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Chapter 6

From what I pieced together between my father and Paul, Vincent Taft and Richard Curry met in New York in their twenties, turning up at the same party one night in uptown Manhattan. Taft was a young professor at Columbia, a thinner version of his later self, but with the same fire in his belly and the same bearish disposition. The author of two books in the brief eighteen months since he'd finished his dissertation, he was the critics' darling, a fashionable intellectual making his rounds in the social circles of choice. Curry, on the other hand, who'd been exempted from the draft for a heart murmur, was just beginning his career in the art world. According to Paul, he was cobbling together the right friendships, slowly building a reputation in the fast Manhattan scene.

Their first encounter came late in the party when Taft, who'd grown tipsy, spilled a cocktail on the athletic-looking fellow beside him. It was a typical accident, Paul told me, since Taft was also known as a drunk at the time. At first Curry took little offense-until he realized Taft didn't intend to apologize. Following him to the door, Curry began to demand satisfaction; but Taft, stumbling toward the elevator, ignored him. As the two men descended ten stories it was Taft who did the talking, hurling a barrage of insults at the handsome young man, bellowing, as he staggered toward the street exit, that his victim was poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

To his imaginable surprise, the young man smiled.

Leviathan, said Curry, who'd written a junior paper on Hobbes while at Princeton. And you've forgotten solitary. 'The life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.'

No, replied Taft with a burbling grin, just before collapsing onto a streetlight, I did not forget it. I simply reserve solitary for myself. Poor, nasty, brutish, and short however, are all yours.

And with that, Paul said, Curry hailed a cab, ushered Taft into it, and returned to his own apartment where, for the next twelve hours, Taft remained in a deep and crapulent stupor.

The story goes that when he awoke, confused and embarrassed, the two men struck up a clumsy conversation. Curry explained his line of work, as did Taft, and it seemed the awkwardness of the situation might undo the meeting, when, in a moment of inspiration, Curry mentioned the Hypnerotomachia, a book he'd studied under a popular Princeton professor named McBee.

I can only imagine Tafts response. Not only had he heard of the mystery surrounding the book, but he must've noticed the spark it created in Curry's eyes. According to my father, the two men began to discuss the circumstances of their lives, quickly realizing what they had in common. Taft despised other academics, finding their work shortsighted and trivial, while Curry saw his workaday colleagues as papery characters, dull and one-dimensional. Both detected an absence of full-bloodedness in others, an absence of purpose. And maybe that explained the lengths to which they went to overcome their differences.

For there were differences, and not small ones. Taft was a mercurial creature, hard to know and harder to love. He drank heavily in company, and just as much when he was alone. His intelligence was relentless and wild, a fire even he couldn't control. It swallowed entire books at a sitting, finding flaws in arguments, gaps in evidence, errors in interpretation, in subjects far from his own. Paul said that it wasn't a destructive personality Tail: had, but a destructive mind. The fire grew the more he fed it, leaving nothing behind. When it had burned everything in its path, there was only one thing left for it to do. In time, it would turn on itself.

Curry, by contrast, was a creator, not a destroyer-a man of possibilities rather than facts. Borrowing from Michelangelo, he would say that life was like sculpture: a matter of seeing what others couldn't, then chiseling away the rest. To him the old book was just a block of stone waiting to be carved. If no one in five hundred years had understood it, then the time had come for new eyes and fresh hands, and the bones of the past be damned.

For all these differences, then, it wasn't long before Taft and Curry found their common ground. Besides the ancient book, what they shared was a deep investment in abstractions. They believed in the notion of greatness-greatness of spirit, destiny, grand design. Like twin mirrors placed face-to-face, their reflections doubling back, they had seen themselves in earnest for the first time, and a thousand strong. It was the strange but predictable consequence of their friendship that it left them more solitary than when they began. The rich human backdrop of Taft's and Curry's worlds-their colleagues and college friends, their sisters and mothers and former flames-darkened into an empty stage with a single spotlight. To be sure, their careers flourished. It wasn't long before Taft was a historian of great renown, and Curry the proprietor of a gallery that would make his name.

