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Chapter 23

In the months before Francesco leaves for Florence, Paul says, he takes the one precaution he thinks is foolproof. He decides to write a book. A book that will disclose the location of the crypt, but only to a fellow scholar-not to a layman, and above all, not to the fanatics. He's convinced that no one could solve it except a true lover of knowledge-one who would fear Savonarola as much as Francesco does, and who would never allow the treasures to be burned. And he dreams of a time when humanism will reign again, and the collection will be safe.

So he finishes the book and asks Terragni to have it delivered anonymously, by courier, to Aldus. By pretending to be its patron, he says he will urge Aldus to keep the book under wraps. He won't identify himself as the author, so that no one will suspect what's in it.

Then, as Carnival nears, Francesco enlists the architect and the two brothers, the only three remaining members of his Roman Academy circle, and travels to Florence. They are men of principle, but Francesco understands how difficult their task is, so he insists that every man take an oath to die, if necessary, at the Piazza della Signoria.

On the night before the bonfire, he asks all three friends to join him for a meal and a prayer. They tell stories of their adventures together, their travels, the things they've done in their lifetimes. That entire evening, though, Francesco says he can see a dark shadow gathering over their heads. He doesn't sleep that night. The next morning, he goes to meet Savonarola.

From that point forward, all of the text is written by the architect. Francesco says Terragni is the only man he can trust with such a task. Knowing he'll need someone to oversee his interests should anything happen in Florence, he gives Terragni a huge vote of confidence. He gives the architect his final cipher and asks him to add a postscript, coded into the final chapters, to describe what becomes of the friends from the Roman Academy. He gives Terragni the responsibility of supervising the Hypnerotomachia after it reaches Aldus, to be sure it makes it into print. Francesco says he has had a vision of his own death, and knows he can't accomplish everything he wants by himself. Fie takes Terragni with him to record the meeting with Savonarola.

By then, Savonarola is waiting for them at his cell in the monastery. The meeting was arranged ahead of time, so both sides are prepared. Francesco, trying to be diplomatic, says he admires Savonarola and shares the same goals, the same hatred of sin. He quotes Aristotle on virtue.

Savonarola counters by quoting Aquinas, almost an identical passage. He asks Francesco why he prefers a pagan source over a Christian one. Francesco praises Aquinas, but says that Aquinas borrowed from Aristotle. Savonarola loses patience. He delivers a line from the Gospel of Paul: I am going to destroy the wisdom of the wise and bring to nothing the understanding of any who understand. Do you not see how God has shown up human wisdom as folly?

Francesco listens with terror. He asks Savonarola why he won't embrace art and scholarship, why he is bent on destroying them. He tells Savonarola that they should be united against sin, that faith is the source of truth and beauty, that they can't be enemies. But Savonarola shakes his head. He says truth and beauty are only servants of faith. When they are anything else, pride and profit lead men into sin.

'And so,' he says to Francesco, 'I will not be dissuaded. There is more evil in those books and canvases than in all the rest that will be burned. For while playing cards and dice may distract the foolish, your wisdom is the temptation of the powerful and the mighty. The greatest families of this city vie to be your patrons. Your philosophers preach to the poets, whose works are widely read. You contaminate the painters with your ideas, and their paintings hang in the palaces of princes, while their frescoes crowd the walls and ceilings of every church. You reach dukes and kings, because they surround themselves with your followers, demanding guidance from the astrologers and engineers who are indebted to you, hiring your scholars to translate their books. No,' he says, 'I will not let pride and profit govern Florence any longer. The truth and beauty you love are false idols, vanities, and they will lead men into wickedness.'

Francesco is about to leave, knowing his cause will never be reconciled with Savonarola's, but in a last second of anger, he turns and tells Savonarola what he intends to do. 'If you will not accede to my demands,' Francesco says, 'then I will show all the world that you are a madman, not a prophet. I will carry each book and painting from your pyramid until the fire destroys me, so that my blood will be on your hands. And the world will turn against you.'

