Read The Madonna of the Almonds Online

Authors: Marina Fiorato

Tags: #Fiction, #Cultural Heritage, #General, #Romance, #Suspense, #Medical

The Madonna of the Almonds

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The Madonna
of the Almonds

Marina Fiorato

 

T
o my father Adelin Fiorato - a true Renaissance man.

 

Contents

Title Page
Dedication
CHAPTER 1: The Last Battle
CHAPTER 2: The Sword and the Gun
CHAPTER 3: Selvaggio
CHAPTER 4: Artists and Angels
CHAPTER 5: The Landscape of Lombardy
CHAPTER 6: The Notary
CHAPTER 7: Manodorata
CHAPTER 8: Amaria Wakes
CHAPTER 9: The Miracles of the Faithless
CHAPTER 10: Five Senses and Two Dimensions
CHAPTER 11: Simonetta Crosses a Threshold
CHAPTER 12: Selvaggio Speaks and Amaria Sees
CHAPTER 13: Elijah Abravanel Captures a Dove
CHAPTER 14: Noli Me Tangere
CHAPTER 15: Saint Peter of the Golden Sky
CHAPTER 16: The Breath of Angels
CHAPTER 17: Gregorio Changes Simonetta’s Life Once Again
CHAPTER 18: The Favourite Painting of the Cardinal of Milan
CHAPTER 19: The Faceless Virgin
CHAPTER 20: Saint Maurice and Saint Ambrose do Battle
CHAPTER 21: The Bells of Santa Maria dei Miracoli
CHAPTER 22: Alessandro Bentivoglio and the Monastery in Milan
CHAPTER 23: Three Visitors Come to Castello
CHAPTER 24: Saint Maurice and the Sixty-Six Hundred
CHAPTER 25: The Still
CHAPTER 26: A Way with the Wood
CHAPTER 27: Taste
CHAPTER 28: The Circus Tower
CHAPTER 29: Amaretto
CHAPTER 30: Pogrom
CHAPTER 31: Candle Angel
CHAPTER 32: Hand, Heart and Mouth
CHAPTER 33: Saint Ursula and the Arrows
CHAPTER 34: Rebecca’s Tree
CHAPTER 35: The Countess of Challant
CHAPTER 36: The Dovecot
CHAPTER 37: The Cardinal Receives a Gift
CHAPTER 38: A Baptism
CHAPTER 39: A Wedding
CHAPTER 40: Phyllis and Demophon
CHAPTER 41: Selvaggio Wakes
CHAPTER 42: The Church of Miracles
CHAPTER 43: The Banner
CHAPTER 44: The Feast of Sant’Ambrogio
CHAPTER 45: Selvaggio Goes Home
CHAPTER 46: Simonetta Closes a Door
CHAPTER 47: Epilogue
The Unicorns in the Ark
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PRAISE FOR THE GLASSBLOWER OF MURANO
Also by Marina Fiorato
Copyright

’Tis no use telling you my name, for I am about to die.

Let me tell you hers instead – Simonetta di Saronno. To me it always sounded like a wondrous strain of music, or a line of poetry. It has a pleasing cadence, and the feet of the words as they march have a perfection almost equal to her countenance.

I should probably tell you the date of my death. It is the twenty-fourth day of February, in the year of Our Lord 1525, and I am lying on my back in a field outside Pavia in Lombardy.

I can no longer turn my head, but can move only my eyes. The snow falls on my hot orbs and melts at once – I blink the water away like tears. Through the falling flakes and steaming soldiers I see Gregorio – most excellent squire! – still fighting. He turns to me and I see fear in his eyes – I must be a sorry sight. His mouth forms my name but I hear naught. As the battle rages around me I can hear only the blood thrumming in my ears. I cannot even hear
the boom of the evil new weapons giving tongue, for the one that took me deafened me with its voice. Gregorio’s opponent claims his attention – there is no time to pity me if he is to save his skin, for all that he has loved me well. He slashes his sword from left to right with more vigour than artistry, and yet he still stands and I, his lord, do not. I wish that he may live to see another dawn – perhaps he will tell my lady that I made a good death. He still wears my colours, save that they are bloodied and almost torn from his back. I look closely at the shield of blue and silver – three ovals of argent on their azure ground. It pleases me to think that my ancestors meant the ovals for almonds when they entered our arms on the rolls. I want them to be the last things I see. When I have counted the three of them I close my eyes forever.

