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Chapter 22

We begin making trips back and forth from the carrel, replacing dozens of books, most of them on shelves where they don't belong. Paul only seems to care that they're out of sight.

Do you remember what was going on in Italy just before the Hypnerotomachia was published? he asks.

Just what was in the Vatican tour book.

Paul lifts another pile of books into my arms as we walk back into the darkness.

The intellectual life of Italy during Francesco's day revolves around a single city, he says.


But Paul shakes his head. Smaller than that. The size of Princeton-the campus, not the town.

I see how enchanted he is by what he's found, how real it's become for him already.

In that town, he says, you've got more intellectuals than anyone knows what to do with. Geniuses. Polymaths. Thinkers who are gunning for the big answers to the big questions. Autodidacts who have taught themselves ancient languages no one else knows. Philosophers who are combining religious points from the Bible with ideas from Greek and Roman texts, Egyptian mysticism, Persian manuscripts so old nobody knows how to date them. The absolute cutting edge of humanism. Think of the riddles. University professors playing Rithmomachia. Translators interpreting Horapollo. Anatomists revising Galen.

In my mind's eye the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore comes into focus. My father liked to call it the mother city of modern scholarship. Florence, I say.

Right. But that's only the beginning. In every other discipline, you've got the biggest names in Europe. In architecture you've got Brunelleschi, who engineered the largest cathedral dome in a thousand years. In sculpture you've got Ghiberti, who created a set of reliefs so beautiful that they're known as the doors of paradise. And you've got Ghiberti's assistant, who grows up to become the father of modern sculpture-Donatello.

The painters weren't bad either, I remind him.

Paul smiles. The single greatest concentration of genius in the history of Western art, all in this little town. Applying new techniques, inventing new theories of perspective, transforming painting from a craft into a science and an art. There must've been three dozen of them, like Alberti, who would've been considered first-class anywhere else in the world. But in this town, they're second-rate. That's because they're competing with the giants. Masaccio. Botticelli. Michelangelo.

As the momentum of his ideas increases, his feet move faster down the dark hallways.

You want scientists? he says. How about Leonardo da Vinci. You want politicians? Machiavelli. Poets? Boccaccio and Dante. And a lot of these guys were contemporaries. On top of it all, you have the Medici, a family so rich it could afford to patronize as many artists and intellectuals as the town could produce.

All of them, together, in the same small city, at basically the same time. The greatest cultural heroes in all of Western history, crossing each other in the streets, knowing each other on a first-name basis, talking to each other, working together, competing, influencing and pushing each other to go further than they could've gone alone. All in a place where beauty and truth are king, where leading families fight over who can commission the greatest art, who can subsidize the most brilliant thinkers, who can own the biggest library. Imagine that. All of that. It's like a dream. An impossibility.

We return to his carrel and he finally takes a seat.

Then, in the last few years of the fifteenth century, just before the Hypnerotomachia is written, something even more amazing happens. Something that every Renaissance scholar knows about, but that no one has ever connected with the book. Francesco's riddle kept talking about a powerful preacher in the land of his brethren. I just couldn't figure out what the connection could be.

I thought Luther wasn't until 1517. Colonna was writing in the 1490s.

Not Luther, he says. In the late 1400s, a Dominican monk was sent to Florence to join a monastery called San Marco.

Suddenly it dawns on me. Savonarola.

The great evangelical preacher, who galvanized Florence at the turn of the century, trying to restore the city's faith at any cost.

Exactly, Paul says. Savonarola's a straight arrow-the straightest you'd ever meet. And when he gets to Florence, he begins to preach. He tells people that their behavior is wicked, their culture and art are profane, their government is unjust. He says God looks unkindly on them. He tells them to repent.

I shake my head.

I know how it sounds, Paul goes on, but he's right. In a way, the Renaissance is a godless time. The Church is corrupt. The pope's a political appointee. Prospero Colonna, Francesco's uncle, allegedly dies of gout, and some people think Pope Alexander poisoned him because he came from a rival family. That's the kind of world it is, where people suspect the pope of murder. And that was only the beginning-they suspected him of sadism, incest, you name it.

Meanwhile, for all of its cutting-edge art and scholarship, Florence is in constant upheaval. Factions fight each other in the streets, prominent families plot against each other to gain power, and even though the city is supposedly a republic, the Medici control everything. Death is common, extortion and coercion are even more common, injustice and inequality are a rule of life. It's a pretty disturbing place, considering all the beautiful things that come out of it.

So Savonarola arrives in Florence and sees evil wherever he looks. He urges the citizens to clean up their lives, to stop gambling, to start reading the Bible, to help the poor and feed the hungry. At San Marco he begins to gain a following. Even some of the leading humanists admire him. They realize he's well read and conversant about philosophy. Little by little, Savonarola's on the rise.