He prepares to leave again, when Savonarola says something Francesco never expects. 'My mind cannot be changed,' he says, 'but if you are willing to die for these convictions, then I offer you my respect, and I look on you as a son. Any cause that is true in God's eyes will be reborn, and any martyr who is true to a holy cause will rise from his own ashes and be transported to heaven. I do not wish to see a man of your convictions perish, but the men you represent, who own the objects you intend to save, are moved only by greed and vanity. They will never be reconciled to God's will, except by force. It is sometimes God's design to sacrifice the innocent to test the faithful, and perhaps it is just so now.'

Francesco is about to contradict him, to argue that knowledge and beauty shouldn't be sacrificed to save corrupt men's souls, when he thinks of his own men, Donato and Rodrigo, and sees the truth of what Savonarola says. He realizes that vanity and avarice are even among the ranks of the humanists, and he understands that there will be no resolution. Savonarola asks him to leave the monastery, because the monks must prepare for the ceremony, and Francesco obeys.

When he returns to his men with the news, they begin preparing for their final acts. The four men, Francesco and Terragni, Matteo and Cesare, go to the Piazza della Signoria. While Savonarola's assistants prepare the fire, Francesco, Matteo, and Cesare start removing texts and paintings from the pyramid, just as Francesco promised. Terragni stands by, watching and writing. The assistants ask Savonarola if they should stop their preparations, but he says they must continue. As Francesco and the brothers make trip after trip, carrying armfuls of books out of the mound and putting them in a pile at a safe distance, Savonarola tells them the bonfire will be lit. He announces that they will die if they continue. All three men ignore him.

The entire city, by now, has gathered in the square, waiting to see the fire. The crowd is chanting. The flames begin at the base of the pyramid, and grow. Francesco and the two brothers are still making trips. As the fire gets hotter, they wrap cloths around their mouths to keep from inhaling the smoke. They wear gloves to protect their hands, but the fire burns through them. By the third or fourth trip, their faces are dark with smoke. Their hands and feet are black from rummaging through the fire. The men sense that death is approaching, and at that moment, the architect writes, they realize the glory of martyrdom.

As their pile grows, Savonarola orders a monk with a wheelbarrow to return the objects to the flames. As soon as the men drop the books and paintings, the monk scoops them up and brings them back. After six or seven trips, everything Francesco has pulled from the fire is already burned. Matteo and Cesare have given up on paintings, because the canvases are destroyed. All three of them stamp at the covers of books with their hands to put out the flames, so the pages won't burn. One of them begins to call out in agony, crying to God.

By now there's no hope of saving anything. All of the artwork in the pyramid is ruined, most of the books are blackened through. The monk with the wheelbarrow is still pushing everything from their pile back into the fire. Every one of his trips undoes what all three of them do together. Slowly the crowd grows quiet. The whistles and catcalls die out. The people who yelled at Francesco, calling him a fool for trying to save the books, become silent. A few people shout for the men to stop. But the three of them continue their trips, back and forth, throwing their arms into the flames, climbing into the ashes, disappearing for seconds, then reappearing. By now the loudest sound in the square is the roar of the fire. The three men are gasping. They've inhaled too much smoke to scream. Every time they go back to their pile, the architect says, you can make out the red flesh of their hands and feet, where the fire has burned their skin off.

The first of them collapses into the cinders, facedown. It's Matteo, the youngest. Cesare stops to help, but Francesco drags him away. Matteo doesn't move. The fire crawls over him, and his body sinks into the pyramid. Cesare tries to call out to him, to tell him to stand up, but Matteo doesn't answer. Finally, Cesare stumbles over to the spot where his brother fell. When he's almost standing over Matteo's body, he collapses too. Francesco watches all this from the edge of the bonfire. When he hears Cesare's voice calling for Matteo, then listens to it fade under the fire, he realizes he's alone and falls to his knees. For a second he doesn't move.

