It was through a book that I met Paul. We probably would've met anyway at Firestone Library, or in a study group, or in one of the literature classes we both took freshman year, so maybe there's nothing special about a book. But when you consider that the one in question was five hundred years old, and that it was the same one my father had been studying before he died, the occasion somehow seems more momentous.
The HypnerotomachiaPoliphili, which in Latin means Poliphilo's Struggle for Love in a Dream, was published around 1499 by a Venetian man named Aldus Manutius. The Hypnerotomachia is an encyclopedia masquerading as a novel, a dissertation on everything from architecture to zoology, written in a style that even a tortoise would find slow. It is the world's longest book about a man having a dream, and it makes Marcel Proust, who wrote the world's longest book about a man eating a piece of cake, look like Ernest Hemingway. I would venture to guess that Renaissance readers felt the same way. The Hypnerotomachia was a dinosaur in its own time. Though Aldus was the greatest printer of his day, the Hypnerotomachia is a tangle of plots and characters connected by nothing but its protagonist, an allegorical everyman named Poliphilo. The gist is simple: Poliphilo has a strange dream in which he searches for the woman he loves. But the way it's told is so complicated that even most Renaissance scholars-the same people who read Plotinus while waiting for the bus-consider the Hypnerotomachia painfully, tediously difficult.
Most, that is, except my father. He marched through Renaissance historical studies to the beat of his own drum, and when the majority of his colleagues turned their backs on the Hypnerotomachia, he squared it in his sights. He'd been converted to the cause by a professor named Dr. McBee, who taught European history at Princeton. McBee, who died the year before I was born, was a mousy man with elephant ears and small teeth who owed all of his success in the world to an effervescent personality and a canny sense of what made history worthwhile. Though he wasn't much to look at, the little man stood tall in the world of the academy. Every year his closing lecture on the death of Michelangelo filled the largest auditorium on campus with spectators and left college men wiping their eyes and reaching for their handkerchiefs. Above all, McBee was a champion of the book that everyone else in his field ignored. He believed there was something peculiar about the Hypnerotomachia, possibly something great, and he convinced his students to search for the old book's true meaning.
One of them searched even more avidly than McBee could have hoped. My father was an Ohio bookseller's son, and he arrived on campus the day after his eighteenth birthday, almost fifty years after F. Scott Fitzgerald made it fashionable to be a midwestern boy at Princeton. Much had changed since then. The university was shedding its country club past, and in the spirit of the times, it was falling out of love with tradition. The freshmen of my father's year were the last class required to attend chapel service on Sundays. The year after he left, women arrived on campus for the first time as students. WPRB, the college radio station, ushered them in to the sound of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus. My father liked to say that the spirit of his youth was best captured in Immanuel Kant's essay What is Enlightenment? Kant, in his mind, was like the Bob Dylan of the 1790s.
That was my father's way: to erase the line in history beyond which everything seems stuffy and arcane. Instead of timelines and great men, history to him was ideas and books. He followed McBee's advice for two more years at Princeton, and after graduating he followed it all the way back west to the University of Chicago for a Ph.D. on Renaissance Italy. A year of fellowship work in New York ensued, until Ohio State offered him a tenure-track position teaching quattrocento history, and he leapt at the chance to go home. My mother, an accountant whose tastes ran to Shelley and Blake, took up the bookselling business in Columbus after my grandfather retired, and between the two of them I was raised in the fold of bibliophiles, the way some children are raised in religion.
At the age of four I was traveling to book conferences with my mother. By six I knew the difference between parchment and vellum better than I knew a Fleer from a Topps. Before my tenth birthday I had handled some half-dozen copies of the printing world's masterpiece, the Gutenberg Bible. But I can't even remember a time in my life when I didn't know which book was the Bible of our own little faith: the Hypnerotomachia.
It's the last great Renaissance mystery, Thomas, my father would lecture me, the same way McBee must have lectured him. But no one has come even close to solving it.
