Authors: Gian Bordin
Revenge and Triumph
Copyright © 2012 Gian Bordin, all rights reserved.
Rio nell’Elba, Island of Elba, April 2004
It was a stroke of good luck. I had visited Villa San Martino, Napoleon’s summer residence on his enforced banishment to Elba during 1814/5, prior to his failed bid to regain his empire. Captivated by the documents on display, I missed the bus that was to take me back to Rio nell’Elba. Not willing to wait another three hours for the next one, I decided to walk back via Volterraio. Its heights offer spectacular views across the bay to Portoferraio and beyond, with Isola di Capraia on the horizon. Past Sant’Anna, a walking track climbs through the forested slope to the plateau west of Rio nell’Elba.
Before embarking on the steep ascent, I rested for a few minutes at the edge of an opening in the forest and enjoyed the peaceful scene of mid-afternoon when any self-respecting native takes a well-earned siesta. Suddenly the raucous rumble of a Diesel engine shattered the quiet, its telltale bursts hinting at a bulldozer or similar heavy machinery. I decided to get away from the noise and resumed my climb. The track skirted a vineyard that rose to a flat elevation — the source of the engine noise. I discovered that it formed a large vantage point, slowly revealing the remains of a stone structure as I got closer. Steep drops formed two sides, regular and straight, clearly man-made, and prevented access from below. As I reached its height, I saw that a gully protected the flat site from the path. The bottom of the gully remained hidden in the dark shade of the trees. I vaguely wondered if it was the site of a former castle.
A loud crash startled me. To still my curiosity and to get a better view, I went back to the wooden bridge that spanned the gully. When the billowing dust cloud settled, it revealed the ruins of a building. A man in blue overalls climbed over the remains of the stone wall the bulldozer had just partially brought down. The uneven stones looked hand-hewn in the manner practiced centuries ago. I was instantly intrigued and watched as the machine attacked the part still standing, which was holding up a chimney. The latter collapsed into a heap. I thought seeing something that looked like a book drop down and be buried in the debris.
As an avid collector of antiques, I feared that it might be an old manuscript, possibly valuable. I crossed the bridge and told the operator of the bulldozer what I had seen. He briefly idled the engine so that I could repeat what I had said. His response was a laugh. Shouting: "No, only rubbish left!" he resumed clearing the area by pushing the debris down the far drop.
I wondered what to do. Should I try to retrieve it? They would hardly allow me while they worked. Would it be worth waiting for them to finish? I hated the idea of an item of possibly historical value to be lost and destroyed for ever. The wall had been the last solid structure left. So I decided to wait, hoping they would soon stop without burying the item further.
It took another half-an-hour before the machine slowly crawled over the bridge — I feared it might collapse — and began its descent down the path I had come up. I now went over to the spot where I had seen the item fall. It was a mess of broken stones, crumbled mortar and clumps of earth. Hopeless! I climbed partway down the drop and almost cried in joy when I saw the edge of the book’s dark-red cover stick out. I carefully freed it and blew off the dust and dirt.
I stared in wonder at the intricately embossed leather cover. The inside was not paper, but real thin parchment, the type used a thousand years ago. I was stunned. Gold lettering adorned the title page, with here and there bits having flaked off. I deciphered the old script as ‘
Racconto della mia vita
’ by Chiara da Narni. The next page gave a date: 1353.
My hands were trembling. What a find! Should I keep it? Should I try to contact the owner of the property? Was the book genuine? That I could only tentatively determine by taking it to our lab and inspecting the parchment under a microscope — I had taken four months off my writing in order to supervise the excavation of some old foundations on the island that seemed to date back to Etruscan times, and we had a fully equipped workshop. With that my decision was made. I would keep it at least for now. If it was genuine, then I would decide what to do next. Depending on its content, I might hand it over to the curator of a local museum, although the temptation would be great to keep such a valuable treasure.
Time was getting on. If I wanted to make it back to my lodgings before dark, I should not linger any longer. I allowed myself only a quick glance at the first few pages before carefully packing the book into my shoulder bag, and then hurried up the mountain.
It goes without saying that I skipped dinner, too eager to clean the book of the last specks of damaging dust. Soon, I was sitting by the measly 60-watt bulb of my desk lamp, engrossed in deciphering the old-fashioned script, written in the Tuscan vernacular of Dante and Boccaccio. Chiara’s account of her life instantly caught my passion. It was past midnight when I had finished the first three chapters and a growling stomach reminded me that I had not yet eaten. Before going to bed, I carefully placed the treasure into the bottom drawer of my desk. First thing tomorrow before work, I would do a preliminary check as to its approximate age. I realized that I was already impatient to continue my reading, but it would have to wait until evening.
Sleep evaded me. In a dreamlike trance, I began filling in Chiara’s terse story. It took on a life of its own and blossomed to the point where I did not know anymore what was hers and what was mine. Although I was able to disassociate myself from it next day, it again took over my mind that night. It came almost as a revelation that the only way to free myself was to put pen to paper, figuratively speaking. So each night over the next several months, between chapters in the book, I sat at my laptop and let my mind speak for Chiara.