Just as the crowd takes him for dead, he forces himself to his feet. Reaching one last time into the bonfire, he takes two fists of ashes and staggers toward Savonarola. One of Savonarola's assistants blocks his way, but Francesco stops short. He spreads his fingers and lets the ashes fall between them like sand. Then he says, 'Inde ferunt, totidem qui vivere debeat annos, corpore de patrio parvum phoenica renasci' It's from Ovid. It means, 'A little phoenix is born anew from the father's body, fated to live the same number of years.' Then he falls at Savonarola's feet and dies.

Terragni's narrative ends with Colonna's burial. Francesco and the two brothers are given almost imperial funerals by their families and humanist friends. And we know that their martyrdom succeeds. Within weeks, public opinion shifts against Savonarola. Florence is tired of his extremism, his constant doom and gloom. Enemies spread rumors about him, trying to bring about his downfall. Pope Alexander excommunicates him. When Savonarola resists, Alexander declares him guilty of heresy and seditious teaching. He's sentenced to death. On May twenty-third, just three months after Francesco burns to death, Florence sets up a new pyre in the Piazza della Signoria. Right there, on the very spot of the two bonfires, they hang Savonarola and burn his body at the stake.

What happened to Terragni? I ask.

All we know is that he honored his promise to Francesco. The Hypnerotomachia was published by Aldus the following year, 1499.

I rise from my chair, too excited to sit.

Since then, Paul says, everyone who's tried to interpret it has been using nineteenth or twentieth-century tools to pick a fifteenth-century lock. He leans back and exhales. Until now.

He stops himself, breathless, and falls silent. Footsteps shuffle in the hallway, muffled by the door. I look at him, stunned. Slowly the things of reality, of the true outside, begin to penetrate again, returning Savonarola and Francesco Colonna to a bookshelf in my mind. But there remains an uneasy interaction between the two worlds. I look at Paul, and realize that somehow he has become the crossroads between them, the ligature binding time to itself.

I can't believe it, I tell him.

My father should be here. My father, and Richard Curiy, and McBee. Everyone who ever knew about this book and sacrificed something to solve it. This is a gift for them all.

Francesco gives directions to the crypt from three different land-narks, Paul says. It won't be hard to find the location. He even gives the dimensions, and lists everything in it. The only thing that's missing is the blueprint of the lock to the crypt. Terragni designed a special cylinder lock for the entrance. It's so airtight, Francesco says, that it will keep robbers and moisture out for as long as it takes someone to solve his book. He keeps saying he's about to give the blueprint for the lock, and the instructions for opening it, but he always gets distracted, talking about Savonarola. Maybe he told Terragni to include it in the final chapters, but Terragni had so many other things to worry about, he didn't do it.

And that's what you were looking for at Taft's.

Paul nods. Richard says there was a blueprint in the portmaster's diary when he found it thirty years ago. I think Vincent kept it when he let Bill find the rest of the diary.

Did you get it back?

He shakes his head. All I got was a handful of Vincent's old handwritten notes.

So what are you going to do? I ask.

Paul begins reaching for something else under the desk. I'm at Vincent's mercy.

How much have you told him?

When his hands return to view, they're empty. Losing patience, he moves his chair backward and lowers himself to his knees. He doesn't know any details about the crypt. Only that it exists.

I notice faint tracks across the floor, ruts that trace quarter-circles back to the metal legs of the desk.

Last night I started making a map of everything Francesco said about it in the second half of the Hypnerotomachia. The location, the dimensions, the landmarks. I knew Vincent might come looking for what I'd found, so I put the map where I used to keep the best work I did in here.

There's a clink of metal against metal, and from the far corner of the desk bottom, Paul produces a screwdriver. The long swatch of tape that secured it to the underside dangles like a weed in his hand. He peels the tape off, then swivels the desk toward us. The front legs slide along the grooves in the tile floor, and suddenly the ventilation duct comes into view. Four screws hold the grille to the wall. The paint has been chipped on all of them.