I can still feel, though. Do not think me dead yet. I move my right hand and feel for my father’s sword. Still it lies where it fell and I grasp the haft in my hand – well worn from battle, and accustomed to my grip. How was I to know that this sword would be no more use to me than a feather? Everything has changed. This is the last battle. The old ways are as dead as I am. And yet it is still fitting that a soldier should die with his sword in hand.

Now I am ready. But my mind moves from my own hand to hers – her hands are her great beauty, second only to her face. They are long and white, beautiful and strange; for her third and fourth fingers are exactly of a length. They
felt cool on my forehead and my memory places them there now. Only a twelvemonth ago they rested there, cooling my brow when I had taken the water fever. She stroked my brow, and kissed it too, her lips cool on my burning flesh; cool as the snow which kisses it now. I open my lips so that I may taste the kiss, and the snow falls in, refreshing my last moments. And then I remember that she had taken a lemon, cut it in twain and squeezed the juice into my mouth, to make me well again. It was bitter but sweetened by the love of her that ministered to me. It tasted of metal, like the steel of my blade when I kissed it just this morning as I led my men to battle. I taste it now. But I know it is not the juice of a lemon. It is blood. My mouth fills with it. Now I am done. Let me say her name one last time.

Simonetta di Saronno.

Simonetta di Saronno sat at her solar window, the high square frame turning her to an angel of the
rererdos
. The citizens of Saronno oft remarked on it; every day she was there, staring down at the road with eyes of glass.

The Villa Castello, that square and elegant house, sat in solitary majesty a little way from the town – as the saying went: ‘
una passeggiata lunga, ma una cavalcata corta
,’ ‘a long walk, but a short ride.’ It was set where the land of the Lombard plain began to climb to the mountains; just enough elevation to give the house a superior aspect over the little town, and for the townsfolk to see the house from the square. With plaster that had the sun-blush of a lobster, white elegant porticos and fine large windows, the house was much admired, and might have been the object of envy; but for the fact that the tall gates were always open to comers. The tradesmen and petitioners that trod the long winding path to the door through the lush gardens and parks could always be sure of a hearing from the servants
– a sign, all agreed, of a generous lord and lady. In fact the villa symbolised the di Saronnos themselves; near enough to town and their feudal obligations, but far enough away to be apart.

Simonetta’s casement could be seen from the road to Como, where the dirt track wound to the snow-rimed mountains and looking-glass lakes. The victuallers and merchants, the pedlars and water-carriers all saw the lady at her window, day after day, as they went about their business. Before this time they might have made a jest about it, but there was little to laugh at in these times. Too many of their men had gone to the wars and not returned. Wars that seemed little to do with this their state of Lombardy, but of greater concerns and high men with low motives – the pope, the French king, and the greedy emperor. Their own little prosperous saffron town of Saronno, set between the civic glories of Milan and the silver splendour of the mountains, had been bruised and battered by the conflict. Soldiers’ boots had scraped the soft pavings of the piazza. Steel stirrups had knocked chunks from the warm stones of the houses’ corners as the cavalry of France and the Empire passed through in a whirlwind of misplaced righteousness. So the good burghers of Saronno knew what Simonetta waited for; and for all that she was a great lady, they pitied her for the human feelings that she shared with all the mothers, wives and daughters of the town. They all noted that, even when the day came that she had dreaded, she
still sat at the window, day and night, hoping that
he
would come home.

Villa Castello’s widow, for such she now was, was much talked of in the town square. The old, gold stones of Saronno, with its star of streets radiating out from the piazza of the Sanctuary church, heard all that its citizens had to say. They talked of the day when Gregorio di Puglia, Lord Lorenzo’s squire, had staggered, bloody and beaten, up the road to the villa. The almond trees which lined the path swayed as he passed, their silver leaves whispering that they knew of the heavy news that he carried.

The lady had left her window at last, just once, and appeared again at the doorway on the loggia. Her eyes strained, willing the figure to be the lord and not the squire. When she perceived the gait and build of Gregorio, the tears began to slide from her eyes, and when he came closer and she saw the sword that he carried, she sank lifeless to the ground. All had been seen by Luca son of Luca, the under-gardener at the villa, and the boy had enjoyed a couple of days of celebrity in the town as the sole witness of the scene. He spoke, as if a wandering preacher, to a little knot of townsfolk that gathered under the shadow of the church campanile to shelter from the fierce sun and hear the gossip. The crowd shifted with the shadow, and it was fully an hour before the interest and speculation had ceased. They talked for so long of Simonetta that even the church’s priest, a kindly soul, felt moved to open the doors and shake his
head at Luca from the cool dark. The under-gardener hurried to the end of his tale as the doors closed again for he did not wish to leave out the most fascinating and mysterious aspect of the tragedy: the squire had brought something else with him from the battlefield too. Long and metal; no, not a sword…Luca did not know exactly what it was. He did know that lady and squire had spent a couple of hours in close and grave counsel together once she had recovered her conscious state; then the lady had appeared once again in the window, there to stay, it seemed, until Judgement Day. A day, all prayed, which would unite her again with her lord.