He was right: no one had. Of course, it wasn't until decades after the book was published that anyone realized it needed solving. That was when a scholar made a strange discovery. When the first letters of every chapter in the Hypnerotomachia are strung together, they form an acrostic in Latin: Poliam Frater Franciscus Columna Peramavit, which means Brother Francesco Colonna loved Polia tremendously. Since Polia was the name of the woman Poliphilo searches for, other scholars finally started to ask who the author of the Hypnerotomachia really was. The book itself doesn't say, and even Aldus, the printer, never knew. But from that point on, it became common to suppose that the author was an Italian friar named Francesco Colonna. In a small group of professional researchers, particularly those inspired by McBee, it also became common to suppose that the acrostic was only a hint of the secrets that lay within the book. That group's quest was to discover the rest.
My father's claim to fame in all this was a document he found during the summer I turned fifteen. That year-the year before the car accident-he brought me with him on a research trip to a monastery in southern Germany, then later to the Vatican libraries. We were sharing an Italian studio apartment with two rollaway beds and a prehistoric stereo system, and each morning for five weeks, with the precision of a medieval punishment, he chose a new Corelli masterwork from the compilations he'd brought, then woke me to the sound of violins and harpsichords at exactly half-past seven, reminding me that research waited for no man.
I would rise to find him shaving over the sink, or ironing his shirts, or counting the bills in his wallet, always humming along with the recording. Short as he was, he tended to every inch of his appearance, plucking strands of gray from his thick brown hair the way florists cull limp petals from roses. There was an internal vitality he was trying to preserve, a vivaciousness he thought was diminished by the crow's-feet at the corners of his eyes, by the thinking man's wrinkles across his forehead, and whenever my imagination was dulled by the endless shelves of books where we spent our days, he was always quick to sympathize. At lunchtime we would take to the streets for fresh pastries and gelato; every evening he would bring me into town for sight-seeing. One night in Rome, he led me on a tour of the city's fountains, telling me to toss a lucky penny into each one.
One for Sarah and Kristen, he said at the Barcaccia. To help mend their broken hearts.
My sisters had each been in a painful breakup just before we left. My father, who never took much to their boyfriends, considered it a blessing in disguise.
One for your mother, he said at the Fontana del Tritone. For putting up with me.
When my father's request for university funding had fallen through, my mother kept the bookstore open on Sundays to help pay for our trip.
And one for us, he said at the Quattro Fiumi. May we find what we're looking for.
What we were looking for, I never really knew-at least, not until we stumbled onto it. All I knew was that my father believed scholarship on the Hypnerotomachia had reached a dead end, mainly because everyone was missing the forest for the trees. Thumping his fist on the dinner table, he would insist that the scholars who disagreed with him had their heads in the sand. The book itself was too difficult to understand from within, he said; a better approach was to search for documents that hinted at who the author really was, and why he'd written it.
In reality, my father alienated many people with his narrow vision of the truth. If it hadn't been for the discovery we made that summer, my family might soon have found itself relying entirely on the bookstore for its livelihood. Instead, Lady Fortune smiled on my father, hardly a year before she took his life.
On the third-floor branch of one of the Vatican libraries, in a recessed aisle of bookshelves that even the monkish dusters had not dusted, as we stood back-to-back searching for the clue he'd been pursuing for years, my father found a letter inserted between the pages of a thick family history. Dated two years before the Hypnerotomachia was published, it was addressed to a confessor at a local church, and it told the story of a high-ranking Roman scion. His name was Francesco Colonna.
It's difficult to re-create my father's excitement when he saw the name. The wire-frame glasses he wore, which slunk down his nose the longer he read, magnified his eyes just enough to make them the measure of his curiosity, the first and last thing most people ever remembered about him. At that moment, as he sized up what he'd found, all the light in the room seemed to converge inside those eyes. The letter he held was written in a clumsy hand, in broken Tuscan, as if by a man who was not accustomed to that language, or to the act of writing. It rambled on and on, sometimes directed at no one in particular, sometimes directed at God. The author apologized for not writing in Latin or in Greek, which were unknown to him. Then, at last, he apologized for what he had done.