But then, madness in great ones must not unwatched go. The two men led a slavish existence. Their only source of relief came in the form of weekly meetings on Saturday nights, when they would regroup at one or the other's apartment, or at an empty diner, and transform the one interest they had in common into a shared diversion: the Hypnerotomachia.

Winter had fallen that year when Richard Curry finally introduced Taft to the one friend of his who'd never fallen out of touch-the one Curry had met long ago in Professor McBee's class at Princeton, who harbored his own interest in the Hypnerotomachia.

Imagining my father in those days is difficult for me. The man I see is already married, marking the heights of his three children on the office wall, wondering when his only son will start to grow, fussing over old books in dead languages as the world pitches and turns around him. But that's the man we made him into, my mother and sisters and I, not the one Richard Curry knew. My father, Patrick Sullivan, had been Curry's best friend at Princeton. The two considered themselves the kings of campus, and I imagine they shared the kind of friendship that made it seem that way. My father played a season of junior varsity basketball, every minute of t on the bench, until Curry, as captain of the lightweight football team, recruited him onto the gridiron, where my father acquitted himself better than anyone expected. The two roomed together the following year, sharing almost every meal; as juniors, they even double-dated twin sisters from Vassar named Molly and Martha Roberts. The relationship, which my father once compared to a hallucination in a hall of mirrors, ended the following spring when the sisters wore identical dresses to a dance, and the two men, having drunk too much and having paid attention too little, made separate passes at the twin the other was dating.

I have to believe that my father and Vincent Tart appealed to different sides of Richard Curry's personality. The laid-back, catholic-minded mid-western boy and the fearsome, focused New Yorker were different animals, and they must've sensed it from the first handshake, when my father's palm vas swallowed in Taft's meaty butcher's grip.

Of the three of them, it was Taft who had the darkest mind. The parts of the Hypnerotomachia that fascinated him were the bloodiest and most arcane. He devised systems of interpretation to understand the meaning of sacrifices in the story-the way animals' necks were cut, the way characters lied-to impose meaning onto the violence. He labored over the dimensions of buildings mentioned in the story, manipulating them to find numerological patterns, cross-checking them with astrological tables and calendars from Colonna's time, hoping to find matches. From where he stood, the best approach was to confront the book head-on, match wits with its author, and defeat him. According to my father, Taft had always believed that he would one day outsmart Francesco Colonna. That day, as far as we knew, had never come.

My father's approach could not have been more different. What fascinated him most about the Hypnerotomachia was its candid sexual dimension. In the more prudish centuries after its publication, pictures from the book were censored, blacked out, or torn up entirely, the same way many Renaissance nudes were repainted with fig leaves when tastes changed and sensibilities were offended. In the case of Michelangelo, it seems fair to cry foul. But even today, some of the prints from the Hypnerotomachia seem a little shocking.

Parades of naked men and women are only the beginning. Poliphilo follows a gaggle of nymphs to a springtime party-and there, hovering in the middle of the festivities, is the enormous penis of the god Priapus, the focal point of the entire picture. Earlier, the mythological queen Leda is caught in the heat of passion with Zeus, who is shown lodged between her thighs in the shape of a swan. The text is even more explicit, describing encounters too bizarre for the woodcuts. When Poliphilo is overcome with physical attraction to the architecture he sees, he admits to having sex with buildings. At least once, he claims the pleasure was mutual.

All of it fascinated my father, whose view of the book understandably shared little with Taft's. Instead of considering it a rigid, mathematical treatise, my father viewed the Hypnerotomachia as a tribute to the love of a man for a woman. It was the only work of art he knew that mimicked the beautiful chaos of that emotion. The dreaminess of the story, the unrelenting confusion of its characters, and the desperate wandering of a man in search of love all resonated with him.