 

Simonetta di Saronno wondered if there was a God. She shocked herself with this notion, but once she had the thought she could not withdraw it. She sat, dry-eyed, stiff-sinewed, looking down at the almond trees and the road, while the sky bruised into night and the stones beneath her hands grew cold. The town of Saronno lay under the distant mountains, silver in the twilight like a dropped coin. The sense of apartness that she had once treasured was now complete: her isolated house was now her prison. She was a tower-bound maid of old besieged by dragons, or a novitiate sequestered in her cell. Raffaella, her tiring maid, put a soft robe of vair around her shoulders but she hardly felt it, and did not register its warmth. She felt instead only the grief that sat in her chestspoon as if she had swallowed a
stone. No – an almond; for when she had first been given one of the fruits of the trees her marriage portion bought, she had swallowed it down whole. She had been a bride of thirteen, and Lorenzo, only fifteen himself, had given her an almond as part of the ceremony that had been held in the very grove she now regarded day and night.

They had married in the Sanctuary church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Saronno. The pretty white church with its octagonal baptistry, cool tree-lined cloister and slender new tower reaching into the sky had never before witnessed such pomp. The new ring of bells sounded the tidings across the plain – two great families united as the people cheered and feasted in the piazza under the shadow of the campanile. And after, the more pagan ceremony in the grove, when child bride and child bridegroom wore crowns of silver almond leaves and exchanged one of the nuts. The giving and eating of odd numbers of almonds at a wedding was apparently an age-old tradition; meant for luck, good harvest and fertility. But the ceremony faltered when Simonetta had almost choked in an attempt to swallow the thing whole. Lorenzo had laughed at her, as her mother gave her water and wine to wash the nut down. ‘You’re supposed to bite it, crush it with your teeth!’ he cried fondly. ‘Only then do you taste the sweetness.’ He was right – for it had only tasted of dry wood in her mouth. Then he kissed her – all the sweetness she wanted, ever.

She remembered that the almond sat lodged in her
throat throughout the whole wedding feast. Her mother, fond of homilies and able to see God’s hand in everything, had grimly told her not to complain. ‘You must remember this lesson, my daughter. Sometimes things must be broken for us to taste their fruits as they are meant to be tasted. Your life has been one of ease and good fortune, you have been a well-loved child blessed with riches and beauty and a great marriage, but no-one’s life runs in such a course forever. You will suffer one day and it is best to remember this. Only then do you feel the full power of your humours and life as God meant you to live; in suffering, but also in enlightenment.’

Simonetta was silent and drank more wine. She was mindful of the obedience and duty due to her mother, but the almond moved to her stomach at last and she felt the warmth of the grape replace it. She slid her eyes right to her bridegroom and felt another warmth: a sick excitement and pleasure that she was married to this young god, that it would soon be their wedding night… She shut her ears to her mother’s words. She intended to be perpetually happy with Lorenzo, and knew they would live in all good fortune. Besides, Simonetta thought that she knew the source of her mother’s discontent – she looked beyond her to her father. Handsome and florid, her father had always adored his daughter, but she was by no means the only young lady he adored. Simonetta knew that her mother had suffered much at the hands of her father’s
amours
; maidservants who
were suddenly insolent, wine-selling wenches who came too often to the house. Simonetta knew that such a future was not for her. She clasped Lorenzo’s hand and forgot her mother’s lecture.

Until now.

How could she have known that her life would be broken in
this
way, that she would be forced at last to feel such pain by the death of the man who had made her so happy for so long? She was convinced that she could have survived anything but
this
. Even if Lorenzo had looked at another woman, which he had never done, she thought now that she could have withstood the trials of infidelity. If only he were still here, still real, still warm, to laugh and sport with her as they had always done.
This
she felt, the tumourous lump in her chest, this grief that she could locate to the very inch in her trunk, would surely kill her too. And it would be a blessing. She laid her white hands on the sword – his sword, which Gregorio had brought home from the battlefield. Then she turned to the other thing that Gregorio had brought her. It was long and menacing, made of a metal pipe and a wooden handle, with a curved metal claw protruding from the side. She could barely lift the thing, even if she had had the strength.