Forgive me, Holy Father, for I have killed two men. It was my own hand that struck the blow, but the design was never mine. It was Master Francesco Colonna who bid me do it. Judge us both with mercy.
The letter claimed that the murders were part of an intricate plan, one that no man as simple as the author himself could have contrived. The two victims were men Colonna suspected of treachery, and at his direction they were sent on an unusual mission. They were given a letter to deliver to a church outside the walls of Rome, where a third man would be waiting to receive it. Under pain of death the two men were not to look at the letter, not to lose it, not to so much as touch it with an ungloved hand. So began the story of the simple Roman mason who slew the messengers at San Lorenzo.
The discovery my father and I made that summer came to be known, in academic circles, as the Belladonna Document. My father felt sure it would revive his reputation in the scholarly community, and within six months he published a small book under that title suggesting the letter's connection to the Hypnerotomachia. The book was dedicated to me. In it, he argued that the Francesco Colonna who'd written the Hypnerotomachia was not the Venetian monk, as most professors believed, but instead the Roman aristocrat mentioned in our letter. To bolster this claim, he added an appendix including all known records on the lives of both the Venetian monk, whom he called the Pretender, and of the Roman Colonna, so that readers could compare. The appendix alone made believers of both Paul and me.
The details are straightforward. The monastery in Venice where the false Francesco lived was an unthinkable place for a philosopher-author; most of the time, to hear my father tell it, the place was an unholy cocktail of loud music, hard drinking, and lurid sexual escapades. When Pope Clement VII attempted to force restraint on the brethren there, they replied that they would sooner become Lutherans than accept discipline. Even in such an environment, the Pretender's biography reads like a rap sheet. In 1477 he was exiled from the monastery for unnamed violations. Four years later he returned, only to commit a separate crime, for which he was almost defrocked. In 1516 he pled no contest to rape and was banished for life. Undeterred, he returned again, and was exiled again, this time for a scandal involving a jeweler. Mercifully, death took him in 1527. The Venetian Francesco Colonna-accused thief, confessed rapist, lifelong Dominican-was ninety-three years old.
The Roman Francesco, on the other hand, appeared to be a model of every scholarly virtue. According to my father, he was the son of a powerful noble family, who raised him in the best of European society and had him educated by the highest-minded Renaissance intellectuals. Francesco's uncle, Prospero Colonna, was not only a revered patron of the arts and a cardinal of the Church, but such a renowned humanist that he may have been the inspiration for Shakespeare's Prospero in The Tempest. These were the sorts of connections, my father argued, that made it possible for a single man to write a book as complex as the Hypnerotomachia—and they were certainly the connections that would've ensured its publication by a leading press.
What sealed the matter entirely, to me at least, was the fact that this blue-blooded Francesco had been a member of the Roman Academy, a fraternity of men committed to the pagan ideals of the old Roman Republic, the ideals expressed with such admiration in the Hypnerotomachia. That would explain why Colonna identified himself in the secret acrostic as Fra: the title Brother, which other scholars took as a sign that Colonna was a monk, was also a common greeting at the Academy.
Yet my father's argument, which seemed so lucid to Paul and me, clouded the academic waters. My father hardly lived long enough to brave the teapot tempest he stirred up in the little world of Hypnerotomachia scholarship, but it nearly undid him. Almost all of my father's colleagues rejected the work; Vincent Taft went out of his way to defame it. By then, the arguments in favor of the Venetian Colonna had become so entrenched that, when my father failed to address one or two of them in his brief appendix, the whole work was discredited. The idea of connecting two doubtful murders with one of the world's most valuable books, Taft wrote, was nothing but a sad and sensational bit of self-promotion.