I stop him. I thought this was still while the Medici controlled the city.

Paul shakes his head. Unfortunately for them, their newest heir, Piero, was a fool. He couldn't run the city. The people began to clamor for liberty, a hallowed cry in Florence, and finally the Medici were expelled. Remember the forty-eighth woodcut? The child in the chariot, butchering the two women?

The one Taft showed in his lecture.

Right. That's how Vincent always interpreted it. The punishment was supposed to be for treason. Did he say what he thought it meant?

No, He wanted the audience to solve it.

But he asked about the child in it. Why does he have a sword-something like that?

I can picture Taft standing beneath the image, his shadow cast onto the screen. Why does he make the women pull his chariot through the forest, then kill them that way? I say.

Vincent's theory was that the Cupid figure was supposed to be Piero, the new Medici heir. Piero behaved like a child, so that's how the artist represented him. Because of him, the Medici lost their hold on Florence and were thrown out. So the woodcuts show him retreating through the woods.

So who are the women?

Florence and Italy, Vincent says. By acting like a child, Piero destroyed them both.

Seems possible.

It's a decent interpretation, Paul agrees, patting his hand on the underside of his desk, searching for something. Just not the right one. Vincent refused to accept that the acrostic rule was the key. He would never believe that the first of those images was the important one. He could only see things his way.

The point is, when the Medici were expelled, the other leading families met to discuss a new government in Florence. The only problem was, no one trusted anyone else. In the end they agreed to let Savonarola take a place of authority. He was the one man everyone knew was incorruptible.

So Savonarola's popularity grows even more. People begin to take his sermons to heart. Shopkeepers start reading the Bible in their spare time. Gamblers aren't as open about their card games. Drinking and disorder seem to be on the decline. But Savonarola sees that the evils persist. So he steps up his program for civic and spiritual improvement.

Paul reaches even farther beneath his desk. With the sound of tape peeling, he produces a single manila envelope. Inside is a calendar he has drawn up in his own hand. When he flips through the pages, I can see unfamiliar religious holidays marked in red pen-saint's days, feast days-and in black a series of notes I can't make out.

It's February of 1497, he says, pointing at that month, two years before the Hypnerotomachia is published, and Lent is approaching. Now, the tradition was this: since Lent was a period of fasting and self-denial, the days leading up to it were a period of celebration, a huge festival, so people could enjoy themselves before Lent started. Just like today, that period was called Carnival. Since the forty days of Lent always start on Ash Wednesday, Carnival always culminates the day before-on Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras.

Flashes of what he's telling me seem familiar. My father must have told me some of this once, before he gave up on me, or I gave up on him. Or maybe it's just what little I learned in church, before I was old enough to choose how I spent my Sunday mornings.

Paul unearths another diagram. The title reads FLORENCE, 1500.

Carnival in Florence was a period of huge disorder, drunkenness, debauchery. Gangs of young men would bar street entrances and force people to pay a toll for safe passage. Then they would spend the money on alcohol and gambling.

He points at a large space in the middle of the drawing.

When they were all completely drunk, they would camp out around fires in the main square and finish the night in a huge brawl, each group throwing stones at the other. Every year people were hurt, even killed.

Savonarola, of course, is Carnival's most vocal opponent. In his eyes, a challenge has risen against Christianity, leading the people of Florence into temptation. And he recognizes that there's one force, more powerful than the others, contributing to the city's corruption. It teaches men that pagan authorities can rival the Bible, that wisdom and beauty should be worshiped in unchristian things. It leads men to believe that human life is a quest for earthly knowledge and satisfaction, distracting them from the only object that matters: salvation. The force is humanism. And its greatest advocates are the leading intellectuals of the city, the humanists.

That's when Savonarola comes up with the idea that's probably his greatest legacy to history. He decides that on Shrove Tuesday, the culminating day of Carnival, he will stage a huge event-something that will show the progress and transformation of the city, but at the same time remind the Florentines of their sinfulness. He lets the gangs of young men roam the city, but now he gives them a purpose. He tells them to collect unchristian objects from every neighborhood and bring them back to the main square. He puts all of the objects in a huge pyramid. And on that day, Shrove Tuesday, when the street gangs would usually be sitting around fires and fighting each other with stones, Savonarola has them building another kind of fire. Paul looks at his map, then fixes his eyes on me.

The bonfire of the vanities, I say.

Right. The gangs returned with cart after cart. They came back with cards and dice. Chessboards. Eye shadow, rouge pots, perfume, hair nets, jewelry. Carnival masks and costumes. But most importantly, pagan books. Manuscripts by Greek and Roman writers. Classical sculptures and paintings.

