first priority was to rest his aching feet in a footbath and apply a cold compress to his throbbing head.