My father, of course, was devastated. To him it was the substance of his career they were rejecting, the fruit of the quest he'd been on since his days with McBee. He never understood the violence of the reaction against his discovery. The only enduring fan of The Belladonna Document, as far as I know, was Paul. He read the book so many times that even the dedication stuck in his memory. When he arrived at Princeton and found a Tom Corelli Sullivan listed in the freshman face-book, he recognized my middle name immediately and decided to track me down.
If he expected to meet a younger version of my father, he must have been disappointed. The freshman Paul found, who walked with a faint limp and seemed embarrassed by his middle name, had done the unthinkable: he had renounced the Hypnerotomachia and become the prodigal son of a family that made a religion out of reading. The shockwaves of the accident were still ringing through my life, but the truth is that even before my father died, I was losing my faith in books. I'd begun to realize that there was an unspoken prejudice among book-learned people, a secret conviction they all seemed to share, that life as we know it is an imperfect vision of reality, and that only art, like a pair of reading glasses, can correct it. The scholars and intellectuals I met at our dinner table always seemed to hold a grudge against the world. They could never quite reconcile themselves to the idea that our lives don't follow the dramatic arc that a good author gives to a great literary character. Only in accidents of pure perfection does the world actually become a stage. And that, they seemed to think, was a shame.
No one ever said it that way, exactly, but when my father's friends and colleagues-all but Vincent Taft-came to see me in the hospital, looking sheepish about the reviews they'd written of his book, mumbling little eulogies for him they'd composed in the waiting room, I began to see the writing on the wall. I noticed it the moment they walked to my bedside: every one of them brought handfuls of books.
This helped me when my father died, said the chairman of the history department, placing Merton's Seven Storey Mountain on the food tray beside me.
I find great comfort in Auden, said the young graduate student writing her dissertation under my father. She left a paperback edition with one corner clipped off to remove the price.
What you need is a pick-me-up, another man whispered when the others left the room. Not this bloodless stuff.
I didn't even recognize him. He left a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, which I'd already read, and I could only wonder if he really thought revenge was the best emotion to encourage just then.
None of these people, I realized, could cope with reality any better than I could. My father's death had a nasty finality to it, and it made a mockery of the laws they lived by: that every fact can be reinterpreted, that every ending can be changed. Dickens had rewritten Great Expectations so that Pip could be happy. No one could rewrite this.
When I met Paul, then, I was wary. I'd spent the last two years of high school forcing certain changes on myself: whenever I felt the pain in my leg, I would continue to walk; whenever instinct told me to pass by a door without pausing-the door to the gym, or to a new friend's car, or to the house of a girl I was beginning to like-I would make myself stop and knock, and sometimes let myself in. But here, in Paul, I saw what I might have been.
He was small and pale beneath his untended hair, and more of a boy than a man. One of his shoelaces was untied, and he carried a book in his hand as if it were a security blanket. The first time he introduced himself, he quoted the Hypnerotomachia, I felt I already knew him better than I wanted to. He'd tracked me down in a coffee shop near campus just as the sun began to set in early September. My first instinct was to ignore him that evening, and avoid him ever after.
What changed all that was something he said just before I begged off for the night.
Somehow, he said, I feel like he's my father too.
I hadn't told him about the accident yet, but it was exactly the wrong thing to say.
You don't know anything about him.
I do. I have copies of all of his work.
Listen to me-
I even found his dissertation…
He's not a book. You can't just read him.
But it was as if he couldn't hear.
The Rome of Raphael, 1974. Ficino and the Rebirth of Plato, 1979. The Men of Santa Croce, 1985.
He began counting them on his fingers.
The HypnerotomachiaPoliphili and the Hieroglyphics of Horapollo.' In Renaissance Quarterly, June of '87. 'Leonardo's Doctor.' In Journal of Medical History, 1989.