Paul begins unscrewing the grille. One corner at a time, the vent comes undone. When he reaches into the duct, then removes his hand, he's holding an envelope stuffed with papers. My first instinct is to look out the window of the carrel, to see if anyone's watching us. Now I understand the sheet of black paper that covers it.

Paul opens the envelope. First he pulls out a pair of photographs, each one worn from handling. The first is of Paul and Richard Curry in Italy. They are standing in the middle of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, directly in front of the Fountain of Neptune. Blurred in the background is a copy of Michelangelo's David. Paul is wearing shorts and a backpack; Richard Curry is wearing a suit, but his tie is loose and his collar is unbuttoned. Both of them are smiling.

The second picture is of the four of us, from sophomore year. Paul is kneeling in the middle of the photo, wearing a borrowed tie and holding up a medal. The rest of us are standing around him, with two professors in the background, looking amused. Paul has just won the annual essay contest of the Princeton Francophile Society. We three have shown up as figures from French history to support him. I am Robespierre, Gil is Napoleon, and Charlie, in a huge hoop dress we found at a costume store, is Marie Antoinette.

Paul seems to make nothing of the pictures, placing them gently on the desk as if he's used to seeing them. Now he empties the rest of the envelope. What I mistook for a stack of papers is actually a single large sheet, folded over several times to fit inside.

This is it, he says, unwrapping it on the surface of the desk.

There, in tiny detail, is a hand-drawn topological map. Elevation lines run in uneven circles, with rough directional markings in a faint grid. Near the middle, written in red, is an angular object shaped like a cross. According to the scale in the corner, it's roughly the size of a dormitory.

Is that it? I ask.

He nods.

It's enormous. For a second both of us sit in silence, trying to absorb it.

What are you going to do with the map? I ask, now that the carrel is bare.

Paul opens his hand. The four small screws to the ventilation duct roll like seeds in his palm. Put it somewhere safe.

Back in the wall?

No.

He leans down to screw the face of the duct back in, and looks as if a calm has settled over him. When he rises and begins to pull the sheets of paper from the wall, one after another the messages disappear. Kings and monsters, ancient names, notes he never meant anyone else to see.

So what are you going to do with it? I say, still looking at the map.

He crumples the other sheets in his hand. The walls are white again. After sitting down, and folding the map along its creases, he says very evenly, I'm giving it to you.

What?

Paul puts the map into the envelope and hands it to me. He keeps the pictures for himself.

I promised you'd be the first to know. You deserve to be.

He says it as if he's just keeping his word.

What do you want me to do with it?

He smiles. Don't lose it.

What if Taft comes looking for it?

That's the idea. If he does, he'll come looking for me. Paul pauses before speaking again. And besides, I want you to get used to having it around.

Why?

He sits back. Because I want us to work together. I want us to find Francesco's crypt together.

Finally I understand. Next year.

He nods. In Chicago. And Rome.

The vent whirs one last time, whispering through the grille.

This is yours is all I can think to say. Your thesis. You finished it.

This is so much bigger than a thesis, Tom.

It's much bigger than a Ph.D. dissertation too.

Exactly.

Now I hear it in his voice. This is just the beginning.

I don't want to do this alone, he says.

What can I do?

He smiles. Just keep the map for now. Let it burn a hole in your pocket for a while.

It unnerves me, how light the envelope is, the impermanence of what ['m holding. It seems to argue against the reality of all of this, that the wisdom of the Hypnerotomachia can sit in the fold of my palm.

Come on, he says finally, glancing down at his watch. Let's go home. We need to pickup some things for Charlie.

He takes down the last remnant of his work with one final swoop of his arm. There is no more trace in the carrel of Paul, or of Colonna, or of the long trail of ideas connecting them over five hundred years. The sheet of black paper on the window is gone.


Chapter 22 | The Rule of Four | Chapter 24