As a result, my father-and, at the beginning of his research, Paul-felt that Taft's approach was misguided. The day you figure out love, my father told me once, youll understand what Colonna meant. If there was truly anything to be known about it, my father believed it must be found outside the book: in diaries, letters, family documents. He never told me as much, but I think he always suspected that there was a great secret locked inside the pages. Against Taft's formulations, though, my father felt it was a secret about love: an affair between Colonna and a woman below his station; a political powder keg; an illegitimate heir; a romance of the kind teenagers imagine before the ugly bride of adulthood comes and snuffs out childish things.


The Rule of Four
The Rule of Four

However much his approach differed from Taft's, though, when my father arrived in Manhattan for a research year away from the University of Chicago, he sensed that the two men were making great strides. Curry insisted that his old friend join them in their work, and my father agreed. Like three animals in a single cage, the men struggled to accommodate one another, circling in suspicion until new lines were drawn and new balances struck. Nevertheless, time was their ally in those days, and all three shared faith in the Hypnerotomachia. Like a cosmic ombudsman, old Francesco Colonna watched over and guided them, whitewashing dissent with layers of hope. And for a while, at least, the veneer of unity endured.

For more than ten months, Curry, Taft, and my father worked together. Only then did Curry make the discovery that would prove fatal for their partnership. By then he had gravitated out of the galleries and into the auction houses, where the larger stakes of the art world lay; and it was as he prepared his first estate sale that he came across a ragged notebook that had once belonged to a collector of antiquities, recently deceased.

The notebook belonged to the Genoese portmaster, an old man with a crabbed hand who made a habit of remarking on the state of the weather and his failing health, but who also kept a daily record of all goings-on at the docks in the spring and summer of 1497, including the peculiar events surrounding the arrival of a man named Francesco Colonna.

The portmaster-whom Curry called Genovese, for he never gave his name-gathered the rumors about Colonna circling through the wharf. He made a point of overhearing the conversations Colonna had with his local men, and learned that the wealthy Roman had come to Genoa to oversee the arrival of an important ship, whose cargo only Colonna knew. Genovese began bringing news of incoming ships to Colonna's day lodgings, where he once caught Colonna scribbling notes, which the Roman hid as soon as Genovese entered.

Had it been left at that, the portmaster's diary would've shed little light on the Hypnerotomachia. But the portmaster was a curious man, and as he grew impatient waiting for Colonna's ship to arrive, he sensed that the only way to discover the nobleman's intentions was to see Francesco's shipping documents listing the contents of the cargo. Finally he went to ask his brother-in-law, Antonio, a merchant who sometimes trafficked in pirated goods, if a thief might be hired to enter Colonna's lodgings and copy whatever could be found there. Antonio, in exchange for Genovese's help in another shipping scheme, agreed to help.

What Antonio found was that even the most desperate men would refuse the job upon mention of Colonna's name. The only one willing to do it was an illiterate pickpocket. As it happened, though, the pickpocket did his job well. He copied all three documents in Colonna's possession: the first was part of a story, which the portmaster found of no interest and never fully described; the second was a scrap of leather with a complicated diagram drawn on it, which was inscrutable to Genovese; and the third was a peculiar sort of map, consisting of the four cardinal directions, each followed by a set of units, which Genovese struggled in vain to understand. The portmaster was beginning to regret hiring the thief, when an event transpired that quickly made him fear for his life.

Upon his return home at night, Genovese found his wife weeping. She explained that her brother, Antonio, had been poisoned at dinner in his own home, his body discovered by an errand boy. A similar fate had befallen the pickpocket: while drinking at a tavern, the illiterate thief had been stabbed in the thigh by a passing stranger. Almost before the tavern keeper noticed, the man had bled to death, and the stranger had disappeared.