Chronological, without a hitch.
'The Breeches-Maker.' Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 1991.
You forgot the BARS article, I said.
The Bulletin of the American Renaissance Society.
That was in '92.
It was in '91.
He frowned. 'Ninety-two was the first year they accepted articles from non-members. It was sophomore year of high school. Remember? That fall.
There was silence. For a second he seemed worried. Not that he was wrong, but that I was.
Maybe he wrote it in '91, Paul said. They only published it in '92. Is that what you meant?
Then it was '91. You were right. He pulled out the book he'd been carrying with him. And then there's this.
A first edition of The Belladonna Document.
He weighed it deferentially. His best work so far. You were there when he found it? The letter about Colonna?
I wish I could've seen it. It must've been amazing.
I looked over his shoulder, out a window on the far wall. The leaves were red. It had started to rain.
It was, I said.
Paul shook his head. You're very lucky.
His fingers fanned the pages of my father's book, gently.
He died two years ago, I said. We were in a car accident.
He died right after he wrote that.
The window behind him was fogging up at the corners. A man walked by with a newspaper over his head, trying to keep dry.
Someone hit you?
No. My father lost control of the car.
Paul rubbed his finger against the image on the book's dust jacket. A single emblem, a dolphin with an anchor. The symbol of the Aldine Press in Venice.
I didn't know… he said.
The silence at that moment was the longest there has ever been between us.
My father died when I was four, he said. He had a heart attack.
What does your mother do? I asked.
He found a crease in the dust jacket and began to smooth it out between his fingers. She died a year later.
I tried to tell him something, but all the words I was used to hearing felt wrong in my mouth.
Paul tried to smile. I'm like Oliver, he continued, forming a bowl with his hands. Please, sir, I want some more.
I scraped out a laugh, unsure if he wanted one.
I just wanted you to know what I meant, he said. About your dad…
I only said it because-
Umbrellas bobbed past the bottom of the window like horseshoe crabs q the tide. The murmur in the coffee shop was louder now. Paul began talking, trying to mend things. He told me how, after his parents died, he'd been raised at a parochial school that boarded orphans and runaways. How, after spending most of high school in the company of books, he'd come to college determined to make something better of his life. How he was looking for friends who could talk back. Finally he fell quiet, an embarrassed look on his face, sensing that he'd killed the conversation.
So what dorm do you live in? I asked him, knowing how he felt.
Holder. Same as you.
He pulled out a copy of the freshman face-book and showed me the log-eared page.
How long have you been looking for me? I asked.
I just found your name.
I looked out the window. A single red umbrella floated past. It paused at he coffee shop window and seemed to hover there before going on.
I turned back to Paul. Want another cup?
And so it began.
What a strange thing, to build a castle in the air. We made a friendship out of nothing, because nothing was the heart of what we shared. After that night it seemed more and more natural, talking to Paul. Before long I even started to feel the way he did about my father: that maybe we shared him too.
You know what he used to say? I asked him one night in his bedroom when we talked about the accident.
The strong take from the weak, but the smart take from the strong,
There was an old Princeton basketball coach who used to say that, I told him. Freshman year in high school, I tried out for basketball. My dad would pick me up from practice every day, and when I would complain about how much shorter I was than everybody else, he would say, 'It doesn't matter how big they are, Tom. Remember: The strong take from the weak, but the smart take from the strong.' Always the same thing. I shook my head. God, I got sick of that.
Do you think it's true?
That the smart take from the strong?.
I laughed. You've never seen me play basketball.
Well, I believe it, he said. I definitely do.
He'd been stuffed in more lockers and browbeaten by more bullies during high school than anyone I'd ever known.
No. Not at all. He lifted his hands. We're here, aren't we?
He placed the faintest emphasis on we.
In the silence, I looked at the three books on his desk. Strunk and White, the Bible, The Belladonna Document. Princeton was a gift to him. He could forget everything else.