* * *
— the Italian way of referring to the fourteenth century — was a time when disputes, particularly among the powerful noble and merchant houses or ‘casas’, were settled by private justice. Feuds might simmer for decades, sometimes degenerating into bloody vendettas. In many Tuscan cities, it even led to the erection of tall towers — fortified retreats or keeps, where casa members found safety when attacked by an enemy house — the towers of San Gimigniano are a stark reminder.By their position and influence, the powerful usually managed to avoid or circumvent public justice which was exercised by local rulers, counts, dukes, and bishops, or the
in cities governed by a form of democratic oligarchy and the guilds, such as Siena, Pisa, and Florence. If the powerful were indicted, they often fled to a neighboring city which was on unfriendly terms with theirs, and many cities were in periodic strife with each other. Some cities tried countermeasures to curb private justice: night curfews, prohibition to carry weapons within the walls, unless called upon to do so by the authorities, and limiting the height of the towers, which often became a public hazard since many were badly built. It was the common people and the powerless who suffered the arbitrary judgements meted out by public justice.But the
in Tuscany is also the epoch of emerging banking houses that allowed commerce to flourish between cities and countries all over Europe. Their riches fostered the awakening of the Renaissance with its impressive architecture and unsurpassed art works.
Map of Elba
Castello Nisporto on Elba, in the year of the Savior 1353
Daughter, treasure mine, where shall I begin the account of my life that culminated in your birth? With the carefree days of my girlish innocence? My foolish dreams of one day being carried off by a valiant knight — handsome and brave, playful and trustworthy like my brother, the uncle you will never know, who left me, in spite of my entreaties and tears, to seek honor and glory in the service of the King of Naples, like our father did before him, and who, oh cruel fate, was lost to the bottomless sea? A knight who would honor me, a knight kind and wise like my father, whom I revered then more than any other person I knew and who was my idol, the person I strove to become myself, or shall I begin with that fateful day when all changed, when my world of dreams crumbled into nothing like cinders by the mere flutter of a moth, and I plunged into the unforgiving world that has forged me into what I am now?
Maybe, foremost of all, you would like to know who is the man that begot you. Dear child, that I cannot tell you, but I named you after him. He was a handsome man, wild and untamed in his own way; blue eyes that I wanted to lose myself in; a smile like sunshine that made me laugh; a voice that sounded like a song; gentle hands that I wanted to touch me. Where did he go? To a far away land beyond the realms where the word of the Savior is heard, to search for his family, his young wife from whom he was cruelly snatched away when the Saracen raiders ravaged his country north of the Black Sea. Has he been reunited with them or has he perished trying? I don’t know. All I have left of him are my memories, and you, his precious gift.
In these turbulent times, life is precarious, and each day may be our last, with wars between the princes and Seigniories an annual event, vendettas between noble houses still the way disputes are settled and prolonged, and Saracen pirates, famine, and pestilence, all vying with each other over who may claim our bodies so frail and easily broken, and with our souls condemned to Satan unless our paltry deeds have earned God’s forgiveness and eternal life. Therefore, I will endeavor to write down to the best of my feeble abilities all that I can remember on how you came to be, lest it will be too late, and I would leave you ignorant.
I never knew my mother, having been her death when I was born in the year of the Savior 1330. My only memory is an oval painting of her that my father kept at the foot of a wooden statue of the holy Madonna. Each night before retiring, I would kneel with him in front of that altar while he prayed for her soul. I could never think of what horrible sins that sweet, innocent young woman with the sad eyes could have committed that needed God’s forgiveness. My father would always end his prayer by kissing the picture. The last time I saw it, there was a smudge on her forehead where the wood was showing through the paint. He had never looked at another woman.
My father left the upbringing of my brother, Roberto, four years my elder, and myself to his mother, our grandmother, until she died when I had just completed my tenth spring. She was a kind woman, although she hid it behind a stern face, but that did not fool me. I know she loved us dearly. She tried to teach me to grow into a lady like herself who knew her place before God and her betters, while I would rather have joined Roberto in his exploration of the castle and the steep slopes below Volterraio from the peak of which you could glimpse the coast of Tuscany to the east and on clear days the dark mountains of Corsica far to the west. But she allowed me to attend his Latin reading and writing lessons with the old sacerdote of San Bartolomeo, provided I remained quiet. Roberto hated these lessons, while they were the highlight of my day. I quickly discovered that I was much better at it than he, and if I did his written exercises he sometimes took me along on his sorties into the countryside. I would tell our grandmother that I was tending the flowers in the castle garden, a pastime she much approved of. Then, hidden from the window of her room, I slipped through the secret garden exit and met up with Roberto in the woods outside. Oh, how I often wished that I could were breeches like him and not be hampered by my cumbersome dresses!
Our father we saw only after our evening meals, when he told and retold us stories about his days as retainer attached to the court of Naples or to noble houses, about how our castle was wrecked during the battles with Genoa over the possession of Elba, with the forces of Pisa in which he served proving victorious, and later on as a knight with King Robert the Wise of Naples, in whose service he traveled to Spain where he met my mother.
After his marriage in his late forties, he returned to Elba and rebuilt Castello Nisporto with my mother’s dowry, copying several of the modern conveniences he had admired in Spain, particularly in the Moorish parts. That is why our living and sleeping quarters are separate from those of the servants and there are fireplaces with chimneys in all our rooms, and we have a little chamber with a marble bath where the water can be heated in the kitchen next door, features I have only seen in a few palaces in Florence and Siena. We liked to call it our castle, but as you know, it is more a mansion with a fortified tower where we could take temporary refuge if attacked by pirates and defend ourselves until help arrived. He rarely talked about his brief involvement with the order of the Knight Templars, which he had joined shortly before the Pope suppressed the order, but he vividly described his precipitous escape from France when most Templars were arrested and executed by King Philip, the Fair, and all their properties and wealth confiscated.