Genovese lived the following days in a sweat, hardly able to perform his duties at the docks. He never returned to Colonna's lodgings, but in his diary he recorded every useful detail of what the thief had found, and he waited nervously for the arrival of Colonna's ship, hoping the nobleman would depart with his cargo. His concerns became so dire that large merchant vessels came and went with hardly a mention. When Francesco's ship finally did come to port, old Genovese could hardly believe his eyes. Why would a nobleman trouble himself over such a trivial little bark, he wrote, this grubby runt-duckling of a boat? What could it be carrying that a man of quality would possibly give a dirty damn about?

And when he learned that it had come around Gibraltar, carrying goods from the north, Genovese was nearly apoplectic. He filled his little book with filthy swears, saying that Colonna was a syphilitic madman, and that only a dunce or a lunatic would believe that anything of value had ever come from a place like Paris.

According to Richard Curry, only two other entries referred to Colonna. In the first, Genovese recorded a conversation he overheard between Colonna and a Florentine architect who was the Roman's only regular visitor. In it, Francesco alluded to a book he was writing, in which he chronicled the turmoil of recent days. Genovese, still gripped with fear, made a careful note of it.

The second entry, made three days later, was more cryptic, but even more reminiscent of the letter I found with my father. By then, Genovese had convinced himself that Colonna was truly mad. The Roman refused to let his men unload the ship in daylight, insisting that the freight could only be moved safely at dusk. Many of the wooden cargo cases, the portmaster observed, were light enough to be carried by a woman or an old man, and he taxed himself to think of a spice or metal that would be shipped in this way. Gradually Genovese began to suspect that Colonna's associates-the architect and a pair of brothers, also from Florence-were henchmen or mercenaries in some dark plot. When a rumor seemed to confirm his fear, he feverishly wrote it down.

It is said that Antonio and the thief are not this man's first victims, but that Colonna has had two other men killed at his whim. I do not know who they are, and have not yet heard their names spoken, but I am sure it must be about this cargo of his. They learned of its contents, and he feared their betrayal. I am convinced of it now: fear is the thing that moves this man. His eyes betray him, even if his men do not.

According to my father, Curry made less of the second entry than of the first, which he believed might be a reference to the writing of the Hypnerotomachia. If true, then the story the thief had discovered among Colonna's belongings, the details of which Genovese never bothered to record, might have been an early draft of the manuscript.

But Tart, who by then was pursuing the Hypnerotomachia from his own angles, assembling huge catalogs of textual references into a concordance, so that every word of Colonna's could be traced to its origins, failed to see any possible relevance to the chicken-scratch notes the portmaster claimed to see Colonna keeping. Such a ridiculous story, he said, could never shed light on the profound mystery of the great book. He quickly treated the discovery the same way he'd treated every other book he'd read on the subject: as kindling for the fire.

His frustration, I think, was rooted in more than his feelings about the diary. He had seen the balance of power shift against him, the chemistry of his work with Richard Curry decompose as my father lured Curry into new approaches and alternative possibilities.

And so a struggle ensued, a battle of influence, in which my father and Vincent Taft conceived the hatred for each other that would last until the end of my father's life. Taft, feeling that he had nothing to lose, vilified my father's work in an attempt to win Curry back to his side. My father, feeling that Curry was withering under Taft's pressure, responded in kind. In one month, the work of the previous ten was undone. Whatever progress the three men had made together unraveled into separate ownerships, neither Taft nor my father wanting anything to do with what the other had contributed.

Curry, through it all, clung to Genovese's diary. It mystified him, how his friends had let petty grudges compromise their focus. He possessed, in his youth, the same virtue he would later see and admire in Paul: a commitment to truth, and a great impatience with distraction. Of the three men, I think it was Curry who'd fallen hardest for Colonna's book, Curry who wanted most of all to solve it. Maybe because my father and Taft were still university men, they saw something academic in the Hypnerotomachia. They knew a scholar's life could be spent in the service of a single book, and it dulled their sense of urgency. Only Richard Curry, the art dealer, maintained his furious pace. He must have sensed his future even then. His life in books was fleeting.