‘What is it?’ her voice was little more than a whisper. Gregorio stood in front of her, wringing his velvet capuchon in his hand, his eyes awash.

‘They call it an arquebus, my Lady. It is one of the new
weapons. ’Tis a little like a canon, but a man can hold it and fire it with a matchlock.’ He pointed to charred string on the handle of the thing, and the serpentine S-shaped trigger which waited on its metal pivot.

‘Why have you brought it to me?’ her throat cracked with the question.

‘Because it was one such that took my Lord. I had to bring it to you, to show you that he never had a chance. You know my Lord. He was the best soldier there was. The perfect knight. No man could touch him for swordplay. But the Spanish Marchese di Pescara surprised us with more ’n fifteen hundred gunmen. I saw whole ranks of French cavalry go down beneath the fire of the arquebusiers. The men that did not take shot were thrown as their horses took flight. And the noise! T’were as if the
Diavolo
himself had come amongst us and were singing for his supper.’ Gregorio crossed his rotten tabard.

Simonetta swallowed. Her voice could not be trusted now. She nodded at Gregorio in dismissal and took the two weapons, the old and the new, to the window, so she could go on watching.

You fool, she thought, suddenly angry at Lorenzo. She laid a hand on each weapon, where the cold steel of both froze her fingers. The past and the future. You were the perfect knight indeed. But you did not see this coming, did you? What use was your knightly code and your courtly rules of combat in the face of such things? Your ways are
gone, and a new world has begun. A world where such rules are as straw. Simonetta was not at all sure that she wished to live in such a world. She wondered, not for the first time, if she could somehow fire the arquebus towards herself and join Lorenzo in paradise. Or perhaps she could hang herself in the groves like another long-dead deserted maid. But this she knew to be the greatest sin of all; the sin of the greatest of transgressors, Judas Iscariot. Simonetta had been brought up by her mother in strict religious observance, and remembered well the Last Judgement in the baptistry where she went to mass as a child, in Pisa. Every day she would sit as the priest intoned the well-known Latin, watching the black devils consume the suicides, knawing their limbs and licking up pools of blood with lascivious tongues. They were terrifying and exciting and she would fidget in the family seat, feeling her face grow hot as if the flames reached her too, until her mother pinched her sharply on the arm.

No – she could not take her own life. But her life as she knew it had gone from her.

She had not believed that marriage could have been so happy. She and Lorenzo had lived as one in the Villa Castello, feasting, hunting, travelling to courts and festivals, drinking from their vines and eating from their almond trees. They had observed mass once a week in Santa Maria dei Miracoli, the church of their marriage, but they lived more earthly lives in the pleasures of bed and board. No children came to them, but they felt no loss in the completeness of
their affection for each other. They were young – they had all the time in the world. When the plague of 1523 took both their families they scarcely noticed, but lived and loved in their high castle, safe from the siege of pestilence. They laughed the seasons round – Lorenzo was a jocular boy, and he trained his lady in his humour for life and all things ridiculous in it, until she became as quick as he. In marriage Simonetta’s looks blossomed and she lost her girlish roundness. She became a renowned beauty with her angelic countenance, her abundance of red hair and her pearl-pale hands. They had no need for indigence – their combined fortunes brought them every happiness and indulgence. Their walls were covered in rich tapestries, they patronised the finest artists and musicians. Their board groaned with the greatest meats and pastries, and their handsome forms were clothed in costly furs and velvets. Simonetta’s yards of copper curls were bound up with ropes of pearls and precious coifs of jewels and silver thread.

And then came the wars – years of turmoil and struggle between state and state, Guelfs and Ghibbellines. Milan, Venice, Genoa, the Papal lands, all became pieces in the game of bones between powers both foreign and domestic. Lorenzo, trained from birth in the arts of war, won glory and was soon given leadership. His commissions took him from home, and more than once his lady held Michealmas or Christmas feasts with his great carved chair standing empty at the head of the board. At these times Simonetta felt her
spirits much depressed, but turned to her other pleasures of archery or the lute to pass the time. Sometimes in Lorenzo’s absence she had a fancy for his child to be with her when he was gone, to give her some occupation, but the wish passed as soon as he rode home up the road between the almond trees and she ran to meet him. He would crush her against his armour and kiss her hard on the mouth, and though they retired directly to the bedchamber she hoped no more for any fruits of their reunion.

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