Paul returns his drawing to the manila envelope. His voice is somber.

On Shrove Tuesday, the seventh of February, 1497, the city came out to watch. Records say the pyramid was sixty feet high, two hundred and seventy feet around at its base. And all of it went up in flames.

The bonfire of the vanities becomes an unforgettable moment in Renaissance history. He pauses, looking past me at the scraps of paper on the wall. They heave faintly when the vent puffs air into the carrel. Savonarola becomes famous. Before long he's known throughout Italy and beyond. His sermons are printed and read in half a dozen countries. He's admired and hated. Michelangelo was captivated by him. Machiavelli thought he was a fake. But everyone had an opinion, and everyone admitted his power. Everyone.

I see where he's leading me. Including Francesco Colonna.

And that's where the Hypnerotomachia comes in.

So it's a manifesto?

Of sorts. Francesco couldn't stand Savonarola. To him, Savonarola represented the worst kind of fanaticism, everything that was wrong with Christianity. He was destructive. Vengeful. He refused to let men use the gifts God gave them. Francesco was a humanist, a lover of antiquity. He and his cousins spent their early years studying with the great instructors of ancient prose and poetry. By the time he was thirty, he had amassed one of the most important collections of original manuscripts in Rome.

Long before the first bonfire, he had been gathering art and books, employing merchants in Florence to buy up what they could and ship it to one of his family estates in Rome. It put a major rift between Francesco and his family, because they believed he was squandering his money on Florentine trinkets. But as Savonarola gained power, Francesco became more resolute: he couldn't bear to think of the pyramid going up in smoke, no matter what the cost to him or his fortune. Marble busts, Botticelli paintings, hundreds of priceless objects. And most of all, the books. The rare, irreplaceable books. He stood at the other end of the intellectual universe from Savonarola. To him, the greatest violence in the world was against art, against knowledge.

In the summer of 1497, Francesco travels to Florence, to see for himself. And what everyone else admires about Savonarola-his holiness, his ability to think about nothing but salvation-makes Francesco feel the deepest kind of hatred and fear. He sees what Savonarola is capable of doing: destroying the greatest artifacts of the first resurgence in classical learning since the fall of ancient Rome. He sees the death of art, the death of knowledge, the death of the classical spirit. And the death of humanism: the end of the quest to overstep boundaries and exceed limitations, to see the full possibility of thought.

That's what he wrote about in the second half of the book?

Paul nods again. Francesco wrote everything into it, all the things he was too scared to come out and say in the first half. He recorded what he saw in Florence, and what he feared. That Savonarola was growing in influence. That he would somehow earn the ear of the French king. That he had admirers throughout Germany and Italy. You can see it increasing, the longer Francesco writes. He became more and more convinced that there were legions of supporters behind Savonarola, in every country of Christendom. This preacher, he wrote, is only the beginning of a new spirit of Christianity. There will be uprisings of fanatical preachers, outbreaks of bonfires throughout Italy. He says Europe is on the brink of a religious revolution. And with the Reformation approaching, he's right, Savonarola won't be around to see it happen, but like you said, when Luther sets things into motion a few years later, he'll remember Savonarola as a hero.

So Colonna saw it all coming.

Yes. And after seeing Savonarola for himself, Francesco takes a stand. He decides to use his connections to do what very few other people in Rome, or anywhere in the West, could've done about it. Using a small network of trusted friends, he begins to collect even more great works of art and rare manuscripts. He communicates with a huge network of humanists and painters to gather together as many treasures, as many artifacts of human knowledge and achievement, as possible. He bribes abbots and librarians, aristocrats and businessmen. Merchants travel to cities across the continent for him. They go to the ruins of the Byzantine Empire, where ancient learning is still preserved. They go to infidel lands for Arabic texts. They go to monasteries in Germany, France, and the North. And the whole time, Francesco keeps his identity a secret, protected by his closest friends and humanist brothers. Only they know what he intends to do with all of these treasures.

Suddenly I remember the portmaster's diary. Genovese, wondering what could possibly be carried on such a small ship, coming from such an obscure port. Wondering why a nobleman like Francesco Colonna would be so interested in it.