Not one but two events brought matters to a head. The first occurred when my father went back to Columbus to clear his head. Three days before returning to New York he stumbled, quite literally, across a coed from Ohio State. She and her Pi Beta Phi sisters were in the midst of a book drive, soliciting donations from local shops as part of a yearly charity event, and at the door to my grandfather's bookstore their paths crossed before either of them realized it. In a feathery explosion of pages and paperbacks, my mother and father fell to the floor, and the needle of destiny tightened its stitch and shuttled on.

By the time he arrived back in Manhattan, my father was irretrievably lost, thunderstruck by his encounter with the long-haired, azure-eyed sorority girl who called him Tiger and was alluding not to Princeton but to Blake. Even before meeting her, he knew that he'd had enough of Taft. He also knew that Richard Curry had struck out on a path of his own, fixated on the portmaster's diary. Now the call of home nagged. With his father ailing, and with a woman in his one true port, my father returned to Manhattan only to gather his belongings and say good-bye. His years on the East Coast, which had begun so promisingly at Princeton with Richard Curry, were drawing to a close.

When he arrived at their weekly meeting place, though, prepared to deliver the news, my father found himself in the wake of another bombshell. During his absence, Taft and Curry had argued the first night, and fought physically the next. The old football captain proved no match for bear-size Vincent Taft, who took one swing at the younger man and broke his nose. Then, on the evening before my father returned, Curry left his apartment, eyes black and nose bandaged, to have dinner with a woman from his gallery. When he returned to the apartment that night, documents from the auction house, along with all of his Hypnerotomachia research, were gone. His most carefully guarded possession, the portmaster's diary, had vanished with them.

Curry was quick with accusations, but Taft denied each one. The police, citing a string of local burglaries, took little interest in the disappearance of a few old books. But my father, arriving in the middle of it all, sided instantly with Curry. Both of them told Taft that they wanted nothing more to do with him; my father then explained that he had a ticket for Columbus in the morning, and that he intended not to return. He and Richard Curry spoke their farewells even as Taft looked silently on.

So ended the formative period in my father's life, the single year that set in motion all the clockwork of his future identity. Thinking back on it, I wonder if it isn't the same for all of us. Adulthood is a glacier encroaching quietly on youth. When it arrives, the stamp of childhood suddenly freezes, capturing us for good in the image of our last act, the pose we struck when the ice of age set in. The three dimensions of Patrick Sullivan, when the cold began to claim him, were husband, father, and scholar. They defined him until the end.

After the theft of the portmaster's diary, Taft vanished from the story of my father's life, only to resurface as the gadfly of his career, biting from behind the scholar's veil. Curry would not be in touch with my father for more than three years, until the occasion of my parents' wedding. The letter he wrote then was an uneasy thing, dwelling mainly in the shadow of darker days. The first few words offered his congratulations to the bride and groom; everything after was about the Hypnerotomachia.

Time passed; worlds diverged. Taft, carried by the momentum of those early years, was offered a permanent fellowship at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study, where Einstein had worked while living near Princeton. It was an honor my father surely envied, and one that freed Taft from all the obligations of a college professor: other than agreeing to advise Bill Stein and Paul, the old bear never suffered another student or taught another class. Curry took a prominent job at Skinner's Auction House in Boston, and rose on toward professional success. In the Columbus bookshop where my father learned to walk, three new children kept him occupied enough to forget, for a while, that his experience in New York had left a permanent impression. All three men, wedged from each other by pride and circumstance, found surrogates for the Hypnerotomachia, ersatz love affairs to stand in for a quest left incomplete. The generational clock ground out another revolution, and time turned friends to strangers. Francesco Colonna, who kept the key that wound the watch, must have thought his secret safe.


Chapter 5 | The Rule of Four | Chapter 7