He finds masterpieces, Paul continues. Works that no one has seen for hundreds of years. Titles no one knew even existed. Aristotle's Eudemus, Protrepticus, and Gryllus. Greco-Roman imitations by Michelangelo. All forty-two volumes by Hermes Trismegistus, the Egyptian prophet believed to be older than Moses. He finds thirty-eight plays of Sophocles, twelve by Euripides, twenty-three by Aeschylus, all of them considered lost today. In a single German monastery he finds philosophical treatises by Parmenides, Empedocles, and Democritus, all squirreled away for centuries by monks. A scout in the Adriatic discovers works by the ancient painter Apelles-the portrait of Alexander, the Aphrodite Anadyomene, and the line of Protogenes-and Francesco is so excited he tells the scout to buy them even if they might be fakes. A librarian in Constantinople sells him the Chaldaean Oracles for a small pig's weight in silver-and Francesco calls it a bargain because the oracles' author, Zoroaster the Persian, is the only known prophet older than Hermes Trismegistus. Seven chapters by Tacitus and a book by Livy appear at the end of Francesco's list as if they're nothing. He almost forgets to mention half a dozen works by Botticelli.

Paul shakes his head, imagining it. In less than two years, Francesco Colonna assembles one of the greatest libraries of ancient art and literature in the Renaissance world. He brings two seamen into his inner circle to captain his ships and move his cargo. He employs the sons of the trusted members of the Roman Academy to protect caravans traveling roads across Europe. He tests the men he suspects of treachery, recording their every move so he can cover his tracks. Francesco knew he could only trust his secret to a select few, and he was willing to do whatever it took to protect it. It's hitting me now, the full force of what my father and I stumbled onto: a single loose thread in a web of communication between Colonna and his assistants, a network designed for the sole purpose of protecting the nobleman's secret.

Maybe Rodrigo and Donato weren't the only ones he tested, I suggest. Maybe there are more belladonna letters.

Probably, he says. And when Francesco was done, he put everything he owned in a place no one would ever think to look. A place where he says his treasures will be safe from his enemies. I know it even before he says it.

He petitions the senior members of his family for access to the huge tracts of land they own outside Rome, under the pretext of a profit-making enterprise. But instead of building above ground, in the middle of the forests where his ancestors used to hunt, he designs his crypt. A huge underground vault. Only five of his men ever know its location.

Then, as 1498 approaches, Francesco makes a crucial decision. In Florence, Savonarola seems to be more popular than ever. He declares that on Shrove Tuesday he will build a bonfire even bigger than the last one. Francesco records part of the speech in the Hypnerotomachia. He says all of Italy is at a fever pitch with this new kind of religious madness-and he fears for his treasures. He's spent virtually all of his fortune already, and with Savonarola gaining a foothold in the mind of Western Europe, he senses that goods are becoming harder to move and hide. So he gathers up all that he's collected, places it in the crypt, and seals it off for good.

Slowly it occurs to me that one of the oddest details of the second message finally makes sense. My crypt, Colonna wrote, is an unequalled contrivance for its purpose, impervious to all things, hut above all to water. He waterproofed the vault, knowing that otherwise, locked underground, his treasures would rot.

He decides that in the days before the bonfire is lit, Paul continues, he will travel to Florence. He will go to San Marco. And in a final attempt to defend his cause, he will confront Savonarola. By appealing to the man's love of learning, his respect for truth and beauty, Francesco will persuade him to remove the objects of lasting value from the bonfire. He will stop the preacher from destroying what the humanists consider sacred.

But Francesco is a realist. After hearing Savonarola's sermons, he knows how fiery the man is, how convinced he is that the bonfires are righteous. If Savonarola won't join him, Francesco knows he has only one choice. He must show Florence how barbaric the prophet really is. He will go to the bonfire and remove the objects from the pyramid himself. If Savonarola tries to light the fire anyway, Francesco will be martyred on the pyre, in front of the entire city. He will force Savonarola to become a murderer. Only this, he says, will turn Florence against fanaticism-and with Florence, the rest of Europe.

He was willing to die for it, I say, half to myself.

He was willing to kill for it, Paul says. Francesco had five close humanist friends in his confraternity of brothers. One was Terragni, the architect. Two were a pair of real brothers, Matteo and Cesare. The final two were Rodrigo and Donato, and they died for betraying him. He would've done anything to protect what he believed in.

The tiny space of the carrel seems to warp for a second, angles colliding like fragments of time intersecting. I see my father again, writing the manuscript of The Belladonna Document on the old typewriter in his office. He knew exactly what that letter meant; he just didn't know its context. Now Paul has found its place. Though there's a sudden satisfaction to that, there's also a growing sadness I feel as Paul continues his story. The more I hear about Francesco Colonna, the desperate man who couldn't trust even his friends, the more I think of Paul, slaving over the Hypnerotomachia the same way Colonna did, on either end of a single thread in time, a writer and a reader. Vincent Taft may have tried to poison Paul against us, telling him that friends were fickle, but the more I see what Paul has done for this book-how he has lived in it for years now, the way I only lived in it for months-the better I understand. It was Francesco Colonna, as much as any living man, who made him doubt.

Chapter 21 | The Rule of Four | Chapter 23